Eels urged to fix attack quickly

If there’s anyone who knows his defensive limits, it’s Beau Scott.

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The Parramatta hardman is renowned for his grit and tenacity, exemplified when he collapsed with exhaustion after tackling himself to a standstill in State of Origin I last year.

So when Scott warns the Eels of the consequences of relying too much on their defence, they should listen.

“It’s going to take its toll on you,” Scott said on Tuesday.

“We need to get our attack together now.

“We’ve had enough time together as a playing group to form a few combinations, and that’s what we’ll be trying to get together over the next couple of weeks.”

The resurgent Eels have now strung three consecutive wins after shutting out Wests Tigers on Sunday, and are one of five teams on top of the table with six points.

However a poor points differential – their 52 total points is 14th in the NRL – leaves them in fifth.

“We’re far from our best,” Scott said.

“We’re winning games on the back of our defence. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks. But to do it in a bit better fashion and put a few more points on teams would be nice as well.”

The recovery of skipper Kieran Foran’s hamstring should help.

The big-name recruit has struggled to stay on the training paddock over his first six months at Parramatta due to a troublesome hamstring injury.

But winger Clinton Gutherson said the Kiwi international recently left the rehab group and rejoined the rest of his teammates at training, which should finally result in an improved attack.

“(Corey Norman has) been out there with a few different halves throughout the pre-season. Now Foz’s hammy’s alright and we’re on the paddock there and playing – it’s just going to take a bit of time to gel,” he said.

The Eels host struggling Penrith at home on Sunday.

Northern part of reef ‘fried’: expert

The most pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef has been “fried” in the worst coral bleaching event on record, a reef expert says.

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Professor Terry Hughes, the convenor of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, says the federal government has failed to link its decisions – including scrapping a price on carbon and support for coal mining – to reef health.

He fears major bleaching events, driven by climate change, are starting to occur more frequently than the 10 years it takes the reef to recover.

Prof Hughes has just returned from aerial surveys that show devastating levels of bleaching in the northern part of the reef, from Cairns to the top of Cape York and beyond.

Of 520 reefs surveyed between Cairns and Papua New Guinea in recent days, just four appeared to be unaffected.

And 95 per cent of those reefs have been ranked in the two most severe categories of bleaching, meaning at least 30 per cent of their coral is affected, and in a vast number of cases more than 60 per cent.

The damage in the northern part of the reef far surpasses the previous worst bleaching in 2002, when 18 per cent of reefs were ranked in the two most severe categories.

“The north has fried,” Prof Hughes told AAP on Tuesday. “This is an ongoing, slow-motion train wreck.”

UNESCO last year decided not to list the World Heritage-listed reef as “in danger”, despite concerns over mining-related port developments and water quality.

In arguing against the listing, Australia pointed to the health of northern reefs – the very ones now hit by unprecedented bleaching.

“I hope these scientific findings will convince the commonwealth government to link its greenhouse gas policies to the vulnerability of the reef to climate change,” Prof Hughes said.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who toured bleached parts of the reef earlier this month, says damage in the northern section is the worst on record.

But he says the rest of the marine park area has seen only minor or moderate bleaching, and the government has ramped up surveying and research efforts in the face of the latest event.

Green groups have again rounded on Mr Hunt for approving Adani’s planned Carmichael coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee basin – the coal will be burnt in India to service the country’s electricity needs.

“The federal and Queensland environment ministers need to get off their hands and stop paving the way for Carmichael … at a time when the mining and burning of coal is driving climate change, warming our waters and bleaching our reef,” Greenpeace’s Shani Tager said.

State Mines Minister Anthony Lynham has said Queensland needs the economic benefits that will flow from the $16.5 billion mine.

On Tuesday, he said Queensland could have a healthy reef and a future in coal, noting most coal exports are metallurgical coal that’s not burnt but used to produce steel.

He did not mention the Carmichael mine, which also requires a massive upgrade of the Abbot Point coal terminal south of Townsville.

Put balanced budget first:CEDA

Forget about tax cuts and additional spending, the Turnbull government must focus on balancing the budget as its number one priority.

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That’s the view of a national think tank analysis that believes a surplus is achievable in 2018/19, two years earlier than predicted by the government.

It comes amid further calls for a company tax rate cut in the May budget and reports suggesting the government is working on a $5 billion state funding deal for hospitals.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia says successive governments have promised to return the budget to surplus, but instead there have been eight years of continuous deficits at a time of sustained economic expansion.

“We believe no economic problem … is graver or more urgent in Australia than the persistence of large budget deficits,” the committee’s chairman Paul McClintock told the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.

