RBA cuts cash rate to 2.5 percent

The Reserve Bank of Australia has cut the cash rate to a historic low of 2.


5 per cent at its August board meeting, in the first cut during an election campaign since 1990, citing below average growth and moderating commodity prices.

The cut brings the official cash rate to lows not seen since the central bank’s 1959 establishment, just weeks ahead of the September 7 federal election.

RBA Governor Glenn Stevens cited recent muted inflation and retail sales data in unveiling the cut, which follows a grim pre-election budget update from the ruling Labor party last week.

“The economy has been growing a bit below trend over the past year. This is expected to continue in the near term as the economy adjusts to lower levels of mining investment,” Stevens said.

The peak in Australia’s decade-long Asia-led mining investment boom and slowdown in key market China saw Labor scale back its growth forecasts for 2013/14 to 2.5 percent and bump up unemployment to 6.25 percent last week, compared with 2.75 percent and 5.75 percent seen in the May budget.

Tuesday’s decision is a mixed bag for Labor. While it underscores fears of an economic slowdown seized on by the conservatives as evidence of mismanagement, it also means an easing in cost-of-living pressures for key mortgage-belt voters.

The Australian dollar edged up slightly on the decision, with some investors expecting a more drastic 50-basis-point cut, to 89.55 US cents from 89.23 cents immediately prior.

The RBA last cut the cash rate by a quarter of a percentage point in May, after making four cuts in 2012.

Full text of the RBA’s rates statement

Statement by Glenn Stevens, Governor: Monetary Policy Decision

At its meeting today, the Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 2.5 per cent, effective 7 August 2013. Recent information is consistent with global growth running a bit below average this year, with reasonable prospects of a pick-up next year.

Commodity prices have declined but, overall, remain at high levels by historical standards. Inflation has moderated over recent months in a number of countries.

Globally, financial conditions remain very accommodative, though the recent reassessment by markets of the outlook for US monetary policy has seen a noticeable rise in sovereign bond yields, from exceptionally low levels.

Volatility in financial markets has increased and has affected a number of emerging market economies in particular. In Australia, the economy has been growing a bit below trend over the past year.

This is expected to continue in the near term as the economy adjusts to lower levels of mining investment. The unemployment rate has edged higher.

Recent data confirm that inflation has been consistent with the medium-term target. With growth in labour costs moderating, this is expected to remain the case over the next one to two years, even with the effects of the recent depreciation of the exchange rate.

The easing in monetary policy over the past 18 months has supported interest-sensitive spending and asset values, and further effects can be expected over time.

The pace of borrowing has remained relatively subdued, though recently there are signs of increased demand for finance by households.

The Australian dollar has depreciated by around 15 per cent since early April, although it remains at a high level. It is possible that the exchange rate will depreciate further over time, which would help to foster a rebalancing of growth in the economy.

The Board has previously noted that the inflation outlook could provide some scope to ease policy further, should that be required to support demand. At today’s meeting, and taking account of recent information on prices and activity, the Board judged that a further decline in the cash rate was appropriate.

The Board will continue to assess the outlook and adjust policy as needed to foster sustainable growth in demand and inflation outcomes consistent with the inflation target over time.

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Suspected Boko Haram attack in Nigeria

Suspected Boko Haram Islamists have stormed a town in northeast Nigeria, opened fire on police and civilians and killed 11 people, residents and a local lawmaker say.


The attack happened late on Thursday in the town of Damboa in Borno state, Boko Haram’s stronghold and where Nigeria has imposed a state of emergency as it pursues an offensive against the insurgent group.

“The attack lasted until about midnight,” said Adamu Isah, a student who lives in Damboa. He said groups of gunmen opened fire on police and civilians and that “11 people died.”

He blamed the attack on “Boko Haram” fighters.

State lawmaker Ayamu Lawan Gwasha, who represents Damboa, confirmed the details, as did a local security official who requested anonymity.

Both Isah and the lawmaker spoke to reporters in Borno’s capital Maiduguri, roughly 85 kilometres from Damboa. Both said they had fled to the capital after the attack.

Details were slow to emerge and the area military spokesman could not be reached for comment because of a phone blackout imposed by the military, an operational measure meant to block the Islamists from coordinating attacks.

The phones have been down in Borno since May, when the state of emergency was declared.

The lawmaker said the town had been on high alert since the weekend, when 47 people were killed in the town of Konduga, also in Borno state, in a brutal attack that targeted Muslim worshippers gathering for morning prayers.

“We raised the alarm” after Konduga, Gwasha told journalists, saying the heightened security presence in Damboa “has helped in reducing the magnitude of the attack.”

The military has sought to portray Boko Haram as being on the defensive, claiming that the sweeping operation launched in May has plunged the extremists into disarray with all their camps destroyed.

But a spate of recent deadly violence has raised doubts about the military’s claims. With the phone network down, information about the operation has been difficult to verify and access to the northeast is restricted.

Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create a strict Islamic state in northern Nigeria, but much of its violence has targeted Muslims.

It has also killed Christians and frequently targeted the security services as well as other symbols of authority.

Some speculate the group has sought out soft targets as it has faced added military pressure. A brutal attack on a school in northeastern Yobe state last month left 41 students dead.

But others counter that Boko Haram is simply demonstrating that it remains unhindered by the military assault, attacking a range of targets in different areas.

The insurgency is estimated to have claimed more than 3,600 lives since 2009, including killings by the security forces.

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What was Australia’s role in the Korean War?

When armed forces from Korea’s north crossed the 38th parallel intent on gaining control of the entire peninsula, many Australians could be forgiven for failing to notice.



First, it happened on a Sunday – June the 25th, 1950.


Second, the north coast of New South Wales was experiencing disastrous flooding, with two people dead in Grafton and 9,000 others made homeless in the wintry conditions.


Stock losses were described at the time as enormous, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies promised he’d match the State pound for pound in flood relief and assistance.


By Monday, the front page of Melbourne’s daily The Argus was reporting the invasion.


But it was fighting for space with a report from a weekend Port Melbourne football game where police had to draw pistols and use batons to control more than 1,000 angry supporters rioting after an attack on an umpire.


War-weary Australians were still on petrol, butter and tea rationing, and the prospect of another conflict should have been daunting.


But that wasn’t quite the response, as Nikki Canning reports.


Two days after the invasion in Korea, Federal Cabinet was earnestly discussing plans to hasten the call-up of young men for compulsory military training.


However, that same day, the United States offered air and sea support to South Korea, and the five-year-old United Nations asked all its members to assist in repelling the North Korean attack.


In all, 21 UN nations responded with troops, ships, aircraft and medical teams.


For the last time in Australian history, volunteers for an overseas military expedition were called for.


Re-opened recruitment offices were initially flooded with volunteers for Korea, says Melbourne University’s Richard Trembath.


“It was an enthusiastic response. I think Korea in some ways, especially in its early year, was a war which the Australian population understood a little more clearly than it understood Vietnam. The world response was a lot more united. The United Nations – which was les than five years old – was the one calling for action. So it had the mark of being something right to do. The Korean War is in fact the only time the United Nations goes to war until the Gulf War of 1991, until the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.”


Dr Trembath says many Australians also saw Korea as an opportunity to fight Communism.


“Robert Menzies had come to power in late 1949 with a commitment to formally dissolving the Communist Party [in Australia] and that theme would run right though Australia’s commitment in Korea, that Communism was the great scourge and danger. And I think for Australia it accelerated in 1949 because of the Communist victory in China – I mean, Russia was one thing but China was a lot closer. Menzies spoke several times in the early 1950s that he regarded another world war was only three years away.”


“(Menzies): Can we doubt that under these circumstances the complete socialist state would be set up in Australia? And that, in consequence, we would have the all-powerful state? How would we like to be living in a country where the state was all-powerful?”


Dr Trembath says the other principal motivation was to firm Australia’s alliance with the US.


“The new conservative government was anxious to improve the relationship with the United States – our participation in Korea would eventually be one of the major factors in the formation of the ANZUS Treaty, which happens in 1951.”


Already involved in fighting a Communist insurgency in Malaya, as it was called at the time, Australia was the first country following the US to commit units from all three military services to Korea.


An Australian Navy frigate joined the Korean conflict on the 29th of June, followed a day later by the Royal Australian Air Force’s 77 Squadron.


An infantry battalion from the Australian component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan was called in on July the 26th.


“We were anxious to be seen as very quick to put our cards on the table; we originally only committed air forces and naval forces, but when it was found out in Canberra that Britain was going to commit land forces, we jumped to beat Britain – we actually beat them by about a day or two – to show that we were firm in the alliance with the United States.”


Pilot Sergeant Milton Cottee was among the Australians of 77 Squadron already in Japan when the invasion happened.


He says he had a firm view as to why he should be involved in this war.


“There was an overall feeling I suppose of stopping the Red Peril (Communism) coming down to Australia. That was real in those days. We thought we were doing our bit in that regard. I eventually came to a conclusion that many veterans come to in conflicts, I think, by deciding that what I was doing was preserving the Australian way of life for those I might have to leave behind.”


As might be expected, the Australian contingent had a variety of ethnic backgrounds, which added another dimension to some events, as remembered in his diary by Private Joe Vezgoff.


“We were about a mile forward of the battalion, with the responsibility of racing back when we saw any large troop movement on our front. I, of Russian origin, and George of Chinese, caused some consternation when someone back at battalion headquarters asked who was in the forward outpost. ‘A Chinese and a Russian’, came the reply!”


The Korean War also saw the rise to prominence of Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned officer – Reg Saunders, from Portland, in western Victoria.


