China misses out on Premier League

The Premier League’s top sides went on money-spinning tours of Asia this month that saw them take in a total of six countries or territories.

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But there was one glaring omission: mainland China.

Many businesses see the fast-developing country – now the world’s second-biggest economy – as “the holy grail”, says Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, adding that he didn’t “quite see it in the same way”.

Nor, seemingly, do Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, Sunderland and Manchester rivals United and City, all of whom have been in Asia on lucrative pre-season trips, without including mainland China on their exhaustive itineraries.

Football and marketing experts said there were a number of commercial, logistical and sporting reasons for staying away.

“We are in a very fortunate position in that we operate in 212 countries and China is in the top 10 of our strategic markets,” Scudamore told AFP in Hong Kong last week, where City, Spurs and Sunderland each played two games in four days in the Premier League’s Barclays Asia Trophy.

Each team picked up STG1.2 million ($A2.03 million) pounds for appearing in the exhibition tournament, according to The Daily Telegraph.

“For a lot of businesses, in terms of business and marketing, China seems to be the holy grail. We don’t quite see it in the same way because as I said, we are in a fortunate position where we are in so many other countries,” Scudamore said.

“But clearly, just looking at the numbers, it’s a huge country and hugely emerging, emerging in terms of its sporting culture.

“And therefore we are involved in China, we have good partners in China – it took us a while to find them but we have some very good partners in China.

“It’s not just a broadcasting entity, it’s a marketing entity and we are working out in the regions in China because you cannot really describe China as a single entity, given the size, the scope and the expansion of it.”

Premier League teams in recent weeks played in front of fanatical sell-out crowds in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The clubs charge appearance fees and they benefit from sales of official merchandise, as well as trading on their huge popularity by signing myriad sponsorship deals.

Tiger Tian, a sports marketing expert in Beijing, said a combination of factors had kept English teams out of China this summer.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City were all in the country last year, he noted, but said football fans in major cities were becoming increasingly “picky”.

“They’re fed-up with big names but poor performances, which unfortunately had been the case on several occasions when Premier League teams visited before,” said Tian, explaining that was less the fault of the teams and more the travelling, difficult pitches and limited quality of the opposition.

“Rapidly rising costs and limited sources of revenue are also threatening promoters’ bottom lines.

“Premier League teams, like everyone else in the world, see China as a goldmine and ask for higher and higher appearance fees.

“Obtaining all kinds of government permits is also extremely demanding in terms of both time and funds, and there’s always a danger of a last-minute shutdown.”

Several games involving European teams in China have been shelved at the eleventh hour.

In May, a friendly between Italian giants AC Milan and Dutch champions Ajax in Beijing was cancelled three weeks before kick-off because of “organisational reasons”.

The organisers had failed to pay an appearance fee on time, Chinese media said.

Barcelona also ditched their August game in Shanghai “after coming to the conclusion that it could not be played in perfect conditions”, the club said.

Julian Jackson, of the sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, said there was “a fairly easy reason” why China had not got in on the Premier League jamboree.

The league’s failure to strike a deal to have games shown on China’s all-powerful state broadcaster CCTV means it simply does not have the same following as elsewhere in the football-mad region, he said.


Comment: Why electricity prices keep rising

By Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

If there’s logic behind the way Australian energy markets work, at first glance it’s hard to fathom.

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Increases in power bills have previously been justified by our increasing demand. But as energy demand in Australia drops prices continue to rise. This raises numerous questions. Is the type of demand changing? Is there the right type of investment in the network? Are the right energy market mechanisms in place?

In 2012-13, residential electricity prices increased by 14%, continuing a trend of double-digit increases going back to around 2007. This is a clearly a problem for homes and businesses and, therefore, for our political leaders.

The largest component of the price increase has come from costs imposed by the network distribution businesses, and yet these are regulated monopolies. The power to change rests with the regulators and, therefore, with governments. Yet, these monopolies, facing very little price or volume risk, make outsized profits. Why hasn’t the government done more to prevent this?

Grattan Institute issued a report in December, 2012: Putting the customer back in front: how to make electricity prices cheaper. This report drew four conclusions:

The allowed profits exceed reasonable levels, given the low level of risk these network distribution businesses face. Costs are being incurred to achieve unjustified levels of reliability – our electricity system doesn’t need to be as reliable as these business are telling us. The process of five-yearly reviews does not reflect the changing dynamics of the industry. Government-owned businesses are on average significantly less cost-efficient than their privately-owned counterparts.

