Wednesday, May 03, 2023

More unemployed people on welfare despite record job vacancies

Ahead of Tuesday’s budget, which is expected to include a JobSeeker increase for people over 55, energy-bill relief payments for vulnerable households and additional support for single mums, The Australian can reveal the number of dole recipients remains stubbornly high.

Amid calls from Peter Dutton to strengthen “work for the dole” programs to get more people out of welfare and into jobs, Department of Social Services data shows 921,000 Australians were on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance (Other) payments at the end of March. Despite historically low unemployment rates, the Albanese government has reduced the number of JobSeeker and Youth Allowance recipients by about 59,000 since the May election.

In March 2020, before draconian Covid-19 lockdowns pushed JobSeeker numbers to about 1.6 million, dole recipients numbered 886,213.

Facing mounting pressure from Labor MPs on Tuesday to deliver a blanket increase to the JobSeeker rate rather than a targeted approach for older Australians, Jim Chalmers said “there’s a broad swath of things we need to do” to lift workforce participation.

The Treasurer rejected the Opposition Leader’s demand to reinstate work for the dole programs, which remain in place under Labor, and said budget initiatives and other measures were being devised to support local communities facing “entrenched, long-term unemployment”.

“We’ve got an employment white paper that reports towards the end of this year which goes to some of these issues around participation,” Dr Chalmers said. “(Labor MP) Julian Hill and others are working at the committee level on making sure that job agency providers are doing what we need them to do.”

Mr Dutton said employers were “frustrated” because Labor had “pulled back on compliance, so people aren’t legitimately looking for work … and applying for ads”.

“Every employer you talk to, doesn’t matter what sector, it doesn’t matter where you are across the country, people are finding it very difficult to find those workers in cafes, in agricultural operations, in tourism,” Mr Dutton told 2GB.

“And it’s frustrating if you’ve got Australians who have an ability to work, are refusing to work, and I think Australians who are taxpayers get angry about that, and rightly so.”

Economists on Tuesday estimated lifting the JobSeeker rate for over-55s would cost between $1-2bn, depending on the size of the increase. They said the impact of higher payments on inflation would be determined by whether they were “targeted and temporary”.

Labor backbencher Alicia Payne, who will wait to see the budget before judging the adequacy of cost-of-living support, endorsed a blanket JobSeeker rate rise. “Any increase is welcome and this is a good start, but we do need that more substantial increase for all people on JobSeeker,” the Canberra MP said.

Victorian Labor MP Kate Thwaites, who along with Ms Payne signed an Australian Council of Social Service open letter backing a significant rise in the JobSeeker payment, said: “I’m on the record as supporting the need to increase Jobseeker and I will continue to advocate for that.

“The Treasurer has said there will be responsible cost-of-living relief in the budget, and it will focus on the most vulnerable people. I’ll wait to see what’s in the budget.” Bennelong MP Jerome Laxale also stood by his support for vulnerable Australians to receive relief. “This budget, particularly in light of what the Reserve Bank has done (in lifting interest rates), needs to lift relief to as many Australians as possible,” he said. Dr Chalmers said “no government of either political persuasion can satisfy all of the demands for new spending in the budget”.

The Treasurer, who is expected to overhaul the single parenting payment by raising the eligibility age of the youngest child from eight to either 13 or 14, would not put a figure on Labor’s targeted JobSeeker increase.

He said committees reporting to Finance Minister Katy Gallagher and him had “made it clear that one of the troubling developments is … the growth particularly in women over 55 in our unemployment numbers”.

The Australian can reveal next Tuesday’s budget will include funding boosts to bolster privacy protections following last year’s cybersecurity hacks and new investment to accelerate quantum technologies that will transform the economy and national security.

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth on Wednesday will announce a $10.9m package improving social and economic participation of vulnerable or at-risk groups, while Dr Chalmers will outline four-year costings for Labor’s childcare subsidy changes.

Opposition treasury spokesman Angus Taylor warned that budget overspending would fuel the cost-of-living crisis, drive-up inflation and force the RBA to “impose much more pain”.

Writing for The Australian online, Mr Taylor said: “The more Labor talks about restraint, the less it is focused on effective action … it is the government’s actual spending that adds fuel to the inflationary fire, regardless of the rhetoric. The main test for the budget is whether it will take pressure off inflation. It must re-establish an objective of budget balance to take pressure off inflation.”


It’s crucial for press freedom that whistleblowers are protected, not punished

Public interest journalism is a key democratic pillar, serving as a critical safeguard of our human rights. But press freedom is all too often fragile. This is why, 30 years ago, the United Nations first declared World Press Freedom Day, which is marked today.

