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.


Fracking ‘shifts the global energy balance’

North America’s shale oil and gas boom has shifted the balance in global energy markets, giving the US and Canada new leverage as exporters, despite the Middle East retaining a pivotal role.

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While Canada has long been a major energy exporter, the rise of shale-based hydrocarbons has meant a crucial change for the United States, which could move from the being world’s leading importer of oil to a net exporter by 2017.

It has become the gold rush of the 21st century, with tens of billions of dollars in revenues and hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

“That revolution is real,” said Marvin Odum, President of Shell Oil, at a recent Platt’s conference in New York.

“America suddenly has a 100 year supply of natural gas ‘in the bank’ and the world has 250 years — thanks in part to breakthroughs in the technology that unlock hydrocarbons from tight rock and shale.”

Since 2007, the technology of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” combined with horizontal drilling, has made possible the cost-effective exploitation of immense oil and gas resources locked up in subterranean shale strata.

The technology, also called “unconventional” production, remains highly controversial, with widespread, serious worries for the environment and the health of people living near the fracking locations.

But the impact has been stunning. In five years US crude oil production has risen 32 percent. In 2012 alone, it has jumped 14 percent from the previous year, to 6.4 million barrels a day.

The US Department of Energy says it could rise to 7.1 million barrels a day next year.

At that pace, the International Energy Agency predicts that the United States could become the number one producer of oil by 2017, surpassing current leaders Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And the US could become totally energy-independent by 2030.

“For natural gas, independence is almost here,” said Andrew Lipow, an independent energy analyst.

Only a few years ago such a shift was unimaginable for the United States, where dependence on imported energy has been a longtime political and security issue.

The shale boom is quickly shifting the geopolitics of oil. It reduces US exposure to the whims of the long-powerful Middle East oil producers and the Saudi-led OPEC cartel.

The Middle East now finds itself faced with two challenges, according to Kevin Massy, an energy security expert at Brookings Institution.

First, they face new competition from non-OPEC rivals in North America and elsewhere whose new production is hitting the world energy market.

And secondly, their own production is threatened by rocketing domestic consumption, Massy said.

Tempering all that is the general rise in global energy consumption, that assures that much of the new production can be absorbed into the markets.

According to the International Energy Agency, the global demand for natural gas should rise by 50 percent by 2035, and the demand for crude oil 10 percent.

Most of that demand growth will come from emerging economies, who will support the price of oil at elevated levels.

Greater independence does not mean the United States will be insulated from the markets, Massy said, since the global oil market is very fluid.

“The US is still exposed. If there is a supply disruption in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, that… has an impact on oil prices in the United States even if US doesn’t import.”

The reality is that the Mideast will still be supplying much of the world’s energy, just not so much to the US market, said Michael Levi of the COuncil on Foreign Relations.

“The Mideast is still critical to energy supply; that will not change,” Levi said.

On the other hand, because it is harder to transport and market, the natural gas business is more regionalized, making the geopolitical impact of shale gas more important.

Fracking means countries like Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary, dependent on Russian gas, could develop their own, or buy liquefied natural gas from other countries exploiting new shale fields.

“If unconventional gas production spreads around the world, the traditional producers will see their influence erode, especially Russia versus Europe,” said Massy.

Development though has been slow outside North America. Environmental concerns are blocking fracking in France and Bulgaria, and the issue is still under debate in Britain.

In Poland the government has supported shale field development, but there the giant ExxonMobil is grinding its teeth over poor exploration results.

China too has important shale energy reserves. But some are in heavily populated areas, and others in very arid regions, making exploitation difficult. Fracking uses of large amounts of water.


Comment: There is a simple solution to the 457 visa impasse

By Joanna Howe

This debate around 457 visas boils down to a difference of opinion on how best to identify a domestic skill shortage for which a 457 visa can be used.

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For Labor, the most desirable option for recognising skill shortages is employer-conducted labour market testing. Their Bill proposes that employers advertise for the occupation in which they seek to sponsor an overseas worker. Once an employer can prove that their recruitment efforts have been in vain because no suitable candidates have applied, the employer can make an application to sponsor a 457 visa worker to the department.

