Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Turkish President Hopelessly Wrong About Birth Control

The Turkish President has described birth control as a form of treason! He says that a declining birth rate may undermine economic growth. But in fact it is the other way around. There is a direct relationship between rapid rates of population growth and declining economic conditions in developing countries. The economies of many developing nations, such as those in Africa, are damaged by the fact that a high percentage of personal and national income is spent on the immediate survivable needs of food, housing etc, leaving little income at the personal or national level available for investment capital.

Last century, no nation made much progress in transitioning from developing to developed until they brought their population growth under control. In Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, The Bahamas and Barbados, rapid economic development, as measured in GDP per capita occurred only after the country reduced its population increase below 1.5 per cent per year and its average number of children per woman to 2.3 or less.

On the other hand, of the 41 countries designated as "heavily indebted poor countries" by the World Bank, 39 fall into the category of high-fertility nations, where women on average have four or more children. Countries like Thailand with low fertility rates are improving, but countries like The Philippines, Egypt and Nigeria with rapid population growth are basket cases. Is this really what President Erdogan wants for Turkey?

I note the response by a member of Turkey's Platform to Stop Violence Against Women that "I don't think it's a co-incidence that he made the comments about birth control just a day before his ex-ministers were being questioned about the corruption allegations against them".

Instead of absurdly accusing women who are doing the right thing by both their family and their country in using birth control of treason, the Turkish President would be better advised to conscientiously root out corruption from within the government's ranks. Now that would genuinely improve Turkey's future.

Alannah MacTiernan Right About 457 Visas

Alannah MacTiernan, Labor's Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Western Australia, is absolutely right to raise concerns about the way the 457 visa program is being used to damage the job prospects of Australian workers and undermine their working conditions.

Earlier this year the Liberal Government removed the requirement for offshore resources companies to test the Australian labour market before employing overseas workers. This was the wrong thing to do. It is only reasonable that employers should be required to ascertain whether there are Australian workers ready, willing and able to do a job before bringing in migrant workers to do it.

Now Alannah MacTiernan has noted that the pipe-laying contractor Saipem has advised workers that it is exploring using non-Australian labour to lay pipes for the Inpex project in Western Australia's north. At a time when Australia when over 750,000 Australians are out of work, this should not be allowed.

But it is even worse. The workforce is being told – surprise, surprise – they need to agree to move to four week swings, from the current three weeks – if they are to have any chance of saving some jobs for Australians. These jobs involve working 12-14 hours a day. So migrant workers are once again being used as a battering ram against working conditions for Australian workers.
The claim that 457 visas don't hurt Australian workers is yet again revealed as false.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Australia's Rapid Population Growth Continues

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show Australia's population reached 23 and a half million at the end of 2013/14, having increased by around 365,000 during the past year.

The natural increase in population – the number of births minus the number of deaths – was over 150,000 for the eighth year in a row, again making a nonsense of claims that without migration Australia's population would stop growing.

Net overseas migration was over 212,000. This is consistent with the average for this decade so far, which is nearly 50,000 higher than the average of 165,000 during the previous decade, and two and a half times the 80,000 average of the 1990s.

There is no precedent for Australia running such a migration program at a time of 6 per cent plus unemployment. It is a certain recipe for rising unemployment, long-term unemployment and job insecurity, with all the personal misery and social problems which arise from that.

Rapid population growth also leads to wildlife habitat destruction, increasing carbon emissions, rising cost of living, and makes it harder to balance the books. It is a short-sighted and greedy drive for profit from the big end of town which prejudices the future of our young people.

Senator Leyonhelm's Gun Madness

Senator Leyonhelm's opposition to John Howard's gun laws, and his view that the world would be a safer place if we all carried arms, is plain madness.

After 35 people, including small children, were killed at Port Arthur in 1996, the Australian Police Ministers Council agreed to a national plan for the regulation of firearms.

Since these laws were enacted Australia has not had a repeat of the massacres we had before they came into effect. The number of gun deaths in all categories – homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings – has declined dramatically since 1996, and thousands of Australian lives have been saved as a result.