The report made four recommendations that have the potential to deliver savings to consumers of around $2.2 billion per year, a saving to the average domestic customer of $100 per year. These are:

Align allowed equity and debt returns with the risks faced by the businesses. Give regulators, rather than state governments, the power to set reliability standards. Where governments own the businesses, they should address poor governance or privatise. Capital forecasts should be revised in line with changing demand forecasts.

In December, the Council of Australian Governments and the Standing Council on Energy and Resources (SCER) developed and moved to implement an electricity market reform package. This package is intended to strengthen regulation, empower consumers, enhance competition and innovation and balance the network investment interests of owners and consumers.

The Implementation Plan extends over 2013 and 2014 and puts considerable emphasis on strengthening the power and resources of the regulator (the Australian Energy Regulator, or AER).

It seems that expectations now rest heavily on the way the regulator responds to the various changes in its direction, powers and resources.

In March, 2013, the Australian Energy Market Commission – the rule maker – published a report on future electricity price trends. It estimated that nationally, the aggregated distribution network price will increase by 6% annually, from 2013 to 2015. This compares with an 11% increase between 2012 and 2013. These increases are estimated to represent 81% of the increase in residential retail prices.

The key questions now are will these reforms and price reductions be delivered and are they enough?

There has been criticism that the regulator has been too timid in its prior regulatory decisions and has tended to err on the side of investors. For example, in assessing the appropriate risk premium that businesses could earn, the regulator leaned towards encouraging investment rather than containing costs. The end result has been excessive returns for investors.

It will be important to assess the results of changes by looking at delivered outcomes, and not the actions and processes that are set up. The critical outcome will be the reported profits of the businesses – they should align with the risks faced. Savings of around $400 million per per year could be expected in coming years.

The communiqué from the last meeting of the Standing Council on Energy and Resources contains very little language to suggest it plans to be accountable to consumers for delivering them a better system. The current level of business ownership by state and territory governments and the challenges of delivering outcomes through federal processes would seem to work against what is and should be achievable.

Given the delivered outcomes over the last few years in terms of price increases for consumers and profits for shareholders, we should probably be seeking a much better result than the 6% price rise the Australian Energy Market Commission is estimating.

Although regulation is needed to ensure that companies have incentives to invest, recent decisions have disadvantaged the public. Governments need to take a more pro-active role in ensuring that changes are made and the benefits are delivered. It is time to restore the balance, and we should not be patient.

These issues will be discussed at a public seminar in Sydney on April 22 at the University of New South Wales. The discussion will be led by Andrew Reeves, Chair of the Australian Energy Regulator (AER), who will outline what regulatory agencies are doing to address the problem. He will be joined by a panel of experts chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane – Chief Scientist and Engineer, New South Wales.

Tony Wood owns shares directly and indirectly in a portfolio of comapnies, including those operating in the energy sector.


Three Israelis, three militants killed as Gaza violence rages

Warplanes pounded Gaza for a second day as three Israelis and three Palestinians were killed in fierce fighting which began with Israel’s targeted killing of a top Hamas chief.

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Israel’s harshest assault on the Palestinian territory in four years, which comes as the Jewish state heads towards general elections, prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council amid growing international concern.

Police said that since Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari on Wednesday afternoon, militants have fired around 180 rockets over the border, one of which hit a house on Thursday morning, killing three Israelis and injuring another four.

And the Israeli air force has pounded Gaza with more than 100 air strikes, killing 11 and injuring at least 115, medics and Hamas officials said.

“We have three killed,” Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, saying four other people were also injured in a “direct hit on a house” in Kiryat Malachi, a town which lies 30 kilometres northeast of the Gaza Strip.

The attack on Kiryat Malachi was claimed by Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades in a statement on its website.

Israeli police said they had raised the level of alert across the entire country in order to deal with “the possibility of terror attacks” in response to Israel’s killing of the Hamas chief.

“All the major cities in southern Israel were hit, and the majority of the more serious damage was in Beersheva,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

Schools within a 40 kilometre of Gaza were closed, and those living within seven kilometres of the strip had been told not to go to work, he said. “It’s a pretty serious situation.”

