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What we know today, Wednesday June 23


The Nationals under newly-returned leader Barnaby Joyce have demanded the Morrison Government tear up the Murray Darling Basin Plan and a requirement for 450 GL of environmental flow which would benefit South Australia.

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Outrage as Nationals move to scrap SA water targets

The Nationals have launched an audacious bid to dramatically shake up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with a new push to scrap 450 gigalitres of water earmarked for South Australia, sparking calls for the junior coalition partner to be stripped of the water portfolio.

Emboldened after the return of Barnaby Joyce as deputy prime minister, the Nationals will move amendments to a government bill in the Senate on Wednesday.

Under the proposed changes, the requirement for 450GL of environmental water which would benefit SA – provided there were no negative social or economic impacts – would be dumped altogether.

While the government has ruled out water buybacks, the proposed amendments would enshrine the ban in law.

In addition, no new water for the environment would be allowed after the plan concludes.

Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who is tipped to return to cabinet as early as this week, is leading the charge for the changes.

“For too long our basin communities have been hurting, the science is now telling us the approach adopted 12 years ago is outdated and the plan must change,” she said.

South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick said the amendments were completely at odds with government policy and described the move as “complete stupidity”.

“Scott Morrison must act now and strip the Nationals of the water portfolio,” he said.

“This is what [the Nationals] are like: no regard for sustainable agriculture, simply looking after big irrigators.

“If the Government supports this … I will block my phone from every minister in the federal government. I won’t be talking to them about any legislation, they can play Russian roulette if they want.”

The basin plan has recovered 2100GL of its 2750GL environmental water target, with the rest to come from water offset projects.

But there is widespread concern the remainder of the water will not be recovered, with a recent report from the Australia Institute finding just 13 per cent of the required water is scheduled to be returned by 2024 at the current pace.

The Nationals’ proposal would allow new projects to be added if existing plans do not meet the requirement.

Nationals senators will aim to tack the changes on to a bill giving substantive powers to the inspector-general of the basin.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused Joyce and his supporters of wanting to steal more water from the environment.

“We now have a new war being launched on South Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin by the National Party,” she told parliament.

Hanson-Young challenged Prime Minister Scott Morrison and government Senate leader Simon Birmingham, an SA senator, to stand up to the Nationals.

“Stare down this wacky, crazy, untrustworthy mob and make sure they do not get their mitts on the portfolio, the public money and any more of the water,” she said.

Guardian Australia reports the Liberals will vote down the amendments sought by their junior coalition partners.

Nationals MP Damian Drum said the policy, which opens up another split with the Liberals, had been agreed in the party room.

“We are putting a line in the sand right now,” he said.

“You just can’t keep taking more and more water out of agriculture when we are seeing so much of the water being used for the environment actually being wasted.”

The debate continues.

NSW cluster soars to 31, restrictions back

Thousands of city dwellers won’t be allowed to travel beyond metropolitan Sydney as part of a raft of restrictions after NSW recorded 16 new COVID cases since its last update.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian says restrictions are “effective immediately” for Greater Sydney, the Central Coast, Blue Mountains, Wollongong and Shellharbour.

The so-called Bondi cluster, which began last week, now stands at 31 after a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive to the highly infectious Delta variant, which quickly started spreading at Bondi Junction’s busy Westfield shopping centre.

“Please abandon non-essential activities, please don’t attend social gatherings unless you absolutely must,” the premier said on Wednesday.

“I am not going to rule out further action.”

Residents who live or work in the City of Sydney, Waverley, Randwick, Canada Bay, Inner West, Bayside, and Woollahra local government areas cannot travel outside the metropolitan area unless it’s absolutely essential.

“We don’t want the virus to spread to the regions,” Berejiklian said.

NSW recorded 10 locally acquired cases to 8pm on Tuesday, seven of which were already announced.

An additional 13 cases were reported after 8pm, which will be counted in Thursday’s official tally.

Overall, there have been 16 new cases taking the total number of infections to 31, from 21 on Tuesday.

