Man to face court over alleged rape of Brittany Higgins

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AAP/Dean Lewins

A man has been summonsed to face court over the alleged rape of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

A statement from ACT police on Friday afternoon said the man, aged 26, had been summonsed to appear in court for an alleged sexual assault in 2019.

“Police will allege the man had sexual intercourse without consent at Parliament House on Saturday, 23 March 2019,” the statement said.

It said detectives from ACT Policing’s Criminal Investigations-Sexual Assault and Child Abuse team had first received a report about the matter in April 2019.

“The investigation remained open and in February 2021 a formal complaint was made. Detectives have since spoken to a number of witnesses and collected evidence as part of the investigation,” the statement said.

It said that on Friday officers “served the man’s legal representative with a summons to appear before the ACT Magistrates Court on September 16 2021.

“The man will face one charge of sexual intercourse without consent”.

The maximum penalty is 12 years jail.

Higgins, who in 2019 was a staffer in the office of Linda Reynolds, then defence industry minister, alleged a colleague raped her in the minister’s office.

Higgins’ making public her allegation had seismic political consequences.

Reynolds faced extensive criticism over her handling of the matter and was moved from her position of defence minister in a subsequent cabinet reshuffle.

Inquiries were set up into the political culture at Parliament House, including one by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who is to present her final report later this year.

After a review by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s deputy secretary Stephanie Foster, there is to be a one-hour, face-to-face training session for parliamentarians and staff on sexual harassment. The government has made it mandatory for ministers and Coalition staffers to attend.

A body is also being set up to deal with complaints about behaviour in the parliamentary workplace.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Younger adults can get very sick and die from COVID too. Here’s what the data tell us

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We learned this week of the tragic death of a 27-year-old man from Sydney who had COVID-19. This follows a 38-year-old woman who died from the virus last month.

Throughout the current Delta outbreak in New South Wales, we’ve heard young people are making up a greater proportion of people in hospital compared with earlier in the pandemic. We’re seeing similar patterns overseas.

In NSW between June 13 and July 17, the 30-49 age group represented the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalisations, with 45 people in their 30s and 40s admitted (26% of total COVID hospitalisations). Some 13 people aged 49 and under were admitted to ICU, representing 36% of total ICU admissions, with the youngest just a teenager.

What’s behind this worrying trend? Is it the fact more older people are now vaccinated? Or perhaps the Delta variant is causing more severe disease in young people? It may well be a bit of both. Let’s take a look.

Older age is the biggest risk factor

As we learned about COVID-19 last year, it became clear the elderly were the most likely to get very sick. This is true of other infectious diseases too.

A review published late last year shows the steep rise of the infection fatality rate (the chance of dying from COVID-19 if you contract it) with increasing age:

age 10 — 2 in 100,000
age 25 — 1 in 10,000
age 55 — 4 in 1,000
age 65 — 14 in 1,000
age 75 — 5 in 100
age 85 — 15 in 100.

Read more:
Does anyone know what your wishes are if you’re sick and dying from coronavirus?

But younger people are more likely to be infected

People aged in their 20s have consistently made up a high proportion of COVID-19 cases in Australia and overseas. If we look at all cases of COVID recorded in Australia since the pandemic began, 20 to 29-year-olds account for the highest number (around 22% of total infections).

Reports indicate 67% of new cases recorded in NSW on Thursday were in people under 40.

Some people have proposed greater social contact among those under 40 explains the higher infection rates in this age group. But equally it’s been acknowledged this may reflect more widespread testing among younger people, greater shielding by older people (staying at home to reduce their risk of infection), and a failure to communicate important public health messages around social distancing to younger people probably contribute.

Whatever the reasons, while the risk of death from COVID-19 is low for younger people, it’s self-evident that if more younger people become infected then more will develop serious illness and die.

Younger adults have generally been more likely to contract COVID-19 compared to older adults.

There are other risk factors for young people

Age is not the only factor that influences outcomes with COVID-19.

Having a chronic illness is associated with higher likelihood of more severe disease and death.

Being male and being obese also increase the risk of dying from COVID-19. Obesity may in fact add more significantly to the risk of serious disease in younger people.

Of course, none of these risk factors have to be present for a person to develop severe COVID-19.

Read more:
COVID-19 cases are highest in young adults. We need to partner with them for the health of the whole community

For younger people who are unwell enough to be hospitalised with COVID-19, the outcomes can be quite serious. A large study from the United Kingdom showed 27% of 19 to 29-year-olds admitted to hospital suffered some form of organ damage to the liver, lungs or kidneys — any of which can lead to permanent disability.

A separate study showed 14% of patients under 40 admitted to ICU died, compared with 31% across all ages.

There is evidence COVID-19 can be associated with sudden deterioration and death in people who seem to be OK, presumably from damage to the heart and sudden cardiac arrest. This phenomenon is very rare at any age.

