New technology offers hope for storing carbon dioxide underground

To halt climate change and prevent dangerous warming, we ultimately have to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While the world is making slow progress on reducing emissions, there are more radical options, such as removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing them underground.

In a paper published today in Science my colleagues and I report on a successful trial converting carbon dioxide (CO₂) to rock and storing it underground in Iceland. Although we trialled only a small amount of CO₂, this method has enormous potential.

Here’s how it works.

Turning CO₂ to rock

Our paper is the culmination of a decade of scientific field and laboratory work known as CarbFix in Iceland, working with a group of international scientists, among them Wallace Broecker who coined the expression “global warming” in the 1970s. We also worked with the Icelandic geothermal energy company Reykjavik Energy.

The idea itself to convert CO₂ into carbonate minerals, the basis of limestone, is not new. In fact, Earth itself has been using this conversion technique for aeons to control atmospheric CO₂ levels.

However, scientific opinion had it up to now that converting CO₂ from a gas to a solid (known as mineralisation) would take thousands (or tens of thousands) of years, and would be too slow to be used on an industrial scale.

To settle this question, we prepared a field trial using Reykjavik Energy’s injection and monitoring wells. In 2012, after many years of preparation, we injected 248 tonnes of CO₂ in two separate phases into basalt rocks around 550m underground.

Most CO₂ sequestration projects inject and store “supercritical CO₂”, which is CO₂ gas that has been compressed under pressure to considerably decrease its volume*. However, supercritical CO₂ is buoyant, like a gas, and this approach has thus proved controversial due to the possibility of leaks from the storage reservoir upwards into groundwater and eventually back to the atmosphere.

In fact, some European countries such as the Netherlands have stopped their efforts to store supercritical CO₂ on land because of lack of public acceptance, driven by the fear of possible leaks in the unforeseeable future. Austria went even so far as to ban underground storage of carbon dioxide outright.

The injection well with monitoring station in the background. Dom Wolff-BoenischAuthor provided

Our Icelandic trial worked in a different way. We first dissolved CO₂ in water to create sparkling water. This carbonated water has two advantages over supercritical CO₂ gas.

First, it is acidic, and attacks basalt which is prone to dissolve under acidic conditions.

Second, the CO₂ cannot escape because it is dissolved and will not rise to the surface. As long as it remains under pressure it will not rise to the surface (you can see the same effect when you crack open a soda can; only then is the dissolved CO₂ released back into the air).

Dissolving basalt means elements such as calcium, magnesium, and iron are released into pore water. Basaltic rocks are rich in these metals that team up with the dissolved CO₂ and form solid carbonate minerals.

Through observations and tracer studies at the monitoring well, we found that over 95% of the injected CO₂ (around 235 tonnes) was converted to carbonate minerals in less than two years. While the initial amount of injected CO₂ was small, the Icelandic field trial clearly shows that mineralisation of CO₂ is feasible and more importantly, fast.

Storing CO₂ under the oceans

The good news is this technology need not be exclusive to Iceland. Mineralisation of CO₂ requires basaltic or peridotitic rocks because these types of rocks are rich in the metals required to form carbonates and bind the CO₂.

As it turns out the entire vast ocean floor is made up of kilometre-thick oceanic basaltic crust, as are large areas on the continental margins. There are also vast land areas covered with basalt (so-called igneous provinces) or peridotite (so-called “ophiolitic complexes”).

The overall potential storage capacity for CO₂ is much larger than the global CO₂ emissions of many centuries. The mineralisation process removes the crucial problem of buoyancy and the need for permanent monitoring of the injected CO₂ to stop and remedy potential leakage to the surface, an issue that supercritical CO₂ injection sites will face for centuries or even millennia to come.

On the downside, CO₂ mineralisation with carbonated water requires substantial amounts of water, meaning that this mineralisation technique can only succeed where vast supplies of water are available.

However, there is no shortage of seawater on the ocean floor or continental margins. Rather, the costs involved present a major hurdle to this kind of permanent storage option, for the time being at least.

In the case of our trial, a tonne of mineralised CO₂ via carbonated water cost about US$17, roughly twice that of using supercritical CO₂ for storage.

It means that as long as there are no financial incentives such as a carbon tax or higher price on carbon emissions, there is no real driving force for carbon storage, irrespective of the technique we use.

*Correction: The sentence has been corrected to note that gas volume rather than density decreases when it is compressed. Thankyou to the readers who pointed out the error.

Aurukun: pressure mounts for overhaul of Noel Pearson reforms

 Community is divided over the merits of school curriculum and income controls supported by Pearson, but critical voices are getting louder
Noel Pearson
 Noel Pearson has emphatically defended Cape York Academy’s running of the Aurukun school in a place he branded ‘the Afghanistan of teaching’. Photograph: Peter Eve/PR IMAGE

Calls for an overhaul of Noel Pearson’s welfare reforms are growing in Aurukun as the Queensland government considers the first ever rollback of his contentious education program.

Bruce Martin, a Wik entrepreneur from Aurukun who sits on the prime minister’s Indigenous advisory council, has joined critics of schooling in the town. He says it bears symptoms of a “hugely expensive” and “fundamentally flawed” welfare regime.

But Pearson’s Cape York Partnership has defended the cost of welfare reform – which it puts at $1 in every $20 of government funds spent in Aurukun – and its introduction after an “unprecedented” effort at community engagement.

Martin, who has been appointed to work with the government on a new advisory group to give locals a leadership role in driving economic development, said Pearson’s Cape York Academy had taken an “authoritarian” and “us and them” approach to running the school.

He said this reflected a broader welfare reform agenda that was developed without substantial local participation, hinging on a punitive approach to social problems through income controls.

“When you have a program like welfare reform, an agenda that’s developed independently of Wik people, and when the school program, the education program is a fundamental tenet of the welfare reform agenda and it’s again developed in isolation and it isn’t driven or led by Wik people, people obviously have no buy-in into it,” Martin told Guardian Australia.