Australia's deaths by firearms homicides dropped by 59 percent in the decade after the gun laws were tightened. Britain also achieved a decline in murders involving firearms after banning all private ownership of automatic weapons and virtually all handguns in 1996, after 16 children and their teacher were killed by a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland. Japan has very strict laws about guns – in 2008 only 11 people were killed with guns in Japan, while 12,000 people were killed by firearms in the United States!

In Australia people going for a jog are not at risk of being murdered by young thrill seekers, as happened to my former constituent Chris Lane, shot in the back in the United States last year. The United States has the lax gun laws that Senator Leyonholm admires, and it has one hundred times as many gun deaths each year as we do.

This is because, as research on the matter has shown, when you own or carry a gun, you are more likely to be the victim, perpetrator or accessory to a crime that wouldn't take place without it in the first place.

Before Adam Lanza killed 20 little schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook primary school, he killed his mother with a gun she had bought to enhance her safety. When Aaron Alexis killed 13 people in the Washington Navy Yard rampage last year, he killed a security guard with a shotgun he had purchased legally, took the guard's weapon and killed another victim with that after his shotgun ran out of ammunition.

The fewer guns there are in Australia, the safer we all are.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Liberal Government Wimps Out on Multinational Tax Avoidance

Today's reports that Treasurer Joe Hockey has backed away from action to tackle companies that avoid tax by shifting billions of dollars in profits between Australia and their international subsidiaries are remarkable for a number of reasons.

First, the Government said it would act to stop tax avoidance by profit shifting across international borders – though given the mountainous pile of broken promises perhaps a gap between promise and performance is no longer remarkable.

Second, the issue of global corporations loading up subsidiaries with debt so they can claim to have made all their profits in low tax jurisdictions was a major topic of discussion at the G20 Conference, where countries were urged by civil society to stop global tax avoidance. Australia needs to be part of the international effort to combat this.

Third, only this week the government was crying poor in releasing its MYEFO estimates and saying it had suffered a revenue downturn and would have to cut spending. The projected benefit to the revenue from abolishing deductions under Section 25-90 of the Income Tax Assessment Act is $600 million. Before the government attacks students, pensioners and the unemployed it should enact this measure and make sure multinational corporations are paying their fair share of tax.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mid-Year Economic Forecast

There are five points that ought to be made about Australia's deteriorating budget position.

First, Joe Hockey and the Liberal Government must never be allowed to forget the standards they applied when the Labor Government's predictions of a Budget Surplus did not eventuate due to declining revenue. They insisted this was no excuse, and accused the Government of incompetence and worse – Joe Hockey talked about people going to jail over such matters. They said there would be no excuses.

Second, the big end of town and their Liberal Party and media cheer squad will try to use the deteriorating Budget position to promote their ideological agenda of cutting back Government spending, jobs and services. No matter what the state of the economy they always advance this agenda. But Joe Hockey's Budget has damaged consumer confidence and contributed to the rising Budget Deficit and rising unemployment we now see. It was a shock, not a shock absorber. Austerity measures in Europe following the GFC made those economies worse. They didn't work there and they won't work here.

Third, it is possible to balance the books without taking the axe to health, education, or pensions. The Liberal Government has chosen to greatly increase Australia's defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP. This is an arbitrary figure and an increase which will not make Australia a safer place. We could do much more to close tax breaks both offshore and onshore, which have increased substantially in recent years. We don't need to continue negative gearing, which costs taxpayers dearly and pushes up the cost of housing at the expense of young Australian homebuyers who can't afford to buy a home.