Historian Richard Trembath says while he had been commissioned during the Second World War, he was a high-profile figure during the Korean War.


“He came from a military family, in the sense that his father and his uncles and his brothers had fought in both the first and second World Wars. He’s the subject of a biography called ‘The Embarrassing Australian’, by Harry Gordon – later editor of the Brisbane Courier mail and a war correspondent in Korea – which pointed out that though Saunders was a much-feted and much-treated hero during Korea, and the newspapers and newsreels often featured him – he was very photogenic, very media-savvy himself – his private and civilian life saw the usual disasters that could happen to Indigenous Australians in the 50s, ranging from not being served drinks in the pub to not getting employment and things like that. A fascinating character.”


As in other conflicts, the Australians and other UN forces often had a difficult time identifying and isolating the enemy.


On one occasion, South Korean veteran Kim Yu Seon was serving as a military policeman in North Korea’s Hwanghae province.


He says at sunset one day in September, he was with the police commander and saw a number of civilians fleeing south being shelled.


[Kim then translator] “It’s September, the sun is about to set,” [Kim then translator] “they were in a car and they saw an Australian airplane.” [Kim then translator] “Oh, and the Australian plane came and they shelled!” [Kim then translator] “So many people came down to South Korea so,” [Kim then translator] “The Australian plane did not know where they were so they just shelled everywhere.”


Milt Cottee says such incidents were not unusual.


He says UN pilots were often directed to attack groups of people because of fears there were North Korean soldiers among them who would leave the group at night and attack UN ground forces.


“There were many occasions when enemy soldiers would get mixed up with South Korean civilians and the North Korean soldiers would mix in with the South Korean civilians, (using them) as shields. We would be often vectored on to groups of people like that and it was a very difficult decision whether to shoot them up or not. And when you have American forward air controllers saying ‘Hey Aussies, those enemy troops mixed in with those refugees, I suppose you’d call them, they’re going to be out after our guys tonight so please do what you can’.”


For the troops on the ground, the going was intense.


Stanley Connolly served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment at the Battle of Kapyong.


He and other veterans have told their stories as part of a film archive of Australians at War, curated by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.


“We charged and we began to get shot down. I remember my good friend Gene Tunny on my right falling in the advance and then my big mate Rod Grey on my left, went down shot through the chest and the bullets were cracking, cracking, you can, as they go past you can hear them cracking, you know, because they sort of break the sound barrier. It’s louder than the crack of the weapon firing them. And it seemed to me that there were so many bullets coming that it was like walking or running into a very stiff breeze.”


Maxwell Veale served in HMAS Murchison during the Han River operation.


“But this day we went in and they were waiting for us. And we hadn’t turned, we were going up towards the turn, and the lookout looked over, we were at action stations, and the lookout looked over and he said to the captain, ‘Sir those haystacks are moving.’ And the skipper, looking at them with binoculars, [saw that] they were moving, they had anti-tank guns behind them, they were tanks, moving. And they waited until we stopped when we had to turn and that’s when they hit us.”


However historian Richard Trembath says Australia’s most controversial Korean War figure was the war correspondent Wilfred Burchett.


“He wrote what I think is one of the most enduring pieces of Australian war journalism, at the end of the Second World War: he was one of the first Westerners to look at the consequences of Hiroshima, and that was within a few days of the Japanese surrender – that was an amazing trip, he had a lot of guts [courage].”


Wilfred Burchett chose to report from the North’s side of the front – a decision which immediately cast him in the eyes of his countrymen as a propagandist.


“He spoke to a lot of United Nations prisoners of war in northern camps. Many of them – perhaps most of them – regarded him as a traitor. It served to damn him politically for almost a generation in Australian eyes. I certainly think he had a great amount of courage but I think he had a large anount of naivete. I don’t think he was working directly for Communist powers but I think it was undoubtedly immature to think that speaking on behalf of your enemies to your own people and expecting a good reaction is probably naive. Some of the prisoners, including a key American, regarded Burchett as helping ameliorate their conditions, which were dreadful, in the camps in North Korea.”


However Richard Trembath says there was clearly more to Wilfred Burchett.


“A number of Australian journalists found him an unimpeachable source of facts at the Armistice negotiations at Panmunjom because he had privileged access to a large number of people, and as opposed to roneoed (copied) garbage from the United Nations, Burchett could actually tell them what was happening. He saw himself as even-handed: a number of people saw him as a propagandist.”


From the 29th June 1950 to 27 July 1953, some 17,000 Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen served in the Korean War.


Australian casualties were 339 killed, 1216 wounded and 29 prisoners of war.


43 Australian servicemen are still listed as Missing In Action.


Yet Pilot Sergeant Milt Cottee believes it was worthwhile.


“I think we made a pretty good contribution to the war effort even though our losses were very high. I lost two of my best friends … one was shot down in a Meteor (British jet figher) by a MiG (Russian jet fighter) and my other friend was lost in a midair collision with another aircarft. So one of my best friends is still missing in action in North Korea somewhere.”