Under the new restrictions, household visitors are limited to five people, including children and masks are now compulsory in non-residential indoor settings – including workplaces – and at outdoor events.

Masks must also be worn to gym classes, which limited to 20 people.

More than 44,000 tests were completed in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday.

Vic records no new local COVID-19 cases

Victoria has recorded a second-straight day with no new local COVID-19 cases, as the state prepares for a further easing of restrictions.

The Health Department confirmed there were no locally acquired coronavirus cases in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning, while one new infection was recorded in hotel quarantine.

More than 28,200 test results were processed during the same period and more than 17,200 Victorians received a vaccine dose at one of the state-run hubs.

It is the seventh consecutive day the state has recorded either zero or one new local case, while the number of exposure sites has dropped to 96, paving the way for restrictions to be further eased.

Sun Yang banned from the Tokyo Olympics

China’s most famous swimmer got a second chance to avoid a doping ban and compete at the Tokyo Olympics, and lost.

This time, however, Sun Yang’s ban is less likely to end the three-time Olympic champion’s career.

A new panel of judges at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) banned the 29-year-old Sun on Tuesday for 4 years, 3 months – about half the eight-year sanction handed down after the first trial in 2019.

The verdict ended Sun’s hopes of defending his Olympic title in the 200 metre freestyle in Tokyo next month.

Australian Mack Horton, who was among swimmers to label Sun a drug cheat at the 2016 Rio Olympics and refused to share the podium with him at the 2019 world championships in South Korea, will compete in Tokyo.

However, Horton will not be able to defend his 400m Olympic freestyle title after failing to qualify for the event at the Australian trials. He has been included in the squad as a relay swimmer.

Sun’s ban was backdated to February 2020, meaning he could return for the 2024 Paris Olympics when he would be 32.

The judges found Sun “to have acted recklessly” when he and members of his entourage were found to have smashed vials containing blood samples taken at an out-of-competition test in September 2018.

The formal charges were for refusing to give a sample and tampering with a doping control.

Health budget spend criticised by key groups

Several key health groups in South Australia are disappointed with the State Budget’s spend on health services, criticising the government for a lack of investment in mental health and saying the new funds will not address fundamental problems in the state’s hospitals.

Treasurer Rob Lucas handed down the 2021-22 State Budget on Tuesday with health – particularly mental health services – identified as spending priorities.

A total of $7.4 billion has been allocated for the health portfolio in the next financial year, including a $163.5 million package over four years to address the state’s mental health services crisis.

Among the new measures are a 16-bed crisis stabilisation centre in the northern suburbs as an alternative to emergency departments for people in crisis, and a further $12 million spent next year to create an extra eight psychiatric intensive care beds.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists welcomed the eight extra psychiatric intensive care beds, funds for housing for people with mental health disabilities and funding to help address workforce shortages – but said the investment in mental health didn’t go far enough.

“There are only eight extra (mental health) beds across the entire system,” said the college’s SA branch chairperson, Dr Paul Furst.

“South Australia is about 130 beds short of the national average.

“There hasn’t been any investment in rehabilitation beds, which is what the state is massively short on.”

Furst also said it appeared the government still hadn’t grasped the ramping problem and how to address it.

Those comments were echoed by South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association Chief Industrial Officer Bernadette Mulholland who described the mental health package as “manifestly inadequate”.

“We can find over $600 million for a new stadium no-one wants but only $160 million over four years for mental health. The priorities are all wrong,” she said.

The South Australian Mental Health Coalition were circumspect in their assessment of the budget, welcoming investments in emergency department alternatives but noting the need for “follow up support” for mental health patients so “they can deal with the underlying issues and stay well in the community”.

“We are glad to see this budget is taking the first steps in realising the (SA Mental Health Services) Plan, however we still have a long way to go,” the coalition’s Executive Director Geoff Harris said.

“We need more services that address why people are becoming unwell and look at the underlying issues more comprehensively.”

On general health matters, the budget revealed a $1.95 million cost for the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital which the Government says will house 500 new treatment bays.

The Opposition criticised the government for delays on the project, with the hospital not set to open until 2027 compared to an initial promise of 2024.

