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William Olson is American-born, but Melbourne and Geelong-based since late 2001. Freelance journalist from 1990-2004, hospitality professional since late 2004. Back into freelance journalism since 2019, covering the union movement, industrial relations, public policy, and press freedom issues existing in Australia as the main beat. Husband to Jennifer, and "Dadda" to Keira, a very naughty calico fatto catto.

Jobs lagging on renewables upgrades, says ACTU

In a report released on Saturday morning by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the country’s renewable energy sector may represent one of the fastest-growing employment sectors within Australia, but also represents elements in the country’s worst employment practices as well.

Citing the “short-term, insecure and poorly-paid” nature of jobs currently existing within the renewables sector, the ACTU’s report entitled Sharing The Benefits With Workers: A decent jobs agenda for the renewable energy industry cites that employment culture occurring widely among the 27,000-strong numbers of employment within that sector.

And given the nature of the Paris Agreement citied in the report’s introduction by ACTU president Michele O’Neil, that it “requires that all signatories, including Australia, develop ambitious national targets and timelines to decarbonise” local and global economies, further stating, “It also requires that parties to the agreement take into account ‘the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs’.”

That’s even for countries, like Australia, lacking a long-term sustainable national climate or energy policy, despite as many as 50 other nations already implementing transitional plans towards the Paris Agreement.

O’Neil, in the report, has called upon the Morrison government to craft its policy to abide by the terms and goals in the Paris Agreement quickly, so that employment policies geared towards secure jobs in the renewable energy sector can be implemented, for now and into the future.

“The renewables sector is expected to create as many as 45,000 jobs by 2035. Without proper policy to protect workers, that’s a huge number of workers whose employment will be insecure,” O’Neil said upon the release of Saturday’s report.

“The growth of the renewables sector presents potential for secure, local employment that the Morrison Government has failed to capitalise on,” she added.

The frustrations of O’Neil and the ACTU must be felt to be aggravated in light of its National Economic Reconstruction Plan (NERP) blueprint, unveiled in July – at the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which ran into the start of rumours of the declared national recession – and offered to the Morrison government on a number of occasions, only to be rebuffed just as frequently.

As a sustainable manufacturing strategy that laid squarely in the frame of the NERP blueprint which had pledged to create upwards of a million jobs towards an economic recovery program, one would have had to believe that the government’s target of 45,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector, or at least enhance the 27,000 jobs that are already in place.

“The sector is a massive opportunity for secure job growth, at a time when we urgently need more secure jobs,” said O’Neil.

But O’Neil also laments the policies of the Morrison government, and other LNP leadership factions which preceded it.

“Unfortunately, successive governments and too many employers have chosen exploited and underpaid international labour over Australian workers,” she said.

O’Neil also compares and contrasts the tenuous nature of insecure work in the renewable energy sector with the policies of the mining industry, within the context of the ACTU’s report, explicitly stating that the concepts of the latter can be applied to the former.

“Workers have fought to make jobs in mining and energy safe and secure with fair pay and conditions.  The way forward must be a just transition which ensures that when workers are employed in the renewable energy sector, these rights also apply,” she said.

Digging deeper into the report, as jobs in the renewable energy sector are inevitably bound to increase via a range of diverse occupations, many factors contribute to the changing landscape within the sector – and are contributing to the current culture of insecure work.

In addition to the fly-in-fly-out practices in this sector – as what has been a commonplace practice in the mining industry – changing targets and objectives, the understanding of workforce and project needs, the ever-evolving faces of renewable energy jobs, and working conditions defined and determined by practices of labour hire, short-term and/or casual contracts and the exploitation of visa workers and other “cheap labour” options all contribute to the menagerie of factors comprising shortcomings towards change into more secure work for the sector.

And as such, O’Neil feels that government assistance with its corporate partners to shaping renewable energy resources and human resources policies alike go hand-in-hand.

“The federal government has a huge role to play here – using investment to create jobs and setting policy which provide certainty will be essential to ensuring secure jobs into the future,” said O’Neil.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between good jobs and a safe climate.

“We can, and must, achieve both, and we’re willing to work with the industry, governments and renewable energy investors and purchasers to ensure that renewable energy jobs are good jobs,” O’Neil added.

 

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Aussie content can rebound via proposed reforms – MEAA

Signs of encouragement are coming out of the camp of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) on Friday following the release of a communications-based green paper which could spell out more jobs and new productions for local content, and influence quota numbers for domestic content on digital streaming providers such as Netflix.

Paul Murphy, the MEAA’s chief executive, said that while the Media Reform Green Paper out of federal communications minister Paul Fletcher’s office requires a deeper reading by the union, as well as any public submissions by a deadline of March 7, he welcomes the opportunity for the arts sector to rebound in 2021 from what has been a disastrous year for producers of local and domestic content due to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Murphy singled out the intention of the Morrison government, via the green paper’s terms and conditions, to introduce Australian content obligations for online video streaming services whereas no such obligations existed before.

“While we need to see more detail within the Government’s green paper, placing a requirement on streaming services to invest a percentage of their Australian revenue in local content gives a devastated local industry much hope for the future,” said Murphy.

As Murphy said that the MEAA will invest their time to read the green paper and then consult its members towards preparing its own statements of rebuttal, Fletcher cited the need for the green paper, acknowledging how the landscape of the public’s entertainment options have changed and evolved over time.

“The media landscape has changed significantly over the past decade, with faster internet allowing digital technologies to generate significant benefits for industry and consumers. However, these technologies have also fractured business models and rendered many of our regulatory structures obsolete,” Fletcher said while unveiling the terms and conditions of the green paper and the $53 million investment program due to evolve from it.

Fletcher’s department seeks to maintain and upgrade standards for free-to-air television and that of subscription-based services such as Foxtel, but also makes allowances for the public’s freedom of choice for those as well as the streaming video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan, Optus, Disney+, and Hulu, among others, as well as the needs of those viewing metropolitan, regional and rural television alike with a funding system arising from the reforms.

“With declining revenues, rising costs and an outdated regulatory framework, the capacity of Australia’s media sector to provide Australian programming, local content and public interest journalism is being challenged. These structural pressures have been accelerated by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforcing the need for regulatory action.

“What we are proposing would rebalance Australia’s media regulations so that the industry can continue to support jobs, connect communities, and keep Australian stories on our screens regardless of whether they prefer to watch free-to-air television, subscription television or video-on-demand services,” said Fletcher, who added that these reforms would be added to the previously-announced changes to local content increases proposed in the federal budget.

Communications minister Paul Fletcher, whose Media Reform Green Paper may pose a big impact (Photo from abc.net.au)

In addition to the MEAA, others have reacted enthusiastically to these developments in the way of local and domestic content as well.

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens senator from South Australia who holds that party’s communications portfolio, feels that the proposal shows an adequacy with the evolving and changing times in media and technology.

“There is good news for the Australian screen industry at the end of an extremely tough year. We welcome the introduction of local content quotas for online video streaming services,” Hanson-Young said.

“Reform to regulate online streaming services in Australia is well overdue. The Greens have long been calling for the Government to regulate streaming giants like Netflix that are making billions of dollars from Australian subscribers without any obligation to host any Australian content on their screens,” she added.

Hanson-Young also spoke of other examples of precedence globally that the government can follow in further shaping this policy of potential reform, with regard to the streaming services and domestic content requirements.

“The question of the rate of investment obligation on streaming services will be crucial to the success of this policy reform and I urge the Government to look around the world for effective examples to follow,” said Hanson-Young.

“France has recently brought in a quota for 20 percent of local revenue to be spent on local productions, and I hope to see Australia go down a similar path,” she added.

Earlier in the week, Fletcher also released information under its arts-targeted Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, that the State of Victoria is slated to benefit directly in the way of 48 projects starting next year, yielding a boost of over $20 million in funding and due to create 13,000 jobs from the scheme.

Coincidentally, a lot of the benefits of the RISE Fund, per the Victorian investments, can be applied towards the Media Reform Green Paper as well, especially in the way of its knock-on effects and impacts.

“The arts, creative and entertainment sector not only employs hundreds of thousands of Australians directly – it also supports employment in hospitality, travel and other areas,” Fletcher said on Monday.

“It also brings enjoyment and recreation to audiences – which has never been more important than right now,” he added.

Murphy and Hanson-Young each agree that these programs and reforms will also bear influences on how Australian stories and tales to enhance domestic culture can be told.

“Getting this reform right will create thousands of jobs and also benefit audiences for generations to come by bringing more uniquely Australian stories to the screen,” said Murphy.

“Not only is the telling of Australian stories on our screens essential in shaping our national identity and reflecting the diversity of our community but local productions create Australian jobs,” Hanson-Young said.

Hanson-Young also said that she looks forward to bringing the Greens’ debate on the green paper reforms into the Senate next week, and alongside that of a bill on a digital media code, which in turn is scheduled for December 10.

