Scott Morrison and Kamala Harris talk China, climate change in phone call

Scott Morrison has discussed Australia and the US’ “shared interests in relation to China” during a phone call with US Vice President Kamala Harris.

The prime minister spoke with Ms Harris on Wednesday morning, when the pair reaffirmed the strength of Australia-US relations.

The pair discussed the countries’ “shared interests in relation to China”, according to a government official, after months of trade tensions between Canberra and Beijing.

“A pleasure to chat with VP Kamala Harris. We’ll strengthen our very strong alliance even further,” Mr Morrison tweeted on Wednesday.

RELATED: Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds first call with US President Joe Biden

Relations between China and Australia have deteriorated rapidly over the past year, and the Biden administration has made positive noises over its willingness to intervene on Australia’s behalf.

In December, now-US national security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would lobby the international community to rally around Canberra, after Beijing warned Australia would “pay the price” for siding with the US.

“As we have for a century, America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity and values,” he tweeted at the time.

Mr Morrison said he and Ms Harris also discussed strengthening the alliance on security, trade, and climate change during their phone call.

Labor has argued President Joe Biden’s election offered the government a chance to reset Australia’s stance on climate change.

The new President has reversed a number of Trump administration policies and committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050.

Mr Morrison has refused to commit to the target, but said his government wanted to reach net zero “as soon as possible”.

And with deaths from COVID-19 topping 500,000 in the US, the pair also discussed their respective responses.

The prime minister revealed in November his government would share its COVID-19 Contact Tracing Review with the incoming-administration.

“(Mr Biden) was very interested in Australia’s success and it’s obviously the top of his priority list,” Mr Morrison said at the time.

The Prime Minister has invited Mr Biden to visit on the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty, signed in April 1951.

He said Mr Biden was “enthusiastic” about the prospect.

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Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s message to Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australian of the Year Grace Tame has taken a swipe at remarks made by Scott Morrison over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.

Ms Higgins, a former Liberal staffer, broke her silence last month, claiming she was raped by a colleague at Parliament House in March 2019, after seeing the Prime Minister with Ms Tame, 26.

A day after the claims were aired, Mr Morrison revealed his wife Jenny changed his perspective on the incident.

“She said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’” Mr Morrison said.

But speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Ms Tame had a pointed message to the Prime Minister.

“It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” Ms Tame said.

“And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”

Ms Tame was also asked if his handling of the incident had given survivors the confidence to be believed.

“Clearly not,” she retorted.

An advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Ms Tame said she was not surprised by two recent allegations that have rocked the federal parliament.

“Cover-up culture, the abuse of power, is not unique to parliament,” she said.

“It’s not necessarily these individual cases. It’s the issue itself that is going to keep inspiring me to do this work.”

Ms Tame said she was hopeful that cultural change would occur once people found the courage to speak out.

“It is about solidarity. The more we come out and speak about this, the more the conversation will be normalised, and the more the power will be taken away from predators,” she said.

In her speech, Ms Tame highlighted three key areas for change; starting with conversation and expanding people’s understanding of child sexual abuse, including grooming.

“How we invite, listen, and accept the conversation, and lived experience of child sexual abuse survivors,” the advocate said.

She also pushed the need for a consistent national framework that supports survivors and their loved ones and deters predators from action.

Ms Tame was crowned with the nation’s top honour for her campaign on behalf of sexual assault survivors.

Her own fight as a courageous rape survivor has resulted in reforms to Tasmania’s gag laws, which previously prevented her from self-identifying in media.

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Palaszczuk government again demands JobKeeper extension for struggling tourism industry

The Palaszczuk government has again demanded the JobKeeper wage subsidy program be extended for the tourism sector after it was revealed international travellers wouldn’t be welcomed back until at least mid-June.

Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday night pushed the date back by three months from March 17 by extending the emergency period as “overseas continues to pose an unacceptable public health risk to Australia, including the emergence of more highly transmissible variants”.

