Boat officials act within law: Abbott

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Tony Abbott has moved to reassure Indonesia that the operation to stop asylum-seeker boats works within the law, as his attorney-general attacked the credibility of claims about cash payments.

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Crew members of asylum boats have sworn under oath they were paid $US5,000 ($A6,460) by Australian officials to return to Indonesia, and revealed they were also offered flights back to where they came from.

General Endang Sunjaya, police chief of Nusa Tenggara Timur province, has provided photos of the cash to Australian media.

“We have given you the evidence. It’s now up to you and other organisations to demand an answer from the Australian government,” General Endang told Fairfax Media.

Rote Police chief Hidayat says the evidence definitely points to the money coming from an Australian source.

“Of course we’re certain, that’s what they’ve been saying,” he said.

“Remember, we’re investigating this professionally, not making things up.”

The claims have been backed up by asylum seekers on the boats, one of whom said it was an Australian Customs officer.

Labor leader Bill Shorten asked Mr Abbott in parliament on Wednesday whether he was concerned the cash handover could give criminal people smugglers new incentive to set out for Australia.

Mr Abbott said the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders adhered to Australian law.

“We will do whatever is necessary within the law and in accordance with our values as a decent and humane society to stop the boats and to ensure that they stay stopped,” Mr Abbott said.

Attorney-General George Brandis told parliament the captain of a people smuggling vessel was not a reliable witness.

“That man is … earning his living from the misery of other human beings and accepting a very large sum of money.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the government was working constructively with Indonesia to disrupt people smuggling.

Asked whether she regretted last week denying to reporters that the payments had been made, Ms Bishop told parliament: “I don’t do regrets.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the Australian public wanted to hear from the prime minister on whether the payments occurred.

Mr Marles said there was a big difference between police paying informants to infiltrate organised crime and paying people smugglers to go back to Indonesia.

“The allegation we have out there … is the equivalent of asking drug dealers to be paid to not make ice,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of Christian leaders calling for a more humane refugee policy was escorted from Parliament House by security officers after staging a sit-in in the building’s public entry foyer.

Noor Ellis won’t appeal murder sentence

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An Indonesian woman convicted of plotting her wealthy Australian husband’s murder in Bali may not intend to appeal her sentence, but it signals the start of a new battle for the couple’s sons.

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Noor Ellis says she won’t challenge the 12-year jail term handed down last week for the premeditated murder of businessman Robert Ellis, 60.

The prosecution has also declined to appeal despite recommending she serve 15 years for paying five men to ambush her husband.

In October last year, they held him down in the kitchen of his villa in Sanur and slashed his throat, bundled his body in plastic, and dumped it in a rice field.

The light sentence was a huge disappointment to the couple’s two sons, John and Peter Ellis, who will now fight to ensure their mother doesn’t profit from the murder.

“Even though Noor has decided not to appeal, there is a long road ahead of us to secure assets in Indonesia,” Peter Ellis said.

“At the end of the day, we believe Noor committed this brutal act for financial gain, so we are going to do our best to make sure she doesn’t win.”

Noor Ellis’s lawyer, Ketut Suwiga Arya Dauh, says she wants to apologise to her sons and denies she was motivated by greed.

“Later … we want to make a clarification regarding the wealth of Noor and the victim, to avoid the perception that Noor did this because she wanted to take the victim’s wealth,” he said.

But lawyers for the Ellis sons say they are already aware of the extreme measures Noor Ellis is taking to grab the estate, including changing her religion.

Friends of Mr Ellis say they’re sickened by her actions and the system’s response.

The expats say they can’t speak openly because of the highly nationalistic climate in Indonesia.

Against that backdrop, they say, there is little chance of getting justice for Mr Ellis.

“The Indonesian legal system has rewarded the evil doing of a twisted, bitter wife murdering her husband for financial gain,” the friends said.

“All potential murderers can expect to get away with at most 12 years in jail, and possibly a lot less.

“All Bob’s friends are now worried about the future of the sons of Bob from Noor, and how they will now receive what is rightfully theirs to inherit.”

Noor Ellis claimed she was driven to violence because of years of neglect by her husband of 25 years, who she said was unfaithful and withheld money from her.

His friends say it was the opposite – she was unfaithful, always flush with cash, and their mate was incredibly generous, in 2013 paying $US30,000 ($A38,700) for his mother-in-law’s medical care.

