It’s time to rethink the economic value of our enviable lifestyle and cultural aspects argues Jason Dunstone from Square Holes.
Back in March when COVID-19 restrictions came into effect in South Australia, Market Research company Square Holes doubled down on its Mind and Mood survey of what South Australians are thinking in order to chart the changes in confidence.
A major theme that has come from the research is how much South Australians value their lifestyles, being surrounded by beautiful beaches and with wonderful food and wine on every corner, and having an abundance of arts and culture and sport to watch.
This has become more evident as news of lockdowns and tough times in large cities flood media channels.
“There is a sense of psychological safety and happiness amongst South Australians,” Square Holes Managing Director Jason Dunstone says.
“Such a contrast to the horrible year generally across the world. In South Australia, many tourism operators are experiencing record booking levels, and restaurants have heightened demand for the limited places. With a positive local mood, the community is keen to get out and enjoy life.”
From the latest mind and mood research, most South Australians are succeeding in this pursuit of happiness, with 77 per cent indicating they are ‘happy’ living in SA.
“There is a strong sense of pride at how well we conquered a challenging year and much to be happy about,” Dunstone said.
“Why would anyone wish to live anywhere else?”
Yet life is more complex and economic fragility lingers in South Australia. As reported in previous mind and mood pieces, South Australians rate culture and lifestyle aspects strong, yet view our economy and jobs as consistently floundering, either in reality or perception.
“Ratings of culture and lifestyle – food and drink, natural environment, and arts – tend to perform well, yet employment and economy poorly, even if there is an indication of improvement since 2015,” Dunstone said.
“Much of the challenge for South Australia is bridging this lifestyle and economic divide.
“An opportunity exists in closing the gap between our economic cultural benefits of South Australia.”
Dunstone argues that rather than viewing South Australia’s cultural aspects as needing to drive economic value to justify their existence, perhaps the answer is that the economic value of our arts, national parks, beaches is the value they contribute to making SA a great place to live, work and visit.
From Square Holes’ most recent mind and mood research, South Australians respect the economic value of our lifestyle and cultural assets.
Our arts festivals and major events; parks, national parks and green spaces; beaches and coastal areas; and museums and art galleries were all viewed as both highly economically and culturally important to South Australia.
“Importantly, all ten cultural aspects of South Australia were also acknowledged as highly economically Important to the state by 75 per cent of South Australians,” Dunstone said.
Economic and cultural impact is the key measure used by government and other stakeholders to value the contribution of our arts, sport and other festivals and major events.
Typically, this is weighted towards additional economic value through spending to the festival and wider economy from interstate and overseas visitors, that would not have been otherwise generated.
From survey and other data, an overall economic impact figure is calculated and festivals then need to beat this figure the next year to continue being supported.
With travel restrictions in place, this growth will be less likely for the foreseeable future, which opens up an opportunity to rethink South Australia’s expectations on our cultural aspects.
“Perhaps a longer-term bipartisan strategy focused on doubling down on our cultural aspects as a path to building South Australia’s appeal as a place to live, work and visit is a better way of looking at it,” Dunstone said.
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“As a place to attract the best and brightest to live and work. To continue to attract tourists to our cultural assets.”
Dunstone said South Australia’s relatively small and diffuse population and geographic isolation have historically been major impediments to cultural and economic growth, but 2020 is the year when everything changed globally.
“Work from home will likely never fully revert to work from office. More and more companies are allowing their teams to work from anywhere, and many are choosing to do so from Adelaide and wider South Australia based on our enviable lifestyle and unique cultural benefits,” Dunstone said.
“It is likely time to rethink the economic value of our enviable lifestyle and cultural aspects.
“Rather than viewing the positive cultural aspects of South Australia as needing to generate return and growth, a greater strategic commitment to growing our unique cultural assets is likely prudent as a medium to longer-term path to sustained economic impact.”
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A major new study of who runs Australia’s biggest companies has confirmed the existence of a “directors’ club” and proves boards are not punished for poor performance, investors say.
More than a third of vacancies on the boards of the top 300 listed companies in Australia are filled by directors of other companies in the same group, according to data compiled by proxy advice firm Ownership Matters.
The study, which compiled information on every director of an ASX300 company since 2005, also found that the directors of poorly performing groups last almost as long as the directors of top companies.
It comes as corporate Australia readies for an annual shareholder meeting season that got off to a torrid start last week when Crown Resorts directors survived a protest vote only due to the intervention of the company’s biggest shareholder, the billionaire James Packer.
To combat the lack of consequences faced by directors, they should be forced to run for re-election every year, as happens in the UK, the Ownership Matters co-founder Dean Paatsch said. Currently, most Australian directors only face a shareholder vote once every three years.
Non-executive directors are supposed to perform a key role in making capitalism work, by supervising the efforts of company management to grow businesses.
Directors of companies in the ASX300 oversee $1.7tn in capital at a cost of around $400m in fees.
Ownership Matters analysed the pool of 1,777 executives and 4,143 non-executive directors who have sat on ASX300 boards since 2005.
Over that period, 38.5% of director positions among the group were filled by someone who already had a seat on a top 300 board. This ratio peaked at 43.4% in 2006 and currently sits at 36%, Ownership Matters said.
