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Monthly Archives: September 2019

Captive to extremes: weather obsession shapes human history

Australians Google the weather more than sex.

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But it wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, sex was a much more popular search term than whether it’s going to rain, hail or shine.

So what’s changed? That’s the question author and academic Lawrie Zion hoped to crack while writing his new book The Weather Obsession.

It’s hard to imagine a better person for the job. The former journalist – who helped start Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown – was just a child when he first visited the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

That day he left clutching a book of Australia’s climatic averages under his arm, one of his most prized childhood possessions. He has been a self-described weather nerd ever since: poring over newspaper weather charts and, later, watching as newsrooms adapted to the digital age and fed the appetite for weather information with videos and slick graphics.

The weather captivates unlike anything else, according to Zion, because it is ordinary but extraordinary at the same time.

“Weather retains an unpredictability,” he said. “In the last 50 years we’ve been able to insulate ourselves from its extremes, but it’s still relevant to the way we conduct our daily lives.”

The Weather Obsession serves as a neat history of the bureau from its origins in 1908 to its current use of a $77 million supercomputer.

The book alsoexplores a common thread that ties all weather stories together – unmet demand. Take for example the Bureau of Meteorology’s 700,000 Facebook followers, and the 3.15 billion annual page views of its live radar service.

Zion says the logical conclusion is that humans are hardwired to find the weather interesting (and not just a conversation filler).

“The studies in the US point to that,” he said. “If you live in an area where the weather is more predictable, you’re much less likely to care about weather information in comparison to a place like Melbourne which has famously unpredictable weather. It’s a powerful connection that’s shaped human history.”

The Weather Obsession is out now via Melbourne University Press.

Lawrie Zion will be speaking at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival, which runs until September 3. The Age is a festival sponsor.

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Departing doctors on Manus Island don’t know who will replace them in two months

The international medical company contracted to look after refugees on Manus Island has no idea who will replace it in just two months when Australia withdraws entirely from the island.

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International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), which runs a round-the-clock clinic at Australia’s regional processing centre (RPC) and a smaller service in Lorengau, will depart Papua New Guinea on October 31 when its contract ends.

The RPC is due to close completely by that date, but about 700 refugees are still awaiting promised resettlement in the US, and the future for 250 asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected also remains uncertain.

Fairfax Media understands senior staff at IHMS are concerned that they have not been told who will take over the provision of medical services for the refugees and asylum seekers, and no handover process has commenced.

Asked about the issue at a press conference last week, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said: “There’ll be contracted arrangements entered into with providers and that information will be provided as it normally would be.”

He said further questions should be directed to IHMS. But IHMS referred inquiries to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which in turn said it was a matter for the PNG government.

Fairfax Media spoke with Gao Thau, chief medical officer at PNG’s health department, who described the situation as “worrying” and said he was awaiting direction from the Australian government.

“We have to get the information from Australia whether they will give this facility to Papua New Guinea,” he said.

“It’s at a high level, so we can’t make any definite statements, we have to get the statement from the government of Australia.

“If the government of Australia decides to hand over to PNG then we will take over. We are still waiting for that.”

PNG’s new cabinet was sworn in earlier this month and Dr Thau said his department had been “unable to brief” the new health minister because of the lack of clarity from Australia.

“I think we just have to wait patiently,” he said.

The development came as PNG’s new attorney-general, Davis Steven, reportedly told Australian officials PNG was “not going to allow” Australia to leave Manus Island without a plan for the men left behind.

“The PNG government is not going to allow a situation where Australia has withdrawn and leaves behind all these international fugitives who they expect us to carry on our steam,” he told the ABC.

Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim said it was a clear sign PNG would not be complicit in Australia’s decision to “abandon” the men on Manus Island.

“This is no surprise,” he said on Saturday. “The Australian government has treated the PNG government with absolute contempt all the way through this sorry saga.”

Mr Dutton has long insisted the centre will close on October 31, following a PNG Supreme Court ruling last year declaring the refugees’ ongoing detention unconstitutional. Parts of the facility have already been shuttered.

About 60 sick refugees and asylum seekers have been transferred to Port Moresby in recent weeks for appointments with doctors in the capital, according to other refugees on the island.

Authorities are also pressuring refugees and asylum seekers to move to a transit centre in Lorengau. In May, the immigration department confirmed capacity at the transit centre was being expanded to 440.

