Ministers play down Brexit security row

British ministers have tried to play down a row with key players in Brussels over an apparent threat to pull security co-operation unless the European Union agrees to a trade deal.

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Brexit Secretary David Davis insists his counterparts on the continent had praised the “positive” letter the Prime Minister Theresa May sent to invoke Article 50, and it was simply stating that a replacement for current crime and security measures would need to be negotiated.

“This is not a threat,” Davis told BBC Radio on Thursday.

“We’re after a fully comprehensive deal that covers trade, covers security, covers all the aspects of our existing relationship and tries to preserve as much of the benefits for everybody as we can.

“That I think is a perfectly reasonable point to make and not in any sense a threat.”

Critics accused the May of trying to make a trade-off between security and commerce by mentioning the crime-fighting measures alongside a trade deal in her letter.

But Davis said: “I spent all of yesterday afternoon on the telephone talking to my opposite numbers in the parliament, in the commission, around all the member states.

“Virtually all of them said spontaneously it’s a very positive letter, the tone was good and so on.”

Davis said it was a “negotiation” and “the other side might want to change things, too”.

The reference to security caused concern in Brussels.

Asked if he thought May was engaged in “blackmail”, the European Parliament’s co-ordinator for Brexit Guy Verhofstadt said: “I try to be a gentleman so towards a lady I don’t even use or think about the word ‘blackmail’.”

But Davis played down the issue, saying: “Guy Verhofstadt called it blackmail. Let’s not say everybody did.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green said the row was a misunderstanding.

The two issues had been mentioned side-by-side because they were “bound up in our membership of the European Union”.

“It’s not a threat, I think that’s the misunderstanding,” he told BBC Two’s Newsnight.

“It’s absolutely not a threat.”

The next stage of the Brexit process will see plans set out to repatriate more than 40 years of powers back to Westminster, with the publication of the details of the Great Repeal Bill.

Debbie’s floods spark rooftop rescues

It’s “extraordinarily surprising” no one was killed during Cyclone Debbie or its torrential aftermath, Queensland’s emergency services chief says.

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The category 4 winds and rain that blasted the state’s northern coastline are now wreaking havoc inland and to the south with almost almost 500mm falling in 24 hours near the Gold Coast.

About 90 people trapped on top of houses, cars and verandahs as a result of rising floodwaters just west of cyclone-battered Mackay were rescued on Thursday morning.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Katarina Carroll said there were 50 rescue call-outs around Mackay during a hectic and tense Wednesday night.

Ms Carroll said she was stunned there had been no lives lost or significant injuries.

“Extraordinarily surprising but you know, I think the community has been listening (to warnings),” she told the Nine Network.

“The difficulty with last night was you couldn’t see. It was dark but also the conditions were horrendous, we couldn’t move.

“In two-storey houses there was water actually buffeting of the second storey, so there was an extraordinary spike in the triple-0 calls.”

Flooding on Wednesday night and Thursday morning was at its worst southwest of Mackay where the Pioneer River broke its banks, inundating local dams especially in the Eton and Homebush areas.

Ms Carroll said 46 people were rescued during the night and 40 more were evacuated before 10am on Thursday.

“We did have people up on the top level of their houses, reports of people on the roofs of their houses and roofs of their cars,” she said.

The Bureau of Meteorology confirmed major flood warnings for several central Queensland towns but said the Pioneer River in Mackay was “an easing situation” as the weather improved on Thursday afternoon.

Between 400-800mm of rain fell in Mackay over the previous three days, forcing residents downstream of the Kinchant and Middle Creek Dams to move to higher ground.

Mayor Greg Williamson said the city had less than 24 hours of safe water supply left.

Clean-up efforts in the towns hardest hit by the cyclone, Bowen, Proserpine and Airlie Beach, have been hampered in recent days as floodwaters blocked roads.

About 58,000 homes and businesses have been without power since Tuesday, with Ergon Energy unable to access the towns to start repairs.

Thousands of residents are also without running water.

Emergency services crews and the army managed to make their way south to Bowen and Proserpine on Thursday, with fire and rescue teams expected in Airlie Beach on Friday.

About 20 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade at Townsville’s Lavarack Barracks will stay in Proserpine over the coming days to assess the damage, with the troops from Bowen on stand-by to help with the clean-up.

Major Paul Cosgrove told AAP the soldiers were “desperate to get amongst the people” and help.

