Friday, March 27, 2020

Government prepares $550m robodebt refund

The federal government expects to lose an upcoming class action against the robodebt scheme and be forced to refund more than 400,000 welfare debts, according to a leaked ministerial submission. The advice, obtained by Guardian Australia, reveals the government plans to settle in the legal fight over $550 million in debts wrongly issued to hundreds of thousands of Australians. Additionally, Services Australia staff are still chasing Australians over potentially unlawful welfare debts despite pledges to dedicate all resources to addressing the huge backlog of new entitlement claims related to COVID-19 shutdown measures. That includes one woman who was asked to provide bank statements from 2014 over an alleged overpayment of $12,000. “I was so surprised they’re bothering chasing that up now, with the literal collapse of their system from the amount of people who need help,” the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is to take a third emergency stimulus package ($) to the national cabinet meeting this morning, reports The Australian, with the measures to include underwriting the commercial rents, rates, taxes and utility bills of ­retailers and small businesses. The Morrison government has flagged that it considers residential rent relief to be a state matter.  At the meeting, NSW and Victoria are expected to flag “third stage” lockdowns that could see all non-­essential workers forced to stay home. The national cabinet will also reconsider potential school closures in term two. State premiers have unveiled plans to keep schools open for the children of essential workers, but most are looking at measures to transition to online learning for the majority of students after the Easter break.

The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre could be repurposed as a temporary intensive care hospital and morgue, as authorities brace for a rise in cases, The Age reports. The Victorian government is preparing contingency plans for up to 2000 intensive care admissions at the peak of the pandemic in late May or early June, but only had about 475 ICU beds before the crisis developed. Wards have been reopened at the old Peter McCallum hospital in East Melbourne and new beds fast-tracked at Casey Hospital in Melbourne’s south-east.

The United States House of Representatives is expected to pass a $US2 trillion ($3.3 trillion) stimulus package on Friday to address the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions. New unemployment figures reveal about 3.3 million people in the country filed a claim for jobless aid in the week ending March 21, a nearly fivefold increase over the previous record. The country’s COVID-19 infection numbers are growing rapidly, with about 69,200 cases of COVID-19 confirmed and 1046 deaths reported. Despite the growth in infections, US President Donald Trump hopes to lift health safeguards by Easter.


“When detectives raided the nondescript one-storey brick house in Sanctuary Point on the New South Wales south coast last Saturday, locals were perplexed. No one was told what was happening and, as the detectives continued searching the property the following day, the mystery grew. A rumour began to spread on social media that an 18-year-old man had been murdered by his brother. The truth was even more disturbing.”


“Water connects people, but it also divides. If politics is how human societies decide on the sharing of resources, wealth and power, then in a dry country water is indubitably, essentially and unavoidably political. The Basin and its water politics are in the news because of allegations of corruption and water theft, because of dead fish and angry irrigators, and because a royal commission in South Australia has suggested one of our important government organisations, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, is dishonest, incompetent and acting outside the law.”


“A week ago, in a confidential briefing note from Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office, the government’s strategy was spelled out in dot points. The aim, according to the note, was to flatten the bell curve ‘so we have only 1-2m infected per month. Worst month expected to be June easing by September and all done be [sic] December.’ But over the past week, the average rate of coronavirus infections was rising by 23.7 per cent a day, according to one Labor researcher.”


“Compared to those countries who have so far controlled the spread of COVID-19, our contact tracing and quarantine enforcement is far less stringent. Returning international passengers are being trusted to self-isolate without checks, and the release of infected passengers from the Princess Ruby cruise ship highlighted weaknesses in the system.”


“A Melbourne woman who was infected with COVID-19 on a ski holiday in the US attended a 21st birthday party where at least six people have been struck down with the virus. The outbreak at the party held in Malvern on March 14 are the latest coronavirus cases to be linked to a group of wealthy Australians who attended the exclusive Colorado resort of Aspen, where at least a dozen Australians tested positive.”


If time at home has you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more … Here’s how you can join them. (Unfortunately, that delicious old-book smell is not included.)”

Max Opray
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.