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What we know today, Tuesday February 2


South Australia has eased quarantine rules for people arriving from regional Western Australia as a bushfire destroys at least 30 homes in the Perth Hills, University of Adelaide appoints a new Vice-Chancellor and Merv Hughes is inducted into the cricket hall of fame.

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RBA leaves interest rates unchanged

The Reserve Bank has left interest rates unchanged at a record low in its first board meeting of the year.

The central bank’s key cash rate has been 0.1 per cent since November last year.

“The economic recovery is well under way and has been stronger than was earlier expected,” Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said in his post-meeting statement on Tuesday.

But he reiterated the board will not increase the cash rate until actual inflation is sustainably within the two to three per cent target range.

The Reserve Bank’s three-yield bond target rate, that aims to keep short-term market interest rates low, and its term funding facility for banks, were also kept at 0.1 per cent.

Economists had not expected the Reserve Bank to start raising interest rates any time soon, despite indicators in recent weeks appearing to show Australia’s economic recovery is in full swing.

Since the RBAs last gathering in early December, economic growth has accelerated out of the first recession since the early 1990s.

Unemployment has also unexpectedly fallen, business conditions have surged to a two-year high, retail spending is in an upward trend and house prices have struck record highs, which has been accompanied by huge demand for mortgages.

But while the latest inflation figures were slightly stronger than expected for the final three months of 2020, annual inflation and its underlying measures remain subdued.

The annual rate of the consumer price index ended the year at just 0.9 per cent.

The Reserve Bank has repeatedly said – since cutting the cash rate to a record low 0.1 per cent last November – it will not raise interest rates until inflation is sustainably within its two to three per cent target.

It does not expect that to happen until 2023.

Economists will be scrutinising Lowe’s post-meeting statement for the board’s view of the state of the economy and any change in its monetary policy outlook.

Lowe has the chance to expand on the view of the board in an address to the National Press Club in Canberra tomorrow.

He will also be quizzed by the House of Representatives economics committee on Friday and when the Reserve Bank releases its quarterly statement on monetary policy, which will contain its latest economic forecasts.

The weekly consumer confidence index – a pointer to future household spending – is also released today.

One new coronavirus case in SA

SA Health has reported one new case of COVID-19 in a returned overseas traveller in quarantine, the only active case in the state.

Today’s case is a man in his 20s who recently returned from overseas and has been in a medi-hotel since his arrival.

Further testing is underway to determine if this is an old infection.

There have been a total of 597 cases notified in South Australia and four deaths from COVID-19.

SA quarantine rules ease for arrivals from regional WA

South Australia’s hard border rules for people travelling into the state from Western Australia have eased slightly to allow those coming into SA from regional WA to leave quarantine early.

The border closure, which came into effect late on Sunday night and coincided with the beginning of a five-day lockdown in Perth, initially applied to all of WA.

People who had already entered South Australia from Western Australia any time since January 26 must immediately self-quarantine for 14 days at a suitable place and get a COVID-19 test immediately and on days 5 and 12.

But SA Police revised the rules this morning to say that anyone who is currently in South Australia in self-quarantine from Western Australia and has not been in areas under lockdown can leave quarantine immediately, provided they have received a day one negative COVID-19 test.

They must, however, continue to have the day 5 and day 12 COVID-19 tests.

Restrictions are in place for the WA regions of Perth, Peel and the South West

The closures are in response to a security guard at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Perth testing positive for highly contagious UK variant of coronavirus.

Anyone who is a returning South Australian resident, or genuinely relocating to South Australia or fleeing Domestic Violence, who has not been in the areas currently under lockdown in Western Australia, must also receive a day one negative COVID-19 test result before leaving quarantine and also have day 5 and day 12 COVID-19 tests.

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said SA decided to go hard early because of a lack of detailed information about the situation coming from WA.

He said the transition committee this morning had also resolved to remove all measures for people travelling from Greater Sydney from later this month.

Those arrivals do not need to quarantine but are currently required to be tested three times for the virus.

That requirement will be dropped from February 13.

At least 30 homes destroyed as out-of-control bushfire threatens Perth suburbs

An out-of-control bushfire burning in Perth’s northeastern suburbs has doubled in size and destroyed about 30 homes, with authorities checking if lives have been lost in one badly hit area.

The huge blaze – with a 75-kilometre perimeter – raged through the night near the hills town of Wooroloo before moving west onto the city’s coastal plain where it is threatening homes in the northern suburbs.

Temperatures were expected to reach 37C on Tuesday and hot easterly winds packing gusts up to 65km/h were forecast.

