Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Governments Should Restrain Gas Prices

It is not fair to either Victorian consumers or manufacturers that gas prices should be allowed to go up beyond the CPI.

The fact that Australia is now increasing its gas production should be a benefit for Victorian gas customers and Victorian manufacturers, not a hardship. But because most of our gas is now to be exported, rather than being sold locally, gas prices for eastern states manufacturers are now rising to international gas prices – from $4 to $5 a gigajoule to $10 a gigajoule.

In New South Wales AGL and Origin Energy have asked the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal to let them increase retail gas prices by 20%. This kind of increase would pose massive hardship for pensioners and others on fixed incomes, and it should not be allowed.

And the Federal Government has a role too. Every other large gas producing country puts measures in place to ensure domestic consumers benefit from rather than suffer from, their natural wealth. The US, home of the free market, barely lets gas producers export at all!

Consumers are already struggling under the weight of electricity bills which have more than doubled in 10 years. Gas bills should not be allowed to do the same.

Purchase of Joint Strike Fighters

Why on earth are we spending $12 billion dollars on 54 planes when we are supposed to be in such a budget emergency that even pensioners face cuts to their support, and increased health care costs?

Our trade and foreign ownership policy, and our defence policy, are based on utterly contradictory arguments. Our trade and foreign ownership policies are based on the view that everyone is our friend and we have nothing to fear from anybody.  But our defence policy is based on the view that the world is a dangerous place and that one of our trading partners might turn around and attack us. They can't both be right. In reality both policies are being driven by large corporations and they're both wrong – our foreign ownership policy is too naive and our defence policy is too suspicious.

Instead of ramping up defence spending by billions of dollars the government should be pocketing the money and using it to balance the books. It should not be subjecting pensioners and retired Australians to financial hardship by either reducing their levels of support or increasing their health care costs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

We Should Examine Free Trade Agreements

We have seen a lot of knee jerk triumphalism about the signing of free trade agreements recently with Korea and Japan. But what does it really mean for Australia, especially Australian workers? In the case of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA), possibly more local unemployment.

On the one hand Australia has agreed not to apply Labour Market Testing under the Korea FTA. But Korea has reserved the right to request employers for evidence that they have conducted labor market testing. In particular, the provision states: ‘Labour market testing may be required as a condition for temporary entry of, or numerical restriction may be imposed relating to, temporary entry for professionals’.

Free trade has turned into a euphemism for accommodating the agendas of transnational corporations, in this case of the Korea FTA, an increased use of 457 Temporary Migrant Workers.

Already, Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill is using up to 200 white-collar 457visa workers, half of which are Korean nationals, and many of whom are women, clocking up 84 hours a week. Many are not working in the occupations approved for their visas – a breach of the sponsoring employer’s obligations, and this despite Roy Hill claiming it was so inundated with job applications from locals that it did not need to use 457 visas. The ‘free movement of labour’ on the free trade agenda of corporations is nothing more than a vehicle to race to the bottom on local wages and conditions.

The secrecy under which these agreements are being negotiated and then signed undermines democracy and comes at the expense of local health, labour and environmental laws.

At a time when over 713,000 Australians are unemployed and we have a crisis in youth unemployment the Liberal Government should be looking for and supporting local solutions, not exacerbating this problem by opening the door to even larger migrant worker programs.

Leave the CSIRO Alone

It is bad enough that the Liberal Government does not have a Science Minister and has treated the research of climate scientists with disdain and contempt, apparently preferring the climate science of a nineteenth century poet. But funding cuts for the CSIRO would be immensely damaging for Australia’s future. We need a focus on innovation and applied science that the CSIRO is world renowned for. It is one of Australia’s genuine competitive advantages, and it needs to be protected and encouraged, not reduced and diminished.

And it is about time we stopped cutting funding for Government agencies through the use of the euphemism of “efficiency dividends”, when agencies are already required to become more efficient each year in order to meet the needs of a population which is now growing by 1.8%, and grew by over 400,000 people last year. Any agency which services a population growing at such a rate, with a budget which is only increased by the CPI to take inflation into account, is by definition becoming more efficient and should not be penalised with additional cuts.

The Prime Minister says the government should be judged by its performance in the area of science, rather than whether it has a Science Minister. Its treatment of the CSIRO Budget will indeed enable its performance to be judged.

Alarming Rise in Long-Term Youth Unemployment

There are few things more demoralising or destructive of self-esteem and life chances than long-term unemployment. It is therefore alarming that long-term youth unemployment in Australia has tripled in the past six years.

In 2008 there were 19,500 long-term unemployed young people in Australia. Now there are 56,800. In Victoria there are now 81,900 unemployed young people. 14,000 of them have not worked at all in the past 12 months. It is outrageous that we make it so hard for these young people to break out of this trap by bringing in ever increasing numbers of migrant workers on both the permanent and temporary migrant worker programs. Last year net overseas migration was 240,000, and we now have over a million people from overseas in Australia on temporary visas, which give them work rights. How can we seriously expect to bring the unacceptable number of young people who are long-term unemployed down when they are subjected to such ferocious competition for entry-level jobs?

