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.

Related reading

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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Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive vows to heal rifts

Former civil servant Carrie Lam was by far the clear winner, receiving 777 votes from Hong Kong’s 1200 strong election committee, more than double received by her two rivals combined.

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John Tsang, who had been the public’s favourite, received 365.

The third, and most liberal candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing received only 21 votes.

Appearing before her supporters, Carrie Lam vowed to focus on the economy, provide jobs, and reform government agencies.

“Here with humanity, I stand as chief executive-elect of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. I’m ready to begin a new chapter in our journey together.”

The 59 year old is the daughter of a Shanghainese ship worker, and a mother who never received a formal education.

Growing up in a cramped apartment shared by four siblings and several families– Ms Lam went go on to study sociology at the University of Hong Kong– before taking part in social activism, and eventually politics.

But despite the new leadership, the fact that Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people have no say in choosing their leader remains a source of tension.

Just moments after Carrie Lam took to the stage, a group of activists appeared and began chanting “I want universal suffrage.”

They carried yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the 2014 pro-democracy protests that led to widespread violence.

But Ms Lam carried on unfazed, promising to unite the people.

“Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustrations, and to unite our society to move forward.”

That could prove difficult, given the lack of widespread public support for her.

Outside, protesters vowed to keep up the fight against what they call an election committee whose loyalty lies with China rather than the people.

Ka Lun– the district counsellor for Hong Kong’s Yuen Long area– has condemned Ms Lam, and the committee who elected her.

“These last five years have been a nightmare for Hong Kong people. And Carrie Lam openly admitted at the very beginning of her election scheme, that she will continue with the current system handed down by the current CE (Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying). Now what we can expect is continuing this nightmare for another five years. This is the worst scheme for us, the worst news for us today in Hong Kong.”

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing has gradually increased control over the territory.

This comes despite China promising freedoms and autonomy under the formula of “one country, two systems”.

But Hong Kong Election Committee member Starry Lee insists Ms Lam will do the right thing by the people– and the city as a whole.

“Lam will continue upholding the “One Country, Two systems” principle. And she will focus on the economy. This is very important because Hong Kong’s competitiveness is declining.”

Ms Lam has said that unless social tensions are eased– electoral reform talks are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

She will formally become Hong Kong’s chief executive on the first of July.

 

 

 

Consumer groups want payday loan crackdown

Consumer groups are demanding the federal government acts on its pledge to better protect vulnerable people from short-term payday lenders.

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The government has yet to act on its November promise that it would introduce recommendations in a review it commissioned, which included capping monthly consumer lease fees as a proportion of the size of a loan and of the borrower’s income.

The review found some people paid $3,000 for a $345 clothes dryer, with interest rates equivalent to 884 per cent.

An alliance of consumer groups, including CHOICE and Consumer Action Law Centre, went to Canberra on Monday to put pressure on the government to follow through.

“Every day the federal government delays this legislation is another day someone walks through our doors in financial distress because of the devastatingly poor practices within this industry,” Financial Rights Legal Centre’s spokeswoman Alexandra Kelly said.

Consumers Federation of Australia chair Gerard Brody said payday lenders prey on people on low incomes or in tough situations and trap them in high-cost products.

“People are often left struggling to pay off multiple loans or leases,” he said.

“It’s essential that payday lenders and consumer lease companies like Radio Rentals have to limit how much someone has to devote to these toxic products to 10 per cent of their income.”

The recommendations backed by the government included capping monthly consumer lease fees to four per cent of the base price for a maximum of 48 months and limiting payday loan and consumer lease repayments to 10 per cent of the person’s net income.

RAAF bombers no role in Iraq civilian hit

Defence Minister Marise Payne has confirmed RAAF Hornet jets were not responsible for the sorties that killed up to 200 civilians in west Mosul in Iraq 10 days ago.

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But she’s tight-lipped on whether other Australian support aircraft were involved.

The incident on March 17 could rank among the deadliest for civilian casualties since the fight against Islamic State militants began in 2014.

“I’m advised Australian strike aircraft were not involved in the air strike in question,” Senator Payne told Senate question time on Monday.

Asked if she could rule out involvement by Australia’s Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft or tanker aircraft , Senator Payne said: “It does take some time to fully determine the detail of a complex incident.”

This is because there are multiple nations and multiple aircraft involved, she said.

