Kremlin critic Navalny gets 15 days in jail after protest

The United States and the European Union voiced deep concern after Navalny and more than 1,000 others were detained in the Moscow protest on Sunday, with the State Department calling the arrests an “affront to democracy”.

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A Moscow district court handed down the sentence after finding Navalny guilty of disobeying police orders. His fine was 20,000 rubles ($350) for organising an unsanctioned protest.

The lawyer turned activist, 40, who has announced plans to run for president next year, called Sunday’s protests after publishing a report accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of controlling a property empire through a shadowy network of nonprofit organisations.

“The authorities are being accused of multi-million theft, but they remain silent,” a haggard-looking Navalny said in court, insisting the protests were legal.

“More than 1,000 people were arrested yesterday but it is impossible to arrest millions,” he said.

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Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova told reporters that his defence team would appeal the rulings.

About 7,000 to 8,000 people demonstrated in Moscow on Sunday, according to police figures, making it one of the biggest unauthorised rallies in Vladimir Putin’s 17 years in power as president or prime minister.

The Kremlin called the protest “a provocation and a lie”, and claimed that minors had been promised “financial rewards” to participate.

Demonstrations were held not just in the capital Moscow and second-largest city Saint Petersburg, but also in a number of provincial cities where protests are rarely seen.

They attracted a significant number of minors born since Putin came to power.  

“I am very happy that a generation that wants to be citizens, that isn’t afraid, was born in the country,” Navalny said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russians’ “civic stance” would be respected if expressed legally but, without mentioning Navalny by name, suggested “some people will continue using (politically) active people… to their own ends, calling them to illegal and unauthorised actions”.

EU urges protesters’ release

Navalny was arrested as he was walking to the Moscow protest and another 1,030 people were detained, according to OVD-Info, a website that monitors detentions of activists.

Most were fined and released overnight, while about 120 remained in custody on Monday morning, OVD-Info said.

Navalny’s campaign director Leonid Volkov was jailed for six days. according to the Interfax news agency.

One policeman was hospitalised after suffering a head injury, the interior ministry said.

The EU urged Russia to release the demonstrators “without delay” and expressed concern that police action had “prevented the exercise of basic freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.

“We call on the Russian authorities to abide fully by the international commitments it has made, including in the Council of Europe… to uphold these rights and to release without delay the peaceful demonstrators that have been detained.”

Britain, in a statement by its foreign office, also called on Russia to release those arrested, as the “widespread arrests in Russia contravene its international commitments to uphold citizens’ rights”.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the detention of “peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values”.

‘Hope for a normal future’

The protests drew comparisons with the mass anti-government rallies that swept Russia in 2011 over alleged vote-rigging after a parliamentary election, which snowballed into the biggest challenge against Putin since he took power in 2000.

Navalny said Sunday that he was “proud” of the demonstrators.

“You are the country’s best people and Russia’s hope for a normal future,” he wrote on Twitter.

Despite the scale of the protests, Russian state television news did not cover them, broadcasting soap operas and nature films instead.

The Russian constitution allows public gatherings when authorised by city authorities, but that privilege is rarely accorded to Kremlin critics.

Navalny won a surprise 27 percent of the vote in the Moscow mayoral election in 2013, and afterwards announced plans to seek the presidency.

But he has been the subject of several legal prosecutions, and in February was found guilty of embezzlement in a case he called politically motivated. He was given a five-year suspended sentence which could make him ineligible to run in next year’s polls.

Navalny and his team, ignored by official media, have taken their anti-corruption campaign online, using social media to expose the hidden fortunes of high-ranking officials.

Community language schools help families connect

A group of teenagers taking part in a drama class – it looks and sounds like fun and games.

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But these kids are hard at work, learning Greek for three hours a week at a Community Languages School in Melbourne.

“Go over the homework that we had during the week, then we’ll either do grammar or exercises, we’ll do history, we do Ancient Greek and every second week we’ll do drama as well,” student Fortis Kollios said.

