Asbestos campaigners urge government to release funding for agency

A group of asbestos victims held a meeting with federal politicians in Canberra on Tuesday, as part of a campaign to urge the government to release $3 million in funding to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.

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The agency, which runs asbestos awareness and preventative programs, said they were advised that the funding – which had been allocated in previous years, but not spent – could be accessed with ministerial approval.

The agency’s request in February for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash to release the funds have gone unanswered.

“This is bureaucracy gone mad.” 

Barry Robson, who is a member of the agency’s advisory council, said the body is now significantly underfunded and doesn’t have the budget to implement its National Strategic Plan, which was signed off by all state and territory governments last year.

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He said operations are to be halted and would only resume when funding was received, which could be as late as August.

“All we have money for now is for wages for the staff, but we can’t move our programs forward,” he told SBS.

“Full closure is a possibility also. Our agency could also be re-absorbed into Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and reduced into a one-man operation… we just don’t know.

“This is bureaucracy gone mad,” he said.

When asked about the release of the funds, Ms Cash told SBS in a statement that the government had not cut the agency’s funding. She said it has been maintained at the level set by the former Labor government.

“The Labor Government provided the funding on the basis that the set up costs would reduce after the early years and the agency would then focus on its coordination role, working with the states and territories to implement ASEA’s National Strategic Plan,” she said.

Ms Cash said state and territory governments are responsible for delivering the National Strategic Plan, but she would not comment on releasing the $3 million. 

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Sydney mother-of-four Serafina Salucci, 46, is one of the victims campaigning for the funding.

Diagnosed in 2007 with the terminal asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, she said the funding was crucial.

“To me it seems simple, the money is there, it has been budgeted, it was given to the agency,” she said.

“It’s not a question about if they have the money. 

“This amount is a lot of money for the agency, but $3 million for government is a drop in the ocean.”

Ms Salucci said her exposure likely came from renovations of her family home when she was a child, which is something the agency campaigns about.

“They run several programs which can make people aware of asbestos, and could save their lives,” she said.

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Independent Senator Nick Xenophon is a supporter of the campaign and said the funds should be immediately released.

Among the politicians in support of the funding release was senators Jacqui Lambie and Lisa Singh.

The agency was established with bipartisan support in 2013.

It told a Senate estimates hearing in 2015 that it did not have a sufficient budget to implement its programs.

Treasurer puts the banks on notice

Treasurer Scott Morrison has put the banks on notice as he tries to blunt Labor’s push for a banking royal commission.

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Mr Morrison has unveiled a $127 million package to beef up the Australian Securities and Investments Commission following major scandals in the financial services industry.

He’s forcing the banks to foot most of the bill and has warned of a “furious” response if they pass the cost onto customers.

And he didn’t mince his words when it came to what’s expected of the corporate regulator’s chairman, Greg Medcraft.

“We want an ASIC that leans forward and we want an ASIC that actually prosecutes and takes those matters up,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

“He’s well tasked and I expect him to get it done.”

The opposition says the federal government is playing catch up, coming under pressure to act after Labor announced a royal commission into the sector if it wins the next election.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten slammed the government’s decision to take $121 million from the banks as an attempt to avoid a royal commission, labelling it “hush money” that wouldn’t fix the problem.

“You can see Mr Turnbull’s fingernail marks being dragged across the concrete of parliament in Canberra, where he desperately wants to do anything except see the truth shine through in the banking and financial services sector.”

Mr Morrison says the plan provides concrete action, unlike a royal commission that would produce a report in several years’ time.

“That isn’t getting any outcomes for anyone – all that is getting is a cynical political outcome for Bill Shorten before an election.”

The banks will cough up an extra $121 million to beef up ASIC – a cost the treasurer says is easily digestible.

“I would be furious if I thought this was being sought to be passed on by the banks, and you can be absolutely assured they will be getting that message from me.”

From 2017/18, ASIC will be entirely funded by the financial industry instead of taxpayers.

