Easing of Medicare rebate freeze ‘offers little relief for patients’

NEWS: AMA NSW Conference. (L-R) AMA president Michael Gannon and AMA NSW President Brad Frankum. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 17th Feb 2017. Photo: Edwina PicklesPatients will continue to be hit with rising out-of-pocket health costs under the Turnbull government’s slow thaw in the Medicare rebate freeze, experts have warned.

Health Minister Greg Hunt’s staged approach has left doctors divided, with the Australian Medical Association pledging its support for the government’s policy reset, and the NSW arm of the lobby group describing it as a “crushing blow” for GPs.

The policy took the focus in Federal Parliament on Wednesday, as Labor accused the government of building its health budget on “smoke, mirrors and false guarantees”, as Mr Hunt declared the Coalition were “Medi-friends” to the opposition’s “Medi-frauds”.

Under Tuesday’s budget, the government will gradually lift the Medicare rebate freeze starting this year, with bulk-billing incentives for GP consultation. GP and specialist consultations will be indexed from 2018, specialist procedures in 2019, and targeted diagnostic imaging services in 2020. The measures will cost the government $1 billion over the forward estimates, but only $9 million in the first year.

AMA federal president Michael Gannon praised the government’s moves, but the AMA’s leadership in NSW broke ranks to brand it a major disappointment.

State president Brad Frankum??? said the “small and incremental” increases to the Medicare bulk-billing incentive and Medicare rebate were not enough.

“This is not an encouraging start and we won’t see patients’ Medicare rebates indexed again until July next year,” Professor Frankum said.

“At this rate it will be many years before patients see an appreciable difference in out-of-pocket costs. This is a crushing blow for general practice in NSW and continues to be an ongoing problem for specialists and the patients who need their care in this state.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the plan.

“What the government committed to in the budget was to unfreeze the freeze on indexation put in place by the Labor Party. It was your freeze,” he said in question time. “What we are doing is restoring indexation in a measured and consistent way.”

Policy expert Lesley Russell, of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, said a vision for the future was “shockingly absent” from the health budget. She said the “glacial” pace of the Medicare Benefits Scheme indexation thaw meant many Australians would continue to face higher costs.

“We really have to ask questions about what this means for people who are already struggling to afford the specialist and allied health services that they need,” she said. “It seems to me that those costs are going to grow rather than shrink over the next couple of years.”

Stephen Duckett, health program director at the Grattan Institute think tank, said it was too early to tell whether the government’s plan would be enough to keep bulk-billing rates at their current levels.

“Practice costs and income expectations of staff have not increased dramatically over the freeze period as the consumer price index has been moving slowly,” he said. “But each additional day of a freeze means costs and revenues fall further out of alignment.”

AMA Victoria president Lorraine Baker said the budget would not make healthcare more affordable for people in her state for at least another 12 months.

“We would have liked to have seen the freeze lifted and indexed from now,” Dr Baker said. “But at least there’s been progress in the right direction, and that is that we have an acknowledgment from this government that the Medicare system needs to be supported.”

Radiologists complained about the long wait for indexation, while the Consumers Health Forum said: “The staged lifting of the freeze in the budget does mean that many families on average incomes still face the risk of co-payment increases they can ill afford for at least another year.”

With Rania Spooner

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Political divide muddies Morrison’s ‘big heart’ NDIS solution

Scott Morrison’s plan to utilise Australia’s “big hearts” to fund the NDIS is under threat, with both Labor and the Greens raising concerns over the funding plan.

The Treasurer said it was time to put politics aside and ensure the National Disability Insurance Scheme was fully funded.

It was a shift to the middle for the government, which had previously linked funding the $22 billion scheme to its doomed Omnibus bill, ditching the threats and moving to an increase of the Medicare Levy to raise $8 billion over four years, spreading the cost across all working Australians.

On Wednesday, Mr Morrison made it personal, telling the story of his brother-in-law Gary Warren, a fireman who was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 1999.

“People, he’s told me, are enormously generous, not just happy to help, but keen to help,” Mr Morrison told the National Press Club, where Mr Warren was in the audience.