Premier Mark McGowan said 80 per cent of all properties in a rural suburb near Gidgegannup had been lost.

“(Firefighters) will be conducting inquiries at the Tilden Park fire scene this morning in an attempt to establish where there has been any loss of life,” he told reporters.

McGowan said a large aerial tanker was en route from NSW to help battle the blaze and the prime minister had been briefed on the situation.

“This is an extremely dangerous fire and a serious situation. Weather conditions are extremely volatile,” he said.

“Please do everything you can to keep you and your family safe and look after each other.”

Earlier, Swan mayor Kevin Bailey said more than 30 homes were believed to have been destroyed.

“The fire has now come down out of the hills towards the flat part of the plains, so there’s an awful lot of smoke through the northern suburbs,” he told the ABC.

People in Perth’s CBD and coastal suburbs were reporting ash landing at their homes, up to 35km from the blaze.

Operations at RAAF Base Pearce – which is in the path of the fire – have been suspended and preparations are being made to evacuate.

Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Commissioner Craig Waters said the fire had doubled in size overnight and burned through 7366 hectares.

“Strong winds are hampering us getting in and containing the fire and bringing it under control,” he said.

People in a 25km stretch west from Wooroloo to the Walyunga National Park northeast of Perth have been told it is too late to leave.

“You must shelter before the fire arrives, as the extreme heat will kill you well before the flames reach you,” the latest DFES warning said.

Jenni Stanton, 59, received a text about 2am telling her to evacuate from her home at The Vines, which is about a kilometre from the blaze.

But she and her husband decided to stay put, saying the roads out of the semi-rural suburb were bumper-to-bumper with traffic.

“The fire has jumped the Great Northern Highway west of Walyunga, so it’s closer to us now,” she told AAP mid-morning.

“The yard is covered in ash and we can hear the water bombers.”

Neighbour Melissa Stahl, 49, received the same text.

“I could smell the fire and went out the back and the whole yard was filled with smoke,” she said.

“My husband Michael said we better go.

“We grabbed bedding, photos, the two kids and the dog and got out of there.”

Meanwhile, surrounding areas including Parkerville, Ellenbrook, Chidlow and Jane Brook have been told to leave if they are not prepared to fight the blaze.

Evacuation centres have been set up at the Brown Park Recreation Complex in Swan View and Swan Active in Midland.

Kira Rutter, 21, fled her home in Ellenbrook about 3am to Brown Park.

She said there were up to 300 people at the centre.

“Everyone is wearing masks and social distancing and we’re a really supportive little community at the moment,” she said.

“But I’m getting a bit anxious now, the smoke has started to reach here.”

University of Adelaide appoints new Vice-Chancellor

The University of Adelaide has appointed Professor Peter Hoj AC as its new Vice-Chancellor and President for a five-year term, beginning on February 8.

Hoj’s appointment follows an extensive global and domestic search by executive recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles, which has worked closely with the University Council’s Selection Committee on the appointment.

He replaces former VC Peter Rathjen, who took indefinite leave of absence on May 5 last year before handing in his official resignation on July 20 amid a serious misconduct investigation.

Professor Mike Brooks had been serving as interim Vice-Chancellor.

Danish-born Hoj (pronounced HOY) is a Fellow of Academies in Australia, the USA and Denmark, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from institutions including the University of Adelaide, University of South Australia, and University of Copenhagen.

Hoj moved to South Australia in 1993 after being offered an academic position by the University of Adelaide.

He has also served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Queensland (2012-2020), Vice- Chancellor of the University of South Australia (2007-2012), CEO of the Australian Research Council (ARC) (2004-2007), and Managing Director and CEO of the Australian Wine Research Institute Pty Ltd (1997-2004).

Hoj was also Foundation Professor of Viticultural Science (1995-1997) and Professor of Oenology (1997-2004) at the University of Adelaide.

He said his first priority would be to “engage deeply with the University community, to build on the excellent history of the University of Adelaide in serving its local and global communities”.

“A strong University of Adelaide is essential for the long-term benefit of our state,” he said.

Merv Hughes inducted into cricket hall of fame

Former Australia fast bowler and cult hero Merv Hughes has been inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame.

Hughes is the second former player inducted this summer – and 56th inductee overall – after 1868 Aboriginal tour champion Johnny Mullagh.

A key figure in Australia’s return to the top of Test cricket rankings, Hughes’ career spanned 53 Tests and 33 ODIs from 1985-1994.

He claimed 212 Test wickets at an average of 28.38.

