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What we know today, Friday March 26

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Today’s breaking news: Westpac will close down 48 Australian bank branches over the coming months, and Queensland has recorded one new local COVID-19 case who was infectious in the community for a week.

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Westpac to close 48 bank branches

Australian banking giant Westpac will shut down or amalgamate six bank branches in SA and a further 42 across the country.

The Financial Sector Union says the closure will affect 165 staff in Australia working across the titles of Westpac, Bank SA, St George and Bank of Melbourne.

In South Australia, Bank SA branches at North Adelaide, Magill and the Churchill Centre will be closed, while Westpac branches at Port Augusta, Tanunda and Murray Bridge will be amalgamated with other branches.

Financial Sector Union National Secretary Julia Angrisano said it was an “outrageous” decision by the bank which will affect customers as well as staff.

“Westpac is deserting its customers and its staff by closing branches to shore up its profits,” Angrisano said.

“This shutdown of so many branches is of major concern to our members and will impact on a large number of staff, banking customers and businesses around Australia.”

Westpac employs more than 5000 people in South Australia.

New local COVID-19 case in Qld was infectious for a week

A man has tested positive for coronavirus in northern Brisbane and he was in the community while infectious for a week.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has ordered a lockdown of the city’s hospitals, aged care facilities, prisons and disability services from 12pm to prevent the virus spreading.

She says the 26-year-old man lives in Stafford and tested positive on Thursday, but he’s been infectious in the community since last Friday.

“We wanted to let the public know as soon as possible,” Palaszczuk told reporters.

“It is absolutely imperative over the next few days if you are sick and unwell to and go and get tested, it is absolutely critical.”

Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the man visited a number of venues in the past week, including the Carindale Shopping Centre and a Baskin-Robbins outlet at Everton Park on March 20

The next day he visited a supermarket and an Italian restaurant in Newstead.

On March 22 he went to work in Paddington, where he’s landscaper, and visited a Guzman y Gomez drive-through.

“Anyone who’s been to any of these venues in those specific time frames, I want you to come forward and get tested whether or not you’ve got symptoms, and to remain in isolation until you get a negative result,” Young said.

The man may be linked to an earlier case in a doctor who tested positive at Princess Alexandra Hospital two weeks ago, but test results are not yet ready.

The female doctor had worked a shift at the hospital and visited four venues in the city’s south the previous day.

Young said at that time the number of people using check-in apps had helped contact-tracers quickly track down every person who had come into contact with the doctor.

Tasmanian premier calls early election

Tasmania will head to the polls for an early election after its Liberal government was plunged into minority.

Premier Peter Gutwein has announced the election, which was not due until May 2022, will be held on May 1.

“I did this because Tasmania can’t afford the uncertainly of minority government,” he said on Friday.

“This election will be about who can deliver a strong, stable government to secure Tasmania’s future.”

The Liberal government entered minority earlier this week after Speaker Sue Hickey quit the party.

Hickey was told last weekend she would not be re-endorsed by the Liberals for the next election and is now operating as an independent.

Hickey sensationally claimed the speakership three years ago by voting with opposition parties and has crossed the floor on contentious issues.

She this week used parliamentary privilege to accuse federal Liberal Senator Eric Abetz of “slut-shaming” Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped in Parliament House in Canberra.

Senator Abetz denies the claims.

The Liberals have 12 MPs in Tasmania’s 25-seat lower house, with Labor (nine) the Greens (two) and independents (two) making up the remainder.

Gutwein and the Liberals are riding a wave of support on the back of the government’s coronavirus response, which included a decision to shut the island’s borders early.

According to an EMRS survey of 1000 people published in February, 61 per cent of voters rate Mr Gutwein as the preferred premier. Labor leader Rebecca White was on 26 per cent.

The Liberals are the preferred party (52 per cent) ahead of Labor (27 per cent).

However, Gutwein came under fire from reporters for declaring the election for May when the opposition leader is due to give birth in June.

“In terms of the opposition leader, I have given a great deal of thought to that matter,” Gutwein said.

“For obvious reasons, an election if the parliament were to descend into dysfunction in June or July or August would not be appropriate, and it certainty would be something that I would not do.”