“Our troops are available as and when we get requested by the council,” he said on Thursday.

Visiting Bowen on Thursday morning, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced financial aid would be immediately available to start rebuilding infrastructure.

“Nature flings its worst at Australians and it’s certainly happened here in the Whitsunday region but it brings out the best,” Mr Turnbull told reporters.

Disaster assistance including concessional loans is starting to flow to primary producers after the cyclone tore up sugar cane and vegetable crops and hit the beef cattle industry. However, recovery work has also been hampered by flooded roads.

Hundreds of tourists and residents stranded on Hamilton Island are still to be flown to safety while all on Daydream Island have been evacuated but the resort will be closed for a month .

China’s Xi to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago retreat

Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to the US to meet President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida on April 6-7, China’s foreign ministry says.

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It will be Xi’s first in-person meeting with Trump and comes as the two sides face pressing issues, ranging from North Korea and the South China Sea to trade disputes.

Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made the announcement at a daily news briefing on Thursday.

The summit will follow a string of other recent US-China meetings and conversations aimed at mending ties after strong criticism of China by Trump during his election campaign.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ended a trip to Asia this month in Beijing, agreeing to work together with China on North Korea and stressing Trump’s desire to enhance understanding.

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China has been irritated at being repeatedly told by Washington to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and by the US decision to base an advanced missile defence system in South Korea.

Beijing is also deeply suspicious of US intentions towards self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

During his campaign, Trump accused China of unfair trade policies, criticised its island-building in the South China Sea and accused it of doing too little to constrain North Korea.

Trump also incensed Beijing in December by taking a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and saying the US did not have to stick to the so-called “one China” policy.

He later agreed to honour the long-standing policy and has written to Xi since seeking “constructive ties”.

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Victoria win 3rd straight Sheffield Shield

Victoria weren’t able to celebrate their historic third successive Sheffield Shield triumph with a win in the final after South Australia hung on for a gritty draw in Alice Springs, but there was no denying the Bushrangers were deserving of their success.

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A defiant unbeaten 137 from South Australia captain Travis Head saw the Redbacks weather the final day charge from Victoria to reach 6-236 when stumps were called.

Victoria were bowled out on the final morning for 323, leaving South Australia an almost-impossible target of 524 from 69 overs.

The Bushrangers elected to bat into day five despite the history books suggesting it was taking caution a step too far – the previous highest successful fourth-innings run chase in a Shield final was Victoria’s 2-239 against NSW 26 years ago.

Victoria comfortably finished top of the standings and therefore only needed a draw at Traeger Park to retain their title.

They continued that form in the final dominating from the opening session, though they did enjoy some good fortune along the way.

With Victoria winning a crucial toss, South Australia were forced to bowl in extreme heat over the opening two days before milder conditions prevailed.

It is the first time in the Bushrangers’ 125-year Sheffield Shield history they have three on the trot. The feat was last achieved by Queensland in 2002.

Victoria made the perfect start to the final with a 224-run opening partnership between Marcus Harris (124) and Travis Dean (94).

But the individual performance of the match was undoubtedly Jon Holland’s 7-82 which left South Australia 200 runs in arrears on the first innings.

“We had a goal at the start of the year to achieve three in a row, something Victoria has never done, so to achieve this is fantastic,” said Holland, who was named player of the match.

Cameron White, who along with Rob Quiney has won five Shields, said he would likely relinquish the Victorian captaincy with Peter Handscomb the likely candidate to assume the role.

Victoria achieved their triumph without four players on Test duty in India – Handscomb, Mathew Wade, Marcus Stoinis and Glen Maxwell – with John Hastings unavailable due to injury.

It was a second loss in a row in the season decider against Victoria for SA, whose winless run in the competition extended to 21 years.

“Victoria have been the standout all season with seven wins, and they played the conditions really well, so it was always going to be a tough week,” said SA captain Head.

“That wicket was tough. With the quality of spinners they have, they weren’t able to get 10 wickets, so it would have been difficult to get a result on that wicket, even if we took our opportunities on day one.”

There was some joy for South Australia with wicketkeeper Alex Carey claiming a Shield record for most dismissals in a season (59), while seamer Chadd Sayers was the season’s top wicket-taker with 62 scalps.

Senate showdown on 18C and company tax cuts legislation

Federal politicians have been forced to change their flights and stay another night in Canberra as they gear up for a fiery late night debate on two controversial bills.