And younger people are certainly not spared from “long COVID”. A recent Norwegian study looked at people aged 16-30 who had COVID-19 but hadn’t needed hospital treatment. It found after six months, 52% had persistent symptoms including loss of taste or smell, fatigue, breathlessness or impaired concentration.

The Delta variant

While more people are being vaccinated every day, at the same time, the virus is changing. Most recently we’ve seen the rapid global spread of the Delta variant, which is behind Australia’s current outbreaks.

Delta is estimated to be 60% more transmissible compared to the Alpha variant, and may be up to twice as likely to lead to hospitalisation.

The Delta variant also seems more likely to infect younger people. In the UK it’s thought to now be spreading through schools more than any other setting. Last year, school transmission was relatively rare.

There’s been concern in Europe infection with the Delta variant may be leading to a greater proportion of younger people being hospitalised and treated in intensive care compared to earlier in the pandemic. Data from Switzerland show people being admitted to ICU are on average five years younger, have a higher body-mass index, and are presenting with more severe lung failure.

How much of this is due to the change in the virus and how much is because older adults are increasingly vaccinated remains to be determined.

Read more:
Why is Delta such a worry? It’s more infectious, probably causes more severe disease, and challenges our vaccines

Some reassurance

Despite the increased transmission and what appears to be increased severity of infection with the Delta variant, protection from vaccines is holding up. Certainly both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca shots continue to be very effective at preventing severe illness and death.

The take home message, though, is that nobody is safe from COVID-19. Serious infection, and even death, can occur at any age; we can’t predict this.

Until we’ve vaccinated enough people in Australia we will need to take care and follow the public health advice, such as social distancing and wearing a mask. This is just as important if you’re 20 as it is if you’re 80.

Peter Wark does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

What is the metaverse? A high-tech plan to Facebookify the world

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Wacomka / Shutterstock

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the tech giant will shift from being a social media company to becoming “a metaverse company”, functioning in an “embodied internet” that blends real and virtual worlds more than ever before.

So what is “the metaverse”? It sounds like the kind of thing billionaires talk about to earn headlines, like Tesla chief Elon Musk spruiking “pizza joints” on Mars. Yet given almost three billion people use Facebook each month, Zuckerberg’s suggestion of a change of direction is worth some attention.

Read more:
Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn Facebook into a ‘metaverse company’ – what does that mean?

The term “metaverse” isn’t new, but it has recently seen a surge in popularity and speculation about what this all might mean in practice.

The idea of the metaverse is useful and it’s likely to be with us for some time. It’s a concept worth understanding even if, like me, you are critical of the future its proponents suggest.

The metaverse: a name whose time has come?

Humans have developed many technologies to trick our senses, from audio speakers and televisions to interactive video games and virtual reality, and in future we may develop tools to trick our other senses such as touch and smell. We have many words for these technologies, but as yet no popular word that refers to the totality of the mash-up of old-fashioned reality (the physical world) and our fabricated extensions to reality (the virtual world).

Words like “the internet” and “cyberspace” have come to be associated with places we access through screens. They don’t quite capture the steady interweaving of the internet with virtual realities (such as 3D game worlds or virtual cities) and augmented reality (such as navigation overlays or Pokémon GO).

Just as important, the old names don’t capture the new social relationships, sensory experiences and economic behaviours that are emerging along with these extensions to the virtual. For example, Upland mashes together a virtual reflection of our world with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and property markets.

Upland is a kind of ‘metaverse’ property-trading game based on real-world addresses.

Facebook’s announcement speaks to its attempts to envision what social media within the metaverse might look like.

It also helps that “metaverse” is a poetic term. Academics have been writing about a similar idea under the name of “extended reality” for years, but it’s a rather dull name.

“Metaverse”, coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has a lot more romantic appeal. Writers have a habit of recognising trends in need of naming: “cyberspace” comes from a 1982 book by William Gibson; “robot” is from a 1920 play by Karel Čapek.

Read more:
Do we want an augmented reality or a transformed reality?

Recent neologisms such as “the cloud” or the “Internet of Things” have stuck with us precisely because they are handy ways to refer to technologies that were becoming increasingly important. The metaverse sits in this same category.

Who benefits from the metaverse?

If you spend too long reading about big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, you might end up feeling advances in technology (like the rise of the metaverse) are inevitable. It’s hard not to then start thinking about how these new technologies will shape our society, politics and culture, and how we might fit into that future.

This idea is called “technological determinism”: the sense that advances in technology shape our social relations, power relations, and culture, with us as mere passengers. It leaves out the fact that in a democratic society we have a say in how all of this plays out.

For Facebook and other large corporations, determined to embrace the “next big thing” before their competitors, the metaverse is exciting because it presents an opportunity for new markets, new kinds of social network, new consumer electronics and new patents.

What’s not so clear is why you or I would be excited by all this.

A familiar story

In the mundane world, most of us are grappling with things like a pandemic, a climate emergency, and mass human-induced species extinction. We are struggling to understand what a good life looks like with technology we’ve already adopted (mobile devices, social media and global connectivity are linked to many unwanted effects such as anxiety and stress).