Learning Greek was a priority for his mother, Maria Kollios, who enrolled her son in Grade One.

“I wanted him to be able to communicate with his grandparents and also be able to go to Greece and speak to people there, we have family and cousins [there],” she said.

Stefan Romaniw, Executive Director of Community Languages Australia, said these after-hours courses are more specialised and complement language classes in mainstream schools.

“The fact that some schools are finding it difficult to deliver in terms of languages, finding teachers, there’s always the argument of the crowded curriculum and so on,” he said.

“We would argue that languages need a space in schools, but I think it doesn’t detract from the fact that communities want their children to be connected with their communities.”

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About a decade ago there were around 80,000 students studying at community languages schools across the country. Today, that number is over 100,000.

In Victoria, more than 60 languages are on offer.

Spanish is on the wane, as are Eastern European languages – Ukranian, Latvian and Lithuanian. But interest in Chinese and Greek remains steady.

Dr Nick Dalas, board member of the Greek Community of Melbourne, said migrants can help set a high standard in language learning in Australia.

“The crisis in Greece continues, we are still seeing migrants arriving and the benefit here is that it’s also attracting local students who have got a high standard as well,” he said.

Mr Romaniw said changing migration patterns can be attributed to growth in emerging languages.

“Very, very small languages, especially a lot of the African languages, they’re never going to be provided through mainstream schools,” he said.

Increased migration from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria have contributed to a spike in Arabic enrolments.

Fortis’s mother said she can already see the flow-on effects from her son’s Greek lessons.

“I know that’s helped him with his reading and his writing,” she said. “He can write better than I can.”

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Bilingual schools offer language fluency for Australian children:

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Merkel dominant in bellwether test ahead of German national elections

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party easily won a regional election Sunday, dealing an early blow to centre-left hopes of ending her more than decade-long reign.

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In the Saarland state vote held six months before a general election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) won 40 percent against 30 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD), according to early results by public broadcasters.

The result spelt a five-point boost for the CDU over the SPD, which has served as the unhappy junior partner to the conservatives in so-called grand coalitions at both the state and national levels.

The vote in the tiny state on the French border, which has a population of only one million, was seen as a bellwether ahead of the September 24 general election in which Merkel, the veteran leader often dubbed “the Queen of Europe”, will seek a fourth term. 

The SPD have made strong gains in national opinion surveys since Martin Schulz, the folksy and plain-spoken former president of the European Parliament, took over in January.

Meet the opposition:

The “Schulz effect” has seen especially younger voters flock to the more than 150-year-old workers’ party, which is now polling neck-and-neck at the national level with Merkel’s conservative bloc.

But the new euphoria did not translate into the strong results the SPD had hoped for in Saarland, a former coal mining region, which held the first of three German state polls scheduled in the run-up to the national election.

Schulz conceded it was “not a nice evening” and that “the CDU clearly won” but insisted that “our goal is a change of federal government” this year, calling the campaign until then “a marathon, not a sprint”.

Designated SPD chairman and German Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz arrives for the federal congress of Social Democratic Party 19/3/2017. AP Photo/Michael Sohn

‘Path of success’

The CDU’s popular state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was cheered by jubilant supporters, admitted she was “floored” by the strong result, about five points up from the last election amid strong turnout of around 70 percent.

Merkel’s right-hand man Peter Altmaier, the chancellery chief-of-staff who hails from Saarland, said “it’s an outcome that gives us courage”.

The result suggested many voters in Saarland were frightened by talk of a “red-red” coalition between the SPD and the far-left Linke party, which scored about 13 percent.

Merkel, 62, had warned local voters last week that “red-red… experiments should be avoided” and urged them to stick with the CDU’s “path of success”.

She had also cautioned at a campaign event that a leftist coalition would harm the economy and “wall it in with taxes, bureaucracy and red tape”.

A starker warning came from the pro-business Free Democrats who cautioned against turning Saarland into a modern version of the former communist East Germany or “a GDR lite”.

Related:’Uncertain times’

The SPD’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas admitted the outcome was “disappointing” and conceded that “we had clearly hoped for a better result”.

