Tense meeting between leaders of German and Russia

After talks at Vladimir Putin’s summer home in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the two leaders appeared together at a tense news conference where they barely looked at each other.

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Mrs Merkel urged Vladimir Putin to use his influence to protect the rights of gay people in Chechnya.

“But, I pointed out again how important the right to demonstrate is in a civil society, the importance of NGOs, and I also mentioned again that we have received very negative reports about the way homosexuals are treated in Chechnya, and I asked President Putin to use his influence in order to safeguard the rights of minorities in the same way it has been done with Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

She raised the issue after harrowing accounts emerged from activists in recent weeks of police in the republic of Chechyna arresting and torturing dozens of gay people.

Such as this one from a man who fled to Moscow after being detained and tortured in Chechyna.

“They have a special black box and they tie wires to your hands or ears and shock you. The pain is awful, you scream, it’s terrible torture. They used to detain people before, all the time to blackmail them. The level, it’s at now, it’s extermination, the extermination of gay men.”

Both leaders stressed the importance of the peace deal for eastern Ukraine, known as the Minsk agreement.

The agreement was brokered in the capital of Belarus by Germany and France in 2015, and was signed by Russia, but violence in the region has continued.

Mrs Merkel saying there hasn’t been much progress and getting a ceasefire is crucial.

“As chancellor I made clear that we are prepared to do everything to support a ceasefire and to help those people in desperate need. I think that the concept of safety zones is one which should be expanded on and I hope we will also have the opportunity to talk about Libya because that is a big challenge.”

On the intractable situation in Syria, Vladimir Putin said there needed to be what he called a thorough and unbiased investigation into last month’s chemical attack on the Syrian town of Idlib.

Asked about alleged Russia interference in last year’s US election, Mr Putin said Russia never intereferes in the poltical life of other countries.

He described the allegations as mere rumours.

“We never interfere into political life and political processes in other countries and we would very much like that nobody interfered into our political life and into the political life in Russia.You’ve referred to the US example which is not confirmed by anything or anyone. These are just rumours used in the internal political struggle in the US.”

 

 

Government announces long-range school funding plan

Former businessman David Gonski’s 2011 report into school needs under the Gillard Government had its critics within the Coalition.

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So it was with some surprise that flanking Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the unveiling of his education vision six years later was David Gonski himself.

Malcolm Turnbull says his education plan is about making the system fairer and more consistent and boosting education standards.

“The performance of Australian students in reading, science and maths, in particular, has been falling. Now today’s announcement is about turning those results around. By increasing the investment and ensuring fairness in the way Australian schools are funded, we will get Australian students back to the top of the class. This investment will set Australian children on the path to academic excellence and success in their future lives.”

The plan includes additional support for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, those with a disability and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

It also includes extra support for smaller rural and regional remote schools.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham says the national needs-based funding model will get rid of multiple school funding agreements struck under the Labor Government.

“Funding that will grow from $17.5 billion this year in 2017 to $22.1 billion by 2021, growing through to $30.6 billion by 2027. It is a 10-year reform agenda that ensures ongoing, consistent, real growth in funding for Australia schools above inflation, above wages growth, providing additional resources so that schools can provide what they need to support their children.”

David Gonski, now commissioned to conduct another schools review, has welcomed the Government’s commitment to needs-based funding and the new money.

“Because I believe that we can do good things with the additional money, and I’m very pleased that there is substantial additional money, even over indexation and in the foreseeable future.”

But the Opposition has described the announcement as an act of what it calls “political bastardry” on schoolchildren, parents and teachers.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek says, on closer examination, the plan actually amounts to a funding cut of about $22 billion.

“It is extraordinary that, after years of waiting, after months of uncertainty, after states and territories have been pleading with the Federal Government for certainty, after Catholic and independent schools have said they need certainty for next year, what we get today is a smoke and mirrors, pea and thimble effort to hide the fact that, instead of cutting $30 billion from schools over the decade, this Government will cut $22 billion from schools over the decade.”

The states have offered a mixed response to the announcement.

While welcoming the 10-year vision, New South Wales education minister Rob Stokes says he has more immediate concerns.

“My focus is on the operational concerns for school communities today as they plan their budgets for next year. What every principal across New South Wales needs to understand now is what this means, what this funding announcement means, as they prepare their budgets for next year, in terms of preparing their staffing levels, in planning for expansion of their schools, in planning for the needs of their students. They require the clarity to finalise their budgets.”

The Australian Education Union says schools will be hit with a $3.8 billion cut in the next two years despite the Federal Government’s plans to restart the Gonski model.

 

Refugees clamour for US resettlement deal

More than 1600 refugees have expressed interest in a resettlement deal with the United States, which is expected to offer up to 1250 places.

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The detainees on Manus Island and Nauru are slated to resettle in America under the one-off deal struck by the Australian government, with US officials vetting refugees to decide who will be accepted.

As of March 22, some 1626 refugees and transferees had expressed interest in being considered for resettlement. The vast majority (1253) were men, with 228 women and 145 minors.

Immigration officials say the most vulnerable refugees will be given priority, with an initial focus on women, children and families.

“The US considers refugees as cases. A case may comprise of a family group, either nuclear or extended, or as an individual,” the department said in response to questions posed in Senate estimates.