An AFP correspondent close to the Gaza border saw several Israeli jets flying south as well as convoys of military jeeps and at least two flatbed trucks carrying armoured bulldozers.

In Gaza, Palestinian medics said three Hamas militants were killed in an early strike near the southern city of Khan Yunis, raising to 11 the number of Palestinians killed since the hit on Jaabari at around 1400 GMT on Wednesday.

“Eleven people have been killed and 115 people injured,” he told AFP.

Throughout the morning, further air strikes hit northern Gaza, Gaza City and east of Khan Yunis, injuring another three, medics and security sources told AFP.

Among the dead were five Hamas militants, two children, a woman and an elderly man, he said. The identities of the other two were not immediately clear.

The violence sparked a furious response from Egypt’s Islamist administration, which has close ties with Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, with Cairo recalling its ambassador in protest at the Israeli operation.

Israel has said the strikes were only “the beginning” of an offensive targeting Gaza militants and warned it may expand its activity, with the army saying if necessary it was “ready to initiate a ground operation.”

“If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to expand the operation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday evening, several hours after the start of Operation Pillar of Defence.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the operation was to strengthen Israel’s deterrence, damage militant groups’ rocket-firing capabilities and stamp out attacks on Israel.

Jaabari’s death sparked fury in Gaza, with Hamas’s armed wing warning saying that by killing its leader Israel had “opened the gates of hell on itself.”

And Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said the strike was tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

In New York, the UN Security Council held an emergency 90-minute session to discuss the crisis, with Arab states pushing for a strong condemnation, but the US envoy strongly defending Israel’s right to self-defence in the face of Palestinian rocket fire.

Amid fears of a regional flareup over the confrontation, US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon both phoned Netanyahu and Morsi in a bid to de-escalate the conflict.

Britain urged restraint and Russia said it was “very concerned.”

The air strikes capped five days of rising tension in and around Gaza, which saw Israel kill seven Palestinians and militants fire more than 120 rockets over the border, injuring eight.


Stefan Nystrom’s deportation ‘led to criminal relapse’

By Andy Park, SBS

In classical mathematics, the ‘Stefan Problem’ tries to explain equations that are altered by an environmental change, such as ice melting into water.

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Stefan Nystrom is no different. A complex problem, in a transitional state of meltdown, away from his home environment.

In his first interview from a Swedish prison – Nystrom has received 47 criminal convictions since his deportation there from Australia – he appears bewildered and unable to understand simple questions.

“It’s more that I’m upset, you know? I can’t handle this, it’s wrong,” he says.

Watch the full interview with Stefan Nystrom:

CRIMINAL RELAPSE

According to Swedish court documents obtained by SBS, Nystrom is serving a three-month term for six charges, ranging from the unlawful use of amphetamines and shoplifting to damaging and threatening official property and persons.

Born in Sweden, Nystrom and his mother moved to Australia when he was 27 days old – he was raised here and believed he was a citizen until he received a letter from the government in 2004.

The letter revealed that his Australian visa had been cancelled due to his lengthy criminal record.

“All the [Australian] crimes I have been charged with I have done my time so they shouldn’t be giving me another… they shouldn’t deport me,” Nystrom, 39, said from prison.

Since his deportation to Sweden, where he does not speak the language, Nystrom has battled depression, anger and drug addiction issues.

Court testimony reveals he sometimes hears voices and he freely admits to carrying around a knife.

Nystrom’s supporters say his deportation to Sweden triggered a relapse into criminal behaviour – a belief supported by an Australian expert on the mental health of displaced people.

Psychologist Amanda Gordon, who advises the Department of Immigration on the mental health of asylum seekers through the Detention Health Advisory Group, said his recidivism was unsurprising.

“It was inevitable that he was going to decline in his mental state and therefore in his actions and behaviours,” Ms Gordon said.

“We know that he behaved properly for the nine or so years after his release from prison here – we assume that he found a way of managing,” she said.

AUSTRALIA IGNORING UN HUMAN RIGHTS RULING

A landmark ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee last year found that Australia’s deportation of Nystrom was a breach of his human rights and ordered the government to assist with his return.