He said the debate over a possible red-red coalition had “obviously penalised the SPD” by frightening part of the electorate.

Another leftist party — the ecologist Greens, possible candidates for a future “red-red-green” national coalition — meanwhile scored less than five percent, meaning they missed the hurdle for parliamentary representation and were kicked out of the state assembly.

CDU secretary general Peter Tauber said the outcome was “a clear rejection of red-red-green”, including at the national level.

“In uncertain times, the people trust in leaders and political forces that govern in a dependable way,” he said.

The anti-immigration and right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party just scraped in with six percent, meaning it is now represented in 11 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies.

It was, however, the AfD’s worst result after five state elections in which it topped 10 percent, in a sign that the abating refugee crisis and bitter infighting have damaged popular support for the protest party.

European Elections:

Qld govt accused of ‘protection racket’

Queensland’s Labor government has been accused of running a “protection racket” after the state archivist was blocked from appearing at budget estimate hearings to answer questions about stood down minister Mark Bailey.

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The Crime and Corruption Commission last week found that Mr Bailey may have breached the official records act when he deleted his personal yahoo email account used for some ministerial business.

Mr Bailey has been stood aside as minister while the State Archivist Mike Summerell investigates the matter further.

Opposition MP Verity Barton tried to add Mr Summerell to estimates proceedings twice on Tuesday, but was thwarted both times.

Ms Barton accused the government of protecting the energy and main roads minister.

“This whole process is a farce,” Ms Barton said.

“The whole point of estimates is to be transparent and accountable and this government is running a protection racket.”

Fellow Opposition MP Tarnya Smith expressed frustration later on Tuesday when she asked Digital Economy Minister Leeanne Enoch and her Director-General Jamie Merrick a series of questions about the state archivist’s inquiry, but was then told only Mr Summerell could answer.

“If the state archivist had been allowed to come along today we might have been able to get through some of these questions,” Ms Smith said.

Ms Enoch clarified that Mr Summerell was never going to appear at the hearings for procedural reasons.

“The state archivist is neither a direct report or a CEO of a related entity, and according to standing orders… the state archivist is not listed as a person who can be directly questioned anyway,” Ms Enoch said.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the list of people appearing at estimates had been finalised several weeks ago

“That’s a matter for the committee, the witness list is set, I think, from memory, about a month out,” she said earlier on Tuesday.

Dees’ Gawn under cloud for Hobart AFL trip

Melbourne ruckman Max Gawn is racing the clock to line up for Saturday’s AFL clash with North Melbourne in Hobart.

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Gawn rolled his ankle during the third quarter of the Demons’ win over Port Adelaide.

The 208cm big man played out the rest of the game but is battling to overcome swelling and soreness, with the team due to fly on Friday to Tasmania.

He will face a fitness test at Thursday’s main training session.

“It was quite swollen after the game, but he’s pulled up really well and we’re being pretty conservative with him early in the week,” Demons fitness boss Dave Misson said on Tuesday.

“We expect him to do some work on Thursday and play.”

Neville Jetta also sent a scare through the Demons’ camp on Tuesday afternoon, with the in-form defender limping from the training track.

Jetta had his ankle assessed by club doctors before returning immediately to club headquarters, but Misson said he would be fine to play on Saturday.

“It was a really innocuous incident – he rolled his ankle on a footy,” Misson said.

“He’ll train on Thursday and be right to go.”

Misson said co-captain Nathan Jones was likely to miss another week as he continues to recover from a quad injury.

The seventh-placed Dees will start strong favourites against 17th-placed North Melbourne, who have lost their past seven games.

But midfielder Dom Tyson said the struggling Roos would be far from easybeats at their Bellerive fortress where they hold a 10-4 record.

North downed ladder leaders Adelaide earlier this year in Hobart and had also dominated Melbourne in recent years, winning their past 16 clashes.

“I know from playing down in Hobart last year, it was really high scoring – there was a really strong wind, so there was a scoring end,” Tyson said.