The study found representation of women on boards has improved dramatically, rising from just 9.6% in 2005 to a third this year.
It also found that once inside the “club”, the professional lifespan of directors soars. Three-quarters of non-executive directors served only once and served for an average of 71 months. However, the 14% who were lucky enough to pick up a second board seat saw their tenure extended to an average of 116 months.
“Each additional seat extends a director’s service by at least two years,” and being made chair was worth an average of an extra four years, Ownership Matters said.
But the data also shows that the directors of poorly performing companies were only a little more likely to be removed than those of good performers.
“The effect is you would lose one more board member every three years,” Paatsch said.
He said this was also often due to directors resigning before a company hit the wall, rather than remaining on the board of a struggling business.
“Turnover often increases as a result of people managing their careers – jumping ship when they’re most needed,” he said.
Nathan Parkin, the co-founder of fund manager Ethical Partners, said the study proved that a relatively small group of directors controlled many of Australia’s top companies.
“It really is an invitation-only club,” he told Guardian Australia.
It “mostly invites people who are a known quantity, or who are on other boards and known, and that’s a big part of the recruitment process,” he said.
“There should be a wider pool of candidates – and there is a wider pool of candidates who are qualified and available.”
He said the small pool of directors had positives, including making it easier for them to share information on good governance practices with each other. But it could also result in a culture where boards did not properly interrogate claims made to them by management, he said.
Electing all directors annually was “probably a good practice”, he said. “It doesn’t need to lead to director turnover, necessarily, if everyone’s doing a good job.”
However, Simon Mawhinney, the managing director of contrarian investor Allan Gray, said he feared there could be “some perverse outcomes” to annual director elections.
“One of the big problems we have is this focus on short-termism,” he said.
He said this could be a problem if directors endorsed a necessary investment program that took years to pay off.
“You run the risk of coming up for re-election in a year and it looks awful,” he said.
He said Ownership Matters’ use of share price to measure underperformance was “a little bit blunt” because it did not take account of factors outside the control of boards and management.
“If you’re the CEO of an oil or gas company, then for the past five years you’ve presided over awfulness and there’s nothing you can do about that,” he said.
“But if you were to sharpen the pen I don’t think the results would change a lot, and that’s concerning.
“If people like me held these directors more accountable for capital allocation errors and sought blood when errors were made, that would increase rigour. But instead none of that happens, there’s no accountability.”
Louise Davidson, the CEO of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, which advises super funds on governance issues, said the research showed progress on gender diversity – but “also suggests that there is a real risk of it plateauing unless the director pool continues to grow and becomes more diverse”.
“Introducing new voices to the director pool will only strengthen good governance in Australian companies and in turn deliver stronger shareholder returns,” she said.
She said ACSI supported annual director elections because they improved accountability.
Nicola Wakefield Evans, a non-executive director of Lendlease and Macquarie Group who is the Australian lead for the 30% Club, a group that campaigns for more women on boards, said the increase in representation revealed by the report was “really pleasing”.
“Obviously one thing people are interested in is, are we starting to see the clubbiness for women? And I don’t think we are.”
She said women were still missing out on board positions because they lacked executive experience companies often look for. “So we do need to focus on that area.”
Wakefield Evans said she was “agnostic” on whether boards should face re-election every year. “My own view is that they will come.”
She said it meant angry shareholders would be better able to target the directors they blamed for a company’s predicament.
Currently “shareholders want to send a message but they ping the wrong directors”, she said.
“The only downside is that you then run the risk of losing the whole board, which is a huge amount of corporate memory.”
I guess we shouldn’t laugh, but it is all rather pathetic.
Just a reminder, late last year S&P’s was warning Australia if any “fiscal stimulus” designed to lift the economy out of the rut it was in involved “substantial spending initiatives and changes the trajectory of the budget, then doing so could increase downward pressure on our rating and outlook for Australia.”
At the time the government was planning net debt by June this year to be 19.5% of GDP and for it to fall to 16% by June 2023. Spending in this financial year was expected to be $510.5bn.
Now net debt is above 25% of GDP and on track to reach 44% of GDP by June 2024 and the government plans to spend $677.bn this financial year.
I guess not all “substantial spending initiatives” are the same …
So much for worrying about debt.
But, bless them, S&P’s is still keeping up the pretence that it matters and once again this week it rolled out the “downward pressure” phrase.
It noted that it “expects fiscal deficits to narrow from fiscal 2022 onwards, even with proposed tax reforms and new expenditure measures announced”. But that “should this scenario not pan out as we expect, downward pressure on the rating may intensify.”
Please. Any government worth its salt should tell S&P’s to take its downward pressure and shove it.
Back last year when S&P’s was worrying about stimulus that might actually boost economic growth (something that was needed given 2019 was the worst year of economic growth in 28 years) the government was paying a record low interest rate of 1.15% on its 10-year borrowings.
Borrowing has never been cheaper, even though debt has never been higher.
But while S&P’s and other agencies might be just a figure of amusement for some, the problem is too many – especially those in the Morrison government – think they matter.