Department statistics showed 791 men remained at the Manus Island RPC on July 31. The numbers at Lorengau are said to fluctuate daily, while earlier in the year, Mr Dutton said about 36 refugees had chosen to resettle in PNG.

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Multi-million dollar blowout to road upgrade backlog

21 August 2011, news, Canberra Times photo by STUART WALMSLEY. People from all over Australia converge on Canberra for a Convoy of No Confidence in the Federal Government. Truck owner-driver Peter Whytcross leads a convoy of vehicles from Western Australia across the ACT/NSW border on the Barton Highway. Mr Whytcross has covered 5800km over six days between Port Hedland and Canberra. SPECIAL 1NSW regional councils face a multi-million dollar backlog to upgrading critical road infrastructure, according to the NRMA.

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In its latest Funding Local Roads report, the motoring organisation revealed the infrastructure backlog across the state has increased from $1.73 billion in 2014-15 to $1.96 billion, an increase of 13 per cent.

While the infrastructure backlog for all regional councils in NSW combined fell from $32.1 million to $11.2 million, several councils in the Snowy Mountain region recorded an increase.

The Snowy River Council registered a 141 per cent increase during the 12-month period, rising from $9.29 million to $22.41 million.

Bombala Council’s backlog for 2015-16 was $5.28 million, up from $5.08 million.

The data recorded by the NRMA took place before many councils in the region were amalgamated.

The former Queanbeyan Council’s backlog bill more than quadrupled from $660,000 to just more than $3.5 million, while the previous Palerang Council jumped from $6.8 million to $7.2 million.

Cooma-Monaro as well as Goulburn Council were the only councils surrounding the ACT that registered a drop in infrastructure backlog, coming in with a 0.5 per cent and 5.9 per cent drop respectively.

According to the report, 80 per cent of Australian roads are maintained by local councils, with the council backlog potentially leading to more crashes.

“The deterioration in the condition of local council roads assets has resulted in the reduced condition of the road network, impacting the day-to-day movements of motorists, especially in regional areas,” the report said.

“Roads will become less safe to drive on, with the unintended consequence of more crashes on the local road network.”

A similar infrastructure backlog is also taking place in the ACT, with the NRMA highlighting a report released earlier this year by the auditor-general stating the cost to upgrade Canberra roads was expected to increase to $71 million by 2019-20.

The backlog in the territory has grown by more than 400 per cent since 2010-11.

NRMA local director Kate Lundy said the increase in backlog was often due to only one road being able to be upgraded at a time due to funding constraints.

“Invariably it is a cycle, and as one priority is fixed, another emerges,” she said.

“One example is the Barton Highway duplication, which will cost a lot of money and when it’s done, there are other things that won’t be funded due to that being one large expense.”

Ms Lundy said the federal government should invest a greater proportion from money raised from the fuel excise levy to local roads as a way to clear the backlog.

“That change will start to address the shortfall, and it’s a huge shortfall,” she said.

“Without a change in approach, we’re really just cycling through band-aid solutions with regards to road safety.”

Other recommendations from the NRMA include fast tracking funding for the federal government’s Roads to Recovery program and establish Road Stewardship Maintenance contracts to improve the delivery of road infrastructure.

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Safety bureau revises mid-air drone incident forecast

QANTAS VIRGIN AFR PHOTOGRAPH BY GLENN HUNT 4th March 2014.GENERIC – Brisbane Airport, qantas, virgin australia, airlines.The number of mid-air incidents involving drones in Australia is expected to remain stable this year, despite earlier predictions they would double from 2016 figures.

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The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has revised its forecast of near misses between drones and planes in its most recent analysis, allaying fears of a dramatic increase in 2017.

Between January and June this year, an average of 8.5 mid-air incidents per month were reported to the bureau.

The figure represents a drop from the national average of 11.9 incidents per month between July and December 2016.

The analysis was submitted by the bureau as part of its submission to a senate committee into regulations surrounding drones. A public hearing will be held in Canberra on August 29.

The ATSB will appear before the committee as well as the Australian Airports Association, Airservices Australia and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

Figures submitted by the bureau show there have been 242 mid-air drone incidents since 2012, and more than half of these occurred between July 2016 and June 2017.

The bureau’s submission also details how a Virgin flight almost collided with a drone during its approach to Brisbane Airport in late July, forcing other flights to be diverted.

“The crew of a Virgin Embraer 190 reported that at 4100 feet on approach to Brisbane Airport they passed a [drone] at cockpit height between the fuselage and the wingtip,” the submission said.