Fourth, we have pursued policies for years now of globalisation and free trade which have promoted mining and damaged manufacturing. This was very short-sighted. For years I and others have pointed out that we should be doing more to spread the benefits of the mining boom, and that it was foolish to put all our eggs in the mining basket, and allow the dollar to rise and kill off manufacturing. Our economy has become too narrow, and we are way too vulnerable to things like a fall in commodity prices. The free trade fundamentalists have left us vulnerable and exposed.
Finally, we have lost interest in the current account deficit and the national debt. There was a time when the Liberal Party rolled out a "Debt Truck" to draw public attention to our trade imbalance and our overseas debt. But while the current account deficit and the overseas debt turned the Debt Truck into a metaphorical Road Train or Ocean Liner, they lost interest in this. Instead of encouraging household saving and investment by Australian owned companies or superannuation funds, they think foreign debt is not a problem provided it is turned into equity – selling off the farm. Again this is an incredibly short-sighted view and a recipe for Budget Deficits as far as the eye can see.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Register of Foreign Land Ownership Delay

I am concerned that the Australian Government's Register of Foreign Land Ownership has been delayed. This is something Australian people tell me they want, and Australian Governments regularly promise, but which never seems to happen.

Recently I visited Colac to discuss with Colac dairy farmers their concern at the prospect of foreign large scale purchases of dairy farms in South-West Victoria. The point they made to me was that if a foreign company buys Victorian farmland, brings in foreign workers to produce the milk, exports the product to foreign consumers, and the profits also go offshore, how do Victorian communities benefit? What kind of future does this provide for our young people?

I have also raised in the Parliament the use of holding companies to disguise the real levels of foreign ownership. Until a proper Register is put into place, I doubt that we will know the real levels of foreign ownership of Australian land.
I am not opposed to foreign investment. But there is a world of difference between investment, where the investor shares the risks and rewards with local businesses and employees, and ownership, where Australia loses control over its own destiny. We need real transparency about foreign ownership of Australian land, and we need it sooner rather than later.

Appointment of Former Liberal and National MPs

Attorney General Senator Brandis has continued the Labor Government's tradition of appointing former Liberal and National Party MPs to government positions.

Senator Brandis has appointed former Nationals MP Paul Neville to the National Film and Sound Archive Board, former Liberal Senator Gary Humphries as a Deputy President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and former Liberal Minister Ian Campbell and former NSW Liberal leader Peter Collins to the Council of the National Maritime Museum.

Senator Brandis has also appointed right-wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen to the council of the National Museum of Australia.

Former Liberal and National MPs Bruce Baird, Brendan Nelson, Peter Costello, Warwick Smith, Margaret Reid, John Fahey, Ross Cameron, Chris Puplick, Russell Trood, Paul Calvert, Nick Minchin, Peter Rae, Trish Worth, Sandy McDonald and Alexander Downer received Government positions during the period of the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unemployment Jump More Bad News for Santa

A week ago Joe Hockey was urging consumers to look after Santa. But the latest rise in unemployment is still more evidence that the Liberal Government is Santa's great enemy.

Unemployment has risen to 6.3 per cent. Over 775,000 Australians are out of work. The total number of hours worked in Australia last month actually FELL by 0.3 per cent. This is clearly a recipe for an income recession. This is clearly a major reason why the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Consumer Sentiment Index is now at its lowest level in over three years. Ugly news for Santa.

The big end of town doesn't care about unemployment or job insecurity, because they believe they make better profits if they can keep wages down, and they think that unemployment and job insecurity through a part-time, casualised workforce, keeps wages down. They should be careful for what they wish for. The economy is not travelling well, and could get worse.

There is a number of things the Liberal Government could do to stop the slide in consumer confidence. They could abandon their plans to deregulate student fees and to cut pension indexation. They could abandon their plans for job cuts in health, education, the CSIRO, the ABC, and many other areas of the public sector workforce. They could stop undermining manufacturing in Australia's automotive component parts and shipbuilding industries.

But most of all they should put a stop to the migrant worker programs that skyrocketed in times when Australia's unemployment was much lower and job security was much higher.

It is crazy that we now have permanent net overseas migration running at three times the rate it did during the 1990s, and in addition we have over one million people in Australia on temporary visas which give them work rights.

