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What we know today, Thursday March 25


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

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Higgins makes formal complaint to PM’s office

Brittany Higgins has made a formal complaint to Scott Morrison’s chief of staff, asking him to investigate whether anyone in the prime minister’s office backgrounded against her loved ones.

Higgins wrote to John Kunkel after the prime minister suggested nobody from the parliamentary press gallery had raised the accusations with his chief of staff.

Morrison has been asked more than a dozen times in the parliament whether he has investigated allegations his staff tried to privately undermine Higgins or her loved ones.

He was asked again during a radio interview on Thursday whether he could say categorically that his office had not engaged in such behaviour.

“Nothing has been raised with my office from anyone in the gallery making any of those accusations or any discomfort about anything that my office has done,” he told the ABC.

“People make allegations all the time second, third-hand. But there’s no one who has raised that with my chief of staff out of the gallery, no.”

Shortly after his comments, Higgins lodged a formal complaint.

“In the days following my interview with The Project regarding my experience in Parliament House, I was made aware by numerous journalists about the backgrounding that was happening to my partner,” she wrote to Kunkel.

“To my knowledge, this was being done by staff within the prime minister’s media team.

“I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. It is entirely plausible the prime minister did not know that this was happening, however the more relevant point is that it did occur.”

Higgins also requested to provide evidence to department secretary Phil Gaetjens, who is running an inquiry into which of the prime minister’s staff knew of her rape allegations before they were made public.

The investigation has been put on hold while police investigate the rape allegations.

“It is my express desire to present my evidence to Mr Gaetjens at the appropriate time once the review recommences,” Higgins wrote.

Southern Launch gets go-ahead on rocket site

South Australian space company Southern Launch has been granted Australia’s first-ever launch facility license – paving the way for commercial launches of suborbital rockets at the Koonibba Test Range on the Eyre Peninsula.

The site, located 40km northwest of Ceduna, spans over 145km of uninhabited national parklands – giving companies the opportunity to launch, test and recover their rockets.

Southern Launch will provide operational logistics services for companies seeking to launch from the site.

“Southern Launch is absolutely thrilled to be the first company to hold an Australian launch facility licence, allowing the facility to be used for future space launches out across the Australian desert,” Chief Executive Officer of Southern Launch Lloyd Damp said.

“The Koonibba Test Range will have a significant benefit to the Koonibba community and the broader regional centre of Ceduna, including the opportunity for ongoing local employment, education and the development of a new space tourism industry.

“It also positions Australia one step closer to once again being a space faring nation.”

Southern Launch is also developing an orbital testing facility at Whalers Way on the tip of the Eyre Peninsula, having recently gained landowner approval for the site.

Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said the Koonibba Test Range approval was a “major milestone” for the Australian space sector.

“It will contribute to fuelling national capability as the civil space sector rapidly grows and transforms and becomes an even more important economic contributor.

“Australia’s geographical location and wide open spaces makes it optimal for various launch activities and suborbital rocket launches provide an important capability to space-qualify Australian hardware and technology.”

Fatal crash in state’s southeast

A man has died in a car crash at Tantanoola near Mount Gambier this morning.

Police say they were called to Tantanoola Road around 6:30am after reports a red Commodore sedan ran off the road and crashed into a tree stump.

The 59-year-old man and sole occupant of the vehicle died at the scene.

Police are investigating whether a medical condition contributed to the accident.

South Australia’s road toll for the year is now 31.

Victoria to resume international flights

Victoria’s hotel quarantine program will resume in two weeks, with stricter protocols in place to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t leak into the community.

Acting Premier James Merlino on Thursday announced international passenger flights would be able to touch down in the state again from April 8.

Arrivals will be capped at 800 a week, scaling up to 1120 a week, subject to capacity and the completion of ventilation works.

International passenger flights have not arrived in Melbourne since February 13 after hotel quarantine workers contracted the highly infectious UK strain of the virus from returned travellers at the Holiday Inn near Melbourne Airport.

The outbreak, which grew to 24 cases, triggered the state’s five-day, circuit-breaker lockdown.

The state’s second wave of coronavirus, which last year resulted in more than 18,000 new infections, 800 deaths and an 112-day lockdown, also leaked from hotel quarantine.

The latest outbreak led to the commissioning of reviews into variant strains of COVID-19 and ventilation at the state’s quarantine hotels, which were released by the government on Thursday.

“We’ve listened to the advice of experts and made the necessary changes to ensure we’re keeping Victorians safe,” Mr Merlino said in a statement.

