Pressure builds as Senate tax debate halts

Chiefs of some of Australia’s top companies have made a last-minute appeal to Senate crossbenchers to pass the Turnbull government’s corporate tax cuts, saying economic benefits would be delivered “within months”.

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The executives of such companies as BHP, Qantas, Wesfarmers, Origin and Commonwealth Bank were in Canberra for a Business Council of Australia meeting on Wednesday but took time out to hold a joint media conference.

BHP chief Andrew Mackenzie said his company believed in paying a fair rate of tax, but also cared about the tax system promoting economic growth.

“When we look around the world we have to say Australia is not attracting its fair share of international investment in capital and we need to do something about that,” Mr Mackenzie said.

“Without the change the government is proposing, it will remain uncompetitive and the economy will suffer not just for a few years but actually for decades to come as a result of the absence of capital in the economy that is driving productivity, driving jobs and driving growth.

“If these measures are to be passed in their entirety I think very quickly – in a matter of months – we’d start to see the dividend.”

Wesfarmers chief Richard Goyder said retirees who held shares would benefit from increased cash flows.

Business Council members have been knocking on the doors of crossbenchers in Canberra, convincing One Nation to support a $50 million threshold – up from its initial position of $10 million – for the tax cut for small businesses.

However, the coalition will need nine extra votes in the Senate to pass the bill.

Debate on the legislation was adjourned on Wednesday, when crossbench senator Nick Xenophon had to return home to South Australia to deal with a family bereavement.

As he won’t be returning on Thursday, the government is awaiting his decision on the tax cuts before it can allocate him a “pair” in the vote.

It is expected, but not yet confirmed, the government will bring in a new bill on Thursday which will only legislate the small business tax cut up to a threshold of $10 million turnover.

That bill is expected to get the support of nine crossbenchers including the Nick Xenophon Team and One Nation.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has repeatedly said he wants the 10-year package to incrementally lower the tax rate to 25 per cent dealt with before parliament rises on Thursday, the last scheduled sitting before the May 9 budget.

Labor is sticking to its opposition to a broad tax cut and limiting the reduction to 27.5 per cent for firms with a turnover of $2 million or less.

Kate Carnell, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, said the cut for businesses with a $10 million turnover will give 99 per cent of Australian businesses a reduction.

“(It) will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the sector’s growth prospects, enhancing the ability of small businesses to employ,” she said.

The rate reduces to 27.5 per cent for firms with a $25 million turnover in 2017/18, $50 million in 2018/19 and $100 million in 2019/20.

By 2026/27 all businesses would pay 25 per cent.

At the moment, corporations pay 30 per cent apart from those with $2 million or less turnover, which pay 28.5 per cent.

Push to streamline super default accounts

It is probably the last thing a young person is thinking about when they start their first job, but the Productivity Commission wants to encourage a greater understanding about which superannuation they should choose on first entering the workforce.

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The commission is recommending a shake-up to the way workers are placed in funds with the aim of streamlining the super default system to reduce the chance of acquiring multiple accounts during the course a working life.

Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said under the present default system people could end up with multiple funds and multiple sets of administrative fees.

“They are paying multiple insurance premiums and generally speaking they can only ever claim on one, which means that they are eroding their retirement income by thousands and thousands of dollars,” Ms O’Dwyer told 774 Melbourne radio on Wednesday.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor would look at the report, but he is very sceptical when the Liberal government starts telling individuals what to do with their money.

“If they are so keen to see people have more superannuation, why do they keep opposing increases to compulsory superannuation?” Mr Shorten told reporters.

Commission chairman Peter Harris says after 25 years structural faults are evident in default super and the proposed changes are about how to help the least informed workers that are new to the system and fail to make any choice about where their money goes.

About two-thirds of workers rely on default super accounts, either chosen by the employer or placed in an industry fund if it is a unionised workforce, and could find themselves in a different fund each time they change job unless they choose to stick with one account.

The commission is proposing a structural change that would mean employees become default members one time only when they first enter the workforce, resulting in an annual $150 million benefit for members.

The options offered by the commission would be steered by a new government-appointed body.

They encourage employees to actively choose their fund from a shortlist of high-quality super accounts or allow employers to select from a set of default fund products on their employees’ behalf.

