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What we know today, Thursday October 15


Welcome to your serving of the day’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. Follow this post for live updates through the day.

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No new COVID-19 cases in SA

There are no new COVID-19 cases in South Australia today, keeping the state’s total tally at 479.

Four active cases remain in South Australia, all of which are currently in hotel quarantine and are not a threat to the community according to SA Health.

The three latest coronavirus cases reported in South Australia yesterday are pushing the state’s infections this month towards levels not seen since the pandemic’s peak in April.

The new cases – three women aged in their 20s, 30s and 60s who have recently returned from overseas – take the number of new infections in the state this month to 12, the highest since August when 13 cases were recorded.

All three travelled on the same flight and returned positive results from their day one tests of their 14-day hotel quarantine. Yesterday’s cases were the largest number of new infections reported in SA on a single day since June 29.

There have been six new infections reported in the past week and 12 so far this month – just one short of the August figure, which is the highest month for new infections in SA since the virus peaked in April.

The increase in infections coincides with the state government’s recent decision to increase the number of returned overseas travellers it will take into hotel quarantine.

Of greater concern to the state is the increasing number of locally acquired cases in NSW, which has an open border with South Australia.

NSW today recorded 11 new cases of coronavirus, six of which were locally acquired.

Federal Police drop investigation into ABC journalist Dan Oakes

The Australian Federal Police have decided to drop their investigation into ABC journalist Dan Oakes for publishing the “Afghan Files” in 2017.

The Afghan Files were a seven part series into the operations of Australian special forces in Afghanistan, revealing multiple allegations of Australian forces unlawfully killing Afghan civilians.

In a brief statement, the AFP said they took advice from the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution (CDPP) regarding three potential charges, and were informed there were “reasonable prospects” for conviction on two of them.

However, the CDPP ultimately decided no prosecution should take place given the public interest factors specific to this case.

“The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has finalised an investigation into allegations that ABC journalist Daniel Oakes obtained classified information,” the statement read.

“In determining whether the matter should be prosecuted, the CDPP considered a range of public interest factors, including the role of public interest journalism in Australia’s democracy.

“The CDPP determined the public interest does not require a prosecution in the particular circumstances of this case.

“As a result of this determination, the AFP has finalised its investigation into Mr Oakes.”

ABC Managing Director David Anderson said the news is welcome, although he is disturbed that charges were even considered for Oakes’ reporting.

“This whole episode has been both disappointing and disturbing,” Anderson said.

“The Afghan Files is factual and important reporting which exposed allegations about Australian soldiers committing war crimes in Afghanistan.”

Federal Treasurer continues conflict with Dan Andrews

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has continued his media blitz against Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, once again calling for Victoria’s lockdown to end.

Yesterday, the treasurer – who represents the seat of Kooyong in Melbourne’s inner-eastern suburbs – tweeted a “message to the Premier of Victoria” to “please understand the significant impact the harsh lockdown is having on the mental health of Victorians”.

Andrews today fielded questions from journalists at his daily press conference which went for more than 90 minutes.

The Victorian Premier’s office was vandalised this morning, to which he responded by saying “graffiti doesn’t work against the virus”.

Frydenberg, who is in Adelaide today, also weighed in on the closure of the West End brewery, blaming the rise of craft beer for Lion’s decision to exit South Australia.

“What we’re starting to see across the beverage market and particularly with beers is we’ve seen a rise in craft beers – 700-plus craft beers – around the country,” he said.

“And the per capita drinking of beer has actually come down over time.

“If you go back to when West End started, there were a heap of beers that are now on tap at pubs right around this state that were not even invented back then.”

Calls for Federal ICAC grow as Daryl Maguire faces second day of grilling

Calls for a federal anti-corruption commission are growing as more revelations emerge from the NSW ICAC inquiry into former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

Today’s revelations include that Maguire was hoping to make around $1.5 million on the sale of land near Badgerys Creek to racing heir Louise Waterhouse, and that he ran these deals past the NSW Premier to “seek assurances”.

