How clean is natural gas and could it fast-track Australia’s post-COVID-19 recovery?

The Tomago aluminium smelter outside Newcastle received a special visitor in September. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wanted to outline how he would use affordable and reliable energy to supercharge Australia’s post-COVID economic recovery. As the single biggest user of energy in the country, the Tomago smelter was an ideal backdrop.

Morrison explained that his government’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments had helped support millions of Australians. Now, the government’s JobMaker plan would help create new jobs – and, to do so, it would be necessary to “get more gas, more often and more reliably”.

Getting more gas would be achieved “by resetting our east-coast gas market, unlocking additional gas to drive recovery; paving the way, ultimately, for a world-leading Australian gas hub to support high-wage jobs, including and especially in manufacturing.”

In his speech, Morrison mentioned gas 55 times.

The government believes that increasing gas supply and use in Australia is key to rebuilding an economy that has been battered badly by the COVID-19 pandemic but as it champions the fuel and its industry, critics of gas are growing louder, questioning long-held claims about gas’s credentials as a cheap and cleaner source of energy.

Why does the government want more gas? How clean is natural gas, really? And what’s next for its future in Australia?

Credit:Artwork: Matthew Absalom-Wong

Why does the federal government want more gas?

Gas been used in Australia for decades in power generation, heating and manufacturing. The gas that flows into your stove is a fossil fuel, primarily methane, formed over millions of years by the breakdown of micro-organisms. In Australia, large stores of it are found onshore and offshore, bound up in sedimentary basins capped by impermeable rock as well as in shale and coal seams. For domestic use, it is typically extracted by drilling then treated, piped to distribution hubs near cities and industrial centres, and plumbed into homes.

The Coalition backs the expansion of the gas industry for two main reasons.

The first is economic: more gas, the government says, means more affordable and reliable energy to domestic manufacturers that rely on it – thereby boosting employment. A three-fold increase in east-coast gas prices in recent years has been pushing manufacturing firms to breaking point. Energy often counts as one of their big operating costs, and big businesses have been feeling the heat. In 2019, chemical giant Dow announced the shutdown of its plant in Melbourne’s west, citing rising gas prices as a major driver. Sydney-based RemaPak collapsed into administration the same year, saying its gas costs had rocketed from $4 to $16 a gigajoule. Increasing supply and competition by opening up more sources of gas is intended to put downward pressure on prices.

The second is to smooth the electrical grid’s transition from coal. The Coalition and many large companies in the energy industry promote gas as the “transitional” energy source, one that emits far fewer greenhouse gasses than coal but is still capable of dispatching the around-the-clock energy needed to support the growing use of weather-reliant wind and solar generators. The government says it is focused on ensuring that electricity remains reliable and affordable as the market transitions from coal and, for this reason, it is touting gas as the key plank of its plan.

The problem, however, is natural gas also faces some big challenges.

Gas is a heavy source of emissions. While it is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal, it is a fossil fuel nonetheless, and Australia needs to reduce its reliance on all fossil fuels over time in order to achieve its climate targets.

And gas is expensive. Despite the pleas from the manufacturing sector and the government’s best efforts, there is a growing realisation in the industry that the price is unlikely to return to the “good old days” of $4 a gigajoule that eastern Australia has traditionally enjoyed.

The first LNG cargo is shipped to Japan from Chevron's Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia in 2016.

The first LNG cargo is shipped to Japan from Chevron’s Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia in 2016.

Why are prices so high, and will government measures drive them down?

That depends on who you ask.

Gas prices began sharply rising on the east coast in 2017, when commercial and industrial buyers started receiving new contracts offered at above $10 a gigajoule, much higher than the historic levels of between $4-$6 a gigajoule.

This price rise coincided with Australia deciding to sell natural gas in its super-chilled form, known as liquefied natural gas (LNG), overseas. The construction of six new LNG export facilities at Gladstone in Queensland increased overseas demand for Australian gas – our top LNG export destinations are Japan, South Korea and China – and required producers to tap more expensive gas fields to meet their obligations. This linked the east-coast gas market to international LNG prices, pushing up domestic prices.

Australia has become the world’s number one exporter of LNG. In 2019, cargoes of LNG accounted for about $50 billion in export earnings, sealing its position as the country’s second-biggest commodity export after iron ore ($100 billion a year).

Paradoxically, Victoria, NSW and South Australia are facing the danger of winter gas shortages as early as 2023, warns the Australian Energy Market Operator. This is because most gas now being produced in Australia is in Western Australia and Queensland – far from the domestic demand centres that need gas the most in the south-east – while gas output from fields in the south-east such as ExxonMobil’s and BHP’s Bass Strait gas fields, which have traditionally supplied up to 40 per cent of east coast demand – have been in rapid decline.

As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chair Rod Sims explains, when you boost the supply of a product, it should drive down the cost, and this applies to domestic gas. “If we really want permanently lower prices in the south, we need more gas in the south,” he said.

Much of the federal government’s efforts to rein in runaway prices has been focused on increasing availability of supply, including incentives to encourage the opening of new gas fields, support gas production and invest in pipeline infrastructure.

But there are doubts about whether the government’s interventions in the gas market will succeed in lowering prices or if they are “swimming against the tide”. As energy experts at the Grattan Institute think tank explain, the cost of producing gas in Australia has been steadily increasing over time, and the cost of supply has increased as low-cost sources have become depleted. Gas could once be provided for $4 per gigajoule or less, but today eastern Australian gas fields will struggle to supply gas for less than double that amount.

