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Is Federation still working?

As three of the six Australian States (and one of the two Territories) grapple with fresh COVID outbreaks, their respective lock-down measures reveal quite different responses to what should be considered a common problem. It’s not just the differences within their own borders, but also how they react in relation to each other in terms of classifying “hot spots” and imposing travel restrictions. It’s a fresh example that despite defining itself as a single nation, the Commonwealth of Australia remains a patchwork quilt, hurriedly stitched together from the remains of colonialism, under the pretext of “Federation”.

Federation feels even more of an artificial construct than the former British colonies themselves. In my view, the inconsistencies between each State and Territory in dealing with COVID, and their fractious collective and individual relationships with the Commonwealth, can be linked to questions of national identity, the legacy of imperialism, a lack of consensus on a Treaty with our First Nations people, and the failure of Republicanism to pave a way forward.

For a start, Australia tries to maintain four different codes of professional football – yet not every State or Territory is represented in the national competitions. Of these codes, one is essentially a Victorian competition, with a couple of other States brought in on merit, and a couple of the others only included after some fabricated interstate franchises. (And how long before a Victorian club has to relocate to Tasmania?)

Another football code runs an interstate competition, but only two States compete – and sometimes they compete in another State (just for the hell of it, or to try and instill “national” relevance?)

Cricket may rightfully claim to be a national sport at a professional level, but even the major Sheffield Shield competition excludes the two Territories.

These observations may appear flippant, but in a sport-loving nation, such examples might help explain why we don’t feel a very cohesive place – not all of us even get to barrack for our own State or Territory on the playing field!

There are many other examples of arbitrary differences between the States – e.g., unicameral or bicameral Parliaments; recognition of Public Holidays; the calculation of State election dates; the width of railway tracks; connectivity with energy grids; the minimum legal age for driving a car; the size of beer glasses in pubs; and the term for a “corner shop”.

Back in 1901, Federation must have felt like part of a grand scheme towards a modern era, designed to galvanize a bunch of colonies into a cohesive whole, and forge a new nation. But we don’t formally celebrate its existence with a public holiday. Rather, each State prefers to mark the Queen’s Birthday (albeit on different dates…) instead of recognizing the Act of Federation, which was supposed to confirm Australia’s independence from the UK. Not only that, but the “National Day” we do observe is Australia Day, which is highly contentious and increasingly overshadowed by its association with foreign invasion, imperial expansion and colonial oppression.

Back to COVID: recent events have shown that the “social contract” between the Commonwealth of Australia on the one hand, and the States and Territories on the other, is purely transactional. In respect to the pandemic, the Federal government has had two primary responsibilities: 1) international border control and quarantine; 2) vaccine acquisition and distribution. Although they have maintained closed borders, the Commonwealth has “delegated” quarantine arrangements to the States, with all the resulting inconsistencies and glaring mistakes. The Commonwealth has also fudged the vaccination roll-out (too many reasons and causes to go into here).

On the need for dedicated quarantine centres: while the States have taken on (or been lumped with) an unenviable task, after 18 months of the pandemic, I don’t understand why the States haven’t taken it upon themselves to build their own facilities, and then stick the Federal Government with the bill. If landlords won’t undertake essential property repairs when brought to their attention, I think most of us would agree that their tenants would have a valid case for getting the work done themselves and deducting the cost from the rent.

Except that the States don’t have that sort of leverage over the Federal Government (despite what Queensland and Western Australia might say and think).

In short, Federation is merely a way to distribute taxes levied by the Commonwealth – even then, this distribution is mired in political horse-trading and pork-barreling. The States, unable to raise their own revenue (other than via payroll tax, stamp duty, land tax and fees from providing certain services, issuing permits and granting licenses), are heavily reliant on Federal handouts. While this allocation is often dressed up in the guise of achieving minimum targets and standards, in reality funding is tied to political objectives.

I suppose even after 120 years, Federation can still be called a work in progress. Whatever the future debate on Australia Day and an indigenous Treaty (plus constitutional recognition and parliamentary representation), and whatever the prospect of a Republic, we may need to consider that the States, as currently constituted, have had their time and are increasingly redundant. Part of me thinks we might be better off by dissolving them (along with our local authorities) and re-constituting regional government and administration around the lands of the original settlers to this island. Just a thought.

Next week: Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

Where is wage growth going to come from?

How good is the Aussie economy? On the back of the stable outlook on our AAA sovereign credit rating, last week’s employment data showed a better-than-expected post-COVID recovery in terms of the headline unemployment rate and overall workforce participation. This has led to speculation of a potential uplift in wages, due to labour shortages amplified by the current halt on immigration (thanks to closed borders).

But where will this expected wage growth actually come from?

According to ABS data for February 2021, the top 5 industries by number of people employed are: Health Care; Retail Trade; Professional, Scientific and Technical; Construction; and Education. (See above chart.)

Now, contrast this with three other relevant data points: 1) the number of Australian companies by size; 2) the annual change in employment growth/reduction by industry; and 3) the national GDP contribution by industry.

First, there are nearly 2.5m registered business entities, according to ABS data. Over 1.5m of these are designated as “Non-employing” – including sole traders, self-employed, independent contractors or freelances. Over 850 thousand establishments employ fewer than 200 people. Fewer than 5,000 businesses employ more than 200 people. Although there was an overall growth of 2% in the number of registered businesses, the largest increase was in the “sole trader” category, while the largest decreases were among medium-sized companies, and large enterprises. (See table below – the next ABS data is due in August.)

Second, the largest employment growth by industry sector in 2019-20 came from logistics and healthcare – no doubt in large part to the impact of COVID. Primary industries and mining both registered decreases.