So why would we get excited about tech companies investing untold billions in new ways to distract us from the everyday world that gives us air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink?

Metaverse-style ideas might help us organise our societies more productively. Shared standards and protocols that bring disparate virtual worlds and augmented realities into a single, open metaverse could help people work together and cut down on duplication of effort.

In South Korea, for example, a “metaverse alliance” is working to persuade companies and government to work together to develop an open national VR platform. A big part of this is finding ways to blend smartphones, 5G networks, augmented reality, virtual currencies and social networks to solve problems for society (and, more cynically, make profits).

Similar claims for sharing and collaboration were made in the early days of the internet. But over time the early promise was swept aside by the dominance of large platforms and surveillance capitalism.

The internet has been wildly successful in connecting people all around the world to one another and functioning as a kind of modern Library of Alexandria to house vast stores of knowledge. Yet it has also increased the privatisation of public spaces, invited advertising into every corner of our lives, tethered us to a handful of giant companies more powerful than many countries, and led to the virtual world consuming the physical world via environmental damage.

Beyond the one-world world

The deeper problems with the metaverse are about the kind of worldview it would represent.

In one worldview, we we can think of ourselves as passengers inside a singular reality that is like a container for our lives. This view is probably familiar to most readers, and it also describes what you see on something like Facebook: a “platform” that exists independently of any of its users.

In another worldview, which sociologists suggest is common in Indigenous cultures, each of us creates the reality that we live in through what we do. Practices such as work and rituals connect people, land, life and spirituality, and together create reality.

A key problem with the former view is that it leads to a “one-world world”: a reality that does not permit other realities. This is what we see already on existing platforms.

The current version of Facebook may increase your ability to connect to other people and communities. But at the same time it limits how you connect to them: features such as six preset “reactions” to posts and content chosen by invisible algorithms shape the entire experience. Similarly, a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (with more than 100 million active users) allows limitless possibilities for how a game might play out – but defines the rules by which the game can be played.

The idea of a metaverse, by shifting even more of our lives onto a universal platform, extends this problem to a deeper level. It offers us limitless possibility to overcome the constraints of the physical world; yet in doing so, only replaces them with constraints imposed by what the metaverse will allow.

Nick Kelly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

We can’t rely solely on arbitrary vaccination levels to end lockdowns. Here are 7 ways to fix Sydney’s outbreak

Originally published on

Mick Tsikas/AAP

On July 15, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Sydney’s COVID lockdown wouldn’t end until the number of new cases not in full isolation was zero or as close to zero as possible.

But by August 1 the premier’s message had shifted:

Once you get to 50% vaccination, 60%, 70% it obviously triggers more freedoms […] The challenge for us is to get as many people vaccinated in August as possible so that by the time August 28 comes around, we have a number of options before us as to how we can ease restrictions.

There are around five million Australians under 16 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated (bar a few groups of 12-15-year-olds whom the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) said this week should be prioritised for vaccination, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those with certain underlying health conditions).

So, vaccinating 50% of the eligible population represents only about 40% of the whole population. Vaccinating 70% of the eligible population means only 56% of the whole population are vaccinated.

There can be no relaxation options determined solely by vaccination rates of 50% or even 70% of the eligible population. We cannot give up on our safety by pretending these vaccination rates in over-16s during an insufficiently controlled COVID outbreak would be like “living with the flu”. It won’t be.

Relaxing lockdown prematurely based solely on an arbitrary (and much too low) vaccination rate will likely lead to escalating cases and impose huge costs on Sydney and the rest of Australia.

Having not gone early, hard and fast, we propose seven key actions to save Sydney.

Crucially, Sydney’s lockdown needs to continue until the number of new daily cases who weren’t in full isolation reaches zero.

What does 70% of the eligible population vaccinated mean for Australia?

The premier’s August 1 announcement was similar to the federal government’s National Transition Plan released on July 30. The plan states that when 70% of Australians over 16 are vaccinated, governments should “ease restrictions on vaccinated residents”, and that lockdowns will be “less likely but possible”.

Read more:
Vaccination rate needs to hit 70% to trigger easing of restrictions

As we’re seeing in Southeast Queensland now, Delta is acquired and transmitted by children. This means only vaccinating 70% of over-16s will leave our kids vulnerable to COVID outbreaks. In the absence of public health measures, these children will pass it on to their friends and families.

While the risk of death from COVID, even with Delta, is lower among children than adults, there’s still a risk of long-term health consequences called “long COVID” among the young (and old).

Researchers dispute how common long COVID is in kids. But a study of children in Italy who have had COVID reported more than half had at least one symptom lasting more than four months, and more than 40% had a health problem due to long COVID that impaired their daily activities.

A UK survey of 23,000 households, published online as a preprint in June, found 5% of children infected with COVID had suffered persistent post-COVID symptoms for longer than four weeks.

What could happen if Sydney’s lockdown is relaxed too soon?