“He said, it’s not flash being disabled, it’s not flash. But if there’s anything good about it, he said, it’s that you’re disabled in Australia. That’s an incredibly generous statement about the big heart of Australians. He and I both know they have big hearts. I don’t know a finer man than Gary Warren.

“So last night I was very proud to declare that as a Treasurer in the Turnbull Government, we would fully fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme. That’s what this is about. That story.” The funding of the NDIS has been finalised. Now the journey of opening up community, education & employment begins for many PWD & families.??? Kurt Fearnley (@kurtfearnley) May 10, 2017 iFrameResize({checkOrigin:false},’#pez_iframe’); var frame = document.getElementById(“pez_iframe”);

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Australia’s big banks hit back against ‘populist bank bashing’

Banks are warning they will try to pass on some of the government’s $6.2 billion bank levy to their millions of customers, with Westpac slamming the move as a “stealth tax” that will also hit shareholders and finance workers.

As most bank shares slumped further on Wednesday, Westpac, Commonwealth Bank and National Australia Bank signalled they may defy the government, and attempt to pass on the cost of the levy to depositors and borrowers. ANZ Bank and Macquarie Group – the other banks to pay the tax – said it was too early to determine the financial impact of the 0.06 percentage point tax on bank borrowings.

Market analysts have also suggested banks will be able to partly offset the levy by passing it on to customers, though shareholders will have to wear some of the pain.

After being blindsided by the tax – that the government says will help with budget repair and enhance competition – banks reacted angrily to the levy, which is equal to about 5 per cent of affected banks’ profits.

Brian Hartzer, Westpac’s chief executive, lashed out at the levy by arguing it would affect all bank customers, and that it would hinder efforts to make the banking system more resilient to future financial shocks.

“There is no ‘magic pudding’. The cost of any new tax is ultimately borne by shareholders, borrowers, depositors, and employees,” Mr Hartzer said

Commonwealth Bank chief Ian Narev also said customers, shareholders, or both, would feel the sting from the tax. Senior bank executives will seek further detail from Treasury officials on how the tax will work at a meeting in Sydney on Thursday.

“As with the many recent new regulatory imposts, we need to take some time to work through the implications. This is particularly so, given the lack of detail and the absence of any consultation,” Mr Narev said.

“However, as every business owner or employee knows, every extra cost needs to be borne by customers or shareholders, or a combination of both.”

NAB chief Andrew Thorburn predicted the tax would affect “millions of everyday Australians”, including staff, customers, and shareholders.

“A tax cannot be absorbed. This tax is borne by these people. It is not possible to impose a tax without an impact on people, and therefore the wider community,” Mr Thorburn said.

In a media release, ANZ highlighted the need for banks and Parliament to bridge the obvious divide between them in the long-term interests of the Australian economy.

“While the banking industry has made itself an easy political target, the industry is taking action to significantly improve its relationship with customers and the community.” said ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott.

“It is now time for all our leaders to move on from populist bank bashing so we can work constructively with Parliament and policy makers on how we can best support the Australian economy.”

Anticipating banks would seek to pass on the levy, the budget included funding for the competition watchdog to run a year-long inquiry into mortgage pricing, and analysts say this extra scrutiny could make it harder for banks to offset the cost.

David Walker, portfolio manager at Clime Asset Management, predicted banks would pass on the levy “eventually”, but it would be tougher for banks to offset than other increases in their costs.

“The political environment for passing on this is more difficult than it is for passing on garden variety increases in wholesale funding costs,” Mr Walker said.

The surprise measure, which will only be paid by the big four banks and Macquarie, is welcome news to smaller lenders, who have long argued they are disadvantaged by the assumption the major lenders are “too big to fail”, which cuts the large banks’ cost of funds.

Shares in Bendigo and Adelaide Bank jumped 3.9 per cent on Wednesday, while Bank of Queensland rose 3.6 per cent and Suncorp was up 2.8 per cent.

Regal Funds Management senior analyst Omkar Joshi said the levy would act as a further drag on banks’ returns, at the same time as revenue growth was weak and banks were being forced to cut costs.

While banks have previously passed on higher costs by pushing up mortgage rates, there is a risk that further rate hikes may pressure some borrowers and lead to higher defaults.