“When you promote that this is the only model for social welfare reform, this is the only model for an education program – ie direct instruction and only at primary school, every high school student has to go to boarding school – if that doesn’t fit in with the priorities of the community, well of course people are going to disengage.”

Bruce Martin (second from left), a Wik entrepreneur and social worker from Aurukun who opposes the welfare reform agenda, with Queensland treasurer Curtis Pitt, Craig Koomeeta (right) and Phillip Marpoondin (left).
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 Bruce Martin (second from left), a Wik entrepreneur and social worker from Aurukun who opposes the welfare reform agenda, with Queensland treasurer Curtis Pitt, Craig Koomeeta (right) and Phillip Marpoondin (left). Photograph: Joshua Robertson for the Guardian

The state treasurer, Curtis Pitt, who met Martin to discuss economic development in Aurukun on Monday, said he was “very keen to ensure we get the best value for money in all government investments”, including the primary school’s controversial multimillion-dollar “direct instruction” program.

Pitt said he would “take a keen interest” in a review due as early as next week to decide whether the government takes over the school, which was shut over fears for the safety of teachers.

A distance education program run at the school by four temporary teachers until next term is catering for an average of 80 of the school’s 230 students.

Pitt, who is also minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partnerships, said the government “may well need to consider” redirecting investments within education, health and social services “if we aren’t spending the dollars effectively”.

Cape York Partnership, which has a group companies providing many of those services in Aurukun, estimates from almost $65m in federal and state funding, $3m a year is spent on welfare reform activities. A spokeswoman said more than half of that went to programs that would be in place anyway, including school and parental support.

She said the welfare program was “designed in close conjunction with Wik people over a number of years”. This included two full-time engagement officers based in Aurukun for 18 months, conducting interviews, workshops and forums – with a special attempt to engage “the most dysfunctional members” of the community.

“Cape York welfare reform is perhaps the best example we have of Indigenous people working to co-design an initiative in a genuine partnership with government,’ she said.

A group of Wik female elders last week asked the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, for direct instruction to be scrapped as part of a government takeover amid concerns students were not being prepared for high school.

The elders, who sit on both Aurukun council and the family responsibilities commission – a body that manages income for parents of truant students – also asked the government to reopen a local high school that was closed in 2012 after Cape York Academy took over.

Concerns about the presence of an estimated 70 high school-age students who were in the community without schooling were highlighted after youths allegedly twice carjacked the school principal and allegedly tried to break in to teacher accommodation.

Cape York Academy has boosted the number of Aurukun students in boarding school – their only high school option – to an all-time high of 57.

Guardian Australia understands 16 boarders have either been expelled or suspended or refused to return this term.

Francis Woolla, 20, who went to boarding school in Brisbane from Aurukun aged 14, said it was a positive experience but not for everyone.

Francis Woolla, 20, with friends in Aurukun,
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 Francis Woolla, 20, with friends in Aurukun, went to boarding school from aged 14 and enjoyed the experience but says a local high school should be reopened. Photograph: Joshua Robertson for the Guardian

“It’s good if they’re going to put [the high school] back for other kids who are older, still staying in Aurukun,” he said.

“It would be good for the kids instead of just staying home, doing nothing.”

Pearson, who has called the government review “routine”, has emphatically defended Cape York Academy’s running of the school in a place he branded “the Afghanistan of teaching”.

“This past week has been a travesty of a conversation that was about youth delinquency and law and order in the community has been turned around into a story of the failings of what is a lighthouse school,” Pearson has told ABC.

Pearson has also said the key obstacle to welfare reform in Aurukun was a lack of new economic opportunities over the past eight years.

“The thing that’s missing at Aurukun is jobs – you can’t have welfare reform without jobs and where we have jobs we have welfare reform succeeding,” Pearson has said.

However, the criticism from Martin echoes disaffection among some educators, social workers, and local government figures who have previously been reluctant to speak out about the Cape York organisations’ role in the community.

This year is the first that Aurukun school – the largest trial school for direct instruction before its national rollout to Western Australia and the Northern Territory – has a student body taught entirely on the program.

The US-imported program – which focuses on basic literacy and numeracy through highly scripted lessons and has attracted $30m in state and federal funding – has drawn fresh criticism from educators in the wake of the shutdown, including from a former executive principal of the academy.

The school program still has its influential supporters in Aurukun. Wik Women’s group cofounders Keri Tamwoy and Phyllis Yunkaporta have written to Palaszczuk defending direct instruction and calling for the school reopening this week.

“Shutting down this safe haven for our children has been gut-wrenching,” they wrote. “Premier, our children are learning and achieving at this school and we simply do not understand the logic in its closure due to uncivilised teenagers and ineffective policing.

“The current schooling model has achieved results that we didn’t think was possible.”

Another former Cape York Academy executive principal, Don Anderson, said he could not understand calls to scrap direct instruction as “the reality is the old [program] wasn’t working nearly as well as it’s working now”.

Naplan data for 40 Aurukun students in year 3 in 2013, shows the proportion that met or bettered national minimum standards two years later increased in spelling (59%) and numeracy (32%).

However, that percentage declined for reading (40%), grammar and punctuation (30%), and was lowest in writing (14%).

An education department source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this reflected the fact students under direct instruction were not being taught to “analyse and write expository test” which was critical for high school.

Anderson said writing skills were taught to children who progressed through direct instruction, and that the program “wasn’t designed to cure cancer and ingrown toenails”.

“DI will ensure a child who’s got erratic attendance when they come to school, they’ll be taught at the level they’ve left from,” he said.

Anderson said the high school had been closed with the support of the former Aurukun mayor who was “against having that soft option [that] encouraged people to come back instead of going through the struggle that everyone has when they’re going to boarding school”.

The small cohort and narrow range of subjects offered meant the school, which went to year 10, “didn’t prepare [students] at all for the even more complex grade 11 and 12 they were going into”, he said.

Martin, a former youth justice worker who became one of the first Aurukun students to finish year 12 when at Canberra Grammar, said the “reinstatement of a high school isn’t going to be a panacea but it is another important tool in the puzzle that is Aurukun”.