“Following this, a Qantas Boeing 737 elected to track five nautical miles off-track to avoid the area.”

An investigation was not launched by the ATSB as the drone operator was unable to be identified.

Australian aviation groups have expressed concern in their submissions to the committee of the potential for mid-air collisions between planes and drones.

Australian Airports Association chief executive Caroline Wilkie said in the body’s submission that with more people using drones, many weren’t aware of restrictions around spaces like airports.

“There is a significant growing risk that aviation safety could be significantly compromised if there is not suitable regulatory oversight of [drones],” she said.

“It is unlikely that hobbyists will have the required depth of knowledge to understand the potential safety hazards posed by inappropriate use of drones.”

The association has recommended that all users of drones heavier than 250 grams should be registered with CASA.

Other recommendations include safety-parameter software to monitor height and distance be installed on all drones heavier than 2 kilograms.

Public awareness campaigns of drone regulations undertaken by CASA have also been proposed.

Current regulations set out by CASA restrict drone users to fly above 120 metres, and must not fly at night or within 30 metres of other people or above populous areas.

With the number of drone users increasing, so too have the number of complaints about them in residential areas, with CASA receiving at least one complaint per week from Canberra residents.

CASA stated in its submission more regulations were needed in the growing industry to support “previously unforeseen applications of drone technology” such as aerial home delivery.

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Plebiscite sees spike in calls to counsellors

Marriage equality advocate Russell Nankervis poses for photographers with the rainbow flag during a ‘Sea of Hearts’ event in support of marriage equality on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 8 August 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex EllinghausenCounselling services have reported a spike in the number of calls received from the LGBT community surrounding the upcoming same-sex marriage postal vote.

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In the two weeks since the government announced the $122 million non-compulsory postal survey, counsellors and hotlines have recorded a surge in phone calls from LGBT people concerned for their well-being as a result of debate surrounding the vote.

One counsellor told The Canberra Times he’s received 20 times the number of phone calls from the LGBT community in the past seven days compared to an average week.

???LGBT phone-counselling service QLife has recorded a more than 20 per cent increase in the amount of calls since the plebiscite was introduced.

Rebecca Reynolds – executive director of the National LGBTI Health Alliance, which operates QLife – said the service was expecting to receive even more calls as the debate surrounding same-sex marriage continued.

“We’re keeping an eye on the numbers very closely, and it does point to us receiving more calls,” she said.

“What we always see when there’s public discussions surrounding equality is that it puts pressure on families and also the community.”

The alliance’s director said there had been increased demand for QLife and other support services since the plebiscite was first introduced to parliament in 2016.

On average, the service receives 400 calls per week.

“What this means is that people are feeling like they are the subject of conversation topics that aren’t positive and feeling the negative impacts,” she said.

“People call us when they are feeling isolated and when they don’t feel like they have someone in their immediate family or at school they can talk to, and while that isolation exists, inequality exists.”

National mental-health service beyondblue has registered a 40 per cent increase in call volume following the announcement of the postal vote.

However, a spokeswoman for the organisation said there was no specific information about the direct cause behind the recent surge.

A spokesman for Lifeline said there hadn’t been a measurable spike during the past fortnight because it was difficult to measure specific community issues among the 2500 calls it received per day.

Delia Quigley, president of Canberra-based LGBT support service Diversity ACT, said she had seen a noticeable increase in people seeking help on the organisation’s Facebook page.

“I’ve seen people who have been quite upset during the debate on Facebook, but also people being upset about the things posted online [about same-sex marriage],” she said.

The organisation told The Canberra Times in September 2016 they feared a surge in people using support services if a plebiscite went ahead.

“People have also been upset by the Prime Minister’s response to [anti-marriage equality] put up, saying they were part of democracy,” Ms Quigley said.

Posters calling for people to “stop the fags” and calling homosexuality a “curse of death” have been seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week the vast majority of Australians were bringing “respectful views” to the discussion.

Clinical director at the Black Dog Institute, Associate Professor Josephine Anderson, said members of the LGBT community regularly faced discrimination in society, and the debate surrounding the plebiscite was likely to exacerbate mental health concerns.

“Younger LGBT people have higher rates of mental health issues and a higher rate of suicide compared to their heterosexual peers, and the reason for that is the discrimination and prejudice against them,” she said.

“When there’s additional publicity and debate, young people will become even more aware of their differences.”

Dr Anderson said people’s mental health was impacted with more people voicing opinions on same-sex marriage in a public setting.