As of August 6, and since the Delta outbreak began in Sydney on June 16, there have been 4,610 locally acquired cases and 22 deaths. On August 6 there were 304 people hospitalised, 50 in intensive care with 22 requiring ventilation.

Using these stats, we can estimate what might happen should there be a partial relaxation of the current Sydney lockdown after 70% of over-16s in Greater Sydney are fully vaccinated and the outbreak is still ongoing.

First, if the vast majority of new daily cases aren’t in full isolation while infectious when lockdown restrictions are relaxed, this could easily result in a rapid growth in infections. This is because Delta is highly transmissible — infected people develop a viral load on average 1,000 times higher than the original strain. Even with new daily case numbers much lower than the numbers in early August, contact tracing wouldn’t be an effective secondary prevention strategy.

Let’s say partial relaxation after August 28 resulted in rapid and uncontrolled growth of new cases. We estimate that over a few months, and in the absence of subsequent lockdowns, this could result in as many as 100,000 cumulative hospitalisations, a total of more than 10,000 COVID patients in intensive care and, tragically, thousands of deaths in Greater Sydney alone.

This assumes that in an uncontrolled spread, eventually all unvaccinated people become exposed to COVID. We based these figures on the current ratios of how many people in Sydney have been hospitalised and died from COVID from the total number of cases, multiplied these numbers by the unvaccinated population, and extrapolated these numbers forward in the scenario of an uncontrolled outbreak.

Based on our previous research, the minimum economic cost of those hospitalisations (ignoring lost wages and the costs of “long COVID” and ongoing care generally) in Greater Sydney could easily exceed half a billion dollars. The economic costs from the expected loss of life would be in the tens of billions.

Read more:
No, we can’t treat COVID-19 like the flu. We have to consider the lasting health problems it causes

7 ways to fix Sydney’s outbreak

Experience from Australia and around the world tells us what needs to be done to protect public health and the economy.

NSW must:

ensure Sydney’s lockdown continues beyond August 28 until the number of new daily cases who aren’t in full isolation reaches zero

focus on daily testing of essential and front-line workers so pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic workers are identified before they enter the workplace. NSW should use the very best rapid test technology. Essential workers can be quickly and easily screened at a fraction of the cost and time of the standard PCR test

ensure everyone in lockdown gets adequate financial support to stay home, including those on visas. This is much more cost-effective than having those struggling financially not get tested and go to work, get infected and possibly spread COVID

actively minimise leakage to rural NSW, including setting up a “ring of steel” around Greater Sydney. This should include checking essential services drivers are up to date with daily rapid testing and measures to prevent other travellers from leaving

make masks mandatory outdoors as well as indoors (outside the home) throughout Greater Sydney

maintain the focus on increasing the vaccination rate among Sydneysiders by taking vaccinations to essential workplaces

recognise that until Sydneysiders, including children, have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated then stringent lockdowns will need to be implemented rapidly whenever there are uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID.

Quentin Grafton has received funding from the Australian Research Council for his research. However, he has received no funding from any source in relation to his COVID-19 modelling or research.

Mary-Louise McLaws is a member of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Ad Hoc COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control Guidance Discussion Group

Tom Kompas has received funding from the Australian Research Council for his research. However, he has received no funding from any source in relation to his COVID-19 modelling or research.

Increased incarceration of First Nations women is interwoven with the experience of violence and trauma

Originally published on

Tinnakorn jorruang / shutterstock

There is a national incarceration crisis impacting First Nations women in Australia.

First Nations women are the fastest-growing prison population, constituting 37% of the female prison population, despite making up only 2% of Australia’s total population. The daily average number of women in full-time custody in the 2021 March quarter was 3,302, of whom 1,247 were First Nations women.

First Nations women in Australia are also imprisoned at more than 20 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.

The incarceration of First Nations women is interwoven with the experience of domestic, family, sexual and other forms of violence against women. A high number of First Nations women spend time in custody unsentenced for domestic violence incidents that would never result in a custodial sentence.

Read more:
Carceral feminism and coercive control: when Indigenous women aren’t seen as ideal victims, witnesses or women

Thirty years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report, prominent cases continue to draw attention to the wrongful imprisonment of First Nations women:

the case of Jody Gore, who after experiencing decades of abuse, killed her former partner and was found guilty in 2016 and sentenced to life behind bars.

Ms Dhu, who was detained after calling for help during a domestic violence incident in 2014, only to be detained for unpaid fines. She subsequently died in police custody from septicaemia caused by a previous domestic violence injury.

Ava, who called police because she feared for her safety after a fight with her son in 2020. She was misidentified by police as the primary aggressor and spent five weeks in custody.

These cases draw attention to the connection between the multiple forms of violence First Nations women experience, and incarceration.

Links with domestic violence

Up to 90% of women in prison have experienced domestic and family violence. Most First Nations women in prison report experiencing multiple forms of violence at different times in their life.

Some had witnessed and experienced family violence as children and gone on to experience sexual assault, social isolation and physical intimate partner violence as young people and adults.

