Senator condemns cannabis as a scourge

As Canada moves to legalise recreational marijuana, Australia may still have a while to wait before it can enjoy similar highs.

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The Canadian government has announced it will be introducing legislation next month to legalise the drug by 2018.

But the issue still polarises politicians in Australia.

“The simple fact is that cannabis is a scourge,” Liberal senator Eric Abetz told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“It is linked with a lot of mental issues within the community and therefore to describe it as recreational underestimates the real damage it can do.”

He hoped Australia wouldn’t follow Canada’s path.

Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, who supports legalising marijuana, said there were a number of states in the US that had successfully done so – without the sky falling in.

“There have not been people lying in the streets with drug addled brains. It has been a very positive move,” he told reporters.

Senator Leyonhjelm said most parliamentarians were back in the dark ages when it came to drug policy.

“It’s idiotic,” he said. “The prohibition policy has never worked on anything.”

Consensus over medical marijuana has been easier to find in Australia, with trials taking place in NSW and Victoria, and the federal government legislating in February to allow its legal importation.

Independent senator Derryn Hinch said he had never smoked marijuana but supported its legalisation in Australia.

“I think it’s ridiculous watching big burly cops with guns on their hips arresting plants,” he said.

He said opponents should consider potential economic benefits.

“Look at the tax money being brought into California and Colorado,” he said.

“We could get rid of the budget deficit in two minutes by legalising marijuana.”

Labor senator Louise Pratt was a member of the West Australian parliament in 2001 when possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalised.

Those laws were later overturned by the Barnett Liberal government.

“These laws are questions for the states,” she said.

Consumer confidence decline halted

Consumer confidence rose last week, ending a run of three straight weekly declines, despite weakness in wage growth and a rise in unemployment.

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The ANZ-Roy Morgan Australian Consumer Confidence Survey shows that consumer confidence was up 1.6 per cent at 113.8 points for the week ending March 26, well above the 100-point level separating confidence and pessimism.

Households’ views on the 12-month economic outlook rose 2.7 per cent, following a 3.3 per cent slump the previous week.

ANZ senior economist Felicity Emmett said the result was reassuring in light of recent local market falls and US political events.

“The broad-based improvement in confidence last week is encouraging, particularly given the fall in domestic equity prices early in the week and uncertainty surrounding US policy,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“(But) stepping back from the weekly numbers, confidence has been trending down since late January and is now back close to its long-run average.”

A weak outlook for wages growth – including slated penalty rate cuts – and a rise in unemployment, to 5.9 per cent, had contributed to recent weaker consumer confidence, Ms Emmett said.

She added that high household debt levels, persistently low wages growth and spare capacity in the labour market meant households risked losing confidence in the medium-term outlook.

Households’ views about their current finances fell 0.9 per cent last week while the future finances index gained a solid 3.0 per cent.

Slightly more people thought now was a good time to buy a house-hold item, with that sub-index rising 0.5 per cent, building on the 1.7 per cent gain over the previous two weeks, and is now close to its long-term trend.

Inflation expectations ticked up, partially reversing the previous week’s fall, with the four-week average sitting at 4.4 per cent.

Venus all smiles after straight sets win

“I was still in braces, it’s been a long time,” she said in a post-match interview.

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The 36-year-old delivered exquisite shot-making during a rally on match point to eliminate the twice major champion Kuznetsova.

Her next opponent Kerber was barely tested in her 62-minute match, feasting off her opponents’ serve, while second seed Karolina Pliskova also reached the quarter-finals as she beat 15th-seeded Czech compatriot Barbora Strycova 6-1 6-4. Pliskova cruised through the first set in 22 minutes and looked ready to wrap up a quick victory when she went ahead 5-2 in the second but Strycova found life late in the match breaking Pliskova then holding at love. Pliskova recovered to take the final game. French Open champion Garbine Muguruza retired from her match with Caroline Wozniacki after dropping the first set. The sixth seed took a medical timeout after dropping the first set 7-6(1) to Wozniacki and decided she was unable to continue.