The Federal Government has refused to recognise the ruling.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said “all non-citizens who wish to enter or remain in Australia must satisfy the requirements of the Migration Act and Regulations, including the character test – and this individual did not.”

“The government is aware of the UNHRC’s judgement and responded accordingly.”

Nystrom, who alternates between a life on the streets and time in prison, seems to be unaware of these developments.

“I think it’s pretty shit you know, pretty shit. I don’t really know what to say at the moment – it’s unbelievable,” he said.

Nystrom’s barrister, Brian Walters QC, said Australia’s international standing could be damaged by not respecting the UNHRC’s decision.

“Disrespect for the institutions of the United Nations, which this is a pretty glaring example of, is not going to help us at all in our bid for a seat on the security council,” Mr Walters said.

“Why should the nations of the world respect us when we don’t respect the institutions we said we would respect,” he said.

In the nine years between his release from prison in Australia and his deportation to Sweden, Nystrom said he lived a happy life picking fruit around Swan Hill in Victoria.

“It was good, I had work, I have me own caravan, I had everything, it was good. I had a life,” he said.

“I’m an Aussie, I’m 100 per cent Australian. I don’t speak Swedish. I’ve been here for a while but I have a learning difficulty I can’t pick up on this language. But I’m an Aussie, through and through,”

‘A VERY SAD MAN’

Ms Gordon, who has implemented psychological welfare programs for asylum seekers in Australian detention centres, said at least they are provided with peer and language support.

“[Nystrom is] a very sad man talking about a very sad life, he’s been disconnected from anything that is important to him. I hope that, if he can return, he can feel that it’s a good enough life again,” she said.

But it seems Nystrom is not coming home. He, his family in Australia, and his legal advisors worry that the perception of his overseas crimes may damage his case for repatriation.

“[They] could have, I’m not too sure but they shouldn’t take that into account,” Nystrom says.

“It’s got nothing to do with Australia what I get charged for here so I hope it hasn’t damaged it.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take. Maybe a change of government.”

In the Swedish regional remand centre, Nystrom is asked if he wants to add anything.

“Hello Mum!” he laughs, adding: “No, look, see in your hearts to take me back home”.

As with his mathematical namesake, the problem of Stefan Nystrom is proving difficult to solve.

(This interview was recorded with the assistance of Sweden’s TV4.)


Syria steps up assault as UN moves to send monitors

Fierce clashes erupted after Syria’s regime sent reinforcements into rebel areas despite a truce pledge, as the UN said it was rushing a team to Damascus to pave the way for peace monitors.

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The surge in violence on Tuesday killed at least 38 people, including 25 civilians, mostly in north and central Syria, and saw a string of arson attacks on homes, activists and monitors said.

It came a day after peace envoy Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council that President Bashar al-Assad had given assurances he would “immediately” start pulling back his forces and complete a military withdrawal from urban areas by April 10.

The United States accused Assad of failing to honour his pledged troop withdrawal, as monitors reported heavy fighting in opposition strongholds in the southern region of Daraa, the central city of Homs, northwestern Idlib province and near the capital.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has charged that the army is torching and looting rebel houses across the country in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.

Dozens of armoured personnel carriers arrived in Dael, a town in Daraa province where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, as well as in Zabadani, a bastion of the rebellion near the border with Lebanon.

Clashes in the Atbaa area of Daraa left three civilians and two soldiers dead, according to the Observatory.

In Idlib, heavy fighting took place on the outskirts of the town of Taftanaz, where five civilians, four rebels and seven soldiers were killed amid heavy machinegun fire and shelling, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Clashes killed two civilians elsewhere in the province.

In central Homs, 10 civilians were killed in shelling and five others died in fighting elsewhere in the province.

With international concern at the situation growing, a draft UN Security Council statement was drawn up asking Syria to respect an April 10 deadline to halt its military operations in protest cities, according to a copy of the text seen by AFP.

The draft also urges the Syrian opposition to cease hostilities within 48 hours after the Assad’s regime makes good on its pledges.

It also calls on all parties to respect a two-hour daily humanitarian pause, as called for in Annan’s plan.

Negotiations on the text — distributed by Britain, France and the United States — began on Tuesday. France’s UN envoy Gerard Araud said he hoped it would be adopted late Wednesday or on Thursday.

