Friday, 21 July 2017

Punishing people for poverty won't make the complexities go away

Extract from The Guardian

The government’s proposed welfare reforms will push already vulnerable people further into poverty and increase stigma around addiction
  • Catherine Yeomans is the chief executive officer of Mission Australia
People receiving income support are often barely surviving on payments that have been driven well below the cost of living.
People receiving income support are often barely surviving on payments that have been driven well below the cost of living. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

The federal government has put forward further cuts to our social security system that will make life more difficult for many vulnerable Australians who are already struggling to survive.
In a speech delivered yesterday, Alan Tudge, the minister for human services, proposed that reducing “welfare dependency” is a critical component of the government’s reform agenda. The minister argued that the proposed changes to our social security system will improve the lives of the people targeted; that they are for their own good and based on principles of “mutual obligation”.
We know through our work supporting Australians through periods of unemployment, addiction or traumatic life events, that support, not punishment, is what works to help people who face real barriers to searching for jobs.
Whether mistakenly or disingenuously, the measures are being justified by claims that they will reduce “pathways into poverty”, such as family breakdown, addiction and unemployment. The reality is that the proposed measures will push already vulnerable people further into poverty and increase stigma around addiction.
One of the key reforms is the introduction of a “demerit system” for job seekers. People will be penalised for not turning up to jobactive appointments or job interviews. The sanction could be losing their already meagre income for up to four weeks.
The job seekers who will be caught up in the demerit system will be people with challenging and complex lives. They will be people who struggle with health concerns, substance misuse, family violence, volatile housing, or onerous caring responsibilities – and often with more than one of those issues at once.
A big stick doesn’t make any of those complexities go away.
Cutting job seekers’ income actually reduces their capacity to look for work. With people on lower incomes pushed out to live on the fringes of our cities and towns because of rising rents, the cost of travelling to interviews can be substantial. For people who can’t afford rent and don’t have a secure home, who may be living out of their car or sleeping on a friend’s floor, getting a good night’s sleep and a hot shower before an interview can be a huge challenge.
The demerit system will have unacceptable impacts on peoples’ lives and their families. People receiving income support are often barely surviving on payments that have been driven well below the cost of living. A single person on Newstart has to scrape by on $38 a day. For a person on Youth Allowance, it is $31. In many cities and towns across Australia now, that will not cover the rent, let alone food and bills. There is no buffer for savings or unexpected costs.
When you remove even that flimsy safety net, people will have no means to get by. By cutting off one income, entire families could be pushed into further poverty and into homelessness.
While organisations like Mission Australia stand ready to support people in need, we also believe it is the role of government to provide a strong and secure social safety net for all Australians, particularly the most vulnerable among us.
It doesn’t feel good to have to ask for charity. It can be disenfranchising and distressing. When people have a sense of agency to make their own choices, they are empowered and more likely to gain independence and fulfil their aspirations.
Our social security system was created as a safety net, to catch people falling into financial and personal difficulties. As a society, we recognise that it is good for us all when every person in our community has income support to meet their basic needs and work toward a brighter future. It’s something most of us contribute to and benefit from at some point in our lives.
The proposed changes that have earned the loudest and most frenzied media headlines are those that target people with substance misuse issues.
If passed by the parliament, 5000 people at three locations across Australia will be forced through the indignity of a randomised drug test or face having their social security payments cut.
For people who consent to the test and fail, their income will be quarantined into a cashless welfare card. Another indignity that wrongly mistakes paternalism for a helping hand. This will stigmatise people, not support them.
Making people who receive social security pay with a card that announces to the world that they are receiving social security payments is not treating them with dignity.
When people with substance misuse issues are unable to work, the threat of punishment will not be enough to help them to get a job. Additional pressures that come from unreasonable job search requirements may even feed the cycle of addiction. While they will also be referred to treatment, a scarcity of specialist services means that many people will face a long wait.
Our experience shows that people given the opportunity to seek treatment, develop their skills and gain employment will grasp it with both hands. Providing adequate services including rehabilitation, training and employment support for those with complex needs must become a greater priority.
It is a shame that some very welcome targeted early intervention initiatives to assist people into employment have been overshadowed by a heavy handed stick approach that is unlikely to result in positive outcomes for those who most need support. Driving people deeper into poverty is never the answer.

