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)

Clarke honoured as one of Aust’s greatest

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Ron Clarke has been hailed the greatest Australian athlete never to win Olympic gold.

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The 78-year-old died after a short illness early Wednesday on the Gold Coast, where he served as mayor for eight years after his stellar athletics career.

Clarke, who lit the cauldron at the 1956 Melbourne Games aged 19, set 17 world records in middle distance running, won an Olympic bronze medal and four Commonwealth Games silvers.

“He stands head and shoulders above everybody,” fellow great Herb Elliott, the 1960 Olympic 1500m champion, told AAP.

“He dominated the world for a number of years, particularly in the 10km and six miles, but also in the 5km.

“I don’t know there’s any other Australian that’s done anything like that – certainly I never did.”

Despite his dominance, Clarke never managed to bring home his own Olympic gold.

The world expected him to do so at the 1968 Games, but he couldn’t cope with the altitude in Mexico City.

During the gruelling 10,000m final, the race favourite collapsed in the thin air and had to be resuscitated at the finish line by the Australian team doctor.

Long-time sports commentator Peter Meares said Clarke used to laugh off his unattained Olympic dreams.

“But I think deep down he knew that he was the best because he broke so many world records,” Mr Meares told the ABC.

“He could win everything from a mile up to 10,000m, or even longer. He was just a machine.”

Such was the respect he commanded from his fellow athletes that one of them – after Clarke’s collapse in Mexico – gave the Australian his own Olympic gold.

Czech great Emil Zatopek, who won the 10,000m at the 1952 Helsinki Games, slipped the medal to him in a package at Prague airport, telling him: “Look after this. You deserve it.”

Clarke was part of one of the most memorable moments in Australian sporting history at the 1956 national championships, when he was helped up by rival John Landy after falling during the 1500m race.

“Ron Clarke, by his running feats inspired Australian distance runners and in a world sense, demonstrated the potential athletics achievements possible,” Landy, who went on to win the event, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The runner was also a successful businessman, politician and author, and was lauded by sport figures on Wednesday.

Athletics Australia president David Grace said Clarke will forever be a legend of the sport.

“We are grateful for his extensive contribution to the sport of athletics, as well as to public service during a life that should be celebrated,” he said.

John Bertrand, chairman of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame – of which Clarke is a member – said the athlete seemingly had no limits in what he could achieve.

“Ron Clarke set new standards of training and application that raised the bar to a level that the world of athletics at that era had never seen before,” Bertrand told the ABC.

Champion Olympic hurdler and Gold Coast resident Sally Pearson tweeted: “Ron Clarke .. star on the track, a great man off the track. Athletics has lost a true statesman. RIP Ron.”

He is survived by his wife Helen, two sons and grandchildren. His daughter, Monique, died in 2009.

Chris Lane shooter faces sentence in US

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Chancey Luna was just 16 when he fired a .

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22 calibre revolver into the back of Australian baseball player Chris Lane in a random drive-by shooting in Oklahoma.

On Tuesday (Wednesday AEST) in a courthouse just five minutes’ drive from where Lane spent his last moments of life gasping for breath face down in a ditch, Luna will hear his sentence.

District Court judge Ken Graham is expected to sentence Luna to life in jail with no chance of parole.

It was the sentence the jury of five women and seven men recommended in April after a swift three-and-a-half-day first-degree murder trial and just one hour of deliberations.

“I don’t wish to be mean, but I don’t care what he (Luna) thinks or how he feels,” Lane’s mother Donna said after the April 17 verdict.

The sentencing likely won’t end the case that made headlines around the world and led to US President Barack Obama offering his “and the first lady’s thoughts and prayers” to Lane’s family and friends.

Luna’s mother, Jennifer, told AAP his son’s lawyers are working on lodging an appeal.

The murder happened in August 2013 when Luna, who recently turned 18, was in the backseat of a two-door Ford Focus driven by his 17-year-old friend Michael Jones.

A third friend, James Edwards Jr, 15, was in the front passenger seat rolling a marijuana cigarette on his Apple laptop.

Lane, 22, in Duncan visiting his girlfriend Sarah Harper, was jogging along an affluent area of the rural city, the car approached, Luna randomly selected the Australian and shot him just below the left shoulder.

Luna’s lawyer Jim Berry asked the jury to sentence the teen to life with the possibility of parole, so he would be eligible for release in 38 years.

Lane grew up playing for the Essendon Baseball Club and had a scholarship at Oklahoma’s East Central University.

Donald Trump enters 2016 White House race

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Trump wallowed in political incorrectness as he insulted everyone from Mexican immigrants to Jeb Bush and US ally

Saudi Arabia in announcing his bid for the Republican nomination.

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“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” Trump predicted in a long, combative speech in the atrium of Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

The billionaire, widely seen as having almost no chance of winning the nomination, brings an outsized personality and a penchant for controversy to an unusually large group of Republicans vying for the presidency.

In highly provocative comments, Trump accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals to live in the United States.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”

Eleven other Republicans have announced they are running for next November’s election, the latest being former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who launched his candidacy on Monday.

Trump hit out at Bush for backing the Common Core education initiative to set national education standards, which is mistrusted by many Republicans.

“Bush is totally in favor of Common Core. I don’t see how he can possibly get the nomination. He’s weak on immigration, he’s in favor of Common Core. How the hell can you vote for this guy? You just can’t do it.”

Trump, who owns several hotels and hosts the reality show “The Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC, boasted having $8.7 billion in net worth, a number he says he released so that America understands he is not a loser.