Just remember – ratings agencies don’t care about your welfare, standard of living, or employment prospects. They overwhelmingly care about the budget balance as though the government is a business or household that might not be able to pay its bills.
And this is important because thinking that ratings agencies matter is especially stupid during a recession.
Consider that S&P’s is already suggesting we need to start reducing the deficit in 2022. That is at a point the Reserve Bank is currently estimating unemployment will still be 7%, and wage growth will be just 1.75%.
That doesn’t strike me as a point where the economy is overheating.
The history of recessions is that they take a long time to recover from.
The 1980s recession took around eight years for the level of employment hours to return; the 1990s recession took 17 years, and the recovery from the GFC was so poor that when the Covid recession occurred we were nowhere near the peak level of 2007, let alone the previous peaks.
The history of recessions is one of long recovery and governments taking their foot off the accelerator too soon.
It happened in 1996 when the Howard government thought it was time for austerity. Were it not for the mining boom, we likely would never have recovered to the pre-1990s recession peak level of hours worked.
Even the ALP government in 2011 became too spooked about debt and deficit at time when the recovery was not yet complete.
But yes, we kept our AAA rating.
The celebration this week of our AAA ratings suggests this mistake is set to continue.
It would be nice if just once we had a government that cared less about the nation’s credit rating and more about its people.
The money — which will be matched dollar-for-dollar by an ANZ bank loan — will be used to help expand the farm’s production from around 80 tonnes of fish a week to around 200 tonnes a week in 2024.
The farm’s Dan Richards said the money would be put towards a range of projects to help the business grow.
“We are putting in a new, modern hatchery to support our barramundi breeding program in partnership with the CSIRO,” he said.
“It will also be [used to build] new nursery facilities here on the farm, additional production facilities like more ponds, and factory upgrades to be able to handle the fish as they start marching out of the ponds later on.”
Minister for Northern Australia Keith Pitt, announcing the NAIF loan on National Barramundi Day, said the loan would help create jobs in the Northern Territory.
“There will be 110 jobs as part of [the construction] and increase in infrastructure, and another 160 jobs when the new hatchery is up and running,” he said.
Mr Richards said the farm already employed around 100 people across a diverse range of positions.
“We have a really diverse team here, everything from electricians and refrigeration people, to specialist fish farmers, people in hatcheries, the team in the factory who are taking the fish from the field and packaging them up for wholesalers around the country.”
‘We believe in what we are doing’
It’s been a tough year for the barra farm, with production falling by around 70 per cent as restaurants across Australia closed during the coronavirus shutdowns and Qantas — previously a big buyer of Humpty Doo barramundi — dramatically reducing its flights.
But despite the economic uncertainty facing the country, Mr Richards said he was confident in the future of the barramundi industry.
“The fish we are harvesting now we put in the water two years ago, so with a long crop cycle like we’ve got you’ve got to take a long-term view.
“We believe in our great team and we are not afraid to back ourselves … it’s not a low-risk business we’re in, but it is the nature of business we are used to.”
Mr Richards said the extra production created by the farm’s expansion would all go into the Australian market, but the company was working with AusTrade to assess the potential of export markets.
Mr Pitt said, while the NAIF had committed $2.4 billion worth of loans out of the $5 billion fund, “we are always looking to do better”.
The Federal Government has flagged its desire to expand the scope of the facility to increase the number of businesses eligible for loans.
“I want to ensure that the remaining part can be delivered faster, I want to expand the eligibility criteria of what the NAIF can finance, we are looking to increase the risk appetite for the NAIF, and increase its governance as well,” Mr Pitt said.
“The NAIF is restricted to being a loan facility and restricted to particular types of construction, so I am looking to expand those opportunities.
“To do that I will need to get legislation through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
“That means we need support in the Senate and I like to think the Opposition will step up and support those changes.”
South Australia’s top businesspeople have tonight been honoured at InDaily’s annual 40 Under 40 Awards, highlighting the innovation, commitment and diversity of the State’s young leaders.
SA Venture Capital Fund Portfolio Manager David Rohrsheim led an assessment panel which analysed the applications of more than 200 award nominees and recognised the creativity, personal determination and philanthropic pursuits of some of the state’s best business people under the age of 40.
The nominees represented a plethora of industries including medicine, technology, finance, hospitality and more.
From more than 600 referrals and 200 completed nominations, a panel of 12 judges from across sectors came up with a shortlist of finalists, which were narrowed down to InDaily’s 40 Under 40.
The achievements, energy and innovation of the 40 winners (scroll down to see the full list) were celebrated at a scaled-back and socially distanced event at the National Wine Centre this evening which, like events across the country, was postponed due to restrictions.
Rohrsheim told the audience that shortlisting the final 40 entrepreneurs was incredibly challenging.
“I note that these 40 individuals are all risk takers. Virtually every story we read had a moment where their venture or career could have gone bad,” he said.
“For every success story celebrated here tonight, I am mindful that there is another entrepreneur for whom it didn’t quite work out.
“Those folks aren’t in the room tonight, but we have to make an effort to celebrate everybody who is ‘having a crack’. Our State won’t get better if everything stays the same.”