Third, the main contributors to output (GDP) are Health and Education (13%), Mining (11%), Finance (9%), Construction (8%) and Manufacturing (65) – based on a recent RBA Snapshot. But the data is always subject to further examination and clarification – for example, while construction employs over 1.1m people, many of these are engaged as independent tradies or through sub-contractors, and in spite of the huge number of major infrastructure projects (just look at Victoria’s Big Build and all the cranes in Melborne CBD), there was only negligible growth in overall employment within the sector. And while mining is a major contributor to GDP, it does not employ huge numbers of people (it’s actually on a par with the arts…), yet the fewer than 9,000 people who are employed as mining engineers are in the top 10 occupations by salary (according to ATO data analysed by the ABC.)

Some other factors to consider as we ask, “Where will wage growth come from?”:

  • While most people are employed by SME’s, these companies are probably under the greatest strain when it comes to overheads and inputs, as they have relatively high fixed costs, and can ill-afford higher wages in the current trading conditions.
  • On July 1, the Superannuation Guarantee is due to increase from 9.5% to 10% – some commentators suggest employers (especially SMEs) may have to reduce or offset wages to pay for the scheduled increase.
  • We have an apparent choice between an asset-led recovery (inflated house prices – but risks leaving people “asset rich and cash poor” when interest rates go up ); a consumption-led recovery (reliant on higher wages so people feel comfortable to spend money); or an investment-led recovery (businesses need to invest in new equipment and projects to boost productivity, and not just bring forward planned expenditure thanks to tax incentives).
  • The sectors where we need more people (health care, aged care, child care and education) are still among the lowest paid on a per capita basis.
  • What is happening to boost manufacturing, or aren’t we interested in making things anymore?
  • Our IT and technical skills shortages have been exacerbated by the absence of overseas students and graduates – there is anecdotal evidence of wage and hiring pressures in this sector, one which is probably more important to our future economy and sustainability than mining coal or building more roads.
  • One leading economist reckons that household incomes have increased by 30% over the past 10 years. If wages have been stagnant, where has this growth come from? Is it because of tax cuts, low interest rates, quantitative easing, real estate prices (or their crypto holdings)? And do we actually feel any wealthier as a result?

Finally, will inflation and/or interest rates undermine any potential increase in wages?

Next week: Is Federation still working?

How about that AAA rating?

As the State of Victoria weighs up the costs of yet another lock down, you could be forgiven for thinking that the local economy has taken a further beating after the horrendous events of the past 15 months. Across Australia, thousands of companies and individuals accessed various government-sponsored financial aid packages to keep afloat, causing the federal government to borrow more money, at something like 8x the equivalent rate pre-COVID. National public debt is now expected to grow to more than 40% of GDP by the 2024-25 fiscal year – effectively double what it was in 2018-19.

So what has Australia done to retain its coveted AAA sovereign rating from Standard & Poor’s, and have the rating outlook upgraded from negative to stable? According to the ratings agency, and economists such as Westpac’s Bill Evans, there are probably three or four key factors that have warranted this optimistic economic reckoning.

First, while government borrowing (Quantitative Easing) has blown out as a proportion of GDP, the current low interest rates mean that the cost of servicing that debt is manageable.

Second, while the pursuit of QE has destroyed any hope of returning to an overall budget surplus, the deficit will return to similar levels last seen after the GFC, and the current account will continue to return a modest surplus over the coming quarters.

Third, despite the significant economic risks that were identified at the start of the COVID pandemic, the actual impact on the budget has been less than feared, and the economy is recovering faster than expected (as evidenced by latest employment data and consumer sentiment).

Fourth, Australian banks have seen an increase in customer deposits, meaning they are less reliant on more expensive overseas borrowing for their own funding.

Overall, just as with the GFC, Australia has managed to dodge a bullet (the shock to the system was less than anticipated) – in large part thanks to a resurgence in iron ore prices (again).

But weaknesses and disparities remain:

The over-reliance on commodity prices (mainly based on demand from China) hides the true nature of Australia’s balance of payments – we manufacture less than we used to, and our supply chains have been severely tested during the pandemic. And with international borders closed, we won’t see the same levels of GDP growth that resulted from immigration.

Our household savings rate as a percentage of disposable income has come down from its peak of 22% in July 2020, to less than 12% this past quarter, as people held on to their cash for a rainy day (or 3 months lock-down). The savings rate is expected to come down even further as consumers feel more confident and start spending again.

As with the GFC, home owners have chosen to pay down their mortgage debt – but the picture is more complex. Yes, interest rates remain low (and will likely stay so for at least another 18 months), despite commentary from another economist, Stephen Koukoulas suggesting that the RBA will have to raise rates sooner than expected. With property prices expected to increase 5-10% over the next 12 months, home owners will feel wealthier (but asset rich and cash poor?) as mortgage repayments reduce as a percentage of their home’s value. And while analysts at S&P expect banks’ credit loses to remain low while the economy recovers, the fact that two-thirds of banks’ exposures are to highly leveraged residential property could see increased stress when interest rates rise and if wage growth remains sluggish (more on the latter next week).

Australia’s sovereign credit rating is something of a badge of honour, and represents membership of an exclusive club – fewer than a dozen countries are rated AAA; no wonder it’s a big deal, and partly explains why the Prime Minister gets to attend the G7 (albeit as an observer). Comparatively speaking, Australia is doing very well when it comes to managing COVID (although we could be doing a lot better on a number of measures), and has an economy that continues to be the envy of many. Expect more on that AAA rating (“How good was that?”) as we head into the next Federal election…

Next week: Where is wage growth going to come from?

Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?