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

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?

Rebooting the local economy

Continuing the theme from my previous, post-lockdown blog, there are definitely some growing challenges ahead as the local economy tries to gather momentum. Yes, the jobs recovery looks encouraging for the hoped-for recovery (at least, based on headline numbers); and property prices (that staple of banks and economists alike) are getting very frothy again. But the end of JobKeeper later this month will hurt both employees and employers – it will be especially hard to stomach when you consider that a few household brands have chosen to keep their government-funded windfalls, despite making significant profits even during (or as a result of) the pandemic, while these same public companies have also been paying out shareholder dividends.

It will be very interesting to monitor ABS data on the number of business entries and exits (CABEE), which is now also being reported quarterly, instead of just annually. The latest annual data released in February (for the period ending June 30, 2020) shows that there were more new businesses registered than the number of businesses that were de-registered – but the net gain was a lot lower than in recent years, as can be seen from this graph:

Even after a few months of the pandemic, the number of new entries looks to have declined significantly, with a corresponding rate of increase in exits – and the net increase was already on a steep downward trajectory from 2017-18.

According to the ABS data, “In 2019-20 three industries accounted for more than half of the net annual increase in businesses, these were:

  • Transport, postal and warehousing
  • Professional, scientific and technical services
  • Health care and social assistance”

None of this data should be too surprising; further, we should expect to see a significant number of exits from the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors. Government support in the form of domestic travel vouchers and discounted air tickets will only go so far to reverse the fortunes of airline, hotel and tour operators. (The folks in Queensland must be happy with the twin benefit of being a desirable destination for both domestic holidays and Hollywood film production.)

While on-line shopping has helped to keep retail afloat, bricks and mortar retail has been dealt a heavy blow, from which it will take a long time to recover – many people have no doubt got used to e-commerce, and can’t be enticed back to the shops.

From what I see in Melbourne, the CBD is still running at 40-60% capacity (depending on location, sector, and day of the week). Mondays are definitely quiet, it gets busier on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then starts to taper off again on Fridays, with people opting to “work from home” as the weekend draws near. Last week, one business group wants companies to close at 4.00pm on Fridays, to encourage workers to hang out in the city after work – but Fridays has always been known as POETS day, so I hardly think anyone still here at the end of the week needs any encouragement to down tools any earlier…

There are still so many construction sites within the CBD, both new build and renovations. But who is going to be occupying this new and refurbished real estate – especially as offices are still limited to 75% capacity, and employees seem reluctant to come back to the office full time? Many shops (old and new) remain boarded up. Some cafes have not even bothered to re-open at all, let alone just on the busy days. Doubtless some current construction projects have been brought forward to take advantage of JobKeeper payments, quieter streets and low interest rates – but it means that in some areas, whole blocks lie empty and virtually devoid of any business, and it feels that many shops don’t see a customer all day.

Unfortunately, with politicians distracted by non-economic matters (plus the small tasks of managing hotel quarantine and rolling out a vaccination programme), we are only seeing short-term responses and band-aid solutions, rather than strategic and visionary policy-making. Neither our governments nor the opposition parties (of all persuasions) seem willing or capable of serious (and non-partisan) debate on things like Universal Basic Income, structural reform of the economy, and instilling innovation across all areas of industry. Instead, they prefer to tinker at the edges (tax, superannuation, industrial relations), engage in Parliamentary point-scoring, and maintain the status quo within their respective supporter base. Something has to change, and soon.

Next week: Victorian Tech Startup Week

Facebook and that news ban

On February 18 this year, Facebook decided to “ban” news content in Australia. This meant that Australian Facebook users (including media companies) could not post news content or links, nor could they access local or overseas news. The move was a preemptive strike (and a somewhat crude negotiation tactic) by Facebook in an attempt to circumvent the Media Bargaining Code, which requires social media and search engine platforms (specifically, Google and Facebook) to pay news providers for the use of their content. Despite the gnashing and wailing among some sectors of the Australian community, the world did not end. And while Facebook has somewhat relented (following some concessions from the Federal government), the story has generated some useful debate about the power of certain tech platforms and the degree of influence or control they exercise over what we see on our screens each day.