Controversial consent laws pass in Qld

Queensland has passed new sexual consent laws that critics warn don’t go far enough and may be superseded in coming months.

Under the laws, which have bipartisan support, consent is no longer assumed if a person does not verbally reject a sex act.

Consent will also be able to be withdrawn by words or actions during a sexual act.

Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman says the new laws provide more clarity on sexual consent and close loopholes for perpetrators.

“We have enshrined in the Criminal Code principles like silence doesn’t amount to consent, consent once given can be withdrawn and the self-intoxication of a defendant cannot be relied upon by that defendant to show that they were mistaken about whether or not consent was given and that was reasonable,” she told AAP.

“This will provide clarity for judges to properly direct juries and get better outcomes for victims.”

Mistaking consent is still available as a criminal defence against sexual assault in some circumstances.

The Greens unsuccessfully tried to move last-minute amendments to mandate affirmative consent and remove the mistake of fact defence.

Affirmative consent is an explicit, informed, and voluntary agreement to take part in a sexual act.

Greens MP Amy McMahon said the laws reinforce the status quo and won’t change the experience of survivors in the criminal justice system.

“The minor changes to the model of consent in this bill leave the onus on victims to express non-consent or actively resist,” she told parliament,” she told parliament on Thursday.

“While I’m pleased that the bill states consent can be withdrawn, and that silence cannot constitute consent, it fails to introduce an affirmative model of consent.”

McMahon said an affirmative consent model has been in place in Tasmania and Victoria for years already.

Fentiman has already launched a taskforce review of the experiences women in the criminal justice system, led by former Court of Appeal judge Margaret McMurdo, that’s considering an affirmative consent model.

It means the laws to be passed on Thursday could be superseded within the next 12 months.

The Liberal National Party didn’t back the Greens’ amendments but voiced support for an affirmative consent model.

SA leaders face-off as election race begins

South Australia’s political leaders Steven Marshall and Peter Malinauskas will go toe to toe today in the first major battle ahead of next year’s state election, hot on the heels of major vote-winning announcements.

The lunchtime encounter at the SA Press Club today comes after Marshall last week announced plans to build a $700 million indoor convention, sports and entertainment stadium in the heart of Adelaide if his government is returned in March next year.

Opposition Leader Malinauskas returned fire earlier this week with a proposal for a 200-megawatt hydrogen power station at an estimated cost of $590 million.

Both projects have their supporters and critics and both are a little light on details.

Premier Marshall can’t say when work on the Riverbank Arena will start and the Labor leader hasn’t decided where his new power plant will be built.

But both are a clear sign the two leaders are already in election campaign mode.

The elephant in the room remains the coronavirus pandemic.

Support for Marshall’s government jumped considerably in the early days of the outbreak but has flattened in recent months.

He’s generally earned praise for how the state has weathered the storm of restrictions and lockdowns, with a strategy to always follow the health advice.

Malinauskas has been generally supportive of those efforts, but gives most of the credit to SA’s chief public health officer and the police commissioner.

Strategies to create jobs will feature heavily in the Liberal and Labor offerings in the months to come, though the success or otherwise of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will play a role.

Labor has also been bolstered by the most recent redistribution of electoral boundaries.

Six marginal seats are likely to determine the outcome of the election, with four of them currently held by the government.

Reynolds and Porter to remain in cabinet

The prime minister has indicated Linda Reynolds and Christian Porter will remain in cabinet, even though a reshuffle is looming.

Senator Reynolds is expected to be dumped from the defence portfolio over her handling of rape allegations raised by former staffer Brittany Higgins.

Porter is expected to lose the attorney-general’s portfolio as he sues the ABC over its reporting of separate rape allegations, which he denies.

Scott Morrison has indicated both ministers will still feature on his frontbench line up, with the reshuffle expected within days.

“They will continue to play a very important role in my cabinet,” he told the Nine Network.

“When I make judgements about those things, I’ll announce them.”

Porter is set to return from stress leave next week, while Senator Reynolds is due back at work on April 2.