“I got the benefit of an outside education but that isn’t the answer for everyone,” he said.

“We have to have those other opportunities here for those other kids as well, otherwise, once they’re graduating from year six, we’re just writing them off and that’s inexplicable.

“The fact that there are 70 to 80 kids of high school age who currently aren’t proactively engaged in mainstream education I think is a travesty.”

Forced council amalgamations; Part Two – What does and could work? By ‘The Contrarian’

In my first article on forced council amalgamations I highlighted that many of the goals set by the NSW Government as a measure of amalgamation success had failed to materialise when forced local government amalgamations had occurred previously elsewhere in Australia.  I also highlighted that the NSW Government had initiated a backlash against their forced amalgamations and that it didn’t need to have turned out this way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I argued that there are other ways of making savings and of giving ratepayers a ‘better bang for their buck’ while also ensuring democracy is alive and well at local government level.

This article, Part Two, addresses one of those other ways of making savings and efficiencies while also considering the response of the Coffs Harbour City Council (CHCC) to the NSW Government’s Fit for the Future criteria.

First of all some amalgamations have been largely successful when given time and encouragement to occur.  It could be argued Brisbane and the Gold Coast City Councils have been reasonably successful mergers for example  However in NSW the non-forced process has only been successful in a few areas.

So if the State Government was genuine about wanting better value for ratepayers and greater efficiencies overall, a big if it would appear, then what could they have done other than ram through forced amalgamations?

The most obvious would have been to require councils to table as part of something akin to Fit for the Future a number of costed shared services initiatives.  Yet having trawled through more than a few Fit for the Future templates and guidelines I have yet to find anything that specifically asks councils to submit shared service and administration strategies, plans and budgets.  I may well have missed it, but if it is there it is well hidden.

There is next to no savings in reducing councillors, they get paid a relative pittance and unless one has ulterior motives then you don’t make a fortune being a councillor and nor is it a huge budget line item for most councils although some reductions could well be considered.  But big savings and efficiencies on shared payroll, HR administration, engineering, roads, water, and waste collection services to name just a few for starters could be huge.  There are therefore sound reasons for administrative amalgamations.

So why didn’t the NSW Government push harder for these?  Was it because they believed forced amalgamations gave them more direct control and influence over developments?  Were those who were pushing behind the scenes for forced amalgamations people whose reasons for doing so could be viewed as ‘problematic’?  This now seems to be the dominant theme emerging as can be seen here.

What was to stop Councils suggesting administrative amalgamations in their submission to Fit to the Future?  Nothing is the answer.  It could have been put up as an alternative, but obviously they would need to be comprehensive.

So did the CHCC delve into shared services and administrative amalgamations in their submission?  Well sort of as can be seen here on page two.  But note it is explicitly stated that no costings had been done or were included.  Why not?  How serious was the suggestion about banding together with the Clarence, Bellingen and Nambucca councils to share services?  Was the mention just put in the report by the CHCC as a handy fig leaf?

A whole range of very valid questions about this aspect were raised here in Coffs Outlook by another author.  Although I do not agree that forced mergers are necessarily right the author nevertheless raises many other points that had me nodding my head in agreement.  As is highlighted we continue to see the leadership, both elected and managerial, at the CHCC exhibit some debatable judgement and behaviours.

So what can be done to improve things in local government both globally and here in Coffs Harbour?  With local government elections just over the horizon these are questions that are very apt.  I’ll talk more in future articles about this.

But let’s just throw something ‘out there’ to ‘get the ball rolling’. For too long now the role played by developers and real estate agents who become elected local government officials has been controversial overall to say the least.  I concur one hundred percent with the State Opposition Leader Luke Foley when he says  “developers and real estate agents should be banned from being local councillors and political donations and spending should be capped in council elections.”

Before I am accused of bias against developers and real estate agents consider this; after 30 years as a master builder my father spent the last 15 years of his working life as a housing developer, valuer and real estate agent and I owe much in my life to his hard work and honesty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my first article on forced council amalgamations I highlighted that many of the goals set by the NSW Government as a measure of amalgamation success had failed to materialise when forced local government amalgamations had occurred previously elsewhere in Australia.  I also highlighted that the NSW Government had initiated a backlash against their forced amalgamations and that it didn’t need to have turned out this way.

 

I argued that there are other ways of making savings and of giving ratepayers a ‘better bang for their buck’ while also ensuring democracy is alive and well at local government level.

This article, Part Two, addresses one of those other ways of making savings and efficiencies while also considering the response of the Coffs Harbour City Council (CHCC) to the NSW Government’s Fit for the Future criteria.

First of all some amalgamations have been largely successful when given time and encouragement to occur.  It could be argued Brisbane and the Gold Coast City Councils have been reasonably successful mergers for example  However in NSW the non-forced process has only been successful in a few areas.

So if the State Government was genuine about wanting better value for ratepayers and greater efficiencies overall, a big if it would appear, then what could they have done other than ram through forced amalgamations?

The most obvious would have been to require councils to table as part of something akin to Fit for the Future a number of costed shared services initiatives.  Yet having trawled through more than a few Fit for the Future templates and guidelines I have yet to find anything that specifically asks councils to submit shared service and administration strategies, plans and budgets.  I may well have missed it, but if it is there it is well hidden.

There is next to no savings in reducing councillors, they get paid a relative pittance and unless one has ulterior motives then you don’t make a fortune being a councillor and nor is it a huge budget line item for most councils although some reductions could well be considered.  But big savings and efficiencies on shared payroll, HR administration, engineering, roads, water, and waste collection services to name just a few for starters could be huge.  There are therefore sound reasons for administrative amalgamations.

So why didn’t the NSW Government push harder for these?  Was it because they believed forced amalgamations gave them more direct control and influence over developments?  Were those who were pushing behind the scenes for forced amalgamations people whose reasons for doing so could be viewed as ‘problematic’?  This now seems to be the dominant theme emerging as can be seen here.

What was to stop Councils suggesting administrative amalgamations in their submission to Fit to the Future?  Nothing is the answer.  It could have been put up as an alternative, but obviously they would need to be comprehensive.