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On the agenda is the Treasurer’s decade-long package for company tax cuts, and contentious amendments to race-hate laws.

The government wants them both passed before this year’s Budget in May, with parliament ordered to debate the bills late Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday if necessary.

The leader of the House of Representatives, Christopher Pyne, announced that the lower house will sit to accommodate the expected late night debate.

“We will suspend the House late this afternoon, in the normal course of events, and then we will have the House suspended until ringing of the bells,” Mr Pyne said.

He indicated the House wouldn’t rise “before 9am” on Friday.

The Prime Minister used question time on Thursday to highlight the need for Australia to stay competitive and said that it remains “one of the highest taxed company regimes in the world”.

“If you reduce company tax, you increase the return on investment so you get more investment, (if) you get more investment you get more employment,” Malcolm Turnbull said.

As he rushed back to Canberra on Thursday, from assessing the damage of Cyclone Debbie, the Opposition Leader refused to shift Labor’s position.

“The government can make it all a lot simpler by working with Labor, working on behalf of the living standards of Australians,” Bill Shorten said.

The Senate is debating the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, with the government wanting to swap the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” with “harass and intimidate”.

But the bill is expected to be blocked by Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Jacqui Lambie, with the government lacking the 38 votes needed to pass the legislation into law.

One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson spoke on the legislation on Thursday and said she’s not being racist by wanting to change the wording of the Act.

“Australians are not racist, Australians are very proud of their culture, their country and their heritage,” Senator Hanson said in the chamber.

Ms Hanson said the left side of politics was deliberately encouraging groups to “stir the pot” by complaining about the changes.

Crossbench Senator David Leyonhjelm has refused to come back to parliament on Friday and said he “will be leaving irrespective” of whether he is needed or not.

“I’ll give [my support] to the government on those issues [company tax cuts and the Racial Discrimination Act amendments] because of those issues, I support them … as long as they don’t go and introduce any other things I don’t agree with,” Senator Leyonhjelm said.

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The government’s company tax cut plan would drop the 30 per cent rate to 25 per cent for all companies in the financial year of 2026-27, however securing support for the bill in the Senate is proving difficult.

Labor wants the reduction limited to 27.5 per cent for firms, with a turnover of $2 million or less, so the government needs the support of a precarious crossbench.

Support is expected from former Liberal-now independent Senator Cory Bernardi, as well as Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, but Pauline Hanson’s four One Nation senators will only support a reduction for businesses with a turnover of up to $50 million.

‘There is reverse racism in Australia’: Hanson on 18C

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Senator Xenophon has left Canberra on personal leave, however he and his two other senators will back a reduction for businesses with a $10 million turnover, as will Victorian senator Derryn Hinch.

There is speculation of a plan to split the bills so some measures will pass before the budget, however Treasurer Scott Morrison is not giving anything away.

“All of your questions on that will be answered by the experience of the next 24 hours,” he told reporters on Wednesday night.

Northern NSW residents ordered to evacuate

Residents have been ordered to evacuate ahead of major flooding as northern NSW is lashed by heavy rain caused by the remnants of ex-tropical cyclone Debbie clashing with a cold front.

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The State Emergency Service advised on Thursday afternoon that people within the South Murwillumbah, Condong and Tumbulgum areas should leave.

Highway between Chindera and Murwillumbah flooded. Lines of cars have been turning back towards Chindera @SBSNews #floods pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/0AMkmoWnXk

— Manny Tsigas (@mantsig) March 30, 2017

Up to 6000 residents in Lismore have been told to evacuate with major flooding forecast along the Wilsons River on Thursday night.

River levels are predicted to top those recorded during the 2001 and 2005 floods.

“The NSW State Emergency Service is directing residents to evacuate immediately where safe transit exists and they are able to do so,” the order issued about 4pm said.

Lismore South & North, Lismore CBD, Chinderah, Kingscliff, Fingal Head and Bilambil. You must leave NOW. Evacuation Order is in place #alert pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/K8UPB9HwWR

— NSW SES (@NSWSES) March 30, 2017

“Do not delay your evacuation. Roads will be congested or closed. You could become trapped and need rescue.”

Closer to the Queensland border, residents in the South Murwillumbah, Condong and Tumbulgum areas have also been ordered to leave, with the Tweed River already experiencing major flooding.

