Government shoots itself in the foot (yet again) in its war on industry super funds

We should know by now that when the government goes after industry superannuation funds, the victims are likely to be ordinary Australians and the rival retail super funds sector — once upon a time controlled by the big banks, until the banking royal commission forced them to flee the wealth management sector in disgrace.

Its most recent attack was via early access to superannuation for — ostensibly — people affected by the lockdown, designed to disproportionately harm industry super funds with a greater weight in illiquid assets like infrastructure.

That was an advantage during the 2008 financial crisis, when employer and union-run funds performed significantly better than retail funds, but now intended to be used against them as members were encouraged to raid their super accounts for money to tide them over pandemic-induced financial difficulties.

Part of that narrative was that industry funds would be slow to pay members who applied for early access.

Such funds would be “named and shamed”, according to an Australian article, which identified industry funds Hostplus and REST as possible culprits.

Long-time retail fund advocate and Liberal Senator Andrew “virus guy” Bragg linked industry criticism of the early access scheme with fund illiquidity. Assistant Superannuation Minister Jane Hume, who has repeatedly described industry funds as “unholy”, accused the sector of seeking to delay early access payments by several months.

You can probably guess what happened next. With the scheme having run for over a month, it turns out the worst laggards for paying members under the early access scheme are … retail super funds.

According to the most recent Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) data, which covers April 20 to May 24, 1.6 million people have claimed a total of $12.2 billion under the scheme, with 94% of applications paid within APRA’s guideline of five working days — indeed, the average time to pay out an application has been 3.3 working days.

To give some sense of scale — and show how this really isn’t the major drama all sides portray it as — $12.2 billion in around five weeks compares to a quarterly inflow of contributions in the December 2019 quarter — pre-COVID, of course — of $29.3 billion.

According to APRA’s data, Westpac-owned BT Funds Management’s ASGARD Independence Plan Division Two had paid out nearly 7000 applications totalling $57 million — but only 46.2% were paid within five working days.

Diversa Trustee’s Future Super Fund paid out $12 million with 46.3% paid within five days. Its ING Super Fund paid out $49 million with 65% within five days (in fact, there are six Diversa funds that managed less than 90%, but it also had a couple of >98% performers).

OnePath Custodians’ Retirement Portfolio Service — until last year owned by ANZ, who sold it to Zurich — managed 78% for its $396 million. NAB’s MLC Super Fund achieved 89% for its $425 million.

Some major retail funds have performed well. Funds run by scandal-plagued AMP, which is perhaps desperate to avoid any more bad headlines, all managed over 98% while paying out nearly half a billion dollars.

Colonial First State, in which the Commonwealth recently sold a majority stake, managed over 96% for all its funds.

The worst-performing industry fund was Queensland hospitality industry fund Intrust, which paid out $112 million at just 55% within five days.

Media Super ($45 million) managed 75.7%. The corporate in-house fund of neoliberal darling Qantas managed just 61.3% in shelling out $42 million.

But most industry funds performed well. The meat industry fund managed 100% in paying out $22 million. Queensland giant Sunsuper achieved 99.9% in paying out a mammoth $1.25 billion. And Hostplus, identified by The Australian as a laggard? $1.2 billion at 95.9%. REST also managed 95.9% in paying out $1.1 billion.

Oops, that wasn’t in the narrative. Strangely, it’s mostly been left to finance industry publications to point out who is performing or not performing.

What was also missing from the government’s plan was for the scheme to be abused by identity thieves, who have stolen tens of thousands of dollars, and potentially much more, from unknowing account holders.

It was industry super’s warning to government about exactly that security risk, and the need for tighter checks, that Hume initially portrayed as trying to slow down the early access scheme.

Asked by the ABC’s 7.30 last night if she regretted ignoring those warnings, Hume doubled down and repeated her accusation that industry funds were trying to slow the process down, though at least she refrained from describing them as “unholy”.

It’s also clear that a significant proportion of those accessing their funds had experienced no loss of income, or were using it for discretionary spending, not essentials — again reflecting Hume’s poor scheme design, with the ATO not requiring applicants to verify that they’ve lost their job or suffered a major income fall.

