Hockey’s comments put new scrutiny of foreign investment in land in question

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Treasurer Joe Hockey has refused to confirm the Coalition will insist on a new $15 million threshold for scrutiny of foreign investment bids for land in its negotiations with the Chinese for a free trade agreement.

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The lowering of the threshold for bids from non-state owned enterprises from $248 million was proposed in a Coalition paper before the election. It is strongly supported by the Nationals, making any walking away from it very tricky. Under the present policy all land bids by state owned enterprises automatically trigger Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny.

Hockey, speaking from Washington, dodged questions on whether the government would be flexible in its discussions with China.

“The $15 million threshold applies to those countries that have not signed the free trade agreement with Australia, and therefore we deal with them on a case by case basis. We will see where the negotiations take us,” Hockey told Sky.

“I’m not going to preempt the outcome of any of the negotiations, but I do want to emphasise that Australia is open for investment and we need foreign investment. We need foreign investment because Australia cannot fund its own needs.”

He also dodged when pressed on the long standing Chinese request to be given the same concession granted to the Americans of a $1 billion threshold for investments before there was a FIRB inquiry.

“I’m not going to preempt the outcome of negotiations,” he said, “It’s a balancing act and I’m very confident we will get it right if we are to conclude a free trade negotiation with China.”

He said that in his discussion with the finance minister of China “we were both very frank with each other about the fact that it is important that [an agreement] had a two-way negotiation and a two-way investment flow.”

The Nationals are expected to reaffirm their support in their party room for the $15 million threshold for land bids.

Victorian Liberal Dan Tehan last week said thresholds should be part of the FTA negotiation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that he wants an FTA with China concluded within a year.

Michelle Grattan 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.

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AM Finance Update – what you need to know

WORLD FINANCE UPDATE:

The Australian dollar is lower after talks to extend the US debt ceiling collapsed.

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At 0630 AEDT on Monday, the local unit was trading at 94.23 US cents, down from 94.76 cents on Friday.

And the Australian market looks set to open higher after Wall Street closed higher for a second straight session on rising optimism about a Washington deal to avert a debt default.

At 0645 AEDT on Monday, the December share price index futures contract was up 33 points at 5,262.

ELSEWHERE:

WASHINGTON – As debate rages over the US budget and borrowing limit, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde has warned US spending cuts must not be too drastic or they could threaten global economic recovery.

WASHINGTON – With House Republicans blaming President Barack Obama for the collapse of talks on extending US borrowing authority, the Senate is scrambling to piece together a bipartisan exit strategy.

DUBLIN – Ireland will become the first eurozone country to exit its bailout in December, Prime Minister Enda Kenny says.

SEOUL – The world’s leading energy officials will meet this week in South Korea to discuss the sector’s major challenges, ranging from climate change to the rise of fracking and nuclear power’s uncertain future.

BUCHAREST – Thousands of people are blocking a major road in downtown Bucharest to protest plans to build what would be Europe’s biggest gold mine.

BEIJING – Chinese construction giant Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) has signed a deal with British firms to develop a business district around Manchester airport, the companies involved in the project say.

BERLIN – Airbus chief Fabrice Bregier says the European planemaker will overtake its US rival Boeing to become the world’s biggest producer within four or five years, in an interview with a German Sunday newspaper.

WASHINGTON – Yahoo says it has acquired tech company Bread, a URL shortener that allows users to design then target advertisements to readers who click on their links.

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Coach Markarian ends Peru tenure behind closed doors

The stands at Lima’s Estadio Nacional will be empty after Peru were punished by FIFA for crowd trouble at their previous home qualifier last month when fans threw objects at Argentine referee Patricio Loustau after a 2-1 defeat by Uruguay.

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“This is the last (qualifying) match and we’re going to play as if it were the most important,” Markarian told a news conference. “It’s surely my last match with the national team, I feel great sadness at leaving this job.”

The highlight of the 68-year-old Uruguayan’s three years in charge was third place at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina but during his time in the job he failed to end Peru’s World Cup qualification drought dating back to 1982.

“I leave with more players consolidated (in the Peru team) than I found,” Markarian said.

“We have definitely built a squad for the future … the directors backed me all the time. I tried to do my best but it wasn’t enough.”

