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What we know today, Wednesday March 31

News

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

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State MP staffer charged over child abuse material

An adviser to a South Australian MP has had his employment terminated after being charged with child abuse-related offences.

Ben Waters, 38, faced Adelaide Magistrates Court on Wednesday after being charged along with another man whose identity has been suppressed.

Their alleged offending came to light after links were made to previous investigations, including one involving a man in Victoria.

In a statement, Labor MP and opposition human services spokeswoman Nat Cook said she was shocked to learn of the charges against her staff member.

Waters is charged with one count of producing child abuse material through a carriage service and four counts of possessing child exploitation material.

The other man, a 37-year-old from Port Lincoln, has been charged with two counts of producing child exploitation material, one count of indecent filming and with possessing and disseminating exploitation material.

Read the full story here.

NSW records local COVID case as SA imposes travel requirements

NSW has recorded a locally-acquired COVID-19 case – its first in two weeks – with four northern NSW districts now under new restrictions as South Australia imposes new travel requirements on Byron Bay residents.

The new case is a man who didn’t attend but is connected to a hen’s party that took place in Byron Bay last weekend and is linked to a number of COVID cases in Queensland.

The new infection in NSW was recorded after 8pm on Tuesday and will be included in Thursday’s figures.

The COVID-positive man’s household contacts have tested negative.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said four shires – Byron, Ballina, Tweed and Lismore in northern NSW – would now be limited to gatherings of 30 and revert to the “four square metre” rule and masks will be mandatory in some settings.

“It is our strong preference – it will not be mandatory but it is our very strong preference – that if you live in any of those four local government areas, that you don’t travel outside those areas,” she told reporters today.

“We won’t be policing that but it is very strong advice … if there is community transmission, we don’t want it seeded to other parts of NSW.”

There were no plans to close the NSW-Queensland border, nor plans to tighten restrictions further, she told reporters.

Overnight, South Australia imposed new requirements on anyone travelling from the Byron Bay council area.

Incoming travellers to SA from the region – on or after last Friday, March 26 – now have to submit to a COVID-19 test on days one, five and 13 of their stay in South Australia.

They also have to isolate until they receive a negative result from their day one test, are prohibited from entering high-risk settings such as aged care, and cannot enter an event in SA hosting more than 1000 people.

South Australia recorded no new COVID-19 cases today from a total of 5073 tests.

PM announces new missile spend during Adelaide visit

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced a $1 billion defence spend in his visit to Adelaide, with a focus on missile manufacturing.

The announcement, made alongside Premier Steven Marshall at a press conference this morning, saw plans unveiled for a $1 billion weapons manufacturing centre with a location to be finalised later in the year.

It is the first major defence announcement from the federal government since former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was elevated to the defence portfolio earlier this week.

Morrison also opened the Raytheon Australia Centre for Joint Integration at Mawson Lakes, after the premier announced the $50 million centre in July last year.

Raytheon expects the new centre to provide ongoing employment to 35 people, and it will be the primary facility for the development of Australia’s new air defence capabilities.

The federal government also expects to spend $100 billion on missiles and other guided weapons over the next two decades, and this morning unveiled a five-year $111 million contract with Raytheon for a new National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, having the ability for self-reliance, be it vaccine development or the defence of Australia, is vital to meeting our own requirements in a changing global environment,” Morrison said.

“It’s an imperative we now proceed with the creation of a sovereign guided weapons capability as a priority, accelerating this process following the idea first being explored in the force structure plan.”

Companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Kongsberg are considered likely bidders for the work.

It would allow Australia to replace missiles shipped in from overseas.

“This is all about ensuring that we have the capability to do what we need to do to protect Australia’s interests in our part of the world,” Morrison told reporters this morning.

“This is a billion-dollar initiative to bring this forward to ensure that we have what we need to do what’s right for all Australians.”

The PM’s announcement comes amid uncertainty about where South Australia’s future submarine manufacturing jobs will be located.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said the premier must use the PM’s visit to ensure the jobs are not relocated to Western Australia.