“Eastern Australia still has plenty of gas, but it does not have a lot of cheap gas – especially in the southern states,” the Grattan Institute says. “Large new resources exist, but are either relatively expensive – such as Santos’ Narrabri coal seam gas field in NSW – or far from major markets – such as the NT’s Beetaloo Basin shale gas fields.”

At energy giant Santos’ massive coal-seam gas development planned at Narrabri, for instance, analysts are projecting that the cost of delivered gas will not be lower than $8 a gigajoule.

Australia’s biggest gas producers say new east-coast projects have production costs of up to $8.25 per gigajoule, and that’s before transport, distribution and other commercial costs are factored in, according to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

“At $4 a gigajoule most Australian natural gas would stay in the ground and less production would place upwards, not downwards, pressure on prices,” the industry group says.

Other investors are betting on a different means of lifting supply: proposing floating terminals to import and re-gasify LNG from elsewhere in the world to reduce the risk of shortfalls and boost competition.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) visits the Tomago aluminium smelter near Newcastle with Angus Taylor, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction (second from left), in September.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) visits the Tomago aluminium smelter near Newcastle with Angus Taylor, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction (second from left), in September.Credit:Tomago Aluminium

Whatever the cost, will using gas help reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions?

The Morrison government and many of the nation’s biggest energy companies believe it will. “There is no credible energy transition plan, for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel,” Morrison said in January 2020, arguing that switching from coal to gas had helped other nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to electricity, this is true: burning gas releases fewer emissions than coal, and using gas to displace coal in power stations around the world has contributed to lower emissions.

Gas is also touted for its role in supporting the power grid’s transition away from coal to a greater uptake of renewable energy by helping to ensure reliability of supply and keeping a lid on price spikes. Because gas-fired power plants can ramp up and down and dispatch “baseload” energy into the grid whenever needed, many believe gas must play a key role in supporting the shift to renewable energy for those cloudy and windless days when conditions for generating solar or wind energy are unfavourable.

But gas has an Achilles’ heel: it is still a global-heating fossil fuel. An estimated 19 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by gas.

But gas has an Achilles’ heel, the Grattan Institute says: it is still a global-heating fossil fuel. An estimated 19 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by gas and its long-term use must be reduced over time in order for the world to meet the goals of the Paris agreement to limit global warming.

There are also growing questions among scientists about the extent of unmeasured methane emission leaks, known as “fugitive emissions”, which escape during drilling and processing. If the methane escapes unburnt into the atmosphere, in its first two decades it is a devastating 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

One new study in the US estimates that 2.3 per cent of gas eventually leaks, either at the point of extraction or at some stage during its processing and transport. In some areas, the figure could be far higher. And nearly 10 per cent of gas for export is burnt in the process of liquefying it for shipping.

In August, a group of 25 scientists became so concerned about the support offered to the government’s gas plan by Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, that they took the unorthodox step of writing a public letter to him to voice their opposition.

“The combustion of natural gas is now the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the most important greenhouse gas driving climate change,” they wrote.

“On a decadal time frame, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“In Australia, the rapid rise in methane emissions is due to the expansion of the natural gas industry. The rate of methane leakage from the full gas economy, from exploration through to end use, has far exceeded earlier estimates.”

Finkel responded that he believed gas would benefit the environment by aiding in the integration of renewables.

ExxonMobil is still extracting gas from Bass Strait.

ExxonMobil is still extracting gas from Bass Strait.

What’s next for gas?

So far, there is no sign that any Australian governments have had their enthusiasm for gas dampened.

Conventional onshore gas exploration will soon be allowed in Victoria when a moratorium lifts mid-year. Scientists have been studying the geological conditions in parts of the state they believe could hold large amounts of gas, which could be used for commercial operators and households. In their third progress report, scientists found the geology of the Otway Basin has the potential to hold a substantial amount of conventional gas but it was too early to be sure. The Otway Basin covers 155,000 square kilometres with 80 per cent located offshore.

The government agency Geological Survey of Victoria has also been assessing the Gippsland Basin for its gas potential. The Gippsland Basin covers 46,000 square kilometres and is also both onshore and offshore.

The onshore sections of both basins seem the most likely sites to be explored for gas. In the Otway Basin, it’s too early to say how many wells would be created in the event the moratorium is lifted. The gas industry considers it highly unlikely that any drilling or wells would be permitted in national park areas. As was the case when the NT partially lifted its moratorium, wells would most likely be limited to private farmland.

The earliest sources of new gas that will help shore up supply in the tight south-east market, however, are likely to be from imported LNG. There are several LNG import terminals being proposed in Victoria and NSW, including power giant AGL’s proposed facility in Western Port, Viva Energy’s plans for an “energy hub” at the site of the Geelong oil refinery and the Port Kembla Gas Terminal, which is being developed by mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s private company Squadron Energy.


Analysts expect the Port Kembla terminal to be the first, forecasting a final investment decision to be reached as early as the first quarter of the year. Squadron is aiming for gas imports to start flowing by 2022, ahead of potential winter supply shortfalls from as early as 2023.