“Whether that changes your tactics on game day … it probably does a little bit with how you play, whether you have a spare behind the ball against the wind or try and use your numbers around the contest.

“North touched us up earlier this year and they seem to have our measure at the moment but we feel like we’re in a good spot and in some decent form, albeit a little inconsistent still.”

Australia ‘consistent’ on asylum seeker policy despite UN backtrack claim: Bishop

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insists Australia has been clear and consistent about its boats policy despite being urged to clarify any promises it made to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

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The UNHCR says it agreed to help administer the deal to send refugees to the United States on the condition that Australia would consider resettling vulnerable refugees on Manus Island and Nauru who have close family in the country.

It said the understanding was reached over months in a number of meetings with senior government officials, but would not identify exactly who.

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UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection Volker Turk said about 36 people had been identified for resettlement in Australia.

But Ms Bishop insists Australia’s position has been clear.

“If people seek to arrive illegally, if they pay criminal smuggling networks, they will not be resettled in Australia,” she told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

Asked if that means the UN agency was making it up, she said she was not casting aspersions.

The UN’s claim has been rejected by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, with his office reiterating that those transferred to regional processing centres will never settle in Australia.

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Fellow frontbencher Michael Sukkar echoed their defence.

“I think what we say privately and what we say publicly is always the same here,” he told Sky News.

Labor frontbencher Jim Chalmers said Mr Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull had big questions to answer.

“They need to urgently clarify the arrangement that was made with the Americans and any involvement from the UNHCR,” he told the ABC on Monday night.

“They need to clear this up sooner rather than later because there does seem to be a pretty extraordinary difference between the account provided by the agency and the account provided by the Turnbull government.”

The one-off deal with the US was announced last November.

More than 1600 refugees have expressed interest in the US resettlement deal, but only about 1200 places are expected to be on offer.

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Turkey journalists reject ‘terror’ claims as "absurd" as trial opens

The 17 defendants from Cumhuriyet daily were detained from October last year and a dozen of them have now spent more than eight months in jail.

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They have been held under a state of emergency imposed after the July 15, 2016 failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan that the authorities blame on US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.

The case has further raised tensions between Turkey and the European Union, in particular Germany, which fears the crackdown is being used to target any critic of Erdogan.

The moment when they bring in arrested #cumhuriyet17 journos into the court room @cumhuriyetgzt #Journalismisnotacrime #GazetecilereOzgurluk pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/p6wWZFBMnk

— Arzu Geybulla (@arzugeybulla) July 24, 2017

The Cumhuriyet journalists, cartoonists and executives were applauded by supporters crammed into the Istanbul courtroom as the trial opened.

Supporters released dozens of multicoloured balloons outside the courthouse, chanting: “Don’t be silenced! A free media is a right!”

If convicted, the journalists face varying terms of up to 43 years in jail.

In an extraordinary coincidence, the trial opened on Turkey’s annual national day of the press which marks the end of official censorship in the Ottoman Empire in 1908 under Sultan Abdulhamid II.

– ‘Illogical’ –

Those on trial include some of the best known names in Turkish journalism including the columnist Kadri Gursel, the paper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, cartoonist Musa Kart as well as its chairman Akin Atalay.

They are charged with supporting in the newspaper’s coverage three groups considered by Turkey as terror outfits — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the ultra-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and Gulen’s movement, which Ankara calls the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO).

The indictment accuses Cumhuriyet of beginning a “perception operation” with the aim of starting an “asymmetric war” against Erdogan.

But supporters insist the paper has always been bitterly critical of the three groups, including Gulen’s organisation. Gulen denies any link to the failed coup.

The 17 defendants from Cumhuriyet daily were detained from October last year and a dozen of them have now spent more than eight months in jail.AAP

“To say I was in contact with FETO members is illogical and against good sense,” Gursel told the court in a powerful testimony where he sought to refute the accusations charge-by-charge.

“There is nothing to justify my jailing — nothing apart from slander,” he added. “The claims are totally without basis.”