Other options would draw from a shortlist of funds through either a criteria-based tender process or an auction based on fees.

The Grattan Institute’s Jim Minifie says the commission recognises most members will not have the skills to weigh up a big set of products.

But Industry Super Australia boss David Whiteley says there is already a process in place which works and is trusted.

“It’s not clear why we set off on some experimental untried idea,” he told Sky News.

Former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan said the big banks must not be allowed to muscle in on the system “so they can stuff it up like they stuff everything else up”.

“The one thing we have to ensure that we don’t let the fox into the henhouse,” he told reporters.

‘$1 Buy’ rent deals spark class action

Struggling Wagga Wagga mother of five Casey Simpson paid Radio Rentals $3320 for a used bed worth $480 and she still doesn’t own it.

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Ms Simpson, who is leading a $50 million class action launched by Maurice Blackburn lawyers against Radio Rentals on Wednesday, claims its “Rent, Try, $1 Buy” contract misled her.

She says instead of letting her buy the used bed for $1 when her 18-month contract ended, the appliance rental giant continued to deduct weekly payments from her Centrelink account.

“That could come in handy for me and my children, I could have done a lot with that money,” she said.

“I think it’s a big scam, from the start when I signed the contract.”

Radio Rentals is owned by ASX-listed Thorn Group, which suffered heavy slide in its share price on Wednesday after news of the class action broke.

Thorn issued a statement saying it was yet to be served with any statement of claim related to its “past lending practices” so it could not comment.

“Should any proceedings be commenced, they will be defended vigorously,” the company statement said.

Details of the $1 buy offer are on the Radio Rentals website.

The website tells potential customers that at the end of a 24, 36 or 48 month rental plan for an appliance or piece of furniture: “you can make it yours for just $1”.

Maurice Blackburn principal Ben Slade said that was not correct, as customers do not automatically get to buy their rented items outright for $1.

Mr Slade said the contract fine print stated that instead the impetus is on customers to negotiate to buy rented appliances or furniture for a price agreed by Radio Rentals.

If customers fail to secure a purchase, their contracts automatically roll over into another 24, 36 or 48 month term.

“Here we have a national company that deals with vulnerable people promising them one thing but signing them up to another, at a much higher price than is reasonable,” he said.

“It’s not rent, try, one dollar buy, it’s rent now, pay forever.”

Additionally, Radio Rentals’ website states that goods available to buy under those contracts “are similar to (the) rented good in age, dimension and features”.

Mr Slade estimates that up to 200,000 Radio Rental customers are eligible to join the class action with Ms Simpson.

He said under Australian consumer law, contracts must be fair and companies must not act in a manner that misleads or deceives.

Mr Slade said if Radio Rentals’ advertising stated that customers could pay up to seven times the value of a rented product, it would not be misleading but consumers would avoid it.

“Would I think that was a sensible product? No. Would the community think it was a sensible product? No. They would say it was stupid and they would not go anywhere near the shop,” he said.

Thorn Group shares closed down 17.5 cents, or 11.7 per cent, at $1.32.

South Korea media slam govt over ferry ‘remains’

Newspapers said relatives of the missing had been put through “heaven and hell”, and accused the maritime ministry of recklessness.

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Nine of the 304 people killed nearly three years ago in one of the South’s worst maritime disasters have never been found.

Salvaging the wreck in one piece – finally achieved in a complex operation last week – had been a key demand of their families, who say they have been unable to mourn properly.

The maritime ministry raised their hopes Tuesday when it said that human remains had been found by workers and were “suspected to be one of the missing victims”.

Little more than five hours later it withdrew the assertion, saying the pieces had been confirmed to be seven animal bone fragments.

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Citing forensic experts, Yonhap news agency said they were from pig legs.

In a front page headline Wednesday, the Hankook Ilbo declared: “Maritime ministry gives relatives double punch”.

“Relatives of missing people had to undergo heaven and hell in one swoop as the government recklessly went ahead with an important announcement without checking basic facts,” it said.

The Dong-A Ilbo daily said it had “jumped the gun”, under a headline reading: “The maritime ministry goofs up, again”.

Animal bones and human bones are easily discernible even to the naked eye, it added.

Relatives who have set up home at a port near the accident site burst into tears when a senior official told them “human remains” had been retrieved, the paper said.