How much does the world still want gas? Globally, demand went into free fall during last year’s COVID-19 disruptions, and remains volatile. But a freezing winter in the northern hemisphere and an acute shortage of gas have sent demand soaring, and sent prices, briefly, to unprecedented levels.

As the fleet of big batteries expands and the technology behind them improves, renewables will continue to eat into the gas market.

Still, longer-term, the economic drivers behind gas are rapidly changing as the world focuses on the climate crisis. China, Japan, South Korea – Australia’s three biggest LNG customers – and Europe have committed to mid-century net-zero targets (China’s in 2060) with the United States, under new president Joe Biden, expected to do the same, as well as to encourage more ambitious global climate action. This will require fewer fossil fuels in their energy mix, including gas.

Meanwhile, the costs of gas’s competitors keep falling, with the IEA recently declaring solar to be the cheapest energy source in history. As the fleet of big batteries expands and the technology behind them improves, renewables will continue to eat into the gas market.

Investment funds, banks and insurance companies are also declaring policies that would bring their lending and financial practices in line with Paris targets, which is seeing them increasingly questioning and sometimes abandoning gas along with coal, says analyst Tim Buckley at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“Two years ago [financial institutions] were looking at coal and tossing it under the bus, hoping that that would satisfy everyone. But this year they are looking at all the fossil fuel industry. They are throwing gas under the bus too.”

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Australia’s business-driven travel policy leaves thousands stranded

You’ll have no trouble coming in and out of Australia, and the world remains your oyster – if you’ve got heaps money and can say you are in business.

The figures, which don’t lie, say there is a huge imbalance in Australia’s travel rules right now, with inequality making the COVID-19 crisis worse.

There are always at least 30,000 said to be on the waiting list to get home, even though well over that many keep returning. How come they cannot make progress with the backlog? Because, with twice as many regularly flying out of Australia, as those stranded, many of those leavers then return to Australia again – and it is getting plain to see they can push their way to the front of the queue.

COVID-19: Australians must be prepared for the worst

From ruining social engagements to the inception of a temporary police state, the COVID-19 pandemic is making life difficult for Australians.

The figures

Recent figures from the Government, have more than 37,000 waiting to return home while the total number of Australians who have returned since mid-September is more than 71,000. The total number of Australians returning since March is 443,000.

An ABC investigation made some progress trying to sort out what is going on:

Trips back to Australia are rationed, with the Federal Government handing it to the states to accommodate arrivals in hotels, in restricted numbers, save for the one camp – Howard Springs near Darwin.

It got worse this month, when alarm about the new strain of COVID-19 in the UK led to the announcement of a temporary halving of the number of permitted arrivals. New South Wales will be taking only 1,505 passengers per week, Queensland 500 and Western Australia 512. Arrivals in Victoria and South Australia will stay at low levels and the Federal Government will itself continue to manage arrivals in the territories.

The tightening shows up how much of a bottomless pit it is, a leaking pot that cannot get filled. With the 37,000 stranded Australians set to come home, many other Australians also are set to come home; there are only 3,000 allowed in every week. And there are victims – those short of money, or the right contacts, or other resources needed to get a flight.

The devil is in the fine print

One clue to the reasons for this imbalance can be found in the regulations.

The rules are, if you are an Australian citizen you cannot leave the country, subject to exemptions that you can apply for, especially:

  • if your travel is for your business or employer;
  • or you are travelling outside Australia ‘for a compelling reason for three months or longer’.

You can apply also, to the Home Affairs Department on sundry other grounds: if doing work on the COVID-19 outbreak; compassionate or humanitarian reasons; urgent medical treatment; or travelling “in the national interest”.

That’s on top of automatic exit for non-Australians, aircrew, persons shifting freight, those on official government business including the defence forces.

Coronavirus, Chinese students and the university cash quagmire

Australia’s Chinese students are languishing in China due to the coronavirus travel ban and our universities are feeling the financial strain.

Who gets to go and return?

It stays unclear exactly which Australians are going and which of those get to turn around later and come back – but it is not difficult telling who cannot return.

The situation of many private travellers, or temporary expatriate Australians, has been well-publicised since it all started early last year, with little change: couples with young children selling up and putting their limited funds into air tickets and still getting bumped; back-packers or students faced with paying over four-times the fares they went over on; professionals turned out of an overseas job they’d held for years; migrant families divided by the crisis, some caught on a visit to the “old country”.

Being rich helps

Those people can ask the Foreign Affairs department for a loan or grant out of a $61 million Federal Government “hardship fund”, but that does not seem to be doing the trick. They could try getting rich quick, or get a job with a business employer with a great travel budget.

For the business traveller, or the well to do, one travel operative told the ABC about a few of the deals currently on offer:

“Better class” of travellers?

Some of the ‘better class’ of traveller these days who may come and go:

Morrison Government duck-shoving COVID-19 responsibilities onto states

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morrison Government has pushed many of its legal responsibilities to state governments.

Business not households

The setting up of re-entries with a business and money bias is a sign of the policy stand on COVID-19 being taken by conservative interests world-wide: business not households.

It means a priority to keep industry going, keep up production, and profits – those given preference over lockdowns and health services. The pitch is: you avoid economic collapse and provide jobs. It is backed up with denial and bravado about the epidemic – tell the public it will go away soon. The risk is a resurgence of the disease and death.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, started out in step with this global plan, pushing against any closures of schools, or state borders. And in keeping with the line on business before households, we have the business-first air travel regimen – and 37,000 Australians stranded overseas.