“I started normal, and then like at 3-3 or something like this I started to feel headache, pain in my stomach,” Muguruza said. “And then it kind of went more and more during the match. “When I was getting to the 5-4, something like this, I started to feel a little bit dizzy. I think it was the heat? The heat affected me suddenly like that.” Wozniacki has now advanced to her sixth quarter-final in seven 2017 events. In other women’s matches, third seed Simona Halep overcame Australian Samantha Stosur 4-6 7-5 6-2, and former Czech world number five Lucie Safarova beat Slovakian fourth seed Dominika Cibulkova 7-6(5) 6-1 to reach the last eight. For unseeded Safarova, who is on the comeback trail from a bacterial infection that hampered her for parts of the past two seasons, the win marked her first top-10 victory since 2015.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, additional reporting by Jahmal Corner, Editing by Steve Keating/Peter Rutherford)

Limp wages growth souring confidence

Australians have become steadily more gloomy since the first few weeks of the year, faced with a weak wage growth outlook and a rise in unemployment.

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While the ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence index did rise 1.6 per cent in the past week, ANZ senior economist Felicity Emmett says it has been trending down since late January, posing a risk to the household spending outlook.

She expects at least some of the recent decline in consumer confidence relates to the weak outlook for wages growth, including the mooted cut to penalty rates, as well as the rise in unemployment.

“There is a risk that households are becoming less confident about the medium-term outlook for income growth in an environment of high household debt,” she says.

A separate analysis by Commonwealth Bank economist Kristina Clifton suggests people may have to wait until 2019 before wage growth gets back to some sort of normality.

Annual private sector wage growth has been in decline since early 2011, skidding to its lowest level in some 20 years at just 1.8 per cent.

There are a number of explanations for the decline, including heightened job security concerns as unemployment remains relatively high at 5.9 per cent, low inflation and a decline in commodity prices from a 2011 peak.

The underemployment rate, which measures people that have a job but would like to do more hours, has also risen to a record high of 8.7 per cent.

“The combination of underemployment and job security concerns means that people are unwilling to push their employers for a pay increase,” Ms Clifton says.

CBA is forecasting a gradual decline in the both unemployment and underemployment rates from here.

Its modelling shows a drop in the underemployment rate to around seven per cent in early 2019 would see wages growth returning to its 10-year average of three per cent.

“It would take a sharp drop in the underemployment rate to around five per cent from its current value of 8.7 per cent to see wages return to a three per cent growth rate this year,” she says.

The latest Essential Research poll found over a quarter of respondents saying the government should be doing more to address unemployment as one of its main priorities.

However, just three per cent believe cutting the company tax rate should be a priority while nearly a third thought the government should ensure big businesses pay their fair share of tax.

The Senate will voting on the government’s 10-year company tax cut plan this week.

Lazy Cyclone Debbie to pack punch: expert

It’s the lazy cyclone that is travelling more slowly than the top speed of a waddling Emperor Penguin.

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But experts say that slow speed that could make Cyclone Debbie one of the most destructive.

The Bureau of Meteorology on Tuesday said Cyclone Debbie was travelling towards the coast at just six kilometres per hour, meaning it is expected to make landfall at around 2pm (AEST) on Tuesday.

Professor John Ginger, who is the Research Director in the Cyclone Testing Station at James Cook University, said the sluggish advance means destructive winds of up to 260km/h would batter homes for a longer period.

“The longer the duration is the more stressed building systems become and the more potential for more damage than with a fast moving cyclone,” Prof Ginger told AAP.

He said most buildings erected post-1985 were designed to withstand high winds as they adhered to standards introduced after Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin in 1974.

But Prof Ginger said the long-lasting winds in a slow-moving system put more stress on vulnerable flashings and fixtures like gutters and downpipes, which could easily be torn from buildings.

“The longer the cyclone persists, the more danger of windborne debris,” he said.

Prof Ginger said one of the other biggest threats to homes and buildings was the storm surge, which is where the low-pressure system, wind rotation, and high tides combine to push the ocean level higher and into low-lying areas.

Bureau of Meteorology weather services manager Richard Wardle said the slow movement of the system would mean more rain and flooding as it crosses the coast.

“It’s sitting there picking up moisture from the ocean, it’s sitting out there blowing those onshore winds to the south and that’s obviously going to potentially bring a lot more rainfall,” he told AAP.

New SA laws to give more control of energy

New legislative powers to give the South Australian government more control of the state’s energy network are a matter of urgency, Premier Jay Weatherill says.

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The premier introduced legislation to state parliament on Tuesday to amend the state’s Emergency Management Act, a key element of the state’s $550 million energy plan.

The changes give the SA energy minister the power to protect local consumers at times of a declared electricity emergency if the supply of power is disrupted to a significant degree or may be disrupted.