Morrison offers Higgins meeting, admits big sexism ‘wake-up call’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he would be “very pleased” to meet with Brittany Higgins if she wishes, while admitting he has failed to fully grasp the problem of sexism before now.

Morrison told Channel Nine’s A Current Affair last night that he doubted the former government staffer would wish to discuss something “as deeply private and personal” with him as her alleged rape in Parliament House by a fellow staffer, but that she would be “very welcome” to.

Higgins’ story of her alleged rape in the office of Senator Linda Reynolds and the lack of support she experienced afterwards had triggered “one of the most hard and deeply personal, confronting conversations I have seen take place here”, Morrison said on Thursday night.

The prime minister defended himself against the accusation that he is late to the issue of sexism, saying that while women “live with it every day”, he has had different experiences.

“For many Australians, this has been like a big wake-up call and it’s been like a red light to say, stop, look, listen’ and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

But Morrison dug his heels in on his defence of Attorney-General Christian Porter, again labelling him “an innocent man” and rejecting the idea that he could instigate a non-criminal inquiry into a historical rape allegation about him.

He repeatedly drew an analogy to former Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who faced his own rape allegation which police declined to prosecute.

“That’s not the first time this has happened in this country,” he said.

Morrison said Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds – who is on medical leave and later apologised for calling Higgins a “lying cow” – would “continue to play a very important role” in his Cabinet.

He declined to say what positions they might serve in, and when a reshuffle would be announced.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Andrew Laming has apologised to two Brisbane women who accused him of online abuse.

Laming conceded his social media commentary had caused significant distress to two highly respected members of his federal electorate.

The exchanges sparked accusations of slander, stealing and stalking.

Laming has apologised to both women in writing and during a speech to parliament.

“I want to express my regret and deep apologies for the hurt and the distress that communication may have caused,” he said on Thursday.

“I want to retract those comments and issue a public unreserved apology.”

The Queensland backbencher, who regularly attracts criticism for his behaviour and comments on social media, acknowledged he had lessons to learn about his use of words.

Morrison called Laming into his office after learning of the vulgar online abuse.

“I told him to apologise and deal with it,” the PM said this morning.

Morrison is expected to enforce a “zero tolerance” approach to the rogue backbencher, who has been regularly criticised for his behaviour on social media.

“He is very clear about my expectations,” he said.

Gender pay gap will take 26 years to close: report

Humans could walk on Mars before all Australian men and women earn the same money for the same work, a new Federal Government report on the gender pay gap suggests.

Based on the rate of change over the past seven years, it will be 2047 before there’s full pay parity for all workers in all industries, the report warns.

The news is slightly better news for women in executive positions. They’ll only have to wait about 10 years.

And women in senior managerial roles can hope to be on par with men in 13, says the report by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) and the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre.

But the big picture across all industries and job levels is far worse.

Without a dramatic increase in the rate of change, the pay gap won’t completely close for another 26 years. That’s roughly a decade after NASA’s stated ambition to land astronauts on the red planet.

WEGA and the economics centre have been tracking the gap for the past seven years.

In that time the total remuneration gender pay gap – which takes into account salaries and all the add-ons like superannuation, bonuses and shift loadings – has fallen from 24.7 per cent to 20.1 per cent.

NSW flood clean up underway after rivers peak

Emergency services have started assessing damage in flood-affected areas of NSW marking the beginning of the massive mop-up after most rivers peaked across the state and evacuation orders begin to lift.

The State Emergency Service began collecting information about damage to properties and infrastructure in Penrith on Thursday as part of recovery planning.

The SES expects to assess about 600 properties in Penrith using aerial reconnaissance with a remote piloted aircraft as well as detailed assessments by teams on the ground.

Flood evacuation orders were lifted in several areas of northwestern Sydney late on Thursday night including South Creek at Mulgrave and the Hawkesbury River from Wisemans Ferry to Brooklyn and in Vineyard.

Major flooding continued on Friday morning at Maclean in the northern rivers region while the situation in Grafton and Ulmarra had eased to moderate flooding.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned on Thursday that “complacency is our biggest challenge”.

“While rivers may be reaching their peak, the flows and the current are very dangerous,” she told parliament.