Russia, Assad’s veto-wielding ally in the Council, has rejected the idea of a deadline, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying “ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters.”

Washington said on Tuesday that Assad was failing to live up to pledges for a truce.

“The assertion to Kofi Annan was that Assad would start implementing his commitments immediately to withdraw from cities. I want to advise that we have seen no evidence today that he is implementing any of those commitments,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

In Geneva, a spokesman for Annan said the office of the UN-Arab League envoy expected a “UN advance team on the deployment of monitors to arrive in Syria in the next 48 hours.”

In a briefing Monday to the Security Council, Annan sought a broad mandate for the monitoring mission as he reported “no progress” on reaching a ceasefire, according to diplomats.

Syria’s UN envoy, Bashar Jaafari, confirmed the April 10 date had been agreed “by common accord” between Annan and his government.

Seeking to assuage some of the humanitarian concerns, foreign Minister Walid Muallem pledged Syria would do its utmost to ensure the success of a Red Cross mission as he met the organisation’s head, Jakob Kellenberger, who was in Damascus to seek a daily ceasefire.

International Committee of the Red Cross chief Kellenberger, on his third mission to Damascus since it launched a protest crackdown which the UN says has killed more than 9,000 people, said ahead of his latest trip that he would seek to secure a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire.


Guns and the US Constitution after Newtown

By Timothy Lynch, University of Melbourne

The horrific Newtown school massacre has again raised the question of why effective gun control is beyond the capacity of American politicians.

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The question is necessary, natural and appropriate. But it also misreads the constitutional character of American politics which, for both good and ill, remain far more ideological than those of all other liberal democracies.

Change and regulation, which in an Australian or western European context, would entail a technocratic debate over their utility, often raise fundamental questions about the relationship between citizen and state in the US .

In Canberra, healthcare is framed by a competition between two parties each claiming they can deliver it better. Deference to “experts” is high on both sides. In Washington, healthcare is a proxy for a centuries-long struggle between proponents and opponents of federal power – deference to experts takes second place. “Obamacare” is a debate about first principles; Australian Medicare is about technocratic delivery.

The US Constitution largely accounts for this difference. Unlike its Australian counterpart, it gives practical form to an idea, first posited in the Declaration of Independence, that some rights are so basic (“unalienable”) they remain beyond the power of government to abrogate. The United States is an experiment, now in its 24th decade, to see whether government can be so constituted that these rights remain secure.

Initially, these were the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, passed in 1791) they were further extended to include, among others, the right to freedom of speech and of religion, and to trial by jury. In the 221 years since, constitutional rights have been further extended to include voting rights, the right to privacy and, from that asserted right, the right to reproductive choice.

The constitutional right to bear arms continues to invoke an ideological clash of a similar intensity to the abortion issue. Proponents of each right acknowledge there are consequences to the exercise of it. Reproductive choice campaigners recognise that since Roe v. Wade (1973) there have been more than 50 million abortions in the United States (1.2 million per year or 3000 per day).

Similarly, advocates of gun choice can’t fail to acknowledge that guns, over the same period, have been used to kill almost 400,000 Americans (about 9,000 per year or 25 each day).

In response, pro-gun and pro-abortion lobbies both argue a variation of “so what?” and “who cares?” The holding of the right is more important than the consequences of its holding. If a woman wants an abortion the government cannot second-guess her. If that same woman wants to own a gun, what right has the government to ask her why and how many? The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Organization for Women (NOW), whilst they differ on most issues, are nevertheless engaged in the same political strategy: to make their asserted rights secure in the Constitution, sufficient that mainstream politicians will steer clear of the issue – as both Obama and Romney did this year.

Abortion and gun rights campaigns each offer a slippery slope argument: restrict abortion in the third trimester and eventually women will be denied the procedure in their second; ban assault rifles and a precedent for ever more restrictive gun control will be established until all firearms are banned. Give the government an inch and it will take a mile.

In the days ahead, the NRA will campaign in identical fashion to Planned Parenthood when abortion restrictions are mooted. Denying the right to bear arms, the NRA will claim, invites government to regulate the behaviour of citizens in violation of the US Constitution. The freedom to own guns, like the freedom to make decisions about one’s own body, are the province of the individual; they brook no governmental intrusion. Regulation of either would alter fundamentally the relationship between citizen and state – in favour of the power of the latter.