Those powers include the ability to order a power generator to turn on additional capacity or to provide other directions to electricity retailers or the Australian Energy Market Operator.

“Relying on existing provisions for the management of emergencies is not an option,” Mr Weatherill told the parliament.

“Electricity supply emergencies occur very swiftly.”

He said the bill would allow the government to rapidly respond to events as they emerged but pledged that the special powers would only be used as a last resort.

An electricity emergency can only be declared for a maximum of 14 days.

Opposition Leader Steven Marshall described the legislation as a political stunt and questioned why a copy of the bill had not been provided to Liberal MPs in the normal fashion.

“If they were serious about fixing the mess that they have inflicted on the people of South Australia they would be working with us on this side of the chamber,” he said.

“But instead, all they’re interested in is playing petty politics.”

As well as the legislative measures, the state’s energy plan includes construction of a new battery to store renewable energy and construction of a government-owned, gas-fired power station.

Tenders for the gas plant were to be issued on Tuesday.

Secrets behind Aust’s Lego Batman Movie

Hollywood comedian Zach Galifianakis remembers the excitement he felt when his phone rang and the voice on the other end asked if he wanted to play the ultimate villain, The Joker.

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Some of acting’s greats have brought the physically and psychologically damaged character to life in blockbuster films, including Oscar winners Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto.

“I said, ‘Yes, of course I do’,” the comedian, eager to sign up, immediately responded in the phone call.

“Then they said, ‘It’s the toy movie’.”

Galifianakis laughs as he recalls that initial offer and the brief disappointment he felt.

Warner Bros may not have been wooing him to play Batman’s villain in a live-action film, but his decision to accept voicing an animated Lego version of The Joker in The Lego Batman Movie turned out to be a winner with multiple sequels in the works.

The film, with it’s smart, irreverent humour that drew both young and adult audiences, is one of the biggest box office hits of 2017.

The movie has already made $US300 million at the worldwide box office, including a $US53 million opening weekend in North America.

It is another hit for Australia’s Animal Logic, the Sydney-based animation and visual effects studio with hits including the Oscar-winning Happy Feet and The Lego Movie.

The Lego Batman Movie’s director, Chicago-born Chris McKay, said Animal Logic had a big advantage in attracting talented animators to work on the film in Sydney.

“Because Sydney is such an attractive city for artists to live in Animal Logic has artists and crafts people from all over the world,” McKay, who lived in Sydney for more than three years while making 2014’s The Lego Movie and then returning for The Lego Batman Movie, told AAP.

“You get to work with people from Europe, Japan, South America.

“They all go to Sydney because it is a lovely place to live and that is great for me because I get all of these people from different backgrounds, influences and can bring different things to the table.”

The film was a truly global collaboration with McKay and his crew in Sydney working with Lego’s master builders in Denmark, Warner Bros executives in Los Angeles and travelling around the world to record voices with actors including Galifianakis, Will Arnett (Batman), Rosario Dawson (Barbara Gordon) and Michael Cera (Robin).

It was critical in designing the Batmobile and other vehicles, characters and sets for the film that Lego’s master builders were involved.

Often master builders flew to Sydney.

It meant every hour of the day someone around the world was working on the film.

“It was great because we had this 24-hour working period where they are building something in Denmark, we are looking at in in LA and someone is building it in Sydney,” producer Dan Lin said.

“We had people editing in LA and people editing in Sydney.

“We had to keep the movie moving around the clock to meet the deadlines.”

Voices were recorded all over the world.

“One point Will was doing press for a movie in Sydney so we recorded him in Sydney,” McKay said.

“Zach was in Canada at one point so we went there.

“Rosario was doing Daredevil in New York and Michael Cera lives in New York so we recorded there.

“We would also do things on Skype.”

Arnett has a naturally gravelly voice but for Batman he roughens it up further, which left him hoarse after four-hour recording sessions where he would have to growl and shout lines.

“It is harder than coal mining – print that!” Arnett joked.

The Lego Batman Movie opens in Australia on Thursday (March 30).

Cyclone could hit coking coal supply

Heavy rain from Cyclone Debbie could curb the output of coal used to make steel and potentially dent economic growth.

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Production at a number of mines in central Queensland’s Bowen Basin, which supplies 60 per cent of the world’s coking coal exports, has been lowered or completely halted as the powerful storm lashes the area.

Glencore’s Collinsvale and Newlands mines and BHP Billiton’s South Walker Mine are among those where production has been temporarily suspended.

