Low expectations for new Syrian peace talks

Representatives from opposition groups and the government are meeting at United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

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The talks come as Russia has asked the Syrian government to halt air strikes across the country.

After almost a year of stalling, negotiators have arrived in Geneva for another attempt at returning peace to Syria.

At the United Nations headquarters, the focus is on a political solution to the almost six-year-old war.

Opposition groups are desperate for a transition of power that would lead to President Bashar al-Assad stepping down.

The government, though, says that is up to the Syrian people to decide.

Neither side has been willing to budge on its position, which resulted in last year’s talks being suspended.

And this year, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, says he is keeping his expectations realistic.

“Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I’m not expecting a breakthrough. But I’m expecting and determined for keeping a very proactive momentum. There is a rush between us and the spoilers. The spoilers want to keep a momentum. We have to outpace those few, but clear, spoilers with the momentum on the political track. And I think we can aim at that. So I’m not expecting an immediate breakthrough from this round of negotiation but the beginning of a series of rounds that should enable (us) to go much more in-depth on the substantive issues that are required for a political solution in Syria.”

The mediator has declined to discuss the precise format of the latest talks but says bilateral meetings were set as the starting point.

Syrian opposition spokesman Salem al-Muslet has also called for direct talks with the Syrian government.

He says the group is hoping for “a serious partner” in the talks but suggests the government is just “buying time,” trying to gain more time for its offensive.

Half a million people have been killed in the civil war, and 12 million have been displaced.

A nationwide ceasefire is currently in place, but it has been steadily falling apart since it started.

A separate set of negotiations in Kazakhstan, convened by Russia, Turkey and Iran, has been dealing with the ceasefire and other humanitarian issues.

Russia has been a strong and crucial supporter of the Syrian government.

But, in what has been dubbed a goodwill gesture, Staffan de Mistura says Russia has called on the government to halt its aerial bombings.

“Today, the Russian Federation, at the ceasefire taskforce, did announce to everyone, and every country present, and to myself, that they have formally requested the government of Syria to silence their own skies in the areas touched by the ceasefire during the intra-Syrian talks. We are being requesting those who have an influence on the opposition to try themselves also to do the same. They don’t have aeroplanes, but they can do something similar, in terms of reducing any type of provocation on any side to give a better chance to the intra-Syrian talks.”

Russia and the new United States administration have been meeting to discuss how to deal with the war.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says he discussed safety zones with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

“Concerning the proposal of creating safe zones, we talked on this topic during my meeting with Rex Tillerson in Bonn on the 16th of February within the ministerial meeting of G20. The American side has said that this concept is now being worked out, and we will await further clarifications.”

Sergei Lavrov says Russia is awaiting US suggestions on how best to cooperate in Syria.

“We have said what we are ready to talk about. And we are waiting for clarification from Washington. We are ready to review any other proposals on cooperation in Syria. And we hope that, as the president of the United States, Donald Trump, said and as the official representative of the White House said, the United States is interested in cooperation with us on a Syrian peace settlement.”

 

Interpol request for N Koreans over Kim

Malaysia has requested Interpol to put an alert out to apprehend four North Korean suspects in the murder of Kim Jong Nam.

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The estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was killed in Kuala Lumpur’s main airport last week, in what South Korean and US officials say was an assassination carried out by North Korean agents.

Malaysia’s police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said on Thursday that two women – one Vietnamese, one Indonesian – arrested last week had been paid for carrying out the fatal assault on Kim using a fast-acting poison, but declined to say if they were working for a spy agency.

Police are also holding one North Korean man, but are seeking another seven in connection with the murder.

Three of them – a diplomat, a state airline official, and another man – are believed to still be in Malaysia.

The other four are believed to have fled Malaysia on February 13, the day of the killing.

Khalid told reporters that a request had been made to Interpol to put out an alert to apprehend the four suspects, who they believe have already made their way back to North Korea.

Khalid also said the police have sent an official request to the North Korean embassy requesting to interview the embassy’s second secretary and the airline official, having released their names on Wednesday.

“If you have nothing to hide, you should not be afraid to co-operate, you should co-operate,” Khalid told reporters.

Khalid said an arrest warrant will not be issued for the second secretary, as he has diplomatic immunity, but that “the process of the law will take place” if the airline official does not come forward.

Police have still to receive DNA samples from Kim Jong Nam’s next of kin, Khalid said. He also denied that Malaysian police officers had been sent to Macau, the Chinese territory where Kim and his family had been living under Beijing’s protection.