So did the CHCC delve into shared services and administrative amalgamations in their submission?  Well sort of as can be seen here on page two.  But note it is explicitly stated that no costings had been done or were included.  Why not?  How serious was the suggestion about banding together with the Clarence, Bellingen and Nambucca councils to share services?  Was the mention just put in the report by the CHCC as a handy fig leaf?

A whole range of very valid questions about this aspect were raised here in Coffs Outlook by another author.  Although I do not agree that forced mergers are necessarily right the author nevertheless raises many other points that had me nodding my head in agreement.  As is highlighted we continue to see the leadership, both elected and managerial, at the CHCC exhibit some debatable judgement and behaviours.

So what can be done to improve things in local government both globally and here in Coffs Harbour?  With local government elections just over the horizon these are questions that are very apt.  I’ll talk more in future articles about this.

But let’s just throw something ‘out there’ to ‘get the ball rolling’. For too long now the role played by developers and real estate agents who become elected local government officials has been controversial overall to say the least.  I concur one hundred percent with the State Opposition Leader Luke Foley when he says  “developers and real estate agents should be banned from being local councillors and political donations and spending should be capped in council elections.”

Before I am accused of bias against developers and real estate agents consider this; after 30 years as a master builder my father spent the last 15 years of his working life as a housing developer, valuer and real estate agent and I owe much in my life to his hard work and honesty.

A BOARDWALK TOO FAR?

The recent bad weather caused great damage to the marina, boardwalk and surrounds along the North side of the Coffs Harbour precinct.  But it is interesting to see work on the “replacement/improvements” was quickly resolved.  The local media reported the decision to use the contractors, engaged to do the “original” work, to also do the remedial work.

Such a decision was reached without; it appears, for the need to go to council.  As it would appear that the cost of the remedial must be in excess of $150,000 there would be, under normal circumstances, a tender process involved.  Whilst the prompt decision is applaudable it also raises questions namely-

  1. Who owns the land, break-walls and so forth?
  2. If it is the NSW government should they be responsible for the costs of the remedial work?
  3. Does the “new” contract exist between the NSW government and the contractor?
  4. Is the contractor Coastal Services?
  5. Is Coffs Harbour Council, as the principal leasee of the area, a party to the contract?  If so in what capacity and with what financial obligations?
  6. Is the new contract a document between the council and Coastal Works?
  7. Is the area included on the Coffs Harbour council register of assets?

If so, what is the book value ascribed to the area before the weather event and as of the current date?

  1. How much of the infrastructure is to be written off and what is the “book” value of the write off?
  2. Did the council amortise the holdings at any stage?
  3. If the area is owned by the NSW council was it necessary to transfer any part of the depreciation reserve to the NSW Treasury?
  4. Does the council have any funds that were treated as depreciation in its accounting system?
  5. If so, how much is available from these funds to support the remedial work?
  6. What is the impact on the current budget noting in particular which tasks have to be rescheduled because of immediate resources conflicts and what tasks need to be “shelved” because of financial conflicts?
  7. When will such changes go before a council meeting?
  8. Is there any insurance taken out by council on the asset?
  9. Is any insurance contract still valid if it turns out the NSW government owns the land?
  10. How does it impact on the financial obligations of the local residents?

As already mentioned the prompt action is positive but surely the mayor who was a party to the proceedings (we hope) should explain a little bit more about the arrangements.  Perhaps she could provide the details which allows the tender process to be avoided (hint for the mayor could it be emergency powers or public safety?)  Interestingly the General Manager has made no comment throughout the entire process.

The economic case for a company tax cut is collapsing

A corporate tax cut would not actually be very good for the economy, writes The Australia Institute director Ben Oquist.

scottmorrison290316

The government says it abandoned a possible GST increase because modelling showed little, if any, economic benefit from the associated personal income tax cuts. But the champions for reducing revenue have moved on — it is a lower company tax cut that is now supposedly “essential” to stimulate growth.

The assertion that cutting the corporate tax rate is a good idea has become so common in Australian debate that it is rarely questioned, with claimed benefits including higher investment, higher employment, higher growth, higher productivity … higher everything.

The political benefits for such a tax cut are sometimes questioned, as is the best way to fund another big hit to revenue. Much time is spent debating whether it would be better to increase the GST, cut tax concessions for super or slash government spending. But all the talk about how best to cut the corporate tax cut has been used to conceal a much more important question: where is the evidence that cutting the corporate tax rate is a good idea?

In fact, international and Australian data on tax rates and macroeconomic indicators provides no support. A new report out today from David Richardson, senior research fellow at The Australia Institute, analyses data from Australia and OECD countries and finds that:

  • There is no correlation between corporate tax rates and economic growth in OECD countries;
  • Countries with lower company tax rates have lower standards of living, measured as purchasing power of GDP per capita;
  • Wages and mixed income has declined as a share of GDP as corporate taxes have been lowered;
  • Average unemployment rates have risen as company tax rates have lowered; and
  • Growth in foreign investment as a share of GDP was strongest when Australia’s company taxes were highest.

Then there is the revenue cost. The most common proposal is for a company tax cut from 30% to 25%. But what would that actually look like — not in projected trickle-down benefits or in the new parlance “growth dividend”, but what would it mean in dollars and cents for the budget and for Australian companies? Many of the same commentators who were once obsessed with the need to rein in the budget deficit seem entirely relaxed about the consequences of slashing revenue.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia is Australia’s most profitable listed company. If there were to be a company tax cut then it would be its biggest beneficiary. Previous research shows CBA would benefit by more than $600 million in 2016-17 and well over $9 billion over a decade if the company tax rate were cut to 25%. The big four banks would collectively receive a gift of more than $2 billion in year one and almost $30 billion over 10 years.

The argument goes that this increased post-tax profit will drive massive new investment levels. However, a cut in the corporate tax rate would be unlikely to increase the already low levels of investment in the Australian banking sector. If anything, banks have been getting rid of property and buildings and only investing in technology when it means they can save on labour costs. The Commonwealth Bank is moving back to the city from the Sydney suburbs because it cannot attract and retain staff in western Sydney. Any investment associated with that would have happened anyway.