The Consumer Sentiment Index and today's unemployment rise show the absurdity of Joe Hockey urging consumers to spend up big for Santa. It is like a Football Coach who has his players run twenty laps and do a hundred push ups on the morning of a match, then exhorts his team to go out and kill em.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Serious Questions Asked About Australia India Nuclear Agreement

John Carlson was the Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office for over 20 years. There is serious credibility that comes with that. I have never heard him accused of being an anti-nuclear activist – on the contrary I recall he and his office coming under fire from certain members of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties for being too close to the nuclear industry.

So it was with considerable interest that I read his submission to the Treaties Committee Inquiry into the Australia India Nuclear Agreement, which says that there are good reasons for concluding a nuclear co-operation agreement with India, "but not this agreement".

Mr Carlson says that there is no valid reason to weaken Australia's usual safeguards standards, but that this agreement does weaken those standards, such as in the area of accounting and tracking for Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM), the right to see relevant International Atomic Energy Agency Reports, and the right to return of AONM if there is a breach of an agreement.

An important message in Mr Carlson's submission is that India has always insisted on being treated the same as other prospective uranium purchasers, and now should be granted that wish, rather than being given more favourable treatment than other customers. He says that bringing India into the mainstream means that India should be prepared to adopt global norms and practices, not expect the rest of the world to fall into line with what India wants.

Mr Carlson believes that India should -

  • commit to pursue and support nuclear disarmament;
  • commit to full separation of its military and civilian nuclear programs;
  • sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and
  • support the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.
The submissions reinforce my increasing view that civil society should have better access to treaty negotiations while they are taking place, rather than after the horse has bolted. Clearly the Treaties Committee will need to consider the submissions from Mr Carlson and others seriously.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Second Victorian Government Brought Down by Rapid Population Growth

Rapid population growth is political poison, and has brought down a second Victorian Government in four years. In the past decade Australia's migration rate more than doubled. The greatest consequences of this dramatic increase have been in Melbourne, which started growing by more than 200 people a day, 1500 each week, 75,000 each year.

As I pointed out at the time, the adverse consequences of this growth for planning, transport, the environment and the cost of living were crucial in bringing down the former Labor Government.

But the incoming Liberal Government did not understand why it had won, and fell for the trap of believing its own propaganda. Melbourne's population growth continued apace, and Ted Baillieu said strong population growth was vital to the state's economic future. He did not last long.
His successor Denis Napthine did not last much longer. How he must be wishing he had put money into Victoria's emergency services and TAFE, instead of allocating billions to a new tollway to try to fix population driven traffic congestion.
I congratulate new Premier Dan Andrews on his remarkable win, defeating a first term government for the first time in sixty years. He showed great courage and foresight in supporting public transport approaches to Melbourne's traffic chaos, such as Melbourne Metro and removing level crossings.
The Federal Liberal Government must also accept its share of responsibility for this defeat. Both Denis Napthine and Dan Andrews have been professional, predictable and measured in their actions and campaigning. Tony Abbott has stomped into this relatively tranquil environment like an out of control Tyrannosaurus, attacking students and pensioners, cutting health, education, and the ABC, and trying to cut the Renewable Energy Target.
Prime Minister Abbott is out of touch with Victorians. Victorians want action on climate change and support renewable energy. Victorians support higher education and don't want to see a university education become unaffordable. Victorians support manufacturing industry and are dismayed at the Federal Government's contempt for the car industry and for SPC Ardmona. The result in Shepparton bears that out.

If the Prime Minister does not change, he too could lead a one term government. He should demonstrate that he is prepared to listen by abandoning his calls for the East West Tollway to proceed. This is an incitement to the new Labor Government to break its election promise on this. There was a time when Tony Abbott was very big on keeping election promises, on honour and trust in politics. He needs to remember what he used to say, and work with the new Government to implement its election commitments such as Melbourne Metro and the under grounding of level crossings.

Friday, November 28, 2014

We Need to Do More for the Great Barrier Reef

Barack Obama was right, and Julie Bishop was wrong, about the health of the Great Barrier Reef. WWF Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society in a report this year to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee have stated:

"The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (the Reef) is in crisis. Since its inscription on the World Heritage List in 1981 the condition of the Reef has seriously declined, with the declines accelerating in the past decade despite management measures aimed at increasing the Reef’s level of protection and reducing fishing and pollution pressures. The Australian community is looking to the World Heritage Committee to maintain a watching brief and exert influence on the Australian and Queensland governments to implement the transformational management changes required now to halt and reverse the decline in the Reef’s health and resilience.