Trauma from these experiences contributes to other risk factors for incarceration, such as poor mental health, substance misuse, unemployment and low education. These factors disproportionately affect First Nations women and are linked to their own offending.

Twenty years ago, a report by the NSW Aboriginal Justice Council found that at least 80% of First Nations women linked previous abuse to their offending. This report revealed sexual abuse was “a central feature of pathways into offending”.

Domestic and family violence is also driving the incarceration of First Nations women through misidentification by police and other authorities.

Often, women who have experienced long-term abuse from an intimate partner are misidentified as the primary abuser and/or are named as the respondent in domestic violence orders. A domestic violence order sets out rules that must be obeyed by the respondent — the person who committed domestic violence — to protect the person listed as the aggrieved.

Women who have used retaliatory or pre-emptive violence in response to abuse or to protect themselves also come into contact with the criminal legal system. First Nations women are also more likely to encounter structural racism in their interactions with the criminal legal system.

Read more:
Another stolen generation looms unless Indigenous women fleeing violence can find safe housing

First Nations women misidentified as perpetrators of violence

Misidentification can have disastrous and devastating consequences for women.
Research has found that almost half of the women murdered by an intimate partner in Queensland had formerly been misidentified by police as a domestic violence perpetrator.

Alarmingly, in nearly all of the domestic and family violence-related deaths of Aboriginal people, the deceased person had been recorded as both a respondent and an aggrieved party in domestic violence orders.

Not only is the misidentification of First Nations women as the primary domestic violence abuser driving incarceration rates, it is costing women their lives. Not only are they not protected, they are being killed, and when they try to protect themselves, they are jailed.

Behind the increasing incarceration rates lies a serious crisis with many Indigenous policy considerations, such as the experiences of trauma, sexual and emotional abuse, and family and intimate partner violence.

We haven’t even addressed mental health issues, homelessness and entrenched social and economic disadvantage among incarcerated First Nations women. Or how, ten years ago, Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed 67% of all First Nations women in prison had been incarcerated before, compared with fewer than half of non-Indigenous women.

The data also showed more than 80% of First Nations women in prison were mothers.

First Nations women make up 37% of the female prison population in Australia.
Damian Pankowiec/ shutterstock

What needs to happen

Community-led, trauma-informed preventative support programs for First Nations women are desperately needed. This would include significant investment in community-based services and housing for vulnerable First Nations women at risk of becoming involved in the criminal legal system.

Systemic change is needed to divert women from entering prison by addressing the way the police and criminal legal system identify primary domestic violence abusers and respond to domestic, family, and sexual violence.

Ultimately, addressing violence against women requires long-term commitment to create social and cultural change through the promotion of gender and racial equality.

Deirdre Howard-Wagner is the recipient of funding from the Australian Research Council and the Commonwealth and NSW government departments in relation to Indigenous policy research. That funding is not related to the topic of this piece.

Chay Brown receives funding from ANROWS and the Office for the eSafety Commissioner. She is affiliated with the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University and the Equality Institute.

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on Closing the Gap, National Cabinet, and an 80% vaccination rate

Originally published on

University of Canberra Professorial Fellow Michelle Grattan and University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Paddy Nixon discuss the week in politics.

This week Michelle and Paddy discuss the ongoing lockdowns across the nation, and the plans released by the government this week to increase the vaccine rollout, and put lock downs behind us. One incentive, proposed by the opposition, is a $300 payment to any individual who is fully vaccinated by 1 December.

They also discusses a judgment delivered by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on Thursday which says the minutes of National Cabinet should be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

To enable healing, there’s a more effective way to Close the Gap in employment in remote Australia

Originally published on

Talk of healing, care, and well-being is woven throughout the refreshed Closing the Gap agreement. These things were also central to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of the Closing the Gap implementation package this week.

As part of the package, the government launched a redress scheme to support “intergenerational healing”, though this was really in response to a class action by survivors of the Stolen Generations.

The package also directs additional funding to Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations to “maintain the high level of care they offer”.

Recognition of the significant violence perpetrated by the settler state and measures to support healing are welcome and long overdue. However, history gives us good reason to be sceptical of the government’s lofty Closing the Gap rhetoric around pursuing improved well-being.

If improved well-being is supposed to underpin the refreshed Closing the Gap approach, then this must filter into all actions taken under the framework. However, measures to promote healing and care will only be treating the symptoms and not the cause while governments continue inflicting harm on Indigenous people.

We use the example of employment policy (targets 7 and 8 in the Closing the Gap agreement) in remote areas to show how government policies continue to create damage that must later be healed.

Stop punishing the unemployed in remote Australia

Since 2015, Indigenous peoples living remotely have been routinely punished under the Community Development Program (CDP). CDP requires individuals on income support payments to complete activities (like job searches and “work for the dole”) to receive their social security benefits. These activities were mandatory from 2015–20, though work for the dole was recently made voluntary.