“Noor has not supported the sons since her arrest, even though she has the capacity to do so,” they said.

“Rather, she has used her funds for the successful finalisation of her plan to get away with murder.”

What does ChAFTA mean for Australia?

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Today Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott and China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng put pen to paper on a free trade agreement (FTA) that will begin removing trade tariffs for Australian and Chinese companies.

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Mr Abbott said the deal will “change our countries for the better, it will change our region for the better, it will change our world for the better.”

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The government believes the agreement, or ChAFTA as it has been abbreviated, will provide greater access to an international market for Australian goods and services, increase investment in Australian industry and infrastructure and allow for cheaper Chinese goods in Australia.

The signing of this deal means Australia has now signed free trade agreements with its major trade partners Japan, South Korea and China in just more than a year. However, as Australia’s largest export market, the China deal is the most significant.

How does the trade agreement work?

In simple terms, a free trade agreement allows two countries to become more economically integrated by removing barriers to the trading of goods and labour.

In the case of ChAFTA, the agreement will lower tariffs on imported goods and ease restrictions on the ability of foreign workers to gain employment Australia.

China is Australia’s biggest trade partner, with exports of around $A107.5 billion each year, and $A52.1 billion in imports, the deal will have significant ramifications for an array of companies in various industries.

What about the impacts of Australia’s recent North Asian FTAs?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade today released a report from the Centre for International Economics, looking at the economic benefits of Australia’s FTAs across North Asia.

It provides a broad snapshot of how the FTAs will affect various sectors of the Australian economy.

According to DFAT forecasts, under the FTAs Australia’s exports will be higher in 2035:

Goods exports to north Asia will be 11.7 per cent higher, which amounts to an additional $16.9 billionGoods exports to all trade partners will be 1.6 per cent higherServices exports to north Asia will be 13.9 per cent higher, which amounts to $2.2 billionServices exports to all countries will be 2.1 per cent higher

The forecasts also predicted an additional GDP increase between 2016 and 2035 of $24.4 billion and a boost in real consumption of $46.3 billion, which equates to an increase in household consumption of close to $4,500.

Australian consumers are expected to have access to cheaper household goods, clothing and electronics, imported from China.

However the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) expressed concern regarding the veracity of those estimates.

In a release today it said the study authors were “consultants which produced wildly optimistic estimates of benefits for the Australia-US FTA which did not eventuate.”

How will ChAFTA affect tariffs on Australian exports to China?

Once ChAFTA has been fully implemented, 95 per cent of Australian exports will be tariff free.

The deal will see trade tariffs of up to 20 per cent on Australia’s $13 billion dairy industry abolished, as well as tariffs on Australian beef and wool.

“I trust that today our Chinese friends will enjoy the fine beef and the good wine that will soon be more readily enjoyed by their countrymen.”

Tariffs on wine of up to 30 per cent will also go within four years, as will tariffs on seafood, including on abalone and southern Bluefin tuna.

Mr Abbott toasted the above changes at today’s signing, saying; “I trust that today our Chinese friends will enjoy the fine beef and the good wine that will soon be more readily enjoyed by their countrymen.”

Australia’s resources and energy sector will benefit from the removal of tariffs on coals and aluminium oxide.

Tariffs will be also dropped on manufactured goods including pharmaceutical products.

The government says that businesses operating in education, health and aged care services, legal services, financial services, telecommunications, tourism, construction, engineering, mining, manufacturing, architecture and urban planning and transport, will all have easier access to business opportunities in China.

There will be no change to the current trading quotas imports of Australian sugar, cotton, rice, maize and wheat to China.

What about the volume and value of Australian exports to north Asia?

The deal will see a substantial increase in the volume and value of exports to China.

Below is a breakdown of the predicted percentage boosts in exports from Australia to North Asia in general services, agriculture and mining.

Impact on China-Australia relationship?

The government believes the deal will take relations between the two countries to “another level”.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb said today there are 140,000 Chinese students studying in Australia, nearly one million Chinese tourists visiting the country each year and nearly one million Australian citizens that have Mandarin as their first language.

“It is a privilege to be involved with an agreement that will take what is already a strong relationship to, I think, another very seriously high level,” Mr Robb said today.

How will the deals affect jobs?