“Steven Marshall and his Government must use this opportunity to make it very clear to the Prime Minister that he must guarantee these jobs are staying in South Australia,” Malinauskas said.

“South Australia has the worst unemployment rate in the nation, and locals have the skills to do this outstanding work right here in our State – they don’t need this uncertainty hanging over their heads.

“We cannot afford to lose a single job – let alone the 700 submarine maintenance jobs and thousands of indirect jobs this work supports.”

Morrison’s visit comes after the state election race kicked off with a leaders debate and big-ticket policy announcements from both Liberal and Labor last week, with 12 months to go until the polls.

The PM also opened the Australian Space Discovery Centre at Lot 14, which includes hands-on interactive space exhibits and provides practical advice for those pursuing a career in the growing sector.

The space centre also includes a state-of-the-art mission control room which will make it easier for local start-ups to control satellites and space missions.

“The Australian Space Discovery Centre will be the go-to destination for curious minds to learn about the wonders of space and to see themselves as part of Australia’s space story,” Morrison said.

“But the discovery centre isn’t just for the young and the young at heart.

“The cutting-edge mission control centre will enable our local space businesses to track and control their very own missions and satellites, providing critical new capability here on home soil.”

Marshall said the new facilities cemented South Australia as the space capital of Australia.

“The federal government has an ambition to grow the size of the Australian space economy to $12 billion by 2030 and create an additional 20,000 jobs,” the premier said.

“South Australia will lead this charge and that’s a coup for our state.”

Two more Queensland COVID cases

Greater Brisbane’s lockdown could still end before the Easter holidays after the number of coronavirus cases grew by just two to 17.

The two additional cases were reported after 33,408 tests were conducted in the 24 hours to 9am on Wednesday.

One is a nurse from Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, who was exposed to a COVID-19 patient, and the other is her housemate.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says there’s no further known cases of community transmission in the state.

She says a decision on extending the Greater Brisbane lockdown, which due to end at 5pm on Thursday, will be made in the next 24 hours.

“It depends on the testing rates again, so if we see very good testing rates across Queensland, and we don’t see any unlinked community transmission, the signs for Easter are looking positive,” Palaszczuk said.

Known COVID-19 cases have visited venues in Greater Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Gladstone, Toowoomba, Hervey Bay and Gin Gin.

The number of exposure sites in Queensland jumped to 81 overnight with alerts for another two venues across the border in the NSW town of Byron Bay.

Exiled Liberal MP faces court

Former Liberal backbencher Fraser Ellis made his first appearance in court on 23 deception charges related to claims for the country members accommodation allowance.

Ellis came before Adelaide Magistrates Court on Wednesday and was required to enter into a simple bail agreement.

He made no comment during his brief appearance.

The court was told a substantial amount of material had already been disclosed to the defence and the parties had begun discussions on the case.

By consent, it was adjourned to a pre-trial conference in May.

Read the full story here

Labor says email shows need for data harvesting inquiry

Labor says the Marshall Government has more questions to answer over data harvesting claims, saying an email address set up to receive state government alerts began to receive Liberal Party material.

An ABC report on Monday said that it has found about 100 examples of state government links redirecting users through “stateliberalleader.nationbuilder.com” – a domain operated by the SA Liberal Party, with links found on media releases and across parts of the SA COVID–19 website, as well as on other state government department-run sites.

The Government yesterday discontinued the use of NationBuilder for emailing its media releases, but a statement from Premier Steven Marshall said: “The Marshall Liberal Government has not been using state government websites to collect or track data for the Liberal Party.”

“No data is being collected or retained when clicking on the links referred to in media reports,” he said.”

But Labor says an email address specifically to receive state government information, set up by a member of the public several weeks ago, had been sent Liberal Party political material.

“This email address has not been used for any other purpose aside from signing up for State Government alerts,” Labor’s Tom Koutsantonis said.

Yet suddenly, this email address is being inundated with Liberal Party political material from Steven Marshall’s NationBuilder website.