The ventilation review by Safer Care Victoria found hotel quarantine staff were well trained in how to use personal protective equipment and were comfortable challenging each other over non-compliance and safety.

But it called for an “infection prevention and control uplift”, including increased use of N95 masks, strengthened end-of-shift procedures and a new online system for easier contact mapping of staff and their households.

North Korea may have launched missile

North Korea may have launched a ballistic missile, Japan’s defence ministry says, while South Korea’s military reported an “unidentified projectile” was fired off the peninsula’s east coast into the sea.

North Korea’s ballistic missiles are banned under United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and if Thursday’s launch is confirmed, it would represent the first ballistic-missile test launch under new US President Joe Biden.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff did not identify or elaborate on what the projectile was or when it was launched.

It may have been a ballistic missile, a spokesman for Japan’s defence ministry said.

“It has not fallen within Japanese territory and is not believed to have come down within Japan’s exclusive economic zone,” he said.

Earlier the Japanese coast guard warned ships against coming close to any fallen objects and instead asked them to provide information to the coast guard.

North Korea fired two short-range missiles at the weekend, US and South Korean officials said, but Washington played down the first such tests under Biden and said it was still open to dialogue with Pyongyang.

Biden’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea have gone unanswered, and Pyongyang said it would not engage until Washington drops hostile policies, including carrying out military drills with South Korea.

Power captain inks new contract

Port Adelaide captain Tom Jonas says he’s ecstatic to sign a contract extension that ensures he finishes his career at Alberton.

The 30-year-old has signed a new deal tying him to Port until the end of the 2023 season.

Meanwhile at West Lakes, key defender Jordon Butts has signed a two-year contract extension to stay at the Crows until at least 2023.

Read the full story here

Government offers to employ 50 new ambos

The State Government has offered to employ 50 more ambulance officers after mediation talks with the Ambulance Employees Association in an ongoing dispute over ramping and industrial issues.

Treasurer Rob Lucas announced the employment offer this morning after the union met with the government for mediation early on Wednesday.

The union and government have been in mediation since March 12 after the union decided to take industrial action against due to lack of resources and funding.

The industrial action involved not billing patients if they experienced longer than normal wait times outside hospitals, although the union announced on Monday they had decided to cease this action as a show of “good faith”.

Lucas said the new employment offer was contingent on the union agreeing to the meal break and roster reforms the government is seeking.

“We have always said we are willing to put in more resources, and today we are announcing that we have offered to immediately invest in at least an extra 50 ambulance officers conditional upon the union agreeing to roster reform, ambos taking meal breaks at their nearest station and cessation of industrial action,” Lucas said.

“The government has also committed to employing even more ambos upon full resolution of enterprise bargaining negotiations.

“However, we know that more staff alone is not going to deliver the safest and highest quality ambulance service and help solve the issue of ramping, which is why we also need sensible industrial reforms.”

It comes after the union claimed on Monday that two people died in their homes after experiencing longer than expected wait times for an ambulance to arrive.

There have been at least six Opstat White events across metropolitan Adelaide hospitals this year, meaning “Operational capacity, capability and/or resources are insufficient to maintain effective service delivery for high acuity cases”.

AEA Secretary Phil Palmer said Lucas was “disrespecting” the mediation process, and that his members were “infuriated” about the offer because it is not enough.

“It’s a government responsibility to provide a safe ambulance service,” Palmer told ABC Radio this morning.

“To try and somehow put the onus on our members to give up things or to do things that they find unpalatable in order to make the public safe is ridiculous and it’s an abrogation of their responsibilities as an elected government.

“What has happened is these public announcements last night has infuriated our members because 50 is not enough.

“And it’s a lot more complicated with them what Mr Lucas is saying in his simplistic statements and it can’t be encapsulated, and it’s probably made the mediators job … more difficult.”

Morrison tipped to reshuffle cabinet

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly tipped to make a cabinet reshuffle which would see Attorney-General Christian Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds moved on from their current portfolios.

Porter, who is currently on leave and pursuing defamation action against the ABC, is set to be removed from his portfolio after the prime minister received advice from the solicitor-general about what responsibilities he might need to strip from Porter while the AG sues the public broadcaster.

Morrison has also sought advice from his department in relation to the attorney-general and ministerial standards.

Labor has asked Morrison whether he is preparing to make Porter a “part-time minister” or drop him altogether.

The prime minister did not rule out either option during Question Time on Wednesday.

“I am considering that advice with my department secretary in terms of the application against the ministerial guidelines,” he told parliament.

“When I have concluded that assessment, I will make a determination and I will make an announcement at that time.”

Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash, who is serving as acting Attorney-General in Porter’s absence, is reportedly expected to take on the role full time.

Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is set to replace Linda Reynolds at defence.

Reynolds has been on leave since February to receive treatment for a pre-existing heart condition, after facing pressure over her handling of the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague.

Speculation over her future grew on Wednesday after she decided not to attend a major international conference scheduled for next month when she is due to return to her defence minister responsibilities.

Both Porter and Reynolds will reportedly stay on the frontbench and be assigned new portfolios.

Cyclist seriously injured in southern suburbs crash

A cyclist has been seriously injured after being hit by a car at St Marys on Wednesday afternoon.

Police say they were called to Ayliffes Road near South Road at around 4pm on Wednesday after reports of a car crash with a cyclist.

A 67-year-old Eden Hills man was transported to the Flinders Medical Centre where he remains in a stable condition.

The on ramp road from South Road to Ayliffes road was closed while Major Crash Investigators inspected the scene, but was reopened to all traffic late last night.

It comes after the state’s road toll increased to 30 people on Tuesday night when a Barossa Valley woman died after rolling her ute at a roundabout in Tanunda.

She was the fourth person in four days to die in a fatal road accident in the Barossa Valley region.

Elsewhere overnight, a man was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a stolen car at West Lakes shore.

The 31-year-old man will face charges of arson with police alleging that witnesses reported seeing him set fire to a blue Toyota sedan at a hotel car park on Bartley Terrace.

Ministers haven’t sighted submarine contract

No Australian minister has sighted the federal government’s $90 billion contract with French shipbuilders Naval Group for the acquisition of 12 Attack-Class submarines to be built in Adelaide.

Naval Group confirmed earlier this week they had finalised negotiations to spend 60 per cent of the contract on local industry – a sticking point which had previously delayed progress on the biggest acquisition contract in Australian defence history.

Naval Group Australia said it had already created almost 300 direct jobs in Australia and plans to double its local workforce this year in preparation for the building of a hull qualification section at Osborne in Adelaide in 2023, and construction of the first pressure hull in 2024.

However, quizzed by Labor Senator Penny Wong in Senate Estimates on Wednesday, acting Defence Minister Marise Payne said she had not seen the updated contract, or any of the new clauses relating to the shipbuilder’s commitment to spend 60 per cent of funds on local industry.

Defence’s General Manager of Submarines Greg Sammut also conceded a 60 per cent local spend will not occur until the construction of “boat two or three”.

He also said the development of technology in the future could make meeting the 60 per cent clause difficult.

“I am just contemplating a situation where … there may be a technology sometime in the future that cannot be produced in Australia, that is deemed so necessary for capability, that we direct Naval Group to do something which is against the current plans for the use of Australian industry,” Sammut said.

“It will be hard to hold them to a 60 per cent minimum if we are directing them to do something.”

The committee also heard Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’s responsibilities for major multi-billion-dollar projects have been diluted.

Amid delays, cost blowouts, and disputes over local industry involvement with French and British-led programs, a new panel will provide checks and balances on the planned Attack-class submarines, the future of legacy Collins-class and the Hunter-class vessels that will replace the ageing Anzac frigates.

Giving testimony from the United States, US Vice Admiral William Hilarides told a Senate hearing on Wednesday the panel would provide “frank and fearless” advice to government before projects become a problem, rather than rely on advice from the Defence department.

NSW Parliament rocked by rape allegation

Detectives are investigating claims a current NSW government MP raped a sex worker in the Blue Mountains in 2019, as a Nationals politician admits he is helping police with inquiries.

Labor’s Trish Doyle, the Blue Mountains MP, used parliamentary privilege on Wednesday to allege an unnamed MP raped the sex worker after she did not consent to penetrative sex.

“It is all the worse that this man who raped her is a government member of this chamber … his power and privileged position as a civic leader make that fear, anger and hurt all the worse,” Doyle told the NSW lower house.

Later in the day, Nationals MP Michael Johnsen announced he was taking leave immediately and stepping aside from his Parliamentary Secretary role.

“I am devastated by these allegations,” he said in a statement, without outlining details of any claim.

“I have voluntarily spoken with NSW Police and I have and will continue to fully cooperate with their inquiries.

“I am confident any investigation will conclude that I am an innocent party.”

NSW Police said they were aware of Doyle’s allegation and were investigating the matter.

“Detectives from the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad are investigating allegations of sexual violence against a woman in the Blue Mountains in September 2019,” the force said in a statement.

“The matter was reported and referred to the squad in late September 2020 and has been under investigation since.”