“There is a lot of detail to be considered in this proposal and we will be working with stakeholders in the industry over the coming months to ensure that we are able to get the best outcomes to tell Australian stories and secure Australian jobs,” said Hanson-Young.

 

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Digital media code closer to passage after ABC and SBS win inclusion

A mandatory Australian media code legislation aimed at Silicon Valley’s largest digital media giants is now closer to passage after the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) relented on its original draft and has now included public broadcasters ABC and SBS in the government’s proposed mandatory news code legislation.

Whereas the ACCC’s original draft excluded the ABC and SBS on the presumed justification of those organisations already receiving taxpayer funding, they will now be eligible to receive payments from digital giants such as Facebook and Google, joining in with other mainstream media giants such as News Corp and Nine/Fairfax, to receive payments for running their news content.

Previously, federal communications minister Paul Fletcher said that the bill – under its official name of the News Media Bargaining Code Bill (2020) – did not originally apply to the ABC and SBS, because they “[were] not the policy focus when it comes to remuneration aspects of the proposed mandatory code.”

However, common sense has prevailed: this bill in question, that of essential modern reform, exists as being too important to exclude any of Australia’s media entities which produce content that the likes of Google and Facebook utilise.

The move, initiated by federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg and implemented in the new draft by ACCC chairman Rod Sims, is now slated to win bipartisan support, particularly from renewed numbers from Labor and the Greens, ahead of the updated legislation’s tabling for debate slated for December 10.

The bill would mandate that any digital media enterprise – including but not limited to Facebook and Google – must pay Australian media companies for their content or else face heavy penalties and fines.

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ senator from South Australia who holds the party’s communications portfolio, was pleased that the party’s demands to amend the legislation to include the public broadcasters was met.

And moreover, Hanson-Young has pledged her party’s support for the proposed legislation.

“It was the wrong decision to lock the public broadcasters out of the draft code and allow Facebook and Google to continue to profit from their content,” Hanson-Young said.

Hanson-Young also said that the future, enhancement and maintaining of public interest journalism, particularly on the ABC and SBS, would stand to benefit if and when the legislation is passed.

“Their inclusion is an important part of tackling the power and greed of the tech giants and protecting public interest journalism,” said Hanson-Young.

Hanson-Young and the Greens had always maintained that the role of fairness to not just the public broadcasters, but also to the ongoing survival of the AAP Newswire service and to smaller media outlets for their digital content as well.

“If it’s good enough for the global tech giants to pay Murdoch for content, then it is only fair that our public broadcasters are compensated for the use of their high-quality journalism, too,” she said.

“We are yet to see the legislation for the code – but when we do, we will also be looking to see that it guarantees simple and cost-effective benefits for small and independent media players.

“If the aim of this code is to ensure the viability of Australia’s media, then not only was it vital ABC and SBS were included, but it’s also important AAP doesn’t fail and small and independent publishers don’t miss out,” added Hanson-Young.

The Greens are not alone in advocating passage of the bill’s new version as being an essential influence on the future of public interest journalism.

Both the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas (JNI) – upon making joint lobbying submissions on behalf of amending the bill – are also pushing for the bill’s immediate impact with its passage.

“There are several issues of paramount importance to public interest journalism within the Code,” said Anna Draffin, PIJI’s chief executive.

“One of these key factors is media diversity, meaning the inclusion of news producers of all sizes, across regional, rural and metropolitan areas.

“The Code must incorporate fair value exchange in both directions, starting with a fair information exchange to ensure equitable commercial outcomes,” added Draffin.

“There has been a lot of talk about the need to encourage more reliable and accurate journalism and the Code can be a world-leading, practical step towards doing just that,” said Mark Ryan, JNI’s executive director.

As Google has been critical of the proposed legislation, even going as far as lobbying the ACCC itself for its vested interests on the bill, it and Facebook have been cooperative in negotiations with the Australian government about the legislation itself.

But the legislation also has the support from various media companies as well, as evidenced in a joint open letter from factions such as Nine, News Corp, Seven West Media and the Guardian Australia.

“Australians also know that trusted local news sources are under threat. Many have closed, forever silencing local voices,” the letter opened.

“The global digital platforms should care about the local media landscape. They should care about ensuring the sustainability of the local news media sector.

“Why? Because they benefit from it – enormously. But the financial ledger in producing the content is currently very one-sided,” the introduction added.

Fighting for a level playing field for everyone should be the ultimate aim of the bill, the letter concluded.

“Google has publicly said it wants to help fund the future of Australian media. That is certainly something that we welcome.

“Supporting a fair and reasonable Code is the first step. The Code is essential to arrest further declines in professional news content in Australia – something our democracy depends on,” it said.

 

The ABC’s recently-remodeled Melbourne TV and radio facility, in the city’s Southbank precinct (Photo from Decon Corp)

 

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Casuals due to get relief in Victoria, in lieu of national action

Victorian casual workers plying their trade in any of a number of industries and sectors may be entitled to up to five days of sick and carer’s pay in the near future, as the Andrews state government announced on Monday that a pilot program will be launched as a scheme within the 2020-21 state budget.

As the Victorian state budget is due to be read on Tuesday, the Andrews government recognised earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic that the loss of work affected thousands of casual workers in more than just an adverse manner, that they were feasibly unable to take days off to care for sick and infected family members by virtue of a simple consequence tied to the casual workforce – you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

“When people have nothing to fall back on, they make a choice between the safety of their workmates and feeding their family. The ultimate decision they make isn’t wrong – what’s wrong is they’re forced to make it at all,” Daniel Andrews, the state of Victoria’s premier, said on Monday.

The proposed program, entitled the Secure Work Pilot Scheme (SWPS), would provide five days’ worth of sick and carer’s pay, to be paid to workers at the normal casual award rates per the national minimum wage.

Currently, under the National Employment Standards (NES), casual workers – of which and as of November 2018 one in four workers across Australia were classified as casuals – have been entitled to two days of carer’s leave and two days of compassionate leave.

However, each of those spells are of an unpaid nature.

Should the SWPS get approved, workers in a yet-to-be-determined range of eligible industries and sectors would be entitled to as much as $753.80 based on a 38-hour working week at $19.84 per hour under minimum wage conditions updated to the current financial year.

Following the state budget’s reading, the scheme will be subject to several stages of planning and debate alike, before its enactment, targeted for a proposed start for late 2021.

The $5 million plan for the SWPS will undergo a series of consultations and inquiries between members of the state Parliament, regarding the design and feasibility of the scheme, including processes for casual and insecure workers to undertake, with ultimately no cost to businesses.

Such practices are expected to include casual and insecure workers to pre-registration for the scheme, an education campaign for enrolment, and a defining element of eligibility issues.

The Andrews Labor government, while describing the target of the scheme as going towards “priority industries”, has yet to define which industries and sectors will partake in the scheme, but areas such as cleaning, hospitality, tourism, security, retail, and aged care, and their related sectors, are expected to be involved.

The SWPS proposal has already won various degrees of support from the federal Labor party, the union movement and business lobbies alike.

Tony Burke, federal Labor’s shadow minister for industrial relations, immediately hailed Andrews’ leadership in Victoria on unveiling intentions for the scheme, and wondered why the Morrison government couldn’t do the same on a national level in Canberra.

“Victoria’s plan to provide sick pay to casual and insecure workers shows real leadership in stark contrast with the inaction of the Morrison Government,” Burke said on Monday.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything it’s that insecure work is not just a threat to the wellbeing of individuals – it’s a threat to the wellbeing of our society. A high proportion of Australia’s coronavirus infections came from people turning up to work sick,” added Burke.

Luke Hilakari, secretary of Victoria Trades Hall, endorses the proposed SWPS program (Photo from ETU Victoria)

Luke Hilakari, the Victoria Trades Hall secretary, while agreeing with Burke on the lack of national action, also commended the Andrews government for taking the first steps.

“Just like the introduction of wage theft laws and labour hire laws, it has been up to the states to show leadership while Prime Minister Morrison is forced to play catch up,” said Hilakari on Monday.

Hilakari also believes that the proposed scheme at Spring Street could lead to a domino effect which would ultimately drive down the numbers in the casual workforce.

“Covid-19 laid bare the problems workers have been pointing to for years:  insecure work is toxic and forces people on marginal incomes to make terrible choices. Do workers go to work sick to pay the bills, or do they risk their job by staying at home?” said Hilakari.

“Sick workers attending work is a cost to business.  Workers having a sick leave entitlement may result in a major lift in workplace productivity with more workplaces staying healthy.

“Victoria is the first State Government to show leadership in piloting practical solutions to disincentivise insecure work,” added Hilakari.

“Workers staying on the job when they’re sick is bad for business – for the rest of your staff and for your customers. We believe this scheme will benefit businesses and workers right across Victoria,” echoed Tim Pallas, treasurer and minister for industrial relations in Andrews’ state government.

