As it happened: Suspected visa scams choking immigration system; Labor to replace building watchdog – Sydney Morning Herald

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Thanks for joining me on the national blog this afternoon. That’s all for today.
Here are the main headlines of the day:
Former senator and Greens co-founder Bob Brown has been moved on by police while staging a protest against logging in Tasmania.
Protesters were staging a “peaceful occupation” of swift parrot habitat near Swansea in the state’s north-east, where birds have been pushed out of their usual breeding and feeding forests by intensified logging.
Police attended the timber production zone at Lake Leake after reports a group of people was obstructing the work of logging contractors.
“Some of the people in the group were moved on without incident, however a man who initially failed to move on from the area will be summonsed to attend court on a trespass matter,” a police spokeswoman said.
Police said one man who failed to move on would be summonsed to attend court on a trespass matter, and two women who had tied themselves to logging equipment were arrested and charged with trespass and obstructing police. They will appear in court at a later date.
Brown said he was “upholding the laws of nature” and an international convention on biodiversity.
“The parrots cross the Bass Strait in three hours, whereas it takes the ferry all day or all night, and they find where the eucalypts are blossoming and that’s where their biggest population will be,” he said.
“This year, it’s in the north-east of Tasmania, and instead of protecting that habitat as the biodiversity convention would have us, they’re logging.”
Brown joined the protest yesterday and camped out overnight at the site, where two people had tied themselves to machinery and one staged a tree-sit today.
“It’s broadscale destruction,” Brown said.
“The current coupe that they’re logging is 200 hectares and, significantly, what they’re doing is taking out the big trees, and they’re the very ones that these birds need for nesting.”
Brown questions the legality of logging in the area, and is calling on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to end logging in Australia’s native forests.
Bob Brown Foundation campaigner Erik Hayward said protesters’ requests to save swift parrot habitat had been ignored by the Tasmanian premier and forestry authorities.
“The forests of the Eastern Tiers are some of the last remaining habitats for the swift parrot,” he said.
Mr Brown was arrested twice in two days in December 2020, also over anti-logging protests in swift parrot habitat in Tasmania’s Eastern Tiers.
Significant pressure to find budget savings combined with “overwhelming” workloads generated the idea for the robodebt program, an inquiry has heard.
A royal commission is investigating the failed robodebt program, which falsely accused welfare recipients of owing the government money.
The program was initiated under the former Coalition government in an attempt to recover debt and increase budget savings.
Former Department of Human Services national manager Scott Britton, a senior public servant who worked on the policy proposal, gave evidence today.
Britton recalled that around 2012 there was “a significant shift” in the department towards the generation of savings.
“[If] any government is seeking savings they would generally come to fraud and compliance because it is a mechanism by which savings can be found and dollars can be generated,” he said.
“Definitely the emphasis was on the dollars and the savings associated with those measures.”
Britton wasn’t sure whether the emphasis was coming from the ministers or the department itself, but he felt the pressure.
He said there was “significant” non-compliance in the welfare program and the department was overwhelmed with workloads trying to crosscheck claims against actual incomes.
“[We were] certainly … looking at ways by which we could treat that volume of work,” he said.
The policy that would become robodebt was proposed as a means of automating and reducing some of the workload and Mr Britton said it was also seen as a way to modernise the department’s processes.
“There were multiple layers and drivers more than just about the savings,” he said.
“Savings, I think, became the primary driver, but initially it was about modernisation.”
Legal advice from the Department of Social Services rejected the proposal because of issues with the debt calculation method.
Calculations were done through a process called income averaging, which compared people’s reported income with tax office figures.
The commission has previously heard the social services department received legal advice in 2014 that the proposal was unlawful.
But Britton said he could not recall receiving this legal advice.
“I don’t remember specifically ever receiving the actual advice, conversations associated with it maybe, but not the physical [advice],” he said.
“It would have been one of those points that I would have remembered if somebody came back and said, ‘that’s not lawful’.”
Britton told the commission there were known issues with the tech system used to produce the debt notices.
“It wasn’t really an option at the time to not deliver,” he said.
“We just all pushed on with what we had to ensure we had systems that were able to support the intent.”