The budget also shows a $110 million spend to create 140 new treatment spaces in emergency departments at Flinders Medical Centre, Lyell McEwin Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Modbury Hospital and some regional hospitals.

The paramedics’ union welcomed the increased capacity in emergency departments but said it wouldn’t solve ramping without more beds throughout hospitals.

“All it means is more patients will get caught in the ED,” said Ambulance Employees Association state secretary Phil Palmer.

“The answer is whole of system capacity.”

Budget attracts mixed reviews from business community

Business groups have given mixed reviews to the 2021-22 State Budget, welcoming investment in infrastructure and continued payroll tax exemptions but lamenting a lack of support programs in the event of another COVID lockdown.

The budget forecasts tip the South Australian economy to grow by 3.5 per cent in 2021-22 and then by 2.25 per cent each year across the forward estimates.

The deficit for 2020-21 is expected to be about $1.8b – down from $2.6b forecast last year – while total net debt is expected to rise from $22b to $33.6b by 2024-25.

Credit ratings agency Moody’s said the budget will allow South Australia to keep its AA1 credit rating and stable outlook forecast.

“South Australia’s revenue recovery has exceeded our initial expectations, reflecting its strong revenue ties to the Commonwealth, despite severe economic and revenue disruptions from pandemic and border closures,” said John Manning, Vice President of Moody’s Investors Service.

Business SA similarly welcomed the budget’s economic growth and revenue forecasts but was disappointed by the lack of COVID support measures in place for businesses.

The chamber of commerce had called for a funding scheme to protect small and medium businesses from future lockdowns and a “de-risk” fund for event organisers to insure them against COVID contingencies.

“The 2021/22 State Budget underwrites South Australia as an attractive and cost competitive place to do business, although not providing any real peace of mind for businesses should South Australia find itself in another COVID lockdown,” Business SA CEO Martin Haese said.

“Unfortunately, the Budget lacks tailored support programs for hard working business owners that have borne the brunt of seismic uncertainty over the last 15 months.”

Haese welcomed the extension of a payroll tax waiver for businesses who take on apprentices but called on the government to extent this to support an estimated 19,000 businesses who are unable to access the scheme.

The South Australian Property Council were more upbeat about the priorities of the budget, and welcomed the State Government’s spend on infrastructure and an $800,000 fund to reactivate the Adelaide CBD.

“The message coming out of this Budget is very clear – it’s about record infrastructure spending with a strong focus on health, education and economic recovery,” said Property Council SA Executive Director Daniel Gannon.

“This is evidenced by the $17.9B invested into infrastructure over the next four years, critically focused on health, education, sporting, cultural and recreational facilities.”

Among the infrastructure measures outlined in the budget are $202 million over three years to build a Sturt Highway bypass around the town of Truro and $180 million over four years to complete the next stage of the duplication of the Augusta Highway from Nantawarra and Lochiel.

A $60 million upgrade of the Heysen Tunnels on the South Eastern Freeway over two years has also been included under the shared funding model as has a $40 million project to upgrade Key Kangaroo Island road corridors over three years.

But the budget also revealed a $1 billion cost blowout for the north-south corridor, which will now cost $9.9 billion due to the addition of an extra lane and new safety features.

RAA Senior Manager of Safety and Infrastructure Charles Mountain said it was “logical to meet the modelling of the traffic volumes expected to use the tunnels, as it will future proof this massive infrastructure project”.

Locals rejoice as Hove crossing project derailed

Residents in the suburb of Hove are rejoicing after the State Government announced plans to scrap its controversial level crossing removal project, with the Transport Department now investigating other ways to reduce traffic congestion in the area.

The project to remove the Brighton Road crossing was announced in April 2019 at an initial cost of $171 million, but raising the rail line over Brighton Rd to reduce traffic congestion was costed at $295 million and prompted resident protests over a proposed 1.5km concrete bridge and the number of compulsory acquisitions.

The community’s preferred option, a rail under line, was costed at $450 million and the Treasurer Rob Lucas said the Commonwealth was not prepared to fund the project.

