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.

Fairfax journos strike over job cuts

Journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have gone on strike for a week after Fairfax Media announced it would cut about 25 per cent of the jobs at its major Australian newspapers.

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The seven-day strike starting on Wednesday afternoon means the stoppage will potentially run into Tuesday’s federal budget.

“We are taking this action today because we are shocked and appalled at the decision that management has taken,” Herald journalist Sean Nicholls said in Sydney.

“The scale of these cuts is unprecedented in Fairfax history.”

Nicholls said the strike “potentially covers the federal budget next Tuesday”.

He said one in four employees in every metropolitan newsroom was to be axed and called on management to have a “serious rethink”.

Court reporters walked out of courtrooms on Wednesday afternoon following the vote.

“Fairfax journo at Bell/Landry case whispers to person sitting next to her ‘we are on strike’, then stands and excuses herself from the court,” Nine Network reporter Tom Steinfort tweeted from Sydney.

The Age’s crime writer Tom Cowie tweeted: “The Age newsroom just voted to strike for a week #fairgofairfax” while Herald reporter Lisa Visentin noted the strike “takes us out of the federal budget” in Canberra.

Fairfax is cutting costs by $30 million in the face of declining advertising and circulations, and told staff on Wednesday it is looking to lose 125 staff from the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WA Today.

“While we will be looking across all parts of the newsroom, at the end of the redundancy program we expect there will be significantly fewer editorial management, video, presentation and section writer roles,” the company said in an internal note.

Fairfax axed 120 editorial jobs from its newsrooms in Sydney and Melbourne a year ago in an earlier cost-cutting exercise and outlined its latest target last month.

It called it an effort to secure the titles’ future but only revealed the details on Wednesday.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union for journalists, slammed the move, saying it was “appalled” by the decision which would weaken Fairfax’s business.

NRL star Jarrod Mullen gets four-year ban

Jarrod Mullen’s NRL career is all but over after he was suspended for four years for doping offences.

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The governing body on Wednesday rubbed out the former Newcastle and one-time NSW Origin playmaker until 2021 after he was found guilty of taking banned steroid Drostanolone by the NRL’s anti-doping body.

The 30-year-old has 21 days to appeal the decision and take the NRL to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Mullen delivered a positive result for Drostanolone after a routine swab test during pre-season training last year.

In March ASADA recommended Mullen be banned for four years however he chose not to accept the punishment and appealed to the NRL anti-doping tribunal.

He pleaded for leniency, arguing he was not attempting to gain a competitive advantage but was hoping to repair his body after suffering a second serious hamstring injury in a year.

Mullen, who played 211 games for the Knights since debuting in 2005, was provisionally suspended on January 17 and was on Wednesday suspended after the anti-doping tribunal, chaired by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, found he had violated the game’s anti-doping policy.

“As we have said all along, this has been a disappointing matter for all parties,” Knights CEO Matt Gidley said.

“We wish to reiterate this matter took place independently of the club.

“It is important to acknowledge Jarrod made a significant contribution to the club over a long period of time and that adds to the disappointment in how he now departs the club.”

ASADA CEO Ben McDevitt said: “ASADA will continue to work to protect those athletes who make the right decisions when it comes to injury treatment and rehabilitation”

“Ultimately, Mr Mullen has paid a heavy price for his poor decision making.”

Oakden buck stops with me: SA premier

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has taken ultimate responsibility for the abuse and poor care inflicted on patients at a state-run nursing home.

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Ahead of meeting with some family members who blew the whistle on the problems at the Oakden facility, Mr Weatherill has again backed Mental Health Minister Leesa Vlahos for her handling of the issue.

But the premier also acknowledged the serious failings at the centre and said he took ultimate responsibility.

“I have to. This is part of the mental health care system that should be providing the best possible care to the most vulnerable citizens,” Mr Weatherill told reporters on Wednesday.

“It’s providing sub-standard care and, in some cases has actually had direct abuse going on.

“I have to accept responsibility for that.”

Mr Weatherill said there had been multiple failing of all the checks and balances put in place in the mental health system, and described the revelations of the treatment of elderly dementia sufferers at Oakden as “distressing”.

In his investigation, SA’s chief psychiatrist uncovered the rough handling of patients, an excessive use of restraints, and a concerning level of injuries.

Ms Vlahos said there had been a culture of cover-up among staff at Oakden, which will now be closed.

But the opposition, medical groups and some families accused the government of ignoring previous warnings about care at the home.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said the poor treatment of patients at Oakden was also part of a bigger problem.

