Westpac offers refunds on loan insurance

Westpac is offering refunds to more than 10,600 customers found to be paying for insurance they did not need.

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The refunds come after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission detected Westpac had collected premiums from some customers who did not have a loan or had already paid it off.

Westpac says the two credit insurance policies in question, which have been offered since 2002 and 2007, were designed to provide benefits in the event of death or illness as long as premiums were being paid, rather than for the life of a loan.

“ASIC felt that some customers may not be completely aware of this fact and we have been working with them since 2012 to come to this point,” a spokesperson said.

Westpac will offer to refund any premiums that were paid before a loan had been drawn upon, after it had been paid off, or when a customer did not intend to be covered.

The amount to be refunded will not be known until the affected customers respond to the bank’s offer.

It is the latest instance of a refund from a major financial institution after the involvement of the corporate regulator.

Commonwealth Bank is currently finalising $7.6 million in payments to 8,400 regional customers who did not receive the lower fees and interest rates to which they were entitled.

In July, National Australia Bank paid out $25 million to 62,000 wealth management customers short-changed by problems with the bank’s allocation of income and tax.

A month earlier, Macquarie Investment Management refunded $5.5 million to 2,300 customers overcharged in fees due to a computer glitch, and in April ANZ paid $30 million to 8,500 customers who did not receive the full benefits of a priority financial advice service.

Packer buys into De Niro’s restaurants

Billionaire James Packer and Oscar winner Robert De Niro are cooking up a sushi storm.

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Mr Packer’s Crown Resorts has paid $US100 million ($A140.86 million) for a 20 per cent stake in De Niro’s world renowned Japanese restaurant and hotel chain Nobu.

The deal comes after De Niro and fellow Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese rubbed shoulders with Mr Packer at the launch of Melco Crown’s $4 billion Studio City casino in Macau.

The Hollywood trio also starred in and directed a $US70 million short promotional film for the lavish new venue, produced by Mr Packer’s RatPac production joint venture.

Crown venues already host three of the world’s 32 Nobu restaurants, and one of its nine hotels.

The prestigious Nobu brand complements Crown Resorts’ position as a luxury entertainment company, chairman Rob Rankin said.

“James Packer established Crown’s relationship with Nobu some years ago,” he said.

“This acquisition cements that existing strong relationship.”

The remaining 80 per cent share of Nobu will be held by entities associated with its celebrity chef proprietor Nobu Matsuhisa, De Niro and film producer Meir Teper.

Mr Packer’s move into one of the world’s most famous restaurants, comes as he increases his presence in Hollywood and the world’s top gambling cities.

He recently stood down as chairman of Crown Resorts to spend more time in the United States and focus on the casino group’s global expansion.

He remains on the board and its majority owner, and is co-chairman of the Melco Crown Entertainment Asian joint venture.

Don’t be too excited over Malcolm Turnbull’s newfound love for science

The Coalition Government has pressed ‘reset’ on its relationship with science.

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Malcolm Turnbull initiated the shift last week whilst handing out the Prime Minister’s Awards for Science, declaring he wanted Australia to be “a country that invests in science and puts it right at the centre of our national agenda.” He continued by stating: “It’s a great honour for me, not just to be prime minister, but to be your prime minister, to be the prime minister that says that science is right at the centre and the heart of our national agenda. Not just that, it’s at the heart and very centre of our future.”

The Government continued the trend this week as it appointed the current Chancellor of Monash University, Dr Alan Finkel, to replace Ian Chubb as Australia’s Chief Scientist. Finkel’s appointment made waves due to his strong advocacy on climate change, arguing both for the end of coal and the adoption of nuclear power.

The Government’s manoeuvres mark a significant shift from previous years. Turnbull’s reception at the national science awards for example is in stark contrast to that received by Tony Abbott, while it is almost impossible to imagine Abbott appointing someone such as Finkel given his climate views. But what will this shift mean in the long run?

The best place to look for the answer to this is the outgoing Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s report Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Released in 2014, Chubb used the report to pressure the Government to develop a national strategy for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Whilst former Prime Minister Tony Abbott let the report sit, last week Turnbull committed to implementing it in full. This makes it the closest thing we have to a national science agenda.

Chubb’s report is broken down into four different categories: Australian competitiveness, education and training, research, and international engagement.

Potentially the most important of these is education and training. Chubb points out that enrolment in STEM subjects by Australian high school and University students is dropping to unsustainable lows. This is partially due to a chronic shortage of STEM teachers, with, for example, 40 per cent of Year 7 to 10 mathematics classes in Australia being taught without a qualified teacher. Polices to build a stronger pool of STEM teachers, whether from local or international sources, are therefore essential.

Research is another area of importance. The Abbott Government slashed funding to some of Australia’s most important research agencies, in particular the CSIRO and the extremely successful Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs). More destructively, the Government shifted their funding priorities almost solely to research with commercial outcomes. This excluded extremely valuable and important research that aims to understand the world in which we live. Chubb’s report rejects this, emphasising both the importance of publicly funded research and of ‘blue-sky’ research — research which is aimed at increasing our knowledge, even if it doesn’t result in commercial applications.

That is the positive. Yet, when I look at the rest of strategy, and Malcolm Turnbull’s own ideologies, I have cause for concern. In particular I worry about Chubb, Turnbull, and now Finkel’s end game. What is the purpose of all of this investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Chubb’s report states: “The end we aim to achieve is to build a stronger Australia with a competitive economy. We will need to facilitate growth in ways and on a scale that we have never achieved before.”