The state’s highest business lobby, however, is taking a cautious approach to Spring Street’s proposal, but nonetheless looks forward to working with the state government and union groups to develop a multi-partisan solution that appeals to all parties.

“The Victorian Chamber will talk to members and government about the potential implications of this proposal, including the cost and complexity for business. The Victorian Chamber will not support any additional cost, impost or taxes on business, particularly as we are trying to restart the economy and incentivise the creation of more jobs,” Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in reaction to the state government’s announcement.

Yet Andrews defended the scheme as a step in a progressive direction.

“This isn’t going to solve the problem of insecure work overnight, but someone has to put their hand up and say we’re going to take this out of the ‘too hard’ basket and do something about it – and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

 

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Unions call for thaw of superannuation freeze

More than six years have passed since Tony Abbott’s LNP government put a freeze on a previously agreed-to pattern of annual rises in workers’ superannuation through to what would have been 2019 – and Australia’s union movement called on Friday for that freeze to be reviewed and revoked.

And the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has issued its position that if the initial moves of the Abbott government to enact the freeze on superannuation and the follow-up decisions by the Turnbull and Morrison governments to maintain that ruling represents a freeze of sub-zero proportions, it may be time to hit a defrost button on it – rapidly.

“Any further delay to the super guarantee increase will rob millions of workers of the best and healthiest years of their retirement, including workers who have performed essential work during the crisis,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.

The ACTU further spelled out its position in a document entitled A Retirement That Never Comes, where the organisation lays out several different factors – such as a brief history on the Hawke government’s creation of the superannuation scheme, the Keating government’s vision to raise it to a 15 per cent employer contribution over time, the Abbott government’s initial decision on the superannuation freeze, what a reinstatement of superannuation rises would look like, and the impact of what the loss of superannuation since 2014 has had on peoples’ lives.

If the Abbott government, under treasurer Joe Hockey and finance minister Matthias Cormann, had left the superannuation scheme in the way of the incremental rises legislated under the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, working people would have been able to partake in rises of 0.5 per cent in their retirement savings at the start of each financial until it hit 12 per cent in 2019.

Instead, in September 2014, the Abbott government won its objective for a superannuation freeze for the succeeding seven years.

“… by delaying the increase in the superannuation guarantee levy, we are keeping more money in workers’ pockets,” Abbott said on that day in the Parliament, in defending the LNP bill that produced an ALP counterpoint of “a 25-year-old Australian earning $55,000 a year will be over $9,000 worse off by 2025.”

Abbott also believed that the freeze in superannuation would also allay itself into a rise in wages from employers passing on the superannuation savings to their workers – and as any wage-earners know, that hasn’t happened.

The double-whammy of several years of stagnant or non-existent wage rises alongside a frozen state of superannuation has resulted in projected lost retirement earnings for workers in each of the following professions since 2014:

  • Barista — $3110.26
  • Pharmacy sales assistants — $3254.93
  • Retail worker — $3267.55
  • Retail supervisor – $3541.21
  • Store persons — $4137.68

And for the frontline workers who have been invaluable during the pandemic, the losses incurred over the same interval are even more mind-boggling:

  • Delivery drivers — $3199.12
  • Aged care worker — $3554.89
  • Childcare worker — $4397.60
  • Call centre/contact centre workers — $5113.32
  • Local government workers — $4674.93
  • Ambulance officers and paramedics — $5609.82
  • Registered nurses — $6420.88
  • Police — $7032.31
  • Teachers — $7056.41

As each of those represent pretty tidy superannuation sums over a seven-year freeze, the prospect of imagining what may occur should another freeze at 9.5 per cent superannuation hit – the ACTU and Industry Super Funds project that individuals’ losses could skyrocket exponentially into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currently, starting next July 1 to mark the start of the 2021-22 financial year, that 9.5 per cent rate of employer-compulsory contributions would be due to increase to an even 10.0 per cent, then going up by 0.5 per cent annually until capped at 12.0 per cent in the 2025-26 financial year.

This falls far short of Paul Keating’s vision of a 15 per cent rate of employer-compulsory contribution rate for superannuation back in the 1995-96 budget.

But on the same day in which the ACTU released its A Retirement That Never Comes report, the Morrison government – via treasurer Josh Frydenberg – released its own report on the state of superannuation as well.

 

Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who hints at other options should a 9.5 per cent superannuation rate remains in place (Photo from ABC News and Marco Catalano)

 

The government’s Retirement Income Review, either as a lengthy tome of over 660 pages or as an abbreviated summary of just under 45 pages, comes down to the same conclusion – the government continues to be against increasing the 9.5 per cent superannuation guarantee, and while it may not stand in its way, it would leave the possibility open of capping it in next May’s federal budget.

Frydenberg, in announcing the release of the government’s report, said that if superannuation is frozen again, people would have other options at hand, such as accessing equity in their homes or consulting financial planners for alternative advice instead of relying on superannuation at 9.5 per cent for their retirements.

“Like any complex system, it is not beyond improvement and the report’s many observations and detailed analysis will be used by the government in consideration of future policy decisions,” Frydenberg said.

In rebuttal, O’Neil said that workers could face the prospects of being required out of necessity to work beyond age 65, and likely into their 70’s – much like in an American example – to build up retirement savings the longer the superannuation rate remains frozen at 9.5 per cent.

“The Retirement Incomes Review was supposed to provide certainty – instead the Australian people are left wondering whether next year’s superannuation increase to 12 per cent, promised to them and enshrined in law will be stripped away by this government,” she said.

“Delaying the super increase punishes the workers who have paid the biggest price to keep us safe. They have lost hours, pay and jobs and many have run out of sick leave, annual leave and long service leave – now they are being asked to sacrifice their retirement years,” O’Neil added.

O’Neil also said that the Morrison government needs to honour the forthcoming rise in superannuation, which the ACTU – citing how it is overdue after the majority of seven years of a deep freeze – maintains it is in the best interests for Australia’s working classes.

“The Government is clearly aware of what needs to be done to provide a secure retirement but refuses to do what’s needed, instead continuing to attack the system which it opposes on an ideological level,” said O’Neil.

If the best means to combat a freeze is with heat, then by applying heat on the Morrison government, O’Neil and the ACTU are advocating a quick thaw.

“If the Morrison government is serious about supporting Australians in retirement, it must support the increase in the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent,” she added.

 

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Ignore the spin – unemployment still up, says ACTU

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released unemployment figures for the month of October, and in its monthly labour force survey on Thursday revealed an increase of one-tenth of one per cent nationwide, bringing the figure up to an even 7.0 per cent.

The agency, in announcing the figures and trends, have made it sound like it’s a negligible change from the month of September.

However, in the words of legendary politically-charged hip-hop group Public Enemy and its leader Chuck D, don’t believe the hype.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) insists that while a small rise in unemployment has occurred, it’s still an upward trend, and other statistics such as those relating to youth unemployment and under-employment still lingering in the double-digits.

“This data shows just how hard it is to find a job for the huge numbers of working people who have fallen into unemployment during this crisis,” said Sally McManus, the ACTU’s secretary, in reaction to the ABS’s announcement of the figures.

A closer examination of the ABS’s raw data justifies points made by McManus and the ACTU:

  • One-tenth of one per cent still amounts to an additional 25,500 people having lost their jobs over the previous month’s time;
  • Under-employment may have dipped by one full percentage point to 10.4 per cent – however, that still represents more than 10 per cent of the workforce struggling for hours or struggling to get out of insecure work;
  • And the youth unemployment figures are even worse – 6 per cent for the month of October, denoting a 1.1 per cent rise from September and a 3.4 per cent increase since the start of 2020.

Even taking this year’s global COVID-19 pandemic and a national recession into account, from when the pandemic was declared in March, youth unemployment has risen by four per cent in the seven-month interval for when data has been collected, under-employment figures are 1.6 per cent higher since March, and the total number of unemployed persons is still 33 per cent higher in the last 12 months.

 

2020’s youth unemployment figures, month by month (Image from tradingeconomics.com, via the ABS)

 

And while Australia’s monthly unemployment figures have topped the current seven-per cent mark just five times since 2000, four of those have occurred this year – in May, June, July, and now in October.

McManus maintains that no matter how badly – or desperately – the statistics for October are spun, manipulated, or applied by the Morrison government or any of its agencies, it is not good news for the nation’s unemployed coming towards the end of the year.

And even worse for those on subsidies such as JobKeeper or JobSeeker, despite the recent announcement by the government and treasurer Josh Frydenberg that each of those will be extended until the end of March.

“We have 1.4 million people reliant on JobSeeker and more than three million on JobKeeper – we need to be investing now to make sure that when JobKeeper ends there are jobs for people to move into,” McManus said.

While the ACTU calls for the government to come up with a concrete jobs plan to stimulate the economy and quell unemployment figures into a downward trend, Brendan O’Connor, Labor’s shadow minister for employment, continues to ring the doom-and-gloom bell for the opposition’s interpretations of the ABS’s October employment figures.