The inquiry then went dark as the focus turned towards the relationship between Maguire and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, with Assistant Counsel Scott Robertson determining the privacy of the two former lovers “significantly outweighed” the public interest of dealing with these matters publicly.

The revelations from the inquiry have prompted renewed calls for a federal ICAC, although crossbench senator Stirling Griff says there is “no direct evidence” of the Federal Government restarting discussions on this issue.

Government talking points – accidentally emailed to the media this morning – show the Coalition’s intended messaging on the prospect of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

While the Government “remains committed” to establishing a commission, the management of the COVID recovery is a more “immediate priority”.

Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt slammed the government for not prioritising the issue.

“The Liberals have spent thousands of words justifying why there’s still no Federal ICAC, when it would only take a vote in the House to implement the Greens bill that has already passed the Senate,” Bandt said.

“This has been an issue for going on a decade, and there has been legislation before parliament for several years … the excuse that the government is too busy is utterly ridiculous.”

Meanwhile in SA, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone cleared nine state MPs – including three senior Liberals who resigned over the Country Members entitlements scandals – of any wrongdoing.

All 50,000 tourism vouchers gone in less than two hours

The new “Great State Vouchers” – which offer $100 off CBD hotels and $50 off regional accommodation – have sold out within 90 minutes of going on sale this morning.

The 50,000 vouchers were snapped up by eager local tourists, who can now enjoy a holiday discount while staying at participating venues.

SA Premier Steven Marshall said the scheme is vital for boosting tourism in the city.

“The tourism sector, and accommodation providers in the CBD in particular, have been hit hard since COVID-19 hit and it’s vital that we all work together to boost this sector back up and most importantly, bring back the jobs that have been lost,” Marshall said.

“We’ve seen the first green shoots of recovery over the past month, particularly with regional tourism.

“However, our CBD is still suffering and that’s why we’re urging South Australians to get back into the city.”

SA unemployment rate falls, along with full-time job numbers

South Australia’s jobless rate has fallen by a full percentage point to 7.1 per cent, shrugging the tag of Australia’s highest unemployment state in the process.

September’s jobs figures were released this morning, revealing a slight rise in the seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate from 6.8 per cent in August to 6.9 per cent.

Surprisingly, pandemic-hit Victoria’s unemployment rate fell from 7.1 per cent in August to 6.7 per cent despite a 35,000 fall in the number of people with a job, which was offset by a 1 per cent fall in the participation rate.

Queensland now has Australia’s worst unemployment rate at 7.7 per cent, followed by Tasmania (7.6 per cent) and New South Wales (7.2 per cent).

The number of South Australians with a job increased by 8,700 in September but the number of people with full-time employment fell by 1500.

Read more here.

Virgin Australia CEO resigns amid tensions with new owners

Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah is resigning as US private equity firm Bain Capital begins its takeover of the struggling airline which entered voluntary administration in April this year.

The resignation is reportedly due to a disagreement between Scurrah and Bain Capital on the future model of the airline, with the new American owners hoping to transform Virgin into a budget carrier, while the former CEO wants to maintain the airline’s status as a competitor

Former Jetstar CEO Jane Hrdlicka is set to replace Scurrah in the top job.

Yesterday, the Transport Workers Union announced they had suspended enterprise negotiations with Virgin following preliminary reports of Scurrah’s exit and Bain Capital’s intentions for the airline.

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said the exit of Scurrah and the shift to a low cost model are worrying developments for Virgin’s workers.

“The ink is not yet dry on the sale of Virgin and it appears that private equity firm Bain Equity are behaving as we feared: ripping out the heart of Virgin and reneging on promises to the Australian people,” Kaine said.

“We are suspending negotiations on enterprise agreements while we seek clarification on these developments.”

Health Minister makes testing plea as NSW reports 11 new COVID-19 cases

NSW has recorded 11 new cases of COVID-19, six of which are locally acquired.