He said each of the final 40 were highly innovative.
“The key question the judges asked when reviewing applications was: ‘Is our State better off with this person?’ For the 40 winners, the answer was a strong yes. If we could clone them into 400 people, we would,” Rohrsheim said.
“The future of South Australia is in good hands with them.
“Time is on their side, and it will be exciting to see what they do with the rest of their careers.”
SA Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham said with the world facing the “biggest economic crisis” since the Great Depression, it would be through the State’s innovators that South Australia would make its way out of the global pandemic.
“That’s what tonight’s ceremony really is celebrating. It’s recognising that across South Australia we have such a breadth of talent driving new businesses, new concepts and in doing so driving new jobs for South Australians today and hopefully long into the future,” he said over video.
“Some of you will be working in exciting new areas of technology like defence and space tech, others will be driving, no doubt in the services sector.
“All of you are striving in ambitious ways to a stronger, brighter future for our state.
“Some may well be working in crucial parts of community services in support, and your roles, particularly in these trying and tough times is ensuring we have the leadership, the support and the services available for those doing it a little bit tougher than the rest of us.”
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Birmingham added the winners would join a growing group of South Australia’s top young business leaders.
“Congratulations to those who are being recognised at tonight’s awards,” he said.
“You go on to join an incredible alumnus of South Australians who’ve done amazing things over the years and whose work we all rely upon to see us through the tough times and to give us the confidence that the better times, which we know can lie ahead, will be delivered.”
To coincide with the event, for the first time, InDaily’s sister publication CityMag has produced a special 40 Under 40 edition of the magazine profiling each of the winners, to be released tomorrow.
As part of their awards prize, each winner will receive an invitation to a series of workshops providing key insights into business growth, business development and governance, and commercial legal issues.
Eight individual winners, who exemplified the selection criteria, were also recognised.
These included an emerging industry award sponsored by Piper Alderman, the creative thinker award chosen by KWP! and the first among equals award, which is selected by the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
South Australia’s 40 Under 40 for 2020
Keep in touch with the State’s talented young business leaders by joining South Australia’s 40 Under 40 on LinkedIn here.
Help our journalists uncover the facts
In times like these InDaily provides valuable, local independent journalism in South Australia. As a news organisation it offers an alternative to The Advertiser, a different voice and a closer look at what is happening in our city and state for free. Any contribution to help fund our work is appreciated. Please click below to donate to InDaily.
It’s rare to have this much hype around a fighter.
On Thursday night, Australia will get a glimpse not only of our best boxing gold medal chance at next year’s Olympics in rising star Justis Huni, but likely the biggest heavyweight showdown between two locals.
While Huni is making his professional debut on the undercard to Jai Opetaia’s cruiserweight rematch against Ben Kelleher in Brisbane, moves are already afoot to stage a mega-fight between Huni and Opetaia within two years.
The pair spar together and have world title ambitions, but the unbeaten Opetaia wants to clean out the cruiserweight division before stepping up to heavyweight, where presumably Huni will have established himself as a global star.
“When that fight does happen, it will be the biggest fight in Australia,” Opetaia said.
“I reckon me and this guy can create history.
“But in saying that, I’ve got a lot of boxes to tick in the cruiserweight division first, and he’s got a lot of boxes to tick in the heavyweight division.
“We’ve still got a big journey ahead of us before that fight does happen, but it’s awesome we get to make history together.”
Huni makes his professional debut amid a backdrop of expectation that he will become Australia’s greatest-ever heavyweight.
Under Olympic regulations, boxers are allowed to have up to 10 professional bouts and still compete in the Games as an amateur.
After COVID-19 cancelled the 2020 Tokyo Games, Huni decided he would move to the pro ranks before attempting to win a gold medal next year if the revised Games go ahead.
He is a 190cm giant with the footwork and speed of a lightweight; leading several veteran boxing experts to declare Huni the best prospect Australia has seen since the emergence of Kostya Tszyu and Jeff Fenech.
Having already declared his ambition of unifying the heavyweight division, Huni lacks in neither confidence nor skill, and is ready for the eventual showdown with Opetaia.
“When the fight does happen, it will be something special for Australia and the world to see,” Huni said.
“It’s good to see two Polynesian boys out of Australia going all the way to the top.”
Opetaia (19-0, 15KO), who defeated Kelleher via technical knockout in 2018, plans to make quick work of his rival in the rematch and then fight again in late November as he surges towards a world title – he is ranked No.4 by the IBF and No.10 by the WBO.
Based in NSW’s Central Coast, 25-year-old Opetaia is working with Samoa Tourism to promote travel to the island nation when COVID-19 regulations allow.
“I’m bummed because I wanted to go there for a training camp, Justis wants to go, too, hopefully we can get there as soon as the restrictions lift, it’s a beautiful country,” Opetaia said.
*Huni v Opelu and Opetaia v Kelleher 2 will be shown live on Fox Sports 505 and Kayo on Thursday from 7pm AEDT
Australia’s largest companies would be unable to claim their share of $4bn to hire young workers under Greens amendments to significantly tighten eligibility for the jobmaker hiring credit.