There’s also a review into how various complaint schemes and tribunals can be rolled into a one-stop-shop for consumers.

Mr Medcraft’s term will be extended for 18 months and the government will appoint an additional commissioner with expertise in the prosecution of financial crime.

Banking and business groups welcomed the announcement but the ACTU said it was disappointing the government chose to fiddle around the edges instead of ordering a royal commission.

“It doesn’t even restore the cuts already made to ASIC and does nothing to right the wrongs experienced by so many Australian families, farmers and small business owners,” president Ged Kearney said.

The Customer Owned Banking Association said big banks that have caused problems for consumers should foot the ASIC bill.

WHERE’S THE MONEY GOING?

* $61 million to modernise ASIC’s data management systems, enhance data analytics and surveillance capabilities.

* $57 million for increased surveillance and enforcement, particularly around financial advice, life insurance, responsible lending and breach reporting.

* $9 million so ASIC and Treasury can implement recommendations from the Murray inquiry.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins to tackle sexism in sport

When Kate Jenkins joined the board of Carlton, one Blues fan remarked the footy club had “hit rock bottom”.

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Three days into her new job as Australian sex discrimination commissioner Ms Jenkins says she sees sport as a powerful setting to advance gender equality issues.

“I have to confess, not every Blues supporter cares about gender equality in sport,” she told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

She recounted the online comment from a man named Gary who was less than impressed with her appointment to the board.

“Let me tell you, Gary, you’ve got it all wrong, on every level,” Ms Jenkins said.

Universities are another venue Ms Jenkins plans to focus on as commissioner.

On-campus gender discrimination and sexism will be put under the microscope with a project that has the support of 39 vice chancellors, she said.

“It should be of grave concern to us all to know that it is our youth who are learning to accept and excuse violent attitudes to women and girls,” she said.

“We need to intervene now so this is not a problem we pass on to the next generation.”

She noted that students at the University of Queensland recently sold cupcakes on campus at prices that reflected the 17.3 per cent pay gap between women and men based on average full-time ordinary weekly earnings.

“Much to their shock, and in fact the university’s shock … instead of giving rise to a genuine discussion about wage inequality, the organisers of this inoffensive campaign … received rape threats and even death threats,” Ms Jenkins said.

Her personal measure of success as commissioner will be when the pay gap disappears and students at the University of Queensland can sell cupcakes at lunchtime at the same price for everyone.

China angered by Britain’s comments on South China Sea

British minister of state responsible for East Asia, Hugo Swire, has said a ruling expected within a few months in an international arbitration case the Philippines has brought against China’s South China Sea claims must be binding.

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He also said Britain saw the ruling, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, as an opportunity for China and the Philippines to renew dialogue over their territorial disputes.

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea and rejects the court’s authority in the case, which is widely expected to go in favour of the Philippines, significantly raising tension in the strategic waterway.

“The comments by Mr Swire neglect the facts and are very discriminatory and one-sided and seriously go against Britain’s promise not to take sides,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

“We are extremely dissatisfied.”

Tension in the South China Sea is the fault of the United States and the Philippines, not China, with US ships and aircraft increasingly appearing in the region, she added.

“The facts prove that if the South China Sea is tense then it’s the US which is the biggest pusher of this,” Hua said.

She repeated that China would neither accept nor participate in the arbitration case and it was an abuse of international law.

The court is expected to rule in late May or early June.

In February, the United States and the European Union, of which Britain is a part, warned China it should respect the ruling from the Hague.

The court has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before.

Britain has prioritised developing economic ties with China and welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit in October, leading critics to accuse it of placing short-term financial gain above human rights and security interests.

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It also upset the US administration when it became the first non-Asian country and the first member of the Group of Seven advanced economies to join a China-backed development bank or Asia seen by Washington as an unwelcome rival to Western-led institutions such as the World Bank.

More than $5 trillion of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea every year. Apart from China’s territorial claims there, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims. 