Importantly, the fervour with which each right is claimed should give us an indication of the practical political impossibility of altering the Constitution so each right is denied, weakened or even substantially regulated. The US Constitution has been amended only 27 times since its ratification – or only 17 times since 1791. Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress (impossible on Obamacare and that was mere legislation) and then ratification by two-thirds (or 33) of the 50 states.

Amendments are thus only really possible when there is a genuine national consensus or ambivalence on the issue at hand. Neither guns nor abortion are marked by consensus or ambivalence. Their significant regulation is a political non-starter. The greater surprise after Newtown will be a President Obama making gun control a central issue of his second term. Politicising the issue now would only further alienate the Republicans he needs on-side to cut a budget deal, as David Smith argues.

My argument is not about the moral rights and wrongs of access to guns and abortion. Rather, it is to observe why and how the US Constitution, by enshrining a right to them, renders both issues immune to political compromise and thus to technocratic regulation.

Gun rights will continue to lead to gun deaths; abortion rights will continue to lead to abortions. The willingness of both rights claimants to defend these consequences fiercely and often absolutely goes some way to explaining why neither guns nor abortion will be subject to greater federal regulation anytime soon.

Timothy Lynch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


Syria’s ‘friends’ pledge urgent help

Yet even as they prepared to step up their own contribution to a war that has killed nearly 100,000 people, they demanded that Iran and Lebanese movement Hezbollah stop supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

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Top Qatari diplomat and host Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said a meeting in Doha of foreign ministers of the “Friends of Syria” had taken “secret decisions about practical measures to change the situation on the ground”.

A final communique said “each country in its own way” would provide “urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment” so that the rebels could “counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies and protect the Syrian people.”

Sheikh Hamad said two of the 11 countries participating had expressed reservations, with diplomats saying they were Germany and Italy.

Also attending were the foreign ministers of Britain, Egypt, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Washington and Doha had called for increasing aid to end what US Secretary of State John Kerry called an “imbalance” in Assad’s favour.

Kerry said the United States remained committed to a peace plan that includes a conference in Geneva and a transitional government picked both by Assad and the opposition.

But he said the rebels need more support “for the purpose of being able to get to Geneva and to be able to address the imbalance on the ground”.

Sheikh Hamad echoed Kerry’s remarks, saying a peaceful end “cannot be reached unless a balance on the ground is achieved, in order to force the regime to sit down to talks.”

On Thursday, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

A Western diplomat in Doha said on Saturday that FSA chief of staff General Selim Idriss had presented a wish list and that it had been agreed to for the most part.

“Everybody is going to help and help better,” the diplomat said, adding that there would be on “important qualitative and quantitative leap”.

Later on Saturday, French President Francois Hollande arrived in Qatar for talks with the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

He was expected to highlight the “need for trust, clarity and coordination” in backing the rebels, as Qatar is accused of “supporting Syrian opposition groups it does not know,” a French diplomat said.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the ministers demanded that predominantly Shiite Iran and Hezbollah stop meddling in the war by supporting Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“We have demanded that Iran and Hezbollah end their intervention in the conflict,” said Fabius.

“We are fully against the internationalisation of the conflict,” he told reporters.

Kerry also accused Assad of an “internationalisation” of the conflict by bringing in Iran and Hezbollah.

And the final communique said that the entry into Syria of militia and fighters that support the regime, a clear reference to Hezbollah, “must be prevented.”

In that respect, they emphasised that neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon need to “actively safeguard their borders in order to ensure that fighters and equipment do not escalate current tensions”.

The ministers also warned of the “increasing presence and growing radicalism” and “terrorist elements in Syria.”

Western powers have hesitated to arm the rebels for fear weapons would fall into the hands of radical elements among them, such as the powerful Al-Nusra Front, which wants to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

Sheikh Hamad also voiced support for a peace conference but insisted there could be no role in the future government for “Assad and aides with bloodstained hands”.

He accused Assad’s regime of wanting to block the Geneva conference in order to stay in power, “even if that costs one million dead, millions of displaced and refugees and the destruction of Syria and its partition”.

And the final communique stated that Assad “has no role in the transitional governing body or thereafter”.