These changes are urgent as ecosystem recovery of coral reefs can take decades; however current proposals by the Australian and Queensland governments have time-frames of up to 5 years before relatively modest changes are likely to be implemented. The proposed changes will do little to mitigate the impacts on the World Heritage property in the short to medium term from existing and currently proposed developments.

Drawing on the findings of the draft Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment prepared by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), following is an overview of the current condition and trend of the attributes contributing to the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Reef.

  • More than half of the attributes for all four OUV criteria show a deteriorating trend since inscription of the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Area.
  • The overall condition of three of the four OUV criteria is declining.
  • The criterion for Integrity of the GBRWHA is declining.
  • Overall, the attributes that make up the criterion, Habitats for conservation of biodiversity are in poor condition and are declining.
  • The main pressures on OUV continue to be climate change impacts, poor water quality due to agricultural run-off and impacts associated with coastal development including ports. Impacts on values are from legacy effects, current pressures and cumulative impacts that have already, and are continuing to lower the resilience of GBRWHA ecosystems.
  • Key values of the GBRWHA that play a significant role in its OUV are in poor or very poor condition and the majority are showing a declining trend, including: inshore coral reefs and corals in the lower two thirds of the Region; seagrass meadows and seagrasses; freshwater wetlands; grass and sedgelands; woodlands; connecting water bodies; sharks and rays; marine turtles; seabirds;  shorebirds; dugongs; Indigenous sacred sites, sites of particular significance, places important for cultural tradition;  Indigenous stories, song lines, totems and languages; and Indigenous structures, technology, tools and archaeology."

The Great Barrier Reef is not just an environmental asset – it’s an economic asset as well – employing 65,000 people and contributing $6 billion to the Australian economy every year. This figure will grow as tourism is set to be one of Australia’s super-growth sectors over the next 20 years, which is why it’s important we get this right. The Great Barrier Reef attracts millions of visitors each year.

The Liberal Government has enforced wide ranging cuts to the agencies tasked with managing the Reef and the programs designed to improve the Reef’s health. Labor has offered bipartisan support to the Federal Government to ensure the Reef is not placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” List. Such an outcome would be a disastrous for Australians.

Labor recognises the urgency for taking immediate action that will protect the Reef from the impacts of issues such as coastal development, and would if re-elected impose a ban on capital dredge spoil being dumped in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Labor will oppose any further cuts made to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Bureau of Meteorology, tourism, marketing, research and small business grants programs imposed by the Liberal Government.

The Great Barrier Reef is an Australian icon. It’s the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, and is home to thousands of types of marine animals. Understanding the threats to the Great Barrier Reef is the key to developing protection measures, and Labor is committed to ensuring stringent environmental protection measures are in place.

Friday, November 14, 2014

China Free Trade Agreement

The test is, will this FTA support and create Australian jobs. Old timers like Liberal Senator Heffernan and I have seen these things before. Extravagant claims for what FTAs will accomplish at the time they’re signed, and totally different outcomes:

  • When the United States Free Trade Agreement was signed, we were told it would generate $4 billion in wealth, but the only $4 billion we’ve seen is a $4 billion increase in our trade deficit, from $11 billion to $15 billion!
  • We have rising inequality – the world’s richest 85 people now own as much as the world’s poorest 50% - 3 and a half billion people combined.
  • We have rising unemployment – 6.2% is higher than US unemployment. 26% unemployment in Broadmeadows. This would be embarrassing in Greece or Spain.
An FTA with China needs to retain labour market testing, and maintain the Australian Government’s power to regulate the movement of overseas workers. We already have over 1 million people in Australia on temporary visas which give them work rights, and unemployment of over 750,000. Enough, already!  And we don’t need any more watering down of our anti-dumping regime. We should be strengthening it.