Atalay said it was the authorities who were scared. “But Cumhuriyet will not give in… independence and liberty are written into the DNA of the paper,” he said.

Cartoonist Kart meanwhile denounced the accusations against him as “unfair, unfounded and unacceptable”.

– ‘Test for Turkey’ –

Cumhuriyet (Republic), which was set up in 1924 and is Turkey’s oldest mainstream national title, has been a thorn in the side of Erdogan in recent years.

It is one of the few genuine opposition voices in the press, which is dominated by strongly pro-government media and bigger mainstream dailies that are increasingly wary of challenging the authorities.

Also being tried in the case is the investigative journalist Ahmet Sik who in 2011 wrote an explosive book “The Imam’s Army” exposing the grip Gulen’s movement had on the Turkish state.

Eleven of the 17 including Gursel, Sabuncu, Kart and Sik, are being held in custody. The trial will resume Tuesday and this preliminary stage is expected to last until Friday.

#Cumhuriyet’s Gursel: I’m not here bec I helped a terrorist orgn, but bec I’m an independent & critical journalist.” 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/Px3mdO4A7o

— Sejal Parmar (@_SejalParmar) July 24, 2017

Since their arrests, Cumhuriyet has continued publishing the columns of the jailed journalists but with a blank white space instead of text.

“This trial is a test for Turkey,” Aydin Engin, one of the writers on trial who was freed after his initial arrest. “Erdogan says justice is balanced in Turkey. Now we will see.”

Being tried in absentia is the paper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who was last year sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail over a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syria.

He has now fled Turkey for Germany.

– ‘Criminalising journalism’ –

Steven Ellis, director of advocacy at the International Press Institute (IPI), said outside the court that the case aimed at “criminalising journalism.”

“If it works… then they will do it again and again,” he said.

Turkey ranks 155th on the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom index, below Belarus and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Related:

According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 166 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under the state of emergency.

Erdogan, however, insisted in an interview earlier this month there were just “two real journalists” behind bars in Turkey and anyone else was jailed for offences including robbing ATMs.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said last month that the detention of the staff was arbitrary and that they should be immediately released and given the right to compensation.

Drought risk to soar even at 1.5C

Extreme El Nino events that can cause crippling drought in Australia are likely to be far more frequent even if the world pulls off mission improbable and limits global warming to 1.

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5 degrees.

International scientists have just released new modelling that projects drought-causing El Nino events, which pull rainfall away from Australia, will continue rising well beyond any stabilisation of the climate.

Even if warming is limited to the world’s aspirational target of 1.5 degrees – something scientists have warned is unlikely if not impossible – the modelling suggests Australia will face more frequent drought-inducing weather events.

The risk of extreme El Nino events will rise from the current five events per century, to 10 per century by 2050 under a scenario that presumed warming peaks at 1.5 degrees then.

But the risk keeps on rising for a further 100 years – to about 14 events per century by 2150.

In short, the risk of extreme El Nino events won’t stabilise even if the climate is stabilised, CSIRO researcher and lead author Dr Guojian Wang says.

“This result is unexpected and shows that future generations will experience greater climate risks associated with extreme El Nino events than seen at 1.5C warming,” Dr Wang says.

Report co-author Dr Wenju Cai says extreme El Nino events occur when the usual El Nino Pacific rainfall centre is pushed eastward, toward South America. Sometimes it moves by up to 16,000km, causing massive changes in the climate.

“This pulls rainfall away from Australia bringing conditions that have commonly resulted in intense droughts across the nation,” says Dr Cai, director of the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research.

“During such events, other countries like India, Ecuador, and China have experienced extreme events with serious socio-economic consequences.”

The global Paris climate change agreement seeks to limit global warming to below 2 degrees, a target intended to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But the Paris deal, recently abandoned by the United States, also set an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees – a demand from the most vulnerable countries, including low-lying island nations in the Pacific that may not survive at 2 degrees.

Dr Scott Power heads climate research at the Bureau of Meteorology and says most small island states in the Pacific have a limited capacity to cope with major floods and droughts, and the latest modelling is very bad news for them.