The Greens will seek to exclude companies that have recently declared a dividend or have underpaid workers through Senate amendments to the government bill creating subsidies for new hires aged 35 and under.
On Monday, Labor ambushed the government by bringing on lower house debate on the $4bn hiring credit program, part of a suite of more than $30bn of business tax concessions in the October budget to spur economic recovery from the Covid-19 recession.
The hiring credit has copped criticism from unions, Labor and the Greens who warn it does nothing to help older workers and could even see them laid off by employers hoping to gain payments of $100 a week for new hires aged 30 to 35 and $200 a week for those aged 16 to 29.
The Greens will amend the bill to prevent employers sacking existing staff to claim the subsidies, on top of the government’s unlegislated safeguards that employers must increase their headcount and payroll to claim payments.
The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told the house it was “incredibly concerning” that employers could “rort” the scheme by sacking an older worker and hiring two younger workers.
The shadow employment minister, Brendan O’Connor, also hinted at “potential amendments” from Labor. He warned that small businesses losing access to the jobkeeper wage subsidy may not be in a position to hire extra workers to gain the hiring credit.
“Our fear is, if this is replacing jobkeeper as the main support for small business, it will not be fit for purpose,” he said.
Labor plans to pass the bill in the lower house but will not decide its final position until after a Senate inquiry reports on 6 November.
The Greens want to make wholesale changes when the bill comes to the Senate. Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said the minor party “will amend the enabling legislation for the government’s jobmaker wage subsidy to stop public money going to big corporations that are paying dividends to shareholders or that have a history of ripping employees off”.
The exclusion of companies that have recently paid dividends will render Australia’s largest employers ineligible, including grocery and retail giants Woolworths and Wesfarmers, miner BHP and telco Telstra. The big four banks are already ineligible for the program.
The exclusion of companies that underpaid workers could impact employers such as Sunglass Hut, jeweller Michael Hill, and Super Retail Group, the owner of Rebel, Macpac, and Super Cheap Auto, which have admitted inadvertent underpayments and paid workers back.
Bandt said “in the biggest recession we’ve seen in generations, we shouldn’t be subsidising profitable corporations or giving public money to corporations that underpay workers”.
“If a big corporation is doing well enough to pay dividends during a pandemic, it doesn’t need the public to pay part of its wages bill,” he told Guardian Australia.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions is pressing Labor and the crossbench to amend the bill, warning it would allow employers to replace full-time jobs with multiple part-time or casual jobs.
In budget week and again on Monday, O’Connor raised concerns that the bill gives the government power to introduce any form of payment to encourage job creation or workforce participation.
The bill contains none of the program’s safeguards, giving the government a blank cheque to change its rules or introduce new programs without approval from parliament.
Bandt said it is “outrageous that the treasurer is expecting opposition parties to consider a key recovery measure with nothing more than a glorified fact sheet available for review”.
“We need to see the details to make sure this wage subsidy won’t make the employment crisis worse, throw current employees into unemployment, and further drive casualisation and insecure work.”
Scott Morrison has fumbled the details of the program’s safeguards, incorrectly telling 6PR Radio on 8 October that employers cannot sack existing staff and receive the subsidy.
“If you’re already working for a place, they can’t reduce your hours or get rid of you to appoint someone else, they wouldn’t get the subsidy under that arrangement,” he claimed.
In fact, provided an employer increases the total number of staff and the amount spent on wages, there is nothing in jobmaker’s safeguards that would prevent a reduction of hours or laying off existing staff.
Bandt said the government “seems confused about whether the scheme would allow employers to fire a decently paid full-time employee in order to recruit two young people on a subsidised minimum wage”.
In the wake of the debate, fresh attention has been shone on the role of Trump’s rhetoric in emboldening far-Right movements and politics.
In Australia, the same curiosity has emerged, questioning the role of Trump specifically in emboldening members of Australia’s own far-Right communities.
Commenting on a recent study jointly conducted by Macquarie and Victoria Universities, Macquarie University lecturer Lise Waldeksaid that extreme right-wing ideologues are seen to be “very good at appropriating the language of conservative public opinion”. Waldek further suggested that right-wing extremists were especially adept at “appropriating Trumpism” in benefiting recruitment techniques for their organisations.
While this is true, the study nonetheless falls short of its intended scope by leaving key points unspoken if hoping to understand contemporary far-Right movements.
Certainly, while unaffiliated individuals sympathetic to extreme right-wing politics (such as those making up the majority of the ’30 Australian rightwing extremist group pages on Facebook’ and behind the ‘37,422 tweets from 3,321 users identified as being in NSW on Twitter’ ) are most likely to adopt Trump talking points “wholesale”, the manner in which Trump’s rhetoric informs far-Right organisations is less direct.
Where the rhetoric and messaging of Trump and his administration chiefly informs far-Right groups (both in the U.S. but especially abroad in countries such as Australia), is in the simultaneous shifting of what is known as the Overton Window, which coincides with the continued extremity of Trump’s platform and rhetoric.
The Overton Window, then, describes the spectrum within which “legitimate policy options” lie – itself being changeable according to societal norms. These can be adjusted and/or manipulated by various actors, politically or culturally. This is where the rhetoric of Trump and similarly populist politicians and political parties – such as Australia’s own Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – primarily inform contemporary far-Right movements.