Markarian, whose team have won four and lost nine of their 15 qualifiers, gave a qualifying debut to teenager Cristian Benavente on Friday when Peru lost 3-1 to South American group winners Argentina in Buenos Aires and is excepted to give him his first start on Tuesday.

“We’re looking to change Peruvian football’s image. We must find solutions to face the next qualifiers (for the 2018 World Cup) successfully,” midfielder Benavente, who is on Real Madrid’s books, told reporters.

Peru have produced many skilled players over the years, from Teofilo Cubillas, who inspired them to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1970, to Paolo Guerrero, top scorer at the 2011 Copa America.

They have been let down by poor organisation, indiscipline and the failure of players to become more tactically aware.

Markarian earned his appointment in 2010 after several years in Peru coaching club sides Universitario and Sporting Cristal and winning the league title with both in the 1990s. He has also coached in Paraguay, Greece, Mexico and Chile.

(Reporting by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires; Editing by Sonia Oxley)

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Malta urges clear EU strategy on migrants

Malta has called on the European Union to develop a “clear strategy” to deal with migrants fleeing conflicts to their shores after two shipwrecks claimed hundreds of lives.

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“We are no superpower,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told AFP. “But we do not only control our border but also Europe’s borders, and Italy is doing the same.”

Also on Sunday, Syrian refugees who survived a boat capsize off Malta said they were fired on by “militiamen” as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya.

At least 36 people perished after the boat sank on Friday, a week after another shipwreck off Italy left at least 359 dead.

“Those people had a life and a stable job in their country but could not live there any longer,” Muscat said. “The group that arrived (in Malta) yesterday included 10 medical doctors and a neurosurgeon.”

The prime minister complained of the “very little response” Malta had received in appeals for EU solidarity over the humanitarian crisis.

“This situation cannot be solved with money but with political commitment and a clear strategy,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Muscat held a surprise meeting in Libya with his counterpart Ali Zeidan, saying afterwards that the north African country was “part of the solution”.

A boat carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the western Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday.

Some of the more than 200 survivors said Libyan militiamen shot wildly at them, leaving several people dead and causing the vessel to take on water and sink.

Italian and Maltese forces on Sunday rescued a total of 386 people aboard two boats and escorted them to Sicily. Around 100 were taken to Malta.

Italian customs police meanwhile rescued around 200 migrants who were expected to head to southern Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has announced an “Italian sea and air humanitarian mission” in the Mediterranean on Monday that would triple available vessels and add aviation to ward off further tragedies.

Foreign Minister Emma Bonino stressed that patrols should serve to rescue migrants rather than “telling them to stay where they are”.

Italy has also appealed to fellow EU states for help in managing the crisis and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels later this month.

According to UNHCR estimates, some 32,000 migrants have arrived in Malta and Italy this year.

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Amnesty brands AU’s ICC call ‘deplorable’

The African Union’s call for the International Criminal Court to defer the crimes against humanity trials of Kenya’s leadership is “deplorable”, Amnesty International says.

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The London-based human rights organisation said on Sunday the AU, which is also calling for sitting heads of state to be exempt from appearing before the court in The Hague, sent out the wrong message.

“This declaration sends the wrong message, that politicians on the African continent will place their political interests above those of victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty’s deputy director of law and policy.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto have been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding a vicious campaign of ethnic violence that left at least 1100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless after disputed 2007 elections.

Following last month’s Islamist militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, Kenyatta has already demanded he be allowed to appear by video link so he can deal with national security issues.

On Saturday he attacked the ICC as the “toy of declining imperial powers”.

However, Hondora said the trials should still go ahead.

“Requesting the deferral of the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto would send a strong message that the victims of the post-election violence in Kenya don’t matter.

“Victims of the post-election violence have waited over five years to see the cogs of justice turn after Kenya failed to deliver justice and the ICC stepped in.

“These trials should and must go ahead.”

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Super cyclone Phailin: the strongest cyclone ever in the North Indian Ocean Basin

By Norman Cheung, Kingston University

Phailin (the Thai word for sapphire) is officially the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded to make landfall over India.

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Phailin had begun as a tropical storm with 105kph (65mph) winds, but rapidly intensified on October 10 2013 to 250kph (155mph). It was upgraded to a super cyclonic storm, which is equivalent to Category 5 in the Saffir-Simpson Scale for the North Western Atlantic Ocean (NWA) Basin.