For the Liberals, the status quo suffices. They argue that the current 457 visa system is working well, with rorts occurring on a very limited basis and that there should be as little constraint as possible on an employer seeking to sponsor a 457 visa worker. The current mechanism for enabling employers to use the 457 visa scheme is the Consolidated Sponsored Occupations List (CSOL). So long as an occupation is on this list, then an employer can sponsor an overseas temporary migrant worker.

So where does the truth lie in the 457 visa debate? What is the best mechanism for identifying skill shortages?

We can start by unpacking the drawbacks of both Labor’s proposed reforms and the Liberal’s preference for the current system.

The issue with employer-conducted labour market testing is that this won’t stop the rorts of the 457 visa scheme. Good employers already recruit for local workers and when they can’t, they make an application to the department to use the 457 visa scheme. The vast majority of Australian employers are decent, law-abiding men and women who use the 457 visa scheme to fill genuine skill shortages. Nonetheless, bad employers exist.

Advertising in itself is not a litmus test because unscrupulous employers who want to rort the system can do so. They can fiddle with the job advertisement so that the pay is too low or the conditions are poor; they can turn back legitimate job seekers who respond to their advertisement; they can even stick the advertisement somewhere out there in cyberspace with no real intention of recruiting locally.

Put simply, a dodgy employer can do all manner of things to avoid Labor’s proposal of employer-conducted labour market testing and there is very little the Department of Immigration and Citizenship can do about it. The department does not have the manpower to really scrutinise whether an employer’s 457 visa application is legitimate.

The Liberals’ preference for the current system is even more problematic. Their denial of rorts reveals a Pollyanna view of employers. There is clear evidence to show that there are some employers are using the 457 visa scheme for ulterior purposes: to achieve a compliant staff too frightened to complain, to deunionise their existing workforce or to simply undercut Australian labour standards with workers who know that they only have 28 days before their visa expires if the employer lets them go.

The reason these rorts occur is that the current mechanism for identifying skill shortages is too crude. The CSOL has over 600 occupations on it. This is far too many. The vast majority of these occupations are simply not in demand. There are unemployed Australian workers who could do the jobs listed on the CSOL. In short, the problem with the current system is that it simply doesn’t work well enough.

So where does this leave us? A group of academics at the University of Adelaide Law School have been researching this area for some time now and we firmly believe that there is a genuine alternative that would enable the 457 visa system to work much better.

Our proposal is that labour market testing needs to be done independently of employers.

To achieve independent labour market testing the occupations listed on the aforementioned CSOL should be closely related to whether an occupation is in shortage. There should be labour market analysis conducted by the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency or some other body to ensure that the list only includes skilled occupations that are genuinely in shortage and the list should be updated over time to reflect changes in the economy. Only if an occupation is not on this list, should an employer have to make the case that a skill shortage exists and conduct their own labour market testing.

This is by far the most sensible option. Independent labour market testing limits the regulatory burden on genuine employers seeking to fill domestic shortages and eliminates the opportunities for those dodgy employers seeking to rort the system by circumventing the labour market testing requirement which occurred in the late 1990s.

This is also a fairly simple option. Currently the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency already does comprehensive labour market analysis for the permanent migration scheme. They compile and regularly update the Skilled Occupations List (SOL) which has 192 occupations on it. More resources could be given to AWPA to undergo further independent labour market testing for the 457 visa scheme.

Unfortunately the pre-election hysteria is skewing the debate on 457 visas with outlandish claims that Labor’s proposals are racist and unnecessary. Neither is true. The Liberal’s preference for the status quo is not in Australia’s best interests. While a step in the right direction, Labor’s proposal has some serious flaws that need to be properly worked through. The sad truth is neither party currently has a plan to properly fix the design flaws in Australia’s 457 visa scheme.

Dr Joanna Howe is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Adelaide. She is a former NSW Rhodes Scholar and last month presented evidence on the 457 visa to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee on behalf of a joint submission with Associate Professor Alexander Reilly and Professor Andrew Stewart.