The mining companies will also be big beneficiaries — but with commodity prices the way they are, the miners are not likely to be investing much for some time. Indeed, the financial press is full of stories of mines being closed and many of the others facing losses. No amount of company tax cuts can assist a company making losses, but we should know that from watching the repeal of the mining tax. Unsurprisingly, the removal of the mining tax did nothing to fend off the collapse in commodity prices.

While the benefits of cutting the company tax rate are hard to identify and even harder to measure, the costs will be huge. The $58 billion the top 15 listed companies would receive from a 5% cut over the next decade comes out of a budget that already has a revenue problem.

You would think that such an expensive decision would be based on a wide range of reliable evidence, but a notable feature of the current debate is the complete lack of strong empirical evidence. Instead we get modelling exercises where someone plugs in an assumption that tax cuts will stimulate investment, and lo and behold the model shows there are benefits from cutting taxes. Such exercises are not much help.

The “mature” tax debate we’ve long been promised, so rarely seen in Australian politics, must be grounded in evidence. Australia is a good place to invest and do business — the proof is in the pudding, with companies making high profits and most of the time paying taxes.

And this is the compact: pay your taxes and Australia can afford to keep on providing health services, a well-educated workforce and important infrastructure. While high-profit companies might enjoy paying less tax, let’s not pretend that doing them such a kindness is a cure-all for the Australian economy.

The economic case for company tax cuts is poor. The tens of billions that some want to give to the owners of our biggest companies could be invested instead in improving education, childcare or infrastructure. The economic evidence supporting such investments is strong, but not nearly as strong as the support for corporate tax cuts among sections of the commentariat.

Forced council amalgamations; Part Two – What does and could work? By ‘The Contrarian’

In my first article on forced council amalgamations I highlighted that many of the goals set by the NSW Government as a measure of amalgamation success had failed to materialise when forced local government amalgamations had occurred previously elsewhere in Australia.  I also highlighted that the NSW Government had initiated a backlash against their forced amalgamations and that it didn’t need to have turned out this way.

 

I argued that there are other ways of making savings and of giving ratepayers a ‘better bang for their buck’ while also ensuring democracy is alive and well at local government level.

This article, Part Two, addresses one of those other ways of making savings and efficiencies while also considering the response of the Coffs Harbour City Council (CHCC) to the NSW Government’s Fit for the Future criteria.

First of all some amalgamations have been largely successful when given time and encouragement to occur.  It could be argued Brisbane and the Gold Coast City Councils have been reasonably successful mergers for example  However in NSW the non-forced process has only been successful in a few areas.

So if the State Government was genuine about wanting better value for ratepayers and greater efficiencies overall, a big if it would appear, then what could they have done other than ram through forced amalgamations?

The most obvious would have been to require councils to table as part of something akin to Fit for the Future a number of costed shared services initiatives.  Yet having trawled through more than a few Fit for the Future templates and guidelines I have yet to find anything that specifically asks councils to submit shared service and administration strategies, plans and budgets.  I may well have missed it, but if it is there it is well hidden.

There is next to no savings in reducing councillors, they get paid a relative pittance and unless one has ulterior motives then you don’t make a fortune being a councillor and nor is it a huge budget line item for most councils although some reductions could well be considered.  But big savings and efficiencies on shared payroll, HR administration, engineering, roads, water, and waste collection services to name just a few for starters could be huge.  There are therefore sound reasons for administrative amalgamations.

So why didn’t the NSW Government push harder for these?  Was it because they believed forced amalgamations gave them more direct control and influence over developments?  Were those who were pushing behind the scenes for forced amalgamations people whose reasons for doing so could be viewed as ‘problematic’?  This now seems to be the dominant theme emerging as can be seen here.

What was to stop Councils suggesting administrative amalgamations in their submission to Fit to the Future?  Nothing is the answer.  It could have been put up as an alternative, but obviously they would need to be comprehensive.

So did the CHCC delve into shared services and administrative amalgamations in their submission?  Well sort of as can be seen here on page two.  But note it is explicitly stated that no costings had been done or were included.  Why not?  How serious was the suggestion about banding together with the Clarence, Bellingen and Nambucca councils to share services?  Was the mention just put in the report by the CHCC as a handy fig leaf?

A whole range of very valid questions about this aspect were raised here in Coffs Outlook by another author.  Although I do not agree that forced mergers are necessarily right the author nevertheless raises many other points that had me nodding my head in agreement.  As is highlighted we continue to see the leadership, both elected and managerial, at the CHCC exhibit some debatable judgement and behaviours.

So what can be done to improve things in local government both globally and here in Coffs Harbour?  With local government elections just over the horizon these are questions that are very apt.  I’ll talk more in future articles about this.

But let’s just throw something ‘out there’ to ‘get the ball rolling’. For too long now the role played by developers and real estate agents who become elected local government officials has been controversial overall to say the least.  I concur one hundred percent with the State Opposition Leader Luke Foley when he says  “developers and real estate agents should be banned from being local councillors and political donations and spending should be capped in council elections.”

Before I am accused of bias against developers and real estate agents consider this; after 30 years as a master builder my father spent the last 15 years of his working life as a housing developer, valuer and real estate agent and I owe much in my life to his hard work and honesty.

Campaign catchup: Labor digs in on childcare

Election 2016: Bill Shorten bats off reporters’ questions on the affordability of Labor’s $3bn childcare policy, both sides enjoys a rare moment of unity at the RSL’s 100th anniversary and Nick Xenophon talks down the prospect of holding the balance of power
Bill Shorten addresses the Returned Services League centenary conference in Melbourne.

Bill Shorten addresses the Returned Services League centenary conference in Melbourne. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA


Whoa-oh, we’re halfway there. Bill Shorten began week five in Melbourne, campaigning on Labor’s $3bn childcare policy, released yesterday. The centrepiece is a 15% increase in the child care benefit, as well as a rise in the cap from $7,500 to $10,000, which Labor says will benefit every family on less than $150,000 a year. (The Coalition, meanwhile, has delayed rebate rises until 2018.)