Report that Trump considering pardons for family and aides is 'disturbing' - Democrats

Senator Mark Warner speaks out as reports emerge that US president’s lawyers are seeking to discredit Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation

Reports that US President Donald Trump may be exploring pardons for aides ‘extremely disturbing’ say Democrats.
Reports that US President Donald Trump may be exploring pardons for aides ‘extremely disturbing’ say Democrats. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The highest-ranking Democrat on the US Senate intelligence committee has said it was “extremely disturbing” if Donald Trump was contemplating a pardon for aides that could be implicated in a probe on Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Senator Mark Warner was referring to a Washington Post article late Thursday saying that Trump was consulting with advisers “about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself” in connection to the probe led by special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller.
Trump’s lawyers were attempting to “corral the probe” and were compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest in order to “stymie his work”, according to the Post, which quoted anonymous sources for the article.
In a statement, Warner said that Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections “was an attack on our democracy. Both the Senate intelligence committee and special counsel Mueller are currently investigating whether any coordination occurred between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign”.
“The possibility that the president is considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations is extremely disturbing,” said Warner, the senior senator from Virginia and vice-chair of the intelligence committee.
“Pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line.”
The White House has yet to comment on the Post report.
In an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Trump warned Mueller that some of his family finances should be off-limits to his investigation.
Asked if Mueller looking at finances unrelated to Russia would be a red line, Trump responded: “I would say yes.”
A move by Trump’s legal team to look for conflicts of interest among members of Mueller’s investigative team was also reported by both the New York Times and Associated Press on Thursday.
AP said two people with knowledge of the investigative process say efforts under way include exploring the political affiliations of Mueller’s investigators and their work history.
Attorney Jay Sekulow, a member of the president’s external legal team, told AP that the lawyers “will consistently evaluate the issue of conflicts and raise them in the appropriate venue”.
Mueller and congressional committees are investigating whether the president’s campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. While Trump has assailed the inquiries as a partisan “witch hunt”, the investigations have increasingly drawn in his family and close advisers, including son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
As the investigations intensify, Trump’s legal team is also undergoing a shake-up. New York-based attorney Marc Kasowitz, whose unconventional style has irked some White House aides, is seen as a diminishing presence in the operation, according to two people with people with knowledge of the matter.
Mark Corallo, who has been working as a spokesman for the legal team, is no longer part of the operation, according to those familiar with the situation. They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly.

Jeff Sessions says he'll keep job 'as long as appropriate' despite Trump's criticism

Extract from The Guardian

Attorney general speaks after Donald Trump’s comments that he would not have hired Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from Russia inquiry
Jeff Sessions on Trump criticism: I’ll stay ‘as long as appropriate’
The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, insisted on Thursday that he would continue in his job “as long as that is appropriate”, despite Donald Trump’s barrage of criticism of him.
Trump had said in an interview published late Wednesday that he regretted giving him the job after Sessions recused himself from investigations into links with the Trump campaign and Russia.
As he marked six months in office, the president appeared increasingly upset over Sessions stepping aside on the issue and Robert Mueller subsequently being appointed as the special counsel investigating possible ties between Trump and Russia.
Amid signs of Mueller’s inquiries expanding, and just hours after Trump had publicly criticized Sessions, who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters, the attorney general had to appear at a scheduled press event, where he gave a muted defense of his continued work to further the president’s agenda.
Sessions said: “I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It’s something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department and I plan to continue to do so, as long as that is appropriate.”
Trump had lashed out days before his son Donald Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner are scheduled to speak to Congressional investigators investigating Russia’s clandestine election interference .
Kushner, a senior adviser, is due to appear in front of the Senate intelligence committee in private on Monday, while Donald Jr – who has become embroiled in the Russia enquiries after it emerged he met a Kremlin-linked lawyer offering information on Hilary Clinton – will appear publicly before the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday. Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chair, will also appear Wednesday.
Speaking to the New York Times, Trump had blamed Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation and Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, for appointing the special prosecutor to oversee the inquiry – both decisions that were greeted by some lawmakers on both the left and right as the only appropriate ethical choices. Trump told the newspaper: “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.”
Trump also criticized Mueller, the special counsel, for interviewing with him for the job of FBI director the day before he agreed to oversee the Russia probe – an inquiry that has reportedly widened to include scrutiny of whether Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey might have obstructed the investigation.
It also was reported on Thursday that Mueller’s investigation has expanded into a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses, according to Bloomberg News, which cited a source familiar with the inquiry. In focus, the source said, are Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, his involvement in a Soho hotel development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and the purchase from Trump by a Russian oligarch of a Florida mansion in 2008.
Trump had told the Times that Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond Russian relationships. “I think that’s a violation,” he told the paper. “Look, this is about Russia.”
In his interview, Trump avoided saying whether he would fire Mueller if his investigation went outside of the parameters the president believed were fair. “I can’t, I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Trump said.
The president’s public attacks left the nation’s highest law enforcement agency on the defensive. Asked how he could continue to serve without the confidence of the president, Sessions said: “We’re serving right now.”
The former conservative senator from Alabama was forced to step aside from the investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign in March after meetings he had failed to disclose with the Russian ambassador came to light. 
Trump condemns Sessions: ‘I wouldn’t have hired him’ – audio
Sessions defended his record of supporting Trump’s crime-fighting agenda, and said he loved his job. Rosenstein, who earned Trump’s ire by choosing to appoint an special prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation, made a more spirited defense, telling reporters: “I was proud to be here yesterday, I’m proud to be here today and I will be proud to work here tomorrow.”
“We wholeheartedly join in the priorities of President Trump,” Sessions said, adding later: “I am totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an efficient way.”
At a brief justice department press conference over a collaborative law enforcement takedown of dark web site AlphaBay, Sessions touted the department’s success in fighting transnational crime, and noted that the case was an example of the department carrying out one of the president’s own priorities.
After three questions, reporters were asked if any of them had questions about the AlphaBay case. When not a single reporter raised a hand, the press conference was abruptly ended.
Sessions left the briefing room to reporters repeated shouted questions: “Attorney General Sessions, will you not resign?” One reported asked if Sessions feared being “seen as a zombie attorney general”. He made no answer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Donald Trump reportedly exploring ways to hamper Russia probe, pardon himself