Changes forced through by COVID-19

After COVID-19, will we see the end of mass travel that began with jet airliners around 1960? Will it be back to the days of elegant first class-only travel for the few?

Some of this was already in the air, for example, start-up business class-only airlines. Singapore’s mass-travel Changi terminal is being duplicated with a business centre constructed on a different concept: business class shuttles into a luxury conferencing hub and playground – same profit and fewer travellers to bother with.

One aspect of mass travel has been a change in the migration experience. Many families have a version of grandfather’s story: as a young man, he said goodbye to his mother in England, Greece or Yugoslavia, both knowing they would never see each other again. In this Century and earlier, mass travel changed it; first or second-generation Australians making frequent, even annual visits “home”, often involving business.

That has contributed to the volume of demand for seats in the pandemic crisis, and to the pain of separation for many.

What about an air-lift and camps to get people home? Call on the air force with an air charter operation, to pick up the 37,000 (maybe 150 flights), and run a quarantine operation at camps outside of the cities.

Numerous left-over military buildings were used like that during the immigration influx following the Second World War. Would a country which now has a much stronger capacity away from the same kind of challenge now?

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne scores ton but other batsmen disappoint against depleted India attack in fourth Test

The 36th over of day one of the fourth Test in Brisbane was a microcosm of India’s heroic and possibly doomed attempt to take home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Spindly seamer Navdeep Saini was the bowler. It was his sixth day as a Test cricketer.

Thanks to an excruciating process of deduction, that made him the deputy leader of India’s attack — five bowlers with four Test appearances between them, toiling away on a flat, hard surface that has been a burial ground for even seasoned international bowlers. Of course, India had earlier lost the toss again.

All morning the patchwork combination applied themselves diligently, bowling fuller than their predecessors in this series, sticking to a plan that meant they were frequently driven for ego-bruising straight boundaries.

Yet it also reaped rewards. David Warner nicked off in the first over of the day. Marcus Harris gave catching practice.

By the 36th over, one of the debutants, off-spinning all-rounder Washington Sundar, had removed Steve Smith, Australia’s batting phenomenon. Now Saini worked away at Smith’s right-hand man, Marnus Labuschagne, slightly back of a length, off stump line, squaring the Queenslander up and drawing the thick edge towards the safe hands of Ajinkya Rahane at gully.

Of course, the catch went down.

India has done it all summer. Australia too, but in anomalous clumps, not day in, day out. Labuschagne alone has had more lives than Sylvester the Cat. This time the opportunity was dead simple, its spillage inexplicable. Saini fell to the turf and writhed in agony. In the process of delivering the ball he’d injured his groin. Because, well, of course.

On the same delivery he saw Marnus Labuschagne edge a dropped-chance to gully, Navdeep Saini went down with a groin injury.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

Australia should have been 4-93 at that point, batting first on its multi-generational stomping ground against cricket’s ship of Theseus — just two core components from Adelaide and nine replacement parts.

Saini returned to the arena soon enough, but you half-expected him to trip head-first into the gate or be struck by a lone bolt of lightning out of clear blue sky. Indeed, it took neither that nor a single further delivery and he was back off the ground anyway.

For a while, India sagged ever so slightly, and you expected them to buckle and break. A few hours after his reprieve, Labuschagne drove Mohammed Siraj through cover to bring up his century from 195 deliveries. His partnership with Matthew Wade stretched into triple figures. Here was the flat track, here were the bullies.

Then Wade again lost his head before reaching 50, undoing a lot of hot, sweaty work with the sort of agricultural hack-pull that sticks in the minds of even his supporters. Again, it went further up than away. Again, he was caught. And again, it sparked a mini crisis; Labuschagne departed in a similar manner only two overs later.

Australia batsman Marnus Labuschagne goes down on one knee as he completes a shot against India bowler T Natarajan.
Marnus Labuschagne was the only batsman to truly take advantage of India’s makeshift attack with a Gabba ton.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

Thus Australia was five down for not nearly enough, and the team that cannot be killed was still breathing down its neck.

Shane Warne muttered: “It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” And for once, it was. How had they done it?

In short, only Labuschagne had done what the other batsmen should have: cashing in against a depleted attack.

The appeal of Labuschagne is also his drawback: when he is on song, which is now more often than not, he bats as though bowlers are not entitled to his wicket. He has access to all the gears required to combat Test cricket’s fluctuating moods. He has the stamina to counter harsh conditions — 32 degrees doesn’t sound hot, but the humidity in Brisbane was energy-sapping, especially so soon after the exhausting finish at Sydney.

When he has more restraint, he will challenge Smith’s position as top dog.

But the rest? Maybe what follows will make a moot point of it, but there were more signs that all is not-quite-right with this Australian line-up, both in its construction and philosophy. It is hard to think of another combination of recent decades, for instance, who would have let as modest a spinner of the ball as Sundar settle into his groove the way he did today.

India celebrates as Matthew Wade walks off after his dismissal at the Gabba
Matthew Wade again lost his head before he could reach fifty.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

Perhaps a shock loss here, unlikely as it remains, would be of greater benefit to the home side than the complacency that might accompany a win.