On the ground, loyalist forces pressed a fierce four-day assault on rebel-held parts of Damascus, while insurgents launched a new attack on regime-controlled neighbourhoods of second city Aleppo.

Saturday’s developments come as the military pushed on with its bid to end the insurgency in and around Homs in central Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

They also come a day after at least 100 people were killed nationwide, it added.


Take storm ‘very seriously’, Obama warns

President Barack Obama warned Americans on Sunday to take Hurricane Sandy “very seriously” as authorities prepared a virtual shutdown of the Eastern Seaboard due to the impending mega-storm.

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More than 5,000 flights out of East Coast hubs were cancelled and ground transport was due to grind to a halt on Monday as non-essential government staff were told not to show up for work and public schools were closed.

“My first message is to all people across the Eastern Seaboard, mid-Atlantic going north. You need to take this very seriously,” Obama said, urging everyone in the vast region to heed the instructions of their local authorities.

The president, who spoke after being briefed at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), cautioned that Sandy was a slow-moving storm that certain areas would take a long time to recover from.

Residents of the densely-populated East Coast, home to 50 million Americans, stocked up on emergency provisions like batteries and water as forecasters warned of widespread damage, mass power outages and disastrous flooding.

After laying waste to parts of the Caribbean, where it claimed 66 lives, most of them in Cuba and Haiti, Hurricane Sandy was predicted to come crashing ashore in New Jersey and Delaware late Monday and early Tuesday.

New York state authorities ordered evacuations for hundreds of thousands of people in low-lying areas, including 375,000 people in New York City alone.

Forecasters warned that New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound could see seawater surges of up to 11 feet (3.35 meters) above normal levels.

“This is a serious and dangerous storm,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference after state Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered subway, buses and commuter trains to close down from Sunday night.

Amtrak, which operates trains and buses up and down the coast, said all services would be suspended on Monday.

Forecasters warned that the massive storm was far larger and more dangerous than last year’s devastating Hurricane Irene that claimed 47 lives and caused an estimated $15 billion in damage.

It was the sheer size of Hurricane Sandy that was so alarming, and the fact that it was expected to collide with a cold front moving south from Canada just as it makes landfall.

“Sandy will be more like a large nor’easter on steroids,” warned Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist for Accuweather.com.

The storm, currently packing hurricane force winds upwards of 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour), was about 530 miles (850 kilometers) south of New York at 2100 GMT Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Winds stretched out more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the storm’s center, meaning everywhere from South Carolina to southern Canada was due to be affected and heavy rains and snow were expected as far inland as Ohio.

“The system is so large that I would say millions of people are at least in areas that have some chance of experiencing either flash flooding or river flooding,” National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb warned.

Nine days out from election day, the hurricane also threw the US presidential contest into disarray, with Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney cancelling events and preparing for the unexpected fallout.

Romney cancelled appearances in Virginia to head for Ohio before the hurricane’s arrival, while Obama moved up his planned departure to Florida in order to be back in Washington before the storm made landfall.

Residents from Washington DC to New York to Boston queued for bottles of water, bread, fresh foods, batteries in long lines that stretched out the doors of some supermarkets.

Television images from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a chain of low lying islands, showed wild surf and torrential rain already hitting the coast.

Flooding had also reached parts of southern Virginia. One Chesapeake Bay-area resident posted a photo on Facebook showing waters lapping well up onto the slide of her backyard swingset.

The photo was taken well before high tide, Petra Holden told AFP, saying when the tide comes in, “its actually going to get a lot worse, because its a full moon.”

Current projections showed the storm making landfall early Tuesday on the Delaware or New Jersey coast, then bending north and inland as it merges with the cold front descending from Canada.

Weather experts say that the collision of Sandy with the cold front could create a super-charged storm bringing floods, high winds and even heavy snow across a swath of eastern states and as far inland as Ohio.

Public schools were to be closed for millions of students Monday in districts from Washington through Boston.

Governors declared states of emergency in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the US capital Washington and parts of North Carolina.


Comment: Indigenous art and language in Creative Australia

By Christine Nicholls, Flinders University

Arts minister Simon Crean’s newly released cultural policy, Creative Australia, represents a refreshing change.

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It is underpinned by an understanding that not only are the arts closely linked to each other, but also to all Australians’ physical and emotional well-being, and to our sense of community.