The other five cases were acquired overseas and are currently in hotel quarantine.

Three of the locally acquired cases are linked to the Lakemba GP cluster, the source of nine cases recorded yesterday.

One of the new cases is a household contact of a case recorded yesterday in Bargo, south western Sydney, while the other two locally acquired cases are under investigation.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he is concerned by a recent drop in testing numbers.

“Testing remains a concern because yesterday … we had 16,021 tests, and we were concerned about that, we’re even more concerned today because it has dropped below the 16,000 – it’s down to 15,802 tests,” Hazzard said.

“So I just want to say again, to try and manage COVID-19 on behalf of our community, we really do need the entire community to be with us on this journey.”

Hazzard also took the chance to warn people from misleading public health officials, as authorities embark on a testing blitz in the border community of Shepparton after a truck driver who tested positive failed to report that he had been in the town.

“One of the ongoing problems that … public health has had here in NSW – and also in Victoria – is that people are not necessarily telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he said.

“We’ve had a case overnight in Victoria where there is some indication that a gentlemen who is involved in driving trucks and involved in the tyre industry may not have actually expanded fulsomely on where he had been.

“As a result, we now have concerns in Shepparton which is within the NSW-Victorian bubble … the reports seem to indicate that he didn’t actually advise that he had been to Shepparton.

“You need to be very very careful in what you’re telling public health officials.”

RBA Governor leaves door open for rate cut

Speaking at an investment conference this morning, Reserve Bank Governor Phillip Lowe said further monetary easing could be on the cards.

The current cash rate is at 0.25 per cent, with speculation mounting that the central bank will drop it to 0.10 per cent in the coming months.

Lowe said the increase in economic activity as Australia emerges from COVID-19 means a further rate cut would “get more traction” than earlier in the year.

“When the pandemic was at its worst and there were severe restrictions on activity, we judged that there was little to be gained from further monetary easing,” Lowe said.

“As the economy opens up, though, it is reasonable to expect that further monetary easing would get more traction than was the case earlier.”

The Australian share market opened higher this morning, with the S&P/ASX200 Index up 0.4 per cent after the governor’s speech.

The Reserve Bank board will next meet on November 3.

Stubborn Victorian virus case numbers fall again

Victoria has reported six new cases of coronavirus but no new fatalities, leaving the state’s death toll at 816 and the national toll at 904.

Melbourne’s rolling 14-day new case average has dropped to 8.9, and remains steady at 0.6 for regional areas.

Department of Health and Human Services figures also show the number of mystery cases in Melbourne rose by one to 15 for the period September 29 to October 12. There are no mystery cases in regional Victoria.

New case numbers in Victoria dropped to seven yesterday after six-straight days of double figures.

Meanwhile, Shepparton residents will again line up on Thursday to be tested after a new COVID-19 outbreak was sparked by a truck driver who didn’t tell contact tracers he had been to the northern town.

The man, who was infected in the Chadstone Shopping Centre outbreak, visited Kilmore and Shepparton while infectious on September 30.

The truckie, who had a worker’s permit, had admitted to illegally dining at a Kilmore cafe but only told contact tracers he stopped in Shepparton after three people tested positive earlier this week.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the health department’s compliance unit was examining the issue and could refer him to police.

Everyone in Shepparton has been asked to get tested for the virus.

Grants keep home builders in business

The State Government has received more than 1100 applications for the $25,000 HomeBuilder Grant, which it says will kickstart a wave of residential construction work over the next 12 months.

The Federal grants, which are managed by the states, were opened in June. To be eligible, contracts must be signed between June 4 and December 31 this year, and construction must commence within three months of the contract date.

Treasurer Rob Lucas said of the 1100 applications, 64 grants had been or were about to be paid while another 159 applicants had received conditional approval.

Of these, some are also receiving the State Government’s $15,000 First Home Owner Grant – providing them a combined $40,000 head start into home ownership.