On Monday Shorten announced a further $100m over three years to fund extra spots for childcare, which he said it was a “game-changer” (about five times in 60 seconds). Reporters called Shorten up on how the $3bn policy was going to be funded – reallocated money, he said on Sunday, but what is the government currently spending it on?

He didn’t answer the question. At all. “We are backing in childcare because we think an investment in childcare is an investment in the future of this country,” Shorten said.

Reporters – those pesky reporters! – then pointed out that an average of $300,000 per urban centre per year may not go very far, to which Kate Ellis, the education spokeswoman, replied it would be targeted towards areas where there’s very high demand.

But Shorten wasn’t off the hook over funding yet, and was pressed on when Labor would make public its costings. He bristled at the suggestion the party was aiming to prevent scrutiny until later in the campaign, pointing out there are another four weeks to go.

“When we have unveiled all of our policies, at that point we will outline our final costings and measures,” he said. “Hold on to your hats because the next four weeks you will see more positive policies which make a practical difference in the lives of all Australians.”

But funding is shaping up to be a key issue this election. The government says Labor’s policies aren’t affordable; Labor insists they are. Until the costings are made public, we won’t be sure either way.

All quiet on the Athenian front

Shorten later joined Malcolm Turnbull at the Returned Services League for its centenary conference – and a rare moment of unity. (The prime minister had earlier made a small funding for sport in Kelly O’Dwyer’s electorate.)

The prime minister began by outlining the Coalition’s defence spending and quoting the Athenian general Thucydides. Who said he’s not a man of the people?

He said addressing homelessness and mental illness among veterans – including greater support for Australia’s growing female veteran community – would be a priority in the next term of government. The Coalition government would also work with employers to recognise veterans’ leadership and skills.

Shorten began by repeating his apology for not attending the Vietnam repatriation ceremony last week. Like Turnbull, he ended his contribution by noting that more has to be done to help veterans of current conflicts.

Xenophon: what hung parliament?

Of course the other thing uniting Shorten and Turnbull is their eagerness to convince the Australian public not to vote for the Greens and independents. (Where their views split, of course, is on the matter of who to vote for instead.)

Scott Morrison, the treasurer, addressed the possibility of “the Labor-Greens-independent minority outcome” on 2GB with Ray Hadley on Monday morning. The decision between that and re-electing the Coalition, he said, was a choice between “certainty and stability versus chaos and uncertainty”.

Even Nick Xenophon thinks a hung parliament is “highly unlikely”, saying rumours of his influence “are much exaggerated”. The Nick Xenophon Team is polling 3% nationally, according to Monday’s Newspoll. In South Australia support is 22%.

Xenophon told AM he was hopeful of getting three Senate spots, including his own, in South Australia, and maybe one more in NSW or Victoria.

There’s all this fear and loathing toward myself and the team from the major parties, but the fact is we haven’t run one TV ad, one radio ad, because we simply don’t have the dough.

Best of Bowers

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten with the RSL national president, Ken Doolan, at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, known today as the RSL.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten with the RSL national president, Ken Doolan, at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, known today as the RSL. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian


Further reading

• Election podcast: the Greens’ fight for Batman and Wills (The Conversation).
The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale discusses the party’s play for two nearby Labor-held seats – Batman, held by David Feeney, and Wills, where the popular Kelvin Thomson is retiring.

• Marginal seats unlikely to deliver a hung parliament (The Saturday Paper).
Despite a scare campaign, the election is tending to a narrow Coalition victory, writes Karen Middleton. Meanwhile, the Greens are everyone’s enemy.

• Why Turnbull is his own worst enemy (Fairfax).
“Malcolm Turnbull’s courage to swim against the tide had defined the future PM in the public mind. But his non-delivery since has offered Labor its best opportunity to dismantle his allure.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world …

The sentencing of a former Stanford University student for sexual assault has caused anger on social media.

Twenty-year-old Brock Turner had faced a maximum sentence of 14 years in a station prison, but was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in a county jail on Thursday. The character reference submitted by his father, which said Turner had already paid “a steep price … for 20 minutes of action”, was publicised today.

Meanwhile, the victim impact statement written by the 23-year-old woman he assaulted has gone viral after being released by the district attorney’s office. You can read it in full here.

And if today was a pop song …

Turnbull’s daughter Daisy is expecting a baby girl, and the prime minister is using the campaign trail as an opportunity to crowdsource name ideas.

There are, of course, myriad songs referencing women’s names, but Mambo No 5 – the pinnacle of Lou Bega’s career as well as NOW That’s What I Call Music! 44 – must list the most of them.

Of course, as a self-described feminist (“As I often say, women hold up half the sky” – what?), Turnbull would doubtless take umbrage with objectification that forms the body of the song’s lyrical content. But he might get some ideas to pass on to Daisy.

Turnbull on message but who’s listening?

Thus Spake Mungo:

MungoMalcolm Turnbull’s supporters have been praising him for keeping on his message, which at least has the virtue of simplicity: my government has a national economic plan for jobs and growth.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, and this is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know, as John Keats more elegantly put it.

And certainly our prime minister and his dutiful choristers have been hammering the line. But the problem is that it is not only repetitious; it risks becoming boring to the point of irrelevance to many of his potential listeners.

And more ominously, as the message is progressively deciphered, it is becoming increasingly unconvincing. Apart from the various glosses about innovation, trade agreements, youth internships and the rest, the superannuation changes have become seriously divisive within Turnbull’s own troops, with his cabinet secretary, Arthur Sinodinos, apparently promising a review after the election and Turnbull himself having to insist that he was staying firm.

But the centrepiece of the whole construction – the plan for short, medium and long term company tax cuts – is proving less and less like a plan for jobs and growth and more and more like a handout to the Liberal faithful. The revelation that the potential – and it is only that – improvement on GNP is a mere one per cent over ten years at the expense of some $50 billion suggests that the result is simply not cost effective.