“People who may not necessarily have had these conversations or expressed their views now feel emboldened to do that, with there being an increase in discussion of the topic at things like barbecues,” she said.

“There’s also a largely unregulated expression of people’s feelings towards same-sex marriage on social media, and it can often be anonymous.”

Victorian-based counsellor Matt Glover said he usually received “one or two” calls a week from the LGBT community.

Last week, however, he reported as many as 20 phone calls from people concerned about the effects of their mental health due to the plebiscite.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook. I’ve not seen anything like this since I’ve become a counsellor,” he said.

“People’s fears about the plebiscite have been realised. There has been genuine concern and distress since the plebiscite was announced.”

The counsellor said in the past two years, he had seen four spikes in the number of calls received from the LGBT community.

In a viral Facebook post, Mr Glover said the first spike came last year after the plebiscite was first announced, the second after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and the third following the election of Donald Trump.

The fourth and largest spike has been seen in the past two weeks after the plebiscite was re-introduced.

“All of a sudden there’s been all this hostile language in the media and on social media,” he said,

“The main issue is anxiety, and what this means for me and my relationship and what it means for my place in the wider community.”

For people feeling anxious or concerned about the plebiscite, Mr Glover suggests taking time away from the internet.

“I’m encouraging everyone to give themselves a break from the plebiscite,” he said.

“Hang out with friends and people who love you and engage in your interests.”

Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 224 636, QLife 1800 184 527

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Fowl play in the Parliament

It was after dinner on the night of 25th November 1985 and a Labor parliamentarian and Tasmanian Liberal backbencher Bruce Goodluck was in a mischievous mood.

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In those days the non-members bar stayed open till late at night with members, staffers and journalists socialising, arguing and sometimes dreaming up stunts.

It’s not known where Bruce Goodluck acquired his full length rooster’s suit but during the evening a Labor member dared him to put it on and go into the House.

Never one to resist a dare, the backbencher who crossed the floor eleven times during his parliamentary career donned the suit and charged down the corridor.

Entering the chamber through a door near the Speaker’s chair Goodluck took up a perch on the government front bench.

“When I look back I may be remembered more for that than all the other things I’ve done,” Goodluck said years later.

“The Deputy Speaker, [Allan Rocher] who was in the chair at that time, [said], ‘Remove that thing from the House,’ and with that, my feathers were ruffled, I decided to fly out.”

Goodluck was not apprehended and was never censured for the performance.

“Nobody dobbed me in, which I found to be very extraordinary,” he told the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Goodluck’s stunt was all in good humour.

In contrast Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt a week ago was, at the very least, in bad taste and would have been out of order had the Senate rules of years gone by been applied.

Today senators have no dress requirements.

Hanson could presumably go into the chamber dressed as a chicken and no-one could challenge her.

But until at least the late 1960s Senators had to remove head coverings upon entering or leaving the chamber.

Nothing in the standing orders prevented a Senator wearing a head covering when seated but it was customary not to do so.

But every senator rising to speak had to do so without a head-covering.

Hanson was wearing her burqa when called to ask a question by the Senate President Stephen Parry, who knew who was hiding under the garment.

She removed her burqa to ask her question.

If anyone was in breach of the Senate standing orders it was probably the senators who applauded Attorney General George Brandis who condemned her stunt.

The standing orders of old say it’s okay to shout ‘hear, hear’ as a signal of approval but not to clap hands.

Senator Parry did call for order as senators clapped and Greens and Labor Senators rose in their seats to give Senator Brandis a standing ovation.

Senator Parry also called upon Senators to resume their seats but took no action to punish the misbehaviour.

He could hardly do otherwise.

Coalition senators, while not standing, were clapping too, leaving only Senator Hanson’s fellow party members silent and in their seats.

While the applause went on for some time, Senator Parry would have found himself in a tiny minority in the chamber had he tried to name and oust those who were ignoring his calls.

Head-coverings have long been a feature in the quirky world of British democracy.

To be counted when there is a division or vote in a chamber, members or senators are required to be seated.

They cannot rise to alert the speaker or president that they want the call to speak.

As a result if one of them wants to speak or make a point of order, he or she covers his or her head, usually with a sheet of paper.

This custom goes back to the old days of Parliament in Britain when members wore top hats.

Putting on their top hat enabled the speaker to see that a sitting member wanted to speak.

Members of parliament can use props to illustrate a speech.

