Robert’s staffer ‘unaware’ of LNP funding

A staffer of federal MP Stuart Robert has contradicted her boss by testifying she didn’t know her Gold Coast council election campaign would be funded by the Liberal National Party.

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Felicity Stevenson, who worked for the former Turnbull government minister for a decade, took leave in early 2016 to unsuccessfully run as an independent in the March 19 local government election.

Ms Stevenson on Wednesday told a Crime and Corruption Commission investigation she received $30,000 from the Fadden Forum, a fundraising arm of the LNP, during the campaign.

Her testimony was similar to that of another staffer in Mr Robert’s office, Kristyn Boulton, who successfully ran in the council election after also receiving $30,000 from the Fadden Forum.

Mr Robert last week testified he told both women at a meeting in his office in late January that he would help get some “dollars and cents” for their campaigns.

“I said I would seek permission for it to come from the Fadden Forum,” Mr Robert said.

Ms Stevenson said Mr Robert told her in a one-on-one meeting in her office that he would support her campaign but did not mention how.

She received an initial donation of $10,000 a few days later, followed by $15,000 and a further $5000.

The commission heard Ms Stevenson assumed Mr Robert was behind the deposits, as her banking app only showed the amount, not who it was from.

It was not until after the election when she checked her statement that she saw the deposits were from the LNP.

Ms Stevenson said Mr Robert told her to list the Fadden Forum on her disclosure, a compulsory and publicly available form that reveals campaign contributions.

“I asked him what I needed to put on the return for the donations,” she said.

The only other donation made to Ms Stevenson’s campaign was $1000 from her grandmother.

Ms Stevenson said she knew about the forum’s connection to the LNP but thought it was a “different beast” at the time of the council election.

Ms Boulton last week also claimed she was ignorant about how the forum worked.

“Something I have to wear is perhaps I’ve been a little naive,” she said.

“He said to me they’re from the Fadden Forum, which I accepted.”

But Mr Robert stated fundraising got a lot of “air time” in his office of just four staff.

“It would be hard to be in my office for a long time and not know how we raise money for the Liberal National Party,” the Gold Coast-based MP said.

The Fadden Forum made up two-thirds of the donations to Ms Boulton, who was successfully elected as an independent.

China aircraft carrier to boost military

China has launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier from the Dalian shipyard in the country’s northeast as the country aims to boost its military presence at sea.

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The new carrier, with its deck decorated with red flags, was transferred from dry dock into the water during a ceremony at the shipyard in Liaoning province where it had been built, the Xinhua news agency reported.

This is China’s second aircraft carrier, after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in 2012 put into commission a refitted Soviet Union-made carrier called Liaoning.

The new carrier, which is currently referred to as Type 001A, is 315-metres long and 75 metres wide, and has a displacement of about 70,000 tonnes and a cruising speed of 31 knots.

It is slightly bigger than the Liaoning carrier, but their outlines are similar, according to The Paper, a Chinese state-owned publication.

Type 001A is expected to be able to carry about eight more aircraft than the Liaoning, which can carry up to 24 fighter jets and 17 helicopters, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

China started building the carrier in November 2013 and is expected to put it into use by 2020, after completing a series of tests.

Meanwhile, a third aircraft carrier, the Type 002, is being built in Shanghai.

Type 002 will be “far more advanced” than the first two carriers, according to the state-owned Global Times. It will look more like a US carrier than a Russian one as it will have no ski ramp, using catapult technology instead.

Aircraft catapults, currently used on US Navy carriers, use steam pressure to launch aircraft from the carrier’s flight deck. But Russian carriers are generally fitted with ski-jump ramps – curved ramps that allow aircraft to build up velocity and take off from shorter runways.

The US Navy has already started installing more advanced electromagnetic catapult systems on its carriers, while China is still testing steam catapults, naval expert Li Jie told Global Times.

The aircraft carriers are a sign of China’s ambition to build a naval presence worldwide, observers say.

In order to achieve that, China would need to build a total of five to six aircraft carriers in the next 15 to 20 years, Zhao Chu, director of the Shanghai Institute for National Defence Strategy, told DPA.

“In that case, two carriers could be always on duty on the open water, one could be placed in a dock, and one could be undergoing maintenance,” Zhao said.

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Exclusive – South Africa considers strategic grain reserve as possible El Nino looms: minister

Neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia have such reserves, but it would entail a significant policy shift in South Africa, where commercial agriculture is market driven and the state does not act as a buyer and holder of crops.

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A strategic grain reserve usually involves the government buying crops and taking responsibility for their storage until they are needed to make up for shortfalls.

“Yes, we are thinking about it,” Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana told Reuters late on Tuesday when asked if a grain reserve was being considered.

“It is one of the things that the inter-ministerial committee on drought should look at,” he said, referring to a cabinet committee set up in 2015 to look at ways of mitigating the drought.