According to the DFAT report, the FTAs will create new jobs. It estimates between 2016 and 2035 the FTAs will lead to 178,000 jobs, an average of around 9,000 each year.

The charts below show the estimated year-by-year increases in employment rate, wage rate and additional jobs created as a result of the north Asian FTAs.

How have labour unions reacted to the deal?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) says it is deeply concerned about the effect the deal will have on Australian labour, saying it could undermine local jobs and increase unemployment.

It says that based on the factsheet the government released last year after reaching a memorandum of understanding with China, employers will be able to more easily offer jobs to Chinese workers without advertising them locally.

“Free trade agreements must support local jobs and industry and all indications are that the deal with China does not.”

This is because according to the factsheet the agreement allows Chinese companies to “negotiate…increased labour flexibilities” for projects of more than $150 million, saying the arrangements will be similar to those under Enterprise Migration Agreements. However, as the unions note, those agreements were intended for projects of more than $2 billion. 

“Free trade agreements must support local jobs and industry and all indications are that the deal with China does not,” said ACTU President Ged Kearney.

“There must be strong rules around labour market testing and labour mobility clauses in the China free trade deal to ensure local jobs are protected.

“Unemployment has been at or above 6 per cent for one year yet it appears the government is intent on selling out even more local jobs.”

The Electrical Trades Union has also condemned the deal, with national secretary Allen Hicks saying the agreement could lead to Australian workers in the infrastructure and resources sectors finding themselves “locked out of jobs.”

“This agreement robs local workers of the safety, standards and conditions that we have fought for and won over many years,” he said.

“For the overseas workers it will also potentially lead to exploitation of their wages and conditions.”

How long has an Australia-China FTA been in the works?

A free trade agreement between Australia and China was first proposed in 1999, when Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley mentioned the idea of a trade treaty with China’s President Jiang Zemin. In 2000, his Trade Minister Peter Cook pledged that were the Labor Party to return to government it would “seek to negotiate with the government of China a comprehensive bilateral trade and investment framework agreement.”

In May 2005, Howard Government Trade Minister Mark Vaile and China’s Vice Minister of Commerce, Wei Jianguo, began FTA negotiations in Sydney, with negotiations held in Beijing later that year.

In November last year a memorandum of understanding was reached, with both nations following through on that agreement today.

What happens now?

The deal will need to be ratified in Australian parliament before it comes into effect and Labor and the Greens have pledged to take a close look at the final agreement.

Labor has said its main concern is that temporary work visas will be used to bypass local workers.

Greens, coalition defend pensions policy

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The Abbott government and the Greens are defending a deal to tighten tests for the aged pension, saying Labor has made a mistake in deciding to oppose the measures.

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“I felt I had an obligation to support what was one of very, very few decent measures in the Abbott budget,” Greens leader Richard Di Natale told ABC TV on Wednesday.

It will mean about 170,000 pensioners will get an extra $15 a week, while about 91,000 home-owning retirees will lose their part pension and another 235,000 will have their pension reduced.

The government, in exchange for Greens support, has agreed to give a six-week extension to its tax white paper to explicitly look at all retirement income arrangements, including superannuation.

However it maintains there will be no change to superannuation arrangements in this term of government, and has no plans for changes after that.

Labor says the Greens have sold out pensioners.

“Tony Abbott has said day after day in the parliament that he is not going to change the tax concessions on superannuation,” opposition families spokeswoman Jenny Macklin told ABC radio.

Senator Di Natale accepts the government is unlikely to act on superannuation.

“But here is a blueprint for a future Labor government for them to be able to use and adopt,” he said.

“It also lays the groundwork should there be a change of PM in this government to change tact on superannuation tax concessions.”

Senator Di Natale says Labor has made the wrong call.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison wasn’t surprised Labor is opposing the government changes to the pension.

“Now he’s left stranded, absolutely stranded on an island of his own making,” he told Sky News.

Mr Morrison said Labor was “quite divided and riven” over the decision, claiming Ms Macklin supported the government’s plans.

NATO denounces Russia’s nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’

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President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia was concerned about an anti-missile defence system near its borders, after announcing that Russia would add more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) to its nuclear arsenal this year.

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“We will be forced to aim our armed forces … at those territories from where the threat comes,” Putin said.