After the war ended with the signing of the Armistice on the 27th of July, 1953, Australians remained in Korea and continued with a peacekeeping force until 1957.


And World News Australia Radio will be broadcasting a special program-length feature on Thursday July 25, at 6.10 am and 6.10 pm, to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula.


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Home loan approvals show housing recovery

Home loan approvals continue to rise, showing the record low cash rate is working its way into the housing sector.


The number of home loan approvals in June rose 2.7 per cent to 51,001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday, beating economists’ expectations of a 2.0 per cent rise.

The figures come after data on Tuesday showed Australian capital city house prices were growing faster than expected, and the Reserve Bank’s decision to cut the cash rate to a new record low of 2.5 per cent.

JP Morgan economist Tom Kennedy said the stronger than expected housing finance figures were a sign the property market was responding to low interest rates.

“This is actually the sixth consecutive monthly increase we’ve seen. We haven’t had a negative print yet for 2013,” Mr Kennedy said.

“We’re starting to get to pretty good numbers with commitments up 13 per cent on year-ago terms.

“It’s obviously a positive sign that does suggest there is a little bit of activity perhaps picking up in the residential housing market.

“Although activity across the economy is pretty soft, it does look like housing is perhaps one sector that is responding to the low interest rate environment.”

But CommSec chief economist Craig James said the value of new loans was still more than 4.0 per cent lower than it was five years ago.

“Apparently Australian borrowers haven’t had it this good for over 50 years but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the home loan data,” Mr James said.

“Borrowers remain cautious – especially first home buyers.”

Mr James said loans to build new homes had risen for seven consecutive months, boosted by state government incentives as well as low interest rates.

He said the data showed buyers were armed with cash but needed the confidence to act.

“Once the election is out of the road, we would expect more people to seriously contemplate buying homes to either live in or as a form of investment,” Mr James said.

“More home loans being taken out will equate to more homes being bought and more homes being built.

“Housing is well placed to provide a boost to the economy and take over growth leadership from mining.”

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Freo gifted best AFL draw ever: Sheedy

AFL great Kevin Sheedy reckons Fremantle have won football’s equivalent of the lotto due to their friendly draw, but Dockers coach Ross Lyon says those claims are garbage.


Fremantle boosted their chances of a top-two finish with a club record 113-point thumping of Sheedy’s GWS at Patersons Stadium on Sunday.

The 24.13 (157) to 6.8 (44) win lifted Fremantle to within 6.2 per cent of third-placed Sydney, and they are just half a win adrift of second-placed Geelong.

Fremantle take on Melbourne (MCG), Port Adelaide (home) and St Kilda (ES) in a dream run to the finals.

Of the opponents Fremantle were drawn to play twice this year, only Richmond currently sit in the top-eight.

The other teams they were drawn to play twice – West Coast, Adelaide, St Kilda and Melbourne – are either near the bottom of the table, or highly unlikely to play finals.

Sheedy said the Dockers should thank their lucky stars for such a soft draw.

“It’s not their fault, but they have probably got the best draw of all time this year,” Sheedy said.

“They have won TattsLotto.

“They haven’t played the top-four more than once.

“That’s going to make people more confident in how they play, because it gives you more practice time and game time to get their style of play together.”

Lyon was quick to hit back at Sheedy’s claims, pointing to the fact that West Coast were considered a flag fancy this year, while Adelaide came within a kick of reaching the 2012 grand final after finishing the season in second spot.

“Commentary on draws is really interesting, because like most analysts or flippant opposition coaches, it runs as deep as about the last two weeks,” Lyon said.

“I’m happy to listen when people do a real detailed analysis of the draw.

“The flippancies – they’re just red herrings thrown out.

“It’s all garbage to be honest.”

Fremantle booted the opening seven goals of the match against GWS, but saw their margin whittled down to 17 points on the back of a Jeremy Cameron-inspired second-quarter fightback.

However, the Giants’ resistance was short lived, with Fremantle booting 16 goals to one in the second half to secure their biggest ever win, eclipsing the 112-point winning margin over Collingwood in 2005.

“I think we were playing a pretty desperate side. Fremantle are playing like junk yard dogs – pretty hungry,” Sheedy said.

“And I suppose they would be, because they haven’t had a lot of success over their life.”

Lyon conceded it wasn’t ideal playing struggling teams in the run to the finals.

But he said his team would have no problems in getting themselves battle-hardened ahead of the finals.

Cameron’s four-goal haul lifted him to within two goals of West Coast’s Josh Kennedy in the race for the Coleman medal.

Fremantle lost Stephen Hill to a tight hamstring before the match, but Lyon said the star midfielder should be fit to take on Melbourne next week, along with Garrick Ibbotson (Achilles tendon).

