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What we know today, Thursday December 17


Welcome to your serving of the day’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

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Budget deficit shrinks as economy bounces back

The deficit is expected to be around $16 billion smaller than predicted just a few weeks ago when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg handed down his delayed budget.

The mid-year budget review released today shows the deficit for the 2020/21 financial is now forecast to be $197.7 billion rather than the $213.7 billion announced in October.

Annual economic growth for 2021 is now predicted to be 4.5 per cent compared with 4.25 per cent at budget time, while the jobless rate is expected to peak at 7.5 per cent in the March quarter, down from eight per cent forecast in the budget.

“Today’s budget update confirms that the Australian economy is rebounding strongly,” Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra.

The unemployment rate for November, also released today, unexpectedly fell to 6.8 per cent from 7.0 per cent in October.

The improved budget numbers are driven by savings on the cost of JobKeeper wage subsidy and a windfall from iron ore prices.

New figures from Treasury in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook show the total cost of JobKeeper was revised down, saving the budget roughly $11 billion.

The number of Australians reliant on the wage subsidies has been reduced from 2.24 million in the October budget to 1.6 million in the mid-year update.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still a very long way to go in Australia’s economic recovery,”‘ Frydenberg said.

Shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones said he hopes the economy is coming back because there are still one million unemployed.

“This is no time for the government to be patting themselves on the back and saying job done,” Jones told Sky News.

China tariffs will slow SA economic recovery from pandemic

University of Adelaide economists say South Australia’s recovery will be weaker than previously expected as a result of China’s decision to escalate its trade war with Australia, the outbreak of a second COVID-19 wave in the northern hemisphere, and the state’s own mini lockdown in November.

The conclusions are contained in the latest Economic Briefing Report prepared by the university’s SA Centre for Economic Studies (SACES) ahead of a briefing tomorrow.

The report shows:

“The external environment for South Australia remains quite challenging. Both the global and national economies remain in recession even though economic activity bounced back strongly following the lifting of stringent lockdown measures,” said SACES deputy director Steve Whetton.

“The pandemic has essentially wiped out several years of economic growth for Australia. Major components of activity such as household consumption, business investment and exports remain below their pre-pandemic levels.

“Employment also remains below its pre-COVID trajectory in spite of a strong rebound over recent months and considerable government support.

The report found that economic recovery in South Australia was, if anything, progressing a little faster than the national average until the short ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in November.

Fortunately, the lockdown was only brief, which means that any fallout should be limited, representing only a temporary setback to recovery, the report said.

“Of much greater concern for the state’s economic outlook is China’s recent move to impose massive tariffs on Australian wine which will cause considerable disruption to the local viticulture and winemaking industries, reducing their production and employment in the short to medium term,” Whetton said.

“China accounts for almost half of South Australia’s overseas exports of alcoholic beverages and has been the main source of wine export growth over recent years.

“Taking into account other commodities that have been subject to China’s arbitrary trade barriers, in the order of one- eighth of South Australia’s overseas goods exports could be at risk of China’s trade measures.”

The full Economic Briefing will be delivered to South Australian business leaders at a virtual presentation this Friday, 18 December.

Truckie charged after huge Port Augusta drug haul

A Queensland man has been charged with drug offences after police found 6.5 kilograms of methamphetamine and more than $1.6 million in cash in a truck at Port Augusta, in SA’s mid-north.

The truck was stopped and searched on December 11 with the drugs, with a street value of about $3.25 million, found in the rear of the vehicle and the cash in a bag in the cabin.

It is also alleged the 31-year-old driver had a further $10,000 in cash on him at the time.

He has been charged with trafficking in a large commercial quantity of a controlled drug and unlawful possession.

He was refused bail and will appear in Port Augusta Magistrates Court on Friday.

SA leads way as Australia’s unemployment rate falls to 6.8 per cent

The national unemployment rate fell to 6.8 per cent in November as a larger-than- expected 90,000 people joined the workforce during the month.

Economists had forecast a 40,000 rise in employment, with the jobless rate remaining at October’s level of seven per cent.

Earlier this week, the Reserve Bank said the jobless rate is now unlikely to reach eight per cent as previously feared.

South Australia recorded the lowest unemployment rate of any state at 6.2 per cent, down from seven per cent in October.

Nationally, only the Northern Territory and the ACT recorded lower unemployment rates.

However, SA had the highest level of under-employment and recorded the biggest percentage fall in its participation rate for the month (equal with Queensland).

Treasury is expected to have upgraded its unemployment forecasts when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg hands down his mid-year budget review later on Thursday.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows 84,200 full-time jobs were created in November across Australia, along with 5800 part-time positions.