Hundreds of thousands of Australians were sent debt notices under the scheme, which recovered more than $750 million.
The commission is accepting submissions from people affected until February 2023, with a final report due by mid-April.
Staying on the topic of COVID-19, new figures suggest Australians are living longer despite the pandemic, which caused life expectancy to drop in many of the world’s richest nations.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released on Tuesday suggest a girl born in 2021 can expect to live 85.4 years, up several months on the pre-pandemic figure.
Males were expected to live 81.3 years, a similar increase.
The ABS noted Australia was one of the few countries to show an increase in life expectancy since COVID hit, and had the third-highest life expectancy in the world behind Monaco and Japan.
US life expectancy has dropped to the lowest level since 1996, plunging 2.7 years between 2019 and 2021.
Meanwhile, in England, the pandemic led to the biggest year-on-year drop in life expectancy in 2020 since figures were first collected in 1981.
ABS demography director Emily Walter said life expectancy in Australia was 11.9 years longer for males and 10.6 years longer for females than the 2020 UN world average.
The bureau said a 65-year-old Australian male could expect to live another 20.3 years, compared to 23 years for a woman the same age.
The figures showed a wide disparity in life expectancy between people in well-off urban areas and the most remote communities.
The highest life expectancy in Australia for women was in the Ryde region of Sydney, where a female could expect to live 88.4 years from birth.
For males, the highest life expectancy was 85.6 years in the Baulkham Hills and Hawkesbury region of Sydney.
In contrast, the lowest figures for males and females were both in the outback Northern Territory, at 71.7 and 77.1 years respectively.
The ACT has the highest average life expectancy of any state or territory, followed by Western Australia, Victoria and NSW.
The NT has the lowest average life expectancy, followed by Tasmania.
However, University of Melbourne demographer Tim Adair noted there had been more deaths than expected in 2022 due to an increase in COVID-related mortality as well as deaths from other causes such as diabetes.
With AAP
To NSW now, an independent Catholic high school in Sydney’s north-west has closed its doors to most students and moved to remote learning after a third of teachers tested positive to COVID-19.
In a letter to parents, Tangara School for Girls in Cherrybrook principal Rita Sakr said the school had made “a very difficult but necessary decision” to close to most pupils for the rest of the week after one student and more than 30 per cent of its secondary teachers contracted the virus.
Students in years 7, 8, 9 and 11 will be taught remotely, and year 10 students sitting end-of-year exams are being supervised by staff at the school.
You can read the full story by the Herald’s education editor Lucy Carroll here.
Most of Australia in the early stages of another COVID-19 wave as new Omicron offshoots better evade immunity, leading to a rise in cases.
I have made this graph with the latest available figures from the Australian Department of Health.
It is probably an underestimate given the figures are now a week old, and it is no longer mandatory to report the results of a rapid antigen test in a number of states, including NSW and Victoria.
There has been a lot of talk about standards of workplace behaviour lately with the passing of laws recommended by the Respect@Work report this week, and the government calling for more respect for women.
But question time today was peppered with the speaker calling the House to order and admonishing mostly Coalition MPs talking over the top of ministers.
On the flip side, Treasurer Jim Chalmers was admonished for calling the Coalition “dregs” – to which he asked if calling them “leftovers” would be more parliamentary.
And Labor senator Glenn Sterle has apologised for calling Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie a “naughty little girl” during a hearing of the regional and rural affairs committee.
But all that pales in comparison next to a truly eyebrow-raising story that has emerged today.
Get this: A senior public servant has resigned from a federal government agency after being accused of urinating on colleagues.
Under questioning about sexual harassment at the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, chief executive Lisa Croft was asked if she was aware that a male senior staff member had allegedly urinated on colleagues at a work function.
Croft said she had been made aware of a “private urination matter”.
“I am aware of an incident that occurred in a private capacity, not at a work function,” she told a Senate estimates hearing.
“Individuals raised the matter with me directly.”
The authority, which is the Australian government regulator of agricultural and veterinary chemical products, has its headquarters at Armidale in NSW.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson told the hearing he was aware of potentially three complaints from female staff members about the alleged incident.
Croft told the hearing that while the people directly involved had wanted her to be aware of the matter, there was no official complaint made.
