Monday, July 8, 2019

Today by Nick Feik

Dry July
The government’s policy cupboard is already bare

The Lower Darling

With the tax cuts legislated, the Coalition’s agenda for the current term, at least according to its campaign promises, is more or less fulfilled. Now we will learn what Morrison and his team really seek to do, and the early signs are underwhelming. Just as night follows day, conservatives are again pushing religious freedom laws, though they are divided on whether they want to legislate the freedom to discriminate or freedom from discrimination. Industry groups and their Coalition mouthpieces are again talking about IR reform [$], as if business needs even lower wages and to weaken worker protections further. The treasurer is promising to put Google and Facebook “on notice” over their market power, which will have them quaking in their boots. Meanwhile the list of truly disturbing policy problems that the Coalition is avoiding continues to mount.

Climate change and energy are the most obvious areas: there is no substantive policy. The NBN is an unfurling disaster, and seems to actually be getting slower as it rolls out. The NDIS is beset with troubles, and other major policy areas such as health, education, social services, Indigenous affairs, research and development, and environment are blank spaces. How is a government to deal with a slowing economy if it has no real plans in these portfolios, apart from cuts?

Meanwhile, an ABC investigation has drawn attention to one of the worst and most scandalous public-policy failures in recent Australian history. Four Corners, which uncovered earlier instances of water theft and corruption in the Murray–Darling system, today unveils more malfeasance. Its reporters reveal that more than $4 billion in Commonwealth funds originally set aside to ensure environmental outcomes has been handed to irrigators, and that this money has in large part subsidised the expansion of farming operations and – perversely – allowed irrigators to use even more water.

In one prominent example, agribusiness giant Webster Limited has received $41 million from the Murray–Darling Basin Plan’s water infrastructure scheme to build more dams in the Murrumbidgee Valley, to irrigate an extra 81 square kilometres of land for water-heavy agriculture such as cotton farming. This is water trapped and prevented from returning to the river system.

It should be noted that this $4 billion is in addition to the (roughly) $5 billion that has been spent on often dubious water buybacks. The net result is that under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan almost $9 billion has been parcelled out to (mostly) big irrigators since 2012, and there is now less water in the Basin rivers than ever before. Hundreds of kilometres of the Darling River are not flowing even today, mid winter.

Where did the water go? Where does the money go? Into private hands. And as Maryanne Slattery of The Australia Institute points out, there is no accountability as to how these funds have been spent. No public registers of sales or actual water returned, and no one in government monitoring whether the work paid for by the water infrastructure scheme delivers the promised water savings, let alone whether the work was even carried out.

Water traders are recording “eye-watering” profits, according to agricultural real estate group Colliers International. And no wonder: one farmer, Glen Andreazza, told Four Corners the government paid double what it should have on the water buy-back from his farm. His family was later able to buy back the same amount of water for a lower price. Eastern Australia Irrigation, the company set up by Energy Minister Angus Taylor, received $80 million for the rights to flood water.

The government is either incapable or unwilling to stand up to the big irrigators and other vested interests. Until it does, the river will run dry. And we still have no national drought policy.

“While tax cuts can deliver a boost to consumption and lead to stronger growth, they fail to address the fundamental problem facing Australia. For years, our economy has been based upon population growth rather than improved productivity.”

ABC News business editor Ian Verrender explains why tax cuts aren’t enough to stave off recession.

“Fixed wireless promised so much – the ability for high-tech businesses to base themselves almost anywhere in Australia. But then along came Netflix and everything changed.”

Who could have guessed that so many people would want to stream audiovisual content online at the same time? Pretty much everyone, except the managers at NBN Co and the Coalition.

The broken pendulum
The pendulum that is used to predict outcomes in elections is broken. Richard Denniss on what this means and how it might change the role of money in politics, too.


The number of recruits delivered by the work visa scheme at the centre of Scott Morrison’s Pacific step-up. This is 10 per cent of the number forecast.

At some public high schools in Sydney, as few as 5 per cent of students are attending the opt-in state government–supported Special Religious Education classes. Students who do not participate in SRE lessons – which involve between 30 and 60 minutes per week – are instead choosing to do “alternative meaningful activities”, such as homework or reading.

The list

“Scott Morrison has a new obsession: the budget surplus. In spite of his assurances to the contrary, this has not actually been delivered, and there are growing doubts that it will be. The storm clouds and headwinds of which the prime minister and his treasurer confusingly warn us could well blow it away. But it remains ScoMo’s fetish, replacing his pet rock, the lump of coal he brought lovingly into the parliament in 2017. The quest for surplus is now his reason for being, his ‘precious’. And nothing is to stand in its way – certainly not economic reality.”

“The federal government has rejected the advice of parliament’s authoritative watchdog committee on intelligence and security, that before placing a two-year ban on Australian terrorism sympathisers returning home from overseas it should consider whether it puts them at risk or leaves them with nowhere to go.”

“Safe injecting rooms and pill testing save lives and have never resulted in increased use of substances. Supervised prescription of heroin (as is practised in Switzerland, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Denmark) saves lives, decreases criminality, unemployment and homelessness, and also (interestingly) decreases the uptake of heroin use in the population.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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