“To make matters worse, our recent study published … indicates that the risk of major disruptions to Pacific rainfall have already increased. And, unfortunately, these El Nino-related impacts will add to the other challenges of climate change, such as rising sea levels, ocean acidification and increasing temperature extremes.”

The latest research on the El Nino risk has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Bowen crop growers nervous ahead of Debbie

Farmers in the Bowen region, home to major capsicum and tomato production, are bracing for potential devastation as Cyclone Debbie thunders slowly towards the north Queensland coast.

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Debbie is currently expected to make landfall as a Category 4 cyclone somewhere between Bowen and Ayr on Tuesday morning, putting the agriculture industry at risk.

The Bowen area accounts for more than 90 per cent of Australian tomatoes and more than 95 per cent of capsicum for consumption in September and October.

The region’s agricultural industry is worth around $450 million a year and produces a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, ranging from mangoes and bananas to sweet corn.

Cherry Emerick from the Bowen Gumlu Growers Association said the impact of Cyclone Debbie on local farmers could be quite severe.

She said locals were anxious and some residents had begun evacuating the area.

“It’s quite difficult to know how bad it’s going to be, it’s dead quiet at the moment and blue skies,” Ms Emerick told AAP.

Queensland Seedlings owner Andrew Paterson said he was very worried about the impact of the cyclone on the farming community.

The company has moved 2.2 million seedlings to safety in the hope it’ll be able to get some crops back up and running.

“It’s important some crops survive but if we get this category (4) we are going to struggle,” Mr Paterson said.

“Hopefully we’ll get through it.”

Brak Pak farm owner Andy Brackley said the timing of the cyclone was very “inconvenient” because seeding started in mid-February.

“Up to February, we can manage it but after that it interferes with our crops,” Mr Brackley said.

Funtastic wants to be removed from ASX

Struggling toy and confectionary wholesaler Funtastic is taking steps to delist from the Australian Securities Exchange after a decade of sliding earnings and shares.

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Funtastic, which distributes Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears and Star Wars branded toys and merchandise, has seen its share price fall markedly since a profit warning in 2007.

Its shares were trading around $1.57 in December 2006 but had fallen to 16.6 cents by December 2008.

At their peak in 2003, they were at $2.13.

They started Monday’s session at 1.5 cents and, since mid-morning, have dropped 33.33 per cent, or 0.5 cents, to one cent after announcing that it intends to delist.

Funtastic said that, consistently over the past six months, less than two per cent of its shares have traded in any one month.

“This low liquidity has created significant share price volatility,” Funtastic said in a statement.

“The costs of the company remaining listed outweigh any benefits.”

The company’s once enviable list of investors included Gerry Harvey, listed in the 2016 annual report as a shareholder, and Lachlan Murdoch.

Funtastic – which suffered a $23.85 million annual net loss in 2015/16 – said it expects its ability to raise capital, to grow the business and restructure debt will improve after it is removed from the ASX.

The 2016 result was an improvement on its $56.48 million loss in 2014/15.

Its 2016 revenue fell 14 per cent to $90.9 million.

The company has previously blamed its profit downgrades on major retailers importing more products directly from China, retailers’ focus on reducing stock, and a downturn in consumer spending.

If Funtastic gains shareholder approval to delist – at an extraordinary general meeting on May 4 – it expects to be removed in early June.

Pressure mounts for greater bank scrutiny

Crossbench MPs believe they have the numbers in both houses of parliament to force the prime minister to hold a commission of inquiry into the banks.

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They are even threatening to block this year’s budget if Malcolm Turnbull and his government ignore the will of the people.

Queenslander Bob Katter says it would amount to a “constitutional crisis”.

“They have got to get a budget through later this year – they want to play that game, fine let’s play it,” Mr Katter told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie, agreed that the government rejecting an inquiry would represent a “collapse in democracy”.

“That’s evil behaviour,” he told a joint media conference with Mr Katter, Greens MP Adam Bandt, NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie and independent MP Cathy McGowan.