The national participation rate of those people in work or seeking employment rose to 66.1 per cent from 65.8 per cent.

Australian Open to begin on February 8

Men’s tennis’s governing body has announced the Australian Open will start on February 8, three weeks later than planned.

While Tennis Australia and the Victorian and Australian governments are yet to confirm, the ATP this morning revealed its revised 2021 calendar with the Melbourne Park grand slam front and centre of a pandemic-forced shake-up.

The ATP said men’s qualifying for the season’s first major was being moved to Doha, Qatar, from January 10-13.

That will be followed by a period of about two and a half weeks set aside for travel to Melbourne and a 14-day quarantine period for players and their coaches or other support staff.

A 12-team ATP Cup, the relocated Adelaide International and an additional men’s tournament will be held in Melbourne to give players a chance to prepare for the Open.

The ATP said the season would start with a tournament beginning in the first week of January in Delray Beach, Florida.

As with other sports, tennis was disrupted this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak, including several months with no competition, the postponement of the French Open’s start from May to September, and the cancellation of Wimbledon for the first time since World War II.

After months of sensitive negotiations with health officials, Tennis Australia said it hoped to formalise the Open start dates later today.

Virus cluster end date named as early Christmas present looms

December 23 is looming as a key date to hand South Australia an early Christmas gift as health officials prepare to draw a line through the worrying Parafield cluster of COVID-19 cases if there are no new virus cases in the next week.

Authorities consider two incubation cycles, or 28 days, the necessary timeframe before an outbreak can be declared officially eliminated.

December 23 has been identified as the day after that period ends for the Parafield cluster, which still stands at 33 infections.

None of those cases is still considered active.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said the cluster was “fairly unique” with a lot of information collected on all of those who became infected.

She said the last person went into isolation on November 24.

“So if you count 28 days from there it ends up being around the 23rd of December which is when we can say it’s closed,” she told an online forum.

SA recorded its first new case since November 29 on Monday when a returned overseas traveller – a man in his 40s – tested positive to his day one test while in hotel quarantine. He is not linked to the Parafield cluster and was no longer considered an active case as of Tuesday.

SA Police relax border patrols

South Australia’s road border checkpoints will no longer be staffed by police and people coming in from interstate won’t have to fill out online approval forms, under immediate changes to travel restrictions.

The police presence at Adelaide Airport will also be scaled back.

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens announced the changes late yesterday, saying he’d made the decision without consulting the chief public health officer because it was an “operational decision” impacting police resources.

“I think it’s fair to say that COVID-19 has virtually been eliminated from within the community in Australia,” Stevens told reporters.

“Having reached that point, based on the obligation to make sure that we’re effectively using our resources, we made the determination to withdraw that particular border checkpoint activity.”

Stevens said it was “on the proviso that we can stand it up again if there is an outbreak in another jurisdiction that would change our level of risk in allowing people to travel without monitoring their movement into SA”.

He said the decision would free up hundreds of officers to return to their normal duties.

“We (also) imagine this will speed up the process for people coming into South Australia via the airport and will certainly be a relief to people travelling across the border by road into South Australia,” he said.

“We will no longer be pulling over vehicles and speaking to drivers.”

Stevens said there would still be some police at the airport to ask people arriving if they’ve been overseas in the past 14 days, had contact with anyone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 and if they had any symptoms themselves.

People arriving from overseas will still need to go through the screening process and spend 14 days in hotel quarantine.

Stevens said he hadn’t consulted with chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier because it was “an operational decision”.

“It’s one that is directly impacting on SA Police so I make that decision without that consultation,” he said.

“I have advised the chief executive of SA Health of our decision to do this and there’s support from that position.”

InDaily contacted SA Health to see if Spurrier wanted to comment.

A spokesperson said SA Health would provide no comment because it was a police operational decision.

 – Jemma Chapman

Adelaide set for Test cricket blockbuster

Adelaide Oval is ready to host the most anticipated Test match of the year and the first on home soil since the COVID-19 pandemic from this afternoon when Australia takes on India in the five-day pink-ball match.

Much of the social gloss has been taken off the annual Adelaide Test this year because of coronavirus restrictions that have limited crowds to about 21,000 fans per day.

But that has taken nothing away from the hype around the match itself, which will see a much-anticipated clash between the world’s two highest-ranked Test batsmen, Steve Smith and Indian captain Virat Kohli, who is playing in his only Test of the four-match series.

It will also see two of the world’s top pacemen face-off – Pat Cummins and Jasprit Bumrah.