Zokwana did not go into specifics, such as budget allocations for such a project, which would be difficult in South Africa’s strained fiscal environment after damaging ratings downgrades.

South Africa will likely reap 14.54 million tonnes of maize in 2017, almost double last year’s harvest and its second largest ever after good rains returned, the government’s Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) said on Tuesday.

This is more than 40 percent more than the roughly 10.5 million tonnes South Africa typically consumes of the crop, the staple of lower-income households which are a key political base for the ruling ANC and were hard hit last year by rising food prices and inflation linked to the drought.

But the El Nino weather pattern, which faded in May of 2016, may reform again around September, just ahead of South Africa’s maize planting season, according to a number of national and global forecasts.

“If we have a bumper crop this year how do we make sure that we have some grain that is reserved for darker days? El Nino is going to be with us, we have to adapt,” Zokwana said, adding that commercial farmers should also hold some stocks.

“The challenge we are faced with as a country is that we need to engage with the private sector and say don’t sell all you have because the El Nino may be on the door,” Zokwana said.

Some farmers and other market players may be tempted to hang onto stocks because prices have plummeted with the abrupt change in weather.

The July white maize contract was 1.25 percent on Wednesday at 1,862 rand (£110) a tonne, around 65 percent lower than record peaks of more than 5,000 rand a tonne scaled early last year during the drought.

El Nino is a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific that occurs every few years, with global consequences. In Africa it often brings excessive rains to the east while the southern cone gets parched.

(Editing by Louise Heavens)

‘Better than hitting Tokyo’: Japan minister quits after tsunami comment

The Japanese minister overseeing the reconstruction of areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster has resigned after saying it was better the disaster struck the northeastern region instead of Tokyo.

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Masahiro Imamura was forced to quit after remarks he made on Tuesday at a party for ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and is the latest in a spate of ruling party politicians in trouble for their comments or behaviour.

Speaking of the costs incurred in the 9.0 earthquake that set off a massive tsunami and left nearly 20,000 dead or missing, Imamura said: “It was better that this happened in the northeast.”

The comments came just weeks after Imamura set off a furore at a news conference by disparaging people who left Fukushima out of fear after the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, then shouting at a reporter and storming out of the room.

His comments prompted an immediate rebuke from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who apologised on his behalf.

“It was an extremely inappropriate comment and hurtful to people in the disaster zone, an act causing the people a reconstruction minister works for to lose trust in him, ” Abe told reporters after Imamura resigned.

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Shunsuke Mutai, a deputy reconstruction minister, drew fire last year after forcing a subordinate to carry him on his back so his feet could stay dry as he visited a flooded area. He quit in March on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the March 11 disaster after making a joke about the incident.

A week ago the vice minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Toshinao Nakagawa, was forced to resign from his position after news broke of an extramarital affair and he later resigned from the LDP.

Inflation crawls into RBA target band

The Reserve Bank can tick off inflation as one of its immediate worries, but new figures suggest its concerns over housing and employment will haunt it for a while yet.

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The consumer price index has crept into the central bank’s two to three per cent inflation target for the first time in two years.

Inflation rose 0.5 per cent in the March quarter, a slightly smaller increase than most economists had been expecting, lifting the annual rate to 2.1 per cent.

“Inflation rates will grind slowly higher from here,” Commonwealth Bank of Australia chief economist Michael Blythe said on Wednesday.

“It is difficult to get concerned about inflation prospects when wages growth and labour costs remain very well contained.”

He expects it will be well into 2018 before the central bank has to raise the cash rates.

The central bank aims to keep inflation within a band over the course of the economic cycle.

But in the past two years, it’s been forced to cut the cash rate four times to a record low of 1.5 per cent to try to give the economy a boost through lower lending rates.

Among the most significant price rises in the quarter were for petrol (up 5.7 per cent), electricity (up 2.5 per cent) and new dwelling costs (up 1.0 per cent) but this was partly offset by a 6.7 per cent drop in fruit prices.

Underlying measures of inflation, which smooth out volatile price swings and are key to interest rate decisions, averaged just over 0.4 per cent growth in the quarter for an annual rate of 1.8 per cent.

The central bank will hold its next monthly board meeting on Tuesday.

In the minutes of the April board meeting, it emphasised the labour and housing markets “warranted careful monitoring over coming months”.

Mr Blythe said the housing component of CPI may only add to the Reserve Bank’s concerns about the housing market.

Hopes that March’s strong rise in employment was a turning point for the economy may be premature as new figures show demand for new workers wilting.

Job advertisements on the internet declined 0.6 per cent in March after a revised 0.3 per cent fall in February in trend terms, Department of Employment data released on Wednesday shows.

This left annual growth at just 0.9 per cent.

Six of the eight occupational groups monitored by the department fell in the month while declining in three states and the ACT.