“The story is worse around the country – with youth unemployment up 3.6 per cent in Victoria, 2.9 per cent in South Australia, and 2.4 per cent in the Northern Territory,” said O’Connor.

“[And] youth under-utilisation is at 33.5 per cent – meaning one in three young Australians are looking for work or more work,” he added, while echoing McManus’s demands for more solid plans for work schemes for young people aged 16-24 years.

“Labor continues to call on the Morrison government to urgently develop a COVID-19 Youth Recovery Strategy, that is co-designed with young people and outlines clear short, medium and long term goals,” said O’Connor.

In light of the revelation that the government’s JobMaker employer subsidy will only create a mere ten per cent of its initial goal of 450,000 jobs for youth, Labor’s scheme Youth Recovery Strategy would, according to shadow minister for youth Amanda Rishworth, consist of a design that takes the input of young people themselves into account, an open and honest discussion of how its policies would impact young people, and provide an outline for short-, medium- and long-range goals for jobs and careers alike for young people, with regular reporting to Parliament a must.

“It is hard to overstate the severity of the challenges facing our young people now and into the future. They are looking down the barrel of years, if not decades, of hardship,” said Rishworth back in August.

“Trying to address the interrelated challenges facing young people with isolated, band-aid solutions will fail.  It is critical the government takes a holistic, coordinated approach,” she added.

And with just six weeks until Christmas, McManus reminded the government that the clock continues to tick with regard to getting more people of all ages into jobs as a means of stimulating spending to kick-start the economy.

“Unemployment is projected to keep increasing to Christmas,” she said.

“The government should be doing everything it can to create secure jobs and put money in the hands of working people so they can spend and restart the economy,” McManus added.

 

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CDP is still useless, claims ACTU group

Eligible Indigenous workers in remote communities have continued to fail to benefit from a five-year-old employment program that was designed to do the opposite, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) alleged on Wednesday.

Opening a conference to mark 20 years since its original ACTU Indigenous Conference in 2000 for this year’s event which opened earlier this week, the ACTU continued to attack the Community Development Program (CDP) over its lack of results as well as its execution for groups of marginalised people which it is meant to help out of poverty.

One year ago, the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) released a report, within its annual updates, which revealed that while participation numbers in remote communities from July 2018 to June 2019 remained virtually the same, employment statistics in the interval had fallen sharply.

  • Participation across all surveyed regions in Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia showed a 1.02 per cent increase, for a total of 29,968 eligible participants in the program as of June 2019;
  • As a national average, employment placements under CDP providers fell 376 places;
  • For 13-week short-term job placements, 125 fewer successful placements were achieved;
  • And for half-yearly job placements, over 26 weeks, 111 placements were successful – however, this abstract also revealed a drop of 234 placements from the preceding quarter

As a result, and as a reflection of the CDP over its inception in 2015, a Senate inquiry revealed that the impact of poverty resulting from the joblessness in the communities cited showed a total of 36 percent of 1000 participants taking part in a government survey felt that they were worse off in that five-year interval.

Beyond the mass of the numbers, a different set of weights from the communities that the CDP was meant to help since it replaced the old Remote Jobs and Communities Program have landed with great impact on those whom it was supposed to help, in the way of increases in theft, family and domestic violence, incidents of financial coercion, and general mental health problems.

Lara Watson, the ACTU’s indigenous affairs officer, said that while the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a national recession were further impacting the attempts of those living in Indigenous communities a means to find work and break their poverty cycles, the Morrison government was also lacking leadership in order to help in those regards.

“This year has meant a lot of change for millions of Australians, but workers under CDP face the same discrimination and mistreatment that has been embedded in the scheme since its inception,” said Watson.

“It’s an ongoing disgrace that we have unemployment policies in this country effectively divided on race,” added Watson.

Watson also cited that those in the participating communities were subject to more stringent penalties than others in the general population.

And the allegations of Watson and the ACTU are confirmed by The Australia Institute (TAI).

A 2018 study done by TAI found that in the first three years of the CDP’s operation, while the remote communities serviced by the program had unemployment rates up to 51 per cent, its participants were 25 times more likely to receive a penalty from the Department of Human Services or Centrelink than anyone partaking in urban Australia’s JobActive program.

“Despite accounting for a tiny percentage of overall welfare recipients the CDP routinely accounts for more than half of all financial penalties,” said Watson.

Nonetheless, the Morrison government continues to defend the program.

Indigenoous Australians minister Ken Wyatt, insistent that the CDP is on track (Photo from AFL SportsReady)

“It is still early days, but we are seeing strong results and hearing positive stories from our providers,” Ken Wyatt, the government’s minister for Indigenous Australians, said in October 2019 in defence of a number of reforms the program had underwent.

“These reforms were all about creating more jobs, improving engagement and reducing penalties – and we are delivering on all fronts.

“The latest data… shows penalties have almost halved in just six months, after we empowered our providers to use more discretion in how they work with participants. This will build trust and positivity on both sides.

“Engagement is also up – the caseload has increased five per cent since January, to more than 30,000 participants,” Wyatt added.

But while Wyatt also insisted in March, at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic being declared, that the CDP’s participants could still continue in their reporting responsibilities without risk of penalty, shadow minister for families and social services Linda Burney called for a suspension of the program – and particularly its most controversial features, such as mutual obligations.

“Indigenous Australians, in particular, those in remote communities are at a disproportionately higher risk of serious infection from COVID-19, due to higher rates of chronic illness,” said Burney.

“It is now time for the Government to put the health and safety of remote communities first by suspending the [CDP] mutual obligation requirements, as a safety precaution,” she added at the time.

Last month, Burney doubled-down on the ineffectiveness of the CDP, after the suspension she had advocated was invoked in April, calling for its overhaul.

“[It] is broken and needs to be completely abolished and replaced, not restarted,” said Burney.

“The penalty regime under the CDP has proven to be unreasonably punitive, nasty and counterproductive – with a disproportionate number of breaches – leaving participants falling through the cracks,” concurred Patrick Dodson, the Labor senator from Western Australia who is the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs.

“The government’s broken and discriminatory [CDP] is no substitute for a plan for job creation and economic development,” added Dodson.

As recently as 2018, the ACTU advocated replacing the CDP with a program whose blueprint would put the emphasis on support over punitive measures, and instituted values such as developing and utilising long-term solutions to the issues facing remote communities, with the application of training, apprenticeships and fundings of projects and social enterprises which would be better enriched towards full-time employment opportunities.

And at its ongoing Indigenous conference, the ACTU adheres to these principles and standards.

“Despite all the evidence of the harm it has done and continues to do, including in reports from its own departments, the Morrison government continues to defend the program,” said Watson.

“We intend to make them accountable for that decision,” she added.

 

 

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ACTU reveals T’s & C’s for work-at-home revolution

If the COVID-19 pandemic has produced any sort of silver lining at all – aside from the obvious ones such as partaking in an over-abundance of UberEats, the awkwardness of having Zoom meetings interrupted by family and pets, and the baking of bread and biscuits in more varieties than one ever knew existed – it is that more people have discovered a convenience of working from home, if applicable to their specific situation.

And the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has released a survey about the working-from-home revolution, with more than 10,000 respondents aligned within its union ranks revealing some positive and negative truths alike.

The ACTU found in its survey two positive findings: just over four out of five (81 per cent) respondents said they’d work from home if given enough support, and almost half (47 per cent) of the workers taking part in the survey said they felt more productive.

However, the survey also revealed some dark edges from those who adapted into the working-from-home habit:

  • Two out of every five respondents (40 per cent) were working longer hours, many of whom were racking up an extra five or more hours per week;
  • A shade under one in every three workers (32 per cent) have reported acquired an increased workload;
  • An average of $530 per person, out of their own pockets without reimbursement, was incurred to pay for work expenses;
  • Three in every five workers (60 per cent) were spending more time at home as a carer;
  • Work/Life balance was being distorted for a majority of workers, many of whom were starting before 8:00am and one in three working up to or past 9:00pm;
  • An overwhelming majority (90 per cent) of all respondents reported not being paid overtime or penalty rates for working their extra hours;
  • And on the mental health and well-being front, half of all respondents reported experiencing some form of a related issue, including workplace-related health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression or self-harm

While the full report into the initial findings did not deny that workers’ productivity was generally increased, amid all of the disadvantages listed above, the ACTU also advocated that workers also “have a right to be disconnected” from work itself and work-related devices at some point of the day in order to ensure a work-life balance.

In other words, the ACTU was seeking to defend the rights of workers as a basic human right central to its core “888” value, among all of the values of the Australian union movement.

Sally McManus, the ACTU’s national secretary, cited the need for unions to be allowed to play their role to bridge the gaps between those working from home and those working in traditional workplaces.

“We have an opportunity to make working life permanently better for people who have the ability to work from home,” said McManus.

 

Working from home has its advantages (Photo from Bond University.)

