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What we know today, Friday February 19


Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. The Marshall Government is now in minority as Liberal MP Fraser Ellis moves to the crossbench after being charged for alleged offences resulting from an ICAC investigation.

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Marshall Government in ‘crisis’ after MP drops ICAC bombshell

The Marshall Government has been plunged into minority this morning after Liberal MP Fraser Ellis made a shock announcement that he has been charged for alleged offences resulting from the ICAC country members allowance investigation.

Ellis said he informed Premier Steven Marshall on Thursday that he would suspend his Liberal Party membership and sit on the crossbench while he disputes the charges, leaving the government with just 22 MPs on the floor of the House of Assembly, with 24 needed for a majority.

The Director of Public Prosecutions filed a formal criminal charge with the Adelaide Magistrates Court on Wednesday, charging Ellis with 23 counts of Deception contrary to Section 139 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act.

It comes after the Liberal backbencher last year repaid $42,130 in allowance claims he made while staying rent free with fellow MP Terry Stephens at his Norwood property.

It will be alleged that Ellis made 78 fraudulent claims – totalling more than $18,000 – for the allowance between May 13, 2018, and June 12, 2020.

The member for Narungga told the parliament at 2:13am this morning that he would be defending himself against the charges and not resigning from parliament.

“I’m completely innocent, and I will be vigorously defending these allegations to the full extent of my resources and the law,” Ellis said.

“I’ve never acted dishonestly, any error in a claim form completed by a relatively inexperienced member was simply that – an error.

“The allegations are contrary to who I am and what I stand for. I have great faith in the judicial system of this state, and I look forward to being exonerated by an impartial court, free of influence from other arms of government.”

Commissioner Ann Vanstone QC – who referred a brief of evidence on the matter to the DPP in December last year – this morning released a statement on the charges.

“I would not ordinarily name a person charged as a result on an investigation by me,” Vanstone said.

“But in light of Mr Ellis’s statement in Parliament this morning, it is appropriate that I do so on this occasion.”

She added that her investigation into other members continues.

Vanstone’s last update on the country members investigation in October cleared nine MPs – including two former ministers – of any misconduct, but left Ellis’s name off the exonerated list.

In September 2020, Vanstone said she had asked Ellis to voluntarily provide documents that “go to his incurring actual expenditure during nights he stayed in Adelaide” and “demonstrate a requirement that he be in Adelaide on the occasions when claims were made”.

Ellis said he intends to contest the next state election in 2022.

Labor Shadow Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Tom Koutsantonis questioned why the premier did not inform the public of the charges earlier.

“This plunges the government into a bit of a crisis,” Koutsantonis told InDaily.

“Why the premier didn’t tell anyone earlier, I think is scandalous.

“The moment he found out one of his MPs was charged, he should have put out a press release and told the public immediately that he has now got a minority government with only 22 votes on the floor of the house.

“The premier has got to explain… why he didn’t immediately come forward and explain to South Australians what the charges were, and why it was left to Fraser Ellis to voluntarily resign from the Liberal Party or why he wasn’t sacked.”

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas also questioned the timing of the announcement.

“In the past year alone, this government has had three Ministers resign and two MPs quit the party after being charged with offences – as well as the resignations of the President of the Legislative Council and the Government Whip,” Malinauskas said.

“Why was this significant announcement made in the dead of night after 2am?”

Ellis has received a summons to appear in the Adelaide magistrates court on March 31.

Parliament is next due to sit on March 2.

Texts cast doubt on PMO’s response to alleged rape

Explosive text messages have cast serious doubt over when the prime minister’s office first knew about the alleged rape of a Liberal staffer.

Brittany Higgins says she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague inside Parliament House in 2019.

Scott Morrison claims his office did not find out about the alleged rape until last week and he was not informed until Monday.

A text message exchange between Higgins and a fellow Liberal staffer within a fortnight of the incident.

In the message, the Liberal staffer said he had spoken directly with a member of Morrison’s staff.

“Spoke to PMO. He was mortified to hear about it and how things have been handled,” he said.

“He’s going to discuss with COS — no one else. I flagged need for councillor (sic) and desire to be closer to home during election.”

PMO refers to the prime minister’s office and COS is shorthand for chief of staff.

The prime minister is standing by his timeline, despite Higgins saying at least three of his staff had prior knowledge of the incident.

While the messages appear to confirm her account, Morrison wants the nation’s top public servant to review communication records.

“If there was anything different here, I would like to know,” he told reporters in Sydney on Friday.

“I want to know and that is why I have asked the secretary of my department to actually test that advice that I received.”

Morrison denied he had misled the public and maintains he is horrified by the allegations.

“I have sought to be as open and honest as I can be about this matter. I have told you everything I know about this matter. I will continue to,” he said.

Victoria records three new local cases

Victoria has recorded three new locally acquired cases of coronavirus.

The Health Department on Friday confirmed the cases are linked to the Holiday Inn outbreak and have been quarantining at home during their infectious period.

A total of 22 confirmed cases have been connected to the outbreak, which can be traced back to a family of three staying on the third floor at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport.

At least 15 cases have been shown to have the B117 variant through genomic testing.