Credit must also be applied where it’s due. That Australia dropped its bundle earlier in the week, and finds it so compromised again, is due as much to India’s strength of character as Australia’s weaknesses.

On Friday, Siraj’s three Tests made him the attack leader, a mantle he took on with pride. There was a period shortly after lunch in which he’d bowled one-third of India’s overs for the day, an unsustainable level of output for an old-ball specialist but an effort that showed his willingness to put the team first. He was seen marshalling the debutants. He delivered the final delivery of the day, a fast bouncer that sailed well over Tim Paine’s head but also made a statement: I won’t fade away.

If not unicorns, Indian fast bowlers who can re-shape Tests in Australia have been atypical. This summer we have seen two — Jasprit Bumrah and Siraj — and they have elevated the contest to something special. It has also inspired the next in line.

T Natarajan and Shardul Thakur are net bowlers by comparison, but that is also the point: last in line, at the end of an arduous tour, they took key wickets on Friday and showed this Indian squad has seemingly endless reserves of perseverance.

And it can only be such intangible qualities keeping India in this match. In the 80th over, as shadows crept across the pitch, Cameron Green bunted a regulation caught-and-bowled chance to Shardul.

He dropped it, of course. Consistency can have its drawbacks, too.

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Northern Australia’s decade-long syphilis outbreak prompts calls for a national response

Australia’s peak medical body is calling for a coordinated national response to bring an end to a syphilis outbreak that has spread through the country for 10 years.

The sexually transmitted infection is easily treatable but has been moving through parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia since January 2011.

It has primarily affected young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote and rural areas, particularly Northern Australia.

More than 3,600 people have been diagnosed since the outbreak began, according to federal Department of Health data.

“It was fairly clear that there was a very ineffective response to this very significant disease epidemic across four states,” the Australian Medical Association’s NT president, Dr Robert Parker, said.

“And there was a total lack of coordination from the various states and territories in dealing with it,”

Australia does not currently have a national CDC, but the AMA has been calling on the Federal Government to establish one since 2017.

In a statement, a spokeswoman from the federal Department of Health said a body called the National Framework for Communicable Disease Control, endorsed by the COAG Health Council in 2014, was considered a better option than a national CDC.

Dr Robert Parker has been calling for a national CDC to tackle the issue since 2017.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Simple to treat, difficult to control

Syphilis can be diagnosed with a blood test and treated with a course of penicillin.

But Dr Andrew Webster, the head of clinical governance at the Darwin-based Indigenous health service Danila Dilba, said the infection can have catastrophic consequences if it isn’t dealt with early.

“It’s a really challenging disease to get on top of because people aren’t necessarily knowing they have the disease until they come to a clinic, get a blood test, and then are identified so we can treat it,” Dr Webster said.

“If left untreated, it can cause tertiary syphilis which can create something that sort of looks like dementia, I guess, in layperson’s terms.”

Syphilis can also be transmitted from pregnant women to their children, with the departmental data confirming at least 10 congenital cases and three deaths across Australia since 2011.

“If this epidemic had occurred on the Queensland-New South Wales border … there would have been a lot of federal interest and intervention.

“Because it’s Aboriginal kids in remote places, the Federal Government really doesn’t seem to care.”

Fears of funding cliff

In 2017, a group of state and federal government health officials developed a strategic approach to deal with the outbreak, which was endorsed by a ministerial advisory council alongside an action plan.

$21.2 million in federal funding was given to Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations to fund extra staff and point-of-care testing until 2021.

John Paterson, the CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, says the funding is due to expire next month.

He’s questioned what that will mean for screening and education programs in remote areas, which he says already need more resourcing.

“It’s not enough,” he said.

AMSANT chief executive officer John Paterson in Darwin.
John Paterson, AMSANT CEO, says health organisations need more funding to tackle the issue.(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

Dr Webster credited the Federal Government for its efforts so far in bringing the outbreak under control, and hoped funding and good relationships with Indigenous health organisations would continue.

The department spokeswoman said the government’s response would be reviewed this year before any further commitments were made.

She said a syphilis medication was also added to the Emergency Drug Supply Schedule in September 2019, and that was intended to treat the infection for Aboriginal populations in non-remote areas in a timely manner.

Indigenous medical groups hope the positive relationships they’ve built with governments during the COVID-19 pandemic response will help streamline the response to other major health issues in the future.

“It’s allowed us to have our input and have a say and ensure that Aboriginal voices are being heard,” Mr Paterson said.

“A very similar model is what we should be striving for to deal with STIs as well.”

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A third of Australia’s international students stuck abroad

With the borders shut, the exodus has left a gaping hole in the economy. Kristian Silva reports.

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NT has Australia’s “weakest COVID restrictions”


The NT has the weakest COVID restrictions in Australia and its most vulnerable population “at the very time when risk has escalated with the potential spread of the more-contagious UK variant,” according to Associate Professor John Boffa (pictured) of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance.

He says the NT Chief Health Officer, who “has placed our population at unnecessary risk,” should immediately re-declare greater Sydney as a hotspot.

“The NT has done very well up to now in the pandemic but given recent decisions by our Chief Health Officer it is only a matter of time before we get an unexpected case in the community.

“The decision to revoke the hotspot status of greater Sydney on 12 January, the day after a mystery case was declared in Sydney’s western suburbs, is not consistent with reasonable public health practice.