Revelations of sexual assault and harassment linked to politics have now emerged from parliaments in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Canberra, which have each been told of allegations of rape, groping, harassment and slut shaming.

Race to unblock Suez Canal as oil prices rise

The shortest shipping route from Europe to Asia remains blocked as 10 tug boats struggle to free one of the world’s largest container ships after it ran aground in the Suez Canal, prompting a rise in oil prices due to supply delays.

The 400-metre, 224,000-tonne Ever Given ran aground on Tuesday morning after losing the ability to steer amid high winds and a dust storm, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said in a statement.

About 30 per cent of global container shipping volumes pass through the canal each day, carrying everything from fuel to consumer goods. The main alternative route for ships travelling between Asia and Europe, around the African cape, takes a week longer to navigate.

GAC, a Dubai-based marine services company, said authorities were still working to free the ship mid-afternoon on Wednesday, and that information it had received earlier claiming the vessel was partially refloated was inaccurate.

Images posted by the SCA appeared to show the ship positioned diagonally across the canal, blocking its full width, as tugs tried to dislodge it. Photos showed a digger removing earth and rock from the bank of the canal around the ship’s bow.

An official said work to release the ship could continue into the night, weather permitting.

The SCA’s chairman told local media that despite the blockage, a southbound convoy was on the move and that the authority was trying to keep traffic flowing between waiting areas as best it could while salvage efforts continued.

“Once we get this boat out, then that’s it, things will go back to normal. God willing, we’ll be done today,” Chairman Osama Rabie said. The authority was considering compensation for delayed ships, he said.

About 12 per cent of world trade by volume passes through the canal, and it is a major source of hard currency for Egypt, generating $5.6 billion in 2020.

At least 30 ships were blocked to the north of the Ever Given, and three to the south, local sources said. Several dozen ships – some carrying crude oil, liquefied natural gas and retail goods – could also be seen grouped around the northern and southern entrances to the canal.

Oil analytics firm Vortexa said ten tankers carrying 13 million barrels of crude could be affected. Oil prices have risen more than two per cent.

If the Ever Given remained stuck for up to 48 hours, “the impact will be limited to a gradual worsening of already very bad vessel delays”, said Niels Madsen, VP of Product and Operations at Denmark-based Sea-Intelligence.

“If on the other hand, the Suez Canal remains blocked for another 3-5 days, then this will start to have very serious global ramifications,” he said.

Music icons memorialise Michael Gudinski at state memorial

The who’s who of the international music scene have paid tribute to Australian industry great Michael Gudinski at his state memorial service.

British music star Ed Sheeran, who was granted an exemption to fly into the country with his family, headlined a star-studded cast of live performers for Wednesday night’s send-off at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.

The singer and songwriter opened with Castle On The Hill, saying it became a personal favourite of the Mushroom Records founder after playing it for him and wife Sue at their Port Douglas home in 2015.

“He must have misheard the lyric because he started, from that point, screaming whenever he saw me ‘we were younger then’,” Sheeran recalled.

“I never told him it was actually ‘I was younger then’.”

Alongside Sheeran, there were live performances by Mushroom associated local acts Jimmy Barnes, Kylie Minogue, Paul Kelly, Mark Seymour, Vika and Linda Bull and Mia Wray.

Before raising spirits with a Sheeran-aided duet of her 1987 hit “Loco-motion”, the Aussie queen of pop credited Mr Gudinski with kick-starting her critically acclaimed music career.

“Michael, the ‘Big G’, took this little girl from Melbourne to the world, and back home again,” Minogue said.

Taylor Swift, Billy Joel, Elton John and Sting were just some of the international mega-stars to post video tributes aired on the night.

“We will cherish his memory. Shine on you crazy man,” said Sir Elton, who trusted Gudinski to oversee his final Australian tour last year.

Bruce Springsteen said Gudinski was the last of a dying breed of music promoters.

“When you thought of Australia, you thought of Michael,” the US rock legend said.

“He was a music man. Michael wasn’t just excited about the receipts, he was excited about the show.”

The 15,000-seat arena was packed for its first music event since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with those who missed out on tickets tuning in online.

In-person speakers on the night included Victorian Governor Linda Dessau, rabbi Menachem Wolf, and Gudinski’s two children Matt and Kate.

“He was full of life and some would say he lived 10 lives in one,” Matt Gudinski said.

“There was only one Michael Gudinski and they’ll never be another one like him.”

Gudinski was a godfather figure of the Australian music scene, having founded independent label Mushroom Records in May 1972.

He died suddenly in his sleep on March 2, aged 68.

-With AAP and Reuters

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