Syrian attack ‘kills 10 children’

Syrian rebels virtually cut off roads to Aleppo from neighbouring Raqa province on Monday, severing regime supply lines as France announced it had earmarked financial aid for the opposition coalition.

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After days of fighting, the insurgents took full control of Tishrin dam on the Euphrates river, a route that connects the northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A resident of nearby Manbij confirmed the report, adding that employees of the hydropower dam were continuing operations.

“The capture of the Tishrin dam is very important. It means that the army basically has only one road left to Aleppo,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“The highway crossing over the Tishrin dam was the last main route from Raqa province under regime control,” he said.

With the overnight capture, the rebels now hold sway over a wide expanse of territory between the two provinces bordering Turkey, which backs the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

The army must now rely on the Damascus-Aleppo highway to bring reinforcements to Syria’s embattled commercial hub of Aleppo, where fighting is deadlocked.

Rebels also gained full control of Marj al-Sultan air base 15 kilometres (nine miles) east of Damascus after seizing a large part of the airport on Sunday, said the Observatory.

Further west, a warplane launched three bombs or rockets at a rebel command centre in Atme near the Turkish border without causing casualties or hitting its target, an AFP journalist said.

The village, a nerve centre of the rebellion two kilometres from Turkey, was once home to 7,000 inhabitants who have mostly fled.

In a sign of growing confidence, rebel officers have formed a commission to lay the groundwork for a future army and liaise with the political opposition on issues such as arming fighters on the ground, a spokesman said.

He said the Free Officers Assembly would seek “to lay the correct foundations for the construction of the new Syrian army, which will be non-partisan,” working with the newly formed opposition National Coalition.

France said it had allocated 1.2 million euros ($1.5 million) in emergency aid for the coalition, as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev slammed Paris’s support of the rebels as “unacceptable”.

“France, which was first to recognise the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, now wants to help it come to the aid of its countrymen in distress,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Faced with an increasingly offensive revolt, the Assad regime has been reducing its territorial ambitions to focus on Damascus, central Syria and Alawite bastions, as it digs in for a long war, analysts say.

Troops have been bombing rebel positions on the outskirts of the capital, including in Daraya, the site of the worst massacre in the 20-month conflict, with state media saying on Monday that troops had inflicted heavy losses on “Al-Qaeda terrorists” in their advance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called on both sides to respect international and humanitarian law, a day after an aerial bombing killed 10 children in Deir Assafir, south of the capital.

ICRC operations director Pierre Krahenbuhl said those engaged in fighting “must at all times distinguish between civilians and persons directly participating in the fighting”.

The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said in Jordan that it needed an additional $53 million to provide aid to up to 500,000 Palestinians in Syria.

An initial toll from the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics for its information, said 34 people were killed on Monday. The watchdog has recorded a total of more than 40,000 deaths in the Syrian conflict.


Assange health could worsen: Ecuador President

In an exclusive interview in the Peruvian capital Lima, Correa said Assange’s health concerns could worsen dramatically if his now five-month long stay in the embassy goes on for much longer.

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“I haven’t spoken with him since he arrived at our embassy, but the ambassador informed me that he is suffering from a slight problem in his lung — nothing too serious,” Correa, who was in Peru for a Latin American summit, told AFP.

“But there is still the danger that his physical and mental health could worsen, seeing that he is shut up in a small space, and unable to exercise in the fresh air. That would complicate the health situation of anyone,” Correa said.

Assange has been sheltering in Quito’s embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning on allegations of rape and sexual assault

Assange has strongly denied the allegations.

Assange fears that if he is extradited to Sweden, he eventually could be delivered to the United States for prosecution, where he could face a lengthy prison term or even the death sentence.

WikiLeaks enraged Washington in 2010 by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified US documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and embarrassing diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world.

Assange was arrested that same year in London but eventually was released on bail.

Ecuador granted Assange asylum on August 16, but Britain has refused to grant him safe passage out of the country – leaving the two governments in diplomatic deadlock and Assange stuck inside the embassy.