The update confirmed tourism operators in the Sunshine State who relied on international travellers would be disproportionately impacted when the wage subsidy support scheme was cut off at the end of the month, Deputy Premier Steven Miles said.

“We anticipate 50,000 Queenslanders will lose their job at that point,” he told reporters on Wednesday morning.

The Deputy Premier said the impact to the sector equates to slashing about 3 per cent from the Australian economy.

“And if you go to places like Cairns, Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, that 50,000 jobs lost represents something like 15 or 16 per cent of their pre-COVID employment levels,” he said.

“We can’t afford that and we also can’t afford for those businesses to close who deliver the tourism products that attract people to our state.

“We won’t be able to turn those back on once our airports are open again and once we’re inviting people back from overseas.”

Mr Miles made the comments after delivering a speech about the need for affordable housing amid the Sunshine State’s rapid population growth.

He said the state government had begun discussions with industry experts to create a growth areas delivery team to decide where housing and infrastructure development needed to be accelerated.

The team is tasked with deciding on a region most in need, likely near the Gold Coast or the Redlands area closer to Brisbane.

“The pilot site identified will be an example of how local and state governments and the private sector can work together to plan for better communities,” Mr Miles said.

“The team will also work to bring land in the underutilised urban footprint to market sooner and ensure that quarterly local government infrastructure reporting identifies infrastructure spending and delivery for larger councils.”

Seven applications for a building acceleration fund totalling $72.8 million had reached the final stage of the assessment process.

“These projects are located across the state and will unlock land supply and employment opportunities,” Mr Miles said.

“The building acceleration fund is helping to deliver catalytic infrastructure projects that generate private sector investment, unlock development in Queensland and create construction and long-term employment.”

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Cabinet minister accused of rape allegation should not step down: Matt Canavan

The cabinet minister set to make a public statement about historical rape allegations should not step down from his position, Nationals senator Matt Canavan says.

NSW Police on Tuesday revealed there was “insufficient admissible evidence” to proceed with an investigation into the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl in 1988 – before the man entered politics.

This is because the woman did not complete her formal police statement before taking her life in Adelaide last year.

The development prompted revelations that the accused cabinet minister would out himself and address the allegations on Wednesday.

Speaking on Today, Nationals backbencher Matt Canavan was asked if the cabinet minister at the centre of the allegations should continue in his role.

“I don’t see any reason why not,” Senator Canavan said.

“To this date what we have seen are allegations, serious allegations.

“But if the mere allegation or making of an allegation would cause someone to be removed from office, that obviously sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Senator Canavan said claims of this nature should be investigated, but the presumption of innocence should be cherished.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week rejected calls for an independent inquiry, saying the claims were a matter for the police and the minister had denied the allegations.

But the dead woman’s lawyer, Michael Bradley, told Sunrise that although the criminal process was done, a cloud still hung over the integrity of the cabinet minister accused of the “grave crime”.

“It is now a matter for the minister in question and the Prime Minister,” Mr Bradley said.

“My view is it would be appropriate for the minister to step down and an inquiry to be held, and then we wait and see what that results in.”

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has also backed calls for an independent investigation, led by former High Court judges.

He said this would prevent allegations from being “weaponised by third parties” for a political attack.

“There should be a process that takes it away from trial by politicians because some of that has political purposes and nothing really much to do with empathy for the victim,” he told 2GB.

Mr Joyce also blasted former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who on Tuesday cast doubt over the woman’s cause of death.

“You’re not really helping the person,” Mr Joyce said.

“You’re also an article of a public recrimination of a person that you might have thought was an ally and then he later on found out was a political enemy, and therefore you have an axe to grind.”

Opposition government accountability spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said Labor would wait until the cabinet minister made a statement about the shocking allegations before pushing for an independent inquiry.

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Dan Andrews criticised over friendship with billionaire Lindsay Fox

The Victorian opposition has blasted Premier Daniel Andrews for drinking “$10,000 bottles of wine” with billionaires, as businesses in Victoria lost the same amount of revenue in a day during a snap lockdown last month.

