The Wrap with Richard Denniss
Happy New Year!
While it’s only mid-January, 2024 is already off to a big start.
US bookmakers have Donald Trump as favourite for the next presidency, Australia is getting drawn into US foreign policy in the Middle East, domestic debate about the $320 billion Stage 3 tax cuts is heating up and of course there’s Peter Dutton’s fears about access to thongs emblazoned with the Australian flag in towns that only have a Woolworths.
This year is the Australia Institute’s 30th anniversary and I’m proud to say that, with support from people like you, we have grown into an organisation that doesn’t just participate in the big economic, environmental, foreign policy and democratic debates raging in Australia, but both shapes and draws them together.
For the Australia Institute, there are no boundaries between the challenge of reducing emissions, reducing the cost of living and reducing inequality. And our concerns with these things don’t stop at our borders, which is why we work closely with international allies and worry just as much about the impact of our coal exports as we do Australia’s domestic emissions. Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, we are the world’s third biggest fossil fuel producer and the world’s largest exporter of iron ore.
Australia is not a little country punching above our weight, we are a rich country that isn’t pulling its weight.
Over the last few weeks, the Australia Institute has been actively engaged in the debate around the rapid growth of large twin-cab utes and SUVs on Australian roads. To be clear, we haven’t said such cars should be banned, but we have taken the opportunity to remind people that our research shows tax concessions are a major reason why, unlike most cities outside North America, our cities are full of vehicles designed to carry over a tonne of cargo.
Defenders of Australia’s massive fossil fuel export plans often point to the need to focus on domestic emissions, but those defenders are largely silent about the contradiction between Australia’s targets to reduce domestic emissions and the rapid growth of inefficient vehicles on our roads over the next 10 years. Apart from Russia, Australia is the only developed country with no mandatory fuel efficiency standards.
Speaking of not pulling our weight, despite a target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid, in reality Australia’s aid is currently languishing at just $4.5 billion a year, or 0.19% of GNI. If Australia was serious about supporting our Pacific allies and strengthening our strategic relationships in the region, it’s hard to imagine how we can find $313 billion for Stage 3 tax cuts and $368 billion for AUKUS but not the extra $12 billion needed to meet the aid promises we have made.
As US politics makes clear, democracy is a fragile thing. Australia has a strong democratic tradition but it’s clear no country can take functioning democracy, the rule of law and respect for institutions for granted. Think tanks like the Australia Institute can’t solve all of Australia’s problems, but neither can individual researchers or organisations with a single focus on a single problem. Democratic problems are a lot harder, messier, and more interrelated than many advocates of ‘evidence-based policy’ seem to assume.
Over the last 30 years at the Australia Institute we have taken pride in working on a wide range of issues to bring a wide range of perspectives in the search for solutions that hold strong evidence, allies and resonance in the broader community.
If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past 30 years it’s that democracy doesn’t just need good ideas, it needs good people, institutions and strategies to bring them to life.
— Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute
The Big Stories
Redesigning the Stage Three Tax Cuts
As Prime Minister Albanese remains determined to keep the Stage 3 tax cuts, there is growing pressure amongst the public, media and economists for Labor to re-assess the costly and unfair tax scheme.
If the scheme is to go ahead, the tax cuts must be redesigned to cost less and be more equitably distributed.
Chief economist Greg Jericho and senior economist Matt Grudnoff have devised four alternatives to the cuts that meet this criteria, which were most recently featured in news.com.
Sign our petition to redesign the Stage 3 tax cuts.
We Need a Plastic Tax
A European Union-style tax on plastic packaging could raise nearly $1.5 billion each year, and could form part of the answer to the world’s growing tidal wave of plastic.
Less than a fifth of the plastic waste used each year is recovered, with consumption expected to more than double to nearly 10 billion tonnes by 2050.
The crisis shows that if recycling was the solution to the plastic waste crisis, it would have been solved by now. Instead, we need a tax that discourages the use of plastic at production level.
Read more: Plastic packaging tax could raise billions
Australia’s Environmental Laws Blocking Renewables
Australia’s environmental laws are keeping out renewable projects rather than fossil fuels, making progress difficult.
Four of the five major projects blocked by the Morrison and Albanese governments since 2019 have been renewable, whereas 24 coal projects and 116 gas wells were approved in the 2015-19 period.
“The rare decision to refuse a project as ‘clearly unacceptable’ under EPBC law seems to be disproportionately applied to renewable energy projects and never applied to fossil fuel projects that are clearly unacceptable,” Mark Ogge told Crikey.
Pity About the Planet | Judy Horacek
All cartoons © Judy Horacek
Tax Subsidised Behemoths
Australia has a big ‘big car’ problem, we have too many SUVs and utes and we keep getting more of them.
In 2023 all ten best-selling new car models were either SUVs or utes, over half of all new car sales were SUVs (55.8%) and nearly a quarter (22.5%) were light commercial vehicles (a category mostly representing utes).