Prolonged deficits penalise future generations, who will end up paying for current spending despite Australians being wealthier than they have ever been.

The CEDA report offers various combinations to achieve a balanced budget by raising an extra $15 billion in revenue and a cut in spending of $2 billion by 2018/19.

Among its options are calls for halving the capital gains tax discount, raising taxes on luxury cars, alcohol and tobacco, keeping the deficit levy and changes to superannuation tax concessions.

On the expenditure side, it suggests a reduction in assistance to industry and a lowering of the private health insurance rebate.

The Minerals Council of Australia wants the company tax rate cut from 30 per cent to 25 per cent, and then eventually to 20 per cent to match that of the UK.

“A reduction in Australia’s uncompetitive company tax rate would primarily benefit wage-earners and consumers, promote innovation and stimulate new foreign investment and economic growth,” the council’s chief executive Brendan Pearson said in a statement.

Bur Mr McClintock says while there might be an argument for this in the longer term, he questioned its feasibility when trying to deliver a balanced budget in a reasonable time.

Separately, the Australia Institute says there is no historical evidence that a company tax rate cut in Australia or across the OECD will produce economic or wages growth, or lead to higher levels of employment.

The institute’s executive director Ben Oquist says even a modest cut to 28.5 per cent for all businesses would cost the budget $9 billion over the four-year estimates.

“In a budget-constrained environment it seems ridiculous to be proposing a $9 billion hit to revenue for a growth dividend that doesn’t seem to be there,” Mr Oquist told Sky News.

Death toll in Pakistan attack rises to 72

Pakistan says it will launch a military crackdown on militants in its most populous province, Punjab, following the Easter Sunday bombing that killed at least 72 people.

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At least 29 children are among the dead after a suicide bomber struck in a busy park in Lahore, the power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

It is the sound of a mourner at the funeral of 11-year-old Sahil Pervez, one of dozens of children killed in a bomb blast at Easter celebrations in Lahore.

The Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was specifically targeting Christians.

Now, relatives of the victims – including Sahil Pervez’s uncle, Aftab Gab – are demanding to know why more could not be done to prevent such an attack.

(Translated)”The government of Punjab had no security arrangements for the parks. Even today, here in this church. They are so lazy. Our request for our government — and especially the Prime Minister — is that he take personal interest to finish terrorism in this country.”

The attack’s severity has even prompted a call to action from Pope Francis.

During his Easter Monday address to thousand of worshippers at the Vatican, the Pontiff has demanded Pakistan’s authorities step up their efforts to protect religious minorities.

(Translated)”I wish to express my closeness to all those affected by this vile and senseless crime, and invite you to pray to the Lord for the many victims and their loved ones. I appeal to civil authorities and all sectors of that nation to make every effort to restore security and serenity to the population, and, in particular, to the most vulnerable religious minorities.”

After visiting survivors at Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif has demanded better coordination between security agencies to fight terrorism.

In a televised address, he renewed his pledge to hunt down the perpetrators, as well as any other groups posing a threat to the Pakistani people.

(Translated)”Today, I have come to you to renew my vow that we are accounting for each and every drop of blood of our martyrs. This score is being settled, and we will not sit comfortably until the last tranche of this account is settled.”

A full-scale operation has reportedly been launched involving paramilitary Rangers.

They will have powers to conduct raids and interrogate suspects the same way they have been doing in the southern city of Karachi for more than two years.

The Pakistani amy has confirmed security forces have carried out five raids so far, making a number of arrests and seizing weapons.

It is yet another example of the civilian government granting special powers to the military to fight the militants.

Prime Minister Sharif says, despite the latest attack, his government has been getting results in recent years.

(Translated) “With the firm resolve of our armed forces, the endeavours of our police and institutions of national security, and the support of our people, the number of terrorist incidents has receded over the past three years. We will not let that number rise again, God willing. We will not allow the terrorists to play with the lives of the Pakistani people. This is my resolve, my government’s resolve and the resolve of 200 million Pakistani people.”

But some sections of the Pakistani court system have observed a full-day strike, demanding more measures be taken.

At one of several candlelight vigils across the country, lawyer Waseem Qureshi said all sections of government – and the international community – must work together against terrorism.

“At the same day, you can see that we are there — all the persons from different religions, castes and creeds are under the one umbrella, which is Pakistan. As terrorism is the global issue and the global challenge, I would like to request all the international communities, players and the stakeholders, especially the diplomats working in Pakistan, to arrange an international conference in Pakistan to combat and to resolve this global challenge.”