Australia likes to present itself as a bastion of media freedom, and an exemplar to other nations in our region. Yet the past decade has seen a sustained assault on press freedom in this country. Raids on the ABC and News Corp, the prosecution of journalists’ sources, the introduction of Draconian secrecy laws, heightened state surveillance powers and inaction on transparency and accountability reform – collectively, these measures saw us plummet down world press freedom rankings. Previously unimaginable intrusions on press freedom have become shockingly commonplace.

Since taking office almost a year ago, the Albanese government has taken positive steps to reverse the tide. The Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, KC, has dropped the prosecution of whistleblower Bernard Collaery, committed to overhauling whistleblowing and secrecy laws and, in February, convened a press freedom summit. These moves should be commended.

But there is one area of glaring inaction. Two whistleblowers remain on trial: Richard Boyle, who blew the whistle to the ABC and this masthead about wrongdoing at the Tax Office; and David McBride, who went to the ABC to expose alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Protection for journalists’ sources is a vital component of press freedom. Together, the media and their sources bring transparency and accountability. Without whistleblowing, public interest journalism is often not possible; and wrongdoing remains hidden. Which is why it is absolutely crucial for press freedom in Australia that whistleblowers are protected, not punished.

Nine’s managing director of Publishing, James Chessell (left), Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor, Peter Greste from the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, and Schwartz Media’s Erik Jensen before the press freedom summit meeting in February.
Nine’s managing director of Publishing, James Chessell (left), Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor, Peter Greste from the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, and Schwartz Media’s Erik Jensen before the press freedom summit meeting in February.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Most Australians agree. New polling released today by The Australia Institute – undertaken in collaboration with the Human Rights Law Centre – shows that Australians overwhelmingly support whistleblowers. Three-quarters of those polled said whistleblowers make Australia a better place, and even more said whistleblowers needed stronger legal protections (84 per cent), including the establishment of a whistleblower protection authority (79 per cent).

Almost two-thirds of those polled think the McBride case should be discontinued, and even more want the Boyle case to end. Australians understand that there is no public interest to be served in going after whistleblowers, and that these cases undermine press freedom, open government and public accountability.

The attorney-general has the legal authority to end these prosecutions, just as he discontinued the case against Collaery, the lawyer for ex-spy Witness K, who was accused along with his client of exposing Australia’s unconscionable conduct towards Timor-Leste. These cases are equally exceptional.

If the government fails to act, Boyle and McBride face the very real risk of jail time. Boyle lost his whistleblowing defence earlier this year, confirming the frailty of existing legal protections. He has appealed; if unsuccessful, he will face trial in October.

And extraordinarily, of all the people accused of wrongdoing over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, it is McBride, the whistleblower, who will be the first to face court, rather than any of the alleged perpetrators. He is due to go on trial in November. He was forced to withdraw his whistleblowing defence last year following an astonishing national security intervention by the government.

Dreyfus has admitted that Australia’s whistleblowing laws are deeply flawed and in need of reform. But he has so far refused to intervene, leaving these men to their fates - despite each acting in a way they thought was consistent with federal whistleblowing law.

The Albanese government’s commitment to press freedom is welcome and no doubt genuine. There is much to be done – extensive law reform, new accountability bodies and a cultural shift within our institutions. This should all be backstopped by comprehensive human rights protections in Australia, which recognise the value of freedom of expression and press freedom.

But pledges of reform to whistleblowing, secrecy and surveillance laws will be critically undermined if these two whistleblowers are ultimately imprisoned. That would send a chilling message to every Australian – speak up about government wrongdoing, and you may destroy your career, suffer astonishing mental anguish, be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and risk prison time.

On World Press Freedom Day, we call on the Albanese government to end the prosecution of whistleblowers to ensure press freedom and transparency in this country can thrive.


‘Fake Aboriginal identity’ film is banned

Too true to life

An Indigenous-made film about a white person who identifies as Aboriginal has been banned by the bodies that funded and commissioned it, over fears it could spark litigation and is “harmful”.

The short film, My Journey, by Tasmanian Indigenous newcomer filmmakers Nathan Maynard and Adam Thompson, was to be screened as part of a GRIT film festival in Hobart last weekend. Their “mockumentary” was pulled because of concerns held by the funding body, the Tasmanian Community Fund, and the commissioning body, Wide Angle Tasmania, that it could be defamatory and may cause community “harm”.

“I absolutely see it as political censorship,” Thompson told The Australian. “It is shocking …. essentially, they have censored it.

“It’s a contentious issue, but as Aboriginal people we have a right to tell stories and talk about things that are important to us as a community and that are affecting us as a community.

“And the issue is probably the most important issue that we have going on at the moment in Tasmania.”

Thompson would not reveal the plot, because he and Maynard are now planning to run their own screening of My Journey. However, he did not deny it was about a white person discovering their Aboriginality.