CDP has roughly 40,000 participants, around 80% of whom are Indigenous. So harsh was this policy that the Commonwealth government has been taken to court by one remote council that claims the program is racist.

Read more:
Chelsea Bond: The ‘new’ Closing the Gap is about buzzwords, not genuine change for Indigenous Australia

The introduction of the punitive scheme has hardly budged the number of Indigenous people in work, with employment numbers barely rising in remote Australia between 2008 and 2018–19.

However, mass unemployment is not a result of people choosing to remain on welfare. There are just not enough jobs for everyone. Consequently, attempts to close the “employment gap” in remote Australia by targeting the attitudes and behaviours of the unemployed have failed because they ignore the real cause: unemployment is structural, not behavioural.

CDP has meanwhile caused significant harm and torn at the social fabric of remote communities. It has disproportionately high levels of penalties and payment suspensions, which have lowered already impoverished household incomes.

Low rates of social security in places where
food is extremely expensive results in “real hunger” and worsening physical and mental health. CDP activities also redirect people away from other important work, like caring for family and kin.

CDP is a dire example of how, on the one hand, the government talks about wanting to enable healing, while on the other hand, its own policies are a significant cause of ongoing harm.

Still listed in the Closing the Gap plan

In a welcome announcement around the time of the 2021–22 budget, the Morrison government committed to abolish CDP and replace it with a new “co-designed” program from 2023.

Yet, CDP remains listed in the Commonwealth’s implementation plan as an “action” that will contribute to closing the gap on “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people engaged in employment or education” (target 7).

Indeed, the Commonwealth did not announce any new initiatives yesterday that will assist in meeting its employment targets.

The failure of CDP provides an opportunity to carefully reconsider its harmful effects and to move forward in a manner consistent with Closing the Gap commitments around healing, caring, and ensuring well-being.

Care work for people, Country and culture

There are unquestionable health and well-being benefits associated with work. However, if future policy looks to support people to engage in work, then suitable work must be available.

Pathways into waged jobs will only be open to a minority of unemployed Indigenous peoples in remote Australia. Yet, there is much productive work already being done that is unpaid. Policies that deploy narrow definitions of “work” ignore these diverse forms of labour, which are critically important in supporting the strained social fabric of remote communities.

Care work should be supported in all its forms.

An example is care work: a term we use here to refer to caring for people, as well as for Country and culture — all of which are interlinked and mutually interdependent.

While some caring for Country and culture work is recognised and remunerated under the successful Indigenous ranger and language maintenance programs, much “caring for people” work remains unsupported and unpaid. Such work is overwhelmingly provided by Indigenous women.

If the Australian government is serious about supporting well-being and healing as key elements of Closing the Gap targets, then it must ensure care work in all its forms is supported, irrespective of its position within or beyond the formal economy.

Read more:
How can the new Closing the Gap dashboard highlight what indicators and targets are on track?

Governments of all persuasions are increasingly embracing the notion of caring for Country. In the past 15 years, they have recognised, and more appropriately supported, Indigenous efforts in environmental healing.

We argue it is time that far greater emphasis is also placed on caring for people; a CDP replacement should have this objective as an underpinning feature.

The CDP overwhelmingly failed to care for people; its unintended consequence was to further deepen poverty and anomie. There will never be a better time to shift our policy focus in a positive direction as the nation reflects on our collective failure to Close the Gap, and as a new employment and income support program is being co-designed.

Zoe Staines receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Elise Klein has received funding from the British Academy. She is a board member for the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.

In the last three years, Francis Markham has received funding from the National Native Title Council, the Commonwealth Department of Social Services, Aboriginal Affairs New South Wales, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the former Commonwealth Department of Communications and the Arts.

Jon Altman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Being able to skip classes improves some students’ performance. Others struggle with more autonomy

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Remote learning online has been a common tool in the battle against COVID-19. School and university campus closures have affected over 1.5 billion learners in 165 countries. The reduced need for students to be in their physical classrooms gives them greater autonomy, with more choice about what they do with their time. Some might skip classes, but what impact does this have on their learning?

There is extensive evidence that missing classes has a negative impact on the performance of low-achieving students. But in our recently published study with Silvia Griselda of Bocconi University, we found higher-achieving students benefit from autonomy in the form of relaxed school attendance. These students increased their performance in high-stakes exams, improving their university placement and potentially, their careers.

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A 2020 OECD report highlighted the unequal impacts of greater autonomy on students:

“Effective learning out of school has clearly placed greater demands on students’ autonomy, capacity for independent learning, executive functioning, self-monitoring and capacity to learn online. These are all essential skills for the present and the future. It is likely that some students were more proficient in them than others and that, as a result, were able to learn more than their peers while not in school.”

Why do student responses to autonomy matter?

Understanding the different ways in which students respond to autonomy can inform recovery strategies from pandemic-related learning losses and help predict their success. This knowledge can help ensure resources are allocated where they are most needed.