 

“We can see that many people are enjoying not having to spend significant time commuting, and having greater flexibility to manage time with family.

“We know that there is the capacity for great productivity gains in working from home, but those gains must be shared. To do this, workers need specific and new supports to ensure working from home delivers benefits and is a healthy and safe environment,” added McManus.

From this, in acknowledging that working from home is here to stay, the ACTU have made good on its promise to introduce a Working From Home Charter, to combat the problems and issues exposed in the initial working-from-home survey.

Such a document was released on Tuesday, and issued a five-point broad list for remedies of suggestion:

  • Working from home should always be voluntary, with equal pay regardless of where you work and no out-of-pocket costs for working people who choose to work from home;
  • Employers remain responsible for the health and well-being of employees working from home during work hours and should do everything they can to remove physical and psychological hazards;
  • Every employee has the right to disconnect from work outside of work hours, with excessive hours and work creeping into non-working hours to be avoided;
  • Anyone working from home must still have access to union representation and understand their basic rights – maintaining access to independent dispute-settling procedures and arbitration if matters cannot be settled through discussion;
  • And as a basic overview matter, all workers deserve to have their rights protected, regardless of whether in the workplace or working from home

McManus, in discussing the items contained in the charter, feels that those who work from home should not possess any advantage or disadvantage to those who work from their offices or other on-site locations.

“Greater access to working from home could make life better for huge numbers of people – but we have to make sure that it’s sustainable and properly supported,” said McManus.

“The decision to work from home doesn’t mean you surrender your rights at work, or your mental health.

“No one should be out of pocket, expected to work longer unpaid hours or not allowed to disconnect,” added McManus.

In greater detail, and in spelling out the rights for those choosing to work from home, the ACTU stresses that such a decision should be a symbiotic relationship between the employee, employer and their union delegate, with the same elements of the ideal workplace culture – such as with education and training, equipment, expenses, working hours, productivity, expenses, and safety and well-being – being maintained.

“Unions are available to every worker and are here to help make workers ensure that their jobs are good quality secure jobs no matter where they work,” said McManus.

“If you’re working from home and you’re being asked to work longer unpaid hours or dealing with mental health issues as a result of your work, get in touch with your union,” she added.

Furthermore, as the work-from-home revolution evolves, so will the union movement’s interest in assuring that those choosing to work from home do so seamlessly compared to those in on-site locations, McManus adds.

“Unions will be negotiating rights for home workers as outlined in the charter with employers – it’s critical that we take a proactive approach to getting this right,” McManus said.

 

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Dutton’s bidding to put press freedom under threat, again: GetUp!

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton is seeking added powers to grant to ASIO to strike at freedoms granted to journalists and citizens alike, activist group GetUp! alleged on Sunday.

In an e-mail sent to its subscribers with a link to a petition, GetUp! claimed that Dutton’s attempts to expand those range of powers could be fast-tracked with federal Parliament currently in its final fortnight of sitting for 2020, beyond initial discussions with Parliament’s bipartisan intelligence committee.

The organisation also alleges that Dutton – whose portfolio has grown markedly from the time he was a member of the cabinet of former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull from 2013 and the initial creation of his Department of Home Affairs portfolio in 2017 – would use the impact of such proposed legislation as “far-reaching powers” to be used “against journalists, whistleblowers, and environmental and human rights groups” as a few examples.

With public interest journalism and press freedoms at threat due to the proposed legislation, GetUp!’s claims – the activist group’s second in as many months against Dutton’s legislative attempts in this matter – possess the backings of legal opinion.

Insofar as journalists, whistleblowers and the establishment, application and expansion of press freedom are concerned, the proposed legislation could “undermine the important role played by civil society organisations in holding government to account,” according to the legal pairing of Dominic Villa and Diana Tang, twin barristers from the Sydney-based legal firm of New Chambers.

Furthermore, the scrutiny of Villa and Tang over a bill which would essentially expand ASIO’s tasks and roles beyond matters relating to terrorism would possess chilling consequences to journalists for simply doing their jobs in the public interest, should they get called up on any matters deemed questionable to the intelligence community at-large.

“A journalist would then be obliged to provide information pursuant to the warrant, where the failure to do so would be a criminal offence punishable by five years imprisonment,” the barristers said last week ahead of a Senate Estimates hearing and prior to Parliament’s ongoing sitting session.

“Despite well-recognised professional and ethical obligations of a journalist to maintain anonymity and confidentiality of a source, if so questioned under a warrant, a journalist would be required to disclose the identity of a confidential source,” Villa and Tang added in their legal opinion.

Furthermore, the legislation that would allow Dutton to grant these expanded powers to ASIO would contain very little in the way of grey areas, if any at all.

And that in itself would have consequences on journalists’ efforts to obtain sensitive information from primary sources or even whistleblowers.

“There may therefore be a chilling effect on the willingness of people to speak to journalists about issues of political significance, including security matters and foreign relations,” said Villa and Tang.

As for the process, ASIO’s pathway would be streamlined to the point that all they would require the mere approval from the Attorney-General’s office without a warrant from a judge, in order to exercise its actions and intentions.

The Law Council of Australia also opposes the proposed legislation.

In addition to preferring to see a judge have the final say on approving such actions, or even intervening in emergency situations, they also recommend a three-day buffer interval in situations of appeal.

“If the judicial officer does not confirm the issuing decision, the warrant is cancelled, and the judicial officer may order the destruction of the intelligence, or may impose conditions on its retention,” its representative told the intelligence committee.

The Department of Home Affairs, speaking on behalf of ASIO, cites a claim that, according to its director-general Mike Burgess, “the current threat from espionage and foreign interference as greater now than at the height of the Cold War” and a justification for the proposed legislation that “these sophisticated activities pose a risk to key pillars of Australia’s democracy and attempt to undermine our sovereignty”.

While Dutton and his agencies under his Home Affairs portfolio have form in the way of making actions against journalists – namely, the ABC’s “Afghan Files” duo of Dan Oakes and Sam Clarke as well as former News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst – in which the possibilities of charges were later dropped, GetUp! through its managing director Paul Oosting aim to garner greater support on its petition to lobby the Morrison government against the proposed legislation.

“From prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists, to secret court cases, and threats to crack down on protesters – the Morrison government is slowly whittling away at our democracy,” the group states, as the petition has currently gathered approximately 113,000 signatures with 120,000 signatures as its target.

“If they get their way with these latest laws, Peter Dutton and his spy agency will be handed unchecked power, and journalists, activists, and civil society groups will all be in their reach.

“So with just two weeks of Parliament left for the year, we need to stop these laws in their tracks,” GetUp! added.

 

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ASEAN trade deal may not employ Australians – ACTU

The Morrison government is due to sign a trade agreement whose final stages have been secretly negotiated among itself and 14 other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, but the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) remains sceptical as to whether jobs for any Australians will come up as a result of the pending and imminent agreement.

The behind-closed-doors negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between Australia and China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are expected to culminate on Sunday in a virtual Zoom-type meeting to mark a free trade agreement that has been nearly a decade in its planning and negotiations.

Australia represents one of five countries – along with New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea – which are already partners in various free trade arrangements with the remaining countries in the pact, who make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Together, in signing the RCEP, they will constitute 30 per cent of the world’s population and just under 30 percent of the global GDP, thereby making this pact the largest of its kind.

The ACTU’s reservations about the deal concern in its coverage of 2.2 billion people residing among the 15 nations, that Australian workers won’t be used at the preference for cheaper labour.

Citing the global COVID-19 pandemic, the current domestic economic recession, and Australia’s current unemployment and under-employment rates of 6.9 and 11.4 per cent respectively, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the ACTU possesses an uncertainty over how many or if any Australian jobs will be required within the FTA program.

“We need an independent assessment of the value of this deal for Australian workers,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.

“Workers deserve to know what is being negotiated on their behalf. The system is broken and anti-democratic,” she added.

As such, the ACTU has implored the Morrison government to commission an independent social, economic and health assessment of the RCEP to the expected immediate ratification of the pact between all of its international partners.

The ACTU’s concerns are justified, given its shortcomings in FTA’s in the recent past, as was the case with a 2015 arrangement with China (ChAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) of 2018.

“The Australian trade union movement supports expanding exports and trade deals that are fair,” said O’Neil.

“Despite Government claims, past trade deals have delivered negligible benefits for the Australian economy and left Australian workers worse off,” O’Neil added.

What also raises a sense of trepidation for the ACTU are red flags raised about many of the signatory countries – specifically Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand – possess histories of labour and human rights abuses, many of which are centred around child labour, forced labour for migrants, arbitrary arrests, and the detention and/or imprisonment of trade union leaders and workers.

“The deal includes countries where there [are] significant evidence of labour rights and human rights abuses such as China, Brunei and Cambodia,” O’Neil says.

“But we know of no provisions in the agreement to deal with issues like forced labour or child labour,” O’Neil added.