“HomeBuilder is a welcome shot in the arm for our state’s critical housing and construction sector, which supports thousands of local jobs – from carpenters, plumbers and bricklayers to electricians, architects and other suppliers,” he said.

Lucas said he had written to Federal Minister for Housing and Assistant Treasurer, Michael Sukkar, seeking a blanket extension of three months to the construction commencement requirement for all HomeBuilder applicants in SA.

If approved, this would mean that all local HomeBuilder applicants would have six months in which to commence construction from the date of signing the build contract.

Health chief’s revelation puts WA hard border under attack

Western Australia’s hard border stance is set to face further scrutiny after the state’s chief health officer contradicted claims by the premier.

In evidence before a parliamentary committee on yesterday, WA chief health officer Dr Andy Robertson said he was open to considering travel bubbles with other jurisdictions that had also gone at least 28 days without community spread.

All states and territories besides NSW and Victoria had met that benchmark, he told state parliament’s Education and Health Standing Committee.

Robertson also said he was generally satisfied with other states’ border arrangements, adding that many had duplicated those of WA.

Speaking in parliament hours later, Premier Mark McGowan maintained Robertson had “expressed concern” about other states’ border arrangements.

Earlier this month, the premier claimed to have been advised other states’ border arrangements were “not as strong as ours”.

WA is set to hold a state election on March 13, prompting suggestions the hard border will remain in place until after the poll in line with McGowan’s tough stance on COVID-19.

Opposition health spokesman Zak Kirkup said the premier had been “caught out”.

“It’s been made abundantly clear that the border arrangements that are put in place in Western Australia haven’t been based on the health advice but have in fact been a political decision that’s been made by the premier and the government,” he said.

While McGowan has maintained that the health advice has been the only factor keeping the borders closed, Robertson conceded there may be other elements in play.

With people in NSW free to enter lower-risk states such as South Australia, Robertson said he remained concerned about WA’s susceptibility to the virus because restrictions on physical distancing had largely been removed.

“I think it is a tightrope that we’re walking,” he said.

“Obviously as other jurisdictions have got (outbreaks) under control, there’s a lot less cases, the risk has substantially decreased.

“We need to have a better understanding of where the epidemiology is going in NSW and Victoria, whether it continues to fall.”

He also declared it was achievable for all states and territories to achieve 28 days with no community spread by Christmas.

Unemployment rate tipped to rise

Economists are forecasting Australia’s unemployment rate rising to 7.1 per cent when labour force figures for September are released today after the surprise drop to 6.8 per cent from 7.5 per cent in August.

Employment expectations centre on a 35,000 fall.

The weaker tone of the report is expected to reflect Victoria’s harsh stage four COVID-19 lockdown during the month.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for SA was unchanged from July to August at 7.9 per cent – but that figure handed the state the highest jobless rate in the country, well above the next highest, Queensland, with 7.5 per cent.

In last week’s budget, Treasury predicted the unemployment rate will be around eight per cent by the end of 2020 before finishing the financial year at 7.25 per cent.

It does not expect the rate to be below six per cent until 2023/24 when policy will again fixate on returning budget surpluses.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe will get his first opportunity to respond to last week’s Federal Budget when he addresses day 2 of the Citi conference just hours before the jobs figures.

Lowe will also be able to reply to persistent speculation the central bank is about to cut the cash rate to 0.10 per cent from 0.25 per cent, while making similar adjustments to its three-year bond yield target and its term funding facility rate for banks.

There is also talk it will start buying five- and 10-year bonds in a further move to keep market interest rates low while pumping liquidity into the system.

Interest rate speculation, a tax-cutting budget and success in containing COVID-19 has seen consumer confidence surge to its highest level since July 2018, suggesting a positive outlook for household spending.

“Such a rapid turn in confidence may suggest a sharp bounce back in activity is in store for the fourth quarter, which would be further assisted if restrictions were eased further in Victoria,” National Australia Bank economist Tapas Strickland said.

 – with AAP and Reuters

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