Australia is expected to debut West Australian 21-year-old Cameron Green to bat at No.6 and give skipper Tim Paine another bowling option.

Selectors are understood to have picked Joe Burns to open the batting with Matthew Wade in a makeshift partnership caused by David Warner’s groin injury and the concussion of another potential debutant Will Pucovski.

Indian batting prodigy Prithvi Shaw, who has been likened to Sachin Tendulkar and mentored by the cricket legend, will play his first Test in Australia but chirpy wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant has been axed in favour of veteran Wriddhiman Saha.

Head curator Damian Gough is bullish about the pitch for the match being typical of Adelaide Oval: some pace and bounce, then spin, while being true throughout to bat on.

Tickets for the initial three days have sold out, with the first match in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy set to begin at 2.30pm.

Three new COVID-19 cases put Sydney on edge

NSW Health is scrambling to contain the impact of three new locally acquired COVID-19 cases and prevent similar cases in the future.

The state broke its 12-day streak without locally acquired coronavirus cases yesterday, after a Sydney airport driver was confirmed to have the virus in the morning and then two mystery cases popped up in the Northern Beaches.

The Northern Beaches cases, a woman in her 60s and a man in his 70s, are close contacts of each other but authorities have not found a connection to any other cases.

Alerts are out for several areas in the Northern Beaches, particularly Avalon and Palm Beach, after the two moved through the community while contagious.

NSW Health is urgently undertaking genomic sequencing and contact tracing to stem the damage and identify the source of the infections.

The cases were identified just hours after a 45-year-old driver transporting international aircrew members to and from Sydney Airport and their hotels was confirmed COVID-positive.

NSW is considering changes to quarantining requirements for international aircrew, the state’s health minister says.

Chief health officer Kerry Chant told reporters on Wednesday the southwest Sydney man worked only with aircrew members and was not involved in regular taxi services for the public. He wore a mask while working.

But Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a stronger regime for international aircrew members may be required to eliminate future risk – likely by placing aircrew in full hotel quarantine until their flight back out of Australia.

While they do not currently have total liberty, air crew have more freedom of movement than returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

Hazzard said NSW may act unilaterally if the national cabinet cannot agree.

“Our inclination is to say to international air crews and airlines … crews coming in to NSW will most likely be required to quarantine in the same way as other international visitors,” the minister told reporters.

At least 2000 international air crew members touch down in Sydney each week, with turnarounds of up to 72 hours before flying out again.

The COVID-positive case’s employer, Sydney Ground Transport in Alexandria, has ceased operations while contact tracing takes place.

The company’s staff will be tested for COVID-19.

Three people with whom the man lives, meanwhile, tested negative to COVID-19 on Wednesday but will self-isolate for 14 days.

France convicts 14 over Charlie Hebdo attack

A French court has convicted 14 people of crimes ranging from financing terrorism to membership of a criminal gang in relation to Islamist attacks in 2015 against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket.

The trial has reopened one of modern France’s darkest episodes just as another wave of Islamist attacks on home soil in recent months, including the beheading of a schoolteacher, prompted the government to crack down on what it calls Islamist separatism.

Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, spraying gunfire and killing 12, on January 7, 2015, nearly a decade after the weekly published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

A third attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, killed a policewoman and then four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in a Paris suburb.

Like the Kouachis, Coulibaly was killed in a shootout with police.

Among the 14 accomplices sentenced on Wednesday was Hayat Boumeddiene, the former partner of Coulibaly and one of three defendants tried in absentia.

Believed to be still alive and on the run from an international arrest warrant, prosecutors referred to her as an “Islamic State princess”.

The judges convicted Boumeddiene, 32, of financing terrorism and belonging to a criminal terrorist network and sentenced her to 30 years in jail.

Terrorism-related charges were dropped for six of the defendants who were found guilty of lesser crimes.

On the eve of the trial’s opening, Charlie Hebdo, which has long tested the limits of what society will accept in the name of free speech, re-printed the cartoons that had stirred outrage in the Muslim world when they were first published by a Danish paper in 2005.

Chinese space probe returns from moon mission

The Chinese space capsule carrying 2kg of samples from the moon’s surface has landed on the steppe of Inner Mongolia in northern China, state TV reports.

The successful Chang’e 5 mission makes China only the third space-faring country to have brought lunar samples to earth, after the United States and the Soviet Union.

It is the first time in 44 years that lunar soil and rocks have been brought back to earth.

The return marked the final leg of a 23-day mission that included the spacecraft’s moon landing, collection of soil and rock samples, ascension and docking with a moon orbiter and, finally, a four-day trip back to earth.

– with AAP and Reuters
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