North Korea’s ambassador has said the Malaysian investigation cannot be trusted, and the embassy issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the three suspects that have been detained should be released.

‘We don’t care if you survive’: Young workers left feeling jilted over penalty rates move

Unsurprisingly, the move to reduce Sunday and public holiday penalties for those working in the retail, fast-food and hospitality industries has not been well received by the employees themselves.

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After July, when the changes are expected to kick in, a casual retail employee on the minimum wage over the age of 18 classified as a level one employee – the lowest grade possible – who would have earned approximately $35 an hour prior to the amendments, will instead make around $30.63 an hour. 

For a six-hour working day this equates to $26.22 less each Sunday, or potentially $104.88 less a month.

Now, many of those affected by the upcoming changes have been left scratching their heads as to how they will make ends meet come July.

“Penalty rates can literally be the difference between paying rent and/or buying food for retail workers,” Daile Kelleher, the State Retail Manager for St Vincent de Paul Society in Queensland, wrote on Twitter.

Penalty rates can literally be the difference between paying rent and/or buying food for retail workers.

— Daile Kelleher (@DaileKelleher) February 23, 2017

“Workers who are often supporting a family or putting themselves through university or study survive off penalty rates,” she said.

Cutting penalty rates is giving the message to these workers that we don’t care if you can survive or not.

— Daile Kelleher (@DaileKelleher) February 23, 2017

Former retail worker Sharon McClafferty said penalty rates were the difference between her being able to study or not.

Without #penaltyrates I would not have been able to stay in university. David Jones Sunday shift was how I paid rent. It was a win:win

— Sharon McClafferty (@SharonsNetwork) February 23, 2017

While President of the Fair Work Commission Iain Ross argued that the cuts reflected that “the extent of the disutility [of working Sundays] is much less than in times past”, student Katelyn Peschel said they did not reflect that there was often little choice for employees who needed to work Sundays or holidays.

As someone who studies 5 days a week and has to work weekends, the cut #penaltyrates means there’s less reward for having no “days off”

— what’d i miss (@katelyn_peschel) February 23, 2017

Gold Coast hospitality worker Ashleigh Dunstan said the move was an ironic one.

“Love it how people who don’t rely on weekend pay decide I should earn less, as they enjoy their Saturday nights and Sunday lunches with friends and family,” she wrote on Facebook.

Bronwyn Lee, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, said the changes to penalty rates meant an increasingly casualised workforce would have to work harder to catch up with their older counterparts.

“With a significant proportion of retail and hospitality workers under the age of 24, this latest decision to cut penalty rates is another example of how young Australians are being disproportionately affected by challenges in the workforce and the growing risk they face in an increasingly flexible workforce.

“We need to be asking how we can help these young people survive and thrive in the future, by putting them at the centre of the national policy discussion – not making further cuts to their livelihoods,” she said.

At the time of writing, a petition urging Malcolm Turnbull to take action on the rates decision had aproximately 13,000 signatures.

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‘Real-time’ MP donations tracked in Qld

The Queensland government has unveiled a “real-time” donation disclosure system in the lead-up to the next state election, but the opposition has raised concerns the system could still be exploited.

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The system, which went live on Thursday, will show all donations to politicians of over $1000 within seven business days.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says the “real-time” system was an Australian first.

“The public want to know who is donating to which political party, in what quantity and whether or not those donations are having any impact whatsoever on political decision making,” Ms Palaszczuk told reporters on Thursday.

Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said under the previous six-monthly reporting system, the actual figures weren’t known for up to nine months after the donations were made.

“The reporting period of 1 July last year to December last year is still not actually tabled with the electoral commission,” Ms D’Ath said.

“So we will go from waiting eight or nine months for these figures to waiting seven business days.”

The government has opted for a seven-day grace period rather true “real-time” reporting to prevent “malicious” donations being made and to accommodate people who donated using cheques.

But Shadow Treasurer Scott Emerson said the system should truly real-time, or else it was still open to abuse.

“We know that Labor and the unions will do a secret deal, give a nod and a wink, and only give the money six days before (the election)” Mr Emerson claimed.

He said the opposition would abide by the changes, but wouldn’t say if they had plans to repeal them if they take office.

The Electronic Disclosure System can be accessed through the Electoral Commission of Queensland website.