Talks to end the impasse have proved fruitless so far, but Correa said a breakthrough is still possible.

“We’re not negotiating on the basis of human rights — that term has not been used in this case. But there have been ongoing conversations” to resolve the case, he said.

“The solution to this problem is in the hands of Great Britain, Sweden and the European judicial authorities,” said Correa.

“If Britain gives him safe passage tomorrow, this whole thing is over,” he added.

Speaking about political matters back home, Correa left open the possibility that he will stand for a third consecutive presidential term.

“I have never been interested in political power, but situations where there is so much injustice, as with Ecuador’s socio-economic poverty, can only be fixed by political means,” said Correa, 49, whose term as Ecuador’s president is due to end in May.


12 jihadists killed in north Syria: NGO

Fresh clashes between Kurdish fighters and jihadists have erupted in the majority Kurdish province of Hasakah in northern Syria, a monitoring group says.

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At least 12 members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were killed early on Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which added that 22 Kurdish fighters have been killed over the past few days.

Reports of the latest Kurdish-jihadist violence emerged a day after at least 31 civilians, among them five women and four children, were killed in army shelling and an assault in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Meanwhile, Kurdish activists said there was heavy fighting in villages between Cel Agha and Gerke Lage as radical Islamists shelled Ras al-Ain.

Kurds expelled jihadist groups from Ras al-Ain in mid-July.

The fate of some 200 Kurds taken hostage by jihadists on Wednesday remains unknown, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Elsewhere on Friday, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad again shelled the rebel-held area of Jouret al-Shiyah in the central city of Homs, said the Observatory.

The bombardment comes five days after the key rebel neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh fell out of rebel control and into army hands.

Assad’s regime is pressing an offensive aimed at taking back remaining rebel areas in Homs, Syria’s third city and dubbed by activists as “the capital of the revolution”.

Meanwhile, the air force staged several air strikes on rebel areas across Syria, including two on Al-Harra in the southern province of Daraa, where rebels have made significant progress in recent weeks, said the Observatory.

Friday’s violence comes a day after at least 185 people were killed across Syria, the Britain-based watchdog said.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s raging war, the United Nations says.


Insight: Disability and Parenting

Susan finds it hard to multitask: she struggles to cook a meal and keep an eye on her toddler at the same time.

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She finds it hard to make judgements when things aren’t black and white. Any ‘grey’ areas can be hard for her to understand.

“Like, the books said [my daughter] should be smiling at six months,” Susan tells Insight. “I’d wait for six months and go, ‘She ain’t smiling.’”

She and the child’s father both have intellectual disabilities and Susan also has a condition that affects her mobility and strength.

After the intervention of Victoria’s Department of Human Services, guardianship of Susan’s daughter was eventually given to Susan’s mother-in-law, Jane.

Susan is upset at losing guardianship of her young daughter but believes it’s in her child’s best interests. She sees her daughter for two hours per week.

“Now as my child is four and a half, I’m sometimes very tired after even two hours,” Susan says, “and I think, ‘Oh my God, how does Jane do it 24/7?’”

It’s not easy taking care of a toddler, says Jane, but she believes it’s the best outcome.

“It’s probably not what I’d planned to be doing at this stage of my life,” says Jane. “But like a lot of life, we don’t write the script and there are tremendous amounts of just delight in rearing a small child.”

Susan and Jane join families and child protection workers to discuss the delicate process of assessing a parent’s abilities.

Robyn Miller is a caseworker with the Victorian Department of Human Services. She assesses and investigates some of the department’s most complex cases of child protection and helps decide what’s in the child’s best interests.

Robyn says there are lots of reasons why parents with intellectual disabilities become involved with her department, beyond the actual disability itself. The parent might also have a mental health problem or have a partner who is violent.

“The research tells us that there’s a greater chance if you have an intellectual disability of also having a mental health problem and sometimes that is exacerbated because there’s a partner who had may be violent and controlling.