A national strategy for science therefore is all about economics, and seemingly little else. Having science at our heart means having economic growth at our heart as well. Alan Finkel reiterated this focus, commenting on his appointment that “we exist in a competitive international environment and to compete effectively, business needs science, science needs business, [and] Australia needs both.”

For the scientific community this seems rather contradictory. This strategy is about using science to continue a system that scientists have often pointed out is extremely destructive.

It is ironic for example to see scientists cheering a growth-focused agenda, when it has been the very same scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Scientists have warned us for decades again about the destruction of our environment, which is fundamentally a symptom of our growth agenda.

Even with his more climate-friendly rhetoric, this is not an agenda Malcolm Turnbull is going to change any time soon. Turnbull’s appointment of Finkel for example came only a day after he reiterated his Government’s support for coal mining and export. It was only two weeks ago that Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the construction of the Carmichael Coal Mine, once again. It doesn’t seem Turnbull will be acting on Finkel’s no coal plan any time soon.

Or what about the impact our economic system has on our social well-being? Medical professionals have often warned of the serious impacts our work culture has on our physical and mental health. This again is connected to an obsessive growth culture, one which encourages employers and our Government to demand longer working hours. In fact, technology has played an active role in the very problems scientists are researching. Technological development has often been predicted to liberate the workforce, in turn allowing us to work fewer hours and have more free time. But in the hands of employers the opposite has been true. Technology has allowed employers to intrude into our daily lives more and more, effectively meaning we are always at work.

This is something Chubb’s strategy seems to want to continue. One of his stated objectives is for Australia to have “a flexible workforce with the entrepreneurial skills to thrive in an environment of rapid technological change.” This is the very sort of language employers have used to weaken union power and crush the conditions of workers, a position that Turnbull regularly supports. These are the very sorts of moves that increase stress and health problems that many scientists warn us about.

This is why I’m not so quick to get up and cheer over Malcolm Turnbull’s newfound love of the scientific agenda. Greater investment in STEM education, and better coordination of research is definitely welcome. But the contradictions in the approach could actually see us, and science, worse rather than better off.

What does a nation with science at the heart of its agenda actually look like? Well, that depends on how you use it.

Science and technology are powerful tools, but that is all they are. There is a lot these tools have done for us — alerting us to climate change and environmental problems, developing new technologies to make life easier, investigating and finding cures for health problems and diseases. Our world would be a very different place without centuries of scientific and technological advancement.

But the tools of science and technology are only as valuable as those who use them. In the hands of Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition I have little faith they will be used to any good. 

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.

Baird tells Fairbridge students sorry

Premier Mike Baird has delivered an emotional apology to the former residents of a farm school in country NSW, where serious physical and sexual abuse was inflicted upon students over almost four decades.

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A group of 65 men and women who attended the Fairbridge Farm School at Molong launched a class action in 2009, and in June this year they secured a promise of a $24 million compensation fund.

“I know that they have endured sufferings we cannot imagine, and I know that coming here today would have taken a special kind of strength,” Mr Baird told the parliament on Thursday, as former students watched on from the gallery.

Hundreds of British children were packed off to the now-notorious Fairbridge between 1938 and 1974.

“They arrived here as vulnerable and trusting children whose parents wanted nothing more than a better life than the one they could offer,” Mr Baird said.

“They were not given the future they were promised or the childhood they deserved.

“They were betrayed by the people whose job it was to protect them. They were betrayed by this state, which did not ensure their safety.”

Among the allegations heard by the NSW Supreme Court before the class action settled were that one of Fairbridge’s principals was a “sexual pervert”, who used a hockey stick to beat the children and who beat a boy until his eyes bled.

Mr Baird paused and his voice cracked as he told the Fairbridge survivors: “I am – we all are – deeply, deeply sorry.”

He acknowledged many of those who suffered abuse had died before the court case was settled, and before hearing admissions from authorities both in Australia and in the UK that they had failed the children who attended Fairbridge.

And he said that the civil litigation should have been managed better by NSW.

MPs from across the political spectrum stood as one in a standing ovation as the former students left the chamber.

Labor seeks to woo small business

A Labor federal government would offer small business an easier path to incorporation.

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten used a speech in Melbourne on Thursday to make a pitch to the growing army of home-based and other small businesses that are also being wooed by the coalition government ahead of an election due in 2016.

Labor has begun consultation with the business community, representative bodies, accountants and the legal profession on ways to unwind the red tape behind becoming incorporated.

Mr Shorten told the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry business leaders lunch that a Labor government could legislate for a US-style S Corporation structure.

“More sole traders will see the benefits of incorporating their businesses under Labor’s plan to give small businesses the benefits of incorporation – which lowers tax rates and improves liability protection,” he said.

“We want to improve Australia’s current complicated and expensive arrangements with another stream of incorporation – one that provides a single, simplified structure, tailored for small business.”

In the US, an S Corp is different from a traditional corporation in that profits and losses can pass through to a personal tax return. The business is not taxed, only the shareholders are taxed.

But the shareholder must be paid fair market value or the tax office could reclassify any additional corporate earnings as “wages”.

Mr Shorten said modern Labor’s philosophy was to see government as an economic enabler.

“We support markets. Whereas once we sought to row, now we want to help steer,” he said.