Approval has been granted to items as diverse as flags, photographs, plants, a gold nugget, a bionic ear, a silicon chip, a flashing marker for air/sea rescue, a synthetic quartz crystal, superconducting ceramic, hemp fibres, and even a heroin cap which was produced in 1997 by Labor member Janice Crosio to illustrate the appalling drug trade in Cabramatta where children as young as 11 and 12 were “sitting in the frigid stairwells of car parks and the putrid stalls of public toilet blocks sticking used, dirty needles into their arms and injecting themselves with $30 hits of heroin.”

Generally speaking signs and scorecard ratings of a member’s performance are not allowed. But if members think it’s worth the publicity they take their chances.

When in 1977 Treasurer John Howard promised a fistful of dollars in tax cuts and then raised taxes the Illawarra Mercury screamed ‘Liar, Liar’ on its front page.

Labor members couldn’t resist the temptation to wave the front page of the paper in his face when he rose to speak.

Readers will not be surprised to find that it’s not in order to display a weapon in the house and in these days of increased security it’s unlikely that even a member would be allowed to bring one into the building.

But in 2014 Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan brandished a fake pipe bomb at a committee hearing to make a point about lax security at Parliament House.

Other props are problematic.

In 1985 the speaker ordered a member to remove two petrol cans he had brought into the chamber to make a point about the price of fuel.

You will not be surprised to hear that the culprit was Bruce Goodluck.

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Why your health is the x-factor in retirement planning

Against all expectations I find myself living into my 70s. I was a girl of 19 when I bought my first lot of shares. I was savvy, but declining health and age has caught up with me. I missed out on super as I was self-employed, sold up all but the largest property I owned, and travelled the world for five years. I thought I had it all planned into the future to 2013. I’m still here. My needs are about $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Since 2005 I’ve suffered poor health, so far this year I’ve spent more than $15,000 in medical expenses and I’m in the top health cover. I receive aged care assistance, 13 hours a week run through ACAT, so the Government pays two-thirds towards this care. I am now on a part age pension of $77 a fortnight and with a share portfolio worth about $450,000. I have a $64,000 NAB shareholder’s investment loan on the shares taken out in 2002, with interest now 6.09 per cent. I want to rid myself of the mortgage as Centrelink does not classify it as a deduction, and hospitalisation threatens again. Are you able to claim medical expenses on tax returns? I own a number of small shareholdings, the bane of my life. Would I be better to sell them as I’m sure Centrelink do not deem them? P.A.

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Centrelink values your entire portfolio every March and September and subjects financial investments, such as shares, to deeming, the thresholds for which were indexed up from July 1 to $50,200 for singles ($83,400 for couples). The deeming rates remain 1.75 per cent up to the threshold and 3.25 per cent for further amounts.

I can see why you would want to pay off the mortgage and while I generally advocate eliminating debt in retirement, there are some situations where one needs to think things through. Much depends on the shares you bought.

For example, let’s assume you bought CBA in late January 2002 at $32.56, when adjusted for subsequent share issues. The total dividend in calendar 2002 was $1.51 or 4.6 per cent on your investment.

In 2016-17, the total dividend is $4.29, equivalent to a 13.2 per cent return on your original investment. It’s the reason that a “buy and hold” strategy is so profitable when you invest in a company that shows good earnings and dividend growth. Of course, if you feel forced to sell, then the current share price around $78 means you can pay off a large part of the loan, or you can sell less-successful shares.

If small shareholdings are the bane of your life, by all means sell them, you have enough to worry about. Put the money towards paying off some of the loan.

Expenses paid to an approved aged-care provider can be used to claim a net medical expenses tax offset to reduce your tax. For the 2016-17 year, a single person with an “adjusted taxable income” up to $90,000 can claim 20 per cent of medical expenses, less refunds, above $2299, with different figures for higher incomes. Check the calculator on the ATO website.

I’m a healthy, self-funded retiree aged 65 and have a super pension fund set up with 67 per cent in a balanced option and 33 per cent in cash. My pension is paid from my cash option. I have not rebalanced the fund as yet, and it is now out of kilter. I am considering diverting all dividends from balanced into cash to ensure I have sufficient funds in cash for seven to 10 years of pension payments. L.C.

I must admit, I’m not totally in favour of automatic rebalancing because it usually means taking money from a successful investment option and inserting it into a less-successful fund, although the reverse can happen during weak sharemarkets.

