Race-hate inquiry blocks indigenous group

A committee looking into changes to discrimination law has blocked a leading indigenous group from presenting evidence in person.

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Labor and the Greens wanted the Aboriginal Legal Service to give evidence to a five-day inquiry into changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the way in which the Australian Human Rights Commission handles complaints.

But chairman of the inquiry committee, Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, on Friday refused to allow the service to offer its thoughts on the legislation, which was only introduced to parliament on Wednesday.

“I think it would be extremely unfortunate if we consider far-reaching changes to the Racial Discrimination Act without inviting one indigenous person to give evidence – I think that would be disgraceful, quite frankly,” Labor senator Murray Watt said.

Senator Macdonald said he would not allow it because “once you start having one group of any type, in this case an indigenous group, who have a particular view, do you call other members of that same group that might have a different view?”

“I think it was for that reason we decided to restrict it to the ones we have (on the witness list),” Senator Macdonald said.

Senator Watt said he would be happy for the committee to invite an indigenous person to argue in favour of the law changes, if one could be found.

ALS senior managing solicitor Michael Lalor told AAP he was disappointed he could not present evidence.

“Aboriginal people are, if not the most discriminated people in the country, one of the most discriminated people,” he said.

It is proposed the words “offend, insult and humiliate” in Section 18C of the Act be changed to “harass and intimidate”.

Mr Lalor said his key concern with the new laws was the use of the term “harassment”, which in criminal law required a “continuing course of conduct” rather than a one-off incident.

Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs told the hearing the current language in the Act had worked “extremely well” and should not be changed.

“The Federal Court has interpreted that language in a way which is predictable, fair and considers the seriousness of any discrimination,” she said.

Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said the proposed law change was likely to have a chilling effect on people coming forward with complaints.

“It may signal to the community that conduct which offends, insults or humiliates people on the basis of their race may be acceptable or justified.”

Law Council president Fiona McLeod told the hearing the existing law wording should stand.

“(It) strikes an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection from racial vilification and should not be amended,” she said.

The council was not aware of any convincing evidence the current law was impeding freedom of speech and the proposed change could put Australia in breach of its international human rights obligations.

However, the council supported the proposed changes to the AHRC’s complaints handling processes, subject to some technical amendments.

The government is unlikely to have the numbers to pass the Act changes, but there is support among Labor and the Greens for the changes to the AHRC’s processes to head off frivolous or low-level complaints before they get to court.

Business worries about fate of tax cuts

Business is becoming increasingly worried the Turnbull government is planning to dump company tax cuts for the high end of town.

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It’s looking less likely the Senate will approve Treasurer Scott Morrison’s $50 billion grand plan that aims to get the corporate rate down to 25 per cent within 10 years.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned the country’s economic competitiveness is at risk unless action is taken on the tax rate.

“We need internationally competitive company tax rates across the entire economy,” chamber chief executive James Pearson said.

After six months of on-off discussion the legislation has still to clear parliament’s lower house where the government has a majority.

Debate was adjourned on Thursday and will resume next week at the earliest.

The tax plan was the centrepiece of the 2016 budget, handed down 10 months ago.

Mr Morrison wants his legislation dealt with before the end of next week – the final sitting before the May 9 budget – so companies with an annual turnover of up to $10 million get a tax cut mid-year.

Key crossbench senators believe that is probably as far it will get, with cuts for larger businesses “off the table for now”.

“I’m saying they’ll split the bill to get something through this time and they’ll maybe go back to it,” independent senator Derryn Hinch said.

Fellow crossbencher Jacqui Lambie also wants the cuts limited to small business, as does the Nick Xenophon Team.

If the plan is about to be split, Mr Morrison isn’t saying, telling parliament on Thursday he supported the tax plan with his “heart and soul”.

The $50 billion plan incrementally lowers the tax rate, starting with a reduction to 27.5 per cent for companies with a $10 million turnover this year, then firms with a $25 million next year and so on until all business have a 25 per cent rate in a decade’s time.

Companies presently pay a 30 per cent rate, apart from businesses with a turnover of less than $2 billion, which pay 28.5 per cent.

Labor remains opposed to the cuts, other than for those firms with a turnover of less than $2 million.

“You have to draw the line somewhere,” opposition finance spokesman Jim Chalmers said.

250 feared dead in new Med migrant boat sinkings: NGO

Laura Lanuza of Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms said its boat Golfo Azzuro had recovered the five dead bodies close to the dinghies, about 15 miles off the Libyan coast.

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“We don’t think there can be any other explanation than that these dinghies would have been full of people,” she told AFP. “It seems clear that they sunk.”

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She added that they would typically have been carrying 120-140 migrants each.

“In over a year we have never seen any of these dinghies that were anything other than packed.”