The concerns of O’Neil and the ACTU are well-founded.

From a 2018 Sydney summit detailing the various broad category of human rights abuses in ASEAN member nations, the Human Rights Watch organisation submitted a paper where it cited:

  • In Cambodia, where its Trade Union Law was violated to the points where some unions were prevented from legally registering and operating in the way of establishing actions of collective bargaining, workers’ rights and proper working conditions;
  • In Indonesia, female domestic workers in the Middle East continue to face abuse by employers, including long working hours, non-payment of salaries, and physical and sexual abuse;
  • In Singapore, labour exploitation occurs on many fronts. Foreign migrant workers are subject to labour abuse and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse;
  • Also in Singapore, foreign domestic workers – incidentally, barred from joining, organising, and leading in unions – are still excluded from the Employment Act and many key labour protections, such as limits on daily work hours;
  • And in Thailand, migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are vulnerable to physical abuses, indefinite detention, and extortion by Thai authorities; severe labour rights abuses and exploitation by employers; and violence and human trafficking by criminals who sometimes collaborate with corrupt officials.

In an open letter to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the summit, Human Rights Watch regional directors Brad Adams and Elaine Pearson wrote: “We recognise that your government has an interest in forging closer trade and security ties with ASEAN members. At the same time, a number of ASEAN leaders preside over governments that deny basic liberties and fundamental freedoms.

 

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was asked to find common ground with ASEAN partners on FTA’s and human rights (Photo from abc.net.au)

 

“These governments routinely commit serious human rights violations, crack down on civil society organisations and the media, and undermine democratic institutions by allowing corruption to flourish. Lack of accountability for grave abuses by state security forces is the norm throughout ASEAN.”

Meanwhile, O’Neil sees the potential that such a wide-ranging FTA can achieve, but hopes that the Morrison government possesses a vision of execution of the process, something which the ACTU cites that the government has yet to address.

“The agreement could also open up essential services like health, education, water, energy, telecommunications, digital and financial services to private foreign investors and restrict the ability of future governments to regulate them in the public interest,” said O’Neil.

“We need greater accountability and oversight to protect Australia’s national interest in this process,” she added.

 

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MEAA sets wish list for media diversity inquiry

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) welcomes a forthcoming Senate inquiry investigating media diversity in Australia – but wants those partaking in that enquiry to be forthright about the goals and standards which protect and enhance public interest journalism, as well as a variety of other connected issues.

Marcus Strom, the MEAA’s federal president of its media wing, one day after the Greens advocated for and got passed a media diversity inquiry bill, said that the organisation which exists as the journalists’ union would like to have its say as a vital part of that inquiry.

“There is great disquiet in the community about the state of our media which has been heightened by the reliance on accurate and independent public interest journalism during the bushfires and COVID-19,” Strom said on Thursday.

“This inquiry is timely and we hope it will be the start of rebuilding trust around public interest journalism,” he added.

Furthermore, the MEAA – while expressing that “greater diversity would allow for a wider variety of voices to be heard and would better serve our communities” – reminds its members that the inquiry may not uncover any new battleground areas.

In addition to the role of digital platforms and the future of public interest journalism, areas such as changing newsrooms – real and virtual ones alike – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the dramatic decline in media revenues, the impact of social media platforms such as Facebook and Google in their roles as news providers, and the challenges of reporting regional issues all demand a fresh look at the challenges facing the media industry.

“At present we are suffering a narrow ownership base, a crisis of integrity with the public and a weak regulatory environment,” Strom said.

“The financial crisis – accelerated by COVID – has further reduced diversity in media ownership. And it has further reduced the resources available to adequately fund a robust, independent media landscape,” he added.

However, the MEAA have boiled the nucleus of their wish list down to the following areas for discussion in this inquiry, where its representatives can be involved in the discussion:

  • status and future roles of public interest journalism;
  • concentration of media ownership;
  • the impact of digital platforms;
  • and the role the organisation’s “Journalist Code Of Ethics” list of standards should play in ensuring responsible journalism

The struggle of media outlets as a whole, as well as the MEAA, to deal with these issues, particularly that of the digital entities, exists as nothing new.

In 2018, the Centre for Media Transition – a cooperative composed of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – issued a study paper that examined the contested landscape of all media, the impacts of technology upon it, the quality of news and journalistic content, and the roles of choice and diversity within media regulation circles.

That study concluded that conflicting evidence was occurring regarding the overall impact of digital platforms on news and journalistic content; the digitisation of the media was leading to both shorter and more emotive content as well as the pressures of a 24/7 news cycle; the evolving algorithms of news production may de-value news dissemination as a whole; and digital platforms possess a complex role as news distributors but also have a responsibility not to harm the public benefit provided by news and journalistic content.

The consequence of that report in one analysis done by Matthew Lees, a partner versed in competition law in the Melbourne-based commercial law firm of Arnold Bloch Leiber.

Lees concluded that while the news media and journalism play an essential role in maintaining democracy in the way of being advocates for public interest journalism, the ACCC – while not exactly caught in a conflict of interest, as a “media-savvy” organisation – were wedged in the compromising position of endorsing the development of policies central to the evolution of digital platforms, but also endorsed actions downplaying the importance of media diversity in applying competition law.

Lees alluded to the case in point of media mergers of the Ten Network by US media company CBS, and that of Nine and Fairfax establishing a one-banner partnership as well, events which – with major media players such as Bruce Gordon, Lachlan Murdoch and Peter Costello involved in those acquisitions – eventually saw the ACCC update its guidelines on media mergers, in the interest of consolidating media holdings instead of diversifying them.

“In the final report, the ACCC made recommendations designed to assist media businesses. However, the ACCC’s media merger decisions and public comments have downplayed the importance of media diversity in competition law,” Lees wrote in his conclusion.

“The ACCC’s final report did not canvass the differing views regarding the role of competition law in protecting media diversity, or recommend changes to competition law to strengthen that protection.

“If ever there was a time when competition law should be looking to protect the important role of news media and journalism in our society, it may be now,” Lees added.

The findings of those reports – being two and three years old, as they are – can only heighten anticipation of the Senate’s media diversity inquiry.

And while much of the focus will be on seeing it as a mandate on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s petition which received a record number of signatures for a Parliamentary online petition, with it colloquially seen as a “Murdoch Royal Commission” focus, other issues central to the roles of media and a functioning democracy also exist at play.

Strom, meanwhile, cannot wait to see the Senate get stuck into them.

“This has produced immense workplace stress on our members who are dedicated to reporting news in the public interest.  Alongside this is a heightened hyperpartisanship that is undermining public confidence in journalism,” Strom said.

“The Senate must consider these matters in its review and we look forward to contributing,” he added.

 

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JobMaker backflip leaves older workers exposed, says ACTU

Workers over the age of 35 are now more likely to fall victim to an oncoming wave of institutionalised ageism in hiring and human resources practices brought on by the advent of an approved JobMaker scheme in the federal Parliament, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) warned on Thursday.

A backflip of Olympic-level proportions from One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts set the wheels in motion on Wednesday to leave workers in the over-35s age bracket exposed to the possibility of fewer hours, mass casualisation, and even job layoffs in favour of subsidised younger workers in the Morrison government’s JobMaker scheme.

Hanson and Roberts, just a day before, appeared to back amendments to the scheme which would have protected the job status of older workers, but their reversal meant that despite support from Labor and the Greens and also from Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick on the crossbench, older workers are now left vulnerable amid the hiring credit incentive capped at $200 per week given to employers for each new employee under the age of 35 which they can hire.

Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president, contends that the measures led by the consequence of the One Nation senators’ 180-degree turnabout on the issue may lead to greater rates of casualisation and under-employment for workers over the age of 35.

“The decision to reject these amendments is indefensible. This decision by the Government will directly lead to a higher rate of insecure work,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil added that the nature of the JobMaker legislation can only lead to the domino effect of institutionalising employer-based decisions leading to dire consequences for older workers.

“By opposing these amendments, the Government has made it clear that the aspects of the bill which will risk the jobs, hours and pay of working people are not bugs but features,” said O’Neil.

“This legislation is designed to allow businesses to bring in more insecure workers,” she added.

Hanson had initially claimed in the Senate that the JobMaker bill would have left older workers “overlooked and disadvantaged” and – ironically, when one takes the current ACTU’s views into account – “would encourage the loss of full-time jobs and reduce job security”.

Additionally, Roberts, her party mate in the Senate, admitted that One Nation had been coerced within Senate debates on the bill, with statistics that youth unemployment was currently standing at 14.5 per cent versus four percent for over-35s, verified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

So why the reversal?

“We were wrong on the amendments – we stand corrected,” said Roberts in defending the One Nation backspin thereby resulting in a 30-28 verdict in favour of the government’s original version of the JobMaker bill, adding that he and Hanson had “the courage and integrity to change our minds.”