Of course, if your original growth investment has proved wildly successful and has quintupled over time, then there are grounds to consider taking some “money off the table”, as traders say, but that’s unlikely to happen in normal times in a balanced fund, which is designed to offer reduced volatility.

I’m also not convinced that keeping seven to 10 years worth of pension in cash really works to your benefit over a decade or so. It can mean investing up to half the fund in cash, thus guaranteeing a low return and increasing the chances you will run out of money.

As long as you understand that all markets are volatile, I prefer to put 80 to 90 per cent in a mix of balanced and diversified funds (as some are more successful over others any given period), all of which have a portion invested in cash and fixed interest, with the balance in a growth or equity fund.

If you cannot live with volatility, and I know some people cannot, then you should consider placing half the money into a guaranteed annuity, although annuity rates, along with interest rates, are currently low.

Having been born in February 1961, and thus recently reached my superannuation preservation age, I am thinking about reducing my hours of work. I have heard a transition to retirement pension scheme might allow me to salary sacrifice all or part of my wage into my super, then take advantage of the reduced taxation amount (15 per cent, I believe) when it is withdrawn. I have also heard that the government was looking to change the TTR setup and am wondering if these laws have been passed. Would the tax saving from my current 37 per cent rate, down to 15 per cent through the TTR scheme, offset the loss of earnings due to the reduction of hours worked? W.H.

It’s a bit more complex. Let me explain. Since July 1, a TTR pension fund is taxed 15 per cent on its income, that is the same rate as a superannuation fund in the “accumulation” phase. This became law last November.

The TTR pension you receive (up to 10 per cent of the fund) continues to be tax free in your hands once you are aged 60 or over. Between one’s preservation age, now 56, at which a working person can begin a TTR pension, and 59, the pension payments are taxed in your hands. It may only be partially taxed since only the taxable component of the pension payment is added to your assessable income. If you have been adding non-concessional contributions, then these form the tax-free component and are not taxable. Your tax is then reduced by an offset equal to 15 per cent of the taxable component.

If your strategy is to make the maximum $25,000 concessional contribution, and then replace this with a $25,000 pension then, if there is no tax-free component, there is no tax benefit while under age 60.

To illustrate, if you earn $120,000 and sacrifice $25,000, you have reduced your overall taxable income to $95,000 and remain in the 37 per cent tax bracket (plus 2 per cent Medicare Levy). Your $25,000 salary sacrifice is taxed at 15 per cent in the super fund and you save 22 per cent tax.

However, if you replace this with a $25,000 fully taxable TTR pension, the tax at 37 per cent is reduced by the 15 per cent tax offset to 22 per cent. In other words, the amount saved is balanced by the tax paid on pension payments, so there is no net savings. There will be a useful tax benefit if a large portion of the pension fund consists of the tax-free component, otherwise best to wait until age 60.

As I say, just a bit more complex.

If you have a question for George Cochrane, send it to Personal Investment, PO Box 3001, Tamarama, NSW, 2026. Help lines: Financial Ombudsman, 1300 780 808; pensions, 13 23 00.

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ASIC handed CBA advanced copy of CommInsure Report

Australia’s corporate watchdog has defended a decision to hand the Commonwealth Bank an advance copy of a report into its handling of life insurance claims before it was made public.

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The report, into the bank’s troubled life insurance business CommInsure, was looking into the bank’s practice of using outdated medical definitions to deny insurance claims, first exposed in a joint Four Corners/Fairfax Media investigation.

Emails between senior staff at ASIC, obtained under freedom-of-information laws, show the Commonwealth Bank repeatedly asked for a copy of the report and media release before it was released publicly.

“[Commonwealth Bank] reiterated to me their request for a copy of … public report the day before the release of the media release and public report by ASIC,” a senior analyst at ASIC wrote in an email on March 20 – three days before the report was made public.

An ASIC spokesman confirmed the report and media release were provided to the Commonwealth Bank within 24 hours of its public release, but said it was for only to “invite feedback on the factual accuracy”.

“We may, at our discretion, give advance notice of a public statement about a regulatory outcome to an interested party,” he said.

A Commonwealth Bank spokesman said fact-checking statements prior to their release was an important and routine part of the regulatory process.

“Our contact with ASIC on this occasion was entirely consistent with that routine engagement,” he said.

ASIC has been caught in the past relying on incorrect numbers provided by the Commonwealth Bank.