A combination of exceptionally warm water (28C) and low wind-shear (4-8kps/2.5-5mps) over the Bay of Bengal provided the ideal conditions for cyclone Phailin to maintain its strength. Moving north-westward, it made landfall over the coastal areas between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on Saturday October 12.

Cyclone disaster management in India

Much of India’s current approach to preparation was developed during the 1999 cyclone in Odisha. Disaster preparations mainly include cyclone warning and evacuation.

To mitigate a potential disaster from Phailin, the Indian central and state governments have shown huge improvements in disaster preparation.

The Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik sought defence forces’ help in preparing to tackle the cyclone. State disaster status was enacted, and the National Disaster Rapid Action Force (NDRAF) and Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) were put in force. Puja holiday celebrations were cancelled and a large scale evacuation undertaken. More than 260,000 people were moved to high ground and half a million to shelter.

However there was some confusion during the process of early warning. India has no aircraft reconnaissance comparable to the “hurricane hunters” we have in the North Western Atlantic, so the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) seemed to underestimate the cyclone wind speed at 80kph (50mph) and storm surge at 1m (3ft). These were far less than the Joint Warning Typhoon Center’s (JTWC) estimation of wind speeds at 177-185kph (110-115mph), meaning also that a 1m storm surge was unlikely to be true.

This discrepancy in predictions could cause distrust of the official forecast and delay in the process of evacuation.

Will Cyclone Phailin be a natural disaster?

Phailin made landfall about 160km southwest of where the 1999 Odisha cyclone hit. The storm surge was predicted to be 11 meters high.

Though the area where Phailin made landfall is not low-lying, the convergent coastline and the shallow offshore waters around Ganjam, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur can amplify the impounding water which could cause huge flooding.

These areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding due to poor drainage and soil already saturated by the active summer monsoon. At its landfall, Phailin brings in a rainfall depth of 200-400mm along the coastal areas.

The death toll should be lower than the approximately 10,000 killed by cyclone Odisha in 1999. However, the financial losses could be huge.

With high population density, the exposure to risk is high. The low- and mid-rise buildings in rural areas were traditionally built of bricks and other primitive materials, so their roofs and walls could be completely blown away or partially collapsed under the pressure difference caused by gale force winds on the windward and leeward sides of the buildings. Modern high rise buildings in urban areas use confined masonry and stricter building code enforcement.

The insured losses due to stopping cargo operations, train cancellation and loss of lives and property could be billions.

Are cyclones in the North Indian Ocean becoming more active?

On average only 7% of world’s cyclones are formed over the Indian Ocean Basin. It is the quietest ocean basin for spawning cyclones in the world.

But Phailin is the second tropical cyclone over North Indian Ocean in 2013, and 26 of the 35 deadliest cyclones in world history have been Bay of Bengal storms.

Super-cyclone Phailin was huge in diameter (about 500km), with a central pressure of 918mb and maximum sustained wind of 258kph: it is the strongest over the North Indian Ocean basin in recorded history.

Super-typhoon Usagi, the strongest typhoon over the North Western Pacific Ocean Basin during 2013, affected 3.5 million people, and killed at least 25. It caused more than $500 million losses in China alone.

Some will ask if global warming is causing more intense tropical cyclones. Recent research showed that severe cyclones have become more frequent in the North Indian Ocean during the intense cyclone period of the year (May, October and November). The rate of intensification of tropical disturbances to severe cyclone stage has shown an upward trend.

However there is a slight decline of annual cyclone numbers. Number of cyclones is related more to El Niño phenomena (2-5 year oscillation) than to global warming. The North Western Atlantic Ocean has had a relatively quiet hurricane season, so far, in 2013. Globally we still have roughly similar annual number of tropical cyclones to average.

Norman Cheung 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.

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Expert warns caution over possibility of Alzheimer’s pill

By Jo Adetunji, The Conversation

It has been described as a historical “turning point” in Alzheimer’s treatment – the first time a chemical has been found that can halt the death of brain tissue in a neurodegenerative disease, and could potentially lead to a single pill treatment.

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But some warn a degree of caution is needed, and we really shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet.

For a start, the study, carried out by scientists at a Medical Research lab at Leicester University, relates to another disorder: prion disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that counts Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) or “mad cow disease” among its family. But scientists have also said that a resulting medicine could treat other neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s – and Alzheimer’s.