Australia’s far-Right is aware that the U.S. is not Australia, therefore, what is the case there is not necessarily always the case here. But, it appears the current political situation in the U.S. has more informed Australia’s mainstream right-wing and so what we’re seeing is a shift of the Overton Window – a change in what’s seen as permissible to talk about. This has moved more towards what the far-Right advocate for and what they talk about already.
This is especially true in noting recent developments among Australia’s mainstream right-wing media, where “multiculturalism” has been derided as a cause for spikes in coronavirus and other societal ills.
Nor can it be overstated that these talking points borrow from Trump’s platform since before his election to the United States Presidency in 2016. Or that they mirror idealisations among the far-Right for the necessity of maintaining perceptions of racial and cultural “purity” by prioritising concepts of White exceptionalism and the need for implementing a “White ethnostate“.
In this way, Trump’s role at the forefront of a pipeline of talking points regarded as beneficial to populist politics and the far-Right alike is laid bare – but so too is the role of mainstream right-wing media discourse.
Likewise, the Overton Window shifts, step-by-step, as a result of Trump policies and rhetoric. This informs simultaneous shifts of the Overton Window politically and culturally in countries such as Australia. It cannot be ignored that this eventually benefits the political and ideological goals of various far-Right movements. This, more than any directlionisation of the United States President by Australian far-right ideologues, is the primary way in which Trump informs right-wing extremism in countries such as Australia.
And by ignoring the role of mainstream right-wing media discourse in this process, we as a society ultimately risk playing into the hands of all parties involved – but perhaps most particularly those among the far-Right.
James Cutler holds a Masters of International Relations from Monash University, specialising in counterterrorism and political violence. He continues to contribute to sociological study and research on these and other topics. You can follow James on Twitter @t_cutlet.
We first started reporting for this story in early 2019. Back then the plan was to meet the people coming to Australia every year, for up to nine months at a time, to pick Australia’s produce. What were they sacrificing to do so, and why?
In 18 months the story changed dramatically. When Covid-19 shut Australia’s borders and grounded global flights, the seasonal worker program was thrown into disarray. Long months passed and Australia’s borders stayed closed, an economic nightmare loomed, and the harvest seasons rolled in – with few people around to pick the fruit.
More than 20,000 people have entered Australia through the seasonal worker program since the pilot began in 2008, and it’s now open to residents from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Numbers were increasing every year; it had become an indispensable workforce for Australia’s agricultural industry and an economic boon for some Pacific communities.
The program is not uncontroversial. At one end of the spectrum it is seen as Australia’s greatest form of foreign aid, which simultaneously fills a domestic workforce shortage. At the other end it’s a system ripe for exploitation that has been associated with several deaths. There is no suggestion that any of the farms that Guardian Australia visited or photographed for this article have been subject of such complaints or allegations.
Guardian Australia interviewed dozens of workers and growers in northern Tasmania and in Victoria’s Shepparton region, who were almost overwhelmingly positive about the opportunities the program brought, but but also spoke of high personal costs.
Single mothers had left their children behind to be cared for by grandparents or siblings, marriages had fallen apart, new romances had bloomed and failed, and many people were separated from the traditions, culture and community of their home.
“This is a life-changing opportunity for us”
It’s a bright and clear morning in Cressy outside of Launceston, and music is blasting from a speaker buried beneath boxes of fruit on a trolley. Two young women dance and have a giggle, while feverishly picking and packing berries from the rows of vines stretching for 35 hectares around us. Hailing from various tropical islands in the Pacific, everyone’s rugged up against the mild chill of a Tasmanian summer.
The berry industry is worth some $80m a year to the state of Tasmania, and Burlington Berries alone hires hundreds of workers from more than 30 countries to cover their October to June season. When we ask growers what happens if the workers program stops, the common answer is: so does Australia’s supply of berries.
Primarily Timorese, ni-Vanuatu and Tongans, the workers at the berry farms of this region are in their early 20s to early 40s. Some are here for the first time, while others are clocking in their third season, well-practised in speedy picking to bring home as much money as possible. It’s hard and physical work, for a guaranteed minimum of 30 hours a week, and taxed at a flat 15%.
It’s a significant interruption to life and so people want to work as many hours as possible. Lavenda Aiseke, a 24-year-old Tongan supporting her parents and siblings, says she’ll be returning for as long as the growers will take her.
Manuela Dos Santos, a single mother mother from Timor-Leste, has left her daughters with her parents.
“When we speak, they are crying but they understand me because they know I’m the one being strong for them,” Dos Santos says. “Sometimes they will miss me or sometimes say, ‘It’s all right, Mum.’”
Dos Santos wants to send her girls, now five and eight, to college one day. “I love the job,” she tells us. “It’s not hard for me and I earn money, then go back. I want to improve my business, and to take care of my siblings who want schooling, and my parents. And I want to buy land for myself to build a house because I have two kids.”
Antonio Pinto, a 29-year old Timorese man, travelled to Australia from his village in Viveque for the third time in 2019, leaving a two-year-old son at home. He says “this is a life-changing opportunity for us”.