About 3400 close contacts of positive cases remain in isolation and authorities had been warning more cases were likely to emerge.

The new infections bring the total number of active cases in the state to 27.

Some 21,292 people were tested on Thursday.

‘Historic day for women’: Abortion reforms pass SA Parliament

Proposed changes to South Australia’s abortion laws have passed the House of Assembly after more than 22 hours of parliamentary debate, paving the way for the medical procedure to be eliminated from the state’s criminal code for the first time in more than 50 years.

The Termination of Pregnancy bill was passed on its third reading 29 votes to 15, with the lower house adjourning just before 2:20am this morning after working through 10 remaining amendments to the proposal.

The change will see abortion moved out of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act where it has been since 1969.

It will also allow abortions to occur after 22 weeks and six days gestation if deemed “medically appropriate” by two medical practitioners, although amendments added to the bill in the last three days have tightened the provisions around when this can occur.

Late-term abortions can now only be approved if there is a threat to the life of the mother or another foetus, a chance of severe foetal anomalies, or “significant risk of injury to physical or mental health” of the mother if the pregnancy were to continue.

The house also last night passed an amendment prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy on the basis of gender.

Attorney General Vickie Chapman, who first proposed the reforms in October last year, hailed the house’s decision.

“I think this is an historic day for women,” she told parliament.

“I think it’s an historic day for the transformation of our management of this particular area of law – we’ve brought it into the 21st century.

“We have now made provision for women so that they don’t have to go interstate to have a service that it’s otherwise available to other women across the country.”

Members on both sides of the house – including Labor MPs Stephen Mullighan and Tom Koutsantonis and Liberal backbencher Stephan Knoll – voted against the bill due to the provisions around late-term abortions, but noted the legislation had improved since it was amended in the house. They also supported moving abortion out of the criminal code but argued this should have been voted on in a separate bill.

Shadow Environment Minister Susan Close said while she was not entirely happy with the concession amendments added to the bill, the reform was still an important step forward.

“This isn’t quite the reform that I think many people … had been looking forward to,” she said.

“But it is a very, very important day for us in South Australia.

“There are great steps forward here, not only in decriminalisation, but also that women in rural areas will particularly be advantaged by this only having to see one doctor in the early weeks when they are seeking a termination.”

The amended bill will now make its way to upper house where it is expected to pass into law.

Morrison stands firm on media code as UK lawmakers condemn Facebook

Scott Morrison is standing firm against Facebook over his government’s media code, calling the social media giant arrogant and disappointing for shutting down emergency services pages along with Australian news, while politicians in the UK have condemned Facebook’s actions.

Facebook banned access to news pages across Australia in response to the proposed code, which would force it to pay local media companies for content.

SA Health, the Bureau of Meteorology, SA Power Networks and a number of essential services pages across the country got caught up in the ban yesterday.

The South Australian pages have since been restored.

Facebook claimed it was left with no choice, arguing the bargaining code was poorly worded “as the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content”.

The prime minister says he won’t be intimidated.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia … cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison said in a statement on his Facebook page.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of big tech companies, who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.

“They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”

Morrison has implored Facebook to continue working with the government on the code, as British lawmakers overnight voiced their condemnation of Facebook’s actions.

“This action – this bully boy action – that they’ve undertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world,” Julian Knight, chair of the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told Reuters.

“We represent people and I’m sorry but you can’t run a bulldozer over that – and if Facebook thinks it’ll do that, it will face the same long-term ire as the likes of big oil and tobacco.”

“I think they’re almost using Australia as a test of strength for global democracies … so, we’re all behind Australia in my view.”

The UK government took a more cautious line than some of Facebook’s fiercer critics.

“It is vital people can access accurate news and information from a range of sources, particularly during a global pandemic,” a government spokesman said in a statement.

“We encourage Facebook and the Australian government to work together to find a solution.”

Fringe ready for COVID-safe kick off

The Adelaide Fringe is all set to kick off for 2021, with around 21,000 performers gearing up to showcase their talent across nearly 900 events and 392 venues during the month-long festival program.

Attendees at opening night can expect chequered style seating, reduced audience sizes and an increased police presence as authorities attempt to manage the COVID-risk of the annual festival.

SA Health has granted more than 100 exemptions for performers and support staff from greater Melbourne to travel to Adelaide for the event.

Fringe Director Health Croall said the festival is expected to sell around 155,000 tickets worth a total of $4 million in time for opening night.

“We feel incredibly lucky to launch our opening weekend, and very proud to deliver what will be a fun and exciting COVID-safe festival,” Croall said.

“It’s been so impressive to watch how artists and venues have adapted over this past year, coming up with new, innovative and inventive ways to present their performances safely within the rules of crowd density, social distancing and contact tracing, for everyone to enjoy.

“While our 2021 Fringe will look different to previous years with many COVID-related initiatives in place, the magic vibe of Fringe will still be very much alive.

“We have planned for every possible scenario this year, and we continue to work closely with local government and SA Health to ensure we keep our artists, venues and audiences safe.”

Audience capacity will be capped at 50 per cent for most shows, while some special events will have 75 per cent capacity but with attendees wearing masks.

