Australian Politics 2020-05-27 15:54:00

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Australia 'has BEATEN coronavirus': Top health official says a second wave of COVID-19 is unlikely as transmission rates plunge to nearly zero - with just 30 patients in hospital nationwide

The chance of a second wave of COVID-19 in Australia this year is unlikely, according to one of the country's top health officials, as transmission rates fall to nearly zero.

New South Wales chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant told state politicians the ban on international travel and the state's grasp of social distancing meant it was well placed to stem further outbreaks of the virus and prevent a second wave.

There is just one coronavirus patient in intensive care across the state - and only five nationwide as of Tuesday. A total of 30 COVID-19 patients remain in hospital across the country.

In the private briefing, Dr Chant conceded NSW's ability to prevent a second wave would rely on widespread adherence to social distancing rules.

It comes as the state looks to June 1 for the next stage of restriction easing - with beauty salons and nail bars set to re-open and regional travel permitted.

'The policy for how to deal with a second wave is that we'll evaluate it at the time,'  an MP close to the meeting told The Australian.

'[Dr Chant's] message was: It's very possible to contain all this ­because we don't have the inter­nationals coming in, and we have good social distancing and hygiene­ practices.'

There were only two new cases of COVID-19 in NSW recorded in the 24 hours to Monday.

There are 7,133 cases of the coronavirus nationally since the outbreak began, but just 478 of those are still active. 

Six million people have downloaded the government's coronavirus tracking app less than a month after its launch, helping authorities trace contacts of any diagnosed cases.  

It follows Premier Daniel Andrews announcing the new 'COVID normal' in Victoria ahead of the loosening of restrictions on June 1.

People in the state will kick off winter being able to enjoy meals with friends at home, attend weddings, swim at pools or even get tattoos, as long as there's no more than 20 people.  

The number will also mark the number of people allowed at weddings, while up to 50 people will be able to attend funerals.

'The rules that accompany that opening up will be with us for a long time,' Mr Andrews told reporters.

'This is a COVID normal, this is not a return to business a usual.'

Victoria's reopening will see 20 people allowed to visit libraries and other community facilities, entertainment and cultural venues, as well as beauty and personal care services.

The start of the coldest season will also include a lifeline for the tourism industry as overnight stays in hotels will be permitted.

Campgrounds will be open for those eager to pitch their tents, but not their communal facilities like kitchens or bathrooms.

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Correctly counting the cost shows Australia's lockdown was a mistake

The future will now be worse because the flawed pandemic health projections didn't correctly calculate their effects on economic welfare.

Australia’s economic policies in response to the coronavirus threat have been driven in the main by projections of death and infection rates, produced by epidemiological modelling, that since have been proven to be orders of magnitude above what any country anywhere in the world, regardless of policy, has experienced.

Meanwhile, the welfare costs of our economic policy responses have been either overlooked entirely, gestured towards vaguely but not actually calculated, or calculated in ways strikingly out of alignment with international best practice when estimating the welfare costs of different policy alternatives – eg, using full value-of-a-statistical-life (VSL) numbers, rather than age-adjusted VSL or quality-adjusted life years, when valuing lives lost to COVID-19 (which are predominantly the lives of older people with a few years, not an entire life, left to live).

A leading reason for points 1 and 2 is that it’s a lot less work to count bodies and point to scary body-count projections than to think hard about the many and various costs – many invisible and requiring a reasonable counterfactual that is, again, mentally taxing to create; many manifesting only over time – that arise when we take the drastic economic policy actions we have taken.

The costs of what we have done are enormous. These costs will show up most obviously over the next few months in the body counts sacrificed to causes other than COVID-19 – like from famine, preventable diseases and violence in lower income countries; and deaths from despair, isolation, and non-COVID-19 health problems that have lost resourcing in better-off countries such as Australia – but will also stem from sources that don’t have actual deaths of presently living people attached to them.

Lower GDP now and going forward means lower levels of government services on education, healthcare, research and development, infrastructure, social services, and myriad other things that keep us happier, healthier and living longer.

Kids whose education has been disrupted due to our mandates that schools and universities move activities online, and young people who have lost their jobs or are entering the job market during the recession we have created, will carry the impact of these disruptions for years.

Discoveries of cures for diseases other than COVID-19 will be delayed; IVF babies won’t be born; our progress on lifting up the tens of thousands of Australian children who live in poverty will be set back.

The future we’ll now have is worse than the future we could have had without the policy responses we have seen.