Posted 31 minutes ago

Donald Trump and his legal team are exploring ways to hamper the investigation into alleged collusion with Russia and, in a worst-case scenario, nullify the repercussions, according to reports.
The US President's lawyers are developing a case against special counsel Robert Mueller and his team, compiling alleged conflicts of interest, three people with knowledge of the matter told AP.
And The Washington Post reported Mr Trump had queried his advisers about "his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe".

Mr Mueller and congressional committees are investigating whether the President's campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election.
Revelations about the Trump team's bid to counter the investigation come as the probe increasingly ensnares the President's family and close advisers, including son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Mr Trump decried the probes as a partisan "witch hunt" and publicly challenged Mr Mueller, declaring this week the former FBI director would be crossing a line if he investigated his personal business ties.

In an interview with the Post this week, Jay Sekulow, a member of the President's external legal team, pointed to Bloomberg News reports that Mr Mueller was scouring some of Mr Trump's business dealings, including the real estate mogul's sale of a $95 million mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008.
Mr Sekulow told the Post the President and his lawyers were determined to ensure Mr Mueller did not stray outside his investigation's remit, and they would complain to Mr Mueller if needed.
"The fact is that the President is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel's office and any changes in the scope of the investigation," The Post quoted him as saying.
"The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there's drifting, we're going to object."

And Mr Sekulow told AP the lawyers would "consistently evaluate the issue of conflicts [in Mr Mueller's team] and raise them in the appropriate venue."
Two people with knowledge of that process said those efforts included probing the political affiliations of Mr Mueller's investigators and their past work history.
An adviser to the President who spoke to the Washington Post played down the claim Mr Trump was looking to pardon himself of any crimes, telling the Post Mr Trump had simply expressed curiosity about the reach of his pardoning powers and the Russia investigation.
"This is not in the context of, 'I can't wait to pardon myself'," the Post quoted the adviser as saying.a player:

Video: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet at G20 (ABC News)


Malcolm Turnbull warns borrowers of interest rate rises

Updated about 5 hours ago

Sometimes the key to successful communication is not the message but the messenger.
And there's no more high profile messenger in Australia than the Prime Minister.
So, even though countless policymakers, economists and commentators have been warning about household debt for years, Thursday's blunt message from the PM may cut through where they have failed.
"Monetary policy remains accommodative and will stay that way for a while yet, but it means that rates are more likely to go up than down," Malcolm Turnbull told an economic conference in Melbourne.
That's not news — certainly not to economists and traders, most of whom have long abandoned thoughts of another interest rate cut and are now generally expecting a move up by the RBA sometime next year.
But they weren't Mr Turnbull's target audience.

His primary target was revealed by another pointed comment.
"Asset prices can move in two directions — down as well as up," he warned.
At the moment, when an Australian politician or policymaker refers to asset prices there's only one market they're generally thinking of — real estate.
And it was property owners, particularly investors, that Mr Turnbull was clearly addressing on Thursday.
"It is important to be prudent. The banks and the Prudential Regulation Authority are doing their best to make sure of that," he added.
Of course he's referring to the actions that bank regulator APRA has been taking since the end of 2014 to try and limit excessive and risky borrowing, especially for housing investment.
APRA has introduced stricter income-testing benchmarks for banks (arguably ones they should have always been forced to follow), it then moved to place limits on lending to property investors (read speculators) and has now belatedly clamped down on interest-only loans that allow people to borrow more than they can really afford by deferring their principal repayments.
Those moves have sent mortgage rates higher over the past year or so, especially for investors and interest-only borrowers.