“Benign” conditions will hang around the east coast for at least the next couple of days, the Bureau of Meteorology says.

Between 3000 and 4000 people returned to their homes over the past 24 hours, the premier said.

“We know that many people are confronted by very catastrophic conditions and their lives will never be the same,” she said.

The sheer volume of rain that fell across the state will take quite some time to work its way through the river systems, hydrologist Victoria Dodds says.

“We’ve seen exceptionally high flood levels, high-velocity flows, lots of dangerous debris in these floodwaters,” she told reporters on Thursday.

Dodds said flood warnings would likely remain in force across the state, particularly in inland areas, for the days and weeks ahead.

Berejiklian pleaded with people to stay out of floodwaters after two drivers died trapped in their cars.

A man died in Glenorie in northwest Sydney on Wednesday and the body of another man was found submerged in a ute in Queensland’s southeast.

There have been 11,000 calls for help to the NSW SES and 950 flood rescues.

Suez traffic jam could take weeks to clear

A container ship blocking the Suez Canal like a “beached whale” may take weeks to free, the salvage company says, as officials stopped all ships entering the channel in a new setback for global trade.

The 400m Ever Given, almost as long as the Empire State Building is high, is blocking transit in both directions through one of the world’s busiest shipping channels for oil and grain and other trade linking Asia and Europe.

The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) said eight tugs were working to move the vessel, which got stuck diagonally across the single-lane southern stretch of the canal on Tuesday morning amid high winds and a dust storm.

“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch company Boskalis which is trying to free the ship, told the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur.

A total of 156 large container ships, tankers carrying oil and gas, and bulk vessels hauling grain have backed up at either end of the canal, Egypt’s Leth Agencies said, creating one of the worst shipping jams seen for years.

Three ships were being escorted out of the canal, it added.

The blockage comes on top of the disruption to world trade already caused in the past year by COVID-19, with trade volumes hit by high rates of ship cancellations, shortages of containers and slower handling speeds at ports.

The SCA, which had allowed some vessels to enter the canal in the hope the blockage could be cleared, said it had temporarily suspended all traffic on Thursday.

Shipping giant Maersk said in a customer advisory it had seven vessels affected.

Berdowski said the ship’s bow and stern had been lifted up against either side of the canal.

“It is like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand.”

A new attempt to move it would take place later on Thursday, the ship’s technical manager, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), said.

Roughly 30 per cent of the world’s shipping container volume transits through the 193km Suez Canal daily and about 12 per cent of total global trade of all goods.

Shipping experts say that if the blockage is not cleared in the coming days, some shipping may re-route around Africa, which would add roughly a week to the journey.

Hot Pies deliver early season Blues to Carlton again

Collingwood have tamed arch-rivals Carlton, winning their AFL clash by 21 points in front of 51,273 fans at the MCG and condemning the Blues to an 0-2 start to the season for the ninth straight year.

Inspired by dynamite forward Jordan De Goey and defender Darcy Moore, the Magpies carved through a leaky Blues defence while their own back-half stood up admirably.

Collingwood survived multiple challenges from Carlton on Thursday night but the Magpies’ 30-point lead early in the second quarter proved enough as they won their first game of the season 16.10 (106) to 13.7 (85).

The Blues dominated the third quarter and had opportunities to push in front but simply could not penetrate a Moore-led Collingwood defence.

On the other hand, Collingwood were far more efficient going forward with their 48 inside-50s to the Blues’ 60.

De Goey again showed that when he is on song Collingwood rarely lose as he set the game alight with four first-half goals.

Fellow forward Brody Mihocek popped up with three goals, including the sealer late in the final term.

Former Greater Western Sydney speedster Zac Williams made a hot start in his first game for the Blues but his impact waned as the contest wore on.

Jack Martin was Carlton’s best with three goals, while Michael Gibbons bobbed up with some goal-of-the-year contenders.

The Blues, who entered the season full of hype, have again slumped to a 0-2 record which they have done every year since 2013.

“They beat us around the contest early and I have to give Collingwood the credit, they were strong and competed hard,” Blues coach David Teague said.

“They won more contested possession and out-tackled us so that was really disappointing.”

– with AAP and Reuters

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