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What we know today, Thursday March 11

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

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Half-priced flights a ‘game changer’ for Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island is hailing the federal government’s decision to subsidise half-price return flights to more than a dozen regional tourism destinations, with the mayor describing the move as a “game changer” for KI’s tourism industry.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today unveiled a $1.2 billion tourism and aviation rescue package designed to ease the pain when JobKeeper wage subsidies end this month.

Around 800,000 government-subsidised tickets will be offered over the scheme’s duration which includes the Easter and winter school holidays.

Return flights to eligible locations will receive a 50 per cent discount between April 1 and July 31, with the government benchmarking fares over the last two years to ensure the airlines cannot increase prices in response to the decision.

Initially, the government has listed Gold Coast, Cairns, Kangaroo Island, the Whitsundays and Mackay region including Proserpine and Hamilton Island and the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

Lasseter and Alice Springs in the NT, the Tasmanian towns of Launceston, Devonport and Burnie, Broome in WA, Avalon near Melbourne and Merimbula in NSW also made the list.

Morrison said the airfares would help Australians support tourism operators, businesses, travel agents and airlines doing it tough during the pandemic.

“What we’re focusing on is those areas in particular that are heavily dependent on international tourists,” he told reporters this morning.

“Take Kangaroo island for example – devastated by those bushfires.

“The Kangaroo Island mayor will be happy today, [it’s] an absolute gamechanger for him down in South Australia.”

The prime minister said he is open to expanding the list of subsidised destinations as the scheme rolls out.

Kangaroo Island Mayor Michael Pengilly echoed the prime minister’s enthusiasm.

“It’s wonderful, it’s sensational for our tourism industry,” Pengilly told InDaily.

“The thing to remember here is that it’s a fly and fly package it’s not a fly and ferry … so it’s good for job creation.

“I talked to one of the local tourism operators who principally deals with internationals, and he’s very very excited about it.

“He looks forward to getting out there and trying to get some numbers because he’s running at least 20% of his normal numbers – so that’s good to see.”

Pengilly also said the island is still “in a bit of strife” until international tourists return, so the package is particularly welcome as KI businesses attempt to ramp up domestic demand.

Qantas, Virgin and a handful of smaller regional carriers will be the main beneficiaries, with airlines which have operated on the routes for the past two years eligible.

Not everyone has welcomed the package, with Flight Centre managing director Graham Turner saying it will do little for the tourism industry.

“It is a very small, very meagre package at best,” he said today.

“I don’t think this is going to help at all, really – it is about the borders. Keeping the domestic borders open and getting the international borders open as soon as possible.”

Some state premiers are deeply unimpressed with the plan.

Queensland wants more support for intrastate travel while Victorian Deputy Premier James Merlino argues “the numbers speak for themselves”.

“Five in Queensland, three in Tassie, two in the Northern Territory, just one in Victoria,” he told reporters.

“It is not fair and we are disappointed.”

Crows big man inks new contract

Crows ruckman Reilly O’Brien has signed a four-year contract extension, keeping him in Adelaide until at least 2025.

The reigning club champion was a breakout star for the Crows in their three-win campaign last year, playing all 17 games and affirming his status as one of the AFL’s top ruckmen.

It adds to a recent string of signings for the Crows, with Rory Laird, Brodie Smith, Harry Schoenberg, Andrew McPherson and Josh Worrell all inking contract extensions over the past few weeks.

O’Brien said he is excited about the club’s direction despite their recent woes.

“This allows me to invest in the group and really focus on others as well,” O’Brien said in a statement.

“I’m really comfortable in Adelaide and excited with where the Club is heading, I want to be part of something special and help build that from the ground up and this is a great opportunity to do that.”

British editors chief quits over Meghan Markle racism row

The head of a group that represents British editors has resigned after a row over his statement on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Prince Harry and Meghan spoke about their time as working senior royals and their decision to leave Britain, which they said was spurred by racism and negative media coverage.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, published a statement on Monday saying the “UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account”.

His comments saw a backlash with editors, with dozens of black, Asian, mixed race and ethnic minority journalists and editors from the Guardian newspaper, the Financial Times newspaper and HuffPost news website signing a letter addressed to Murray outlining their objections to the statement.

The society’s annual awards, which is one of the most coveted journalism awards in Britain and is being held on March 31, also saw organisations withdrawing from their nominations.

The board later clarified the statement on Wednesday, stating the original message from Murray “did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”.

In a statement on Wednesday evening confirming his resignation, Murray said: “While I do not agree that the Society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset.”

It comes after outspoken British commentator Piers Morgan resigned from his ITV breakfast show on Tuesday, due to more than 41,000 viewer complaints about criticism he directed towards Meghan.