In May 2014, ASIC had to correct its testimony to a Senate inquiry after it misreported the number of Commonwealth Bank customers who had been offered compensation assistance as part of the bank’s financial planning scandal. At the time, ASIC said it had relied on figures provided by the Commonwealth Bank.

In the past, it has also been caught out sharing draft press releases with banks, as revealed in Freedom-of-Information documents obtained by News Corporation newspapers.

The emails revealed an often cosy relationship between banks and the regulator, with banks allowed input into the tone of press releases.

Andy Schmulow, a specialist in financial regulation at the University of Western Australia, dismissed ASIC’s claim that sharing media releases and reports was important for fact checking purposes.

“I question why it is that ASIC doesn’t have enough confidence in its factual findings, that it feels it necessary to double check – some may say obtain the blessing of – those about whom the facts are stated,” he said.

“If ASIC is only willing to enter to into discussions about factual issues, why is it that ASIC doesn’t have enough confidence in its understanding of the factual issues that it says, ‘we don’t need your comment on this because this is what we know’.”

He said sharing investigation reports was potentially more serious than just sharing media releases.

“These are not just opinions being expressed in the media, these are the outcomes of investigations,” he said.

“Can ASIC point to a section or part of the Corporations Act or the ASIC Act which compels them to do this – if they can’t point to anything in the legislation, then this is not a legal compulsion, it is a choice.”

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The real reason retirees keep their big homes

Older Australians in retirement often find themselves asset rich yet cash poor. This is a widespread problem with a seemingly obvious solution: sell off the family home, buy something smaller and live off what’s left.

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Yet the large majority of older Australians are choosing to stay put.

Despite government efforts to provide significant incentives for potential downsizers, the preference among retirees is to continue living in their big houses.

Research suggests the amount of time people spend looking after grandchildren has increased over the past few years. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Are retirees acting irrationally? Recent work in the economics of the elderly has a lot of say about this trend in both Sydney and Melbourne, or in Australia in general. The body of research essentially says that in terms of choosing to keep their big homes, the retired elderly are acting wisely and rationally.

I’ll explain why. First let’s note this trend is not unique to Australia. A significant proportion of the elderly population in advanced economies, including Canada, France, Germany and the United States, keep a substantial portion of their assets until late in life.

On average, the financial wealth of households (in various forms) in these economies has been shown to increase until age 70 and then stay almost constant after that. The family home is often the largest and most visible asset that elderly people hold on to in their twilight years.

In Australia, the biggest hurdle by far is the high transaction costs when downsizing. Stamp duties for new residences, agent’s fees and moving costs are among the key ones that worry empty nesters. And while many are confident that they can sell their family homes at a good price, and have a lot of cash left after they purchase a smaller new home, the current rules on means-testing mean they risk losing their age pension if they have significant money left over.

In May this year, the budget had a proposal to allow retirees who downsize to contribute the excess money into superannuation, which would provide tax advantages. Three months on, nothing has changed and the uncertainty is a significant disincentive for retirees to downsize.

But discussion of the transaction costs and age pension assets test ignores another economic reason why retirees stay put: the increased utility people get from their homes after retirement. In fact, economic research points to time, or time use, as the main explanatory element. The amount of time on their hands is, of course, the main distinguishing factor between those who still work and those who are retired.

For recent retirees, non-market time is suddenly in abundance, and this necessarily alters how they allocate their hours in the day. It’s been a few years since the last Australian Time Use Survey, but the most recent figures suggest people aged 65-74 spend more time cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, sewing and gardening than those aged 55-64. This coincides with retirement.

The survey further suggests that time spent in household activities increases until the mid 70s and then decreases only slightly, perhaps due to a deterioration in health. Time spent looking after grandchildren has also increased over the past few years.

Clearly, retirees produce more goods at home after retirement. For example, time-poor working parents would be more likely to contract a garden service to do the lawn mowing because of the high opportunity cost of doing the chore themselves – either in wages (if they have to take time off work for it) or precious time spent with the kids or other family. But with retirement, the opportunity cost of time decreases, so doing chores rather than outsourcing them becomes more appealing.

What does this have to do with housing, and with big houses in general?

In economics terms, it comes down to something called the “time-use adjusted theory of life cycle consumption”. This asserts that time used for home production is highly associated with the house someone occupies. This is because the house serves as an infrastructure base in which home production can occur.

For retirees, the more time one has, the greater amount of home production is done and therefore the greater the need for a house. Since most retirees are empty nesters whose sizeable homes were once filled with at least two children, the family home is the ideal base to support their renewed focus on home production.