Lanuza said the bodies recovered were African men with estimated ages of between 16 and 25.

They had drowned, apparently in the 24 hours prior to them being discovered shortly after dawn on Thursday in waters directly north of the Libyan port of Sabrata.

Migrants and refugees panic as they fall in water during a rescue operation run by Maltese NGO Moas and Italian Red Cross 3/11/2016. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Despite rough winter seas, migrant departures from Libya on boats chartered by people traffickers have accelerated in recent months from already-record levels.

Over 5,000 people have been picked up by rescue boats since Sunday, bringing the number brought to Italy since the start of 2017 to over 21,000, a rise of more than half compared to the same period in previous years.

Aid groups say the accelerating exodus is being driven by worsening living conditions for migrants in Libya and by fears the sea route to Europe could soon be closed to traffickers.

Squalid, dangerous camps

Prior to the latest fatal incident, the UN refugee agency had estimated that some 440 migrants had died trying to make the crossing from Libya to Italy since the start of 2017.

That figure, also sharply up on previous years, is based on a combination of bodies recovered and testimonies from survivors of shipwrecks.

More than half a million migrants reached Italy from Libya between late 2013 and the end of last year.

And if the trend of the opening weeks of 2017 continues, another 250,000 will have to be accommodated this year by Italy’s over-stretched facilities for asylum seekers.

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Against that backdrop, Italy has stepped up cooperation with Libya with the aim of deterring boat departures by ensuring the north African country’s own coastguard turns boats back to port before they reach international waters.

The plans involve equipping and training the Libyan coastguard and helping the former Italian colony to upgrade holding camps for migrants in Libya pending their deportation to their countries of origin.

But the moves have caused concern among human rights bodies because of the squalid, dangerous conditions in the detention camps, and the inherently unstable state of the conflict-scarred country.

Migrants sit on the ground next to Spanish police officers after storming a fence to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, Spain.AAP

Italy has also stepped up its efforts to persuade other European countries to accept some of the asylum-seekers and other migrants landed at its southern ports, with limited success so far.

The overwhelming majority of the migrants reaching Italy are from Africa.

The Italian government insists most of them are economic migrants.

But rights bodies point out that some 40 percent of those who apply to stay in Italy are eventually allowed to, either because they qualify as refugees under international law or because they have a case for leave to remain under Italy’s own humanitarian provisions.

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Russian channel refuses remote Eurovision participation

“We find the offer of remote participation odd and refuse it, for it is going absolutely against the very essence of the event,” the official Russian broadcaster said after Eurovision suggested she could participate via satellite.

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It said in an emailed statement that “one of the (contest) rules… reads that the song should be performed live on the stage.”

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The state channel, which selected Samoilova as Russia’s contestant, claimed the rules also oblige Ukraine to provide all participants with entry visas, and that Kiev’s entry ban had violated those rules.

“We believe that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) shouldn’t invent new rules for the Russian entrant in 2017 and is capable to hold the contest in accordance with its own order,” the channel said.Eurovision fans ready for another spectacle (file)Rolf Klatt for SBS

Earlier the competition’s Geneva-based organiser EBU said it was taking an “unprecedented move” to offer Samoilova to participate live “via satellite” which has “never been done before.”

Ukraine, which is hosting the hugely popular song contest, imposed on Wednesday a three-year entry ban on Samoilova, 27, over illegally entering Moscow-annexed Crimea to perform at a concert in 2015.

Russia said it hoped Kiev would reconsider its decision.

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White House defends Nunes’ Trump briefing

The White House has defended the House intelligence committee chairman’s decision to brief President Donald Trump on intelligence intercepts even as Devin Nunes privately apologised to his congressional colleagues.

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The decision to disclose the information before talking to committee members outraged Democrats and raised questions about the independence of the panel’s probe of Russian interference in the election.

“It was a judgement call on my part,” Nunes told reporters shortly after the closed-door committee meeting.

“Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong decision.”

Democrats questioned whether Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, was working in co-ordination with the White House, a charge the White House disputed.

Still, White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed, inaccurately, Nunes was “vindicating” the president’s unproven assertion president Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper during the election.

Nunes specifically stated the new information he received did not support the president’s explosive allegations.

Nunes told reporters he had seen new information showing the communications of Trump transition officials were scooped up through monitoring of other targets and improperly spread through intelligence agencies during the final days of the Obama administration.

On Wednesday, Nunes spoke to reporters and the president without sharing the new information with Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat.

On Thursday morning, Nunes apologised to Schiff and other Democrats during a 20-minute meeting on Capitol Hill.

“It was a sombre discussion,” said Democrat Joaquin Castro, a committee member.

Speaking to reporters after his apology, Nunes ducked questions about whether he was parroting information given to him by the White House, saying only he was “not going to ever reveal sources”.

