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What we know today, Friday March 5


Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

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Review into federal parliament workplace culture begins

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins will lead a review of Parliament House’s workplace culture after rape allegations rocked federal politics.

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins triggered the inquiry after she went public with sexual assault allegations against a former colleague.

The alleged 2019 rape sparked heavy criticism of the treatment of women in politics and revelations of other misconduct.

Government Senate leader Simon Birmingham has been working across political parties to decide the terms of reference for the review.

“The parliament of Australia should set the standard for the nation,” he told reporters in Adelaide today.

Jenkins said first-hand experiences would be critical to building a safer, more equal workplace.

“We recognise the significant public interest in this issue and the need to ensure matters will be treated with sensitivity, confidentiality, and be trauma-informed,” she said.

“I urge every staff member to share their experiences with us via a written submission or interview.”

Jenkins will receive scope to hear confidentially from former and serving staff and politicians on how to make cultural changes to prevent assault, harassment and bullying.

“It is so important to get this work done and to get it done properly,” Birmingham said.

“It’s important for the victims of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

The commissioner, who contributed to the terms of the inquiry, is due to hand down her final report in November after making interim findings public in July.

Birmingham said the events of the past few weeks made him concerned good people would be deterred from entering politics unless changes were made.

“If we can set that example and be an exemplar for the nation, then hopefully that can give people the confidence to step forward and to work in our parliament,” he said.

It follows a similar review into the workplace culture of SA Parliament released this month which found that over 27 per cent of South Australian MPs or their staffers who responded to the survey experienced sexual harassment at least once.

Defence Minister apologises for ‘lying cow’ insult

Embattled Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has apologised for calling alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins a “lying cow” after the threat of legal action.

The minister on Friday apologised for last month calling her former employee a “lying cow” after being criticised for not offering enough support to Ms Higgins at the time.

After lawyers fired off a letter threatening to sue Senator Reynolds, she issued a fresh statement apologising for the remarks.

“Discussions are now under way through our legal representatives in an effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible, with any resolution to include an apology,” she said.

“However, in the meantime, I want to express how deeply sorry I am for these remarks and for any hurt and distress they have caused.”

Higgins’ lawyers said the ex-staffer was appalled Senator Reynolds apologised to staff who heard the remark but not her.

“Self-evidently, this demeaning and belittling statement, in which you refer to our client as a member of the animal kingdom and declare her to be untruthful, is highly defamatory of our client’s good character and unblemished reputation,” the letter said.

Senior cabinet ministers have backed the defence minister despite increasing pressure for her to resign.

First Australian AstraZeneca jabs given in Murray Bridge

Australia’s initial AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines are being administered with frontline health workers at Murray Bridge, east of Adelaide, the first in line.

Murray Bridge Soldiers Memorial Hospital Director of Medical Services Caroline Phegan was the first to get the jab with about 40 of her staff to also receive a dose on Friday.

“I know how important it is to vaccinate against a disease like COVID-19 and the rollout of this vaccine is just another way we as healthcare workers can protect ourselves, our loved ones and those most vulnerable,” Dr Phegan said.

“As a doctor working in regional hospitals, you need to be prepared for anything.

“We have had suspected COVID-19 cases come through our emergency department here in Murray Bridge, and it’s just so important that we are vaccinated to prevent any potential spread among the local community.”

It comes after a shipment of 20,000 AstraZeneca doses arrived in SA on Wednesday, allocated by the federal government from a batch of 300,000 vaccines that arrived in Sydney over the weekend.

About 1000 doses of the vaccine arrived at the Murray Bridge hospital yesterday morning, with the town’s frontline health workers first in line to get the jab.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which in time will be replaced by Melbourne-made batches,

will become the mainstay of the COVID-19 fight as it does not require the extremely low-temperature storage that Pfizer does.

The vaccine will also begin being rolled out in Western Australia today.

Premier Steven Marshall said SA’s response to the pandemic has been world-leading and Friday marked another milestone in administering the nation’s first AstraZeneca vaccines.

“Barely 36 hours after the vaccines arrived in South Australia, our public health team have safely transported 1000 doses, brought this regional clinic online, and are ready to begin vaccinating our frontline staff,” he said.

“We have taken our state’s biggest ever peacetime operation to the next stage and are determined to provide the opportunity for every South Australian to be vaccinated by the end of the year.”

Health Minister Stephen Wade said the expansion of the vaccination rollout to regional areas was an important step towards protecting the whole of South Australia.

Magnitude 8.0 NZ earthquake sparks tsunami warning

A third earthquake has struck off New Zealand, with authorities urging people to move immediately to higher ground.