In Australia, each week of remote learning equates to a loss of about 25 hours of face-to-face compulsory instruction time at school. That’s equivalent to missing 2.5% of a year’s instruction time.

The effects of reduced in-person class attendance on student performance are complicated in Australia by the fact that, in an OECD survey, only 88% of students reported having a quiet place to study at home. This is lower than the OECD average (91%). For students in the bottom quarter for socioeconomic status, the gap is even wider – 78% in Australia to 85% for the OECD overall.

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Research shows high-performing students may tend to better self-regulate their study. This means they can acquire more knowledge on their own.

Another study found high-performing students may be allocating their time across subjects and material more efficiently. Classroom-based instruction may offer less challenging material to these high-performing students, which means they might learn faster from remote learning projects and tasks tailored to their knowledge and ability.

High-performing students appear to make better use of their time when they can choose to skip unproductive classes.

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Learning from an innovative autonomy policy

There are lessons to be learned from policies that have previously provided students with increased autonomy. Our insights come from an innovative policy in Greece. Our study used data on more than 12,000 secondary school students in Greece across all high school grades over four years.

The Greek Ministry of Education provided higher-performing students with more autonomy. In particular, high performers were permitted to miss 30% more classes than before without penalty.

The rationale was that this would allow higher-performing students to make decisions on attending class that best served their own interests. So instead of attending class, they could, for example, use this time for self-study or leisure.

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To be classed as high-performing, students had to have an average grade above 75% in the previous year. The percentage of students characterised as high performers in maths and reading is almost the same in Australia and Greece, according to the results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

We found higher-performing students choose to miss more classes when allowed to distance themselves from school. This is in line with our previous research that showed high-achieving students take more absences during a pandemic.

Under the increased autonomy policy, these students improved their performance in national exams in high-stakes subjects. They also significantly increased their university admission scores. As a result, they were admitted to university degree programs of higher quality or selectiveness.

Higher-performing students were more likely to choose to miss some classes but improved their results in national exams and university admissions.

Academic diversity of classes is another factor

We also found high-achieving students who were assigned to more academically diverse classrooms chose to distance themselves more from school.

Specifically, we looked at the effects on two groups of high-achieving students with previously similar grades – one group was in more academically diverse classrooms than the other. Even if they had identical grades in the previous year, these two groups ended up performing differently in the subsequent national exams and enrolled in post-secondary institutions of different quality. In particular, the group in the more academically diverse classes was more likely to distance themselves from school and improve their exam performance than the group in the less diverse classrooms.

A more diverse classroom is likely to be associated with lower in-class learning productivity and higher classroom disruption, which reduces the efficiency of instruction. There is evidence that teacher effectiveness drops in more academically diverse classrooms. Therefore, a more diverse classroom may be less conducive to learning for higher-performing students.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Grattan on Friday: We will need an inquiry to learn from rollout mistakes

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We are living simultaneously in two COVID worlds.

On the one hand we’re talking about how life will be when 70% or 80% per cent of eligible people are fully vaccinated.

On the other, what we can call our third wave of COVID is spreading, hitting young people, infecting children, resisting efforts at suppression. Sydney is in dreadful shape, NSW regions are under threat (there’s a lockdown in the Hunter), south east Queensland is shuttered, as is Victoria, and the rollout remains beset by difficulties.

We must, of course, have the conversation about exiting the pandemic. We need to consider issues including how a vaccination passport would work, when home quarantine can kick in, and much else around “opening up”.

“Transition” and “campaign” plans abound – from national cabinet last week and rollout tsar Lieutenant General JJ Frewen this week.

All good but there’s a pie-in-the-sky element about them when we’re moving forward so slowly.

Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably Frewen, the logistics expert, this week found himself caught on the political fly paper, after Anthony Albanese made his populist call for everyone who’s vaccinated by December 1 to receive $300.

Even in this age of the money tree, providing $6 billion not just to give the hesitant an incentive but also to reward those who need no encouragement would seem profligate.

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The government, either worried the Labor proposal might catch on or because it wanted to pursue Albanese, launched a massive attack on on this “bubble without a thought”.

Frewen was dragged in because he’s canvassed various incentives. His position seems to be: possibly some cash, but not now. Both sides invoked his name in making their cases for and against the Labor proposal.

Morrison is using Frewen as a political shield, just as he once used former chief medical officer and now Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy.

This has brought claims Frewen is being politicised, a perception the general needs to avoid, because it could make him less credible to the public, and is bad for the military.

It would have been better if Frewen had performed his role in civvies rather than in uniform, but Morrison no doubt likes the khaki. Certainly Frewen should guard against being drawn on political questions.

The Doherty Institute modelling presented publicly on Tuesday by professor Jodie McVernon showed how the rollout’s limitations have undermined our fight against the Delta variant and will continue to do so.

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The modelling’s message was that the super spreaders are the younger adults, those between 20 and 40. As McVernon said, they infect both their children and their parents.