Brendan O’Connor, the ALP’s shadow employment minister and a vocal critic of the JobMaker scheme (Photo from SBS via AAP)

As a result, the Morrison government also runs the risk of further polluting the waters of the JobMaker malaise, alleges Brendan O’Connor, the ALP’s shadow minister for employment, where arrangements may see large corporate entities who pay large executive bonuses receiving taxpayers’ money in the form of wage subsidies.

“Voting against Labor’s sensible amendment to ensure the JobMaker hiring credit only goes to firms not paying big executive bonuses is a slap in the face for the growing queues of unemployed Australians – many of whom are excluded from the scheme if they are aged over 35,” O’Connor said on Wednesday.

O’Connor also said that the JobMaker plan was an ill-advised scheme from the start.

“The Morrison government voted against every single improvement federal Labor proposed,” said O’Connor, “but if truth be told, no amount of amendments would fix this woefully inadequate proposed legislation, which will not deliver what was announced by the Prime Minister.”

O’Neil said that as the Morrison government’s practices of throwing money into ill-conceived programs, with treasurer Josh Frydenberg being complicit in these endeavours which now have JobMaker added into the fray alongside JobKeeper and JobSeeker, they continue to leave the considerations of all workers behind regardless of age or demographic categories.

“The Morrison government’s response to this crisis has been to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into businesses, often without adequate safeguards and protections for workers,” she said.

But O’Neil furthermore targets the government’s attack in this instance on older workers, who may be left as collateral damage in the wake of the subsidies within the JobMaker scheme.

“This scheme does nothing to protect or support the jobs of workers over the age of 35,” O’Neil said.

Moreover, O’Neil and the ACTU have vented their frustrations at the government for not accepting their National Economic Reconstruction Plan (NERP) blueprint on any of the various times it has been offered to them over the last several months during the pandemic and recession.

“We have been calling on the Morrison government for months to put forward a comprehensive plan to create secure jobs through government investment in sectors like early childhood education, construction, tourism and manufacturing – instead we get this,” said O’Neil.

“The refusal of this Government to invest in saving existing jobs or creating secure work will delay and extend the recovery and cause significant financial hardship for working people,” she added.

 

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Rudd’s anti-Murdoch petition results in its first steps

On the heels of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent Parliamentary petition which gained in excess of half-a-million signatures and had the hashtag #MurdochRoyalCommission trending on Twitter for days, the Greens have succeeded on Wednesday in making sure that journey begins with the single step of a Senate inquiry.

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens senator from South Australia who holds the party’s communications portfolio, in addition to Labor MP Andrew Leigh’s tabling of the e-petition in federal Parliament two days before, has seen her party’s bid for an inquiry into media diversity in Australia be approved after Rudd’s scrutiny over the holdings and practices of Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp enterprise had unprecedented results for any Australian Parliamentary petition.

“It’s clear from the half-a-million signatures on the record-breaking petition for a Royal Commission into media diversity that Australians are very concerned about the concentration of media ownership and the power and political influence of Murdoch. As a Parliament, it was right that we acted on those concerns,” said Hanson-Young, who will chair the inquiry.

As the Greens led the charge to get the inquiry underway, Hanson-Young was insistent to address the topic of Murdoch’s reach across all media.

Instead, with the rise and influence of other entities entering Australia’s media pantheon, as well as to enhance and protect independent publishers, Hanson-Young said that one-dimensional reasons to bring this inquiry forward did not exist.

“The media landscape in Australia has been changing rapidly. We need to ensure we have a strong and independent public interest news industry to support our democracy,” Hanson-Young said.

“We are losing the diversity of media voices across the country and access to news and public interest journalism in some regions altogether.

“The loss of media outlets and the increasing pressure faced by small and independent publishers is bad for our democracy and should be given the attention it deserves,” Hanson-Young added.

Hanson-Young also did not under-estimate the influence of social media players from Silicon Valley as news providers.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who will chair the upcoming inquiry into media diversity (Photo from of abc.net.au)

“The dominance of Facebook and Google has been ever increasing and this inquiry will also provide an opportunity for a proper consideration of how that is impacting media diversity,” she said.

Rudd, meanwhile, told CNN on Monday (Australian time) that the petition itself was not only a referendum on a Murdoch/News Corp-dominated media landscape that sees it control 70 percent of news and information outlets across Australia, but also a defence of Australian democracy.

“The bottom line is the lifeblood of our democracies depends on a fair, balanced, independent, free media which separates out two things: the reporting of facts and the expression of opinion,” said Rudd.

And when Leigh tabled the completed petition in Parliament on Monday, that action reflected a sense of carrying out the will of the people in the name of media diversity.

“It’s just amazing, right? Half-a-million people, to take the time to sign an e-petition. It really did feel like a privilege, Marcus, to be carrying their views onto the floor of the Parliament,” Leigh told Marcus Paul of Sydney-based 2SM radio on Tuesday morning.

And as Leigh also described the sheer physical weight of the printed-out petition as being equivalent to “two reams of paper”, he also praised the bipartisan turnout to express their voices to Rudd’s call to action.

How bipartisan?  As an example, even one former Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull, not too far from removed from being a leader of the LNP, lent his support – and signature – to the cause of another former Prime Minister in one-time ALP leader Rudd.

And that should speak volumes for the whole of the federal Parliament to consider it, according to Leigh.

“I think the federal government should take seriously the views of two former Prime Ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, and half a million Australians who are calling for greater media diversity,” said Leigh.

“People are concerned when they see hundreds of local newspapers closing across the country. They’re aware that we have a pretty concentrated media market, and they know the important role of the media plays in our democracy,” Leigh added.

Leigh also concurs with Rudd about the petition representing a mandate on the democratic existence in Australia, akin to when Rudd has at various points in recent times declared Murdoch and News Corp “a cancer on democracy”, and with regard to newspapers in particular.

“Australia’s media is much more concentrated when you look at newspapers than if you look at radio. So if you look at the newspaper market, that’s quite narrow and various experts have looked at it and said newspapers play a particular role – an agenda-setting role. They tend to be the outlets that do a lot of the investigatory work. That’s where a lot of the careful considered opinion is,” said Leigh.

“So I think it is important that we have strong, healthy, diverse newspaper outlets. And at a local level, we know that local wrongdoing is much more likely to run unchecked if there’s no local newspaper,” he added.

“Seventy percent of the print readership in this country is owned by Murdoch. In my home state of Queensland, virtually every single newspaper up and down the coast from Cairns to the Gold Coast is owned by Murdoch. And the ABC’s funding is under assault. So for those reasons, I think it’s high time that we had an independent, dispassionate examination of the impact of media monopoly on Australian democratic life and alternative models aimed at diversifying media ownership into the future,” Rudd told Fran Kelly on the ABC’s RN Breakfast show last month when he initially unveiled his e-petition.

Between Hanson-Young’s announcement of the inquiry and Leigh’s tabling of the petition, the Morrison government’s Communications Minster Paul Fletcher – via Parliamentary rules and protocol – now has 90 days to respond to the orders.

Labor’s leadership, meanwhile, has been downplaying the social and societal impact of Rudd’s petition, stopping short of claiming whether or not they will support it.

“This is not something we [Labor] have been considering. This is something Kevin Rudd has been pursuing in his capacity as a private citizen,” Richard Marles, the ALP’s deputy leader, told the ABC recently.

But as Rudd said on the ABC’s Insiders show on Sunday: “My principle motivation in putting this petition together has been to bring to the surface this national conversation – rather than people being too frightened to talk about it.”

Hanson-Young, in her party’s agreed-upon establishment of the inquiry as the first serious step in the process, wants to see that process through to a desired result ahead of the next federal elections tentatively to be held in 2022.

“The US election has highlighted the need for truth in journalism and the need to call out unsubstantiated and false claims,” said Hanson-Young.

“Before we head into another election period in Australia, we can now take a proper look at the state of media diversity here and help protect a pillar of our democracy,” she added.

 

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Address failings in women’s employment – ACTU

Over-represented and under-rewarded – that’s a conclusion drawn by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) about women in the workplace impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a study and report released on Wednesday.

Focusing on those in the female-dominated and lower-paid industries such as hospitality and retail but also in many of the frontline sectors as well, the report found that women have been disproportionally affected versus how male-dominant industries mainly in the construction, building, resources and logistics sectors were impacted by the pandemic.

In its conclusions, the ACTU recommend the formation of a three-pronged body made up of government, unions and corporate entities to investigate the findings of its report and ensure that taxpayer-based economic recovery funding balances the playing field between women and men in greater industry.

“Leaving women behind weakens our economy and will lead to a longer, slower recovery. Investment which reduces inequality is also the fastest way to restart economic growth,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.