They appear to have taken some froth off the peak of the Sydney and Melbourne markets. But both those cities are still recording double-digit property price growth, way above record low wage growth and meagre household income gains.

PM joins jawboning brigade

So regulators have been using their jawbones to supplement their blunt policy tools.
It started years ago with former RBA governor Glenn Stevens, not long after the financial crisis — another time rates were at very low levels — who warned that cheap money should result in more homes, not just more expensive ones.
He even took the unusual step — for a central bank official — of appearing on breakfast television in 2010 to warn households about the risks of property investing.
"I think it is a mistake to assume that a risk-less, easy, guaranteed way to prosperity is just to be leveraged up in to property," he told David Koch on Sunrise.
Stevens calmed down as his rate rises in 2009 and 2010 cooled the market, to the point where the RBA reversed course and slashed rates again from late-2011 onwards.
Unsurprisingly, these rate cuts caused their own property boom/bubble, depending on who you ask.
Certainly, current Treasury secretary John Fraser was unequivocal about it two years ago, with an unexpectedly blunt assessment at Senate Estimates.
Two weeks before him, the head of Australia's corporate regulator, Greg Medcraft, went public with warnings about a housing "bubble" in Sydney and to a lesser extent Melbourne.
The Reserve Bank and APRA are naturally more circumspect about discussing bubbles, because it is their job to ensure financial market stability and warnings about a crash from those in charge of the system are likely to spark one.

Current RBA governor Philip Lowe has only gone as far as cautioning about risks.
"Ongoing increases in indebtedness and rising housing prices" were a "risk to the future health of the Australian economy", he said earlier this year, echoing his predecessor in saying more housing supply was the key solution.
This week, the Reserve Bank set the cat amongst the pigeons by declaring that official interest rates would probably rise to 3.5 per cent (from 1.5 per cent now) once the economy got back to full health.
There's no surer way to scare the hell out of over-indebted property speculators that to threaten the cheap money that keeps them solvent (just).
Now the jawboning looks like its gone to the very top.
Property investors have scarcely heeded the RBA or succumbed to tighter lending rules, so will the PM have any more luck?

Building new coal-fired power stations should be market's decision, Turnbull says

Extract from The Guardian
PM says there is a role for government but ‘the goal should always be for investment decisions to be made by the market’

PM says as ageing coal-fired plants close the government must ensure there is enough baseload power, and the technology to deliver it ‘should be judged on its merits’. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Thursday 20 July 2017 17.13 AEST Last modified on Thursday 20 July 2017 19.44 AEST

Malcolm Turnbull says it is better the market decides whether or not to build a new coal-fired power station in Australia rather than delivering that outcome through government intervention.
The prime minister was asked at an economic forum in Melbourne on Thursday whether the government would intervene to see new coal plants constructed, or whether it would leave that decision to the market.
Nationals, including the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, favour the construction of new coal-fired power, or the retrofitting of existing coal assets to extend their operating life, and have tied the future of coal to the resolution of a new national energy policy following the Finkel review.
The Minerals Council of Australia is also campaigning behind the scenes in Canberra to ensure “clean” coal is in the mix as the government responds to the Finkel review.
Turnbull was asked about the merits of government intervention on coal-fired power, and he told the forum: “Clearly it’s always better if the market delivers all of these solutions.”
The prime minister said as ageing coal-fired power plants exited the system, the government had to take steps to ensure there was sufficient baseload power in the grid, and the technology to deliver that outcome “should be judged on its merits”.
“There is an important role for government in energy policy, obviously, but the goal should always be for investment decisions to be made by the market, by participants in the market, on economic grounds,” the prime minister said.
He said there were opportunities for various technologies to be supported, either through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, or through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation “but the aim has got to be I think, always, that you get the best outcome for consumers – and markets deliver that”.
Turnbull said the government had been forced in recent times to make heavy-handed interventions in the energy market, such as imposing export controls on gas – an intervention which gave him “no joy at all”.
“But the alternative is having a gas shortage on the east coast that would put tens of thousands of people out of work,” he said.
The prime minister’s disposition in favour of a market solution echoes similar comments in recent weeks from the Liberal frontbencher Craig Laundy, who said the government was not interested in building new assets, and the energy minister Josh Frydenberg, who has signalled the government will support coal-fired power if the market supports it.
The prime minister was asked on Thursday whether he favoured the central recommendation of the Finkel review – a new clean energy target – and he didn’t provide a definitive answer. He said the government had asked for more analysis on the policy.
In an interview with Guardian Australia last week, Joyce said he was prepared to argue that the Nationals should support the clean energy target if the Liberals agreed to set a threshold allowing high-efficiency coal in the mix.
Some Liberals are still opposed to the clean energy target – and the internal dissent has delayed a resolution of the issue.