His career-best figures of 8-87 came against the West Indies at the WACA Ground in 1988 and included the final wicket of a hat-trick spread across three separate overs, two innings and two different days.

“To be inducted has blown me away,” Hughes said.

“To come in alongside some of the names that are in there is overwhelming and I’m a little bit emotional.”

A booming, moustachioed figure, Hughes’ cult hero status was cemented while performing his famous bowling warm-up routine, in which he was joined by fans in the stands.

Fittingly, the proud Victorian was presented with his Hall of Fame trophy at the MCG in front of Bay 13, where his most dedicated supporters often congregated.

Hughes was the Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1994 and represented Victoria, Essex and the ACT over a first-class career spanning 14 seasons.

Without hesitation, he ranks the 1989 Ashes Tour as his career highlight, reflecting fondly on Australia’s breakthrough 4-0 series victory over England.

A third person will be inducted to the Hall of Fame later this week.

Billionaire wins ABC defamation case

Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing has been awarded $590,000 in damages after winning his defamation case over an ABC Four Corners episode.

The businessman, philanthropist and political donor sued the broadcaster, Nine and Nick McKenzie, an investigative reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, over the joint report.

McKenzie presented the 2017 program and the investigation included an accompanying article on the ABC website.

Chau’s lawyers said the broadcast and article defamed their client in six ways, including by suggesting he is a spy who “betrayed his country, Australia, in order to serve the interests of a foreign power, China”.

They also said the publications suggested Dr Chau “donated enormous sums of money to Australian political parties as bribes intended to influence politicians to make decisions to advance the interests of the Republic of China, the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party”.

But the media organisations denied the imputations were conveyed, saying they were “overcooked” with Dr Chau’s lawyers having engaged in an over-elaborate search for hidden meanings.

In the Federal Court on Tuesday, Justice Steven Rares found in favour of Dr Chau, awarded him $590,000 and his legal costs, and restrained the ABC from republishing parts of the episode.

Designs released for Aboriginal art centre

Concept designs inspired by indigenous ‘wurlie’ and ‘humpy’ shelters have been released for Adelaide’s Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre (AACC), to be built at Lot Fourteen in the city.

The AACC Aboriginal Reference Group (ARG) has worked with the design team to ensure the centre will be both contemporary and representative of more than 65,000 years of First Nations cultures across Australia with the deep Aboriginal connection to Country being woven into the iconic reference design.

The group will continue to work on the design of the North Terrace centre as detailed plans are developed by appointed architects Woods Bagot over the next 12 months. Interdisciplinary design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro is also part of the collaboration.

Woods Bagot Principal Rosina Di Maria said the AACC reference design was inspired by the temporary shelters created by Aboriginal peoples and known by names such as “wurlie” and “humpy” and would invoke a sense of welcome and safety.

“It also features fresh and saltwater reflection pools, an outdoor gallery and amphitheatre, views of nature and access to daylight,” Di Maria said.

“AACC will welcome visitors through a radically open ground floor, into a safe space with storytelling at its heart.

“The reference design features lower-level galleries and terraced landscapes carved from the earth, providing exhibition and performance spaces and a gathering area for Welcome to Country ceremonies.

“The welcoming ground floor extends in all directions and reorients the building to Kaingka Wirra (Adelaide Botanic Garden).”

DS+R partner Charles Renfro said the first-of-its-kind project had taken on a new life with its continued collaboration with the Aboriginal community and its Australian design partner Woods Bagot.

“We’re thrilled to be part of this ground-breaking vision to create a place of pride that authentically honours the oldest living cultures on the planet,” he said.

The Australian Government has committed $85 million to the development of the AACC through the Adelaide City Deal. The state government has committed $115 million to the centre, including an extra $50 million funding in the latest State Budget.

Federal Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher said the AACC would boost the cultural economy of South Australia and drive year-round tourism.

“The centre will showcase the past, present and future of Aboriginal cultures while supporting contemporary visual, performing and multimedia arts and events,” he said.

Premier Steven Marshall said the striking reference design embodied the vision of the AACC as a gateway to the oldest living cultures in the world by incorporating the elements of earth, land and sky.

Construction of the AACC is scheduled to start later in 2021 and the centre is due to open in early 2025.

Heat on JobKeeper as parliament returns

The federal government will face pressure to explain why it is winding back JobKeeper support for businesses when parliament kicks off for the year today.

Before hostilities commence, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese will start Tuesday in a reflective mood, attending the traditional church service to start the parliamentary year.