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Election 2013: the rise of the attack ad

And as the polling date draws closer, they’ve seen the rise the of so-called ‘attack ads’, in which the policies or record of one party or the other is portrayed negatively.



But is negative campaigning really effective?


Selling your political party to millions of voters is no easy job, and there’s no perfect formula for getting it right.

Both parties started this election campaign with positive advertising.


Kevin Rudd led with a ‘good guys’ approach.


“Our nation faces many new challenges and I know for sure that the old politics of negativity just won’t work …”

Tony Abbott and the Coalition tried an appeal to common sense.


“Australia has always been the land of opportunity, a place where every day can be a great day …”

Then, Labor changed its tune, bringing out two new TV ads that went firmly on the attack.

“What are you hiding, Mr Abbott? I remember when you were really aggressive. Negative. Tony Abbott has admitted that his plans will hurt people. Like families.”

The new ads targeted Coalition plans to cut spending, but Opposition leader Tony Abbott says the $70-billion hole Labor keeps referring to is fiction.

“It is simply false, simply false. It is yet another desperate scare campaign from a Labor Party that has no record to run on, and nothing to say about our future.”

The ads mark a stark reversal to Kevin Rudd’s earlier pledge to run a positive campaign.


The Prime Minister has defended his message on Channel 7.

“What I said is that our ads would be policy-based. I stand by every one of those examples put in that spotlight advertisement. You know why? Because this affects real people’s lives. This is not about negativity. It’s about accountability.”

Ads that deliberately attack the opposition are nothing new in politics and party leaders are often the target.

“Who do you trust?… Who do you trust?… Who do you trust?… Interest rates have risen nine times in a row under John Howard….Remember Kevin O’Lemon? This time last year, he got the chop! Thanks to Julia.”

Some of the most memorable ads aren’t necessarily the negative ones, so how much influence do attack ads really have on voters?

Former advertising executive Jane Caro says parties wouldn’t keep using the attack strategy if it wasn’t effective, and there’s a clear reason they do it.

“It’s to make you worry about the opponent. Often governments use negative campaigns more, because what they’re really saying is I’m the devil you know, I’m safer than the devil you don’t know.”



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No reward for Zuckerberg Facebook hacker

A researcher who hacked into Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s profile to expose a security flaw won’t get the customary reward payment from the social network.


While Facebook offers rewards for those who find security holes, it seems that Palestinian researcher Khalil Shreateh went too far by posting the information on Zuckerberg’s own profile page.

Shreateh said on his blog he found a way for Facebook users to circumvent security and modify a user’s timeline.

He said he took the unusual step of hacking into Zuckerberg’s profile after being ignored by the Facebook security team.

“So i did post to Mark Zuckerberg’s timeline , as those pictures shows,” he said, including screen shots of the posting.

“Dear Mark Zuckerberg,” he wrote. “First sorry for breaking your privacy and post to your wall, i had no other choice to make after all the reports i sent to Facebook team. My name is KHALIL from Palestine.”

His reward for exposing the flaw was having his Facebook account disabled.

He later got a message saying, “We are unfortunately not able to pay you for this vulnerability because your actions violated our Terms of Service. We do hope, however, that you continue to work with us to find vulnerabilities in the site.”

Facebook says it appreciates help with security but not by hacking into user accounts.

Facebook security engineer Matt Jones posted a comment on Sunday on a security forum saying “we fixed this bug on Thursday,” and admitted that “we should have asked for additional… instructions after his initial report.”

“We get hundreds of reports every day,” Jones said. “We have paid out over $US1 million to hundreds of reporters. However, many of the reports we get are nonsense or misguided.”

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Lima accused of targeting Manly’s Watmough

Manly coach Geoff Toovey believes South Sydney prop Jeff Lima might have targeted Anthony Watmough’s injured knee during his side’s 22-10 loss on Friday in Gosford.


Lima was placed on report for twisting Watmough’s right leg early in the first half, an incident that left Toovey fuming and putting the NSW back-rower in doubt for next week’s clash with Canberra, despite coming through the whole 80 minutes.

Watmough was a late inclusion in the Manly side after recovering from a strained posterior cruciate ligament sustained last week against the Warriors.

In an absorbing and action-packed encounter at Bluetongue Stadium in front of a record 20,060 crowd, Souths ended a run of two successive defeats and ended Manly’s six-game winning streak thanks largely to some gritty defence from Michael Maguire’s side.

But Toovey could find himself slapped with a fine from the NRL after unloading on referees Shayne Hayne and Henry Perenara in an astonishing post-game rant.

“I just think today, the officials decided the outcome of the game – not the two teams on the field,” Toovey said.

“I’m not talking about other players but obviously everyone knew Anthony Watmough’s knee was injured coming into the game and now it looks like we may miss him because of that.

“I don’t know if he was targeted or not but it’s suspicious.”

Toovey was also angry at the decision not to award a try to Steve Matai after the New Zealand centre was adjudged to have been held up after his momentum took him over the line.