G20 Leaders Must Act on Tax Avoidance

G20 leaders have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility this weekend to agree on a global tax regime that stamps out rampant tax avoidance by multinationals and high net worth individuals.

The summit’s timing could not be more pertinent with the revelation last week showing Luxembourg’s facilitation of industrial scale tax avoidance by multinational corporations. It found hundreds of companies, including some Australian firms, had funnelled hundreds of billions of dollars into Luxembourg, slashing their tax bills in the process. In some cases, the firms were paying effective tax rates of as little as 1 per cent.

Luxembourg, however, is but one player in the global tax avoidance game with estimates that some 10 per cent of global GDP, that is $US8 trillion, is stashed away in tax havens. Tax Justice Network research findings estimate the figure could be as high as $US32 trillion hidden by the world’s wealthiest people in the world’s tax havens. This estimate does not include the vast amount of wealth held in the form of real estate, super yachts, works of art and race horses that are owned by secretive offshore companies, trusts and foundations.

United Voice, in collaboration with the Tax Justice Network Australia released in September a ground breaking report Who Pays for our Common Wealth? Tax Practices of the ASX 200. It revealed 29% of Australia’s 200 largest listed companies pay an effective corporate tax rate of 10% or less. 14% have an effective tax rate of 0%. This translates into an estimated loss in annual revenue of $8.4 billion. In 2013, 57% of ASX 200 companies disclosed subsidiaries in tax havens. This figure could be higher, as reporting is not mandatory. As Dr Mark Zirnsak, from the Tax Justice Network Australia says:

“The frequent use of subsidiaries in secrecy jurisdictions in combination with the shifting of debt and profits is resulting in lost tax revenue in Australia and overseas where it should be paying for essential services to help lift people out of poverty. Last financial year a massive $47 billion flowed from Australia to secrecy jurisdictions.”

When the Liberal Government was elected Treasurer Hockey said that we all must do the 'heavy liftingto return the Budget to surplus. What we got instead was a Budget that disproportionally burdened the poorest members of Australia – the unemployed, students, low income pensioners and foreign aid recipients up to 2017-18, whilst failing to rein in tax concessions for high income earners.

Economists and captains of industry like to argue the world is becoming a better place courtesy of globalisation, but what I see is ever growing inequality, and tax avoidance exacerbates this. This is not about class warfare and tearing down wealth creation, but about ensuring that everyone is paying their fair share in tax. Many Australia companies do pay close to the 30% corporate tax rate.

One key to this is greater disclosure and transparency of corporate tax practices. More needs to be done to ensure Australia leads by example and Australian companies contribute their fair share. The Australian Government should:

  • Require large corporations to provide more public disclosure and transparency.
  • Increase fines for tax evasion and extend laws to effectively cover the full range of corporate tax avoidance strategies.
  • Eliminate or restrict the use of stapled securities for tax arbitrage, according to global norms.
  • Ensure that the Australian Tax Office is adequately funded and staffed.
  • Lead the G20 to adopt tough and effective global rules to combat corporate tax dodging.
Tax Justice Network Australia recommends the Australian Government:

  • Support the OECD’s Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) and pressure secrecy jurisdictions to end their status through effective cooperation with other governments to combat tax evasion, tax avoidance and money laundering.
  • Support the automatic exchange of information on tax matters between tax authorities of different countries, with appropriate safeguards, and follow through on its commitment to implement automatic exchange of information on tax matters into Australian law.
  • Require greater transparency from multinational corporations, including country-by-country reporting. Consolidated annual reports should include revenues, profits, staffing levels and taxes paid in each country in which they operate or have subsidiaries.
For multinational corporations the Tax Justice Network Australia recommends:
  • Greater transparency on the purpose and function of subsidiaries in secrecy jurisdictions.
  • Voluntary reporting of revenue, profits, staff levels and taxes paid in each jurisdiction until such a measure is implemented by law.
  • Avoiding setting up subsidiaries in secrecy jurisdictions.
If Treasurer Hockey is serious about balancing the books then he must address corporate tax avoidance. The G20 Summit in Brisbane is the perfect opportunity for the Treasurer to do this, so that ordinary Australians and small businesses are not shouldering an unfair tax burden.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Timbercorp and the ANZ