The prime minister yesterday waved away any problem with people blowing their retirement nest egg on gambling or alcohol.

“It’s their money. I don’t go around telling people how to spend their own money.” A peculiar thing to say about a compulsory superannuation scheme, but then the Liberals don’t believe in that anyway.

A new wave in America, the COVID death that wasn’t, and ad spend plummets

COVID-19 has finally been pushed off the front page around the world, after the killing of George Floyd triggered mass protests and violent police retaliation across America. 

But the virus is still out there, and there are now fears the protests could lead to a second wave. On the home front, numbers outline how bleak the last month has been for the media.

Protests bring fear of second wave

America is burning, after protests against police brutality have been met with more police brutality.

The situation escalated over the weekend with businesses burning, riots and rubber bullets, tear gas and tasers. That kind of disorder is exactly what you don’t need to fight a pandemic.

As part of their pitch for calm, mayors across the country have warned that the protests could unleash a second wave, and urged demonstrators to get tested. It’s practically impossible to socially distance in a chaotic angry crowd, or when there’s a police boot on your face.

Just like police violence, the virus has disproportionately kills black people in America.

Media ad spend plummets

The last month has been brutal for the Australian media — employees at BuzzFeed News, Ten Daily, News Corp regional papers and Vice are among the many now out of jobs.

And new data gives us some understanding of how this has happened, with data from Standard Media Index (SMI) highlighting a monumental decline in media ad buys.

In April, media agency ad expenditure fell 35.4%, as the pandemic and shutdown snuffed out economic activity, a decline that is far deeper and more abrupt than during the global financial crisis.

Big ad buyers like those in the travel industry turned off the cash overnight, with a $20.2 million cut in spending. And the SMI also warns the numbers could look similarly bad for May, thanks to the loss of NRL and AFL, which generally attract big ad spend on television.

The mystery COVID death that wasn’t

Last week, we told you about the mystery of Australia’s youngest COVID-19 death. Nathan Turner, 30, supposedly died of the virus, despite not leaving his small central Queensland mining town in months. It turns out Turner didn’t have COVID-19 — later tests turned up negative.

The Queensland government and Health Department have come under fire over the misdiagnosis. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has apologised to Turner’s family, and Health Minister Steven Miles this morning defended the government’s actions in a media conference.

“I would prefer to be criticised for being too transparent, too honest and for acting too quickly rather than the alternative,” he said.

Turner had suffered respiratory problems for some time, but the cause of his death is now undetermined. 

Where is the economy going? Destination known but we’re driving in fog to get there

Guidance on economic policy can be found in unlikely places.

The Second Coming is one of the English-speaking world’s most quoted poems in times of uncertainty and confusion. W.B. Yeats wrote it in 1919 in the midst of the last great pandemic, Spanish flu.

Rather like the apocryphal complaint about Hamlet (“I didn’t like the play — it’s just a bunch of famous quotations strung together”) virtually every line in The Second Coming could be applied to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Two in particular sum up what we know about economic recovery

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

Anyone who claims to know when and how the Australian economy will recover is fibbing. This is a time of genuine uncertainty. We don’t know and cannot predict what will happen.

The JobKeeper business subsidy is due to end on September 27. What happens after then? It will be somewhere between two poles: everyone who was on JobKeeper retains a continuing job, or none of them do and employment numbers plummet.

Although we can be pretty sure it won’t be either extreme, we don’t have the information to predict reliably where inside those bounds actual experience will fall.

We may have a slightly better idea three months from now, or uncertainty may still prevail. We don’t even know today what we won’t know in three months. 

The best economic advisers lack conviction — if they are honest they admit to not knowing what’s going to happen with the economy.

One of them is Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe — a thoughtful and serious economist.

In his evidence to the Senate last week he emphasised how uncertain things are. On JobKeeper he said “it’s too early to say what the economy is going to be like in four months time. If we have not come out of the current trough in economic activity, there will be, and there should be, a debate about how the JobKeeper program transitions into something else”.