Putin made his comments a day after Russian officials denounced a US plan to station tanks and heavy weapons in NATO member states on Russia’s border. Putin said it was the most aggressive act by Washington since the Cold War a generation ago.

US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over Putin’s missile announcement and said no one wanted to see backsliding “to a kind of a Cold War status.”

Kerry told reporters at a news briefing that Putin’s stance could be posturing but he added, “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement from a leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about what the implications are.”

Tension has flared anew between Russia and Western powers over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis, in which pro-Russian separatist forces have seized a large part of the country’s east after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014.

The European Union and United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. But Washington and Moscow are still bound by a 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that caps deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 each and limits the numbers of strategic nuclear missile launchers to 800 by 2018.

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year,” Putin, flanked by army officers, said in a speech at an arms fair west of Moscow.

ICBMs have a minimum range of more than 5,500 km (3,400 miles). Putin gave no more details of which missiles were being added to the nuclear arsenal.

Putin said later on Tuesday that Russia wanted Ukraine to repay the $3 billion bailout bond under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych according to an agreed repayment schedule.

Putin said he thought the Minsk peace deal on Ukraine was balanced and fair and that if Russia did not agree with its contents it would not have signed it.

‘Sabre rattling’?

Putin has repeatedly urged Russia to maintain its nuclear deterrence to counter what he sees as growing security threats. Moscow also reserves the right to deploy nuclear arms in Crimea.

Such comments have helped whip up anti-Western sentiment and rally support behind Putin but have caused disquiet in the West, particularly countries on or near Russia’s borders that were under Soviet domination during the Cold War.

Responding quickly to Putin’s remarks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of unwarranted “sabre rattling” and said this was “destabilising and dangerous”.

At a news briefing in Brussels, Stoltenberg said such rhetoric from Moscow explained the Western alliance’s increased preparedness on the part of its forces to defend its member states closest to Russia.

“This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified. This is something we are addressing, and it’s also one of the reasons we are now increasing the readiness and preparedness of our forces,” Stoltenberg said.

“We are responding by making sure that NATO also in the future is an alliance which provides deterrence and protection for all allies against any threat.”

Fears of a new arms race

Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas said the planned deployment of US military equipment in eastern Europe, including his country, was a key step to ensure the region’s defensibility against growing Russian military capabilities.

“We have no other possibilities. If we did nothing, we would be provoking Russia for aggression, like it was in… Ukraine,” Olekas told Reuters.

Russian officials warned on Monday that Moscow would retaliate if the United States carried out its plan to store heavy military equipment in eastern Europe, including in the Baltic states that were once in the Soviet Union.

“The feeling is that our colleagues from NATO countries are pushing us into an arms race,” RIA news agency quoted Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov as saying during “Army 2015”, a fair at which arms and other military equipment are on show.

US Army Colonel Steve Warren said the United States was “simply prepositioning equipment that we can … have there so we can more easily and more rapidly conduct our training exercises.”

“The equipment that we are moving into Europe is training equipment, it’s not nuclear missiles. You know there’s quite a difference there,” Warren told reporters at the Pentagon. Asked if the United States had explained that to the Russians, he said, “Yes.”

Putin has said Moscow will not be drawn into a new arms race although Russia is modernising its armed forces. Putin said in his speech that 70 percent of the military equipment in use would by 2020 be the most up-to-date and top-quality.

Putin had said last year that Russia would add more than 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2015.

As of April, Russia had 515 deployed launchers so the addition of 40 or 50 more would leave it well below the START treaty limit, said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association think tank in Washington.

Military expert Ivan Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Trends Studies, said Russia is now replacing outdated ICBMs that had been serviced and co-produced by Ukraine, also a former Soviet republic.

No such cooperation is taking place anymore and Moscow is putting in place other types of ICBMs it produces on its own.

The fair that opened on Tuesday to exhibit more than 330 units of Russian arms and military equipment was the latest example of Moscow showcasing its modernised armed forces.

But lavish military spending is burdening Russia’s national budget at a time when the economy is sliding towards recession, hammered by low oil prices and Western sanctions.

The Kremlin portrays spending on the Russian arms sector as a driver of economic growth, but Putin’s critics say it is excessive and comes at the expense of social needs.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska Editing by Timothy Heritage, Mark Heinrich, Toni Reinhold)