Morgan said that he “didn’t believe a word” about Meghan’s mental health struggles.

The Duchess of Sussex was reportedly among the list of viewers who made complaints about the former ITV host’s comments.

$150m class action lawsuit over Cudlee Creek blaze

Victims of the 2019 Cudlee Creek bushfire will today launch a class action lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from SA Power Networks, accusing the state’s electricity distributor of “inadequacy” in its fault protection system.

The case has been lodged in the Supreme Court by regional Victorian firm Maddens Lawyers, who have been actively involved in litigation against electricity companies on behalf of bushfire victims.

This includes a similar class-action Maddens launched last year against SA Power Networks for their alleged role in the November 2019 Yorketown fire.

The Cudlee Creek blaze tore through nearly 25,000 hectares of land within a 127-kilometre perimeter in the Adelaide Hills during Australia’s 2019/20 black summer bushfires – resulting in one death and the destruction of nearly 100 homes.

A state government investigation into the cause of the fire determined it likely started when a 24-metre pine tree collapsed onto an 11-kilovolt powerline near Holland Creek Road on December 20, 2019.

One of the live conductors then came into contact with a wire fence and the ground, igniting the blaze on what was the fourth straight day of catastrophic fire danger in SA with temperatures climbing above 45 degrees across the state.

The Office of the Technical Regulator cleared SA Power Networks of any wrongdoing, with their report finding “the tree that fell was at a distance greater than the minimum clearance distance”, with investigators unable to find “any indicators that could have enabled a reasonable person to identify this tree failure prior to the event”.

However, Special Counsel Brendan Pendergast – who will be spearheading the class action – argues more could have been done by the electricity distributor to prevent the blaze.

“The class action claim relates to the inadequacy of SA Power Networks fault protection settings,” Pendergast said in a statement.

“20 December 2019 was forecast to be a catastrophic day of fire risk. That forecast was known well in advance and wasn’t unexpected given the conditions in the days prior.

“More could and should have been done by SA Power Networks to ensure their protection devices responded immediately to any faults on their network.

“These steps could have easily been implemented and wouldn’t have cost SA Power Networks a cent.”

Pendergast has led previous class actions against electricity distributors, including a high-profile case on behalf of victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Lead Plaintiff Kris Thrower, who lost his house and almost all of his possessions in the blaze, said he has not been able to get any personal closure from the disaster.

“I worked so hard to establish myself and now I’ve stepped back all the way to zero with absolutely nothing,” he said.

“It still gives me nightmares. I’d like to think that someone is held accountable for the devastation to my life, my family’s life, the environment around us and all the animals that perished.

“Mentally, I’m anxious. I used to be one of the calmest people I know, now every day I’m looking on the horizon for a fire … my life has been flipped upside down.”

Maddens Lawyers will hold a press conference at 11am today to outline the details of the class action.

In a statement, SA Power Networks said it had not yet seen the detail of the claim “but will defend its actions”.

“An independent government report concluded the fire start was due to a tree falling from outside the clearance zone and that SAPN had acted in accord with its bushfire and vegetation management procedures and equipment settings,” it said.

Ambos choose industrial action, kick off PR blitz

The South Australian Ambulance Employees Association has chosen to take industrial action against the government, with paramedics overnight not charging patients for ambulance rides if they experience extended wait times outside hospitals.

The union announced the decision in a letter to members before close of business on Wednesday, saying they do not believe the public should pay for a “substandard” ambulance service.

The initial scope of the industrial action will see patients not billed if their emergency department wait time exceeds their priority status.

“If someone gets a priority one in longer than eight minutes, they won’t get a bill,” AEA Secretary Phil Palmer told reporters yesterday.

“If they get a priority two in longer than 16 minutes, they won’t get a bill, if someone gets a priority three in longer than 30 minutes, they won’t get a bill, and so on.”

The union has not ruled out escalating to a billing strike for all patients if the industrial dispute continues.

The association’s members have also launched a new public safety campaign to highlight the risks of ambulance ramping.

The state government has repeatedly said the problem is more complex than increased resources alone, and has pointed to overall system problems related to patient flow and emergency department capacity.

The government is also seeking reforms to rostering and meal break arrangements, with paramedics currently driving back to their home station to take breaks rather than the nearest hospital.

“We are committed to looking at what reform and resources the ambulance service needs,” Health Minister Stephen Wade told reporters on Wednesday.

“[But] we are not going to run our health system based on industrial ultimatums issued by union officers.”

The health minister added that, “we’ve all got a responsibility to deliver the best possible patient care” and encouraged the union to come to the bargaining table.