We know what’s happening now — huge job losses, a severe decline in activity in sectors like retail and hospitality — but not when it will turn around.

It is possible the decline will be short lived, the downturn not as severe as first feared. The prime minister is hoping for a snapback. Or things could get worse. 

The reason we face such uncertainty is not simply that COVID-19 lockdowns and their impact on the economy are unprecedented. In a trivial sense most new government policy is different from past policies and therefore unprecedented. 

COVID-19 is also unparalleled; there are no analogies from similar past events to guide policy. 

The economy and the levers available to governments and central banks at the time of the Spanish flu pandemic were so different from today that they provide few useful lessons.   

Economic policy in this climate is rather like driving urgently through dense fog. 

We have a destination — recovery and jobs — but the path to it is obscure.

We know where we are now, which is better than nothing. There are dim shapes in the fog ahead — they could be a road sign, a cow or a cliff. We can only tell which is which when we are almost upon it.  

In managing the economy today, we can learn from events, manage them, but may also need to turn around and find another way to get to our destination.

It is what is known as an emergent strategy — malleable as things change.

Politicians feel obligated to pretend they have the more traditional type of strategy, a clear plan for achieving a goal. They don’t want to be accused of making things up as they go along. 

Similarly, economic commentators who want to be covered by mainstream media outlets have to make predictions — knowing they are likely to be wrong. 

As an independent institution, the Reserve Bank does not have to assume false certainty. It can amend its approach continually — or as Philip Lowe noted, “as the data comes in, we will progressively revise”.

The fog will eventually lift. In the meantime, developing and revising strategy continually, considering a wide range of different scenarios and options, and adopting what best suits the latest available data, is the only sensible approach to take.

Could going vegan avert another pandemic?

The vegans were right all along

Almost exactly a year ago, amid a wave of protests directed towards animal cruelty, there was an outpouring of anger towards vegan protesters.

Scott Morrison called the them “un-Australian” and “green criminals” and who should face the “full force of the law”. Thousands of hard-working Australians whose journey to work took longer than usual were furious (how quaint that now sounds).

The PM even supported legal action against the protestors, advising “pastoralists, farmers, graziers that are in a position to bring a civil action against these groups” that“the Commonwealth is totally open to supporting them in a test case to show these green criminals.”

A year later and un-Australian protestors aren’t looking so whacky now.

It is widely believed (with the exception of Donald Trump’s Cabinet and 5-G conspiracy theorists) that COVID-19, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and likely, a worldwide recession, originated in a wet market — that is a market where animals enter alive and are killed for customers. 

Meanwhile, Australia’s largest home-grown COVID-19 cluster emanated from an abattoir, Cedar Meats, which is responsible for more than 100 COVID-19 cases. Meat packing plants have also been a major source of infection in the United States.

The source of WA’s most recent cluster of six infections — a boat arriving from Doha for the purpose of carrying animals back to the Middle East for slaughter.

Oh, and yesterday a scientist warned that mass chicken farming could lead to an “apocalyptic virus” that could wipe out half of the world’s population.

(Note: your author isn’t vegan but eats a largely plant-based diet since watching Game Changers)

Leave Uber Eats alone!

It’s hard to think of a more vilified marketplace than Uber Eats. Largely adored by consumers, it is conversely hated by restaurateurs furious at having to pay upwards of 30% of their revenue to Uber.

The hatred appears to have been magnified by COVID-19, despite Uber dropping commission levels. However, the Uber hatred is not new gripe — way back in 2018, restaurants were pleading with customers to avoid food delivery platforms (which also include Deliveroo and Menulog).

While it’s not hard to feel for restaurant owners who operate in one of the most difficult and competitive industries anywhere, where net profit margins are often in the low single digits, the anger towards Uber Eats seems misplaced.

No restaurant is forced to put themselves on the platform. It is completely voluntary, so there’s little moral justification in complaining about a contract which one willingly enters into and can cancel at any time. (Albeit in this regard, restaurants may feel that platforms like Uber Eats are taking customers who would have gone directly to the restaurants, or would go to a competitor willing to pay Uber’s fee).