The announcement comes as speculation mounts about a possible date for the Queensland election, which is due by early next year but is widely expected to be announced later this year.

Essendon airport reopens after fatal crash

Commercial flights have resumed at Essendon airport after a plane carrying five men fatally crashed and exploded into flames just after take-off.

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Flights from Essendon took off again on Thursday morning, two days after the charter plane to Tasmania’s King Island crashed into a Direct Factory Outlet shopping centre near the end of a runway.

Four Americans on a golfing trip and their Victorian pilot were killed.

Federal Transport Minister Darren Chester says the flight’s cockpit voice recorder has been retrieved from the wreckage and sent away for more analysis.

“The cockpit voice recorder may contain some important information for the investigators and that’s why it’s gone to Canberra for further analysis,” he told ABC radio on Thursday.

Essendon airport had been open to emergency services only until Thursday morning, an Essendon Fields spokesman said.

A flight bound for Warrnambool with 11 people on board was the first flight out, while a flight from King Island also touched down.

During the closure, incoming flights were diverted to Melbourne or Avalon airports.

Investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau are still collecting evidence at the crash site.

Pilot Max Quartermain made two mayday calls but they did not contain information about the cause of the crash.

It’s believed catastrophic engine failure may have caused the tragedy.

Mr Quartermain’s passengers, Greg Reynolds De Haven, Glenn Garland, Russell Munsch and John Washburn, had planned to play golf in King Island, while their wives had stayed behind in Melbourne for the day.

Family members in the US were understood to be on their way to Melbourne to provide support to the women.

Agencies are working with the US passengers’ families to repatriate the bodies.

Among the support and condolences for the families include the queen says in a statement she and Prince Philip were saddened to hear the news.

The DFO centre where the plane crashed remains closed until further notice.

The crash reignited concerns about whether the airport – surrounded by homes, a retail outlet and freeways – should remain open.

But the Australian Airports Association says the airport is integral in supporting passenger services, freight and emergency services in Victoria.

“Essendon manages more than 50,000 aircraft movements a year and plays a critical role in connecting regional communities, especially in Victoria and Tasmania, with vital services in Melbourne,” the association said on Thursday.

The DFO will be remain closed for trade on Friday but a dedicated area will be set up outside at midday to allow people to pay their respects to the men killed in the crash.

“Out of respect for those who lost their lives and their families, we have made the decision not to reopen the centre until Monday morning, ” says CEO for Vicinity Centres, Angus McNaughton, in a statement.

“This allows our community the opportunity to pay their respects.”

Parcel pickup for Aust Post as Fahour goes

Outgoing Australia Post chief executive Ahmed Fahour has signed off on his seven-year term with a huge boost in first-half profit at the transformed parcels and letters business.

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Solid growth in parcel volumes hiked first-half net profit to $131 million in the six months to December 31, from just $16 million in the prior corresponding period despite an 11 per cent fall in letter volumes.

Australia Post made the surprise announcement that Mr Fahour had resigned just hours after the result, with the 50-year-old subsequently telling media in Melbourne that he believed the company’s transformation to competitive global parcels business was complete.

He said recent criticism of his $5.6 million salary had not forced his decision, although it had been considered.

The result came on the back of domestic parcel volumes jumping 5.7 per cent, revenue jumping 8.2 per cent to $3.5 billion and gains from business efficiency programs.

“Today over 70 per cent of our revenue and 100 per cent of our profit is derived from commercial activities in parcels and e-commerce,” Mr Fahour said in a statement ahead of his resignation annoucement.

“This is one of the strongest first half results in recent history and it demonstrates that we are on the right path to ensuring the future of Australia Post for our people, the community and our important stakeholders.”

Australia Post’s pre-tax profit also jumped from just $1 million to $197 million in the six months to December 31.

Mr Fahour said modelling shows that if the company had not changed, particularly the letters business where volumes have fallen 11 per cent, it would have accumulated losses of $2 billion and needed a bailout.

Mr Fahour said Australia Post introduced a number of innovations recently including new parcel sorting machines and automated letter sorting machines.

He said weekend and evening deliveries, and investing in global parcel and e-commerce giant Aramex, were helping the company grow market share and compete with global rivals.

“It’s important we continue to focus closely on making sure our business is running as efficiently as possible, especially as we head into what is traditionally a much more challenging second half,” Mr Fahour said.

‘Anybody could be a refugee’: Ai Weiwei films global migrant crisis

“A refugee could be anybody.