Scott wise to Gold Coast AFL threat

Brad Scott wants to keep the good AFL times rolling with an unchanged North Melbourne team this weekend.

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The unbeaten Kangaroos head north to play Gold Coast on Saturday, with defender Robbie Tarrant the chief barrier.

The 26-year-old’s ankle complaint has him touch and go to face the Suns, but was named by Scott for the match.

Scott said the important big man “should” board the flight to Queensland and give him the chance to play the same side two rounds in a row for the first time this year.

“He’s got to get through a training session (but) all indications are good,” he said on Thursday.

“I doubt we’ll make any changes but we’ve certainly got a lot of options that we’ll talk through.

“As the cliche goes, it’s hard to change a winning team.

“The guys that are out there are performing for us and doing the job.”

North, unbeaten in the first four rounds, took top spot on the ladder with their impressive 31-point victory on Sunday night over Fremantle.

To soar to 5-0, they’ll need to overcome bogey side Gold Coast.

The Suns have won their past three outings with Scott’s side, including the two most-recent trips to Metricon Stadium.

In the Kangaroos’ favour is the loss of key backmen Rory Thompson (ankle) and Steven May (suspension).

But Scott said while others considered them “pretty significant omissions”, he wouldn’t be fooled.

“The expansion clubs, they just tend to bring in new first-round draft picks,” he said.

“They’ve got a production line of them.

“Their NEAFL team won by 108 points on the weekend so I don’t think they’re scraping the barrel for depth.”

The Roos have already taken one victory from Queensland this season – a round-two defeat of Brisbane – and Scott believes it will hold them in good stead against the Suns, even though he rates them as a formidable threat.

“They’ve got a lot of capability and really back themselves,” he said.

“Charlie Dixon kicked seven last time. Gary Ablett got his usual 30 (disposals) and two or three goals.

“But we’re a vastly different team to the teams that have taken on Gold Coast in the past. It’s going to be a challenge – it’s one we’re looking forward to.”

Assaults rise at Sydney’s Star casino after lockout laws

The Star casino precinct is one of central Sydney’s hot spots for violence with new statistics showing a slight rise in the number of assaults in the area.

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Pyrmont is also the only central city suburb to have an increase in assaults since the state government introduced its controversial lockout laws.

The Star is not subject to the restrictions introduced in 2014, which ban patrons entering pubs and clubs in Kings Cross and the CBD after 1.30am and stop bars serving drinks after 3am.

Since then, the number of non-domestic assaults in the Pyrmont area has increased to average almost 13 assaults (12.83) per month, a report from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics (BOCSAR) has found.

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This amounts to about two additional assaults a month in the area.

BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn said the increase was far less than the reduction in violence recorded at Kings Cross and the CBD.

“The increase that’s happened is nowhere near as big as the decrease that’s happened at Kings Cross and the CBD,” Dr Weatherburn said on Wednesday.

“But there’s no doubt there has been a significant increase” at The Star and its surrounds in Pyrmont, he said.

The bureau did not find a similar increase in assaults in other popular nightlife areas exempt from the state’s lockout laws – such as Newtown, Bondi or Double Bay.

“This is the only one so far we can see an increase in,” Dr Weatherburn said.

Minister for Justice and Police Troy Grant said he was pleased to see that claims the divisive legislation would push nightlife violence to other parts of Sydney were unfounded.

“There were lots of advocates out there saying the lockout laws would create mayhem and chaos in the surrounding areas but the statistics have not borne (that) out,” he said.

The Star continues to take issue with BOCSAR’s statistics, saying its own monthly reviews show there was a reduction in assault numbers at the casino from 2014 and 2015.

“Statistically there is one incident at The Star for every 211,000 visitors,” a spokesman told AAP.

“The Star believes one incident is one too many but we continue to work closely with the casino regulator and the NSW Police to review and minimise anti-social behaviour,” he said.