City of Holdfast Bay Mayor Amanda Wilson said the decision has come as a relief to her constituents.

“The residents that are in the affected area are obviously very very happy that a 1.5 kilometre, 13-metre-high train bridge is not going to go through their historic suburb,” Wilson said.

“But it also means now that hopefully we can look at long term management of Brighton Road’s congestion and work out modifications that we can make along the corridor that can actually improve the traffic flow for everybody.”

Wilson said the volume of traffic on Brighton Road needs to be reduced long-term, and pointed to a pedestrian overpass and a feasibility study into diverting local traffic onto the north-south corridor as potential solutions.

“The congestion is only at peak hour – the rest of the time it flows really well,” she said.

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Corey Wingard said he has now asked his department to investigate alternative solutions and “identify broader options to reduce travel times and improve safety along Brighton Road” to develop a better “whole of corridor” solution to the problem.

The State Government says the $171 million earmarked for the Hove project will now be available for other priority infrastructure projects.

Wingard also on Tuesday announced a 10-year-plan to “identify and triage” train level crossings across the state for removal, describing them as “archaic” infrastructure.

“Once identified, my department will develop the top five crossing projects to shovel-ready status so we can fast-track their funding and delivery,” he said.

Sydney looks to avoid lockdown as NZ bubble paused

Mandatory mask rules have been extended by a week in Sydney and at least seven new COVID cases will be added to the state’s tally today as the trans-Tasman bubble with NSW is paused after a health alert was issued for two flights to New Zealand earlier this week.

When asked whether a lockdown was likely for Sydney, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she had a “degree of confidence” in the situation despite the number of cases linked to the Bondi cluster reaching 21 on Tuesday.

“If we suddenly have a number of unlinked cases and if we suddenly have them outside the geographic region they are concentrated in, that will obviously adjust the health advice and we will respond to that,” the premier said.

Other Australian states, including South Australia, have imposed border restrictions for people from Sydney’s hotspot areas and the infection numbers have prompted New Zealand to close the trans-Tasman travel bubble with NSW.

The decision on Tuesday night came as NSW Health added two flights to its list of close contacts, urging passengers on a Qantas plane from Sydney to Wellington on June 18 and an Air New Zealand flight from Wellington to Sydney on June 21 to get tested and isolate for 14 days.

Seven of the 10 new locally acquired Sydney cases of COVID-19 flagged on Tuesday had missed the 8pm reporting deadline on Monday and will be counted for the following 24-hour period.

They included six household contacts of previous cases who have been in isolation and a child in Sydney’s east.

Berejiklian said she had expected household contacts who were already in isolation to test positive.

All of the new cases except for two were already in isolation when tested and all of the cases except for one, a student at St Charles Catholic Primary School in Waverley, were linked to existing cases.

Joyce-led Nationals weigh up climate deal with Libs

Compensation for farmers and other rural industries will be crucial to a potential deal between the Nationals and Liberals on contentious climate targets.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is expected to continue negotiations with Scott Morrison with a long-term move towards a net zero carbon emissions target a sticking point.

Deputy leader and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the party wouldn’t enter a deal until what was on offer was clearer.

“That’s just good business principles. You don’t give away your end price straight up,” he told Sky News.

“We’re going to look at it, we’re going to see what we can get and make sure that no one’s hurting, but we also start to square that ledger.

“We copped it in the neck in regional Australia for everyone to sleep soundly in metropolitan Australia and it’s time that our mob got repaid for it.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused Mr Joyce of being a climate change sceptic that would further damage Australia’s reputation when other countries were behind the 2050 target.

“What we have is a rump in the coalition, in the National Party and in the Liberal Party, but it’s a rump that’s holding back Australia,” he said.

Joyce is also weighing up the Nationals’ ministerial roles with Bridget McKenzie expected to return to cabinet at the expense of fellow Victorian Darren Chester.

The deputy prime minister took over his predecessor’s roles in infrastructure, transport and regional development on Tuesday when he was sworn in on Tuesday.

-With AAP and Reuters

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