That comparison of what-we-will-have to what-we-could-have-had can be expressed in terms of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and wellbeing-adjusted life years (WELLBYs), and compared directly to estimates of the QALY and WELLBY costs of the COVID-19 deaths and suffering that our policies have averted.

When you make this comparison, correctly, the evidence is clear that Australia’s lockdown has been a mistake.

In hindsight, instead of reacting out of fear, our government could have understood its primary role early on to contain and reduce the population’s fear; it could have set proportionate and targeted policy, not blanket policy (eg, extreme lockdowns were not what drove the decline from peak infections in Australia: when many of the harshest measures were set, infections were already on the decline); and it could have been perennially mindful of the massive economic and hence human welfare costs implicit in any decision to stop trade, pull children out of school, or lock people away from their friends and family.

In normal times, we jump up and down and fill national airwaves about changes in GDP or unemployment rates that are an order of magnitude less than what we are seeing now. In normal times we don’t track single-digit daily death rates from any cause as a leading indicator of whether it’s safe to venture outside, knowing that hundreds of people in Australia die each day from myriad causes. In normal times we talk about striving for health not through sitting at home and avoiding other people, but by building our strength and supporting our immune systems. People today have lost their perspective on what is normal.

Travel bans and social distancing rules have drastically reduced footfalls at Australia's prime tourist destinations, and economists anticipate a telling effect of the drop in tourism on the economy.

As the costs of our decisions become more and more apparent, with time, our fear will stop controlling our minds. I hope the perspective of the public and policy-makers returns quickly, so we have a chance of handling things better if the next wave of the virus attacks again what is now one of the most immunologically unprepared high-income countries in the world: Australia.

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The coal, hard fact is we must put jobs first in this economic climate

As the biblical saying goes, you can’t serve two masters. For a decade we have been trying to con ourselves we could. We thought you could serve the master of ­climate change and keep a strong manufacturing sector.

The data doesn’t lie. You can’t.

While we have reduced our emissions by 5 per cent (largely by making it illegal for farmers to clear their own land), our manufacturing industry has gone backwards for the first time. During the past decade Australian manufacturing has declined in real, absolute terms. The 1990s and 2000s were not boom times for manu­facturing but the sector still managed to grow by 10 per cent each decade. Since 2010, it has shrunk by 5 per cent.

During that time, our pursuit of climate change and renewable ­energy policies helped double the cost of energy, despite our abundant reserves. The COVID-19 pandemic shows what a mistake this has been.

Now everyone wants to secure our supply chains and start making things again. None of this talk will lead to renewed manufacturing strength, however, if we do not get serious about reducing energy costs. And to do that we need to make tough choices about what is important in a post-COVID, economically depressed world.

Talk of the immediate importance of reducing our small carbon footprint now sounds like a dis­cordant echo from a bygone era. With millions are out of work, and our major trade partner threatens our economic security, why would we continue to self-flagellate by imposing the additional costs of reducing carbon emissions for no environmental benefit?

China’s recent actions demonstrate beyond a doubt that there is no hope a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions will lead to any meaningful global action. If we can’t trust China to keep faith with a trade agreement signed just a few years ago, and can’t trust it to be upfront on the pandemic, how can we trust China to honour a global agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

I do not make these points to critique others. I made the mistakes too. I have been a supporter of the Paris Agreement because Australia has benefited from international agreements. But things have changed. With the need to secure our manufacturing industry and the clear breakdown of international co-operation, we must face the fact that era is over.

We should end our participation in the Paris Agreement, given the more immediate need to secure our manufacturing jobs. And we should rule out any moves to net-zero emissions or a future global agreement on carbon until other countries, much larger than us, demonstrate real reductions in their carbon emissions.

Our future targets continue to restrain our ability to make the tough choices to rebuild Australian manufacturing. Because of those targets, many are rushing to promote gas over coal. Gas in eastern Australia is not a pathway to globally competitive energy prices any time soon. The geology of our gas is not the lucrative shale seams from which the US has benefited.

At best we might hope to get the wellhead energy cost of Australian onshore gas down to $6 a gigajoule. That is still double the mining costs of most Australian black coal (and more than 10 times the cost of brown coalmining). It is also more than double the cost of US shale gas.

If we are not going to pursue and fight for the cheapest energy costs, then we are not serious about rebuilding an Australian manufacturing industry.