But they’ve been the worst catered for in the rollout. They were initially placed at the back of the queue, after the most vulnerable, key workers, and the middle aged. And Pfizer, the vaccine preferred for them – although they are now being urged to take AstraZeneca – has been in short supply.

Belatedly, vaccinations for them are being somewhat accelerated, but it is all ad hoc and unclear.

The politicians like to talk about the “learnings” (aka lessons) coming out of the experience of this pandemic. At some point, when we are much further down the exit road, there should be a comprehensive inquiry into how decisions were made and what went right and wrong, at both federal and state levels, particularly in the rollout but in other areas too.

In this context, Thursday’s decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that the national cabinet is not, as the federal government tried to claim, a cabinet committee and therefore not subject to cabinet confidentiality, is a welcome development.

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We can perhaps understand – while still strongly criticising – how the federal government, not expecting the problems with AstraZeneca, failed to order enough Pfizer or to have sufficient alternatives.

But how come on Thursday, when people were being shouted at to get the jab, an inefficient booking system in NSW was hampering many doing that?

And why, way back when, did the government put so much weight on the doctors in delivering the early months of the rollout? The pharmacists have only recently been brought in. If they’d been involved from near the start, we would likely be in a lot better position, at least with the AstraZeneca coverage.

The question has to be asked: how much did doctors’ lobbying influence the initial shape of the rollout? What clout did they have with senior health officials?

In February, the Australian Medical Association issued a statement headed “GPs, not pharmacists, best placed for vaccine rollout”.

It said AMA president Omar Khorshid had written to Health Minister Greg Hunt to express the AMA’s concerns.

The release went on: “Dr Khorshid told Sky News that the AMA would prefer that the rollout remained part of usual GP interactions.

“We do have significant reservations about the place of vaccination in pharmacy, [he said].

“In the very, very rare occurrence of a severe reaction like anaphylaxis to a vaccine, it’s something that we really can’t expect a pharmacist to be able to manage[…]

“But the main reason is that we think that vaccination is part of a primarily holistic care package where people have a healthcare home. They know to go and see their local GP for their healthcare needs.”

In the AMA’s defence, this was as the program was about to get underway and reaction to the vaccines had unknown elements. But the reference to the “main reason” is a giveaway. As is sometimes said, the AMA is the country’s most powerful trade union. It fights doggedly to protect its turf.

When the Coalition came to power it launched a royal commission into the pink batts scheme. This was seen, and was, a political exercise. Nevertheless, it did identify faults in planning and administration.

The pink batts program and its problems pale against the importance of, and the inadequacies in, the rollout.

An inquiry into the handling of the pandemic should not be driven by political motives, but rather by the need to understand the reasons for the mistakes and how to be better prepared in future.

This isn’t to diminish how well, comparatively, Australia did earlier in the pandemic. But the good side of the record shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid rigorous scrutiny of the negatives.

You won’t find provision for an inquiry in the government’s exit plan. But it should be there, in stage four.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Morrison government loses fight for national cabinet secrecy

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The Morrison government has been dealt a blow with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruling national cabinet is not a committee of federal cabinet and therefore is not covered by cabinet confidentiality.

This means its documents are accessible under freedom of information legislation. The federal government had argued that, as a cabinet committee, it was exempt from FOI.

The challenge to national cabinet secrecy was brought by crossbench senator Rex Patrick.

In his judgment, federal court Justice Richard White said: “The mere use of the name ‘National Cabinet’ does not, of itself, have the effect of making a group of persons using the name a ‘committee of the Cabinet’.

“Nor does the mere labelling of a committee as a ‘Cabinet committee’ have that effect.”

White rejected the government’s argument the prime minister had the ability to determine what a cabinet committee was.

“This seemed tantamount to a submission that any committee may be a ‘committee of the Cabinet’ for the purposes of the FOI Act merely because the Prime Minister of the day has purported to establish it as such. This premise is unsound,” White said.

Patrick said the decision was “a decisive win for transparency and accountability”.

He said what Morrison labelled “national cabinet” was a faux cabinet – in effect, the former Council of Australian Governments by another name.

“For almost 40 years Australians have had a legal right under the Freedom of Information Act 1984 to access information relating to intergovernmental meetings, subject only to a test of public harm,” Patrick said.

Morrison had tried to take that right away, he said.

“He did not ask the Parliament to change the law, he just declared that National Cabinet to be part of the Federal Cabinet and as such exempt under the Cabinet secrecy exemption of the FOI Act.

“That arrogant declaration has now been overturned,” Patrick said.

He said this now “opens the vault” including to documents of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises national cabinet.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the ruling rejected what had been a “tricky marketing ploy” by Morrison. The government was “addicted to secrecy”, he said.

The government can appeal the decision. There is a stay of 28 days before it has to hand over to Patrick the documents he sought.

The judgment, unless overturned, will mean the Senate’s COVID committee will be able to seek access to information it has been refused on confidentiality grounds.

An Australia Institute poll done in May found 58% of people supported allowing national cabinet documents to be accessible via FOI requests.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.