An 8.0-magnitude quake struck just before 6.30am (9am NZ time) near the Kermadec Islands, with the National Emergency Management Authority asking people near the east coast of the North Island to move.

People in Northland, the East Cape and on Great Barrier Island needed to “move immediately” to higher ground or as far inland as possible, the authority said.

The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre said on Friday morning that there is a potential tsunami threat to Norfolk Island.

The 8.0-magnitude quake followed earlier 7.4 and 7.1-magnitude quakes.

Man dead after boat sinks at Outer Harbor

One man is dead and another in hospital with chest injuries after their boat capsized off Outer Harbor last night.

The alarm was raised just after 6.15pm when a 15ft fibreglass boat suffered engine trouble and capsized near the southern Outer Harbor breakwater with both occupants on board falling into the water.

The Police Helicopter was called to the area, spotting two men in the water after the boat sunk. One man was winched to safety but the second man was found to be unresponsive and his body was recovered by Police Water Operations members onboard the police boat, a short time later.

The injured man a 66-year-old from Smithfield Plains was taken to the Royal Adelaide Hospital with chest injuries, which are not considered life-threatening.

The death of the 77-year-old man from Windsor Gardens is not considered suspicious.

Western District Police are preparing a report for the Coroner.

Italy blocks vaccine doses headed for Australia

A shipment of more than 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia has been blocked from leaving the European Union, in the first use of an export control system to make sure big pharma companies respect their contracts.

The move underscores a growing frustration within the 27-nation bloc about the slow rollout of its vaccine drive and the shortfall of promised vaccine deliveries, especially by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.

The ban came at the behest of Italy, and the EU did not raise objections to the tougher line Rome has adopted in dealing with vaccine shortages in the bloc since a new government led by Mario Draghi came into power in February.

Italy’s objections centered both on the general shortage of supplies in the EU and on “the delays in the supply of vaccines by AstraZeneca to the EU and Italy”, a foreign ministry statement said.

It also intervened because of the size of the shipment, more than 250,700 doses, that would go to Australia, which it did not consider a vulnerable nation.

Italy said it had informed the company on Tuesday. AstraZeneca refused to comment.

But, speaking ahead of the decision by Italy, AstraZeneca’s global head Pascal Soriot told The Australian that countries are trying to hold on to supplies of the vaccine.

“Countries are holding onto their supply everwhere,” the CEO said in the interview published on Friday in Australia.

“A year ago everybody was talking about sharing, fair and equitable access.

“Now they’re saying ‘fair and equitable access yes, but after I’ve been served’.”

Soriot said Australia needed to have strategic independence “from a vaccine point of view”.

Faced with shortages of doses during the early stages of the vaccine campaign that started in late December, the EU issued an export control system for COVID-19 vaccines in late January.

This forces companies to respect their contractual obligations to the bloc before commercial exports can be approved.

The EU has been specifically angry with AstraZeneca because it is delivering far fewer doses to the bloc than it had promised.

Of the initial order for 80 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, the company will be struggling to deliver just half that quantity.


New virus threats top national agenda

State leaders are set to be briefed on the risks from new strains of coronavirus and ways to respond when they meet for national cabinet today.

The head of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s department Phil Gaetjens has been working with his counterparts across all states and territories on improving the consistency and coordination of the COVID-19 response, both in terms of health and the economy.

Gaetjens’ report will be the first in a regular series as new strains of the virus challenge the nation’s health system, and a second type of vaccine starts to be rolled out.

On Friday, Western Australia and South Australia will be the first to use an imported version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which in time will be replaced by Melbourne-made batches.

The leaders will also receive updates on the extent of the virus and discuss the current caps on international passengers, which have been flagged for change on April 30.

Work is underway on delivering extra quarantine capacity in the Northern Territory and potentially southern Queensland and Victoria.

The premiers have a range of issues to raise.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is concerned her government has been left in the dark on key aspects of the rollout, including which aged care homes in her state have had vaccinations.

The NSW government also wasn’t given prior warning to a federal announcement about Defence personnel helping the aged care vaccine rollout from next week.

Queensland authorities are worried about a Russian strain of the virus, admitting they know little about the variant which has now infected 11 people in hotel quarantine.

Pressure mounts for rape claim inquiry

Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces increasing pressure to act on allegations of historical rape against Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Morrison is standing by Porter – who denies the allegations – and has so far rejected calls to launch an independent inquiry into the sexual assault accusations.

The family of the woman are supportive of any inquiry which could shed light on her death.

Porter emphatically denies the allegations he raped the woman in 1988 when he was 17 and she was 16.