Turnbull himself has started to hose it down; after all, he says, the initial impact will only be on small businesses in the first three year term of government, and for the rest – well, that is three elections away. Who knows what might or might not happen then?

In the meantime, we hope that the immediate winners will invest and spend, creating the jobs and growth – well, perhaps just one third of one percentage point of GDP. But even this could be wildly optimistic. Small companies are notoriously conservative: it is only the big end of town that jobs and growth might eventuate, and that is at least a decade away. The smaller players are reluctant even to replace old equipment, let alone to recruit new staff; they are more likely to sit on what they can get, especially in a time when net profits are falling.

So Turnbull has had to admit that the instant surge he had confidently predicted in budget week will, if it happens at all, be more of a trickle; not much for the first few years and not even a great deal after a decade.

And the same applies to Bill Shorten’s recipe for more expenditure on education: there will be an economic dividend, and when it eventually comes it will perhaps be larger and more permanent than Turnbull’s prescription, but by definition it will take a whole new intake of pupils to emerge as the success stories.

However, all is not lost: Shorten’s proposal to bring back to the Gonski formula does provide immediate relief for the schools, parents and children currently disadvantaged: there can be no serious argument that more and better targeted teaching staff will not improve the immediate needs, even if it does not immediately translate into cold, hard economic bottom lines.

If Turnbull looses ten seats, even calling a joint sitting of both houses to pass the Building and Construction Commission bill may not be an option. His combined majority could easily fall short.

Turnbull’s rebuttal, that the government is already doing enough and that more cash is not the answer, is hardly likely to convince those who can see for themselves that in some cases the situation is dire, and that Shorten’s idea, no matter how expensive it might seem to the hard-line rationalists, is more worthwhile than a company tax cut. It is, as Shorten keeps reminding them, about priorities.

Which is why, presumably, Turnbull has decided to take out some insurance. Last week he suddenly changes tack: it was not all about the Labor Party, it was also about the Greens, Nick Xenophon, the independents – about just about everyone else, apparently. Only a vote for the coalition would ensure stability, prevent the alleged chaos of minority government—you know, the system in which Tony Abbott failed to convince the Greens and independents to co-operate in his version of it.

It has finally dawned on Turnbull that in spite of the advice of his machine men that the marginals in the Reps will hold firm, the senate is still certain to be a melange. The strategy of reforming the voting system has not been the panacea intended; far from weeding out the unwanted recalcitrant, not only will at least a couple of them probably survive, but they are likely to be joined by a few more, and prospect of a senate securing a mandate for Turnbull’s economic plan is at best problematical.

But it gets worse; if Turnbull looses ten seats, even calling a joint sitting of both houses to pass the Building and Construction Commission bill may not be an option. His combined majority could easily fall short. And if that happens, the entire exercise – voting reform, bringing forward the budget, the double dissolution, the election itself – will not only collapse, but become a fiasco; many Liberals, not to mention the electorate at large, will ask what was the point?

Why did we have to go through so much pain and suffering only to go back to a hamstrung government with a lot of his backbench followers now thrown into the scrapheap? The horror, the horror.

And of course Scott Morrison is also taking an each way bet. When the national accounts figures provided an unexpected boost, Turnbull said, ‘so far, so good’ – although he had very little to do with them and his economic plan had not even been formulated during the relevant period. But Morrison warned that things were fragile: the voters should not assume that things were really improving – certainly not rosy enough to risk a return to Labor.

But the implication was that the last two and a half years of the coalition had still not done anything substantial to repair the economy – F for fail. No wonder the punters are less than convinced about the current prescription.

Hillary Clinton savages Donald Trump’s response to Orlando massacre

Not one of Donald Trump’s reckless ideas would have saved a single life in Orlando,’ says Democratic candidate while calling for stricter gun control

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a discussion on national security in Hampton, Virginia.
 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a discussion on national security in Hampton, Virginia. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Image

The “reckless” proposals floated by Donald Trump would have done nothing to prevent the carnage of the Orlando massacre, Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a national security forum, Clinton continued to challenge her opponent’s preparedness to lead the nation in a time of crisis while declaring Trump “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified” to assume the role of commander-in-chief.

“Not one of Donald Trump’s reckless ideas would have saved a single life in Orlando,” Clinton said. “A ban on Muslims would not have stopped this attack. Neither would a wall. I don’t know how one builds a wall to keep the internet out,” she told an event in Hampton, Virginia.

Federal authorities have suggested that Mateen, the man suspected of killing 49 people and wounding another 53 at the gay nightclub Pulse on Sunday, was radicalized online. The FBI is also investigating whether Mateen’s own sexuality was a factor in the attack, amid accounts that he visited gay chat rooms and frequented the club where he went on to carry out mass murder.

Trump has nonetheless reacted to the tragedy, labeled by Barack Obama as both an act of terror and a hate crime, with his signature bluster. The presumptive Republican nominee has reiterated his call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US, accused Muslims in America of protecting radicals and even suggested the president was complicit with terrorists.

Clinton pointed out again yesterday, that gunman Omar Mateen was born in Queens, New York.

Her event on Wednesday, at the Virginia Air and Space Center, was emblematic of the ways in which Clinton has sought to distinguish herself from Trump. Seated at a roundtable with military families and service members, Clinton offered only brief remarks before engaging in a conversation with attendees that resembled the listening tour she embarked upon when launching her campaign.

Among the topics discussed were the impact of cuts to the defense budget, longstanding gaps in veterans’ care, and how to identify and target lone wolf threats such as the Orlando terrorist. The low-key event aimed to highlight Clinton’s grasp over both foreign and domestic issues – she has long described herself as a policy wonk – while countering Trump’s preference for rallies of which the hallmarks are showmanship and bravado.

“After all the Twitter rants and conspiracy theories we’ve been hearing recently, it’s time for a substantive discussion about how we protect our country,” Clinton said.