“It is also not a decision that any other jurisdiction apart from the ACT has made. All Australian states still classify greater Sydney as a hotspot or red zone,” says Dr Boffa in a statement.

“There have now been a total of 14 mystery cases in greater Sydney since the Northern Beaches outbreak started, and two more cases were declared on the same day that the Northern Territory decided that greater Sydney is now safe.

“Most public health experts recommend waiting two cycles or 28 days after a mystery case before declaring an area safe and yet we have done this on the very day new mystery cases were declared.

“It is not possible at this stage to pick a few suburbs and be confident that the rest of Sydney is safe.

“We have the most vulnerable population in Australia and should not be trying to push the boundaries in the level of risk we are prepared to tolerate.

“The NT is not as ready as other jurisdictions to cope with an unexpected case as we are not wearing masks in enclosed high-risk locations, we do not have density limits in venues, we are not testing sewage, our capacity to increase testing is limited and routine tests take often three or more days to come back, and we are the only jurisdiction that allows people from hotspots to fly here and go into quarantine – we do not operate a hard border.”

Main photo: Roadblock in March last year when the NT had robust COVID control measures.

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Australia’s economy is faring better than most – but that’s not saying much | Greg Jericho | Business

As we begin 2021, the economic questions mostly involve wondering when will things return to normal and what that normal will look like. The worst is behind us, but we have a way to go yet to be out of recession and a great deal further to go before we can suggest the economy is strong.

While border closures and suburban-area lockdowns remain we will continue to see odd economic happenings.

The latest retail trade figures are a case in point.

In November, as Victoria came out of its lockdown, retail spending in that state rose 22% in one month. Even the rest of the nation’s growth of 2.6% was well above the long-term median monthly growth of 0.4%.

Australia is doing quite well compared with other nations, and yet that is not saying a great deal.

Using US economist Claudia Sahm’s measure of recessions, which compares the unemployment rate with the lowest point of the past 12 months, the US is in a worse situation than Australia, but both nations are doing as badly as they were in the depths of the GFC:

While unemployment is a key indicator, given the moves to keep people employed technically through the jobkeeper payment, I think the underutilisation rate is more resonant of the real situation.

In November, 11.7% of men in the labour force were either unemployed or underemployed and 15.2% of women were so situated. While both were much lower than they were last June/July they remain well above the pre-Covid record highs:

And when using underutilisation rather than unemployment to measure recessions, in November things were as bad as they ever have been:

The situation however is not even across the country.

Victoria and New South Wales remain the worst hit, but Western Australia is essentially out of recession – and doing better than it was a couple years ago as it dealt with the end of the mining boom:

Similarly, South Australia is performing as well now as it was before the pandemic hit.

We see this also in the decline and recovery of hours worked per capita in each state. Adults in Western Australia are now working more hours per month on average than they were before the pandemic (as is the case in the ACT), while Victoria has a long way to recover:

When we look at the situation across age groups – every age remains in recession, with the 25-34 year olds in the worst shape:

So things remain bad, if better than they were.

But what can we look to as a sign that things are back to normal?

I have long been using the measure of hours worked per capita to chart the state of the economy.

Back in May I suggested that “until the level of actual hours worked is back to where it was before the shutdown, no one should be thinking about austerity”. That remains my position and while the November level of 83.9 hours is a massive improvement on the despairing level in May last year, it is still awful:

It deserves repeating that the level of hours worked in November was as bad as ever experienced since the 1990s recession.

At any other point in the past 25 years we would be viewing the state of affairs in November as a sign of an economy in complete distress.

It’s why the commentary that Australia is no longer in a recession because GDP grew in the September quarter is quite laughable.

Another aspect to keep watch over is the percentage of men aged 25-64 who are working full-time. Every recession since the 1980s has seen this level fall and not recover.

Even prior to the pandemic, the level of prime-aged men working full-time was below the post-1990s recession median of 74%, let alone the mining-boom peak level of 75.9%:

The current level is around a full percentage point lower than the pre-pandemic point, but since 2012 there has been a historically low number of men in this group working full-time.

If we are to use GDP to look at recessions and economic performance, we could do worse than use the adjusted nominal GDP growth, which involves adding annual real GDP and inflation growth.

Given a target average GDP growth of 2.75% to 3.25% and the Reserve Bank’s inflation target of 2% to 3%, we should be aiming for this adjusted nominal GDP growth to be at least 4.75%.

In September it was minus 3.1%:

And again, we should note that prior to the pandemic both GDP and inflation growth had long been below par.

It is a good reminder that, while we are doing better than we were, we need to do much more. Just getting back to where we were before the pandemic also remains a decidedly poor aim.

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India wins admirers after gritty draw as Australia’s unedifying histrionics let them down at SCG

When television broadcasters first started using the statistics generated by cricket analysts CricViz, there was a widely-held suspicion that some of their offerings were what Mitchell and Webb would term numberwang. That scepticism soon passed.

On day one of the Sydney Test, the data seemed plainly unbelievable: statistically speaking, India’s Rishabh Pant was only the second-worst wicketkeeper in Test cricket, and the man in pole position was twice as bad.

You imagined Bangladesh’s Mushfiqur Rahim making Ravichandran Ashwin’s facial expressions distort even further.

Of course, like Mushfiqur, Pant is picked for what he can do with the bat.

To focus solely on his keeping is like critiquing Tony Soprano’s bookkeeping work at the Bada Bing.