I attended the Senate Inquiry into the Timbercorp collapse yesterday morning. It was very moving to listen to the account of families now facing the loss of their family homes and the loss of their life savings as a result of this scandal.
I believe the ANZ Bank should now put a halt on debt recovery action while the Senate Inquiry does its work. The ANZ Bank recently announced a record full year profit of $7.3 billion. I don’t think ANZ shareholders would want to see their share dividends beefed up by the ANZ foreclosing on ordinary families and driving them into financial ruin and destitution. They should now suspend debt recovery action and, subject to the Senate Inquiry’s findings, they should waive debts that would not have arisen but for negligence.

Russian Navy Ships

The Department of Defence is monitoring these vessels. They are in international waters, and they’re allowed to be there. People shouldn’t get excited about this. I don’t foresee any need for any boat turnbacks.

I think Tony Abbott’s comment about ‘shirtfronting’ was foolish and childish. It is said that in the world of diplomacy you should speak softly and carry a big stick. This was the opposite – bellicose megaphone diplomacy. It has been an obstacle, rather than a help, to getting the answers Australians want about the shooting down of the MH17.

US-China Climate Agreement

This is an absolutely stunning agreement. It is the best news for international action on climate change in nearly 20 years, since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

Of course it leaves Australia absolutely out on our own, like a shag on a rock. Europe is acting, the US is acting, China is acting, the small Pacific nations are screaming for action.

Australia is turning into an international bludger on climate change; scrapping the carbon price, white anting the Renewable Energy Target, shooting messengers like the Climate Commission, and trying to keep climate change off the agenda of the G20 talks in Brisbane. Talk about lifters and leaners. We want everyone else to lift, just not us!

Republican Mitch McConnell says the agreement doesn’t require China to do anything for the next 15 years. That this kind of wilful ignorance passes for political debate in the US today goes a long way towards explaining why so few Americans turn out to vote in Congressional elections. Apparently Mr McConnell is the Republican Leader, so he is supposed to be the brightest of them! God knows what that says about the others!

China has agreed to ramp up its renewable energy target by 1/3rd, over 30%, compared to its previous offer. This will build a massive solar PV industry.

Second, it has agreed to level out its emissions by 2030. Given that its emissions accounted for 70% of the global increase in emissions in 2012, this is a huge turnaround. It is a world away from the sabotage they engaged in at Copenhagen, which I strongly criticised at the time.

I repeat, this is the best news on international action to tackle climate change in nearly 20 years, since the Kyoto Protocol.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Timbercorp Hearing

The effects of recent major financial advice scandals have been catastrophic, resulting in consumers losing $5.7 billion in funds, losing their homes, losing their financial security in retirement.

I know first-hand in my electorate of Wills a number of constituents who have been affected adversely as result of poor advice or management by their financial advisor.

People have lost their homes, hundreds of thousands of dollars, their Self-Managed Super Funds, their share portfolios and their health etc because of poor advice and management.

Clients in share portfolios and managed investments schemes including Timbercorp and other agribusinesses, were not aware of the Agribusiness loans and in particular the loan conditions were either misrepresented or not disclosed. These loans effectively resulted in some clients being geared twice over.

Where gearing was disclosed clients were assured that the margin loans would never exceed 50%. In fact, the margin loans exceeded 200%, resulting in clients losing their entire share portfolio and other assets. Investors were explicitly assured their homes were safe.

In some instances clients were asked just to sign the rear page, which were not witnessed in their presence. Asset, liability and income details were often left blank or were completed after the client had signed the application (as they were told their office needed to finalise details on their behalf). Some of the loan documents recently obtained from Timbercorp Finance show that these details were never completed, or had liability details erased, or included incorrect client information.

Timbercorp management/maintenance/insurance fees and other agribusiness fees were disguised by being rolled into refinancing of debt.