More importantly though, as Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshashi told Kara Swisher on the podcast Recode Decode last week, about half if Uber’s commission gets paid straight to the delivery driver.

Uber’s gross margin (before all of its own costs like wages, rent and platform) is around 15% globally, which means Uber Eats’ net margin of a few percent is probably not that different to the restaurant itself. (Uber does have far more scale than individual restaurants.)

As Anthony Ivey of Melbourne’s Shortstop Coffee and Donuts told Nine, “when we sit down and calculate the average cost of [in-house] delivery including labour, car costs and petrol it would be 30-35%”. 

Factor in the hassle, and Uber and Deliveroo are almost certainly making restaurants money, they just can’t bring themselves to admit it.

Meet the press

Remember a couple of months ago, when Scott Morrison, Australia’s very own wartime prime minister, would arrange near-nightly press conferences to fumble his way through the closure of schools and barre classes?

The nation was transfixed on Morrison, and alongside him Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, as they skilfully plotted Australia’s path to lockdown in prime time.

Fast forward a couple of months and it seems like Scotty and Brendan’s nightly presentations would have made PT Barnum proud.

The federal government can’t even get Queensland and WA to open their borders to other states (despite ongoing bans likely being in breach of the constitution), nor can it get Dan Andrews to fully open schools.

It seems Morrison’s skillset doesn’t extend beyond anything other than press conferences and Hawaiian vacations.

What’s the difference between COAG and the national cabinet? 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday afternoon the national cabinet, formed in mid-March in response to COVID-19 and made up of state and territory leaders, is here to stay. 

It’s only the second time a national cabinet has been established — the first being in World War Two — and is going to replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). 

But what’s the difference between the two? Crikey has previously examined the lack of transparency of the national cabinet — now, we have a few more details. 

Secrecy

The main difference between the two bodies is transparency.

COAG decisions are expected to be made public within a week; national cabinet decisions are released whenever Morrison decides they should be. 

The COAG handbook states there is an “expectation that a document will be made public”, with an assumption that papers received by the secretariat have been cleared for circulation. 

COAG documents can also be accessed through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Compare that with the cabinet rules.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) has confirmed to Crikey the national cabinet abides by the cabinet handbook, which states:

Obviously general information about what has been decided by the cabinet is, on occasions, released into the public domain by persons authorised to do so.

But this does not detract from the importance of allowing the prime minister or the cabinet itself to decide what is disclosed publicly about any decision they have reached.

The cabinet’s deliberations about rules and processes affecting everyday Australians are “just not a spectator sport”, Morrison said on Friday. 

The FOI Act specifically exempts cabinet documents from disclosure. Cabinet notebooks are protected from early public release — meaning they cannot be accessed under FOI — and remain secret for 30 years

Importantly, conflicts of interest declared in cabinet committee meetings are recorded by the cabinet notetakers, making them secret too.

Solidarity 

While COAG decisions are supposed to be made by reaching a consensus (or, barring that, a majority vote), there’s nothing in the handbook banning members from criticising the council’s decisions.

Try that in the cabinet, and you get kicked out. As per the handbook:

Members of the cabinet must publicly support all government decisions made in the cabinet, even if they do not agree with them.

If cabinet members want to dissociate themselves from the cabinet’s decisions, they have to resign from the cabinet. This is a grey area when it comes to the national cabinet — given state and territory leaders are there representing their sovereign jurisdictions, it’s not clear how this would be enforced. 

When asked to elaborate, the PM&C told Crikey: “Any details of the inner workings of the national cabinet remains cabinet-in-confidence.” 

COAG, in comparison, simply states it needs to made clear whether public commentary is representing the view of the council or of individual council members. 

Agenda

The national cabinet will also be driven initially to just a single agenda — to create jobs (with a “laser-like mission focus”, as Morrison called it). 