While some are keen to emphasise the similarities between these neurodegenerative brain conditions, others emphasise the difference.

“The results of the preclinical study in a mouse model of prion disease are indeed very impressive. However, the drug used may be very specific for this kind of disease, as the authors have indicated,” Christian Holscher, Professor of Neuroscience at Lancaster University, said.

“Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are very different conditions all together. I cannot see a lot of overlap, so any claim this treatment will be successful in diseases other than prion-induced diseases will have to be substantiated by testing the drug in animal models of those diseases first.”

Why Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia (which is estimated to affect about 35.6m people worldwide). It affects how we think, remember things, act and go about our daily lives. And it’s progressive so gets worse over time.

The sheer scale of the disease dwarfs that of prion but it may not automatically follow that the prion findings will work in the same way.

Alzheimer’s happens when protein molecules in brain cells fail to fold properly, which then tangle and form clumps and insoluble protein deposits called “plaques”. Researchers at Cambridge recently mapped this pathway to show how smaller molecular fragments called oligomers in people with Alzheimer’s are also able to spread around the brain, triggering creating many more.

In many neurodegenerative diseases this process activates a defence system that shuts down new protein production. But without new proteins, brain cells start to die. It was this process that the tested compound was able to halt. And because this system is also triggered in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, the excitement is palpable: any resulting medicine could also be used to treat them too.

Lost in translation

Another big but with any discovery like this is translating findings from animal models to human, although this is the routine start to any drug. And then there’s the long, hard process of clinical trials and development.

“We have seen a series of very promising drugs fail in clinical trials,” Holscher said. “We therefore will have to wait for such experiments to show positive results [in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s]. I am sure the authors had no intention to overstate the importance of their findings, but it is not helpful to claim a new cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease is just around the corner when there is very little evidence. One should be very conservative about these issues, too many promises have turned to dust in the past.”

Therein lies the rub: when can we get excited about discoveries that may lead to solving or at least keeping pace with some of our biggest health challenges?

Roger Morris, Professor of Molecular Neurobiology at King’s College London, said while it took decades for new medicines to come to fruition this was the first convincing study of its kind.

“This finding will be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s Disease for two reasons: it is the first experimental demonstration that a small molecule drug can arrest neurodegeneration in living brain … And, at least equally as important, is the manner of its demonstration.”

Two unique features in prion disease allowed the earliest stages of functional impairment and death of neurons in the brain to be identified and studied, Morris said.

“It is infectious, and once infection in the brain is initiated it proceeds like clockwork, so the earliest steps of neuronal damage can be followed on a day-by-day basis. This experimental precision allowed Professor Mallucci’s group [at Leicester] to identify the drug target, select an inhibitor, and show the inhibitor arrests neuronal degeneration. Scientifically, it shifts the focus from the role of misfolding of individual proteins in causing these diseases, to the common response of neurons to the stress caused by accumulation of misfolded protein.”

While “a cure for Alzheimer’s is not just around the corner,” Morris said, there was considerable evidence that the way neurons die in both diseases is similar. “Lessons learned in mice from prion disease have proved accurate guides to attenuate the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in patients.”

Target the brain

A potentially bigger problem lies in the defence mechanism itself, because it isn’t just triggered in the brain but is part of the body’s defence against physical and pathological stress in other tissues.

“The mechanism is found from yeast to man,” Morris said. “It is the persistent, long-term stress of neurodegenerative diseases that causes the neurons to die. To produce an effective medicine, drugs will have to be designed so their action is restricted to the brain, and allow this essential mechanism to function in the rest of the body.”

So if the compound was to work in both humans and in Alzheimer’s, it would also need to target the specific cells in the brain. The finding is a breakthrough and as Morris said, “science progresses by landmark experiments.” But it may take those decades for any mainstream drug to come to fruition.

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Release Greenpeace photographer: journos

Journalists in Saint Petersburg are demanding the release of a photographer detained on piracy charges along with the crew of a Greenpeace ship after an Arctic oil drilling protest.

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During a demonstration on Sunday in Russia’s second city, blindfolded photographers and other journalists held placards reading: “Who is next?” and “Photographer is not a pirate.”

“We would like to show that we support our colleague,” Alexander Koryakov, a photo editor with Kommersant broadsheet and one of the protest rally’s organisers, told AFP.