 

SA rocket launchpads move a stage closer

Space industry company Southern Launch says it has the go-ahead from landowners for the construction of its first two rocket launch facilities at its Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex on Eyre Peninsula.

Once completed, the complex will allow the company to offer launch facilities to both Australian and international organisations and companies.

“With the advancement in satellite technology, more and more operators of small satellites are preferring dedicated launches,” Southern Launch said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Operators are wanting to avoid constraints and delays of the other payloads on the same vehicle.”

The Whaler’s Way site stretches over six kilometres of ocean frontage with more than 3000 kilometres of open ocean to the south.

The company said the site was selected to maximise safety to people and the environment, with no rockets needing to overfly delicate marine environments or populated areas.

It also allows direct access to polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

Southern Launch said the new facility and its operational activities would be of significant benefit to the Eyre Peninsula community, the local economy and Australia more broadly, and would establish South Australia as a leading contributor to the global space economy.

The company has already reached agreements to launch flights from their new site.

The rockets will travel 500km south over the Great Australian Bight before reaching orbit.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus passes Congress

The US House of Representatives gave final approval on Wednesday to one of the largest economic stimulus measures in US history, a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that gives President Joe Biden his first major victory in office.

The measure provides $400 billion for $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, an expansion of the child tax credit and increased funding for vaccine distribution.

Approval in the Democratic-controlled chamber came without any Republican support after weeks of partisan debate and wrangling in Congress. Democrats described the legislation as a critical response to a pandemic that has killed more than 528,000 people and thrown millions out of work.

“This is a historic day. It is the beginning of the end of the great COVID depression,” Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky said.

Biden plans to sign the bill on Friday, the White House said.

Republicans said the measure was too costly and was packed with wasteful progressive priorities. They said the worst phase of the largest public health crisis in a century has largely passed and the economy is headed toward a rebound.

“It’s the wrong plan at the wrong time for so many wrong reasons,” Republican Representative Jason Smith said.

Democrats were eager to get the final bill to Biden’s desk for his signature before current federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14.

The House, which passed an earlier version of the legislation, needed to meet again to approve changes made in the Senate over the weekend.

“There’s been a lot of talk about this package being too large and too expensive, but if there was ever a time to go big, this should be it,” said Democratic Representative Richard Neal.

The House rejected an effort by Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to delay proceedings by asking for an adjournment – something she has attempted four times since taking office in January.

The House voted 235-149 to plow ahead, with 40 Republicans joining Democrats in rejecting Greene’s effort.

Although many Republicans supported coronavirus relief under former President Donald Trump’s administration, no Republican lawmaker voted for the bill in the House or Senate, although polls have shown it is popular with voters, even Republicans.

AFL backs daytime grand final for 2021

The AFL is boldly aiming for 100,000 fans to be at the MCG in September after confirming the grand final will revert to a day game.

After experimenting with a night decider during the COVID-affected 2020 season, the league is switching back to a 2:30pm timeslot.

The league’s 18 clubs have been told this year’s grand final will return to a day-time slot at the MCG on September 25.

Coronavirus complications saw the bulk of last year’s schedule, including the entire finals series, played outside of Victoria.

Last year’s grand final between Richmond and Geelong was historic for two reasons: the first time the last game of the season was played outside Victoria and it took place after dark.

The AFL toyed with the idea of a twilight grand final this year, but a return to a mid-afternoon slot is sure to please a large contingent of the league’s fans who like the tradition of a day match.

AFL boss Gillon McLachlan declared last year’s decider in Queensland as a “huge success” but the league wanted to look after its supporters by making the grand final the “best event” in Australian sport.

“Our members and supporters were incredible in continuing to support their teams last year and they are wanting a season where they can return to some of the traditions and rituals around footy,” McLachlan said.

“Ultimately, the AFL commission decided that while we will keep some of the unique components of the 2020 season, the prestige, nostalgia and atmosphere of the day grand final is something that people can look forward to.

“Wherever they are located around Australia, we want to give footy fans that familiar feeling back on grand final day.

“We still have a lot of work as a league and a community to get the finish line, but I would love nothing more to see 100,000 back at the MCG on the last Saturday in September.”

The Victorian government is currently allowing for stadiums to be a 50 per cent capacity, with a bumper crowd of 50,000 expected to turn out for the season-opener at the MCG between the Tigers and Carlton on March 18.

It will be the first AFL premiership season game at the MCG with a crowd since the 2019 grand final when the Tigers smashed Greater Western Sydney by 89 points in front of 100,014 fans.

-With AAP and Reuters

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