The South Australian woman went to NSW police last year, but withdrew her complaint citing medical and personal reasons before taking her own life in June.

Porter is on two weeks’ leave and has said he won’t quit cabinet.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese supports an independent inquiry.

“It’s time for the prime minister to give both himself and Australians confidence that Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to hold the office of attorney-general,” he told reporters in Perth on Thursday.

“This is the first law officer of the land. That does matter. That does make a difference. This cannot be the end of the matter.

The Greens and some independent MPs support a judicial probe.

Morrison has stressed the importance of respecting the rule of law after NSW Police closed an investigation because of a lack of admissible evidence.

He said a further investigation would undermine democracy and cast doubts over the competence of police.

Top lawyer and director for the Centre for Public Integrity Geoffrey Watson SC has rubbished Morrison’s focus on the rule of law.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing people cite the rule of law as an excuse for not doing something,” he told the ABC.

Watson says the rule of law would be enhanced by the public knowing the same rules apply to the most powerful people in the country, as they do the most vulnerable.

He supports an inquiry, pointing to the way the High Court conducted an independent inquiry when a former judge faced allegations of sexual assault.

The government has been under intense pressure for weeks after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague at parliament house.

She says she was raped by a colleague in Senator Reynolds’ ministerial office in 2019.

Senator Reynolds is facing defamation action after allegedly calling Higgins a “lying cow” over suggestions she did not provide enough support to the staffer at the time of the incident.

“We are instructed to demand that you issue an immediate and unequivocal public withdrawal of your comments and apology to our client for the hurt and distress caused,” a letter from Higgins’ lawyers states.

Dutch virus test is a scream

A Dutch inventor has come up with what he hopes could be a potentially faster and easier method to screen for coronavirus infections than nasal swabs – asking participants to step into an airlocked cabin and scream.

An industrial air purifier collects all the particles emitted, which are then analysed for the virus.

“If you have coronavirus and are infectious and yelling and screaming you are spreading tens of thousands of particles which contain coronavirus,” inventor Peter van Wees said.

Van Wees, a serial entrepreneur, has set up his booth next to a coronavirus testing centre on the outskirts of Amsterdam to try his invention out on people who have just been tested.

“It’s always very nice to scream, when nobody can hear you though,” said Soraya Assoud, 25, who needed proof of a negative coronavirus test for a trip to Spain.

Van Wees says that although lots of small particles from the person’s clothes and breath are detected, an infection shows up as a cluster around the size of the coronavirus.

The process takes about three minutes.

The virus is identified by its size using a nanometre-scale sizing device.

He sees the machine as a potentially useful screening tool at concerts, airports, schools or offices.

Spokesman Geert Westerhuis of the Netherlands’ National Institute for Health (RIVM), which is not involved in the project, said it is looking at an array of testing strategies and would welcome a fast, functioning test that was highly accurate.

But “how this apparatus works – we can’t estimate it because we know too little about it,” he said.

A breath test requiring the participant to blow into a tube was approved last month by health authorities in Amsterdam but it has not yet been rolled out across the country due to troubles with “false negatives”.

Van Wees is working with a private company to marshal evidence for his strategy.

Dominant Warner sets up easy NSW win over SA

David Warner hit a commanding 87 in his return to cricket from injury at Adelaide Oval last night to guide the NSW Blues to a comfortable six-wicket win over the Redbacks.

Only SA wicketkeeper Alex Carey stood out for South Australia, making a classy 99 as the Redbacks batted first and limped to a moderate total of 205.

Captain Travis Head (29) and Callum Ferguson (14) were the only other batsmen in SA’s top seven to get out of single figures.

Warner opened the innings for NSW and scored at better than a run-a-ball to help steer NSW to 4-208 in just 29.1 overs.

The result gave Warner’s international teammate and possible future Australia captain Pat Cummins two wins from as many matches as NSW skipper.

The powerful left-hander blasted 13 fours and a six in his 74-ball knock but was eventually out when he skied a mistimed shot attempting to slog Spencer Johnson (1-52) over mid-wicket.

Twenty-year-old Oliver Davies followed-up last month’s half-century on debut with an unbeaten 40 off 30 balls for NSW, including six boundaries.

Wes Agar (2-54) was SA’s only multiple wicket-taker and was also the most economical of their five bowlers despite coughing up 6.61 runs an over.

The two teams meet again in a Sheffield Shield match starting on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Australia will take on New Zealand in game four of its five-match T20 series in Wellington from 4.30pm today.

Trailing 2-1, Australia must win to keep the series alive ahead of the final match on Sunday.

– with AAP and Reuters

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