“It’s actually less about the intellectual disability,” Robyn adds. “It is about, ‘How is this child? And how are all these other things impacting on the life of this child? Their safety, their stability and their development overall?’”

But Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn, Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy at the University of Sydney, disagrees.

Although many people with intellectual disabilities do live in “quite poor socio economic circumstances” and women can often find themselves in abusive relationships, Professor Llewellyn believes they are judged far more harshly than other parents, and are over-represented in child protection cases.

“One of the reasons is that there is some discrimination. People do make judgments… on the basis of a name, a thing called intellectual disability.

“There can be many other reasons,” she tells Insight, “but there is definitely over representation and a part of that has to do with more notifications than you would expect to see.”

Watch the full Insight discussion about parenting and disabilities here.

You can join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter or by commenting on Insight’s Facebook page.

 

WATCH A PREVIEW – Susan on disability and parenting


Polio survivor: I wish there had been a vaccine

At just 10 months old, Gillian Thomas was too young to remember contracting the polio virus but more than 60 years later she still receives a daily reminder.

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“It doesn’t go away,” she says, “although some people do recover somewhat from the paralysis.”

Gillian’s diagnosis meant years in hospital, isolation and countless treatments. She was three and a half when finally released back to her family.

Gillian Thomas, aged around 18 months, is treated in hospital for polio. (Image: Supplied)

“The doctor said I’d never walk, but that wasn’t good enough for my mother. She went out and found a physiotherapist who worked with me probably until I was about 12, every week giving me exercises, so I learned to walk with two full-length callipers and one crutch on one arm.”

At 12, it was back to hospital – this time in Melbourne, where she underwent a spinal fusion, a procedure where vertebrae are joined together to secure the spine.

“My parents lived in Wollongong [south of Sydney]. I felt quite like a stranger when I returned home at that point, because I was away for more than 12 months.”

Gillian Thomas stands between her older brother and sister, aged around 6. (Image: supplied)

Polio, an incurable disease that attacks the nervous system, can lead to fatigue, pain, paralysis and, in some cases, death.

Cases of the highly infectious disease have decreased globally by over 99 per cent since 1988, according to World Health Organisation records.

Today, the disease remains endemic only in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Australia was declared polio free in 2000, a statistic widely attributed to high rates of immunisation.

At 63, Gillian considers herself a polio survivor, but she’s still plagued by medical issues.

“Polio isn’t a solved problem for Australia’s polio survivors,” she says. “We’re still here.”

Contracting the disease five years before the first vaccine became available, she finds it “frustrating” that childhood vaccination for preventable diseases still remains a debatable issue for a small minority of Australians.

“People who have had polio in Australia didn’t get it because they didn’t take the vaccine. They got it because the vaccine wasn’t there.”

A joint study conducted by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Australia Online Research and SBS published today found older Australians are more supportive of childhood vaccination.

The research found 76 per cent of those aged 45 or older were supportive, compared to 60 per cent of those under 45.

Gillian believes polio has dropped out of community consciousness, particularly among younger parents who may have never seen its effects.

”A lot of them have never even heard of it,” she says.

“They don’t consider the fact that when they were at school and they took the little red drop on their tongue or whatever that that was actually stopping them, saving them getting severely disabled possibly, through polio.”

It’s estimated there are around 4 million Australians living with the aftermath of polio. Polio Australia is encouraging those who have had it to join their survivor register.

A documentary exploring the issue of child vaccination will air on SBS ONE next Sunday. The program acknowldges that while vaccination is a key part of public health some people still have questions and concerns, and it will explore how parents can reach an informed decision.

Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines airs Sunday May 26 at 8:30pm on SBS ONE

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Q&A: Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab

Nabeel Rajab has been recently dubbed as ‘the unofficial leader of the February 14th’ democratic Bahraini movement.

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He has won the American Ion Raitu Democracy Award and the British Silbury Prize for his activism in human rights. Rajab is the president of Gulf Center of Human Rights which has been at the forefront of disseminating information about human rights abuses in Bahrain and the Gulf region.