During Question Time on Tuesday, Ripon MP Louise Staley interrogated Mr Andrews over his links to Australian businessman Lindsay Fox, the founder of logistics company Linfox.

The Agenewspaper reported Mr Andrews had visited Mr Fox’s Portsea mansion for dinner in January, accompanied by high-profile entrepreneurs and executives, and hosted by Lindsay’s son Andrew Fox, whose cellar wines “could fetch up to $10,000 a pop”.

The opposition is now calling on the Premier to declare any conflicts of interest and recuse himself from any cabinet deliberations on a quarantine facility at the Avalon Airport, owned by Linfox.

During Question Time, Ms Staley asked flatly how many helicopter flights or other gifts the Premier had received from the Fox family.

Mr Andrews said the only helicopters flights he had taken recently were to bushfire-affected areas.

“I meet with many people about many different issues,” Mr Andrews said.

“I behave appropriately at all times, that is the oath that I swore and if the conspiracy theorists opposite wants to make a claim or allegation, go ahead and do it.”

During the state’s snap lockdown last month, Melbourne cafe Hardware Society reportedly lost $10,000 in revenue in a day, according to Ms Staley.

“Why shouldn’t the public be outraged that (the Premier) is cracking $10,000 bottles of wine with the Fox family while businesses lose $10,000 a day?” she said.

Mr Andrews clapped back, saying it was inappropriate for the Opposition to bring up the issue on the same day the historic report into Victoria’s mental health system was published.

“We will not be lectured about the administration of good governance, we will not be lectured on these matters,” he said.

“All of us came together to receive a historic report, which was an obligation for us to do more and be better.”

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A million AstraZeneca doses in vials ‘ready to be packed’

Over a million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are already sitting in vials ahead of their rollout later this month.

Around 15 million vials of the vaccine were being stored in freezers at minus 80 degrees, representatives for drug manufacturer CSL told a Senate inquiry on Tuesday.

CSL has begun production of the AstraZeneca vaccine ahead of its rollout at the end of the month.

The company’s Christopher Larkins said it expected to “hit a run rate of well over” a million doses per week.

“I was just down at our freezers earlier today, and there are well over a million doses sitting there in vials ready to be packed,” he said.

RELATED: CSL rules out making AstraZeneca, Novavax at the same time

“Our expectation is we will hit a run rate of well over a million doses a week. We will start releasing the product around the end of March, and we hope to hit a million doses or more after that time.”

Rollout would be in rounds of 300,000 doses, he said.

It would be subject to an approval process between CSL, AstraZeneca, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), taking “a day or two, if not hours”.

The vaccine was one of two granted approval by the TGA, alongside the Pfizer vaccine, and the only to be manufactured in Australia.

The federal government has ordered more than 53 million doses of the jab, 50 million to be manufactured onshore.

It argued onshore production would incubate Australia from global supply chain issues.

But concerns have been raised over the efficacy of vaccines in the face of new COVID-19 variants, with the prospect of yearly vaccinations to combat mutations.

CSL’s Beverley Menner confirmed the company was “open to the possibility” of working with AstraZeneca as it adapted its vaccine to virus mutations.

“We work very closely with them on the current vaccine and the process there, but we’re also having broader conversations with them about what the world might need out of this vaccine down the track,” Dr Menner said.

Mr Larkins said CSL could be in a position to manufacture and release new variant vaccines by the end of the year.

The company said adapting to COVID-19 variants would require “fairly minor” changes to its set-up.

But Mr Larkins warned switching to a different vaccine would be a far more complex, cost-intensive task.

“That will take much more effort, probably completely new equipment and refitting out our clean rooms and processes differently,” he said.

The pair said CSL was open to producing other vaccines after it finished its manufacture of the AstraZeneca jab and if requested to do so by the government.

But they reiterated the company could not manufacture two vaccines concurrently.