Such recognition is unusual. Crean’s policy lifts “The Arts” out of what is often perceived to be its own self-referential, elitist silo, showing artistic activity to be something we can all engage with at some level. Quite simply, participation in the arts is a prerequisite for a healthy culture.

This idea is particularly relevant when it comes to Indigenous visual art and language.

There will be those who find it odd that there is such a strong focus on Australia’s rapidly disappearing Indigenous languages in Crean’s policy. Normally, both language and culture are passed on easily between generations, but for Australia’s Indigenous societies, such processes have been severely disrupted by colonialism.

That this continues to the present day is apparent in the case of the Northern Territory’s remote area bilingual education programs, which were closed down by successive governments against the clearly expressed wishes of the vast majority of Aboriginal parents.

So the fact that about $14 million in new funding has been put aside to develop community-driven Indigenous language programs is to be applauded.

Why does this matter for the arts? In many instances, Indigenous language speakers living in remote areas are those who create the extraordinary visual artworks that have thrust Australia onto the centre stage of the international art world. Indigenous art is, after all, the world’s oldest continuing artistic movement, and it is also currently responsible for the majority of Australia’s visual art export market.

Recently, for example, both Croatia and Serbia recently held major art exhibitions of works by tradition-oriented Warlpiri artists from the Central Desert of the Northern Territory, and Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara artists from South Australia. These exhibitions, sponsored by the Australian government and which coincided with Australia Day 2013, attracted a record-breaking crowd of visitors to that country’s most prominent art gallery.

That very old Aboriginal artists living in the most remote, inaccessible parts of the desert are able to achieve such international success is truly astonishing. But this cannot be achieved without infrastructural support. It is therefore only fitting that the 2012 Indigenous Art Centre funding is to be strengthened and that $11 million will be spent over the next four years to continue the successful Indigenous Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support Progam.

Equally, the $2.8 million funding of new and upgraded art centre infrastructure to take place at Iwantja, Mimili, Kaltjiti, Ernabella, Amata and Kalka is not only much needed, but a significant investment and will lead to job creation.

The creation of small, successful cottage industries on remote Aboriginal settlements, which closely accord with the aspirations of the local Indigenous residents who wish to maintain their culture is rightly emphasised throughout this document.

There are many other initiatives set out in Creative Australia that show, for once, government has done some very close listening to the ideas of Aboriginal people. Some of these initiatives, such as getting Indigenous opera singer Deborah Cheetham to nurture up-and-coming Indigenous opera singers and continuing generous funding support to Bangarra Dance Company are equally deserving of comment.

One can only hope this policy will have real teeth, and that in the likely event of a change of government before it is fully or even partially implemented, such a shadow will not eclipse the hope for the future of Indigenous arts and languages.

Christine Nicholls curated the exhibitions in Croatia and Serbia mentioned in this article.


Sorrow at Black Hawk down

The Army Black Hawk crashed into the sea off Fiji as it attempted to land aboard HMAS Kanimbla.

Seven soldiers injured in the accident are now on their way home.

The search continues for the one still missing.

Major General Jeffery has sent his sympathy to everyone aboard HMAS Kanimbla who’ll be feeling a sense of loss and grief for their comrades.

He says service in the Defence Force always involves some degree of risk and that it is the nature of the job.

PM shares sentiment

Earlier, Mr Howard told media that he wanted to express his deepest sympathies to the families of those affected by the crash.

“I would like to say how very saddened I am about the helicopter crash,” Mr Howard speaking during a whirlwind visit to Malaysia.

“I extend my deepest sympathy to the family of the man who has lost his life.”

He said that like all Australians he was praying that the missing soldier was found and that the injuries of those who were rescued were not serious and they would be able to make a full recovery.

“This is just another reminder that we are dealing with a special group of people who take risks on our behalf,” Mr Howard said.

Townsville mourns

The north Queensland city of Townsville is in mourning following the death of a local army pilot in the Black Hawk helicopter crash.

The pilot was one of four Townsville-based soldiers on board the chopper when it crashed while trying to land on HMAS Kanimbla.

His name hasn’t been released although it’s believed his wife was notified last night.

Local Townsville politicians say the tragedy evokes memories of the 1996 Black Hawk disaster in which 18 men died when two Black Hawks collided near Townsville.


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