Immigration officials did not specify either minimum or maximum numbers of refugees the US has agreed to take under the deal, pointing instead to an “indicative planning” number of 1250.

Asked about continency plans for anyone not accepted under the deal, the department said refugees on Nauru had the option of staying there for up to 20 years or volunteering for resettlement in Cambodia.

Refugees on Manus Island could settle in Papua New Guinea, while anyone found not to be in need of international protection would be expected to return home and given assistance to do so.

Since the signing of the US deal, Australia has pumped an extra $7 million into on-water and air surveillance as well as an additional $15 million for a range of other costs.

Department officials said there was no financial element to the resettlement deal and Australia was not asked to provide support to refugees settled in the US.

They would not say when the deal was signed or by whom, nor when it went to cabinet.

However, they confirmed Australia had not agreed to accept a specific number of people from Costa Rica refugee camps.

Asked if any other countries had approached Australia regarding remaining refugees following announcement of the US deal, the department said Australia has had discussions with other countries to expand options for the resettlement of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

“It is not appropriate to disclose details of confidential discussions with other governments,” the department said.

Budget spend will dwarf lower deficit

The chief economist of the nation’s biggest retail bank is forecasting a $12 billion improvement in the budget deficit over the next three years, aided by an improved economic outlook and rising commodity prices.

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But Commonwealth Bank’s Michael Blythe is also quick to say while every bit helps, such an improvement needs to be put in context.

“The $12 billion looks like a rounding error relative to projections showing total spending of $1.4 trillion over the next three years,” Mr Blythe says in his pre-budget preview.

Other economists are also predicting smaller deficits since December’s mid-year review.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham insists the government is making inroads into budget repair.

“Overall the budget needs to wash its face in terms of making sure that if we are going to continue to steadily reduce the level of the deficit and get ourselves back to balance, then new spending proposals have to be offset elsewhere,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.

But Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has mocked Treasurer Scott Morrison’s approach to repairing the budget and paying down debt, saying it takes more than “accounting trickery”.

This was a reference to the treasurer’s emphasis on “good” and “bad” debt in the May 9 budget.

“It requires more than changing the adjective in front of debt from ‘bad’ to ‘good’,” Mr Shorten told the McKell Institute in Sydney.

He used the address to lay out Labor’s “fair dinkum action” on multinational tax evasion.

This included tightening debt-deduction loopholes used by multinational companies, increased compliance activity by the Australian Taxation Office, and a $100 million threshold for public reporting of tax data for private companies from the present $200 million.

He said the new measures to make multinationals pay their fair share will deliver a budget improvement of $5.4 billion over the decade.

“That’s not money ripped from the vulnerable or cut from higher education – these are tax dollars legally owed to this country by wealthy corporations,” he said.

“Malcolm Turnbull is only interested in delivering a $50 billion tax handout to big business and the banks.”

Mr Morrison has already flagged he will be reintroducing the remainder of his 10-year corporate tax cut plan when parliament sits for the budget.

However, a new survey by KPMG Enterprise found nearly two-thirds of small businesses that have already had a tax cut legislated believe it will make no difference to their firm or the cut needed to be bigger to be truly effective.

KPMG tax partner Brett Mitchell said he was taken aback by the result.

“It was the government’s hope that this would act as a stimulus to SMEs to invest in technology or hire more staff, but this hasn’t been perceived as such,” he said.

Although Mr Blythe believes there should be positive benefits from these tax cuts, he says these would be enhanced if they were part of an integrated package, including personal income tax and the GST.

Moody’s upgrades BHP’s rating outlook

Ratings agency Moody’s has upgraded its outlook on BHP Billion’s credit rating to “positive” from “stable”, as it expects the mining giant to continue generating strong earnings and free cash flow despite a likely decline in commodity prices.

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Moody’s has maintained the “A3” issuer rating on the miner’s balance sheet.

The affirmation reflects the strength of BHP’s metals and mining portfolio and its substantial product and geographic diversity, Moody’s said.

It highlighted the company’s solid position in oil and gas, which it said strengthens BHP’s diversification, relative to other global miners.

The resources giant has recently been embroiled in a tussle with activist hedge fund Elliott Advisors, which wants BHP to spin off its US petroleum business and return more cash to shareholders through buybacks.

BHP has dismissed the restructuring proposal, saying the plan has major flaws and would not benefit shareholders.

Moody’s has added its weight to the BHP board’s status-quo approach.

“The positive outlook is predicated on the group continuing with its current operating strategy and financial policies, and that its operating footprint will not change materially as a result of the Elliot proposals,” the ratings agency said in a statement.

“Moody’s does not expect any changes to BHP Billiton’s current capital allocation framework, but any material change that resulted in higher-than-expected shareholder returns and/or leverage would be seen as credit negative.”

It expects higher commodity prices and improved costs will allow the miner to continue generating earnings margins of around 50 per cent over the next 18 to 24 months.

BHP has improved its buffer against lower commodity prices through material cost reductions, recent debt repayments and bond repurchases, and changes in its dividend policy, Moody’s said.

BHP made a profit of $US3.2 billion in the first half of the current financial year.

Its shares were down 52 cents, or 2.2 per cent at $23.24 at 1520 AEST, in a weaker market.