In Orrvale, Victoria, 35-year-old Togi Ugapo from the Samoan island of Savaii and 41-year-old Leleiga Fetui from Falease’ela both support young children and parents back home. Ugapo has bought a car, started building a new home and plans to improve the family farm. After four seasons, Fetui has funded a new car and a family-run milk bar business, and has dreams of buying a fishing boat to increase the family’s income. For him and his wife, the sacrifices give their sons a better life.
Leleiga Fetui, left, from Falease’ela, Samoa, is on his fourth visit. Togi Ugapo from the island of Savaii, western Samoa, is on his second
A study of the program’s pilot phase from 2008 to 2012 found workers’ remittances were increasing household incomes in their home countries by almost 40%. In 2013 personal remittances made up almost 20% of Samoa’s GDP.
“In Samoa there’s no factories or anything like that – they rely on coconuts and taro but you can’t get that all the time, and mother nature comes and destroys the crops,” says Pastor Napota Simaika, a Shepparton resident and a Samoan community leader who acts as a go-between for growers and Samoan workers. His brother and son are among the local workers.
“I’m trying to help more people [come here], because the government has got maybe 5,000 people who want to come over.”
The appetite for the program is huge but how the workers are recruited varies between farms and supply countries.
Employers must be approved by the Australian government and are given strict guidelines surrounding employment conditions and pastoral care. Some growers become approved employers and recruit directly, while others go through third-party employment agencies that take on more of the responsibilities for workers.
In Timor-Leste the program is government-administered and is so popular that senior officials tell us they would happily send as many people as Australia is willing to take. In other countries it’s more ad hoc, which has brought some problems in terms of access and favouritism, and we hear allegations of program administrators in the supply countries giving sought-after places to family.
Kim Slater says her Launceston company, Linx employment, takes an active role in recruitment and pastoral care. Staff travel to Vanuatu to interview workers, connecting them with community groups and services once here. She says they have pushed for more women, which was met with some resistance from community leaders who thought women should stay home. “But we sort of really took the stance that it was a great confidence builder for women.”
Once in Australia the workers are helped to connect with local services and churches, but again it varies and, in some cases, Union Aid Abroad says employers allow community groups to effectively subsidise their pastoral care obligations.
In Orrvale Simaiki acts as a father figure and, given that most of the worker community are Samoan, he feels a responsibility to take care of them, especially the young men who “enjoy the lifestyle” too much.
Pastor Napota Simaika, a resident of Shepparton, is a community leader who helps orchard workers. Photograph: Darren James
“Everybody has to come to church,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes the boys will feel sad and I’ll say, ‘Don’t sit at home, it will make it feel worse.’”
It keeps people connected to their community and their culture, he says.
“I think that’s the thing – they should be proud of who they are, and they should bring their culture, and come here and stay close to the community. Otherwise they start forgetting their community and look at the influence of the lifestyle here.”
Morres Kaltaupa, from Vanuatu, at the accommodation provided by his employer at a Jeftomson apple orchard near Shepparton. Photograph: Darren James
The overwhelming complaint from growers – pre-Covid – was the red tape involved in becoming and staying approved. They must do labour market testing before hiring program workers to ensure the hires are a supplement to Australian employment, not a replacement. But some say it’s a waste of time because local hires and backpackers – who are working their 88 days to get a visa extension – don’t seem to stick around. In 2018 the World Bank recommended Australia scrap the backpacker regional work requirement and expand the seasonal worker program.
But, despite the red tape, a 2016 joint parliamentary committee inquiry into the program heard exploitation of program participants was “common”.
“Complaints include the provision of substandard accommodation, deductions of up to 60% of wages for lodging and board, long hours and excessive or unpaid overtime, and lack of access to health care,” Union Aid Abroad said.
The NGO says some conditions amount to modern slavery. Once they are in a job the workers have few choices – they largely stay where the grower has organised, and must pay back the cost of it, as well as their flights and sometimes visas, insurance and other costs – before they draw a full income from the picking.
News reports have revealed workers being charged more than $1,000 a week to sleep on a couch. Others have found a dangerous lack of care, alleged abuse and intimidation, and reported workers surviving by eating the food they are meant to pick. Some have taken legal action over their treatment. Others have died, with their deaths landing before state coroners to examine an alarming dearth of pastoral and healthcare.
The negative press made some growers wary of the media in Tasmania, where they insist their industry is too small for anyone to get away with exploitation.
“I think all of the approved employers here take the responsibilities around it … really, really seriously,” Slater says. “The fact that there’s such a valuable contributor to your business, you’d be silly to put it at risk.”
The workers we meet in Tasmania are all aware of the horror stories but few have major complaints of their own, except for the cost of sometimes crowded accommodation. But post-Covid, both growers and workers tell us they’ve heard of worrying conditions from their former colleagues who found work interstate.
Asked about the allegations of exploitation, some of which were in the Shepparton region, Simaiki says he thinks those situations are mostly connected to contractors, rather than growers who do the work to become approved employers. He says some workers “want shortcuts” but he believes the accommodation and pay for his crew are fair.