It is not that young people don’t want to work. Many of them apply for dozens, or even hundreds, of jobs without success. This lack of success is damaging their self-confidence and self-esteem and crushing them. Australia is not short of people, or short of workers. What we are lacking is the sense to realise that our migrant worker programs are way too high given the number of people who are ready, willing and able to work.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Renewable Energy Target

On Friday I met with Tim Sonnreich from the Clean Energy Council to talk about the Federal Government’s review of the Renewable Energy Target. The Clean Energy Council points out that scrapping or scaling back the renewables target would see electricity prices RISE, not fall, due to greater use of gas in the energy sector, at a time when gas is soaring in price. The Clean Energy Council is worried that $18 billion of investments in renewable energy projects are predicated on the target remaining as is. They will be hurt if the Renewable Energy Target is reduced.
My own view is that the Target needs to be retained till 2020, and increased, not reduced, after that.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Before the election the Liberal Party promised it would not attack age pensions in any shape or form. There would be no surprises and no lame excuses, it said.
The Liberal Government must now stop undermining support for the age pension, and rule out any attacks on the pension in the forthcoming Budget. Age pensioners are not living the high life.  I have come across age pensioners freezing in winter because they cannot afford the cost of heating.
Nor should they have the value of their own homes included in the assets test. Many pensioners in my electorate built homes in working class suburbs like Brunswick, Coburg and Pascoe Vale in the 1950s and 60s. These properties are much more fashionable as a result of population-growth rises in property values, but these pensioners are not “better off” – they are merely living in the house they’re always lived in, and all they ask is to be allowed to keep living there – a perfectly reasonable desire.
The baby boomer generation has already fitted up age pensioners with the GST and utility prices rising much faster than the rate of inflation. By all means let us balance the books, but the Liberal Party could save many billions of dollars in the coming decade by
Not introducing its extravagant the Paid Parental Leave (saving $3 billion per annum).
Not increasing defence spending to the plucked out of the air figure of 2% of GDP within a decade (which would see the current $26.5 billion per annum rise to $50 billion!).
Not building the East-West Freeway through Melbourne’s Royal Park ($1.5 billion and rising).
Not getting rid of the price on carbon (this would save $4-5 billion per annum, according to Dr Ross Garnaut).
If they still need money, they should cut back on some of the family payments which were introduced by the Howard Government when the money was flowing in from the resources boom. If there is a genuine argument that we need to tighten our belts because money from the resources boom is no longer coming in, that is where the belt tightening should occur.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Strathmore Secondary College Rezoning

In March Strathmore North Primary School students visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and I spoke to them there about the meaning of the War Memorial.

I told them if that if they ever needed my help my Electorate Office was in Munro Street Coburg.

This morning Josh, a Grade Six Strathmore North Primary School student, rang my office and said, ‘Is that you, Kelvin?’ to Anthony Cianflone from my office who picked up the phone.

Josh referred to my offer of help when the school had visited Canberra, and explained that he was adversely affected by a decision of the Department of Education to rezone the boundaries for entry to Strathmore Secondary College- the new boundary excluded children from his area of Strathmore North.

As it happened, the State Member for Essendon, Justin Madden and I had attended and spoken to a large rally of parents and children at Strathmore Secondary College concerning this issue just yesterday. Justin had raised the issue directly with the Victorian Education Minister, and I had written to him yesterday.
The good news for Josh is that the Department of Education has acted to re-instate the Strathmore Heights region to the Strathmore Secondary College neighbourhood boundaries. The change of heart is a tribute to the energetic and united response of Strathmore Heights residents, extending as far as primary school children remembering and acting on an undertaking from their Federal MP!

TAFE Funding Crisis

Why on earth are we spending $8 billion on a Freeway through Royal Park, and cutting TAFE funding by $119 million, leaving seven out of fourteen public TAFES in deficit?

The best infrastructure investment we can make is to educate and train our young people.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Rights of Women in Afghanistan

While the results of Afghanistan’s election will not be known for some weeks whoever becomes the next President must ensure a commitment to ongoing improvements in human rights, particularly the rights of women.

Amnesty International has indicated, in an assessment of the rights record of President Hamid Karzai’s administration over the past 12 years in Afghanistan, that the modest gains in women’s rights are being degraded:

·         Endemic violence persists;

·         Discrimination is still a fact of life;

·         The Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW) is an unfulfilled promise;

·         Women human rights defenders continue be at risk;

·         Women continue to be detained and prosecuted for “moral crimes”; and

·         Women’s participation in the peace and reconciliation processes is marginal at best.

While it is important to acknowledge the improvements in Afghanistan for women and girls since the fall of the Taliban, much of this is the result of the work of women’s rights activists. Enormous challenges remain for women’s human rights. The vast majority of girls still leave school when they are between 12 and 14 years old, often due to family pressure, and only around one in ten university students is female.

The Australian Government must urge the next President to reaffirm a commitment to further progress on human rights especially for women.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Budget Pressures Impact Public Service Provision

With the veil of secrecy surrounding the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit report Australians have every right be concerned about what is in store in May’s Federal Budget, particularly when it comes to the provision of public services.
Successive budget cuts have made it harder for the federal public sector to continue to provide high quality public services. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) estimates that 3,600 public sector jobs have been cut since the Coalition Government came to office in September.

A substantial number of the job losses came from service delivery agencies such as the Department of Human Services (DHS). This has had direct implications for the Australian community with users of DHS services seeing:

·         Excessive waiting times in Centrelink queues;

·         Long wait times in phone queues;

·         Increased double-handling of queues and in call queues;

·         Processing back logs in a range of areas.

As the CPSU has pointed out in their submission to the 2014 Budget, “the frustrations and pressures created by these delays is contributing to increasing incidences of client aggression towards DHS staff. This growing problem is extremely distressing and often dangerous both for staff members and for other community members at DHS premises during these incidents”.

It is completely unsatisfactory that wait times are regularly over 40 minutes for Call Centre enquiries, and queues in metropolitan and suburban offices have customers waiting for more than two hours to talk to staff. Medicare staffing has been reduced to the extent that customer queues are regularly extending outside the doors into the street.

We need a Government that is about finding practical solutions rather than embracing an ideologically driven “slash and burn” approach. Further cuts will only exacerbate problems which pensioners, retirees and many young people have in accessing public services.