Highlights of the deficiencies facing females in employment areas found the following:

  • Twenty-one percent of the female workforce – or 1.3 million women – has either lost work or experiencing pressures on their capacities to retain work;
  • Women face the dichotomous situation of a shortage of secure employment coupled with an increase in the household caring burden – the latter of which, being of an unpaid nature, adds to the result of women seeing their capacity of doing paid work reduced;
  • Women’s employment between February and August of 2020 declined by 3.4 percent, as opposed to 2.9 per cent for men, and thereby women’s unemployment rates soared by 32 per cent in that time, peaking at 6.6 per cent for women;
  • Fifty-seven percent of all full-time jobs held by women have been lost since February, representing 120,000 jobs;
  • Of the 13 industries where women lost jobs and employment in the February-to-August frame of study, 25 per cent occurred in the arts and recreation sector, 18 per cent in accommodation and hospitality, and 16 per cent in administrative and support services;
  • As a reflection on the casualisation of the workforce at large, and the greater tendencies to hold down jobs from more than one employer simultaneously, women lost 20 percent of their secondary jobs as opposed to six percent of their main jobs
  • After the reading of the federal budget last month, women were seen to be left behind there as well, with the new tax cuts greatly favouring men to the tune of $2.28 for every women’s dollar;
  • On the government’s Superannuation Early Release Scheme, 1.7 million women have withdrawn an average of $7430 from their accounts, with those under 20 years of age and between the ages of 36 and 55 more likely to raid their accounts, and a total of 300,000 women having emptied their accounts completely;
  • And with regard to the JobKeeper cuts, twice as many women saw their stimulus payments cut as opposed to men

“If the Federal Government is committed to a shared and robust recovery, they must take seriously the particular impact of COVID on women, and the lack of support of the 2020 budget in supporting women’s employment and economic participation,” O’Neil said.

Women in frontline work during the pandemic have been victimised with systemic inequities in their employment (Photo courtesy of the ACTU)

One such pathway that would enhance the Morrison government’s economic recovery efforts concerns training and education – however, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), even those pathway areas have experienced sharp downturns of their own.

In the interval from the middle of May 2020, women were less likely – by 52 to 75 per cent – to be fully engaged with work, study, or both, than their male counterparts would be, with the figures being driven by general drops in full-time employment opportunities.

Yet that was not the lone factor in the general decline in education-based training opportunities, such as through a TAFE program.

“Due to fewer international students, there was also an overall decrease in people studying for a Certificate III or above,” Steven Nicholas, the ABS’s director of education and training statistics, said on Wednesday.

“There was also a fall in apprentices, from five per cent of 15-24-year-olds in May 2019, to four per cent in May 2020,” Nicholas added.

As for remedies to the situation of gendered inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, the government – alongside the reading of the federal budget – offered up a Women’s Economic Security Statement.

However, O’Neil and the ACTU have taken this to exist as nothing more than a token gesture without any real effort to back up narrowing gaps on inequities.

“Historic levels of government funding are being committed to the crisis recovery, and we believe that new formal oversight beyond government is critical to ensure this funding reaches women,” O’Neil said.

In addition for pushing its advocacy for a tripartite oversight body, the ACTU also recommends among the following:

  • free universal childcare;
  • reversing cuts to JobSeeker, due to come into effect next month;
  • the reversal of cuts and program expansion of JobKeeper;
  • adding Paid Pandemic Leave, family leave and domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards;
  • investment in TAFE, and the healthcare, education, disability, community and social services;
  • investment in social housing, particularly for women’s homelessness and domestic violence crises;
  • reforming the contributions systems to superannuation, and barring any early access schemes to superannuation

O’Neil says that the ACTU, in the interests of equality and fairness which exist as a couple of their core values, will keep the heat on the Morrison government to ensure that employed women receive their just due.

“This crisis presents us with an opportunity to create a more equal society, address systemic failures and ensure that public investment is improving our society, not entrenching inequality,” O’Neil added.

 

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JobSeeker extended to March – but after that, who knows?

The good news, from Scott Morrison’s government: the fears over the axing of the JobSeeker stimulus in December have been spared. Instead, the extra money to the old Newstart welfare payment lives on until March, one year after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in Australia.

The bad news: another $100 per fortnight will be chopped from that payment, reducing it to $150 per fortnight on top of the old Newstart rate of $550 per fortnight, Morrison and his government’s minister for families and social services Anne Ruston announced on Tuesday.

And the unsettling news: after March, it’s anyone’s guess as to where that payment will be sitting, with government figures being non-committal as to whether any further cuts will take place.

That last point can only raise the anxious fears of those living fortnight-to-fortnight on JobSeeker, afraid that it may mount a return to the $40-per-day pre-pandemic Newstart levels.

As it stands looking ahead to the next round of JobSeeker cuts as of January 1, and ending on March 31, its recipients are looking at receiving $734.50 per fortnight, or a clip of $51.21 per day, down from $834.50 per fortnight and $59.91 per day respectively.

In the wake of the government’s announcement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) fears that amid over 1.4 million recipients reliant on JobSeeker and a unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent through to the month of September, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and under-employment rates at 11.4 per cent, the Morrison government is filling these groups of people with dread in a pandemic- and recession-filled job market, instead of giving them hope.

“Cutting JobSeeker will lead to greater financial hardship for the hundreds of thousands of working people who are currently out of work due to the pandemic and recession,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.

“Rather than supporting working people through the worst economic downturn in a century, the government has reverted to ideological attacks on the unemployed – arguing that payments which allowed unemployed people to afford food and rent were somehow ‘holding them back’,” she added.

The ABS’s updated employment, unemployment and under-employment figures are due out next week, with unemployment figures topping one million persons in July and projections are tipped to remain that way by December 31 based on a predicted unemployment rate of 8.75 per cent.

Morrison and Ruston defended the future cuts, spinning them into an insistence that it may inspire the jobless and under-employed to get back into the job market successfully, despite many areas of the country drowning in applicants per job available – a 16-to-one ratio in metro areas on average, and a 23-to-one ratio in particular rural and regional areas.

“My number one priority is to get more Australians into work,” Morrison said when announcing the JobSeeker changes.

“As the country is safely reopening and businesses starting to return to full steam, we need to connect those seeking work with available jobs.

“When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, we acted decisively by boosting our health response and putting in place more than $257 billion of direct economic support measures to cushion the blow, and today that support continues for those Australians that need it,” he said.

But instead of cushioning the blow, according to O’Neil, all JobSeeker recipients can sense is a ticking time bomb.

“We need to create secure jobs for working people and support unemployed people so that they can find a job. Poverty rates for the unemployed only makes losing a job more traumatic [and] it does nothing to help people find work,” she said.

“People who have lost their job in the midst of a pandemic need certainty and ongoing support – cutting this payment and only extending it until the end of March gives them neither,” added O’Neil.

Meanwhile, Ruston was left to assure the public that the Services Australia – formerly known as the Department of Human Services and colloquially known as Centrelink – would still be there for those needing support as the economy recovers out of the pandemic and recession.

“We have temporarily put arrangements in place so that our social security safety net is not just for people who have lost their jobs, but it is also supporting people who have had their hours or income reduced,” Ruston said, about the extension of the JobSeeker program which will cost the Morrison government $3.2 billion on top of the initial $257 billion investment in JobSeeker and JobKeeper.

“As the jobs market improves, we want to encourage people to re-engage with the workforce because we know that even a few hours of work a week while on payment can have a dramatic impact on the pathway off income support,” said Ruston.

Labor minister Linda Burney pledges to keep hopes of a permanent raise to Newstart alive (Photo from SBS via AAP)

While Ruston’s statements may be construed to infer that a person taking any job aids the government’s aims on unemployment and economic recovery, her shadow opposite number Linda Burney maintains that Labor will continue to fight over the next 6-7 weeks to keep the JobKeeper stimulus at $250 per fortnight, to avert any cuts.

And Burney and Labor – while O’Neil and the ACTU push for the government to “return the JobSeeker payment to the original coronavirus supplement rate” of $1115.70 per fortnight – will also fight for a permanent increase to the old NewStart payment, which has remained at its current rate since March 1994.

“Labor will be moving amendments in the Senate [Tuesday], which have been entrained for quite some time at arguing that the JobSeeker rate – the increase of $250, which is what it is now – should remain, at least until the end of JobKeeper in March,” Burney told Sky News on Tuesday morning.

“The other immediate reaction I have is twofold. Firstly, the government has not announced a permanent increase to JobSeeker, and everyone from the BCA are arguing that’s very necessary. And secondly, is that the Government’s own figures tell us that there are going to be an additional 300,000 people at least on JobSeeker by Christmas, which makes it 1.8 million Australians,” she added.

Multiple advocacy groups, ranging from the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) in a recent advocacy paper and multiple non-profit charitable organisations to Burney’s ALP colleagues themselves, will applaud Burney’s attempts to legislate a permanent raise to NewStart/JobSeeker, seen as currently sitting below the rates of poverty.

Burney’s commitment on the matter will be worth following, at least as a compassionate attempt to help Australia’s jobless and under-employed better cope with a state of poverty.

 

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