“I think shareholders have to wear some of it. Customers will have to wear some of it, but it’s not something they can simply pass straight through to customers,” Mr Joshi said.

Fitch Ratings said the levy would have a “negative” but “manageable” impact on banks. While the tax would not immediately affect the lenders’ credit ratings, Fitch said it could force banks to compete more fiercely for retail deposits, which are excluded from the tax.

Mr Hartzer acknowledged other countries – such as Britain – had similar taxes on banks but said these were introduced following the global financial crisis, when these governments had taken direct ownership stakes in ailing banks. In contrast, Australia’s banks had their borrowing guaranteed by the government during the crisis.

“No taxpayer funds have been used to prop up the Australian banks. In addition, international jurisdictions that apply measures such as this already have much lower corporate tax rates than Australia – for example, in the UK the corporate tax rate is 20 per cent,” Mr Hartzer said.

CBA shares closed 0.4 per cent lower, Westpac and NAB shares were down 0.7 per cent, and Macquarie Group shares fell 0.6 per cent. ANZ shares bucked the trend, rising 0.8 per cent.

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Senate inquiry to investigate the ‘future of journalism’ in Australia

The Senate will investigate the future of journalism in Australia amid sweeping job cuts and the cannibalism of content by social media giants.

It comes as striking Fairfax Media journalists return to work on Wednesday after walking off the job for a week, following the announcement that one in four newsroom jobs will be slashed.

The public inquiry, backed by senators Sam Dastyari, Scott Ludlam, Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie, will examine the structure of media organisations and their tax arrangements, as well as the increase in so-called fake news.

Senator Ludlam said media professionals around the world were under increasing pressure to do their jobs, and that the Senate would examine how to make public interest journalism sustainable.

“We’re going into this ??? looking for solution,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday. “We’re not looking here to give anybody a kicking.

“We want to know, what is the business model that allows any entity – public, private, third sector, whatever – to keep well-resourced journalists in the field, keeping this building and its people accountable and serving up the news and information that we need to maintain a healthy democracy.”

Senator Xenophon said the Australian journalism industry was in crisis. “These are matters that must be dealt with,” he said. “This goes to the heart of our democracy. If we want the fourth estate to be vibrant and diverse we need to deal with the issues that this inquiry raises, including fake news.”

“If we don’t grapple these issues as a matter of urgency you’ll see more journalists and camera operators and others that make the news happen losing their jobs. Because you simply cannot have a situation where you have Facebook and Google – between them raking $3.2 billion in ad revenue – and piggy-backing and cannibalising the content of Australian journalists and Australian newsrooms.”

Senator Xenophon said media organisations should be able to take on content aggregators, search engines and social media sites that cannibalise content.

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, above, released a statement on Wednesday afternoon slamming the inquiry. He said senators would have the power to haul before the committee “any journalist who they believe is publishing ‘fake news’, propaganda, disinformation or ‘clickbait’ “.

“While the Senate rightly examines how taxpayer-funded broadcasters spend their money, individual journalists have never been dragged before Senate Estimates and the Senate shouldn’t be in the business of doing so,” he said.

“This insidious proposal will undermine the freedom of the media and must be called out for the totalitarianism that it is.”

Senator Dastyari said the strike at Fairfax Media highlighted the challenges facing Australian journalism and said it was the role of government and policy makers “to create a vibrant, free, independent press that allows Australian consumers to get the information they need”.

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The Magic Pudding lives, it’s every politician’s fondest fantasy

Malcolm Turnbull promised to govern from the “sensible centre”. In the new federal budget, he has found it.

After a long succession of right-ward concessions to his party’s conservative wing, Turnbull has crafted a budget that seeks to solve problems rather than serve right-wing ideology.

This is very deliberate: “This is not a budget to tickle the ears of ideologues,” Treasurer Scott Morrison put it to Fairfax Media in an interview last week. Decoded: “This is not the Abbott government.”

Some of the problem-solving in the budget is practical but mostly it’s political. Strikingly, it’s been crafted with popularity foremost, or, at least, political inoffensiveness.

In fact, if Turnbull and Morrison had tossed in a tax cut, this could very well be a budget for an election year.