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr Emily Kirkpatrick said SA Health has been working with Fringe organisers for months to ensure the event can go ahead safely.

“There will be COVID Safe Check-In points across all venues to make it as easy as possible for patrons to check-in, and audience sizes will be smaller to allow for physical distancing,” Kirkpatrick said.

“While there may be less audience participation this year due to physical distancing requirements, we’ve worked hard to ensure all performers and events can entertain the crowd in a COVID-safe way.

“Patrons should read their tickets carefully to know which entrance to use at a venue, and make sure they hold onto it after the show as there will also be designated exits.”

She also said health authorities are hoping to see queues minimised given the challenges they present for social distancing.

SA Police Superintendent Matt Nairn said yesterday that more police units will be deployed to the festival this year, but they would not be cracking down on people who do not use the QR code check in system.

See InReview for Adelaide Fringe and Festival previews and reviews.

Severe fire warnings in place across SA

The Bureau of Meteorology has issued severe fire warnings for four districts today, with total fire bans in place for the Mid North, Mount Lofty Ranges, Yorke Peninsula and Lower South fire districts.

The BoM forecasts very hot conditions across the state today accompanied by fresh northeast to northwesterly winds, until milder temperatures and a southerly wind change comes in the afternoon.

The CFS says residents in the total fire ban districts should activate their bushfire survival plan.

It comes with Adelaide set to reach a maximum of 36 degrees today, while areas in the state’s north will endure temperatures of up to 40-degrees.

Some national parks in the Adelaide Hills will be closed in light of the total fire bans.

Virus infections falling worldwide: WHO

Health experts have warned against apathy as the reported daily number of coronavirus infections has fallen across the world for a month.

Falls in infections and deaths coincide with lockdowns and severe curbs on gatherings and movement as governments weigh the need to stop successive waves of the pandemic with the need to get people back to work and children back to school.

But optimism over a way out of the crisis has been tempered by new variants of the virus, raising fears about the efficacy of vaccines.

“Now is not the time to let your guard down,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisation’s technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing in Geneva.

“We cannot let ourselves get into a situation where we have cases rise again.”

COVID-19 has hit some countries far harder than others, although differences in the way infections are counted locally make it impossible to make a perfect apples-to-apples comparison.

There were 351,335 new infections reported worldwide on Tuesday on a seven-day average, the figure falling from 863,737 on January 7.

There were 17,649 deaths on January 26, falling to 10,957 on February 16.

COVID-19 infections are decreasing in the United States, with 77,883 new infections reported on average each day.

That’s 31 per cent of the peak — the highest daily average reported on January 8.

There have been 27,902,387 infections and 490,795 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the United States since the pandemic began, the highest figures in the world.

Coronavirus infection rates in the UK capital have plunged by 80 per cent in the past month according to a study by the Imperial College London.

Researchers tested 85,000 people across England between February 4 and February 13 as part of the monthly study.

It suggested that about 1 in 200 people were infected, a fall of two thirds from the month before.

The decline varied across the country and was steepest in London, where a new and more contagious strain of the virus was identified late last year.

In January an estimated 1 in 30 people in London had the virus.

That has now fallen to about 1 in 185.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the decline in cases was “encouraging . but we must not drop our guard”.

Djokovic into ninth Australian Open final

Novak Djokovic continued his love affair with Melbourne Park and will be a warm favourite to win his ninth Australian Open title after last night bringing an end to the extraordinary run of Aslan Karatsev in the semi-finals.

Djokovic downed the Russian qualifier 6-3 6-4 6-2 in one hour and 55 minutes to set up a title decider with the winner of tonight’s match between Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

“This is the best I felt in the entire tournament,” said Djokovic who picked up an apparent abdominal injury in the third round.

“I felt great. This is the best match so far and it came at the right time.”

Outplayed but rarely outgunned, world No.114 Karatsev is projected to rise to No.42 after becoming the first grand slam debutant to make the semi-finals in the Open Era.

It had been a barely believable run from the muscular Muscovite, winning through three qualifying matches in Doha and another five in Melbourne to make the last four.

The ending was perhaps predictable but the scoreline didn’t reveal the full nature of the contest, Karatsev refusing to be bullied by the 17-time grand slam champion.

He went toe-to-toe with Djokovic for much of the first set, catching the world No.1 out on more than one occasion with his late shot selection and powerful forehand.

A break in the eighth game was enough to seal the set for Djokovic and he put the foot down with two more in the second.

But the 27-year-old didn’t become the first grand slam semi-finalist ranked outside the top 100 in 20 years without showing considerable backbone.

He broke back once and held another break point to bring the match back on serve but couldn’t quite pull it off as Djokovic made it two sets to love.

The third followed a similar pattern – Djokovic breaking only for Karatsev to manhandle his way back into the contest – before the 33-year-old closed down the match.

While it has been far from plain sailing for Djokovic – who was injured against Taylor Fritz in a five-set third round, lost another three sets and at times has battled the crowd and his own demons – he’ll be the favourite regardless of who he plays in the decider.

-With AAP and Reuters

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