Earlier Mr Katter and Mr Wilkie introduced to parliament separate private bills calling for greater scrutiny of the banking sector.

Mr Katter’s bill would establish a commission of inquiry into the banking and financial services sector, specifically looking at unethical, unlawful and improper conduct.

It would have the same powers as a royal commission, as well as additional powers relating to the protection of whistleblowers.

Mr Katter criticised politicians who had run away from the issue but praised the “courage and intellectual integrity” of Nationals MP George Christensen, who sat with the crossbencher on Monday in support of the bill.

“Everyone agrees to this except the Liberal Party … and their isolation is standing out now like a neon light,” Mr Katter told the lower house.

He told reporters there have been 38 inquiries in the last seven years which have achieved “absolutely nothing”.

Mr Wilkie’s proposal would make an existing voluntary code of practice mandatory and give the banking regulator more power to issue penalties for breaches.

“It would give banking customers some rights when dealing with their financial institutions,” he told MPs.

It’s the second time Mr Wilkie has tried to put forward such laws, having made an attempt in 2012 under Labor.

He told reporters the government is “completely and utterly” out of step with the community.

He said the House of Representatives review into the big four banks once a year is a “nonsense response” to a significant problem.

Last week, the Greens introduced a bill in the Senate to establish a similar commission of inquiry.

The proposal has the support of Labor and most of the crossbench, as well as Nationals senator John Williams who vowed to cross the floor.

PM calls for review of nation’s electricity market

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says Australia’s electricity market doesn’t appear to be operating as effectively as it could.

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Now, the ACCC as been ordered to investigate the behaviour of electricity retailers– as well as contracts offered to both consumers and businesses.

“We need to get to the bottom of this in a way that protects Australian families and Australian businesses. Electricity is an absolutely essential service. So we’re tasking the consumer watch dog the ACCC to investigate this thoroughly. They have full investigative powers to request information. They and they alone can get to the bottom of this.”

Recent research by a number of organisations has highlighted significant concerns about rising electricity prices, especially on Australia’s east coast.

Treasurer Scott Morrison told the ABC the review is part of the government’s plan to deliver secure, affordable and sustainable energy across all areas.

“We’ve been working on the gas side of things, getting all the big gas producers in to get an assurance about their supply to the domestic gas industry. On top of that there’s the work being done on pumped hydro, the Finkel report, the Veritken work that’s being done, and now on the retail side of the electricity industry market we believe it’s necessary to ensure consumers are getting the best deal there. You’ve got to apply pressure in every stage of the process to ensure Australians get more affordable, more secure, more sustainable energy.”

The terms of reference call on the ACCC to consider the key drivers of retail electricity prices– the profitability of electricity retailers– and whether there’s any behaviour limiting competition.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg says the government envisaged the inquiry would lead to reduced power bills.

“The evidence does show that if people are prepared to move supplies they can save up to $164 a year on their power bill, sometimes more than that. But 50 per cent of people haven’t moved supply in the last five years, so they tend to be very sticky and that also applies to vulnerable households, those on lower incomes. So we want to get more information into the public realm and whatever reforms follow from that will be in the best interests of the consumer.”

The review will be carried out alongside the Australian Energy Regulator and the Australian Energy Market Commission.

They have until June 30 next year to complete the review, but will need to produce a paper within six months detailing preliminary findings.

Rosemary Sinclair is the chief executive of consumer advocacy group, Energy Consumers Australia.

She has welcomed the investigation, saying it’s essential to restoring consumer confidence.

“We’ve watched electricity prices rise very significantly over a period of about eight years and no-one’s really sure why that’s happened. In the face of recent reductions in network prices and some forecasts of future prices, consumers are really concerned to make sure we’re not paying any more than we need to for the essential service that energy is.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten says he expects to see results from the federal government.

“We’re happy to see an inquiry of course, Mr Turnbull needs to commit to make sure this isn’t another inquiry for the sake of being seen to do something. He needs to committ to implementing recommendations by the ACCC.”

