Thursday, December 17, 2020

Today by Nick Feik

The coronavirus hangover
Better economic forecasts still leave a fraught recovery

Image of Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. Image via ABC News

There was relatively good news in today’s midyear economic and fiscal outlook, but the six new coronavirus cases recorded in New South Wales are a timely reminder that the virus remains a potent threat in terms of both physical and economic health.

Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia are actively monitoring the NSW situation (although each have stated that it’s too early to reintroduce new border restrictions), and NSW Health is reportedly preparing to lock down aged-care facilities across Sydney’s northern beaches, after learning that an aged-care worker was among those who tested positive. So while the message of the day is to be alert (but not alarmed), governments at both the state and federal level are going to have their hands full with virus management for the foreseeable future. And the Victorian government had a further reason not to feel overly satisfied or complacent about its COVID performance: a report about the last-minute decision to place nine of Melbourne’s public-housing towers into hard lockdown in July was released this morning, and it was highly critical.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found that the action violated the human rights of about 3000 tenants, that its immediacy was not based on public-health advice, and that its chaotic haste had threatened the health and welfare of the terrified residents. “The rushed lockdown was not compatible with the residents’ human rights, including their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty,” wrote Glass. “In my opinion, based on the evidence gathered by the investigation, the action appeared to be contrary to the law.”

Despite Glass’s urging, Housing Minister Richard Wynne refused to apologise to residents on his government’s behalf. There’s no doubt that the rush of events as the second wave hit put immense pressure on decision-makers, but the report refutes the longstanding state-government line that all decisions were made in line with the best health advice. The continuing refusal to reveal who made the decision to lock down the towers so suddenly is also concerning. (The deputy chief health officer at the time, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, advised that delaying a day would not have made “a hugely significant difference” to the spread of the infection. The ombudsman found that waiting a day would have allowed for proper preparations, to the great benefit of residents’ wellbeing.)

No government is perfect, especially when confronting such difficult circumstances, but every government must also be held to account.

Speaking of accounts, the federal treasurer was very pleased to report that the economy seems to be rebounding faster than was forecast in the October budget. The numbers are far from great, but Australia is “outperforming all advanced economies”, according to Frydenberg. The MYEFO forecasts that unemployment will peak at 7.5 per cent in the first three months of 2021. (It was earlier expected to reach 8 per cent.) The deficit is still expected to be a record $198 billion, but this is down from the $214 billion forecast in October. And it is estimated that 1.6 million Australians will receive JobKeeper in December (down from an earlier estimate of 2.2 million).

It is important to point out that much of the improvement in the forecast budget bottom line is the result of a soaring iron ore price, but the government will be happy regardless.

So, for now, all that’s required for continued economic recovery is the timely arrival and global distribution of a vaccine (with no further outbreaks in the meantime), continuing high prices for iron ore, relations with China to gradually improve (and new markets be found in the interim), consumer confidence to keep building, the housing market to hold, international students to return, and the arts, hospitality and entertainment sectors to get back to where they were before the virus. Simple. 

“In a developed power market, a relatively new – really, very new – coal-fired power station has been deemed to have effectively no value.”

Simon Nicholas, an energy finance analyst at IEEFA, points out that the Japanese owners of Australia’s newest coal-fired power station – Bluewaters, in the Western Australian town of Collie – have written down the value of the asset to zero, wiping out a $1.2 billion investment.

“We make no apology…”

Housing Minister Richard Wynne refused to apologise to Melbourne’s public-housing tower residents, as recommended by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass in her report on lockdown measures, which found that the lack of prior warning constituted a violation of their human rights.

Dutton’s new plan to spy on Australians
The government has proposed new laws that would give federal police the power to spy on Australian citizens. But the decision contradicts the government’s own review into national intelligence. Today, Karen Middleton on the controversial expansion of national security laws.

The amount of money the federal government is putting towards gas exploration and development in the Northern Territory, in spite of broader market trends.

“We’re making sure Crown Melbourne conducts its business in a transparent and appropriate manner.”

In a major blow to gaming billionaire James Packer, the Victorian gaming minister, Melissa Horne, has appointed a special investigator to probe Crown Resorts’ suitability to operate its Melbourne casino. The review comes after a series of negative revelations in a NSW probity inquiry.

The list

“The first time it rang, the boys froze. Rocco backed away. I gave Valentino a small push. ‘Go on, answer it.’ Wary, our six-year-old picked up the bone-yellow handset and listened, not saying a word. Suddenly his eyebrows shot up and he slammed the handset down. ‘It was Grampy,’ he whispered, looking at me wide-eyed. For 20 minutes the boys, seven and six, had circled the home phone in the kitchen after we plugged it in, leaping back when it rang, gradually moving closer. Eventually they picked up the handset and practised dialling the numbers we’d written on the wall.”

“An anthology of five feature films by the British director Steve McQueen, Small Axe is not so much an attempt to correct the history of London’s West Indian immigrants as it is the creation of a new narrative where officially one barely existed … Defiant in its collective anger, held tight by the bonds of black community, these interwoven stories equally address systemic failings and personal struggles. From moment to moment, they are works of intimate examination, but collectively they have a titanic weight.”

“Clocking in at 25 songs, 72 minutes, and a comparatively huge 21-plus guest vocalists and producers, it’s the longest and least sample-based – although the individual samples still number in the hundreds, supposedly – Avalanches album. It is also probably their best, even in comparison with the lauded Since I Left You. Guided by a kind of cosmic, omnipotent sense of empathy, it’s the band’s most explicitly spiritual album, a record about the strange and surreal powers of music as a life force and universal language.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



The Monthly Today

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The PM is looking to the finish line, in more ways than one

Image of former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Protecting Porter

Why does the government keep doing this?

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Money spinners

From the Nationals’ mercenary tactics to Gladys Berejiklian’s “sweetheart deal”, sometimes you gotta say WTF

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Morrison’s mandate

Barnaby Joyce acknowledges that a net-zero target is cabinet’s call. But what exactly is their mandate?

From the front page

Image of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Jetstar CEO Gareth Evans standing in front of a Qantas plane. Image via Facebook

How you finish the race

The PM is looking to the finish line, in more ways than one

Image of Supermoon over Footscray. Image © Tim McCartney 2015

Lunar orbit

The strange paths taken by the mind when overwhelmed by fear

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of ‘Bewilderment’

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times