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It could be you or me,” he said, pointing at past wars and an increasingly uncertain world order. “The so-called refugee crisis is a human crisis.”

Over the past 12 months, Ai and his film crews have visited migrant and refugee hotspots across 22 countries, from the US-Mexican border badlands to the Turkish-Syrian frontier and crowded holding camps on Greek islands.

Now back in his Berlin studio, Ai talked to AFP about the result of his tour de force, the epic documentary project “Human Flow”, set for global cinema release in the late northern summer of this year.

“The issue really needs to be understood better by the people who are privileged to still have peace,” the 59-year-old said. 

“Peace is always temporary. No-one can be guaranteed to always have peace.

“If you look at the world’s condition today, war still can happen at any moment, there is such uncertainty about our politics, and so many unanswered questions.”

‘Boat not full’

Ai said he viewed US politics now as “quite sad, quite disturbing … in many ways going backwards”, pointing at Trump’s comments that label entire “groups of people as terrorists or drug dealers”.

The subject of migrants and refugees, and how many a society can and should accept, is being discussed across the western world, but Ai is characteristically uncompromising.

To those who say the boat is full, he replies simply that “the boat is never full, only our heart is full”.

Ai said he has looked with dismay at the Trump presidency, the US entry ban on Syrian refugees, the attempt to deny visas to citizens of seven mainly Muslim nations, the pledge to build a wall with Mexico and invoke mass deportations.

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In the United States, he said, everyone except the native Americans is either a migrant or a descendant of a migrant.

“I went to the Mexico border twice and I purposely crossed the area where Trump is going to build the wall,” he said.

“I talked to those people on the Mexico side, just trying to understand who are they, why they want to be on the other side.

“Both sides need each other. It’s not just Mexicans who need the United States, the states bordering Mexico equally depend so much on the low-cost labour.”

‘Secret detention’

Ai has staged several high-profile exhibitions on the mass flight of people from Syria and other trouble spots to Europe, often on dangerous Mediterranean crossings.

Last year he decked out the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 orange life jackets from the Greek island of Lesbos. In Florence, he hung 22 red rubber dinghies from the facade of a Renaissance palace.

Ai said his personal history has shaped his interest in human flight and displacement.

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“When I was young, my father was exiled,” he said about the poet Ai Qing, who fell out of favour with Mao Zedong’s regime.

“We had to move to a very remote area in China and I grew up in kind of military camps,” recalled Ai.

“So I am very sensitive to people forced by different reasons – it could be political, war, famine, environmental problems — to seek, willingly or unwillingly, new locations and possibilities.”

In a sense, he too feels like a refugee.

Having helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, he later drew the wrath of the state for his outspoken activism.

Ai was detained for 81 days in 2011 and then had his Chinese passport confiscated for four years. Many of his fellow activists have been jailed.

“I was in China but now I am being almost forced out of China because all those lawyers are still in jail and all those people I know are still in secret detention,” he said. 

“I have been put in the same kind of situation and it’s very possible it can happen to me again,” said Ai. “This is the reality.”

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Penalty rates ruling sparks political row

Labor has pledged to bring in laws to protect take-home pay following the decision by the independent umpire to cut weekend and public holiday penalty rates for about a million retail and hospitality workers.

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But the Turnbull government and business groups say the Fair Work Commission’s independence should be respected and the decision will boost jobs and investment, especially in regional areas.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said the decision turned “three decades of industrial relations modernisation” on its head.

“The reality is that the unthinkable has happened – we are seeing mass pay cuts under a Turnbull government,” Mr Shorten said in Sydney.

He said the government should now work with Labor on new laws to “protect peoples’ conditions … and protect their take home pay”.

If the decision were allowed to go ahead, it would flow on to other sectors and industries in a “race to the bottom”, Mr Shorten added.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said it was an “inconvenient truth” for Labor that Mr Shorten, during his tenure as workplace minister, changed the Fair Work Act to require the Fair Work Commission to review penalty rates as part of a four-yearly process.

“Today’s decision by the commission to adjust penalty rates is, therefore, a direct result of the review process put in place by Bill Shorten,” Senator Cash said.

“Any suggestion by Bill Shorten and the Labor Party that they do not accept this decision is highly hypocritical.”

She rejected suggestions the decision could flow on to other workforces, such as nurses and emergency service workers.

“The Fair Work Commission in its decision clearly states that they have no intention of this decision flowing on anywhere else,” she said.