“It reflects a whole service that has had deficits in governance over a long period of time,” RANZCP President Malcolm Hopwood said in a statement.

“Resulting in neglect of resourcing and an absence of a workable model of care.”

Professor Hopwood said the SA government should invest in new facilities and develop a new model of care, based on those elsewhere in Australia and globally.

Manhunt after Melbourne triple shooting

A young Melbourne man said goodbye to his friends after a party, opened a garage door and was gunned down, dying in the street as his killer fled.

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Two of his friends were also hit by bullets when a shooter, or shooters, fired at them through a rear garage door of the house in Keysborough on Tuesday night.

The 22-year-old man who died had been shot in the chest and was in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived.

A 23-year-old man received a gunshot wound to the arm and a 22-year-old man was hit in the leg.

Both are in a stable condition in The Alfred hospital.

“The deceased was going home from the social gathering and he’s opened up the garage door and he’s been shot,” Victoria Police Inspector Mark Langhorn said on Wednesday.

The shots were fired from a rear alley used by residents to access their garages in a quiet housing estate 40km southeast of the city.

A neighbour, who didn’t want to be named, said she barricaded herself and her young daughter in a walk-in wardrobe as she called police.

“My daughter was upstairs sleeping. The gunshots were so loud and sharp I can still hear it,” the woman told AAP.

“Police said to me to keep low and to keep away from the windows.

“So we went into my wardrobe and I had a heavy-duty torch and I’ve actually got a baseball bat in the house too.”

There were six or seven people at the party when the shots rang out, but the three victims didn’t live at the house.

Residents say they heard five or six loud bangs but police are yet to confirm how many shots were fired.

They are also yet to establish a motive for the attack and say the victims aren’t known to police and are co-operating with investigators.

“The two survivors are lucky, and we will be putting a lot of extra police in here over the next few weeks,” Insp Langhorn said.

The estate was built two years ago and residents say it’s a quiet family neighbourhood.

“They’re brand new neighbours so no one really knows them. But this is definitely not random, you can just tell,” another witness, who also did not want to be named, said.

Nearby resident Angela Merchant said her family was asleep when they heard shots and then people screaming in pain.

“We just heard loud screams. We knew someone was hurt,” she told the Nine Network.

Investigators are looking for a dark-coloured 4WD and a “shiny car” seen speeding away from the scene.

Aust on track to meet renewables target

Unprecedented investment in wind and solar power puts Australia on track to meet its 2020 renewable energy target, the sector’s regulator believes.

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The Clean Energy Regulator’s report on 2016 investments, released on Wednesday, says 98 new large-scale renewable energy plants were accredited last year, the vast majority of them solar farms.

And $4 billion was committed to building new projects, more than in any single previous year.

The regulator says this building momentum puts Australia in a strong position to meet the legislated target of having 23.5 per cent of energy generated from renewables.

The momentum has continued into 2017, with one-third of the total build required for the year achieved within the first three months.

However chair Chloe Munro cautions that while the target is achievable, 2017 will be a critical year, particularly with the heated political debate surrounding reviews of energy market security and climate policy.

“It is possible the tenor of public discussion around these reviews may unsettle investor confidence before any policy decisions are made,” she writes in the report.

But on the whole, she believes investors are more likely to remain positive.

She notes the regulator was worried in mid-2016 that the sector still hadn’t recovered from the two years of uncertainty around the RET, but investment bounced back in the later part of the year.

Both Clean Energy Council head Kane Thornton and Australian Energy Council boss Matthew Warren said support from state and territory governments had played a large role in reducing costs and restoring confidence to the sector.

Mr Thornton said the price of large-scale solar had halved over the past few years, making it competitive with not just wind power but fossil fuels such as gas.

“Renewable energy is now the cheapest kind of power generation it is possible to build today, and solar power plants have a relatively short project lead time compared to other technologies,” he said.

Australia now has the highest penetration of rooftop solar in the world, with 2.6 million households having a system, and has returned into the top 10 global destinations for renewables investment.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg noted in a speech to the Carbon Market Institute the “dramatic seachange” in the cost of large-scale solar systems had led to more investment.

“When it comes to renewables – and this is absolutely critical to the power generation sector, which makes up a third of the country’s emissions – there is an irreversible transformation taking place,” he told the conference in Melbourne.

However, Mr Warren warned there was still much to do to avert an energy crisis.

“More renewables are part of the solution, not the solution itself,” he said.

“We still need a durable national energy and climate policy that unlocks all types of energy investment and allows the market to coordinate energy technologies to deliver reliability and lower emissions at the lowest cost to consumers.”