They rushed to reach a semi-submersible anchored out at sea, where the wreck has been loaded and the bone fragments were found, only to be told of their animal origins.

Lost for words and exhausted, they returned to their shelters in silence, according to the daily.

An unidentified ministry official was quoted by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper as saying: “The bones were in muck and we were unable to take a close look at them” before forensic experts arrived. “We never imagined they could be from an animal.”

Almost all the victims of the sinking were schoolchildren, and investigations concluded the disaster was largely man-made – the cumulative result of an illegal redesign of the ship, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.

The ministry was heavily criticised over the sinking, and the Kyunghyang daily said the announcement debacle happened because it was now overly eager to prove itself by producing results in the search for the missing.

Watch: More on the South Korean ferry disaster

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Stanton relishes 250-game AFL milestone

The eight Essendon coaches since 2004 have had one common trait through the most tumultuous period in the AFL club’s history.

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They kept picking Brent Stanton.

While the 30-year-old has had plenty of his own ups and downs, Stanton’s 250th senior game this Saturday is a fitting reward for his supreme consistency.

Before sitting out last season because of his doping suspension, Stanton had played at least 20 games every year for a decade.

Stanton has polarised opinion at times among Bombers fans and the media – an internet search of his name immediately comes up with “whipping boy”.

The utility could not care less.

“Everyone is open and right to their own opinion – I must be doing something right, because the coaches keep picking me every week.

“You guys have columns to write and that’s all good and well.

“But I keep on trying to improve my game and that’s the main thing I’ve focussed on through my whole career – try and control the things I can and everything will take care of itself.

“Saying that, the fans have been fantastic.”

Kevin Sheedy was coach when Stanton made his AFL debut in 2004 and made a huge early impression on the shy teenager.

Between Sheedy and legendary Brisbane midfielder Nigel Lappin, Stanton quickly learned the value of working his backside off.

“Kevin Sheedy took me under his wing and showed me the ropes,” Stanton said.

“He showed me a work ethic that I needed to get to.

“It was about my sixth game, he put me on Nigel Lappin – one of the hardest workers I’ve ever, ever come up against.

“That’s really where I wanted to step my game up to and hopefully I can emulate a little bit of what he did in his career.”

Stanton said on Wednesday he wondered at times over the last four years what would happen to his career as he and 33 other Essendon players stood at the heart of the club’s supplements crisis.

But he is relishing the clear air of this season.

Stanton and five other Bombers returned from their bans to play in Saturday’s stirring win over Hawthorn.

“There were always doubts, especially over the last four years … the footy club has done a fantastic job to integrate us the way they have,” he said.

Like everyone else, Stanton remains unsure what physical effects the season off will continue to have.

But he is confident the crash-and-bash of the AFL will not wear him down.

“Coming into round one, we knew we were ready to go,” he said.

“There’s always going to be a shock to the system, but we were comfortable with it.”

Lovato and Smurfette continue life journey

Demi Lovato describes herself as an equalist.

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“I also call myself a feminist who loves men,” the 24-year-old American singer-songwriter and former Disney child star told AAP in a recent interview in Los Angeles.

“I don’t want it to go one way or the other.”

Lovato is no wallflower.

With a huge teenage and young adult fanbase, she has become a vocal crusader for multiple issues after breaking out of the shackles that came with being a child star.

She has also been open about her battles with depression, self-harm, an eating disorder, drugs and alcohol.

When Sony Pictures approached her to provide the voice for the independent, strong-willed Smurfette in their new animated film, Smurfs: The Lost Village, it was another vehicle to spread her message.

“Any time I hear the words ‘independent women’ I get a little excited,” Lovato said.

“In our generation women can be strong, opinionated and take on their own journeys.”

The film is the latest big screen movie about the little blue creatures first created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in 1958.

In the new movie Smurfette, the only female, wonders why every other Smurf in her village has a name that indicates their place and she does not.

There’s Baker Smurf (Gordon Ramsay), Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello), Jokey Smurf (Gabriel Iglesias) and many others.

A journey through the Forbidden Forest to find a lost village of Smurfs becomes a journey of self-discovery.

“It’s such a happy world and there’s so much positive energy tied to the Smurfs so being a part of it was exciting for me,” Lovato said.