It is ostentatiously more generous in spending on health, schools and public investment, spending more on road and rail and the Western Sydney airport, for instance. It seeks to placate pensioners as well as first home buyers.

And the only tax increases are painless for the voter, at least for now.

The Tax Office is mailing out the big new tax bills to the big banks, to foreigners or to the future – the increase in the Medicare levy isn’t to take effect for another two years.

Uni students may be unhappy about paying higher fees, but Coalition governments regard them as politically ungettable in any case.

Some of the elite schools are upset that their access to the public purse is to be reduced from super-privileged to normal, but Liberal-voting parents aren’t going to take their votes to Labor or the Greens over this issue – those parties are in agreement with the government.

So there’s more spending on voters, yet, miraculously, no increased tax on voters. The Magic Pudding lives, every politician’s fondest fantasy.

Another critical design feature is an effort to protect against the surging populist-nationalist movement. The budget seeks to build a bulwark against the rampaging right such as One Nation with some populist nationalism of its own.

Hitting foreign home-buyers with bigger charges, hitting firms that hire foreign workers with a bigger levy, and hitting the unemployed with some tough new tests all fall into the populist category. Hitting the big banks with taxes and new executive punishments is also a classic move from the populist playbook.

These may seem draconian, but they are designed to protect the political centre from the irresponsible right.

But it’s not an election year. This is the first year of a three-year term. Conventionally, this is the only real opportunity for a government to make unpopular decisions. By year two, a government already has an eye to the next election.

Pandering to the voters in year one is unconventional. It’s a sign of the times, the times where a prime minister cannot be confident of making it to year two, the times of the revolving-door prime ministership.

It’s a sign of a time when an incoming prime minister explicitly limits his own political viability in the job to a maximum of 30 losing Newspolls in a row. If Turnbull continues his losing streak in the polls, he will hit this mark by the beginning of the new year.

In other words, there is no longer any time in the political cycle for a government to take the difficult, unpopular decisions. Where are the economic reforms?

As the chief economist at Industry Super and former Treasury official Stephen Anthony says: “To say that this budget lacks ambition is an understatement – we need a high-growth, high-productivity growth path, and this gives us mediocrity forever.”

The political parties are not solely responsible for this failure, of course. The Australian public in recent years has shown every sign of an entrenched entitlement mentality. The Senate has faithfully defended this mentality, blocking most efforts by governments to make unpopular change.

The result is a budget that, like the government itself, muddles through. And because it has been designed with popularity and populism uppermost, it will muddle through the centre and muddle through the Senate.

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Whitfield ready for return: Coniglio

Giants vice-captain Stephen Coniglio is adamant Lachie Whitfield has matured during his AFL-imposed suspension as the former No.1 draft pick prepares to make his long-awaited comeback against Collingwood on Saturday.

Whitfield has been training with the club for the past eight weeks – which is permitted under the terms of his six-month ban – and is now eligible to be selected for the Magpies game after missing the first seven rounds of the season.

The 22-year-old was punished by the league in November after being found guilty of “conduct unbecoming or prejudicial to the interests of the AFL” following an investigation into allegations former club staffers Graeme Allen and Craig Lambert conspired with Whitfield to help the player avoid a drug test.

Following discussions with the club’s leadership group and senior staffers after the incident, Coniglio said a remorseful Whitfield was ready to bounce back from the damaging episode.

“He probably had enough feedback from administration at our club during the time … we obviously had a chat with a few of our leaders to him on a one-on-one level,” Coniglio said.

“He knows the mistakes he made and the scrutiny that he put on the group. He’s very much past that now and really looking forward to making amends.

“We’re role models in the community. We see a number of issues in the NRL at the moment and those guys will hopefully bounce back from those little setbacks.

“Lachie’s on that upward spiral to being a little bit more mature as well in terms of what he’s doing.”

The dashing outside midfielder has put on a few kilograms during his absence and will provide an injection of speed for coach Leon Cameron, who is presiding over an injury list threatening to spiral out of control.

Coniglio returned from an ankle injury last week, but Ryan Griffen and youngster Will Setterfield are facing at least six more weeks on the sideline with similar ailments.