In the same speech, however, he praised the cabinet on achieving balance between the health and economic management of the crisis. It’s not clear how that balance will be managed in the future.

COAG is made up of several councils, from transport and infrastructure to women’s safety, to the energy council.

The national cabinet seeks to abolish — ahem, reform and consolidate — several of these councils, including the disability reform council. 

“Ministers will consider the value of each of those and I suspect we’ll see many of them no longer be required,” Morrison said. 

How often it meets

COAG met two to four times a year. Currently, the national cabinet meets every two weeks (down from once a week at the height of the coronavirus).

Once the pandemic passes, it will meet once a month via teleconference, and twice a year in person.

Morrison has said being able to meet more frequently and virtually enabled flexibility and cut back on formalities. 

Exactly how the national cabinet will operate in a post-pandemic Australia, and whether a new handbook detailing how it will operate will be written, is yet to be seen. 

What do you think about the decision to replace COAG with the national cabinet? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Flagging expenditure shows government is right to aim at construction

The national accounts for the March quarter, due on Wednesday, would normally excite plenty of interest, but they’re of only historical interest at this point. There’s a lot of speculation around whether growth will be flat or negative and, if the latter — which most economists expect — negative by how much. But it’s still data from a mostly pre-COVID-19 world.

Of greater importance was last week’s data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on private investment, which showed a 1.6% fall in actual expenditure in the March quarter (to be down a nasty 6.1% for the year to March) and an even sharper fall of 8.8% in the second estimate for expenditure in the coming 2020-21 year.

The expected expenditure shows businesses plan investment of just $90.89 billion for the year, with falls across the board — mining down 6.8%, manufacturing down 7% and falls in buildings (11.6%) and structures and plant and machinery (4.5%).

The expenditure survey doesn’t capture all private investment — it misses a lot of spending by small to medium businesses and in areas such as health and education. The size of the forecast falls could be even larger given the nervousness of small to medium businesses, especially about the future of the JobKeeper scheme.

The expenditure data is especially grim given other data last week showed the value of construction work done falling 1% in the March quarter, following a bigger fall in December. That was a little better than forecast, but probably as good as it will be for the next year or more given the expenditure data.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe flagged this as an issue of concern when he appeared before the Senate’s COVID-19 committee last week:

What we’re also seeing is a decline in employment in some industries that kept jobs going for the first couple of months because the firms had a backlog of work. Many businesses, particularly in construction and professional services, had a pipeline of work, so when the shutdown occurred that work could be done. But what we’re hearing through our liaison is that that pipeline is being worked off. As that pipeline gets worked off, if it is not replaced by new jobs and new contracts, we could see weakness in construction and professional services.

That’s why the government is, sensibly, preparing a construction industry stimulus package, to prop up one of our biggest employers.

Infrastructure spending being brought forward will help the civil engineering end of the industry, but residential construction is facing a sharp downturn. Home buyer grants and even home renovator grants are being trailed in the media, though the Masters Builders Association, the CFMEU and welfare groups have all called for a focus on social housing.

Apart from its social benefits, social housing also has less of a risk of merely bringing forward private expenditure that would have occurred anyway, or trying to stimulate spending by householders too worried about their job prospects to risk building a house or undertaking a major project.

The government has some time to get it right, but whatever it spends, it will need to be substantial to restore a pipeline that was petering out even before the pandemic arrived.

Office workers are returning to the city. But is the city ready for them?

Sydney’s empty tower blocks are ready. After two months of forced hibernation, the CBD is cautiously yawning and stretching its limbs.

But when millions of office workers take their cautious, groggy steps from lockdown, back toward some semblance of the old life, they’ll come back to a workplace changed for good.

While Sydney’s white-collar types were isolating at home, an army of essential workers were refitting our offices for the future.

Hand sanitiser dispensers greet you at every doorway in the city. Plastic sheeting at the concierge’s desk. Stickers on tables and the floor telling people how far to keep apart. A world without the horrors of hot-desking and panoptic open plan offices suddenly seems possible. 

The pandemic has made the most mundane, everyday acts cumbersome, inconvenient or otherwise laced with danger. Human interaction is now cause for suspicion. The daily commute is suddenly a minefield of potential vectors. The idea of cramming 15 people in a lift now sounds terrifying. 

It’s that simple act of taking a lift which might prove one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the return to work.

Safe Work Australia has been hurriedly trying to grapple with this problem in time for the restart. Its initial guidelines, which urged a 1.5-metre distance in lifts, was slammed by landlords, who claimed it could force workers to wait up to three hours just to get to their desks. 

After a chat with the Property Council, Attorney-General Christian Porter intervened to soften the rules around lifts — instead of the 1.5 metre rule, the agency is now urging people to not touch each other and keep a distance.

Curious about how this tension between convenience and health would play out, I head in on a weekday morning seeing how long I can loiter by the lifts in building lobbies until someone calls security.

Things are still quiet, and if not for the occasional clusters of navy-suited finance bros, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Sunday. 

Most buildings have rules restricting lifts to just four at a time, and pretty much everyone seemed to be following this. There are no signs of three-hour bottlenecks yet, because by and large, Sydney’s office towers are still empty.

Ziad, who works the door at a Charter Hall building off Martin Place in Sydney’s throbbing, corporate heart, said they’d braced themselves for a wave of people on Monday, but things stayed quiet

“People are still very concerned, and most are still staying at home. So we’re just going slow and steady now,” he says.

Alyssa, a concierge at the Aon building on Kent St, has a notepad out and is making a tally of every person that comes through the door — no more than 50 are allowed in. She tells me it’s been surprising how well-behaved and patient everyone’s been — people seem nicer than before the pandemic.

“I guess nobody wants to die early, right?”

The few office workers that have ventured in seem remarkably casual about things.

A Commonwealth Bank employee, who came back to work a week ago says the measures have been working well. No queue for the lifts, distancing in the office, regular communication from management.

Over in Barangaroo, Jess, whose company has been working on and off throughout the last two months, says she hasn’t been worried at all.

“I guess I’m just not that kind of person,” she says with a shrug, puffing on a cigarette. 

But just how long can this sense of calm and nonchalance really last? In March, 94 workers on one floor of an office building in Seoul tested positive for COVID-19, a sign of just how quickly the virus can spread in a tight space.

A workplace strategist compared offices in their current form to “land-based cruise ships”. The arrival of our first office cluster is probably a question of if, not when. 

And as tower blocks fill up, how long will it be before patience wears thin, tempers fray, and a workforce that’s spent months isolated from the slightest sign of danger lets its guard down?

Ziad says that while he can do everything to enforce rules in the lobby and the lifts, once workers are in their offices, it’s all out of his control.

In the city, I’m reminded yet again about how absurdly lucky many of us have been during this pandemic.

We haven’t experienced anything like the terror that’s ripped through so much of the rest of the world. And while so many Australians have lost jobs and seen futures gutted, the ones returning to offices are the luckiest of all — able to isolate safely at home until things calmed down, with a job to come back to.

The dilemma about repopulating the tower blocks feels like an overwhelmingly middle class, white collar one.

When the bankers and lawyers left the city, the construction workers, cleaners, supermarket shelf-stackers and delivery riders kept going, putting themselves at risk every day. Waiting a little longer at the lifts or giving up the odd coffee break, seems, in the scheme of the whole pandemic, a relatively trivial little problem.

Restrictions ease further, while anti-5G protesters are still at it

Today is the day COVID-19 restrictions start properly easing, with pubs allowing more than a handful of people inside across the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison may announce extra cash this week, not for those doing it tough, but for those renovating their kitchen, while News Corp keeps peddling Wuhan conspiracy theories. 

Restrictions ease

The Queensland government has unveiled its plan to ease restrictions in the state, though aims to keep the Queensland bubble intact. From today, locals can travel freely across the state (well, everywhere but biosecurity or restricted zones for Indigenous communities). 

NSW now allows road trips and regional travel, even going so far as to launch a tourism campaign to encourage travellers to spend their cash within the state. Pubs and restaurants can host 50 patrons, so long as they have four square metres of space each. NSW has become the first state to reopen the pokies

Victoria now permits groups of 20 to gather inside or outside, with pubs, restaurants and cafes also allowed 20 patrons, so long as they keep 1.5 metres apart and leave their contact details. 

Despite these new measures, the state has extended its state of emergency by three weeks until June 21 thanks to cases detected in schools. About 100 kids from schools in Melbourne’s northwest are self-isolating after being exposed to the virus. 

Cash for kitchens

Direct cash grants for home renovations may be part of a new round of stimulus for the residential construction sector expected to be signed off by the national cabinet this week.

The industry has estimated a $4 billion home renovation grant scheme would bring in a return of about $7 to $8 billion. 

Not everyone is thrilled: some have questioned why international students and most universities still haven’t received a cent of government funding, with many on temporary visas lining up for food amid the pandemic. 

News Corp is at is again 

In yet another exclusive by The Daily Telegraph’s political editor Sharri Markson, a former intelligence chief has said it is possible COVID-19 could have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory.  

Former head of foreign affairs, defence and ASIO Dennis Richardson has called for a security review of similar laboratories around the world, though (despite the article’s headline) stressed the leak was simply “a possibility”.

It comes after the Tele was criticised for hyping up a leaked dossier “prepared by concerned Western governments” that exposed the Wuhan laboratory theory. The story was picked up by US media, though turns out did not contain new information. It was simply a summary of publicly available material prepared by the US State Department. 

Super Scam

Fraudsters have targeted Australians accessing the government’s early release superannuation scheme, with scammers setting up fake MyGov accounts then lodging applications. 

Using stolen identities, criminals have attempted to withdraw up to $10,000 — the maximum amount under the scheme — from individuals’ accounts. 

The federal government and the Australian Taxation Office told the ABC security has been tightened, but did not provide any details as to how. 

Protests

Over the weekend in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney hundreds of anti-vaccination, anti-5G conspiracy theorists protesters gathered yet again. 

On Saturday in Brisbane, they blocked a highway, while in Sydney protesters chanted “freedom of choice” and “my body, my choice”.

Those flouting social distancing measures face fines of $1652 each. 

The shopping mall is facing forced reinvention. Will it survive?

Shopping malls were once regarded as palaces of modernism. Now they are facing decay. 

As COVID-19 triggers widespread store closures across a range of big-name retail brands, analysts are predicting as many as one in two shops could be shuttered over coming months. 

“We’ve been talking about the retail apocalypse for years,” marketing lecturer Jason Pallant at Swinburne University told Crikey. “This is the closest we’ve got.” 

Retail sales suffered a 17.9% fall in April, their worst ever monthly decline. The question now is whether shopping malls, an inextricable part of modern life for decades, are dying or going through a transformation.

David Jones, one of the oldest continuously operating department stores in the world, announced last week it would close some of its 48 stores and sell off some of its property holdings as it grappled with a $500 million debt. It was the latest in a string of grim announcements from brick-and-mortar retailers who have been hit first by a slow Christmas, then bushfires, and now the pandemic.

Target, owned by $44 billion Wesfarmers, said it would also shut up to 75 stores across the country, and Flight Centre, another name synonymous with big shopping centres, will close up to 100 outlets.

Analysts predict there will be more closures to come, as many other stores take the opportunity to focus on online.

“Big brands are going to struggle if they haven’t already adapted [to online],” senior lecturer at Deakin Business School Paul Harrison said. 

“Just building big stores and hoping people will come to them is not how people shop now.” 

So what does this mean for the future of the shopping centre? 

Pallant says it opens up a challenge for big shopping centre developers. 

“In the short term, what it means is a lot of empty stores and vacancies,” Pallant said.

“Then we’ll see some of the smarter developers evolving in a way that is not so reliant on packing lots of stores in, and thinking more about how they can service their local community through experiences and services.”