How did this happen? How often has this happened? Does this explain why so many people are coming forward saying they are receiving emails from Steven Marshall but don’t know how he got their email address?

“This is why we need an independent inquiry into the Liberal data privacy scandal.”

SA eases mask requirements

South Australian authorities have overnight slightly eased mask requirements for indoor venues while also imposing new restrictions on travel from the Byron Bay region in New South Wales.

It comes after the state’s transition committee yesterday decided to go ahead with plans – flagged last week – to lift density caps on pubs, nightclubs, dancefloors and restaurants to 75 per cent capacity.

The committee also agreed to make minor amendments to the public activities direction to “make sure that it made sense to the community”, Deputy Police Commissioner Linda Williams told reporters on Tuesday.

Those amendments, released overnight, now include allowing churches and cinemas to host up to 75 per cent capacity without having to mandate that attendees wear masks.

This is an increase from the mask-wearing threshold of 50 per cent announced last week.

Meanwhile, the cross-border travel direction was also updated to list the Byron Bay Shire in NSW as a restricted zone, after five confirmed COVID-19 cases attended a party in the region while unknowingly infectious.

NSW Health has stepped up testing in the state’s north, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian telling the state to “brace” for more cases in the region.

A number of public health alerts have been issued for venues in the region, which is gearing up to host thousands of revellers for Bluesfest in the coming days.

Incoming travellers to SA from the Byron Bay council area – on or after last Friday, March 26 – now have to submit to a COVID-19 test on days one, five and 13 of their stay in South Australia.

They also have to isolate until they receive a negative result from their day one test, are prohibited from entering high risk settings such as aged care, and cannot enter an event in SA hosting more than 1000 people.

It comes after travellers from Greater Brisbane were shut out of SA from 5pm on Monday.

Brisbane hospital in lockdown amid Queensland COVID fears

The hospital identified as the source of two coronavirus clusters spreading through Queensland has been locked down overnight as a precaution, as concerns grow the city of Brisbane’s three-day lockdown could be extended over the Easter long weekend.

Queensland Health on Tuesday night confirmed the Princess Alexandra Hospital would be locked down for the second time in a month.

“This additional lockdown will enable PA Hospital to put in place processes to manage impacts associated with these linked cases,” an official said.

The hospital will continue to test all staff that have worked in the COVID-19 ward since March 19.

The nearby Mater Mothers’ Hospital has also sent home staff – including midwives and doctors – after a recent visitor tested positive to the virus, according to the ABC.

The person visited the private maternity section and a nearby coffee shop popular with staff.

Another eight locally transmitted virus vases were announced on Tuesday, as Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk confirmed two distinct clusters were spreading in Queensland.

Both clusters are genomically linked to two Princess Alexandra Hospital staff who tested positive.

It comes as concerns grow that Greater Brisbane’s lockdown will not lift by Good Friday.

The region was declared a COVID-19 hotspot on Tuesday by Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, who warned the situation was escalating and travellers should take note of border closures.

“It may be one thing to go there but coming back might also be difficult,” he said.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the next week or two.”

The lockdown is scheduled to lift at 5pm on Thursday, but Palaszczuk said health authorities were taking things “day-by-day”.

She said the decision to lockdown about 2.5 million people was the right step after eight additional cases were reported on Tuesday.

“Do we expect to see more cases – probably, probably we will see more,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

“The big question will be whether or not we see unlinked community transmission.”

Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young has also left the door open to expand lockdown measures to other regions.

One known case lives on the Gold Coast and others have visited Toowoomba, Gladstone, Hervey Bay and Gin Gin while infectious.

“The message here is that people should be on alert, no matter where they are in Queensland,” Young said.

The Gold Coast Suns arrived in Adelaide on Tuesday morning for their clash against the Crows on Good Friday.

The club booked an earlier-than-scheduled charter flight after orders from the AFL to make it across the border before any potential border closures.

REX set to launch Adelaide-Melbourne route

The first-ever REX flight between Melbourne and Adelaide will touch down at Adelaide Airport this morning, as the regional airline attempts to muscle its way into the capital city market.