Adam Kennedy and Jacob Hopper were injured in the loss to St Kilda, while defender Nick Haynes is facing two months out after tearing a hamstring tendon the week before.

Tendai Mzungu has his own hamstring issues, veteran recruit Brett Deledio remains sidelined indefinitely with a calf problem and Matt Buntine’s knee injury will keep him out for the year.

It is one of the deepest injury lists Cameron has had to dal with as senior coach and Whitfield looks the man to provide a silver lining.

“I’d have no problem in terms of from a leadership perspective in putting my hand up and saying I want him to play this week,” Coniglio said.

“A lot of players, until they actually go through that situation, might not know how it feels.

“Lachie knew once it happened he felt he let the boys down. I’m sure when he comes back out his performances will be that of making up for lost time.

“Since he’s been back amongst the group, his worth ethic around the gym or whether it be out here on the track has been first class.

“We obviously know his outside flair and skill is magnificent and his run up and back, similar to Tom Scully, is first class. To bring that element of winning his own footy and laying the tackles elevated him to that elite midfield level.”

A win for the Giants this weekend would be a first in the club’s history against Collingwood.

Ex-GWS stars Adam Treloar, Will Hoskin-Elliott and Taylor Adams are all expected to line up against their old team at Spotless Stadium.

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Darren Beadman eyes first stakes win as trainer at Scone

QUICKS RESULTS: Darren Beadman has a handful of contenders at Scone on Saturday for the Godolphin stable. Picture: Getty Images Buoyed by training his first winners for Godolphin at a midweek meeting in Sydney, Darren Beadman is now eyeing his first group-level success at Scone.

Beadman started his stint as John O’Shea’s successor in style when Malahat and Bratislava scored at Canterbury on Wednesday.

He is confident four-year-old mare Kinshachi can turn a luckless last start into a positive in Saturday’s group 3 Dark Jewel Classic (1400m).

Kinshachi paid for a slow start when third behind Shillelagh and Daysee Doom in the group 3Godolphin Crown (1300m) at Hawkesbury on April 29.

“She ran very well last start after drawing off the track and being wide throughout and still loomed up to win,” Beadman said. “Her work has been first class since. She’s certainly got the ability to win this type of race.”

Kinshachi, which has been out of the top three only once in her 12-race career, is rated a $9.50 chance with the TAB for the fillies and mares feature.

Beadman also has high hopes for five-year-old gelding Grunderzeit in the listed Luskin Star Stakes (1300m), although all his five wins have been at Canterbury.

Grunderzeit ($9.50) is coming off a sixth in the Hawkesbury Gold Rush, andBeadman gave him the benefit of the doubt after he was blocked in the straight.

“He was a bit unlucky the other day. With the right run in the race and stepping up to 1300 he should be suited.”

Two-year-old filly Epidemic, which seeks her maiden win in the listed Woodlands Stakes (1100m) after running fourth on debut in October, excites Beadman.

“She looks magnificent. I really like this filly. She’s got a bit of brilliance about her.”

Epidemic’s stablemate Almanzora is the $2.80 favourite as she looks to make amends for a below-par run in the group 2Percy Sykes Stakes at Randwick last month.

“She’s trialled very well since her last run when she raced upside down and went too hard,” Beadman said.

Chris Waller will be back to business at Scone afterwatching the Kentucky Derby from the Churchill Downs stands as a fan.

The Scone crowd will be minuscule compared to the 145,000 at Churchill Downs who saw Always Dreaming win the Derby’s 143rd edition, but Sydney’s premier trainer still drew comparisons with the NSW town.

“Louisville has 800,000 people, but it’s realistically a country town. It’s the breeding hub of America, as is Scone. “There’s a lot of similarities between there and Scone. There’s fantastic open spaces, a lot of history.”

Waller lines up Shillelagh, Tsaritsa and Elle Lou in the Dark Jewel Classic on Saturday.

The $200,000 Scone Cup is on Friday.

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Sydney Film Festival to open with provocative film on Southern Cross

Filmmaker Warwick Thornton knows just what a powerful symbol the Southern Cross is in Australia.