The 35-hectare Burlington Berries farm has on-site accommodation blocks for the majority of its workers, and Libby Sutherland, the farm’s bubbly and enthusiastic recruitment officer, also shows us basic but comfortably refurbished cottages a few kilometres away where a dozen or so workers live – men in one house, women next door.
Another farm, Hillwood Berries, has its workers housed at a hotel north of Launceston, a sprawling complex in faux “Grand Tudor” style. Some workers share hotel rooms but a large group are in makeshift dorms in the venue’s function halls, with temporary dividers creating rooms. Everyone eats catered meals together at long tables in a dark and quirky dining room.
Over dinner dozens of workers dish the dirt on what it’s like to be part of this multicultural, temporary community.
It’s something between a workplace, with all its office politics, and a school or college camp with all its drama. There are romances, power plays, deep friendships and bitter rivalries. Several women, including senior group leaders, say they’ve had to push back against some sexism and harassment from male colleagues.
Older women with a few seasons under their belt are over the drama – they’ve seen affairs form and fail around them, seen fresh young egos blow in on their first season and get caught up in a party scene. The emotions are amplified by deep homesickness. They’re not here for fun, they just want to make their money and go home.
And then Covid
We had intended to follow people like Dos Santos, Pinto and Aiseke back home to their communities to see what impact their earnings and their absence was having.
But then the pandemic hit.
People who had relied on the work and planned their futures around the income suddenly found themselves on flights home to unemployment and lockdowns. Those who stayed behind found work on other farms when their usual season ended but were separated from their families by oceans, and with no idea when they might be reunited. The Australian government extended visas for up to a year and allowed workers to move to other farms.
On the left is Sauiluma, Leleiga’s son, with local children at his family’s shopfront in Falease’ela, Samoa. Photograph: Chikara Yoshida
“We harvested through the first wave and on the fly had to adopt policies that didn’t exist for global pandemics,” Simon Dornauf, the manager at Hillwood Berries tells Guardian Australia. Workers were redeployed to far north Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.
“They’ll be able to make three years worth of income in 18 months, and I think they’re happy with that but it’s been tough to not to get back and see families and children,” he says.
Dornauf says Hillwood is staying in touch with group leaders to make sure everyone is OK, but some of the more remote placements don’t seem to be as hands on with the pastoral care as it’s been in Tasmania.
Because they stayed in Australia, most of Hillwood’s regular workers will be back for the next harvest. Dornauf concedes they’ll be tired after working back-to-back seasons.
“We’ll nurse them through this season and try to take the load of them and spread it on some local guys we’re trying to recruit as well.”
Dornauf is buoyed by news of a trial reopening of the program that saw 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu sent to Darwin for the mango season. The federal government said its Northern Territory counterparts and the industry had covered the flights and quarantine costs, reported to be about $100,000 for the charter plane and $2,500 a worker for quarantine.
Hillwood Berries has signed up for when Tasmania can bring the workers in, although he doesn’t know yet how much the flights will be – the business will be paying for everything above the workers’ capped cost – or which supply countries will opt back in. The workers will have to quarantine, which he says they’ll do at the motel complex. Asked what happens if anyone in that hall dormitory gets sick, he says that’s unlikely given how unaffected by the virus the islands have been, but the farm will be doing daily temperature checks and isolating anyone with symptoms.
More than a year after we met, life is now very different for some of the workers.
Antonio Pinto, stayed in Australia. He found work on a mango farm up north and, while he misses his children, he has been able to make much more money.
“The money … is to support my family, to pay for my sister and brothers’ school, and also to build them a house in my village,” he says. “Last year when I went back to Timor I helped my father and my mother and built a house for them.”
Speaking over the phone from Dili, Manuela Dos Santos tells us she caught one of the last flights home amid the panic of the early pandemic months. She sounds unsure whether to count herself lucky, since she can’t make an income now. At the time of speaking, Dili is in lockdown with schools closed, and she can’t return to her former job.
“I have a little business but it’s all stopped because there are no markets, everything is closed,” she says. In the meantime she’s enjoying the extra time with her daughters, even though they are struggling financially. She finally bought her land but work on her house has had to pause.
Dos Santos is hoping to come back to Australia where she has also left a fiance – a Tongan man she met on the farm, who is awaiting Australian citizenship.
“We decided he wants to stay in Australia and I can come and go as a seasonal worker.”
Unions and labour organisations argue that while there are benefits to both sides in the arrangement, to truly help our Pacific neighbours we should be creating jobs in the Pacific, not making migration a necessity for work opportunities. Nothing has brought that into sharper relief than the pandemic.
While Australia’s Pacific neighbours have so far escaped the worst of the outbreak, the shutdown has had a huge impact. Without any chance to prepare, workers lost their income, and some couldn’t access their superannuation in Australia. Their own governments were no more able to give extra support than before the shutdown.
A few weeks later Dos Santons is in touch again, and she’s wondering if there’s any news about flights restarting for Timorese workers. There isn’t.
“I’m OK,” she says. “I’m frustrated here also because during this pandemic, everything is hard.”
• Travel and research was supported by funding from the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowship program