As it happened: Energy industry furious over Labor’s proposed price caps; Bruce Lehrmann considering sit-down TV interview – Sydney Morning Herald

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That’s a wrap for the national blog – thank you for joining me this afternoon.
The key headlines today included:
The wait is finally over for Victorian year 12 students who received their results today, but their NSW counterparts have to wait a little longer until Thursday. Or at least most of them.
Some readers may recall that some NSW students were able to access their subject results for a brief window on Saturday, the second year in a row results have accidentally been published early.
We now have some more details of the data leak from the Herald’s education editor Lucy Carroll.
A spokesperson for the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) said a glitch on Saturday meant up to 4500 students could have accessed preliminary subject marks – but not their ATAR.
Students shared news of the breach on HSC discussion social media groups on Saturday before 10am, and widely shared a link that allowed them access to their marks. The website was shut down within hours of it being discovered.
The spokesperson said the incident made it clear that “security systems need to be stronger” to guarantee access is not available to the public before official release.
“We have assured the minister that additional safeguards are being put in place to ensure all results are protected ahead of final HSC results on Thursday – and moving forward,” the spokesperson said.
“NESA offers our sincerest apologies to students for any distress this may have caused.”
On Saturday, NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said she was informed by NESA of “an IT issue” that allowed a small number of students to have an early look at their HSC results. She had asked NESA for an explanation as to how this occurred.
More than 75,000 students enrolled in an HSC course this year.
A senior public servant has played down the role of the tax office in providing data used for the robo-debt scheme, despite himself raising issues with it in 2017.
Tyson Fawcett, director of data management at the ATO, appeared as a witness at a royal commission into the now-defunct scheme in Brisbane today.
Fawcett agreed with a description of the ATO’s role in the data sharing as “passive” and said until issues began to be aired in the media, he was essentially unaware of how the data was being used.
The Department of Human Services, which runs Centrelink, used annual income data provided by the ATO to calculate debts of those it deemed had received incorrect amounts of welfare.
According to email records, in July 2017, Fawcett told the DHS either to agree to an urgent meeting to discuss how the data was being used or “cease and desist” with the scheme.
Fawcett told the inquiry that as best he could recall his concerns mostly related to the averaging of annual data to determine fortnightly income, which he said was simply not accurate.
From 2015 until 2020, the scheme wrongly recovered more than $750 million from 381,000 people, with several victims taking their lives while being pursued for the false debts.
Emails shown to the commission from Fawcett and others in the DHS, initially asked for clarity as to how the data was being used and later offered to explain the limitations as he saw them.
He told the commission, the “limitations around annualised data … may not been well understood” by the DHS.
An earlier email to the DHS that included the “cease and desist” line received a response from DHS representative Ali McRae.
Despite agreeing to work more closely on the scheme, McRae replied that “there are currently a range of measures the Government has asked us to deliver which rely on the data matching capabilities of our organisations and this work needs to continue.”
Commissioner Catherine Holmes suggested to Fawcett: “It looks very much as if she’s telling you to back off because this is what the government wants.”
“If I read it as it is, it definitely could imply that,” Fawcett replied.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison and former minister Marise Payne are due to front the commission tomorrow.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has emphasised Australia’s relationship with Vanuatu is “a partnership of equals” and has to be responsive to the aspirations of the Pacific island nation.
Wong and her Vanuatu counterpart, Jotham Napat, spoke improving about labour mobility scheme that allows many Vanuatu citizens to be seasonal workers in Australia’s agricultural and horticultural industries.
“While labour mobility is a win-win for both of our economies, it has not come without its own course of challenges, especially in welfare and pastoral care,” Napat said.
“As a partner, I strongly believe that we can work together to define the best model of care that will benefit us all.”
Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said there were 31,500 Pacific Islanders working in Australia, up from 24,000 as of the May election, and the government had budgeted for growth to 35,000 by the end of this financial year.
A screenshot of Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the joint press conference in Vanuatu.
“To give you an idea of the scale of the remittances flying back to the Pacific while filling our labour shortages, the average PALM [Pacific Labour Mobility] worker sends back $15,000 each,” Conroy said.
“Of that 31,000, almost 10,000 are Ni-Vanuatu workers, so this scheme through remittances, is sending back nearly $150 million a year to the Vanuatu economy.”
Wong, Conroy and Liberal senator Simon Birminghams are on a bipartisan official visit to the Pacific, starting with Vanuatu.
Napat also said he hoped Australia could help Vanuatu educate its citizens.
“Australia has one of the best education systems in the world,” he said. “Vanuatu would like to tap into your education system and would greatly appreciate if Australia would open up its technical and tertiary education by allowing us to study in Australia with the local fees just like our other members of the Pacific family, like Cook Islands and New Zealand.”
Wong said she understood the importance of doing more together on education and had asked her officials to work with their Vanuatu counterparts to see what could be done.
Napat also acknowledged the Albanese government’s policies on climate change and recommitment to the Paris agreement.
He said an example of how important Australia was as a strategic partner could be seen down at the wharf in Port Vila, where Australia had paid for an upgrade to the barracks.
Asked about the country’s relationship with China, Napat said “we have not established any security agreement and we have not even discussed any matter in relation to security”.
Wong said: “We have an interest in a Pacific, which is stronger economically, in which sovereign choices can be made, in which health and prosperity can be improved. Australia has an ethical interest in that, and we have a regional interest in that as a member of the Pacific family.”
Staying on health, we reported earlier that the federal government had decided to wind back Medicare funding for mental health treatment as part of its national management plan for COVID-19 in 2023.
Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray has described this decision, which will halve the number of sessions that can be subsidised by Medicare, as “baffling and very concerning”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray earlier this year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The number of Medicare-funded sessions increased from 10 to 20 a year under the Better Access scheme, which started in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mental health sessions could be with eligible general practitioners, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists.
Health Minister Mark Butler announced earlier today that this would revert back to 10 sessions by the end of the year.
He said a review found those extra sessions contributed to longer wait times and were more likely to benefit existing users and those on higher incomes.
But this is what Murray had to say:
Turning off over 1 million additional Medicare-funded mental health sessions next year when people in all parts of our community are doing it tough is a bad decision.
The decision to remove extra mental health supports at a time when interest rates are rising, housing pressure is growing and distress is high is baffling and very concerning.
While we support any changes to improve the Better Access program it makes no sense to turn off additional supports before those changes are developed.
We look forward to working with the government and other stakeholders to consider any improvements but until that process takes place, we should not cut-off current supports.
Suicide Prevention Australia launched a community tracker earlier today, which found that seven out of 10 Australians are experiencing higher distress compared to this time last year and nearly two out of five say they know someone in their personal life or networks, who has died by or attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
Lifeline: 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467; Emergency services: 000
Circling back to the national management plan for COVID-19, here are some more details on the changes to how Australia will manage the virus next year and beyond.
The plan says Australia is set to move away from “COVID exceptionalism” in 2023, and “transition to managing COVID-19 in a similar way to other respiratory viruses”.
The federal government will spend $2.8 million on the national plan for 2023, while warning COVID-19 will continue to impact Australians.
The Medicare funding for COVID pathology testing is set to expire at the end of 2023.
A drive-through COVID-19 testing clinic.Credit:Kate Geraghty
There was some confusion earlier about the requirement for a referral to get a PCR test.
The national plan states that from January 2023 everyone would need a referral from a medical or nurse practitioner to get bulk-billed PCR testing for COVID-19.
However, the Department of Health has since clarified that patients will still be able to get bulk-billed testing without a referral at state and territory testing clinics, hospitals, and GP-led respiratory clinics.
We have now been told that the requirement for a referral only applies to receive a free PCR test at a private pathology lab. (A referral is already required at some but not all private pathology clinics).
The plan said testing won’t be used as a surveillance tool like it was during previous lockdowns, but will instead be targeted in order for eligible patients to get faster access to antiviral treatments. Access to antivirals will be provided following a positive PCR or rapid antigen test.
“There will be an ongoing need to evaluate and optimise how we test, who we test and when we test people for COVID-19 over the course of 2023,” the plan said.
“Over the next 12 months, COVID-19 testing requirements will be aligned with testing arrangements associated with other respiratory illnesses.
“People in high-risk populations, such as older Australians, Indigenous people as well as those with a disability will be prioritised for PCR testing.”
Health Minister Mark Butler, who held a press conference earlier, said the government’s priority was to minimise the incidence of death and severe illness, particularly focusing on those most at risk.
“The national plan provides clear guidance to the community and healthcare providers on how the Australian government will play its part in managing COVID-19 into the future,” Butler said.
“We will continue to protect those most at risk, while ensuring we have the capacity to respond to future waves and variants.”
With AAP
As readers of the blog will know, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and other Australian politicians are in Vanuatu on the first leg of a Pacific tour.
A press conference with Wong, Liberal senator Simon Birmingham and Vanuatu Foreign Minister Jotham Napat is about to get underway.
Watch it here:
To Victoria, where year 12 students have received their VCE and ATAR results.
The Age is running a live blog on the VCE results if you want to take a deep dive.
The NSW HSC and ATAR results will come out this Thursday.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet also spoke about the energy deal with the Albanese government, saying his government had never been focused on the royalties it would lose under a price cap.
“Our position was never focused on coal royalties – it was never an issue,” Perrottet said.
“I’m not going to put the NSW budget revenue position before household budgets. That’s what this is about – making sure our families get through and particularly our low-income families across NSW who will fight face rising bills next year.
“I didn’t go to the discussions within with the federal government as a way of extracting something. I went into the discussions with the federal government about putting downward pressure on our families bills across NSW.”
Perrottet said the hit to the state’s coffers was “hundreds of millions of dollars” but that was not his focus.
Before the agreement with the Commonwealth, both Perrottet and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had ruled out a deal would leave the people of their states worse off.
Perrottet said the state government already provided rebates on energy bills to low-income households, but would work through the detail of the $1.5 billion the federal government has offered for additional rebates.
The federal government has made it clear the states have to provide matching funding, and that has to be additional money.
Circling back to the NSW premier’s press conference, Dominic Perrottet says his government will not be intimidated by a scare campaign against gambling reform and vowed to overhaul the state’s gaming industry.
As reported in The Daily Telegraph today, the powerful pubs and clubs lobby group said they would wage a campaign against independent regional MP Helen Dalton for supporting gambling reform, and suggested it would pursue other politicians who did not think that clubs had a “legitimate place”.
The NSW government is committed to a gambling card to limit gambling harm.Credit:Peter Braig
Perrottet, who has promised to introduce cashless gaming technology for pokie machines to crack down on money laundering and problem gambling, said his government wouldn’t waver from reform.
“This government is not going to be threatened, my members are not going to be threatened because we are focused on doing what’s right, they can say whatever they want, we are focused on fixing a major society issue,” he said.
“There’s not an election that passes where people [don’t] run scare campaigns, people run campaigns based on fear and lies … we are not going to be threatened in relation to those changes.”
Perrottet said politicians needed to “do what’s right” rather than focus on election wins.
“People are addicted to putting their life savings down pokie machines … we know where the destination is, I’ve made that abundantly clear, and I’m not moving away from it,” he said.
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