Big cars generate more pollution, are detrimental to road safety and damage roads – and this is being rewarded through government subsidies.
Richard Denniss appeared on 2GB to discuss why Australia needs to re-assess its love of big cars.
Richard joined 2GB to talk about the big cars taking over our roads.
"If you want to improve safety on our roads, or you want to help people with cost of living or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then having 78% of new cars as SUVs or utes is a problem." @RDNS_TAI #auspol pic.twitter.com/Y8GI4Zn6G7
— Australia Institute (@TheAusInstitute) January 17, 2024
Concern Grows for PALM Scheme Workers
Recent research from the Australia Institute on the concerning flaws of the PALM visa scheme formed part of an ABC Pacific article exposing the high number of deaths occurring amongst PALM visa workers.
The article found that 29 people died last year, compounding fears for worker safety amid the planned expansion of the program.
As part of a wider improvement in conditions, our research is calling for PALM visa holders to have the right to change their employer, and for greater access to Medicare.
Read more: The PALM Scheme
Do We Want Trump as an Ally?
As the US election trail kicks off with a Trump victory in Iowa, the world prepares for a potential return of one of the Western world’s most divisive figures at the helm of the US, one of Australia’s key allies.
Australian governments are always eager to emphasise our friendship with the US. But is that the kind of friend we want? Is Trump’s America really the kind of country we should trust with our security?
These are questions we may soon have to answer, writes Dr Emma Shortis.
To delve deeper, you can listen to Dr Emma Shortis discuss the implications for the Iowa victory on the 7am podcast, a Saturday Paper production.
Listen here: Why America is willing to re-elect Trump
Just the Beginning for Labour Reform
On the final sitting day of Parliament for 2023, the government’s amended Closing Loopholes bill was passed, securing amendments that will provide greater protections to vulnerable workers.
But, the success of the legislated changes is just the beginning, writes Dr Fiona Macdonald, and there are still further gaps to plug and loopholes to close.
Read more: Closing the loopholes in labour hire
Follow the Money: Summer Series
Our summer series continues, bringing you some of the best conversations from our webinars and live events in 2023.
In this episode join Jeff Goodell award-winning environmental journalist and author of Heat, for a discussion about the extreme ways in which our planet is already changing, and what we can do to stop it.
Dollars & Sense
In this episode Greg takes a look at retail figures over the past month, and what they say about our spending habits. Also, how much stuff from the 1980s could you buy today?
ACCC Wants to Examine Supermarket Price Gouging
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has announced it would welcome greater powers to investigate claims of price gouging by major supermarkets in Australia.
In particular it is keen to look closely at instances of raising prices before ‘discounting’ them, in a practice that disingenuously leads consumers to believe they are spending less money.
The acknowledgement of price gouging from Australia’s key consumer integrity body comes after a period of cost of living pressures that are increasingly making it difficult to afford basic groceries.
Greg Jericho and Jim Stanford presented evidence to an ACTU inquiry, headed by former ACCC Allan Fels, on price gouging across industries including supermarkets in September 2023.
First Nations elders from the Tiwi Islands have lost their case against Santos in the fight to protect underwater cultural heritage sights and sacred dreaming places off the coast of the Tiwi Islands.
The case came to court after the group of elders, represented by the Environmental Defenders Office, sought to pause construction of sea pipelines as part of Santos’ Barossa gas project in the region.
Justice Natalie Charlesworth, who oversaw the case, handed down the verdict after deciding there was too much inconsistency regarding the song lines and dreaming places, and that she didn’t believe the sea floor pipeline would cause damage to those significant areas.
First Nations elders have been asked to pay Santos’ legal costs.
Chief executive of Australian Energy Producers (formerly APEA), Samantha McCulloch, said that the court case had held up “energy security, emissions reduction and economic returns for Australians.”
In reality, 80% of Australia’s gas is exported and does not contribute to domestic energy security, gas mining and production is responsible for massive amounts of greenhouse gases and, thanks to our broken PRRT scheme, Australians see limited economic return on national resources.
Polly Hemming says it best during her appearance on the Drum: the gas industry only costs the Australian economy and people.
People still tend to think of gas as a vital industry to Australia, but the truth is, if anything, it costs the Australian economy. @pollyjhemming dropping some truth bombs on @ABCthedrum 💣💥 #auspol pic.twitter.com/oDfuOsFMNR
— Australia Institute (@TheAusInstitute) June 22, 2023
We cannot accept a society that promotes the gross accumulation of wealth alongside widespread global poverty…One of the best mechanisms we have to address this is taxation.
— Oxfam Australia chief executive Lyn Morgain on RN criticising the unfair and costly Stage 3 tax cuts
Australia’s Biggest Book Club | 11am Wednesday 24 January
Climate Integrity Summit 2024 | 20 March Parliament House, Canberra
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