SBS talked to Rajab while he was in Lebanon conducting a workshop for journalists and activists from the Gulf region.

Q: What is your assessment of the situation after the Formula 1 Grand Prix was allowed to go ahead?

Conditions are still very shaky. Roads were blocked during the event because of the internal ministry’s crackdown.

There are still imprisonments and detention without specific charges.

Politically, we are constricted and there is no dialogue with Bahraini regime whatsoever.

Q: What has your centre documented most recently?

As you know, we lost recently one of the youth during the latest demonstrations during the F1 Grand Prix.

Live bullets have been used. There were scores injured, the prisoners that we know of all have all been tortured, sexually assaulted, beaten, hung from ceilings for prolonged periods and other brutal acts.

Q: As head of the Gulf Center of Human Rights and a vocal critic of the Bahraini regime, what are you, and other human rights activists, specifically calling for?

I am just one of the people, I try and do my best to relay the message.

We would like a government that is democratically chosen by the people instead of the pre-ordained selection of electoral circles in a biased fashion to suit the regime’s needs. These are basic democratic demands that would see a transition towards constitutional reforms.

Q: Where do you see the revolution heading to now?

This has been one of the longest revolutions in the Arab world to date. We have ample energy.

The regime is funded by Saudi Arabia and the United States and for these powers true democracy to be created destabilizes their interests.

It has won the ‘media war’ because of their constant propaganda and they are collaborating with other Salafi and Wahabi groups to maintain their tyrannical grip on power.

We want true justice and economic rights for all. We cannot express our democratic vision while the government suppresses our freedom of speech.

Q: You are in Lebanon at the moment organizing a workshop for young Gulf journalists and human rights activists, what are you hoping from this event?

We have young activists from different nationalities including Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti and Bahraini.

What we’re trying to promote with this training from professional journalists is a culture of human rights. It starts with these young people!

WATCH Nabeel Rajab interviewed on BBC World’s HARDTalk program

WATCH Yaara Bou-Melhem’s story for Dateline: Bahrain’s Dark Secret from April 2011.


VP pick Ryan fires up Republican convention

Adding youthful vim and policy vigor to the Romney ticket, the 42-year-old rising star from small-town Wisconsin received a standing ovation for his impassioned pitch to American voters 10 weeks from election day.

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“I accept the duty to help lead our nation out of a jobs crisis and back to prosperity. And I know we can do this,” Ryan said, exhibiting little sign of nerves during his 35-minute speech, by far the biggest of his political life.

Ryan accused Obama of saddling the US economy with four years of failed big government policies and held up Romney, a 65-year-old former Massachusetts governor, as the man to turn things around with his business acumen.

“After four years of getting the run-around, America needs a turnaround, and the man for the job is Governor Mitt Romney,” he said.

Romney will formally take up the nomination with his all-important acceptance speech to the convention in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, the climax of three days of rousing addresses by party grandees and rising stars.

He lies neck-and-neck with Obama in national polls ahead of a November 6 election that should be the challenger’s for the taking, given the sour economy and stubbornly high unemployment.

Romney’s vice presidential pick was seen as crucial four years after John McCain electrified conservatives by choosing inexperienced Alaska governor Sarah Palin, only to see her wither in the national spotlight.

Democrats have portrayed Ryan as an extreme, budget-cutting friend of the rich who would gut beloved social programs.

But Republicans have used the selection of the seven-term congressman, whose budget plan is the party’s blueprint to fix the flagging US economy, to breathe fresh life into a race that had been in danger of drifting away from Romney.

Ryan took his chance in the convention spotlight to assail the president’s record, saying Obama’s promises of hope and change had fallen flat after four years of fiscal recklessness, ballooning debt and joblessness.

“It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new,” he said.

“Now all that’s left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed.”

His address, carried live on cable TV across America at prime time, contained a clear pitch to working class and middle class Americans who may find it hard to identify with Romney’s background of wealth and privilege.

Analysts agreed that Ryan gave a strong speech, but the burden is now on Romney to use his own address on Thursday to energize voters and close the still-yawning likability gap with Obama.