 

 

Easter petrol prices hit 11-year low

Motorists have enjoyed a bout of cheap petrol prices over Easter, but they could soon be forking out more to fill up their tanks.

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Average petrol prices fell 0.4 cents a litre to 112.3 cents last week, according to the Australian Institute of Petroleum.

That’s the lowest level in the week ahead of Easter for 11 years, CommSec chief economist Craig James said.

Fuel is the single biggest purchase made by households on a weekly basis, so paying less at the pump is good news for consumer confidence, he said.

“The low price of petrol represents a de facto rate cut for consumers,” Mr James said.

“So, as long as petrol signboards show $1.00-$1.20 a litre in major capital cities, spending growth will be supported.”

Petrol prices hit seven-year lows a month ago as global crude oil prices slid on concerns of a supply glut, CommSec economist Savanth Sebastian said.

“With OPEC negotiations breaking down, Iranian sanctions being lifted and US oil inventories at record highs, supply was well exceeding demand,” he said.

But prices have lifted modestly in recent weeks, and Mr Sebastian expects this to continue in the short term.

“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen significant cuts to investment and a lot of shale oil producers going out of business,” he said.

He tipped a substantial pullback in supply over the longer term, which will lift costs at the bowser.

Mr Sebastian urged motorists to watch signboards to nab bargains in the discounting cycle.

“It tends to blow out to 14-20 days but at the low end of the cycle you’re virtually buying petrol at or below cost, and you can save yourself around 20 cents a litre,” he said.

Alleged gunman shot in incident at US Capitol building

A lockdown at the United States Capitol building in Washington has been lifted after police shot an alleged gunman while he was trying to enter the building’s visitors centre.

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Officials say the man had drawn a gun and pointed it at an officer.

But there does not appear to be any evidence of a terrorism connection.

With members of the United States Congress out of town for the Easter break, the US Capitol building remained crowded with visitors in the midst of a busy spring tourist season.

But their excitement soon turned to panic as word of a shooting forced them to flee.

(First:) “All of a sudden, the police came running, saying, ‘Go, go, go … follow, us follow us.'”

(Second:) “We were going through the visitor center security, and, as I walked through, we heard, ‘Get out, get out, there’s an active shooter!’ The most stressful experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

A Spanish tourist named James has described how he tried to escape in the ensuing chaos.

“When we tried to get out, we found the doors closed, we couldn’t get away. We found people trying to get inside. And we went to the restrooms. We stayed for a few minutes, and, after, we went to the theatre. We stayed for maybe 20 minutes.”

Emergency sirens had been triggered across the grassy National Mall, which extends from the Capitol building all the way to the White House about three kilometres away.

With a lockdown in place, bystanders were ordered to take cover immediately.

Capitol police chief Matthew Verderosa says the incident had unfolded at a security checkpoint in the Capitol building.

He says it involved a suspect likely known to police.

“An adult male subject entered the north screening facility of the Capitol’s visitors centre. During routine administrative screening, the individual drew what appeared to be a weapon and pointed it at officers. An officer fired and struck the suspect, who was subsequently treated by medical personnel. The suspect was taken into custody and transported to the hospital for treatment. The suspect is currently undergoing surgery. His condition is unknown at this time.”

A female bystander is also receiving treatment after sustaining minor injuries.

Contrary to initial reports, no officers have been hurt.

A weapon has been recovered, and police say they have found the suspect’s car on the Capitol grounds.

The shooting happened just hours after US president Barack Obama hosted the annual Easter Egg Roll with families and small children on the south lawn of the White House.

Mr Verderosa says an investigation is underway but, so far, no evidence of any connection to terrorism has materialised.

“I stress that much of this information is still very preliminary. I want to stress that, while this is preliminary, based on the initial investigation, we believe that this is an act of a single person who has frequented the Capitol grounds before and there is no reason to believe that this is anything more than a criminal act.”

 

 

Clinton pushes Supreme Court nomination

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has rebuked Senate Republicans for denying a hearing to US Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, accusing them of obstructionism, and warned of dangers if Donald Trump appointed the next justice.

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In a speech in Wisconsin, Clinton put the future of the Supreme Court at the centre of the election debate, cautioning that any Trump-appointed justices would be likely to roll back workers’ and abortion rights and “demolish pillars of the progressive movement”.

“What kind of justice would a President Trump appoint, or for that matter what kind of attorney-general?” she asked, noting the Republican front runner wants a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

“Once you make the extreme normal, you open the door to even worse,” she said in Madison, Wisconsin, ahead of the state’s April 5 Democratic and Republican primary elections.