Two summers ago at the SCG, Pant made an undefeated 159 that hinted at superstardom. In the intervening time, his fortunes have waxed and waned but not his relish for staring down Australia.

One does not simply judge Rishabh Pant on his keeping.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

Not much went India’s way in this game, but Pant’s involvement was an exception.

A horror blow from Pat Cummins seemed to have broken his arm in the first innings. It meant the tidier gloveman Wriddhiman Saha could be subbed in for Australia’s second innings before making way for Pant’s return as a second innings batsman — as remote as the chances seemed.

What a return it was. The cause was hopeless: survive 90 overs or chase down 407.

Not only did Pant declare himself fit to bat, he leapfrogged Hanuma Vihari and wandered out at number five, no padding on his arm.

Only 10 deliveries had been bowled at that point. Nathan Lyon had just dispatched Ajinkya Rahane and Australia seemed set to pounce.

Before play, Lyon eyed the fifth-day pitch like a gourmand appraising a buffet. With the first ball of his next over, he duly tempted Pant into an edge.

Nathan Lyon looks frustrated while kneeling down on the pitch. Matt Wade has his hands on his head
Nathan Lyon toiled through 46 overs in India’s second innings.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

Unfortunately, Tim Paine grassed it behind the wicket — a tough chance, but a bread and butter fifth-day dismissal.

Pant’s intent from there was immediately obvious and transformed the contest.

After a few sighters he started clubbing Lyon around the ground with impunity. A pair of sixes helped him to 50 from 64 deliveries and Cheteshwar Pujara dug in at the other end.

In the hours following, they were like bouncers guarding a steel door, Pujara stern, arms folded in front of his chest, Pant repelling the would-be intruders by repeatedly jabbing a finger into their chests.

When Pant was on 53, Paine dropped him again, then on 76 too.

India batsman Rishabh Pant slogs on day five of the third Test at the SCG.
Rishabh Pant started slowly and rapidly went through the gears.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

The chances were getting tougher, but thoughts started turning to the horror of Ben Stokes at Headingley two English summers ago.

Inevitably, Pant eventually took one risk too many. With the new ball one over away and the counter-attack raising the prospect of an upset, he tried to bring up his century with another lusty blow off Lyon and sent a leading edge to backward point.

The analysis: 12 boundaries, three sixes, 97 runs from 118 deliveries in a partnership of 148.

It will go in the record books as a half-century. But the way Pant took on the game elevated what should have been a regulation Australian victory into a bare-knuckle brawl.

It also inspired those who followed, which ensured a grandstand finish in which India brilliantly saved the game.

The heroes in the end were Ashwin and Vihari.

With Ravindra Jadeja and his broken hand waiting in the pavilion and Vihari labouring with a hamstring injury, Ashwin came out and was struck all over the body.

India batsman Ravichandran Ashwin hits the cricket ball away with a cross-batted shot during a Test at the SCG.
Ravi Ashwin played one of the most important innings of his Test career.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

For 10 minutes, he looked a walking wicket. But he was also at his most determined, and the partnership that ensued was more epic still than the one which had dominated the first half of the day.

The 62 runs were neither here nor there. The 256 deliveries the pair absorbed denied Australia certain victory.

The effect on the Australians was wholly unedifying.

The longer Ashwin and Vahari withstood what the home side threw at them, the more the ring of close fielders resembled a pack of hyenas, yapping away witlessly and with little more impact than the bowlers.


Matthew Wade played the tough guy character he didn’t quite pull off with his bat. Paine offered an excruciating running commentary.

Simultaneous to that, a piece of footage from earlier in the day went viral: a stump camera showed Steve Smith petulantly scuffing the batting crease to remove the indentation where Pant had marked his guard, forcing the batsman to mark it again.


For reasons that will surely come under close examination after this match, the broadcaster was allowed to run live and uncut a one-way argument between Ashwin and Paine, the latter already fined 15 per cent of his match fee for misbehaviour on day three.

Paine suggested the Australians had more friends in India than Ashwin. It is hard to envisage that being true after this game.

It was also self-defeating. In the Mitchell Starc over following that quip, Paine dropped a regulation chance provided by Vihari and the contest was done.

The only thing worse than the banter on Monday was the glovework.

Australia wicketkeeper Tim Paine smiles as he puts his hand on the back of India batsman Ravi Ashwin after the SCG Test.
Tim Paine, left, and Ravichandran Ashwin were friends after the match had ended.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

Perhaps it can be argued that players don’t decide what goes to air. But knowing that anything might, and knowing how unwelcome this Indian team has been made to feel by the SCG crowd, Paine’s team provided an ungracious conclusion to a contest that would have been just as absorbing without the histrionics.

India will depart Sydney battered and bruised, but it has also won itself many admirers.

Towards the end of this match, news filtered through of the death of Colin McDonald, Australian opening batsman in the magical summer of 1960-61.

Frank Worrell’s West Indians were farewelled at the conclusion of that tour with a hero’s motorcade past half a million grateful Melburnians.

You’d hope Brisbane can give India a warmer send-off than what they received here.

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Experts fear for the dental health of Australia’s population

Experts are warning that Australia’s dental health could be impacted as a result of missed appointments and check-ups throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

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Allegations of abuse towards Indian cricketers at SCG is Australia’s embarrassment

Remember Gladstone Small? Most Australian cricket fans over the age of 40 still do.