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Aged care levy could cost Australian taxpayers $610 each year

Australians could be hit with a tax $610 tax hike under a Medicare-style levy proposed to fix the aged care system.

The aged care royal commission released its final report on Monday, outlining 148 recommendations as part of an extensive overhaul of the sector.

Both commissioners – Lynelle Briggs and Tony Pagone – recommended some form of levy, but were at loggerheads over how it would function.

Mr Pagone recommended a Medicare-style levy with funds required to be diverted to the aged care sector.

RELATED:Aged Care Royal Commission hands down final report

Ms Briggs urged the government to introduce a general, 1 per cent “aged care improvement levy”, sourced from personal taxable income.

That would increase Australia’s overall tax revenue, which could be used on aged care.

That would cost the median person who paid the Medicare levy roughly $610 annually and raise nearly $8b for the aged care centre, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Just under 10 million Australians would pay extra income tax as a result, it reported.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not ruled out the Medicare-style levy in response to the damning findings.

Health Minister Greg Hunt refused to commit to either proposal, but said the government’s “formal response” would be revealed in the May budget.

He said the commissioners disagreed “in good faith” over the levy.

“That is absolutely fine and understandable. This is one of those areas where commissioners presented different views,” he said.

“Yesterday we announced a $452m response with a five-year, five-pillar plan for aged care (which) above all focuses on the needs of individuals.

“The full formal response to the commission will come during the course of the budget and all of those elements … will be covered as part of that.”

National Seniors Australia chief advocate Ian Henschke said an increased Medicare levy may be the “quickest way” to pump much-needed money into the aged care sector.

But he warned safeguards needed to be put in place to ensure the money was not “chewed up” by administration fees.

“Let’s just say $5 billion extra aged care and half of that gets goes straight through to the people that are running the care package. Is that worthwhile? No, it’s not,” he told Sky News.

“There should be a forensic analysis of how that money gets through to the care recipient.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the report, which found shocking levels of malnutrition in Australian aged care centres, was an “damning indictment” on the government.

“Whether it be the people who’ve died waiting for homecare packages or for people who are in residential aged care, what we need is proper funding, we need some real regulation and control, and we need to deal with workforce issues,” he said.

“Quite clearly, the neglect that is there whereby we have elderly Australians who aren’t getting the right nutrition, who aren’t getting the right care, is an indictment.”

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State of Emergency bill debated in parliament

Strict state of emergency laws – which allows for coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns to be enforced – could be extended until December in Victoria.

Draft government amendments were on Tuesday morning circulated to MPs outlining changes following negotiations with Greens and key cross benchers so the government can extend the powers for nine months.

The negotiations included future COVID-19 fines for young people being drastically reduced, and the introduction of an appeals process for people subject to detention orders.

The State of Emergency is the “legal instrument” that allows for rules to be made including lockdowns, mandatory face masks, rules about COVIDSafe work plans and density limits in pubs and cafes.

Labor needs the support of at least three crossbench MPs to pass the legislation.

All three cross benchers have confirmed they’ll back the Bill, with Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick saying that denying the extension powers would be “dangerous for Victorians”.

“Having consulted widely on this issue, I am confident that this extension of the State of Emergency powers for a nine month period is not just reasonable, but mandatory,” he said.

“I am pleased to hear that the government has listened to myself and others, and will in fact introduce pandemic specific legislation, making this the last time we will need to extend the State of Emergency for this or any other pandemic in Victoria.

“I applaud them for making it clear that demonstrations will be allowed, excessive fines will be reviewed, especially for those on low incomes and young people.”

Reason Party MP said she would support the Bill, telling parliament that to not support it would be the “morally wrong thing to do”.

“This is our state, we have a responsibility to do what’s right,” she said.

“I would’ve liked to see this legislation introduced six months ago in October … when we recognised that COVID-19 is not going to leave us any time soon … we need these cautions, we need these measures.”