The director of the powerful drama Samson & Delilah sparked outrage when, as a finalist for Australian of the Year in 2010, he spoke about his fear it was being misused as a racist emblem – suggesting it was at risk of becoming “the new Swastika”.

“People got quite hysterical,” Thornton said of that time. “There was a bit of Warwick bashing.”

But rather than shy away from the subject, the Aboriginal director and cinematographer has made a lively comic documentary that will have its world premiere on opening night of the Sydney Film Festival next month.

Called We Don’t Need A Map, it covers the Southern Cross’ history from its Aboriginal spiritual significance to becoming a prominent tattoo during the Cronulla riots and beyond.

“I thought, someone has given me a camera for the last 20 years and asked me to talk about what my fears and my fantasies are,” Thornton said at the festival program launch. “This one really scared the hell out of me so I thought ‘I’m going to make a movie about that’.”

Producer Brendan Fletcher, who met Thornton when they made a Tourism Australia commercial together, describes the film as bold and provocative.

“But it’s also about ‘let’s open up a dialogue; we’re all now Australians under this one night sky so let’s talk about what that really means’,” he said.

Festival director Nashen Moodley said the 64th instalment featured films on such hot topics as racism, the refugee crisis, the environment, the impact of social media, sexuality and the shifting face of politics.

“It reflects filmmakers thinking quite closely about these issues – painting pictures of a very complex world where we still have problems and difficulties that you could have imagined we wouldn’t have in 2017,” he said.

“But they also make a real argument for coming together and being kind to each other and treating each other with dignity and respect.”

One of these films is Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day, a thriller that is also having its world premiere at the festival.

Starring Bryan Brown and Shari Sebbens, it centres on three people – an indigenous teenager, an Iranian boy and Chinese woman – who are all running away over 12 hours on Australia Day.

“It’s a fairly brutal ride,” Stenders said. “It presses a few buttons and asks some challenging questions but it’s also very affirming.”

The prolific director of Red Dog and Red Dog: True Blue also has the documentary The Go Betweens: Right Here, on the seminal Australian band, screening in a Sounds On Screen program.

It’s a film that dates back to when Stenders became friends with band founders Grant McLennan and Robert Forster while they were working in a Brisbane record store in the 1970s.

“I started shooting films for them,” he said. “So my whole destiny is wrapped up in that band.”

The $60,000 competition for “courageous, audacious and cutting-edge cinema” includes Nicole Kidman in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a thriller set in a girl’s boarding school during the American Civil War; Raoul Peck’s racially-charged documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which was nominated for an Oscar this year; and Australian director Benedict Andrews’ Una, a psychological drama that has Rooney Mara as a woman who confronts a man played by Ben Mendelsohn who sexually abused her as a child.

Mendelsohn and Vanessa Redgrave, who has made her directing debut at the age of 80 with the refugee documentary Sea Sorrow, will be guests at the festival.

The Australian documentary competition includes Barbecue, on barbecues around the world; The Pink House, about a famous Kalgoorlie brothel; and Roller Dreams, about roller dancing in California in the 1980s.

The festival also features newly restored versions of the Australian films The Year My Voice Broke, The Well and Rocking The Foundations; a punk rock program that includes the Sex Pistols films The Filth and the Fury and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle; and a retrospective of the films of master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

The festival program will be free with The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday.

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Former judge backs plan to stem ‘tsunami’ of criminal cases in NSW

A major shake-up of the NSW criminal justice system including a push to stem a “tsunami” of cases in the state’s busiest criminal trial court has received cautious backing from the legal profession, but experts have warned against “populist” changes to the parole system.

The Berejiklian government announced a package of proposed changes on Tuesday aimed at reducing chronic delays in the District Court and increasing supervision of offenders outside the prison system.

The sweeping changes include encouraging early guilty pleas and allowing non-violent offenders to serve the last six months of their prison sentence in home detention before they are released on parole.

Corrections Minister David Elliott said he expected changes to the prison system would “slow the increase in the incarceration rate” in NSW, which is at record highs.

Associate professor Julia Quilter from the University of Wollongong Law School said measures to improve the reintegration of offenders into the community “may well be a very good thing” but cautioned against other “populist” changes to the parole system.