“Unless I’m blind, I saw the ball on the ground so what’s the decision?” he said.

“Can someone answer me that? He (video ref) said ‘held up’ but the ball’s on the ground. How can that be held up?

“There’s got to be an investigation into this; someone’s got to be accountable for this.

“Aren’t we meant to have the best referees for this game? Are they the best referees we’ve got?”

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Have Syrian rebels used chemical weapons?

A senior United Nations investigator says there’s evidence that Syrian rebel fighters may have used the deadly nerve agent sarin in combat.



The statement by Carla Del Ponte is in stark contradiction to long-standing accusations of chemical weapons use in Syria, which have predominantly been against government forces.


A powerful gas that, when inhaled, kills by crippling the nervous system, sarin is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned under international law.


Nikki Canning reports.


The United States, like Britain and Israel, claims evidence exists that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.


President Barack Obama cautions the information is based on preliminary intelligence assessments in which there is varying degrees of confidence, and raises certain questions.


Mr Obama, whose administration openly backs the rebels and is pushing for political change in Syria, says government forces are likely to be behind any such attacks — a claim the Syrian government rejects.


Seemingly reluctant to send troops into Syria, Mr Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a so-called red line, and could give cause for a possible foreign intervention.


“It’s obviously horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed. To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law, and that is going to be a game-changer.”


But the US President remains silent on where his country would stand if Syrian rebels are found to have used chemical weapons.


Carla Del Ponte is a former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals.


Now a member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Ms Del Ponte says the Commission’s investigation has produced what she calls strong, concrete suspicions — yet no incontrovertible proof — that opposition forces have used the deadly sarin gas.


This, Ms Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss television, is based on testimonies from casualties, and medical staff treating them, in neighbouring countries.


She said the evidence gathered links the use of sarin gas to rebel fighters, and not Syrian government forces.


“We have no indication at all that the government, the authority of the Syrian Government, have used chemical weapons. I was a little bit stupified that the first, the first indication we got, they were about the use of nerve gas by the opponents.”


Responding to Ms Del Ponte’s comments, the UN Commission quickly issued a statement saying it’s yet to reach any conclusive findings on chemical weapons use in Syria.


Syria’s main opposition group, for its part, rejects the allegations — directing blame towards the Syrian government.


Molham al-Droubi, of the Syrian National Council, says claims the rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al Assad have used chemical weapons are unfounded.


“There is no objective evidence of what they said. In order to have objective evidence we need to decide on the place, on the time, and we should have witnesses who are unbiased witnesses.”

The US, which is considering arming Syria’s rebels, is questioning Ms Del Ponte’s statements saying it is highly sceptical about the rebels’ use of chemical weapons.


It too maintains that any use of sarin gas is likely to have originated with the Syrian government.


State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell says the US believes Syria’s Army possesses the capacity to deploy chemical weapons.


“The concern is that the regime has huge stockpiles of these weapons and has shown an increasing willingness to use escalated violence against their people.”


A separate UN investigation into allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, instigated by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, is stalling.


Investigators are yet to enter the country, reportedly due to disagreements with the government over the limitations of the investigation.


Syria initially called for the inquiry after claims of chemical weapons attacks near Aleppo earlier this year.


It’s one of three locations where chemical weapons are alleged to have been deployed during the conflict.


Speaking to the BBC, Syria’s former ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabelan, said the UN should conduct an independent and unbiased investigation in Syria.


But he’s warned the Syrian government is wary of a US-led invasion, such as in Iraq, which was based on false evidence about weapons of mass destruction presented to the UN.


“Syrians have a very vivid memory of what has happened in Iraq and how the whole country was invaded, destroyed undermined, and for a few years later for Colin Powell (Secretary of State under the George W Bush administration) to come up with this testimony that what they suspected weapons trucks carrying weapons of mass destruction turned out to be milk powder or something like that.”


The Syrian conflict is now in its third year, having claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, and forced over one million people to flee.


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Ashes victory is my proudest moment, says Cook

England, chasing 227 to win a home Ashes series 4-0 for the first time, were 21 runs short of their target when bad light forced the players off four overs early and the match ended in a draw.


“It would have been nice to finish with a win but the rules and regulations are there for a reason,” Cook said at the presentation ceremony after lifting the famous urn while red and white fireworks erupted around the ground to celebrate England’s third Ashes win in a row.

“The umpires have strict guidelines and, if it was day three, we would have gone off. This morning our job was to try and make it as difficult as possible to stop Australia from pushing on for a win and to make our chances of victory easier.

“The crowds have been fantastic for all five tests and I’m privileged to captain this group of guys. Winning this series is the proudest moment of my life.”

Australia captain Michael Clarke declared his side’s second innings on 111 for six, setting England a challenging target in the hope of forcing a consolation victory for his team.