Image sourced from Wikimedia

Personally, I did not find the ban an inconvenience, because I rarely use my Facebook account, and I certainly don’t rely on it for news or information. Instead, I prefer to access content direct from providers. One result of the ban was more downloads for Australian news apps such as the ABC and Inkl. Another (unforeseen?) result was a block on information posted by public and voluntary sector bodies, including essential services, health, community and charitable organisations.

Regarding the former, this can only be a good thing. Seriously, if we are relying on Facebook for news content, THAT is the real problem. As for the latter, it suggests a lot of organisations have become over-reliant on Facebook to reach their audience.

Meanwhile, Google (which had already struck a deal with Australian media companies) was eagerly promoting the number of Australian “partner publications” it offers in its News Showcase. This was something of a U-turn, because Google had threatened to remove search in Australia in response to the same Media Bargaining Code. While that might have been drastic, nevertheless, other search engines are available.

It was also interesting to see Microsoft (no stranger to anti-trust action during the so-called browser wars) promoting BuzzFeed via Twitter on the day of the Facebook ban. I also received a number of e-mails from various organisations reminding me that I could still access their content direct from their website or via their newsletter. These moves to re-connect direct with audiences started to make Facebook look very silly and petulant.

Just as there are other search engines besides Google, other social media platforms are available – so why do so many people appear to be against the Media Bargaining Code, and would prefer to give Facebook a free monopoly over which content they read?

I have written previously about Facebook’s relationship with “news”. For those people who felt “cheated” that they couldn’t access news, they should realise that a “free” social media account comes with a price – the consumer is the product, and is only there to serve up eyeballs and profiles to be sold to Facebook’s advertisers. In short, Facebook only sees news as a magnet for its own advertisers, so it seems only fair that they should pay for this piggyback ride on someone else’s content. (And we all know what else Facebook does with our personal information, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed.)

Some commentary suggested that Facebook is providing a type of “public service” by enabling links to news stories – so much so, that they question whether it is equitable to force Facebook to pay for the privilege, under the new Code. In fact, some argued that Facebook should be charging the media companies for linking to their stories, since this drives traffic to third-party news sites, which in turn generate advertising income based on their own readership. But this overlooks the reality of the economic bargain being struck here: Facebook might like to argue that it is doing you a “favour” by serving up news content in your personal feed; whereas, the social media giant “curates” what you see in your feed purely to generate ad revenue.

Alternatively, if news content has no value to Facebook, why has it been happy to distribute it for “free” all these years? Because, I repeat, they know full well that without readers and content, they can’t sell advertising. Maybe Facebook should invest in journalism and create their own news content? Oh wait, they don’t want to be regulated like a newspaper. Remember in 2013 when Facebook said it wanted to be “the world’s newspaper”, but then they realized they’d have to comply with media laws (libel, racial vilification etc.) and quietly dropped the plan?

In short, Facebook is not interested in being a news publisher (nor being subject to relevant media laws) but they are happy to “leverage” third-party content. Now, they will have to pay a fair price to use that content.

The conclusions from this Facebook episode (and some clumsy messaging from the Federal government) are pretty obvious:

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch – a “free” social media account comes with a price; and there is also a cost attached to using someone else’s content
  2. Taxation of tech company revenues like Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon should be at the point of sale and consumption (i.e., where the consumer value is created and the income is generated, not where the revenue is recognised).
  3. Other search engines and social media platforms are available and content can be accessed direct from the source (but we’re probably too lazy to change our habits….)
  4. In part, this is about the continued demise of the 4th estate – no-one wants to pay for content, so social media platforms are getting a free ride having already destroyed the newspapers’ classified and display advertising business model
  5. But it’s also about the attention economy – consumers are the product when it comes to social media, so perhaps we should get paid more for our own time spent looking at ads?
  6. As ever, tech outstrips legislation – the law lags behind and is playing catch up
  7. And politicians really don’t have a clue how to go about this…..

Next week: Rebooting the local economy