Some say the politics of building a coal-fired power station is too tough. I am a big supporter of gas developments but I drove to Canberra last week and I saw about 20 “no coal-seam gas” signs in western NSW. But I didn’t see a single “no coal” sign. Sure, lots of inner-city greenies oppose coal, but all politics is local. As last year’s federal election showed, if you have the locals supporting a project (such as Adani), that is a political fight you can win.

The political battle we should engage in is the one to return manufacturing jobs to Australia. To pursue naive policies that reduce our carbon emissions, regardless of what other countries are doing, hurts our ability to win that battle. To recover from this pandemic we must recognise that the era of rampant globalism is over and put Australian jobs first.

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Unions get a seat at Scott Morrison's workplace reform table

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has opened talks with ACTU secretary Sally McManus to clear obstacles to a consensus on workplace relations reform, giving union leaders key positions in the forums to decide a deal by September.

Mr Morrison sought the ACTU leader's opinion before launching an ambitious plan to streamline industrial awards and enterprise bargaining agreements in a bid to lift the economy out of the coronavirus crisis.

The Prime Minister also declared he was "very committed" to spending more money on skills and training under a new deal with the states and territories, while warning of the threat to growth from lower migration.

Offering unions and employers a pathway to negotiate reform, Mr Morrison slammed the current industrial relations system for delivering "marginal benefits" for unions while discouraging companies from hiring staff.

"It is a system that has to date retreated to tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing," he said.

"No side of that debate has been immune from those maladies. This will need to change or more Australians will unnecessarily lose their jobs and more Australians will be kept out of jobs."

The government will move within days to name union leaders and business executives to five working groups that will be asked to hammer out reform proposals by September.

Ms McManus said the ACTU would join the process but would set two conditions on any support for change because of the low growth in wages before the coronavirus crisis.

"The first is: will any proposal make jobs more secure for working people? That's really important – we don't want to go back to what it was like pre-pandemic where one in three workers didn't even have sick leave," she said.

"The second measure is making sure that working people get their fair share of the nation's wealth."

The conditions place a significant constraint on Mr Morrison's plan when Liberal MPs are seeking far greater changes to the workplace regime to give employers more freedom to negotiate wages and conditions with workers.

One Liberal backbencher said it was too early to tell whether the agenda would produce significant change but that Mr Morrison was right to start the process without stipulating the final outcome.

Another Liberal MP said the result could "tweak" the industrial relations system when the problem was the system itself.

While some Liberals want to scale back the power of the Fair Work Commission to regulate wages and conditions, some employers want to rewrite the rules of the "better off overall test" that ensures workers cannot be worse off in any changes to enterprise agreements.

Mr Morrison said he would not prescribe the outcome on the "better off overall test" and would leave it to employers and unions because it would be up to them to make sure any agreement was sustained and maintained over the long term.

"What I'm trying to do differently about this process is not run out there with an IR shopping list," he said.  "I haven't seen that work in my political experience in the time I've been in the Parliament."

While Mr Morrison said he was offering unions and employers a way to "get everyone back in the room" and build on the united effort in the COVID-19 crisis, others dismissed the chances of serious change.

The Opposition said it would back any changes that created more jobs, delivered higher wages and gave workers more rights. "Let's be clear: all the government has done so far is book a room. This is not an IR agenda – it's a series of meetings," said Labor workplace spokesman Tony Burke.

Labor welcomed Mr Morrison's decision to set aside the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which was meant to crack down on rogue unions, but said the government did not have the numbers in the Senate to pass the bill anyway.

The Australian Industry Group backed the process and Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott said workers would benefit if enterprise agreements restored the ambitions of the Hawke and Keating governments to tie conditions to productivity.

"We know from history that that system created higher wages, and if we could get back to that system then I believe Australians will have more secure jobs, better workplaces and higher wages," she said.

"The system has become too complicated – it's too hard to get enterprise agreements done, there are too many things in them."

Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has been speaking to Ms McManus several times each week and will consult the union movement on the membership of the five working groups.

Two of the five working groups will focus on industrial awards and enterprise agreements amid concerns that complex rules make it too difficult for unions and employers to gain results.

A third group will examine casual employment including the far-reaching consequences of a Federal Court decision last week that found long-term casual workers could seek entitlements including annual leave.

With big employers under fire for not paying workers their agreed rates, the fourth working group will consider compliance with the regime as well as enforcement against unions that breach the law.

The fifth group will seek a deal on enterprise agreements for "greenfields" projects to encourage new investment.

"We must make the most of this time we have and we must move quickly. It will become apparent very quickly if progress is to be made," Mr Morrison said.

"Ultimately it will be the government that will take forward a job making agenda from this process."

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 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