It is understood Greens MP Samantha Ratnam will also support the nine-month extension, following the government’s amendments to the Bill.

Legislation has already passed the Labor-controlled lower house, with debate resuming in the upper house on Tuesday afternoon where Opposition MP David Davis dubbed the Bill “draconian of the highest order”.

He called for the extension to be subject to a monthly review.

“The government always resorts to harsh lockdowns, harsh closures and massive damage to business and mental health of communities … when alternate models are available,” Mr Davis said.

“The unaccountable and unmitigated powers they seek under state of emergency is the wrong approach.”

The government must this week reach a deal with the upper house on the powers, which are set to expire on March 15.

Victoria has been under a state of emergency since March 16 last year.

Debate will continue in parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

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Black Summer bushfire recovery ‘still a long way off’: survivors

Survivors of the Black Summer bushfires are “still traumatised” and living in caravans more than a year after the devastating blazes.

A Senate committee investigating the recovery from the fires on Tuesday heard about the struggle from frontline volunteers and residents.

A “gaping hole” in the disaster relief process meant some residents around the NSW Bega Valley town of Cobargo were only coming forward for support now.

“People were traumatised and they didn’t know where to seek assistance, nor did they have anywhere near adequate housing. Fourteen months on, that’s still the case,” survivor Christine Walters said.

A father and son died in the bushfire that ripped through Cobargo, razing dozens of buildings in the main street.

But Ms Walters, the Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre co-co-ordinator, said there was not enough publicity about how to seek help.

“People are still living in caravans with a tarp for shelter, half a shed or a Minderoo pod; now that’s luxury,” she said.

“People are still traumatised and need mental health help in person, not on the phone or online.”

Ms Walters said the relief centre did not know of how many locals still needed assistance or did not have suitable housing because tiers of government would not share information with them.

She told the committee that the grant application hoops were “debilitating” for survivors and that one woman missed out on a grant because her income passed the threshold by $27.

Another person was under the impression that relief work ended in June last year.

“All these factors mean that people will fall through the cracks and not receive the assistance that they desperately need,” Ms Walters said.

“Fourteen months after a disaster is too long to still have people coming into the bushfire relief centre for the first time.”

She warned that the failure to address these issues was further deteriorating people’s mental and physical health as well as the economic viability of the region due to the prolonged rebuild.

Cobargo Recovery Fund president Zena Armstrong raised concerns about other communities in the region that have struggled to access funding.

They did not have the expertise needed to meet the planning requirements and navigate the “complex” NSW grants program, she warned.

“It is concerning to hear that some in authority are now claiming that most people are doing well, and that it is mainly those with pre-existing mental health conditions who are doing it tough,” Ms Armstrong said.

“This is not the case. We are recovering. But these fires have shaken everyone who lived through them, whether or not they were flame affected.

“A full recovery of individuals and communities across the eastern seaboard is still a long way off.”

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Minister rape allegation: NSW Police close investigation

NSW Police has confirmed there is “insufficient evidence” to proceed with an investigation into an historical rape allegation levelled at a cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison received an anonymous letter last week, including an attachment outlining historical allegations of an alleged rape committed by the man before he entered politics.

The woman claimed she was raped in 1988 in the document, which was referred to the Australian Federal Police.

She died in June 2020 after taking her own life in Adelaide, having reported the matter to police in 2019.

But NSW Police, which has been the lead agency in the case since 2020, confirmed the matter closed due to insufficient evidence in a statement on Tuesday.

“For various reasons, the woman did not detail her allegations in a formal statement to NSW Police,” it read.

“Following the woman’s death, NSW Police came into possession of a personal document purportedly made by the woman previously.

“NSW Police have since sought legal advice in relation to these matters.

“Based on information provided to NSW Police, there is insufficient admissible evidence to proceed.

“As such, NSW Police Force has determined the matter is now closed.”

Mr Morrison on Monday rejected calls for an independent inquiry into the allegation, saying it was a matter for the police.

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