This included new powers for the State Parole Authority to refuse parole to an offender with “terrorism links” or a convicted killer who refused to reveal the location of a victim’s body. Dr Quilter said “terrorism connections” would need to be defined carefully.

The centrepiece of the plan to tackle court delays is a new system of fixed sentence discounts for early guilty pleas for serious criminal offences, ranging from a 25 per cent discount for the earliest plea to 5 per cent if the plea is made on the day of trial or later.

Attorney-General Mark Speakman said 73 per cent of criminal cases in the District Court were resolved with a guilty plea but 22 per cent of those were entered “as late as the day of trial or even later”, causing “incredible inefficiencies” and stress to victims.

The NSW Law Reform Commission recommended in 2013 that the discounts be introduced to tackle delays in the District Court, which is labouring under a backlog of thousands of criminal cases.

Mr Speakman said “a number of exceptions” would apply including for “heinous” crimes, such as murder.

The new regime would also require senior prosecutors and defenders to be involved in criminal cases in the preliminary stages to get charges right at a much earlier stage.

Former Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, QC, the lead law reform commissioner behind the report on early guilty pleas, welcomed the proposed changes and said the District Court was “overwhelmed with work” and “appointing four or five judges is not really the answer”.

“It’s like trying to stem a tsunami,” Mr Whealy said. “Unless you have systemic change these delays are going to get worse and worse. These changes are systemic.”

But NSW Bar Association senior vice-president Arthur Moses, SC, raised concerns fixed discounts could create injustice if “judges cannot take into account reasons for a guilty plea being entered into at some later stage” and said the plan would require “significant funding increases for legal aid” to ensure an accused was properly advised.

Mr Speakman told Fairfax Media: “As part of these reforms, the government will provide additional resources to Legal Aid to ensure accused persons obtain appropriate advice about entering an earlier guilty plea.”

NSW Law Society president Pauline Wright welcomed changes to encourage early guilty pleas but cautioned against moves to scrap committal hearings, a type of preliminary hearing to determine if an accused should stand trial.

The vast majority of committal hearings lead to a trial but Ms Wright said their abolition would remove “independent oversight” of the strength of a prosecution case by a judge.

Ms Wright also opposed limiting judges’ “sentencing options” by scrapping suspended sentences, where a person is convicted of a crime warranting a prison sentence but released subject to a good behaviour bond.

Mr Speakman said suspended sentences, which were reintroduced in 2000 after being scrapped in 1974, would be replaced with new intensive correction orders including supervision by community corrections officers.

The government will consult on the changes before introducing legislation in the latter half of the year.

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A mountain lion was spotted at Jewells Wetland decades ago

The tale of a mountain lion at Lake Macquarie in 1980 A marsupial lion.

TweetFacebook Mountain lions.A Lake Macquarie woman has revealed she once saw a mountain lion at Jewells Wetland.

Following our recent stories about black panthers, Judith told us her story by email.

“Australia doesn’t just have black cats, it has lions as well,” Judith said.

“I can vouch for this. I saw one at Jewells Wetlands in 1980. People say ‘it must have been a feral cat’.

“But definitely not. It moved like a lion, not a tabby. And I have seen a huge feral cat in almost the same place.

“This animal was bigger than a feral cat. It was a light colour, either fawn or cream. It was dusk so you couldn’t tell. It probably looked like a puma, but was smaller, perhaps only half the size.

“It was slimmer thana big cat.”

We’d reported previously that researcher Rex Gilroy believed some panther sightings were marsupial cats.

Judith agreed.

“I believe that it was a marsupial cat. Since then, I have talked to many people who have also seen a big cat ortracks of a big cat from here to Albany in Western Australia.

“I read an article once in which Aboriginals said there has always been cats in Australia.”

She’d heard a story about baby panther cubs playing near Blackbutt.

“I also heard that someone’s uncle used to talk about the lion in Blackbutt,” she said.

“There are pictures and reports on the internet of lions in Australia.”

Vaughan King, founder of the Australian Big Cat Research Group, doesn’t think they’re large marsupial cats.

But he believes the big cat species in Australia are the leopard, jaguar and mountain lion.

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