The number of Tasmanians identifying as Indigenous has grown from 36 in 1966 to 23,572 in 2016 and 30,186 currently. The state government has adopted policies designed to remove barriers to recognition as Aboriginal.

Thompson said the film was fictional and he did not accept concerns over possible defamation. However, Wide Angle chairman David Gurney said such concerns were based on legal advice.

Mr Gurney said the film focused on Smithton, in northwest Tasmania, and there were real concerns it could defame particular people. “The TCF was concerned that the film is potentially litigious and … harmful to a very specific community,” Mr Gurney said. “TCF asked them (the film-makers) to make some changes to the film, which they refused to do.

“So then the TCF instructed Wide Angle not to screen the film as part of the GRIT screenings.

“When that happened, we sought legal advice from one of Australia’s leading media law firms and we also received the advice that the film could lead to a defamation.”

The TCF, an independent body that distributes funds from the sale of a state-owned bank, had a policy of not funding anything that could cause harm.

“No one is disputing the broader issue that is being discussed in the film – it is an important issue – but … this so-called fictitious story is set in a very real, very small town,” Mr Gurney said. “The names in the film are very closely resembling people in that town. There are issues in that film that are very specific to that town. And we are talking a town of a few hundred people.”

The TCF confirmed it had raised concerns about the film. “These issues are for Wide Angle Tasmania to resolve with the film makers,” a spokesman said.

Maynard is no stranger to ­controversy, having recently called for expressions of interest from people of British descent willing to donate their corpse for an artwork.

Thompson said the film-makers had received approval for the concept and script from a GRIT steering committee. However, Mr Gurney said this was before TCF had alerted Wide Angle to potential defamation risk.


Power shock as Snowy 2.0 hit by 2-year delay

Australia’s power grid faces a fresh threat from blackouts after the federal government-owned Snowy Hydro revealed a potential two-year delay to the $5.9bn Snowy 2.0 expansion along with a further cost blowout.

Snowy said the commercial operation of all units may be delayed until the end of the decade with a potential latest start-up date of December 2029 and an earliest date of December 2028.

First power is now due between June and December 2028 at the latest with an easiest date of June to December 2027.

“Snowy Hydro anticipates that the timeline for full commercial operation is delayed by a further 12-24 months from the current publicly released dates,” the company said in a statement.

Newly installed Snowy Hydro chief executive Dennis Barnes told The Australian the new completion forecast was a “realistic, achievable range”, with the company hoping to bring the project as early as it could. “My expectation – and obviously my objective – is to refine it to the upside,” he said.

The Snowy project has been dogged by a series of project issues including the collapse of one of its contractors, Clough, delays through Covid-19 and, more recently, a major tunnel boring machine getting stuck in the Snowy Mountains.

The delay of the massive hydro expansion will now significantly hike the risk of blackouts in the power grid later this decade as coal plants exit the system. It may also increase pressure on Origin Energy to rethink plans to close its giant Eraring coal station in NSW by August 2025.

Any delay will also add to electricity system risks after the grid operator warned of worsening forecast reliability in NSW in 2026 and 2027 should Snowy not hit the original 2.0 deadline.

Mr Barnes said extra detail on the “budget implications of the project reset” will be released in July 2023, and this will be clearly communicated with key project stakeholders, with a renegotiation of the original fixed-price contract with the contractor, the Future Generation Joint Venture (FGJV) – now run by Italy’s Webuild – on the cards.

“The contract has been a struggle. We want them to be motivated around a realistic time frame. So it’s appropriate to want to reset, which will inevitably mean some renegotiation of the contract,” Mr Barnes said.

“My job is to try and get everybody going in the same direction, and a fixed price contract in this inflationary environment doesn’t have everybody going in the same direction.”

Snowy blamed the delays and cost hikes on four factors: the mobilisation and resourcing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic; the effect of global supply chain disruption and inflation impacting the cost and availability of a skilled workforce, materials, and shipping. Snowy said design elements also required more time to complete due to their technically complex nature, with the final design now being more expensive to construct.

Mr Barnes said Snowy’s contractor had been forced to build more roads than initially forecast to ensure equipment and materials could be moved safely, as well as more complicated changes to the scope of the project, including the need to line a key incline tunnel with steel.

Snowy also pointed to the impact of variable site and geological conditions, including the soft ground that has “paused” tunnel boring machine Florence’s progress at Tantangara since before Christmas.

Mr Barnes said a slurry plant that should allow Florence to get moving again would be commissioned within a few weeks, and Snowy and FGJV were also looking for other ways to make up for lost time on the headrace tunnel.

“One of the things we’re thinking about is whether we tackle this headrace tunnel from both ends,” he said.




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