Timbercorp increased the level of commission paid to Financial Advisors to promote their geared investments as the GFC began to impact.

A number of clients were pressured to increase their level of investment in Timbercorp even when the product was failing.

Undisclosed incentives were provided in relation to the recommending of Timbercorp products (for instance, the provision of overseas trips and possibly the granting of equity in Timbercorp companies). Given that Timbercorp were required to disclose all incentives they might pay to advisers distributing their products, this was an apparent breach of the requirements of the Corporations Act.

The significant omissions and potential fraud in respect to loan documentation should be investigated and all debts frozen and recovery action ceased by the respective creditors. ANZ, CBA, Macquarie Bank and other credit providers should explain their involvement and why such significant breaches of lending practices were permitted and should waive debts that would not have arisen but for their negligence.

The ANZ recently announced a record full year profit of $7.3 billion, up 15 per cent on a year ago, while the Commonwealth Bank posted a full-year cash profit of $8.7 billion, a record for an Australian lender. There is clearly the capacity for some debt forgiveness here. I remind the ANZ of ‘forgiveness’ taxpayers extended major financial institutions during the GFC when government action guaranteed the banks survival.

The relevant regulators, APRA and ASIC should independently investigate the arrangements and when fraud and other lending anomalies are established, they should explore grounds to award compensation to clients affected.

It is important for Australian investors to come forward with their experiences and evidence to inform the Parliament on further regulatory changes that may be necessary in this sector.

For its part, Labor will take to the next election a firm commitment to proceed with the broad thrust of its Future of Financial Advice reforms – important changes that the current government has dismantled.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stooging a Generation

I have often expressed concern in the last few years that my baby boomer generation has pursued policies such as rapid population growth which have damaged the chances of the next generation.

Recently I have referred to the Axis of Financial Evil confronting our children – student debt, job insecurity, and housing unaffordability.

Support for this concern comes from a report released yesterday by the Foundation for Young Australians. The report expressly says that today's young people face very different prospects from their parents: higher unemployment, large education debts and even larger housing debts, which will put home ownership out of the reach of many.

We are experiencing a new baby boom. Foundation Chief Executive Jan Owen says that over the next forty years Australia will experience a 50 per cent increase in the number of young people, who will rise from the present 4.3 million under the age of 24 to 6.3 million under the age of 24, making it the largest cohort of young people Australia has ever had.

But today's young people graduating from University will start their careers with over $24,000 more in student debt than their parents. Over 25 per cent of young people who do gain qualifications do not use those qualifications in their job. They are taking on three times as much debt as their parents did to buy their first home – houses are six times more expensive than they were in 1985. More than 38 percent of 18 to 24 year olds are overweight.

Jan Owen says we have a situation where the next generation could be worse off in many areas, and that we have a shrinking window of opportunity to ensure young people don't become the first generation of Australians to do worse than their forbears.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Labor Will Protect the Great Barrier Reef from Dredge Spoil

Congratulations to Mark Butler for Labor's commitment to ban the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This commitment will be implemented if Labor is elected in 2016. The Great Barrier Reef has been subjected to a range of environmental pressures, and the world’s greatest coral reefs are not in as good as condition as they used to be. The situation is sufficiently serious that the World Heritage Committee is presently considering whether to place the reef on the "in danger" list, and is due to decide this matter in June next year.

The dumping of dredge spoil from big construction projects in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area potentially damages the reefs. The Federal Government approved a plan to dump about 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil, caused by the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, in the reef's marine park. But strong community opposition to the plan has caused a rethink and hopefully that spoil will now not be dumped offshore.

But there are still very large proposals being considered for dumping dredge spoil at sea - 5 million cubic metres in Cairns as part of a shipping development project, 5.7 million cubic metres as part of the Townsville port expansion, 13 million cubic metres as part of the Dudgeon Point coal facility expansion and another 12 million cubic metres at the Port of Gladstone.

Given this troubling setting Federal Labor's announcement of a clear ban on dredge spoil dumping is very welcome.