Lovato continues on her own life journey.

“I think when I was a teenager and thrusted into the spotlight I wanted to act like an adult when I really shouldn’t have,” she said.

“But now I have embarked on my own journey in trying to figure out who I am and being the best version of myself.”

Smurfs: The Lost Village opens in Australia on March 30.

Bandt doubles down on cyclone comments

Greens MP Adam Bandt has doubled down on linking burning coal to Cyclone Debbie, drawing a stinging rebuke from the opposition leader.

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As the category four cyclone developed off the North Queensland coast on Monday, Mr Bandt said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would have blood on his hands after such extreme weather events if he bankrolled new coal-fired power stations.

On Wednesday, in the wake of the devastating storm, the unrepentant Greens MP suggested it was the Turnbull government’s own poor timing that triggered his initial comments.

“The government chose that very day to go out on the front foot and say we need to build a new coal-fired power station,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“It’s Malcolm Turnbull that should apologise to the people of Australia for being so insensitive as to pick the time a cyclone was just about to hit to go out and spruik policies that will only make cyclones more intense.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten was not impressed.

“I believe it’s improper of the Greens to take political advantage of people’s misery to make political points,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“Today is not the day North Queenslanders want to hear about politics. Today is the day they want to see government help.”

Mr Bandt asked the prime minister during question time on Wednesday why he was promoting the coal industry when fossil fuels were making cyclones more intense.

“Doesn’t your duty to keep Australians safe include doing everything you can to stop cyclones becoming more violent?” Mr Bandt asked.

Mr Turnbull said it was not the time to make such a political point.

“That question was contemptible,” he said.

“Now is the time to pull together … (and) stand behind the people of north Queensland, the men and women of the ADF, the volunteers, the emergency workers, to keep them safe.”

Gold Coast’s AFL cards falling into place

Rule change, recruitment and a rejigged midfield are in place to spark a successful Gold Coast AFL campaign in 2017.

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The Suns’ past two seasons have been luckless through injury and a rotating door of players, meaning there has been no consistency for coach Rodney Eade to work with.

Season 2017 looks to be different, with Suns coaches, staff and fans having their fingers crossed as things start to fall into place.

There has been strong recruitment over summer, the steady stream of injured players is returning and a key rule change will help swing momentum in their favour.

The third-man-up rule forces teams to nominate a ruckman at a contest, and Gold Coast recruit Jarrod Witts has made the best use of his 208cm frame to provide consistent ball for his midfielders.

Touk Miller reaped the rewards of this, saying this created a slick relationship between ruckman and midfield in their round-one derby against Brisbane.

“We had big Wittsy giving us first touch,” he told reporters.

“I thought we gelled really well; we won the clearances by four or five, which was really good.

“I thought we had good synergy but, the more you play together, the better.”

Recruits Pearce Hanley, Jarryd Lyons and Michael Barlow looked comfortable in their first match in a Suns guernsey, as they worked alongside former captain Gary Ablett to provide consistent ball to key forwards Tom Lynch and Peter Wright.

Another strong sign was the performance of debutants, Ben Ainsworth and Jack Bowes. Ainsworth showed his eye for goal and ability to find space in the final third around his tall forwards.

Eade spoke recently about Bowes’ ability to make smart decisions under pressure, and the player displayed this while playing in a half- back role for the Suns, acting as a calm link between defence and midfield.

Bowes’ combination with Adam Saad sparked the Suns’ counter-attack as Saad earned a startling 344m gained in the second half against the Lions.

British PM signs letter for Brexit with calls for UK unity

The British government will on Wednesday deliver the letter to European Union President Donald Tusk, formally notifying him of Britain’s intention to leave the bloc after 44 years of membership.

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Addressing parliament on Wednesday, May will acknowledge that the June vote for Brexit had been divisive, but will express hope “that we are no longer defined by the vote we cast, but by our determination to make a success of the result”. 

“We are one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future.  And, now that the decision has been made to leave the EU, it is time to come together,” she will say, according to the speech published in advance by Downing Street.

Her comments will come just hours after the semi-autonomous Scottish Parliament backed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a fresh independence vote in protest at Brexit.