The announcement comes as a major Victorian power plant begins shutting down its generators.

The Hazelwood coal-fired power station will cease operation by the end of the week after its majority French owners decided it was no longer economically viable.

The plant has operated for more than 50 years, supplying up to a quarter of Victoria’s energy as well as hundreds of jobs.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott even penned an opinion piece urging the Prime Minister to keep it open.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also faced a barrage of criticism for not stepping in– including this from Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.

“Daniel, it’s your problem mate, you have to fix your problem, and if you don’t fix it, 25 per cent of your power is gonig to switch off. See, we’ve got this ridiculous thing, think about this, when South Australia doesn’t have enough power, and that is quite often, they get their power from Victoria. But now, Victoria won’t have enough power.”

The Latrobe City Council has called for more state and federal funding to help the region through the closure, claiming its economy will be impacted by around $340 million.

 

 

South Korea prosecutors seek arrest of ex-president Park

Park, 65, had her removal from office confirmed by the country’s top court earlier this month, ending her executive immunity, and her prosecution has been a key demand of the millions of people who took to the streets to protest against her.

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The former president is accused of multiple offences including bribery, leaking government information, and abuse of power in the scandal.

“The accused abused her enormous power and status as president to receive bribes from companies or to infringe upon the rights to freedom of corporate management and leaked important confidential information on state affairs. These are grave issues,” the prosecutors said in a statement.

“A large amount of evidence has been collected so far but the accused is denying most of the charges, and there is a risk of destroying evidence in the future,” it said.

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Choi Soon-Sil, Park’s secret confidante at the heart of the scandal, is already on trial for forcing top local firms to “donate” nearly $70 million to non-profit foundations she allegedly used for personal gain.

Prosecutors said it would be “counter to the principle of fairness” if Park was not arrested.

If Seoul Central District Court approves the warrant, Park will become the third former leader to be arrested over corruption in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, where politics and big business have long been closely tied.

Two former army-backed leaders who ruled in the 1980s and 1990s – Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo – both served jail terms for charges including bribery after they retired.

Park was impeached by parliament in December, as the scandal coupled with mounting economic and social frustrations to trigger huge candlelit demonstrations, and the Constitutional Court later upheld the decision.

Watch: South Korea’s Park leaves after 14-hour interrogation

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Park has been named as Choi’s accomplice for allegedly offering governmental favours to top businessmen who enriched her friend, including Samsung heir Lee Jae-Yong, who was arrested last month and charged with bribery last month.

She is also accused of letting Choi, a high school graduate with no title or security clearance, handle a wide range of state affairs including nomination of top officials.

Park, daughter of late dictator Park Chung-Hee, is also said to have ordered aides to leak secret state files to Choi, and to have cracked down on thousands of artists who had voiced criticisms of her or her father’s iron-fisted rule from 1961 to 1979.

Park grew up in the Blue House, with the first family treated as royalty by some supporters and Park dubbed the young “princess” – a nickname that endured for decades.

The assassinations of both her parents five years apart in the 1970s only further fanned sympathy for her.

After her mother was murdered by a Korean-Japanese believed to have been acting on Pyongyang’s orders, Park assumed the role of first lady until her father was killed by his own security chief in 1979.

She was elected in her own right in 2012, largely thanks to a bedrock of support among older, conservative voters who benefited from rapid economic growth under her father’s rule.

Even as her approval ratings plunged to record lows, some remained loyal.

Hundreds of flag-waving supporters gathered near her home in southern Seoul to welcome her back after she underwent a marathon interrogation session lasting more than 21 hours at the prosecutors’ office last week.

Smiling broadly, she nodded at them on arrival and entered the house without answering questions from reporters. 

Park has repeatedly apologised for the upset caused by the scandal but not admitted any wrongdoing, blamed Choi for abusing their friendship.

An election to choose her successor will be held on May 9 with Moon Jae-In, her rival in 2012 and a former leader of the main liberal opposition Democratic Party, leading polls by large margins.

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