The more home production that is done inside a home, the greater the consumption value or utility of the home. This relationship is self-reinforcing. On food production, for instance, newly retired Australians who find new food recipes can use their kitchens more intensively. With new dishes to offer, they can invite more family and friends for home-cooked dinners far more often than when they were working.

If retirees were keen gardeners, they are more likely to spend more time tending their gardens and keeping the grass low and their plants blooming, which also makes it a good showpiece for visiting family and friends. With clean homes, pretty gardens and good home-cooked food, there is more incentive to stay home rather than eat out. Further, a well-cared, spacious home is an ideal place to care for grandchildren.

More generally, the family home is a place where retirees can welcome back and comfortably accommodate their children’s families once in a while.

How that affects the time of older Australians can mean the difference between staying put or downsizing. This is, of course, directly related to energy levels and how they enjoy spending their time. That’s a question for individuals, but economists would say that the bulk of retirees aged between 65 and 75 who choose to stay put are perfectly rational in choosing to do so.

Dr Rebecca Valenzuela is a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at Monash University.

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Financial abuse of elderly parents rising with house prices

???Parents are increasingly being bullied into downsizing prematurely and even threatened with not being able to see their grandchildren if they don’t give their kids an early inheritance to allow them to enter the housing market, it’s been claimed.

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Following Fairfax Media’s exclusive report that one in four Gen Y Australians are now relying on an inheritance to be able to afford to buy a house, advocates for older people have come forward to report a marked rise in pressure from families to hand over their money.

“We’re seeing this kind of inter-generational financial abuse really growing,” says Meagan Lawson, CEO of the Council on the Ageing (COTA) NSW. “It starts as, ‘Can I borrow ????’ But over time it becomes quite abusive where people feel they have to give money to keep harmony in the family.

“I think it’s a relatively new thing, probably because of problems of housing affordability, but this is where the growth is in the financial abuse of older people.”

This “inheritance impatience” can have dire consequences on their lives too, Ms Lawson says. Some are forced into retirement villages too early, some are coerced into complying with their children’s wishes through withdrawal of access to grandchildren and others are “persuaded” to move in with family, sell their homes and hand over the proceeds.

When this goes wrong, it can even, in some cases, lead to homelessness, advises lawyer Faith Hawthorne.

The revelations follow the publication of a survey of 1000 Australians commissioned by Slater and Gordon Lawyers, which found that 26 per cent of millennials said they had, or would need to, rely on an inheritance windfall to purchase the home they wanted.

Slater and Gordon associate Lara Nurpuri said that had led to more young people asking their parents to ‘Give me the money!’ as an early inheritance, sometimes creating tensions in the family, or going to court after their parents’ death to fight for a bigger share of the proceeds. Related: Gen Y’s relying on inheritanceRelated: Problem of ageing parents downsizingRelated: Inheriting property can cause strife

But now an even darker side of the trend is emerging, as professionals who work with older Australians say some parents and even grandparents are suffering terribly from their kids’ greed.

Kerry Marshall, manager of the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline and Resource Unit, says the number of calls to the helpline is increasing and, anecdotally, professionals are reporting more cases of kids being after their parents’ money. A growing sense of entitlement, particularly from millennials, where children see themselves as having a right to their parents’ money is also fuelling “inheritance conservation”.

“Here, the adult children want to preserve their parents’ money for themselves, so they aren’t spending any of it on the care of their parents, and we’re seeing a lot of neglect linked to this financial abuse,” Ms Marshall says.

A new pilot program started last week in NSW, after its successful introduction in Victoria two and a half years ago, to have solicitors in healthcare centres where they can counsel older people who tell their doctor they’re having problems.

Justice Connect lawyer Ms Hawthorne says financial abuse by family members is “definitely” the most common type of abuse they’re reporting.

“The most common scenarios are where there’s been misuse of their power of attorney or where an older person sells their property or mortgages it, giving the sales proceeds or the equity in their home to their son or daughter.

“They might do this in the expectation that their child will then be providing care for them in return, but often this isn’t discussed in any detail beforehand, and sometimes it doesn’t happen, or arrangements break down.”

A NSW Legislative Council inquiry into elder abuse last year also found that financial abuse is one of the most common forms of elder abuse.

Among the cases it reported was a granddaughter who tried to transfer her grandmother’s house into her name for $1 in return for a verbal promise of care and a son who transferred his 92-year-old incapacitated mum’s house to himself, also for $1.

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