Given the delay in Canberra, the Labor states have taken a preliminary step towards going it alone on a clean energy target that would apply after the current renewable energy target ends in 2020.

Dirty coal to dirty politics: everything is connected through a malformed political economy

The life of our reef is intimately linked to the health of our politics and the future of our communities. Coal has no role to play
  • David Ritter is chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific
Environmental activists voice their opposition to Indian mining company Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine, outside Parliament House in Brisbane, Australia, 25 May 2017.
Environmental activists voice their opposition to Indian mining company Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine, outside Parliament House in Brisbane, Australia, 25 May 2017. Photograph: Dan Peled/EPA

Ten years ago, David Simon’s iconic TV series The Wire portrayed contemporary Baltimore as wracked by illegal drug use, violent crime and failing institutions. But underneath the symptoms were the structures of political economy. As the show’s tagline had it, “everything is connected”. Simons explained that the show was intended to depict “a world in which capital has triumphed completely, labour has been marginalised and moneyed interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform.”
A world away and the idea that everything is connected through a malformed political economy is also central to Anna Krien’s recent Quarterly Essay, The Long Goodbye. Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. In Krien’s Australia, it is the power of the coal industry that is the fundamental problem.
Journeying across Australia, Krien visits proposed mine sites, coastal and inland towns, and snorkels the Great Barrier Reef. Everywhere she goes, there is evidence of the coal industry’s malign influence, distorting civic debate with dodgy jobs figures, marginalising other voices, corrupting politics, thwarting urgent reform for the common good, and driving the carbon pollution that is killing our reef.
With an evocative eye for human detail, Krien shows that in addition to being unsustainable in environmental terms, the coal industry is also terrible for the health of our democracy. The revolving door of elites is “a harmonious shifting of bodies in and out of politics, fossil fuel industry groups, energy and mining companies”. The access enjoyed by coal mining lobbyists (“always happy to see you”) is contrasted with the eminent scientist who can’t get a meeting with the minister.
Regulations are written to suit big coal – not the fresh water, farmland, wildlife or people they are notionally intended to protect. When someone is plucky enough to take the big companies on – a farmer, an Indigenous group, an environmental group – the coal mining companies get into fits of temper about the rules, and politicians are inclined to reward the tantrums by making things even easier.
The economics of coal doesn’t make sense but, says Krien, “it all adds up” because “spending has been locked in, promises made, factions formed, donations offered”. She concludes that Australia’s political system is effectively captive, subject to a “Stockholm syndrome built on donations, royalties, taxes and threats”.
In Krien’s account, the symptoms of coal’s unhealthy influence on Australian politics are seen to spin out in all directions, from the political response to the tenacious struggle of Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners to stop the Adani mine, to Tony Abbott’s obsessive war on renewable energy, to the distortion of Australia’s global diplomatic agenda.
A broader idea of sustainable business denotes an appreciation that the proper role of business in a democracy and society has limits. It would be for the good of Australia if many of the connections described by Krien could be loosened or severed. “Ban political donations”, says Krien; but there is much more that can be done, including improving freedom of information laws, slamming shut the revolving doors, addressing the crisis in mainstream media diversity, introducing next generation anti-pollution laws, ensuring affected citizens have proper access to environmental justice, imposing the full costs of mine remediation on the perpetrators, and ending all tax breaks to fossil fuel companies and their representatives. And we need a federal Icac.
Perhaps above all, a moratorium on new coal developments is now essential to meeting globally agreed climate targets. But taking the expansion of the coal industry out of the game is not only essential to halting global warming but could also be a bonanza for improving and cleaning up our democracy.
There would also be advantages to the broader business community in doing something about the harmful political influence of the coal industry. Time, money and strategy spent on lobbying could be more productively spent on the kind of innovation and transition that is plainly required.
At present, the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry plainly interfere with the effective operation of market competition – which is why coal, oil and gas continue to receive such obscene subsidies. Meanwhile the legitimate interests of other sectors are drowned out. Why for example, are the tens of thousands of sustainable jobs in tourism that rely on the Great Barrier Reef valued so lowly by our politicians compared to those who might be employed in digging up coal?
Krien’s quarterly essay makes abundantly clear that the life of our reef is intimately linked to the health of our politics and the future flourishing of our communities. The coal industry is inimical to all of them.