Watch: How the UK is going to leave the EU

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May has said that “now is not the time” for Scotland to hold a second referendum, but Scottish lawmakers ignored her appeals, supporting the motion by 69 votes to 59.

Sturgeon is now expected to make a formal request for a referendum, which she says could take place by spring 2019 – before Brexit is complete, to allow Scotland to maintain its ties with the EU.

She needs approval from the British government, which repeated Tuesday that a vote on this timetable was “not appropriate” – although it has not ruled out the prospect of a later referendum.

“The mandate for a referendum is beyond question, and it would be democratically indefensible – and utterly unsustainable – to attempt to stand in the way of it,” Sturgeon said.

A few hours after the Scottish vote, Downing Street released a photograph of May signing the letter that will trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which starts the two-year Brexit process.

Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, will deliver the letter by hand to Tusk around 1130 GMT on Wednesday – beginning the countdown to Brexit.

Ahead of the letter being delivered, May on Tuesday evening made separate phone calls to Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“They also agreed on the importance of entering into negotiations in a constructive and positive spirit, and of ensuring a smooth and orderly exit process,” Downing Street said.

‘Unstoppable force’

Scotland voted by 55 per cent in 2014 to reject independence, but Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) has said a second referendum is now needed to avoid Scotland being forced out of the EU “against its will”.

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but they were outnumbered by voters in England and Wales who backed Brexit.

Most recent polls show support for Scottish independence is high – the annual ScotCen survey put it at a record 46 per cent – but a majority are still opposed.

Sturgeon and May met in Scotland on Monday, with the prime minister describing the four nations of the United Kingdom as an “unstoppable force”.

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But in addition to Scotland, her government is trying to prevent the collapse of the devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The power-sharing arrangement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Irish nationalists Sinn Fein collapsed in January, prompting a snap election.

Three weeks on, both sides are still deadlocked and although the British government extended Monday’s deadline for talks,  the prospect of a fresh election – or even the imposition of direct rule from London – now looms.

Ensuring that the province’s hard-won peace is not upset by Brexit, and that there is no reintroduction of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, is a priority for both Britain and the EU.

‘Damaging and uncertain future’

May repeated on Tuesday that she will seek the best deal for all of Britain in her negotiations with Brussels – including for EU nationals living in her country.

But her plan, particularly her intention to leave Europe’s single market in order to cut immigration, has failed to convince the SNP.

The economic uncertainty of an independent Scotland was a factor in the 2014 referendum, but Sturgeon has warned that Brexit could cost Scotland tens of thousands of jobs.

“We know that Brexit threatens a hugely damaging and uncertain future for Scotland,” she said Tuesday.

Scotland’s economic hand was strengthened on Monday when exploration firm Hurricane Energy announced the “largest undeveloped discovery” of oil in British waters, located west of the Scottish Shetland Islands.

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US sees probable role in Mosul blast, probe under way

As investigators probe the blast, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend strongly defended U.

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S. behavior in the war and pushed back against accusations the United States had loosened safeguards meant to protect civilians as it ramps up the battle against Islamic State.

Still, he said increases in casualties were to be expected as the war against the insurgents entered its deadliest phase in the cramped, narrow streets of Mosul’s Old City.

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“It is the toughest and most brutal close-quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 years of service,” Townsend told Pentagon reporters, speaking from Iraq.

“What has not changed is our care, our caution … our tolerance from civilian casualties – none of that has changed.”

Watch: US Defense Secreatary responds to civilian killings in Mosul.

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Rights group Amnesty International has said the high civilian toll in Mosul suggested U.S.-led coalition forces had failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths.

Investigators combed through the rubble left by a March 17 explosion in al-Jadida district in west Mosul, where Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes are fighting to clear Islamic State militants from Iraq’s second city.

One line of investigation is whether Islamic State rigged explosives that ultimately caused the blast that destroyed buildings. One estimate put the death toll at more than 200 people.

“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” Townsend told a Pentagon news briefing, speaking by teleconference.

“Now, here’s what I don’t know. What I don’t know is were they (the civilians) gathered there by the enemy? We still have some assessments to do. … I would say this, that it sure looks like they were.”

The United States has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon says. Officials say two more companies of U.S. soldiers, just under 300 troops, are headed to Iraq on a temporary deployment.

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