Senator Cash did not expect an “overnight” lift in jobs, but said many employers would find it easier to open on a Sunday and give their staff more work hours or put on extra workers.

Mr Shorten appeared at a media conference with two workers, one of whom said he would lose $109 a week from his pay packet.

“I’m gutted,” said Trevor Hunter, a 22-year-old Coles worker.

Labor is likely to get the backing of the Greens for any legislation to protect penalty rates for retail, fast food, hospitality and pharmacy workers.

“This is a body blow to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on penalty rates to make ends meet,” Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt said.

The issue is likely to dominate next week’s parliamentary question time and Senate estimates hearings on workplace relations.

Former coalition workplace minister Eric Abetz said he would be asking the FWC why it took three years to make the decision.

Union sources told AAP the campaign against the decision would include lobbying politicians, advertising, protest rallies and possible strike action, as well as discussions with employers.

It is understood Coles workers won’t be impacted by the decision as they are covered by an enterprise agreement.

Catholic Archbishops blame abuse on failed leadership

The archbishops have fronted the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse– with the public hearings expected to conclude tomorrow.

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In a joint appearance before the commission, the Archbishops of Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide gave their explanations for the failure to protect people from abuse.

The Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe gave this response.

“Scandalously insufficient, hopelessly inadequate, scandalously inefficient, I’m struggling for others words, it’s just such a fundamental failure that I’m not sure what else I could say.”

Archbishop Costelloe says he’s written letters of apology.

“What I have done, generally speaking, is, what we would call pastoral letters, letters to the people, the Catholic community of the Archdiocese of Perth. I’ve tried to address these matters on probably four or five occasions in the five years that I’ve been there. And I have included in those, what I would, I know to be a very sincere apology. I hope that it’s been understood that way.”

This assessment from Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher saw some in the public gallery applaud his choice of words.

“There was a kind of criminal negligence to do with some of the problems that were staring us in the face (applause). In other cases, I think there were people who were just like rabbits in the headlights they just had no idea what to do and their performance was appalling.”

Brisbane’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge told the hearing the culture in the church contributed to the negative outcomes.

“You had leaders who were in themselves decent, good and experience men but who in very different places and different times made exactly the same mistakes without comparing notes, or even talking to each other about it informally. Now where you find those kinds of convergences, I think that’s when you’re dealing with culture. So if it was as I think it is, a colossal failure of leadership. It did amount and I think this has emerged through the process of the royal commission in important ways as a colossal failure of culture that led to the colossal failure of leadership.”

The commission has heard many of the victims have suffered lifelong trauma, often resorting to substance abuse to try to cope.

And some died prematurely, including Eileen Piper’s daughter Stephanie who committed suicide in 1994 after being abused by a Catholic priest.

92 year old Ms Piper made the trip from Melbourne to Sydney with the hope of confronting Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart to demand an apology.

“It’s something a mother really doesn’t recover from when her daughter suicides. We aren’t strong enough to represent her here today and for all other victims who suffered just like she did and still trying to get an apology.”

 

 

ACCC flags concerns on South32 coal deal

Shares in diversified miner South32 have tumbled to their lowest level in more than three months after Australia’s competition watchdog expressed concern over its proposed deal to take over a a coking coal mine in NSW.

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The global miner in November agreed to buy the Metropolitan Colliery in NSW from US coal giant Peabody for $US200 million ($A259.8 million), along with a 16.67 per cent stake in the Port Kembla coal terminal in Wollongong.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on Thursday said the proposed acquisition could substantially lessen competition in coking coal supply to local steelmakers, with South32 set to become the largest supplier in the Illawarra region.

“Australian steelmakers currently appear to benefit from competition between South32 and Metropolitan in the form of lower prices and a wider product range. This transaction will remove that competitive rivalry,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.

South32 shares fell more than four per cent on the news and in afternoon trading remained down 3.7 per cent at $2.505.

“The ACCC’s preliminary view is that coal suppliers outside the Illawarra region may not act as a strong competitive constraint on South32, largely due to the additional costs associated with transporting material volumes of coal from other regions,” Mr Sims said.

South32 chief executive Graham Kerr said earlier this month the acquisition would be complementary to its coal operations in the region.

The deal is the first acquisition by the global miner since it was spun off from BHP Billiton and listed in 2015. The company said it will continue to engage with the ACCC on the review process.

The ACCC has invited submissions from interested parties and will announce its final decision on the deal on April 6.