“I’m not aware of any complaints from those staff members in relation to a sexual harassment matter,” she said.
Croft said after discussions with the organisation’s human resources team, the staff member resigned from their position.
“Discussions were had in terms of what may be able to be done in relation to the matter, and the staff member resigned very soon after that,” she told the hearing.
Croft said she did not speak directly to the executive staff member.
Whish-Wilson said he would be filing further questions to the authority.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt described the questions as “concerning”.
“Certainly, it’s the first time I’ve heard about any of them, and I’ll be seeking an urgent briefing from my department about it,” he said.
With AAP
An update from Senator estimates, from Lisa Visentin.
Labor Senator Glenn Sterle has given a more fulsome apology for calling Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie a “naughty little girl” during a hearing of the regional and rural affairs committee.
“I’ve reflected upon my words earlier today and Senator McKenzie I want to apologise for my outburst … there is no excuse for the language I used,” Sterle said.
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley said the comments were unacceptable, noting Labor had used the passing of laws recommended by the Respect@Work report this week to call for more respect for women.
“Is this the respectful workplace Anthony Albanese promised us?,” Ley said in a statement.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, who was at the hearing when Sterle made the comment, also condemned the remarks as unacceptable.
“I’ve spoken with Glenn about it. I know that he’s remorseful. He’s obviously made his apology. But it’s utterly unacceptable for those kinds of remarks to be made in any workplace environment or in society as a whole,” Watt told reporters.
You can read the full story here.
Former Labor senator Kristina Keneally has been appointed chief executive officer of the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation.
Keneally’s political career came to an abrupt halt at the federal election when she was thwarted in her bid to move from the upper house to the western Sydney seat of Fowler. In a major upset, independent MP Dai Le won the seat.
In a statement, Keneally said she was excited to join the SCHF leadership team.
As I begin this new chapter in my professional life, I’m incredibly humbled by the opportunity I have been given.
I don’t take this appointment lightly and coming to work each day now has an incredible new meaning.
I’ve had the pleasure to meet some of the team and I understand what drives and motivates them, which brings greater purpose to my new position.
Over the course of her public life, Keneally frequently drew attention to the plight of mothers and families of stillborn children, having lost her own daughter Caroline.
SCHF board chair Len Chersky welcomed Keneally’s appointment. She will replace Nicola Stokes who served the organisation for six years.
“We know her voice and vision will help SCHF continue to make a positive impact on the lives of sick kids and their families through funding world-class healthcare and research,” Chersky said.
If you’ve been glued to the live blog and question time, here are a few of the other stories running on our sites:
Staying on the topic of defence, Defence Minister Richard Marles said Australian taxpayers would need to spend an “enormous” amount of money to acquire a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines.
However, he said the investment was crucial to allow the Australian Defence Force to project lethal force.
Marles told the Submarine Institute of Australia conference in Canberra today that acquiring nuclear submarines under the AUKUS pact with the United States and Britain was “absolutely fundamental” to protecting Australia’s national security.
Marles said that submarines “can place the single biggest question mark in our adversaries’ minds” by virtue of their stealth and unique capabilities.
“And if our strategic setting going forward needs to be more like a porcupine, then in fact question marks in our adversaries’ minds are going to be really, really important and the size of them is going to matter,” he said.
“That’s what submarines do, and I think being able to explain that to the Australian public so that people can understand why we are spending an enormous amount of money on a comparatively small number of platforms.”
Defence experts have said they expect the cost of a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines to reach at least $100 billion.
Marles said that defence spending, which is about $50 billion a year, “is going to go north” and Australians need to believe they are receiving value for money.
“Defence will need to be potentially our highest spend, given the threats that we face and the capabilities that we therefore need to build and acquire,” he said.
Marles said the ADF needed to be “reconceived” around a new framework of “impactful projection”.
“This means an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response,” he explained.
He said this represents “a different mindset” to Australia’s previous narrow focus on defending the continent.
Marles said that “a long-range capable submarine does impactful projection more than any other platform that we have within our defence force right now”.
The government’s nuclear submarines taskforce is expected to report on the recommended model for a nuclear submarine by next March.
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