Donald Trump walks on stage to speak during campaign stop in Atlanta, Georgia.
Pinterest
 Donald Trump walks on stage to speak during campaign stop in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: Branden Camp/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Trump headlined a rambling and rambunctious rally in Atlanta, where he continued to advocate for his Muslim ban and painted dark warnings of America’s future.

“It’s going to happen again and again and again,” Trump said of the Orlando attack, even adding of the US: “Eventually, it’s not going to survive, just so you understand.”

At every turn since the events in Orlando, which marked the deadliest mass shooting in US history, the two presumptive nominees have put forth visions that could not be more disparate in substance and tone.

Within hours of the attack, while victims underwent lifesaving operations and law enforcement removed the bodies of the slain from the nightclub, Trump congratulated himself on Twitter: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

He then denigrated Obama for not using the same phrasing, stating that his soft verbal response alone was reason enough to demand the president “step down”. Obama responded on Tuesday with a blistering rebuttal of Trump and his critics, arguing that semantics alone would alter nothing with respect to the war on terror.

Clinton, echoing the president, said on Wednesday that there were “no magic words” to resolve the threat of terrorism. She also re-emphasized the need for an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures, such as preventing those on the FBI watch list from being able to purchase firearms.

Clinton also redoubled her support for the Muslim communities both at home and abroad that have been under sustained assault by Trump. She deplored Trump’s populist demagoguery, while arguing that for all of his apocalyptic assessments of the nation’s ability to protect itself from acts of terror, Trump has offered no coherent policy prescriptions.

A CBS News poll found that more than half of voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of the attack. Trump’s net favorability rating was -26 percentage points while Clinton held a marginally positive net favorability of +2 percentage points.

Following Isis-inspired attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, polls consistently show that American voters identify terrorism as a top concern. Given Clinton’s résumé, her campaign believes she is best suited to ease a nation beset by fear of terror attacks and gun violence.

Clinton and her campaign have assailed Trump over his response to Orlando. A new video will showcase an excerpt from her speech in Philadelphia, when she castigated her opponent’s national security agenda, according to CNN. 

Voters like Terry Doehring, who attended a Clinton campaign event in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, are taking notice.

Doehring said she was especially moved when Clinton quoted from a letter George HW Bush left for Bill Clinton when he took office in 1993.

“You will be our president when you read this note,” Clinton recited from the letter, admitting that it still brought tears to her eyes after all these years. “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”

“This proves she is able to appreciate what the other side has to say and to work with them,” Doehring said,

Trump, she added, was too polarizing to unify a deeply partisan nation.

Could we be looking at a second double dissolution election ?

 

Independent MP Nick Xenophon joins dairy farmers’ march through Melbourne’s city streets.

When I heard Nick Xenophon announce that he would name his political party after himself, I thought of Clive Palmer.

When I heard that Xenophon would ruthlessly use his balance of power in the Senate, it made me wonder how much Senate dysfunction the Australian public will put up with. And when I now hear he wants to overturn Australia’s recent trade deals in our Asian region, the fact is he has gone one step too far. He has highlighted how these small parties are full of all care and no responsibility.

The chances are that Xenophon will do very little for Australia, if anything. More importantly, he will be another player in a dysfunctional Senate that is determined to disrupt an elected government.

South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has hit out at what he claimed were "dirty preference deals" struck by the major ...South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has hit out at what he claimed were “dirty preference deals” struck by the major parties. Photo: Pat Scala

Many people have been saying that voters are not engaged yet because the election is still weeks away. But another reason for not engaging is the sense that many think the dysfunction will continue.

The result is the public are not especially enthused by either side, although Malcolm Turnbull is seen as the better bet as prime minister and the Coalition at least knows there is a problem with debt.

Beyond the need to fix our finances, the public want leadership. I have said repeatedly that the way things are going, a second double dissolution will be necessary in the next term.

Turnbull needs to go a step further and sharpen his message about what the country needs. He should make crystal clear to the electorate, before the  election, that if the Coalition wins it must be given the right to implement the promises he is making now to the Australian people.

In the event that the Senate tries to stop the government, then the government will have no choice but to call another double dissolution election.

It is time again for the Senate to accept that the public’s decision made at the election should be honoured. Yes, the senate should be able to debate reasonable changes in line with what the public voted for but not so as to emasculate the public mandate.

Before the 1980s that general approach was well established. I can’t say that was the case on every issue but the concept was sufficiently well-accepted by the Australian people.

Don Chipp successfully established a new political party, the Australian Democrats. Chipp took his seat in the Senate in 1978 and in 1980 he had secured additional seats to give the Australian Democrats control of the balance of power. Chipp’s political objective was “to keep the bastards honest”, but his party wasn’t a road block and worked with governments to pass legislation.

Chipp left the Senate in 1986 and his slogan slowly lost its punch. The Hawke government then had the good fortune of having support from the Coalition for much-needed economic reforms, rather than needing to seek support from a few balance-of-power senators. The bottom line was better economic management.

From 1996 onwards, when the Howard government was elected, Labor voted against all significant reforms. Fortunately Australian Democrat leaders – Cheryl Kernot on workplace relations in 1996 and later Meg Lees on the GST in 1998 – acknowledged the Chipp slogan and worked with the government. Those two reforms gave the Howard government the authority to pursue other reforms.

Now the Democrats have gone and their idea of keeping the bastards honest has been trashed by Labor and the left-wing Greens. The result is that the Labor/Greens/Xenophon trio will obstruct an incoming Turnbull government from the Sunday after election day.

The list of measures the Turnbull government needs to introduce in the new Parliament is growing.

The most important legislation to implement regards the managing our country’s finances. Legislation will be needed for superannuation reform, business tax cuts, depreciation tax benefits for small business and outstanding savings measures.

Then there will be the recommendations from the Dyson Heydon’s royal commission.

Based on recent practice and comments from various participants, nearly all these measures will be stopped in the Senate or significantly cut, despite the government having a fresh mandate from the electorate.

These measures are not the only measures that need to be passed. The government needs to set out its list of “must have” legislation in plenty of time before July 2. And then the next fight will start.

Peter Reith is a Fairfax Media columnist and a former Howard government minister