Small would probably prefer that it was because of his brilliant fast bowling. But his unusually short neck is the first thing most would recall.

Small’s jerky, idiosyncratic bowling action was one of the most frequently mimicked through his heyday of the mid-1980s and early ’90s.

At the time, there was a musical comedy troupe called The Music Men. Their songs were barely songs, really — more like football terrace chants.

Their hit was called What Can You Play?, a series of imitations that played well on variety shows like Hey Hey it’s Saturday. It had a Gladstone Small bit that always brought the house down. It was a bit of harmless fun.

Barbados-born Gladstone Small played 17 Tests for England, seven against Australia.(Supplied)

The Boxing Day Test of 1986 was when Small really made his name.

It was his third red-ball appearance for England and his first in Australia. By the end, most wondered why the tourists hadn’t picked him earlier in the series.

He promptly destroyed Australia’s first innings with five wickets, setting England on the path to victory.

The night of that electric performance, Small took his fiancee to a Melbourne restaurant and was amazed: as he walked in, every head in the room turned and he was soon receiving a standing ovation from all present.

Maybe Australians weren’t so bad after all, he told his colleagues.

That game ended quickly. Small took another couple of wickets, made some handy tail-end runs and took the catch that clinched the Ashes for England.

Later, some would ponder a statistic, maybe just a coincidence — after Norman Cowans’ demolition of Australia in 1982-83, it was the second in as many Melbourne Ashes Tests to be settled by a West Indian-born Englishman.

A section of the MCG crowd showed its appreciation of Gladstone Small’s performances by throwing bananas at him.

They treated him like an animal. Not for the first or last time, a visiting black player was peppered with racist abuse.

This, Small must have thought, was far closer to the Australia that black players of the era had been told to expect.

What exactly are they to expect now?

Two Indian players in cricket whites talk while walking on the field.
Jasprit Bumrah, left, and Mohammed Siraj made allegations of racist abuse at the end of day three.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

On Saturday, there was a great commotion outside the SCG changerooms when it became apparent that Indian cricketers Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah claimed they’d been racially abused by members of the crowd.

Not many professional athletes fabricate incidents of racist abuse. Especially not in Australia, where the stories of Adam Goodes, Heritier Lumumba, Robert Muir and countless others show us what happens to those who dare complain.

On Sunday, Siraj did something as brave as any of them: hearing verbal abuse again as he fielded on the boundary shortly before tea, he moved to the middle of the ground and reported it.

Although both players said that Saturday’s abuse was racist, the precise nature of Sunday’s incident remains under investigation by Cricket Australia.

What is clear is that Siraj felt ridiculed and wouldn’t stand for it.

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The Indian players pointed out where the abuse was coming from.

The game stopped until a small cohort of Australian fans were led away by police, their removal all the more visible for the ground’s reduced capacity.

It is doubly regrettable that the targets of these volleys are men who have provided fans with so many reasons for cheer.

Bumrah has bowled as brilliantly in this series as any visiting paceman in recent memory, providing hours of compelling and joyful cricket. He delights us not just with his distinctive approach and whippy action, but the perma-smile that reminds us cricket is just a game.

Jasprit Bumrah smiles with both hands raised above his head
Jasprit Bumrah’s smile has been ever-present this series, whether he is taking wickets or not.(AP: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Earlier on Sunday, two simple catches were dropped off his bowling, making ever more certain the likelihood of an Indian loss. Bumrah’s response was to smile again.

Siraj’s case is just as galling. Even in his second Test, it would be condescending to call him the more vulnerable of the pair, but to play in this game he has made immense sacrifices and shown great courage.

Earlier in the tour, in the middle of the team’s 14-day quarantine period, his father died.

Where many would have been on the first flight home, Siraj stayed, hoping to be of service to his country.

Mohammed Siraj dives onto his stomach to try to stop a ball. Marnus Labuschagne prepares to run
Mohammed Siraj put his heart into this Test match, taking a wicket in each innings.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

At 20, he’d never bowled with anything other than a tennis ball. Six years later, in Melbourne and now in Sydney, his considerable gifts with even the most ragged old ball have been obvious to see.

Patriotism does strange things to us. On Thursday, most Australians woke to the siege on the US Capitol. After a few hours watching the rolling coverage, switching over to the cricket was a relief.

Perhaps, like me, the first images you saw were the two teams lining up for their national anthems.

At some sporting contests, these are a dreary formality. Not when India is in town. Not when Jana Gana Mana is being sung. It moved Mohammed Siraj to a stream of unashamed tears, images beamed around the world.


There are those who will say that these problems cross all borders, and that you’ll always get a few bad apples. They’ll point to India’s own blemished record, especially on the cricket field. And they’ll be right.

But it’s really beside the point, isn’t it?

The point is that year after year, decade after decade, in their interactions on the field and off it, far too many Australians have been unable to distinguish between national pride and the comfortable expression of abuse. Far too many feel the latter is an entitlement that comes with the price of admission.

Mohammed Siraj’s prideful tears were a reminder that a love of one’s country can lift the spirit.

How embarrassing that a young man who sacrificed so much to represent India for the first time had the misfortune of doing it in a country where a cricketer can receive a standing ovation one day, and a serve of mindless abuse the next.

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