Nunes’ disclosure came two days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the bureau’s own investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.

Premier dismisses China Sea militarisation

China’s second most powerful leader has moved to play down his country’s “so-called” military build-up in the South China Sea around important trade shipping routes.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese premier Li Keqiang held bilateral talks in Canberra on Friday and the maritime dispute was among strategic issues discussed.

“With respect to the so-called militarisation, China never has any intention to engage in militarisation in the South China Sea,” Mr Li told reporters in Canberra through an interpreter.

“China’s facilities on Chinese islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes and even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment of facilities, (it) is for maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight.”

China would “bear the brunt” if shipping routes were disrupted because it was the largest global trader.

With its rich fisheries and oil and gas potential, the South China Sea has been a source of contention for decades.

China has copped international criticism for its reclamation activities in the disputed territory amid reports it has installed weapons on all seven of its artificial islands.

China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim parts of the waters.

Both Australia and the US are concerned about freedom of navigation across important trade shipping routes.

Mr Li noted in the past year up to 100,000 commercial ships sailed in the sea lanes of the South China Sea.

“There was no incident of attacks against those commercial ships,” he said.

China and the grouping of south-east Asian countries (ASEAN) were in negotiations for a code of conduct.

Mr Turnbull said Australia hoped all parties resolved their differences peacefully and in accordance with international law.

“We encourage all parties to refrain from taking any actions which would add to tensions, including actions of militarisation of disputed features,” he said.

New Dutch parliament meets as four-way coalition emerging

Offering condolences to their colleagues in the British parliament following Wednesday’s attack in London, the new MPs took their oath of office just after leaders from four potential coalition partners met together for the first time for exploratory talks.

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“Our hearts go out to our colleagues in Westminster and to the British people,” said Dutch parliamentary speaker Khadija Arib.

“The British parliament has resumed its work to show that parliamentary democracy can never be cowed.”

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It emerged for the first time that the ecologist GroenLinks party, led by the young, charismatic Jesse Klaver, is prepared to continue negotiations to possibly join a government with outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberal VVD party.

It was also confirmed that the far-right, anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders — whose party boosted its showing to come second in the elections with 20 seats — is excluded from the current talks.

Most party leaders had vowed before the elections not to work with him, put off by his incendiary rhetoric.

The VVD won the most seats on March 15 to emerge the biggest party in the parliament with 33 MPs — putting it in pole position to try to form the next government which needs 76 seats to reach a majority.

Holland Right Wing Party Leader, Geert WildersAAP

‘Refusing to negotiate’

“We realised of course that there are big differences,” Rutte told reporters, after the talks.

But he added that “I am ready, as are the others, to continue the discussions.”

The left-wing Klaver, whose party won 14 seats adding 10 from the outgoing parliament, had previously voiced reluctance to work with the more pro-business Rutte.

Rutte is also looking to the centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the progressive Democracy party (D66), which both won 19 seats, to join the coalition.

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Together the four parties would comprise 85 seats in the parliament.

“This coalition is far from being ideal for us and includes parties with which we have very big differences,” Klaver told reporters.

“We are going to see if we can reconcile our differences or not,” he added.

Wilders has already voiced his anger at not being seen as a viable partner for the next government, saying “it is undemocratic to ignore in advance the voices of 1.3 million people by refusing to negotiate”.

European leaders have hailed the “vote against extremists” in the Dutch parliamentary elections. (AAP)AP

Veteran politician Edith Schippers, who is leading the exploratory talks, is due to hand her report to parliament on Tuesday, after having asked for more time. The possible coalition will then be discussed by parliament on Wednesday.

But coalition-building in The Netherlands takes time and the next step will be to appoint someone to lead full negotiations among the four-parties to draw up a common agenda.

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Huge Hawks task awaits Bombers’ McGrath

Essendon coach John Worsfold could throw No.

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1 draft pick Andrew McGrath in the deep end against Hawthorn at the MCG on Saturday night.

The talented young defender will make his AFL debut against the Hawks and Worsfold said he won’t be afraid to send him to four-time premiership forward Cyril Rioli if the need arises.

“If you want to be an AFL player don’t put your hand up and say, ‘Can you find me someone that’s easy to play on?’ … I don’t think Andy McGrath will ever ask that question,” Worsfold told reporters on Friday.

“But if he gets that opportunity it’s just a taste for him, it’s just a start. He’s going to continue to get better and be the player we know he’s going to be.

“We weighed up how much work he’s done, his age and how much he can add to the team as a young player … in the end we felt he was the right person to come into the side and play that role for us.”

The clash marks the return of six of the 10 players still at the club who served doping bans last year.