The Obama campaign had upped the pressure on Ryan in the hours leading up to the speech, releasing a new web video accusing him of favoring outdated top-down economics, tax cuts for the wealthy and the replacement of the popular Medicare program for the elderly with a voucher system.

Speeches earlier on Wednesday by Senator John McCain and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice focused on foreign policy — which has taken a back seat to the economy in the campaign — saying Romney would restore US leadership in the world and accusing Obama of letting down Israel and other allies.

Romney was meanwhile preparing for his own address on Thursday, when he will formally accept the nomination and make his own case to a prime-time audience in perhaps the most important speech of his political career.

He took to the stage briefly on Tuesday’s storm-delayed opening night of the convention to give his wife Ann a kiss after her well-received speech, which sought to humanize a candidate often seen as stiff and awkward.

She delivered her side of the bargain, blending a targeted pitch to vital women voters with a personal narrative about Mitt that dwelt largely on their all-American love story, their wholesome family and his winning attitude.

“This man will not fail,” Ann Romney said. “This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America!”


Explainer: What’s life like in an airport transit zone?

NSA leaker Edward Snowden has reportedly spent the last week in the transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, although journalists have been unable to spot him.

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What can you find in a transit zone?

Hotels, restaurants and unfortunate souls. You’re probably familiar with the public portion of a transit zone, which typically offers plenty of amenities. Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone encompasses three terminals and includes both the V-Express capsule hotel and one wing of the Novotel. Travelers can buy a Vopper from Burger King or nosh on a Cinnabon.

There’s a separate area, however, that few travelers ever see: the detention rooms. Almost all international airports have these spaces, where refugees and others with uncertain immigration status wait to be admitted to the country or shipped back from whence they came. Human rights advocates say the transit-zone detention facilities in Eastern European airports are among the world’s worst. They are one- or two-room suites with more detainees than beds and sometimes just one toilet for every 20 people. The airlines are usually responsible for detainee care, and some of them allegedly scrimp on food and medicine. There is limited contact with the outside world, and in the worst transit zones, like some in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Slovak Republic, refugees are given no opportunity to meet with a lawyer or file an asylum claim. The rooms in some transit zones are locked, although detainees are usually allowed to wander parts of the airport when no other travelers are around. People have spent as much as 20 months living in the transit zone in Sheremetyevo airport. (The most famous transit-zone dweller was Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who stayed in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport for 17 years, but he moved freely within the terminal.)

Snowden could be relaxing at the Novotel or stewing in a detention pen, depending on how Russian authorities have decided to treat him. But there’s a third possibility, which requires a bit of background to understand.

Governments established the first transit zones as spaces where national tax laws did not apply. At the time, international travelers had to obtain transit visas even if they stayed inside the airport. Processing all those visas eventually became a burden, and the tax-free transit zones became areas where immigration laws didn’t apply, either.

National immigration authorities soon realized that the transit zones could be used not only to eliminate administrative hassles, but to exclude unwanted people. International law — as well as domestic law, in most countries — provides extensive protections for refugees. The principle of non-refoulement, for example, prohibits governments from sending new arrivals back to countries where they will be persecuted. However, if a refugee sets foot only in a transit zone, some countries argue that she hasn’t technically arrived in the country, and she can be sent home without legal protections. Although the European Court of Human Rights rejected this position, many countries have vastly expanded their transit zones to enable them to accommodate refugees while still maintaining the right to deport them.

Transit zones can now refer either to physical spaces or to amorphous legal concepts. The transit zone around Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, for example, includes hospitals and a court more than 12 miles away. Detainees who travel from the airport to these facilities are legally considered to be moving inside a floating transit zone. The size and shape of a transit zone is therefore a matter left to the discretion of national authorities, and it’s possible Russian authorities have taken advantage of this legal technicality. If Edward Snowden isn’t sleeping at the Novotel or in a detention room at Sheremetyevo airport, he may be living in his own personal transit-zone bubble virtually anywhere in Moscow.

Explainer thanks Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen of the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

© 2013, Slate