West Australian MPs who travelled to Canberra have been granted exemptions to attend parliament in person, as all states and territories respond in different ways to a Perth quarantine breach.

Labor will seek a government explanation as to why the JobKeeper wage subsidy will end in March, when many businesses continue to struggle, and what level the JobSeeker unemployment benefit will be set at.

The prime minister told the National Press Club yesterday the government would make a decision on the JobSeeker rate before the end of March.

“We’re waiting on the data,” he said.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese says continuing support beyond March is justified.

“It’s easier to keep jobs and businesses going than it is to see them collapse and then try and restart again.”

Australian Council of Social Service chief Cassandra Goldie said there needed to be a permanent and adequate rise in the rate of JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and other payments of at least $25 a day more than the old Newstart rate of $40 a day.

“With only one job for every nine people searching, the insecurity is wreaking havoc on people’s mental health and leaving them to face the heartbreaking decision of whether they’ll be able to afford to continue living in their home,” she says.

Testing the key to containing WA virus outbreak

Test results over the coming days are set to reveal whether Western Australia has dodged a bullet with its COVID-19 outbreak.

No new cases were detected on Monday after a hotel quarantine breach forced metropolitan Perth, the Peel region and South West into a five-day lockdown.

WA’s government took the drastic step after a security guard at the Sheraton Four Points hotel in Perth’s CBD contracted the highly contagious UK strain, then attended more than a dozen venues over several days while infectious.

More than 3100 people were tested on Sunday, most later in the day after the lockdown was announced.

Authorities expect most of the guard’s close contacts will have been re-tested by Wednesday, providing clarity as to whether the lockdown is likely to end as scheduled at 6pm on Friday.

“If they’re still coming up as negative, that would be a good sign that this person wasn’t a particularly effective spreader,” WA’s chief health officer Andy Robertson said.

“And that is what we’re not quite sure on.”

Australian Medical Association WA president Andrew Miller said it was “50-50” as to whether an extension to the lockdown would be needed.

“We’re hoping for doughnut days throughout the week – all zeroes – and then perhaps that will be enough,” he said.

“But we will know by then whether we’re looking at a cluster or clusters which will require a longer period of time, because we know that each cluster usually generates about three weeks worth of cases before it is able to be shut down.”

Premier Mark McGowan has welcomed the initial results but urged people to continue braving long queues and hot weather to get tested.

Anyone living in the lockdown zone, including school students, must stay at home unless shopping for essentials, attending to medical or healthcare needs, exercising within their neighbourhood or working if unable to do so remotely.

It remains unclear how the guard, aged in his 20s, contracted the virus, having assured police he did not enter any rooms.

He is said to be fully cooperating with a police investigation.

Authorities have identified 66 close contacts of the man dubbed “case 903”. They have been ordered to self-isolate.

Eleven “high-risk” contacts, including his three housemates, are in hotel quarantine.

Biden threatens Myanmar sanctions after military coup

President Joe Biden has threatened sanctions on Myanmar after a military coup, saying the US will defend democracy around the world.

The US president was speaking after the military takeover and the ousting of the administration of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, who is among those detained.

Biden called the military’s actions “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law” and said Washington would not hesitate to restore sanctions.

“The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack,” he said in a statement.

The new military rulers say they will hold power for a year before ceding the reins of government to winners in elections next year. They have also imposed an 8pm to 6am curfew across the country.

Coronavirus cases fall in US as vaccinations kick in

COVID-19 cases are plummeting across America while vaccinations are picking up speed after the deadliest month yet of the coronavirus outbreak in the US.

But the question is whether the nation can stay ahead of the fast-spreading mutations of the virus.

The US death toll has climbed past 440,000, with over 95,000 lives lost in January alone. Deaths are running at about 3150 per day on average, down slightly from their peak in mid-January.

But as the calendar turned to February, the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 fell below 100,000 for the first time in two months.

New cases of infection are averaging about 148,000 a day, down from almost a quarter-million in mid-January. And cases are trending downward in all 50 states.

“While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, they are counterbalanced by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in any month since the pandemic began,” said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

After a slow start, the vaccination drive that began in mid-December is picking up the pace. More than 31.1 million doses have been administered in the US, according to the CDC. That is up from 16.5 million on the day President Joe Biden took office on January 20.

Three mutated variants of the virus from Britain, South Africa and Brazil have been detected in the US.

The British one spreads more easily and is believed to be deadlier, but the South Africa one is prompting even more concern because of early indications that vaccines may not be as protective against it.

with AAP and Reuters

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