Shopping centres have always had to evolve with consumers’ rapidly changing needs. This has been even more the case since shoppers began to flock online. And while the pandemic will kill off some embattled retailers, Harrison believes the model could still prove resilient. 

“There will always be people who want the social experience,” Harrison said.

In the big cities, successful shopping centres are not just selling things — they are offering “experiences” to draw in shoppers. Alongside the shoe and clothing stores there are GP clinics, childcare centres and gyms. But in the world of social distancing, even these are proving problematic.

“Playgrounds, movie theatres — none of those have been set up for social distancing,” Pallant said. “How are shopping centres going to reopen those areas in safe ways?”

Big centres like Chadstone in Melbourne have even been forced to close the dining areas of their food courts, leaving people without a place to sit and eat. “It’s going to be very hard to see how shopping centres adapt to that,” Pallant said.

But things could be a lot worse for regional Australia, with store closures spelling disaster for towns that rely on them for local employment and essential items. The Narrabri Shire Council in NSW is so worried about the closure of its Target store that it has launched an online petition to campaign against the shutdown. 

“We can get caught up about new trends and experiential retail, but the core of retail is people needing things,” Pallant said.

“In regional areas, if you lose that, people will have to go elsewhere — either online or another town.” 

As more shopping malls reopen their doors as coronavirus restrictions ease in the coming months, we will get a true picture of how much this economic crisis damages the retail industry — and which retailers survive. 

Will you miss shopping malls if they disappear? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

Australia cools to Trump’s miracle coronavirus drug… sort of

Australian trials of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine are (mostly) on pause following a damning study, it’s a mixed bag for the environment, and Indonesia may be facing a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak.

Hard to say, harder to swallow

(Some) Australian researchers have caught up with the World Health Organisation’s advice on anti-Malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure (or prevention) for coronavirus.

The drug has long been pushed by US President Donald Trump as an anti-coronavirus treatment — he recently attributed the fact that he keeps testing “positively toward negative” to his consumption of the drug. Australia’s Aldi Trump Clive Palmer joined him, taking out full-page ads in several newspapers early this month claiming he’d bought 33 million doses of it to aid the fight.

However, hydroxychloroquine was subject to a study in medical journal The Lancet which found it could cause heart problems and death. In response, WHO suspended testing earlier this week. There were at the time two major trials in Australia — one looking at the drug as treatment for COVID-19, one as prevention — both of which initially said they would push on.

Yesterday, the Doherty Institute announced it would be pausing its trials. However, the lead researcher for the second study — a trial known as COVID-SHELD looking at the drug’s preventative properties — told The Australian the group was “entirely comfortable” continuing with its trial.

The shifting climate

The pandemic has prompted the United Nations to delay until late 2021 the COP26 climate summit which had been scheduled for Britain this year.

The summit was supposed to have prodded governments to commit to more aggressive emissions-cutting goals, and had been billed as the most important climate change summit since the 2015 talks that produced the Paris Agreement.

After the revelations that even an unprecedented lockdown — with it’s sharp reductions in consumption and travel — wasn’t going to get us near the emission reduction levels we need to avert climate change related catastrophe, we have seen a contrast in how various levels of government are dealing with the structural changes going forward.

The Australian government has continued to back fossil fuels (up to and including stacking the opaque, hand-picked National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission with a couple of fossil fuel figures). State governments have used the distraction to pass environmentally dodgy moves. However, local governments appear to be stepping up.

Melbourne’s Yarra Council has announced a Climate Emergency Plan which — pending state government sign off — would require all new development to have zero net emissions to gain approval.

This is not over

While Australia continues to ease lockdowns, our northern neighbour Indonesia is showing potential signs of a runaway outbreak.

The spread of COVID-19 in the world’s forth most populous country — home to just over 12% of the world’s Muslims — was initially slow, due to the sprawling nature of the archipelago.

However, since gatherings of hundreds of thousands for Ramadan, experts fear a major outbreak is emerging. Cases in the country have already doubled to 24,000 since early May. A random sampling of 11,555 people in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, found 10% had antibodies for the coronavirus.