Worsfold agreed the returns of fan favourites like Jobe Watson and Dyson Heppell, who have been put through the ringer as the supplements saga played out, would provide an emotional edge to the match.

“You’re always a little bit nervous that they don’t burn up too much nervous energy (before the game),” the coach said.

“But we’ve addressed that and kept things pretty much normal in the build up.

“The boys are ready to go, they’re pumped for the game and they’re going to have a real crack at it.”

Hawthorn will celebrate the return of newly-appointed skipper Jarryd Roughead after he missed last season as he battled cancer.

“We’re not trying to win the emotional meter … with Roughy being back obviously everyone in the game is rapt to see him healthy,” Worsfold said.

“The fact that he’s healthy and able to play footy again is a bonus for everyone.”

The Hawks will be without star veteran Luke Hodge as he serves a club-imposed suspension for missing training.

The shock move was tipped by many to enhance Essendon’s chances of an upset win, but Worsfold would have been just as happy if the four-time premiership player was on the field.

“If you’re always relying on playing teams that are undermanned then you’re not getting a real reflection of where you’re at,” he said.

“Hodge is out, we don’t control that, and we’ll take on who’s there.

“If he was there that would be wonderful as well.

“You don’t want to finish in the top four or the top eight having played the bottom team every week then saying, ‘How good are we going?’

“You’ll finish where you deserve to finish and that means you have to show what you can do against the best teams in the competition.”

London attack victim ‘a loving husband’

A US couple on the last day of a European holiday to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary were among those struck by a car on London’s Westminster Bridge.

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Kurt Cochran was killed and his wife, Melissa, injured after a man ploughed a vehicle through pedestrians on the bridge before fatally stabbing a police officer inside the gates of parliament.

The terrorist attack left four people dead, including the attacker, who has been identified as 52-year-old British man Khalid Masood.

Masood had a long criminal record and once was investigated for extremism but was not on a terrorism watch list, according to authorities.

The Cochran’s were visiting Melissa’s parents, who were serving a church mission in London, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the family through a Mormon church spokesman.

Pictures on Kurt Cochran’s Facebook page show the couple enjoying their sightseeing travels through Europe before the tragic events.

Family and friends said they are heartbroken over the loss of a loving husband and father who loved music.

For the past decade, the couple ran a recording studio in their basement where he helped musicians develop their talents.

Melissa Cochran’s brother, Clint Payne, said through a verified GoFundMe account website the couple was among the first hit by a vehicle on the Westminster Bridge.

“Kurt was a good man and a loving husband to our sister and daughter, Melissa,” the statement said.

Melissa Cochran is still in hospital.

She suffered a broken leg, broken rib and a cut and bruises, friend Mike Murphy said.

The London attack comes exactly one year after four Mormon missionaries – three from Utah – were seriously injured in a Brussels airport bombing on March 22, 2016.

Senate set for tax cut compromise

Treasurer Scott Morrison believes it will be a “massive achievement” if the government can get Senate support for small business tax cuts, but there will be no relief for big business.

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Draft laws to reduce the corporate tax rate for small businesses with a turnover of less than $10 million to 27.5 per cent, and gradually get to a 25 per cent rate for businesses of all sizes by 2026/27, are expected to pass the lower house early on Monday afternoon.

But the government is only expected to get the numbers in the Senate for the small business tax cut, before parliament rises for the pre-budget break.

“That is a massive achievement,” Mr Morrison told Sky News on Friday.

“That is the biggest change to small business taxation that we have seen in a long time.”

However the government is still aiming for a 25 per cent rate to keep Australia internationally competitive, which is estimated to cost $50 billion.

“We want the broader change,” he said.

Crossbench senator Derryn Hinch said he expected the government would split the bill “to get something through this time” and come back to the broader cuts later.

The coalition may also need to compromise on proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the handling of vilification complaints by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The draft laws are expected to come on for debate shortly after an inquiry report is tabled on Tuesday.

However, while the AHRC process changes are widely supported, the government may narrowly fall short of crossbench support for changing the wording of Section 18C of the Act from “offend, insult and humiliate” to “harass and intimidate”.

The AHRC and Law Council say the existing Act has worked well but acknowledge processes could be improved to ensure greater fairness for people lodging complaints and those complained against.

With the Hazelwood coal-fired power plant due to shut in regional Victorian next week, electricity prices and reliability issues are again expected to dominate question time.

Adding to the debate will be a Senate committee report on the closure of electricity generators due to be tabled on Wednesday.

Two private bills, from independents Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter, will be introduced on Monday dealing with the banking sector.

Mr Wilkie wants a code of conduct while Mr Katter is seeking a commission of inquiry.

Penalty rate cuts are also expected to be a hot topic in the wake of closure of submissions to the Fair Work Commission’s decision.