Rail operator Aurizon has suspended coal services and stowed trains on the Goonyella and Newlands systems, while the Abbot Point, Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay ports have been locked down.

National Australia Bank senior economist Gerard Burg says the cyclone could damage infrastructure and slow coking coal exports, but the major risk to coking coal supply is flooding of mines.

“What potentially might be the bigger problem is if the system brings heavy rain into the Bowen Basin,” he told AAP.

Commonwealth Bank mining and energy commodities analyst Vivek Dhar said many mines were flooded when Queensland was hit by Cyclone Yasi in February 2011.

Coal production fell 22 per cent in the March quarter of 2011, which led to prices spiking 40 per cent, he said.

The impact of Cyclone Yasi and floods on exports, particularly coal, caused the economy to shrink 1.2 per cent in the March quarter of 2011.

“The impact was quite long lasting and damage at the mine output level was ongoing,” Mr Dhar told AAP.

“Looking at the tracking map of Cyclone Debbie it seems to be heading in a similar direction.”

Council merger plan unchanged: Berejiklian

Premier Gladys Berejiklian is standing firm on her plans to merge more than a dozen Sydney councils despite a court ruling that deemed the process lacked “procedural fairness” for some of those involved.

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The NSW Court of Appeal on Monday blocked the forced amalgamation between Ku-ring-gai Council and neighbouring Hornsby Shire after it found the merger could not proceed in its current form.

“(The verdict) doesn’t change our plans at all,” Premier Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday.

“We will seek legal advice and consider the best way forward,” Ms Berejiklian said, adding that she would not specify how the government plans to do so.

The court ruled in favour of five of Ku-ring-gai’s six arguments in its decision to grant the council’s appeal 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 council was also denied “procedural fairness” in the process because it was similarly denied access to the consultancy firm’s report, it found.

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

The government would consider what it could have done “differently and better” in light of the finding, Ms Berejiklian said.

“I’m not going to pre-empt what the court cases that are pending are going to have as an outcome,” she said.

“But I’ll say this, as a government we’re really determined to see this through because we believe it’s in the best interests of the public.”

Ms Berejiklian decided to walk away from planned amalgamations in the bush but forge ahead with those in the city after she replaced Mike Baird as premier earlier this year.

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

New Zealand on verge of unlikely Test win

New Zealand can smell blood after a South African second-innings batting collapse has given the Black Caps sight of victory in their Test decider in Hamilton.

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Notching a 175-run lead after being bowled out for 489 on Tuesday, New Zealand went on to limit the Proteas to 5-80 at stumps on day four and decimate their opponent’s upper order.

Openers Dean Elgar and Theunis de Bruyn fell for just 17 runs combined, continuing on from their poor first-innings showing of five, before Hashim Amla fell soon after for 19.

The loss of de Bruyn was particularly farcical, as Amla looked for a quick single and bundled into his batting partner, handing Kane Williamson the simplest of run-outs.

JP Duminy and Temba Bavuma meekly followed suit for 13 and one run respectively as the South African batting line-up self-destructed.

But all is not lost for the Proteas, with talisman Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock still at the crease and determined to secure a series-winning drawn Test.

Skipper du Plessis and wicketkeeper-batsman de Kock both reached 15 by stumps, sending the Proteas into the final day with a 95-run deficit.

Their miserable late-session batting performance stands in stark contrast to New Zealand’s efforts earlier in the day, with Williamson’s elegant ton and a handy half-century from Colin de Grandhomme putting their side on the front foot.

Williamson, starting Tuesday on 148, quickly passed the 150 mark before eventually being snared by seamer Morne Morkel for 176 off 285 balls.

The 26-year-old Kiwi ace pulled a Morkel short ball straight to Vernon Philander at deep square leg.

His innings, which took New Zealand to 6-397 by lunch time, included 16 boundaries and three sixes and was the highest score ever notched against South Africa in a Test on Kiwi soil.

It also served to equal the legendary Martin Crowe’s 22-year record of 17 Test centuries for New Zealand, earned between 1982 and 1995, and to make Williamson just the sixth Kiwi to pass 5000 Test career runs.

He and Mitch Santner put on a productive 88-run fifth-wicket partnership at Seddon Park before his departure, and Santner followed suit for 41.

All-rounder de Grandhomme then spanked a quick-fire 57 off 70 deliveries before losing his wicket and leaving Neil Wagner stranded.