“We’re here to try and win, credit to England they played well today,” Clarke said. “It was worth a crack.

“We did our best to set up the game and hopefully we have given the fans something to enjoy. We got outplayed throughout the series and again we couldn’t get over the line today.

“England deserve a lot of credit for the way they played. The result says they won 3-0 and it doesn’t matter what I think. The last three tests, we have played a terrific brand of cricket.

“The whole squad has worked their backside off but we have to give credit to England and Alastair Cook.”


England batsman Ian Bell was named his team’s player of the series after scoring 562 runs, including three centuries, at an average of 62.44.

“On a personal note it’s nice to contribute,” Bell said. Going into the series I was low on scores – I kept getting caught in the covers – but to get hundreds helped the team win some test matches. As the series went on, I got better and better.”

Bell made his Ashes debut in 2005 as a junior member of Michael Vaughan’s England team who won back the urn.

“I don’t think I was very good back in 2005 but I learnt some big lessons in that series,” Bell added.

“I am a more senior player now and I am contributing more. It’s been a tough battle and we’re all looking forward to a break from test cricket for a while.”

Fast bowler Ryan Harris was Australia’s player of the series after taking 24 wickets despite missing the first test at Trent Bridge.

“I probably wasn’t ready for the first test, but the guys who did play did well but I got the opportunity and took it and enjoyed it,” Harris said.

“I came here wanting to play five tests but I said I wanted to be on the plane and not go early. Putting games together and getting overs in gives me confidence.

The next Ashes series starts on November 21 in Brisbane.

“I will go home, get the hamstring twinge sorted out and be ready when England come to Australia,” Harris said.

“It has been good fun but it has been challenging and there have been some good battles.”

(Editing by John Mehaffey)

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Clive Palmer accused of conflict of interest

The new Palmer United Party is facing scrutiny over campaign leaflets which feature an ad for the multimillion-dollar business venture of its leader, Clive Palmer.


In an election campaign DVD being mailed to Australian voters, billionaire-turned-politician Clive Palmer appears on the cover with two thumbs up.

The DVD handout is the latest campaign leaflet for Mr Palmer’s United Party.

But next to its How To Vote instructions and the party’s slogan “We’re Fair Dinkum” is an ad for something else.

Promoted as “a bonus feature” on the DVD is a video promoting Mr Palmer’s multimillion dollar private project to rebuild the Titanic Two cruise ship.

Questioned by SBS during a Fairfax web forum, Mr Palmer admitted the video has no relation to the party’s policies.

“It doesn’t fit into our policy platform but the party had to do a deal with Titanic Two to get the funds to be able to get their idea out to Australia. It’s a freebie, it’s a free, it’s a free amount on Titanic Two because there’s so much interest in it. It was a good opportunity to let the Australian people see what the project was about.”

Clive Palmer announced plans to recreate the Titanic Two cruise ship earlier this year.

It’s to be built by his shipping company, Blue Star Line, and is expected to cost the company well over $200-million.

According to a spokesperson for the Palmer United Party, the party’s campaign ads that feature the ship were personally approved by Mr Palmer.

Mr Palmer’s mining company, Queensland Nickel, also printed and packaged the flyers in China, where the Titanic Two is currently being built.

Mr Palmer says he included an ad for the project in his campaign material simply as a response to public interest in the venture.

“After we announced it in New York of course it was number one in the world on Twitter, it was number two on Twitter in the United States for two weeks, only beaten by the Oscars. And certainly it beat all the Oscar-winners. And we had something like $500-million worth of media around the world and we’ve got over 50,000 people who’ve been on our website wanting to come on the ship. So I get probably 2,000 communications a week on Titanic Two from all over the globe.”

More than six million flyers featuring the Titanic II ad are currently being distributed to households around Australia, with voters in the Queensland town of Lilley among the first to receive the DVD.

Some Australian legal experts and Twitter users have slammed the ads as a conflict of interest.

Joo-Cheong Tham is an Associate Professor at Melbourne University Law School and an expert in political advertising.

He says the ads raise serious alarm bells around political ethics.

“Including an ad like this, which is clearly about the commercial interests of Mr Palmer, into material where he is running for public office or the party is running for public office, I think at the very least raises a perception that there is a failure to fully understand the conflict of interest that can arise between his private interest and his public duty.”

Professor Tham says rules on political advertising material are few and far between. But the expectations on a candidate in standing for office are clear.

“When candidates run for public office they’re basically running on the basis that they will act in the public interest. And if they’re running on the basis that they will act in the public interest and they hold office in the public interest, I think what follows from that is that they should very diligently and assiduously separate out their private interests from the public interests.”

The task of monitoring polical ads falls to the Australian Electoral Commission.

But according to its Chief Legal Officer, Paul Pirani, there are currently no rules that prohibit a candidate from distributing personal advertising as part of their election campaign material.