“Unlike in the West where society comes up in support of journalists, in our country there is no one to defend journalists.”

He put the turnout at some 60 people.

A former staff photographer for AFP and Reuters, Denis Sinyakov was covering the Greenpeace protest for a Russian online site.

Sinyakov, along with the 29 crew members of Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise icebreaker including two each from Australia and New Zealand, has been detained on piracy charges after several activists tried to scale a state oil rig last month.

The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The group have been placed in pre-trial detention until late November.

Investigators later added that “narcotic substances” had been found on the ship and they would be laying additional charges. Greenpeace denies this claim.

A court last week turned down the bail pleas of Sinyakov and the others.

The Kremlin’s right council, an advisory body, criticised the charges brought against Sinyakov as “pressure on the media”.

President Vladimir Putin has said the activists are “not pirates” but his spokesman later said the president had expressed his personal opinion.

A Greenpeace lawyer said their colleagues had to endure “inhuman conditions” while on remand in jails in Murmansk and Apatity nearly 2000 kilometres miles north of Moscow.

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Fearnley second in Chicago Marathon

Australian Paralympic champion Kurt Fearnley has finished second in the Chicago Marathon men’s wheelchair race less than a metre behind winner Ernst Van Dyk.

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Fearnley, credited with the same time as the South Africa and third placer American Joshua George, finished in one hour 30 minutes.

Four athletes, including world and course record holder Heinz Frei, were battling it out over the 25km, but Van Dyk and Fearnley broke away over the last 200 metres.

Van Dyk held on for the win by less than a wheel.

Despite missing out on first place, Fearnley was happy with his race

“I put everything I had into it and thought I might just get there but Ernie (Van Dyk) had that little bit extra at the end,” Fearnley said.

“I put in an extra burst up the hill with a few hundred to go to try and drop the big fella but he held on.

“Ernie is a hell of a competitor and there’s no shame in losing to him, it was a great race and a great sprint from him.”

Fearnley, Frei, Van Dyk and George broke from the main pack around the half way mark and built a lead of almost two minutes on the chasers.

As is often the case in the elite wheelchair marathon races, it came down to a sprint finish following the final bend.

“The wind made things tricky out there but we managed to build a bit of a break and hold on,” Fearnley said.

“When it comes down to the sprint anything can happen. I’ve won by less than a wheel before and lost a few times too. Unfortunately today, it was my wheel that crossed second”.

Fearnley’s attention now turns to the New York Marathon on November 3, a race he has won four times, but not since 2009.

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NSW mayor slams RFS on backburning

The mayor of Port Stephens has hit out at the NSW Rural Fire Service and environmentalists, saying fire-affected residents weren’t allowed to carry out hazard reduction burns.

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The RFS on Monday downgraded fires at Fingal Bay and Salt Ash in the Hunter region from “watch and act” to “advice” after a southerly change on Sunday night ended 24 hours of extreme conditions.

Six properties were reported damaged or destroyed between Salt Ash and Tanilba Bay after a heatwave pushed temperatures above 36 degrees in some parts of the state.

The mayor of Port Stephens, Bruce MacKenzie, blasted authorities, including the RFS, for not allowing residents to conduct hazard reductions.

“I believe several houses have been lost, which is a disaster as far as I’m concerned,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

“To me, all preventable if people were allowed to burn off. The Rural Fire Service, the politicians and the greenies have a lot to bloody answer for.”

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters were doing more hazard reduction than ever before but there was more to be done.

The RFS had “very good mechanisms in place” to help landowners do hazard reduction, he said.

The RFS has set up an evacuation centre at the Community Hall in Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown, in response to the fires, and roads in the area remain closed.

It says firefighters are working to strengthen containment lines in the area.

Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins said he felt for the people who were affected by the fires.

But he said the losses were “quite small”, given what he described as the enormity of the task.

“I know that the mayor up there will be pretty raw today,” he told ABC radio.

“But we had dozens of crews up there assisting dozens of Rural Fire Service crews until about 1.30 this morning.”

Mr Mullins said fire breaks in some areas had made homes safer but hazard reduction alone would not stop fires.

“There’s other things you need to do, it’s not that simple,” he said.

“The sort of vegetation up there, you can burn it, it’ll burn again in about two years because it grows back very quickly.”

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