Weekly Wrap Up
16 December 2022
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- The national unemployment rate remained at 3.4 per cent, according to latest labour force data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
- The Federal Government and Opposition visited the Pacific Islands on a bipartisan trip that included Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong, Minister for International Development and The Pacific Pat Conroy, and respective Shadow Ministers Simon Birmingham and Michael McCormack.
- Meanwhile, Australia signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with Vanuatu.
- Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler announced a reduction to Medicare subsidies for mental health plans, under which the number of psychology sessions eligible for rebates will be halved from 20 to 10 from 21 January 2023.
- Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil launched the Strengthening Democracy Taskforce and the National Resilience Taskforce.
- The Federal Government reached a confidential settlement with former Liberal staff member Brittany Higgins in relation to a civil claim Ms Higgins brought against the Commonwealth last week.
- Legislative Council results were finalised in Victoria following the November State Election, with the Legalise Cannabis Party gaining its first two representatives in the Victorian Parliament.
- WA Premier Mark McGowan unveiled a Cabinet reshuffle, with parliamentarians Sabine Winton and Jackie Jarvis promoted to the Ministry.
Energy Price Relief Plan
Federal Parliament was recalled yesterday to pass legislation enabling a Government intervention in the energy market in an attempt to address escalating energy prices. The intervention was first outlined in an Energy Price Relief Plan agreed to by the Federal, State and Territory governments at National Cabinet last Friday afternoon.
The Plan includes a 12-month cap on the price of gas at $12 per gigajoule on new wholesale gas sales by east coast producers, as well as the introduction of a mandatory code of conduct for the wholesale gas market that includes a reasonable pricing provision. The State and Federal governments will also provide targeted energy bill relief of up to $1.5 billion and invest more heavily in energy transmission and capacity capabilities. Additionally, the NSW and Queensland governments will recall their respective State Parliaments to cap the price of coal used for electricity generation to $125 a tonne.
In exchange for their support on the legislation to secure its passage through the Senate, the Greens negotiated[PDF] a separate energy support package for inclusion in next year’s Budget. This will see the introduction of the Household and Business Electrification Package, which will assist households and businesses transition to renewable energy.
Robodebt Royal Commission
On Wednesday, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared[PDF] before the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme where he faced questioning over his involvement in the scheme as Minister for Social Services in 2015.
Mr Morrison indicated that he had not received legal advice prepared by the Department of Social Services in 2014 and 2015 that suggested the scheme may not be legal, stating this information was “not conveyed” to him as Minister. He said he “would never have conceived that [there was] legal advice suggesting [the scheme] was unlawful”, and that had he received this advice, it would be unlikely that the Government would have pursued the Scheme.
Former Minister for Human Services Marise Payne provided[PDF] evidence to the Royal Commission on Tuesday, where she advised she did not recall any formal advice on the nature of the policy and legislative changes that would need to be made to enable the Scheme.
National COVID-19 Health Management Plan
Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler released the Federal Government’s $2.8 billion National COVID-19 Health Management Plan for 2023[PDF], which outlines planned changes to Australia’s pandemic response over the next year. In the Plan, the Government stated that Australia intends to transition away from “bespoke arrangements” for COVID-19 and instead manage it in a way similar to other respiratory viruses moving forward. However, it conceded that Australia is not yet at a “steady state” where it can predict the virus and manage it within “normal systems”, therefore specific health measures will still be required at least over the next year.
Significantly, the Plan indicated that from January 2023, PCR testing will neither be required nor recommended for “low-risk” individuals and Medicare-funded testing at private clinics will only be available to those with a medical referral. Free PCR testing will continue to be available at state-run sites throughout the country, where testing will be prioritised for those considered “high-risk”, including older Australians, First Nations peoples, and those with a disability or underlying health conditions. The Plan also confirms that free COVID-19 vaccinations will continue to be available to all Australians over the next year.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones announced plans to reform Australia’s payments system and financial market infrastructure in 2023. Planned changes include the establishment of a regulatory framework for Buy Now Pay Later services and crypto service providers.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission launched civil proceedings against 11 current and former Star Entertainment directors and officers. It is alleged that Star’s board and executives failed to address the risks of money laundering and criminal associations.
Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Phillip Lowe delivered a keynote address at the Australian Payments Network Summit, where he discussed Australia’s payments system.
Treasury published[PDF] consultation papers for the development of a climate-related disclosure framework. Under changes proposed in the paper, companies would be required to disclose climate-related financial risks and opportunities.
RESOURCES AND ENERGY
Minister for Resources Madeleine King confirmed Australia has signed the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance, joining an international group of governments in a commitment to sustainability and high environmental, social and governance standards. The signing of the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance, an initiative led by Canada, commits Australia to sustainable and responsible mining practices.
The NSW Government declared a proposal to build a new pipeline between the Narrabri Gas Project and the Hunter Gas Pipeline as Critical State Significant Infrastructure, deeming the project economically essential to NSW. Premier Dominic Perrottet stated that the pipeline will be a “crucial link” to connect the Narrabri Gas Project into the east coast gas network.
Also in NSW, the State Government committed $3 billion to fund the next stage of the Zero Emission Buses (ZEBS) initiative, as well as new charging infrastructure. The ZEBS program will see the manufacture of 1200 new buses as part of a plan to eventually replace the State’s entire public bus fleet with electric vehicles.
INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND WATER
Infrastructure Australia released its inaugural Infrastructure Market Capacity report, forecasting an increase in the demand for skills, labour and materials due to a growing public infrastructure pipeline. The report found that the five-year pipeline of major public infrastructure is valued at $237 billion, an increase of $15 billion in the last 12 months. The report also found recycled material could replace up to 27 per cent of materials used in road projects across Australia.
The Federal and NSW governments awarded the final contract for the Western Sydney Airport project, the Stations, Systems, Trains, Operations and Maintenance contract, to the Parklife Metro consortium. The consortium will construct all six metro stations between St Marys and the new Aerotropolis and will run the new Western Sydney Airport line for 15 years after it becomes operational.
Infrastructure and Transport ministers across Australia met in Canberra last Friday and discussed a number of matters including market constraints affecting the construction industry, the decarbonisation of infrastructure and transport, and improving interoperability of rail systems. Ministers also agreed to the National Road Safety Action Plan 2023-2025 and agreed in-principle to a three-year road user charging cycle.
The Queensland Government appointed Tess Pickering as the new State Planner. An experienced land planner, Ms Pickering will have a key focus on overseeing the delivery of new housing in the State and will help frame the Government’s response to housing affordability.
NSW Minister for Women’s Safety and the Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence Natalie Ward committed $484.3 million as part of two new 5-year plans to reform the State’s support services to victims of sexual, domestic and family violence, as well as developing sexual consent law reforms.
Queensland Minister for Health and Ambulance Services Yvette D’Ath announced a pay rise of four per cent for public nurses and midwives following a new enterprise bargaining agreement with the State Government. The agreement includes a wage increase and a cost-of-living payment, with payment to be backdated to 1 April 2022.
Also in Queensland, the Government confirmed the launch of a human safety trial as part of the Queensland Brain Institute’s research into dementia treatment. The trial will be used to support and improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The WA Government released a 10-year Aboriginal Family Safety Strategy that aims to support Aboriginal Australians who have experienced family violence. This forms part of Outcome 13 of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.