“The purpose of the electoral act and the provisions that are in the electoral act are primarily aimed at making sure that people are able to identify the source of the electoral advertising: so that you can identify where it’s come from, so that if a person feels that they’ve been defamed that theyr’e able to take legal actiona against the publisher and the person that authorised the electoral advertising.”

Mr Pirani says it’s just too difficult for the AEC to assess each and every ad put out by parties during an election.

Instead it’s up to consumer bodies and voters to assess and scutinise.

“The personal advertising in the Palmer leaflet in relation to his business venture would arguably would be subject to either the fair trading laws in Queensland or, if it was done by a corporate entity, by the Competition and Consumer Commission. So there are safeguards and regulations already in place that deal with the private commercial activities. And the traditional court view has always been that it’s up to electors to make the decision as to whether it’s true or not and they do that by how they mark their ballot paper.”

In the meantime, despite authorising the Titanic II video, Clive Palmer insists he isn’t running for office as a businessman.

Instead, he says, he’s simply running as an Australian citizen: a citizen with a firm belief in the freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech is the most important thing in our democracy because it enables people to know what we stand for to make proper judgements. We’ve got politicians that don’t believe in presenting exactly who they are to the people, you know they all sort of hide in little corridors and have focus groups and have notes and decide what they’re gonna say and you wonder what they’re really thinking. At least with someone like me you know exactly what I’m thinking.”


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Finally, they do

Richard Dorr and John Mace fell in love in the 1950s but it took until last weekend for New York state law to allow them to marry.


Late on Friday night, as the public gallery chanted “USA! USA!”, New York’s same-sex marriage bill passed – just – by a 33-29 margin.

Four Republican senators joined all but one Democrat in backing the new law in a wily piece of politicking by new governor Andrew Cuomo, who made the legislation a priority of the first session of his first term.

One Republican who crossed the floor, Mark Grisanti, said he opposed gay marriage for religious reasons but could not deny equal rights to gay couples: “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife, who I love, or to have the 1,300-plus [State] rights that I share with her?”

Another, Roy McDonald from upstate New York, was more direct.

“You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing,” McDonald said.

“You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it; I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

New York City is already planning a marketing rollout to attract gay couples to the city to get married, a move Mayor Michael Bloomberg claims will boost the local economy.

Of course, not everyone is happy.

The Catholic Church said it was “deeply disappointed” while the lone Democrat to vote against the bill, Senator Ruben Diaz, said, “I will, never, ever, accept gay marriage.”

Many critics pointed to the bible and claimed marriage was the exclusive domain of a man and a woman. The same men and women who often lie, cheat, have children outside their marriage, and get divorced and remarry countless times.

But Richard Dorr, 84, and John Mace, 91, won’t care about the critics. After all, for most of their lives they have been told their love is wrong. All 61 years of it.

“It was just that we had to be together,” said Dorr.

And amen to that.

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Mass protest in Paris against gay marriage law

Tens-of-thousands of people have marched in Paris against a new French law allowing same-sex marriage.



The law was introduced in mid-May after months of heated debate.


The issue has sparked some of the largest protests France has seen in decades.


Biwa Kwan reports.


French police estimate that up to 150,000 people joined four demonstrations in Paris that converged on the city centre.


Organisers put the figure close to one-million.


The rallies were largely peaceful, but police say towards the end of the rally up to 500 protesters began attacking them by throwing metal barriers, smoke flares and beer bottles.


The police responded by firing tear gas and made dozens of arrests.


The French government says any disturbances at gay weddings set to take place in the days ahead will be unacceptable.


But opponents of the law say even though the bill has been signed into law they will continue to fight against it.


“(French then English) What seems the most natural to me is that a child should have a father and a mother…For me, it’s important to not give up and to show that it’s families and the rights of the children that are important there shouldn’t be any more than this law.”


France’s Opposition Leader Jean-François Copé was at the protest rally.


He says the protesters hope to stop or slow down further laws, for example to give gay couples access to assisted reproductive technology.


“(French then English) This is not about revoking the law. This is about rewriting it because there are some topics we would like to discuss again. Such as the question of assisted reproductive technology and surrogacy for example.”


Other protesters at the rally were critical of French President Francois Hollande’s decision to prioritise gay marriage during his first year in office, saying there were more pressing issues.


“(French then English)I think this law against families is a big diversion. The government should be preoccupied with other things. We have a big problem with crime. Paris has become a den of thieves. Our country keeps getting worse. And we’re worried about the future of our children.”


A total of 14 nations have now fully legalised same-sex marriage.


Some nations perform civil unions and others have not legalised it but recognise marriages from other countries.


Australia has neither legalised same-sex marriage nor recognised any same-sex marriages performed overseas.


A vote on the issue in federal parliament late last year was defeated, but advocates hope a new vote brought by the Greens next month will pass when it comes before the House of Representatives.


In recent weeks, a number of federal politicians have said they have changed their minds and now support the proposal.


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