The research comes as a state government review into the lockout laws considers whether further restrictions should be placed on venues such as The Star.

The inquiry, led by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, is due to report later this year.

Number of non-domestic assaults around Sydney

* Sydney CBD

2014: 1553

2015: 1545

* Kings Cross

2014: 298

2015: 206

* Pyrmont

2014: 142

2015: 154

Source: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Obama starts talks with Gulf leaders

US President Barack Obama and Gulf Arab leaders have started talks in Riyadh at a summit aimed at forging joint action on perceived security threats from Iran and Islamic State.

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It’s also a chance to iron out strains in their old alliance.

Obama, who arrived on Wednesday, hopes to allay Gulf countries’ fears over Iranian influence and encourage them to douse sectarian tensions in an effort to confront the threat posed by jihadist militants like Islamic State.

Those issues were addressed in his bilateral talks on Wednesday with leaders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and will dominate again in the summit which includes the other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) members.

Years of frustration among Gulf countries, aggravated by more recent stumbles, may make Saudi Arabia and its regional allies less receptive to Obama on his fourth and most probably final trip to the kingdom.

The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies.

Most of the GCC states, which also include Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the United States has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran.

They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran.

For his part, the American president has said he wants Gulf allies to offer more democratic reforms and improve human rights, which he discussed with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday.

Adding to tensions is a bill proposed in US Congress to lift Riyadh’s immunity if any Saudi officials are found to have been involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The United States remains deeply enmeshed in Gulf security, however, co-operating closely with the monarchies to strengthen their armed forces and share intelligence aimed at countering Islamist militant groups.

Dockers won’t crack, says coach Lyon

Fremantle coach Ross Lyon is adamant he and his players won’t fracture under the intense pressure confronting the club, saying the tough period could ultimately define the team.

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The Dockers’ premiership hopes already appear over after opening the season with four straight AFL losses.

Lyon’s attempt to transform Fremantle into a more attacking unit this season has backfired spectacularly, with the Dockers nursing the third worst percentage in the league after leaking an average of 113 points per game.

Never before has a Lyon-coached team opened the season with four straight losses.

But the 59-year-old has been able to overcome several other dire situations during his coaching career.

In Lyon’s final year as coach of St Kilda in 2011, the Saints had just one win to their name after seven rounds before storming home to reach the finals.

And in Lyon’s first year as coach of Fremantle in 2012, AFL great Kevin Bartlett labelled the Dockers “unwatchable” after they managed a paltry 5.6 in a 48-point western derby loss to West Coast in round nine.

Fremantle went on to post one of their most famous finals victories later that year – a 16-point elimination final win over Geelong at the MCG, before reaching the grand final a year later.

Now, Lyon has laid down the challenge for his players and coaching staff to overcome the current form crisis.

“This period will define us … it’s how you respond,” said Lyon, who recently re-signed with Fremantle until the end of 2020.

“And if you’re a senior player, your legacy is how you inspire young players when things are tough, to work through it and come out the other side.

“And that’s the same as senior coach and my coaching group.

“We’ve all seen clubs fragment and they wobble under pressure, and people rattle the cage.

“We’ve been here before. I don’t think it was a glorious start to my tenure here.

“I’m sure there were some things written and said, even after the first derby.

“We didn’t fracture. All we did was work hard and we improved our footy. So that’s the aim again.”

Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe says the playing group are willing to wear some short-term pain in order to achieve long-term success.

Lyon praised the resilience of his group, but said there were no guarantees.

“Well I know there’s plenty of short term pain. We tick that first box don’t we?” Lyon said.

“And we’ll be able to judge down the track whether there’s been some long-term benefit.”

Fremantle will have the perfect chance to snap their losing run when they take on struggling Carlton in Sunday’s bottom-of-the-table clash at Domain Stadium.

Lyon confirmed skipper David Mundy would miss a third straight game with a calf issue, but ruckman Zac Clarke (knee) is a chance to return.