Up to 417 millimetres of rain has fallen in the past 24 hours over the Tweed River valley.

The Bureau of Meteorology says major flooding is forecast along the Tweed River with levels predicted to be similar to 2001 and 2008 floods.

“Major flooding is forecast along the Tweed River at Murwillumbah late Thursday afternoon,” the bureau said in a flood warning issued after 3pm.

Flood Evacuation Order for South Murwillumbah, Condong and Tumbulgum. Residents MUST leave. Do not delay.#NSWSES #NSWFloods #alert pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/4oCQ1kViKJ

— NSW SES (@NSWSES) March 30, 2017

“Further rises are possible with rainfall forecast overnight tonight.”

Almost 400 millimetres of rain has fallen in just 24 hours over the Tweed River valley and there have been significant river level rises.

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A severe weather warning has been issued for destructive winds, heavy rainfall, abnormally high tides and damaging surf along the coast north of Sydney and for the northeast of the state.

Flood Evacuation Order issued for Tweed Heads South and Tweed Heads West.

Time to leave is now.#NSWSES #NSWFloods #alert pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/gHb6wJSRs5

— NSW SES (@NSWSES) March 30, 2017

“Twenty-four-hour totals in excess of 200 millimetres are expected over the northern rivers district during Thursday and it is likely some locations will significantly exceed 350mm,” the bureau warns.

It also says more than 100mm are possible over parts of the northern ranges and slopes and parts of the mid north coast on Thursday.

Major flooding at Murwillumbah with flood levels rising. Up to 423 mm of rain has fallen in the past 24 hours. 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/Ss766fadjj pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/04fdKXq5Qj

— BOM New South Wales (@BOM_NSW) March 30, 2017

Watch: Cyclone Debbie’s aftermath in Proserpine

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‘Super spud’ grows inside Mars simulator

A simulator at a Peruvian lab that mimics the harsh conditions on Mars now contains a hint of life: a nascent potato plant.

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After experimenting in the Andean nation’s desert soil, scientists have successfully grown a potato in frigid, high carbon-dioxide surroundings.

Investigators at the International Potato Center in Lima believe the initial results are a promising indicator that potatoes might one day be harvested under conditions as hostile as those on Mars.

The findings could benefit not only future Mars exploration but also arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change.

“It’s not only about bringing potatoes to Mars but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth,” said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology, who is working with NASA on the project.

The experiment began in 2016, a year after the Hollywood film The Martian showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes on the Red Planet.

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box: below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 6000m and lights imitating the Martian day and night.

Peru was an apt place to experiment: the birthplace of the domesticated potato lies high in the Andes near Lake Titicaca, where the first were grown about 7000 years ago.

To find high-salinity soil similar to that found on Mars, researchers went to Pampas de la Joya, on the country’s southern coast, whose parched terrain is somewhat comparable to the Red Planet’s.

They transported 700kg of the soil to Lima, planted 65 varieties and waited.

In the end, just four sprouted from the soil.

In a second stage, scientists planted one of the most robust varieties in the even more extreme conditions of the simulator, with the soil – Mars has no organic soil – replaced by crushed rock and a nutrient solution.

The winning potato was a variety named “Unique”.

“It’s a ‘super potato’ that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing,” Valdivia said.

Ray Wheeler, the lead for advanced life support research activities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said plant survival in the open on Mars would be impossible given the planet’s low-pressure, cold temperature and lack of oxygen.

However, showing plants could survive in a greenhouse-type environment with reduced pressure and high carbon-dioxide levels could potentially reduce operating costs.

Seoul court decides what to do with former president Park

A South Korean court has begun deliberating on whether to arrest ousted president Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in a corruption scandal involving charges she solicited bribes from the country’s largest conglomerate.

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Park could become South Korea’s third former leader to be jailed for wrongdoing. She is accused of colluding with a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure big businesses to contribute to foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.

The 65-year-old appeared expressionless as she arrived at the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday morning to plead her case that she should not be arrested while prosecutors investigate the scandal that has ensnared South Korea’s political and business elite.

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Park, South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office, argues that she does not pose a flight risk and will not try to tamper with evidence.

She and Choi have both denied any wrongdoing.

A judge will study evidence and hear arguments from prosecutors and Park’s lawyers before deciding whether an arrest warrant should be issued.

If Park is arrested, prosecutors will then have up to 20 days to file formal charges against her and put her on trial.