REX announced on March 1 that they would be starting twice-daily flights between Adelaide and Melbourne, with economy class tickets starting from $69 and business class from $299.

The first of those twice-daily flights will take-off from Melbourne Airport around 7:30am this morning, and is scheduled to arrive at Adelaide Airport Terminal One at 8:25am with a water cannon salute.

It is then scheduled to fly back to Melbourne at 11am.

The route will be serviced by one of four next-generation 737-800s REX has leased from Virgin Airlines.

The biggest of REX’s fleet, the 737-800 has a capacity of 176 passengers including eight business class seats.

It is REX’s second-ever capital city to capital city route, after the airline launched its Melbourne-Sydney service on March 1.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission earlier this month found that REX’s entry into the Melbourne-Sydney market had prompted a drop in prices from Virgin and Jetstar.

REX has also this week launched routes to the Gold Coast from Melbourne and Sydney, and will also start flying into Canberra from Sydney later in April.

More than 800,000 half-priced domestic airfares subsidised by the federal government will also go on sale this Thursday, despite uncertainty over travel into Queensland where five of the half-priced target destinations are located.

Batteries, electric cars to power Labor’s plan

Up to 100,000 houses would receive power from community batteries under a federal Labor plan to slash power bills and reduce carbon emissions.

An elected Albanese government would pump $400 million into installing 400 batteries around Australia.

Under the plan set to be unveiled on the final day of the ALP’s special platform conference, a further $200 million would be spent on tax breaks to encourage electric car use.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the plan would reduce power and fuel costs for families as well as cut emissions.

“Only Labor is on your side when it comes to reducing power bills and fuel costs for families,” he said.

“Labor’s power to the people will invest in Australia’s future and help Australia catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to electric vehicles.”

Each community battery is typically the size of a four-wheel drive vehicle which provides enough power to support around 250 nearby homes.

Solar households will feed power into the battery during the day and draw from the stored energy at night.

Excess electricity stored in the battery can be sold into the grid at peak times like early evenings in a bid to put downward pressure on power bills.

A Labor government would also take steps to drive down the price of electric cars, with Australia lagging behind the world on take up of the vehicles.

Under the $200 million plan, electric cars provided through work for personal use would be exempt from the 47 per cent fringe benefits tax.

Some imported electric cars would be exempt from five per cent import tariffs, with the cut-off set at $77,000 this financial year in line with the luxury car tax threshold.

The changes are expected to save employers up to $9000 a year on a $50,000 model, while scrapping import taxes could cut the price by about $2000.

Just 0.7 per cent of cars sold in Australia are electric, compared to a global average of 4.2 per cent, and 75 per cent in Norway.

Climate, energy and environment policy will be discussed during Wednesday’s conference sessions, along with industrial relations.

‘Data withheld’ from WHO team in China

Data was withheld from World Health Organisation investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says.

Australia and 13 other countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said.

“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the United States has alleged, hindered them.

“The international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea, Slovenia, the UK, the US and the European Union said in a joint statement.

Although the team concluded that a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was the least likely hypothesis for the virus that causes COVID-19, Tedros said the issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by the WHO.

“Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The WHO team’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a press briefing it was “perfectly possible” the virus had been circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, and so potentially spreading abroad earlier than documented so far.

“We got access to quite a lot of data in many different areas but of course there were areas where we had difficulties getting down to the raw data and there are many good reasons for that,” he said, citing privacy laws and other restrictions.

Second phase studies were required, Ben Embarek added.

He said the team had felt political pressure, including from outside China, but that he had never been pressed to remove anything from its final report.

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian expert on the mission, said he was satisfied there was “no obvious evidence” of a problem at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The European Union called the study “an important first step” but renewed criticisms that the origin study had begun too late, that experts had been kept out of China for too long and that access to data and early samples had fallen short.

In a statement, Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, called for further study with “timely access to relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available”.

-With AAP and Reuters

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