A US investigation is under way.

A Nineveh province health official said 160 bodies recovered from the site had been buried.

An estimated 600,000 civilians remain in the west half of Mosul.

Senator Payne said Islamic State extremists were using innocent people as human shields and trapping them in their homes.

Australian defence personnel operate under strict rules of engagement designed to minimise risk to civilians and need approvals from Iraqi and Australian authorities before carrying out air strikes, Senator Payne said.

Defence investigated any allegations of civilian casualties, Senator Payne said.

Australia has about 780 military personnel in Iraq and Syria carrying out air strikes, special operations and training Iraqi soldiers and police.

The US-led coalition acknowledges 220 civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq in the current conflict.

Airwars, a non-government group monitoring air strikes in the Middle East, estimates a minimum of 2715 civilian deaths.

Turnbull ministers meet coal interests

Two senior ministers in the Turnbull government have met investors who want to build new coal-fired power stations in Australia, as one of the country’s oldest generators begins to close down.

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Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg revealed on Monday he and Resources Minister Matt Canavan had met with people interested in investing in new technology high-efficiency, low-emissions coal power plants.

“They are a long way off from confirmed commitments and clearly those discussions will continue,” Mr Frydenberg said in Canberra.

Coal and gas would continue to play major roles in future energy generation, along with renewables supported by storage.

“We need to be technology neutral,” he said.

“We can’t make a single bet because that would be ruling out certain options that would be available to us.”

Senator Canavan told News Corp there was a high degree of interest from Asian investors about developing a new power station in northern Queensland using financing from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund.

Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal has previously asked the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to get in touch if the government changes its mandate to allow it to invest in coal power, and carbon capture and storage projects.

The revelations about possible new power plants come on the same day the Hazelwood generator in Victoria starts a three-day process leading to its shut down.

In November, French majority owner Engie announced the station’s closure, saying the plant was no longer economically viable and the company was moving away from coal globally.

Meanwhile, Greens MP Adam Bandt suggested the prime minister would have blood on his hands if the commonwealth subsidised loans for new coal-fired electricity generation.

“If Malcolm Turnbull uses scarce public money to build a new coal-fired power station, he’ll have blood on his hands,” Mr Bandt said.

“Because the more coal we burn, the more extreme weather events like Cyclone Debbie or Cyclone Yasi we will see and people will suffer.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten criticised the link, saying it did a disservice to the people of north Queensland who are bracing for the impact of Debbie.

Sydney council mergers plan suffers blow

The NSW government’s controversial council mergers plans have suffered a major setback with Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Council winning its appeal against forced amalgamation with Hornsby Shire.

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The ruling could affect several other Sydney councils fighting proposed mergers in court and is the first since Premier Gladys Berejiklian dumped planned amalgamations in the bush despite pushing ahead with those in the city.

The NSW Court of Appeal ruled in favour of five of Ku-ring-gai’s six arguments on Monday.

They included that a government-appointed delegate failed to properly assess the merger because he did not have access to a KPMG report used to underpin the financial reasoning behind it.

“The delegate could not properly carry out his function of examination without access to the KPMG documents which were the source of the calculations,” Judges Robert Macfarlan and John Basten said.

The council was also denied “procedural fairness” in the process because it was similarly denied access to the consultancy firm’s report, Justice Ronald Sackville said.

The ruling could affect a number of pending challenges being pursued by other councils denied full access to KPMG’s reports.

The state government is considering the decision, a spokesman for Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton said in a statement following the verdict.

Ku-ring-gai mayor Jennifer Anderson said she believed the decision – which had “vindicated” the council and its residents – would be a turning point for the Berejiklian government.

“If they continue with the merger process they will be flying in the face of our community and the court,” she said.

Opposition leader Luke Foley urged the government to “do the decent thing” and scrap all remaining mergers.

“Today’s judgement is a damning indictment of the unfairness of the government’s approach to merging councils,” he told reporters in Sydney.

Greens MP David Shoebridge called for every forced amalgamation proposal to be dumped.

“This case is a precedent for pretty much every forced amalgamation proposal because every single one was based on a hidden consultancy report,” he said in a statement.

The court outcome comes with residents taking to the polls for the North Shore by-election on April 8.

There are 20 already-amalgamated councils across NSW, with five more to be created in Sydney if their legal challenges are unsuccessful.