Park emerged from her private home and quickly stepped into a car before she was driven to the court in a motorcade. Police and security personnel blocked her supporters from spilling into the street to stop her car as it left her house in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam neighbourhood.

Prosecutors are accusing Park of soliciting companies for money and infringing upon the freedom of corporate management by using her power as the president. Park was questioned for 14 hours by prosecutors last week.

She could face more than 10 years in jail if convicted of receiving bribes from bosses of big conglomerates, including Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee, in return for favours.

Lee, who denies charges that he provided bribes in return for favours for Samsung, and Choi are already in detention and are on trial separately.

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Professor’s daughter says he will not leave China soon

Feng Yunsi sits in her Sydney home with only pictures of her mother and father to look at that.

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But she says she has spoken with them every day since they were first prevented from leaving China on a return flight to Sydney.

“I haven’t received any indication that he will come home anytime soon, but, at the same time, he is still safe, his health is fine, and that really helps me be a little more relieved about the situation.”

Feng Yunsi says it has been nearly a week now since her father, Feng Chongyi, (fong chong-YEE) was stopped from boarding the flight in Guangzhou in China.

“My dad’s a very strong man. I think he’s doing his best to keep in good spirits. Obviously, my mum is a little more anxious, especially as the days go on and there doesn’t seem to be any sign he’ll be released anytime soon. But my dad’s in a good mood. That keeps me in a good mood.”

Feng Chongyi is an associate professor in China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

He has spent more than 20 years teaching in Australia, but not without controversy.

He is an outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party, although it appears he has not been arrested or charged with any offence.

In the past, among other matters, he has criticised China’s influence on Australia’s media.

He also spoke to SBS last year when he was campaigning against a Sydney exhibition celebrating communist revolutionary Mao Zedong.

“Multiculturalism is to support cultural diversity, but there’s a bottom line here. If some ideologies are violating basic human rights, that should not be part of that basic multiculturalism.”

He is a permanent resident of Australia, but he travelled to China under his Chinese passport.

He was in China apparently to speak to lawyers about human-rights issues there.

His daughter says her father is an educator, not an agitator.

“My father’s a very caring man. He’s a very hard worker, and all he ever wanted to do is further peoples’ understanding of China and China’s role in our world and China-Australia relations.”

At the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Professor Clive Williams says China’s secret police are keeping Chongyi Feng in a form of open detention.

“The message he will have been given is, if he behaves himself and doesn’t write further criticism of China, he will eventually be able to leave. But the more he agitates and causes problems for China, the less likely he is to be able to leave.”

In a statement to SBS, the Federal Government says it is aware of what is happening to Feng Chongyi and has raised his case with senior Chinese officials.

But the Government says it cannot give him any consular assistance because he is not an Australian citizen.

 

 

 

Disposable coffee cup charge could cut use

Charging coffee lovers for a disposable cup could cut their use by up to 300 million a year, new UK research suggests.

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An estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are used in the UK each year, creating approximately 25,000 tonnes of waste.

Academics at Cardiff University tested a series of measures to encourage the use of re-usable cups.

The research found that financial incentives, re-usable alternatives, and clear messaging reminding customers of the environmental impact of single use coffee cups all had a direct impact on consumer behaviour.

Charging for disposable cups increased the use of re-usable coffee cups by 3.4 per cent and environmental messages in coffee shops and cafes saw a rise of 2.3 per cent.

There was another 2.5 per cent hike with the availability of re-usable cups, while the distribution of free re-usable cups led to a further boost of 4.3 per cent.

The study found the provision of free re-usable alternatives combined with clear environmental messaging and a charge on disposable cups increased the use of re-usable cups in one cafe from just over 5 per cent to more than 17 per cent.

Report author Professor Wouter Poortinga said while the increases for individual measures were modest, the greatest behavioural change occurred when the measures were combined.

“Our results show that, on average, the use of reusable coffee cups could be increased by up to 12.5 per cent with a combination of measures.

“With this in mind, the UK’s usage of an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups each year could be cut by up to 300 million coffee cups.”

He said the most notable finding was that, while a charge on disposable cups increased the use of re-usable coffee cups, a discount on re-usable coffee cups had no impact on their usage.

“There is an important nuance when it comes to financial incentives,” he said.

“People are far more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions, so if we really want to change a customer’s behaviour then a charge on a disposable cup is more likely to be effective.”