Trump has toyed with running in past elections before deciding not to do so. This time, he said, the United States under Obama needs him to come to the rescue.

“Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the day and we as a country are getting weaker,” he said.

LIVELY DEBATE WITH TRUMP

Republican strategists and officials cringe at the thought of Trump grabbing attention away from the party’s more serious candidates as it tries to win back the White House after defeats in 2008 and 2012.

Trump’s first big campaign challenge will be to make it into a Fox News debate of Republicans in August that will be open to only the top 10 candidates in national polling.

He languishes in 12th place, ahead of former New York Governor George Pataki, in a Reuters/Ipsos online poll of 13 Republicans who have either declared their candidacies or, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, are likely to. Bush leads the poll.

In other surveys, Trump has high negative ratings, with more than 50 percent of Americans saying they will never consider voting for him.

On Tuesday, he saved his wildest attacks for foreign policy, frequently accusing China of stealing American jobs through crafty business practices and portraying himself as a tough negotiator who would beat Beijing at its own game.

“Hey, I’m not saying they’re stupid. I like China. I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China,” he said.

“No, I love them, but their leaders are much smarter than our leaders,” he said. “It’s like, take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team. That’s the difference between China’s leaders and our leaders. They are ripping us.”

He urged Saudi Arabia to be more appreciative of the military and diplomatic support it has received from the United States for decades. “Saudi Arabia without us is gone,” he warned.

Music helped me connect: Helping refugee women build bridges

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Migrant and refugee women can often struggle when forging a new life in a new country – many hold onto memories of their lives and loved ones back home.

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But a new program aimed specifically at newly arrived women hopes to ease their feelings of isolation and help them engage with women in similar situations.

It all starts with a meeting.

“People come to Australia, new, we are very isolated, and I think it’s a good way to connect the communities,” says Ajak Kwai, a project worker with the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Ajak herself arrived in Australia 16 years ago, fleeing the devastation her family encountered in South Sudan.

She’s involved in the Brotherhood’s ‘Bridging Women’s Worlds’ program, which is run in partnership with the Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre and is aimed specifically at refugee and migrant women.

Ajak says the women are encouraged to share their stories, and find ways to help them make Australia feel more like home.

For her, it was music.

“I cope a lot through music and I love music, I love singing, since I was very young.”

“Music has been very, really, been my survival.”

And it’s been her way of reaching out to the broader community.

“It helps me to connect with Australian people and to be able to share stories with them, stories they don’t have.”

Born in Bor, in South Sudan, Ajak moved to Juba with her uncle and brothers then lived in Khartoum in Sudan.

She spent eight years in the Egyptian capital Cairo before settling in Melbourne, via Hobart.

“I have been moving all my life,” Ajak said.

“Because I came from a very broken background, like, really war-torn country. And I see a lot of bad things happen. And I see what hatred can do.”

Music, she believes, can unite people.

Nepalese migrant Madhuri Maskey too, felt isolated when she first arrived here in January with her two daughters.

Her husband has lived in Melbourne for eight years, after leaving Nepal when his job as a political advisor became too risky following the civil war.

Madhuri says her work helping develop programs for women and children was a job she loved and didn’t want to leave.

“I never stayed at home, and came here, staying whole day at home doing nothing, and then I was missing so much of my country. So much of the people out there, so much of my work, that liveliness.”

She craved a professional, engaging life, and feared starting from scratch.

“I was so sad, even my husband got frustrated, ‘why are you so sad? You are with your family’,” she recalled.

“My mind was going to Nepal, all of the time, most of the time, and I was missing it.”

Then, she found the Bridging Women’s Worlds program.

“And I was so happy, I felt like, you know, I am accepted here, I got some place so that I can really thrive, I can enjoy being myself in Australia.”

It’s prompted her to enrol in a University course, which she hopes will lead to a job similar to the one she held in Nepal.

Labor to support some pension changes

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After accusing the federal government of selling out pensioners, Labor now says it will support some parts of the government’s pensions deal with the Greens.

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Through this deal, 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.

Opposition families spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said this was the latest move in Tony Abbott’s relentless campaign to cut the pension.

She said this was another broken promise from a prime minister who vowed before the last election that he would not touch the pension.

But, she said Labor acknowledged tough decisions needed to be made and Australia couldn’t afford to continue providing generous tax breaks to millionaires with millions of dollars in their superannuation.

“That is why we will agree to certain measures in this bill,” she told parliament during debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Fair and Sustainable Pensions) Bill 2015.

Ms Macklin said Labor would agree to abolish the seniors supplement and changes to social security treatment of defined benefits.

But Labor would not agree to changes to the assets test or to pensions portability arrangements.

“We will certainly not agree to the cuts to the pensioners education supplement or the education entry payment. We have fought these cuts for a year and we will fight them once again,” she said.

The surprise deal came about after Labor declared it wouldn’t support proposed pension changes which aim to save $2.4 billion.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison brokered an agreement with the Greens in exchange for looking at retirement incomes as part of the tax white paper process.

“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 said on Wednesday.

But the deal outraged seniors who vowed to vent their anger at the next federal election.

National Seniors Australia says it will be middle Australia not millionaires who will be affected by the tightening of the pensions assets test.

“They will be deeply disappointed with the proposal the government and the Greens have put through – that will be reflected at the ballot box,” chief executive Michael O’Neill told AAP.

The government’s bill will likely pass the House of Representatives on Thursday and be debated in the Senate next week.