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Clinton called on Republican Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, to “do his job” and convene a hearing for Garland, a moderate federal appeals judge who is President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the seat vacated by the February 13 death of Antonin Scalia.

Grassley and other Senate Republicans have said they will not hold a hearing or a vote on an Obama nominee in a presidential election year, contending that voters should have a say when they elect the next president on Nov. 8.

“I’d say my voice is being ignored right now because of their obstructionism,” Clinton said. “We chose a president – we chose him twice – and now Republicans in the Senate are acting like our votes didn’t count and President Obama is not still our nation’s leader.”

Clinton said the Republican refusal to consider Garland was the “latest in a long line of actions aimed at disrupting our government and undermining our president, and the result is an America that is more divided, less functional and less secure”.

Grassley, a six-term senator from Iowa who has tangled with Clinton over the investigation into her use of a private email account while secretary of state, responded that Clinton wanted to distract voters from the ongoing email investigations.

“This is simply a blatant attempt by Secretary Clinton to politicise the Supreme Court and to change the conversation,” Grassley, who heads the committee that must hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee, said in a statement ahead of Clinton’s speech.

Clinton’s speech came as her campaign aides argued with rival Bernie Sanders’ campaign in competing calls with the media over whether Sanders has a viable path to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders, a US senator from Vermont, won contests in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington on Saturday, chipping away at Clinton’s lead in the race for the 2382 delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party’s Philadelphia convention in July.

Clinton now has a lead of 268 pledged delegates over Sanders. When superdelegates, party leaders who can support any candidate, are added, Clinton leads 1712-1004, according to an Associated Press count.

But Sanders aides said he could eclipse Clinton’s advantage once the final round of contests are held on June 7, and that superdelegates would begin to switch to back Sanders once he did.

Clinton’s campaign described her lead as “insurmountable” given the party’s proportional allocation of delegates in all states, which means Clinton will keep piling up delegates even in states Sanders wins.

“You have to win these big states very big, you have to win by landslides” to make up the deficit, Clinton strategist Joel Benenson told reporters.

Trump also plans to campaign in Wisconsin this week as he seeks to build his lead over Republican rivals US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Trump has won 738 of the 1237 delegates needed to take the Republican nomination at its July convention in Cleveland. Cruz has won 463, while Kasich has won 143, according to The New York Times.

Medibank hires banker Drummond as CEO

Medibank Private has appointed banker Craig Drummond as its new chief executive in a move that has analysts tipping a push for consolidation in the $19 billion private health insurance sector.

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Mr Drummond, a 30-year banking veteran who most recently helped transform National Australia Bank – declined to comment on expectations of M&A activity, telling AAP on Tuesday it was not a priority at present.

Analysts believe he will target acquisitions after the federal government completes its review of the private health sector.

One health care analyst, who did not want to be identified, described Mr Drummond as a “transactions man.”

“I think he’s been hired to take Medibank through to the next level, and that will probably involve some further activity. He’s not there to maintain the status quo,” he said.

Medibank, which is Australia’s biggest private health provider and has a market value of around $7.77 billion with no debt, could “easily digest a $200 million acquisition”, the analyst added.

Mr Drummond told AAP that his priority is getting to know the business and key stakeholders, plus getting to grips with the changing industry regulatory landscape.

“The industry itself is growing but the rules of the game are not completely clear yet,” he said.

Medibank is in a strong financial position, thanks to strong demand for its services from Australia’s ageing population, and the leadership of outgoing chief executive George Savvides.

During his 14-year stewardship, Mr Savvides guided the company through the transition from government ownership to its listing on the Australian Securities Exchange in December 2014.

He also led a crackdown on improper health insurance claims.

Mr Drummond, 55, acknowledged there was room for improving the group’s top-line performance.

Mr Drummond quit NAB in February after overseeing its capital raising and disposal of international assets, including Clydesdale Bank.

He was most recently group executive, finance and strategy of NAB, but left after reportedly losing out to Andrew Thorburn, who took over the top job at NAB last year.

Medibank chairman Elizabeth Alexander said the board was delighted Mr Drummond had agreed to lead the group, which has around 3.9 million members.

“Craig has an outstanding reputation for his leadership capabilities, strategic thinking and business acumen. He brings with him deep experience in regulated service industries requiring a strong customer focus,” Ms Alexander said.

Medibank chief operating officer David Koczkar will serve as acting CEO from April 1 when Mr Savvides retires, with Mr Drummond to take over on July 4.

Mr Drummond’s total fixed remuneration will be $1.5 million a year, plus short and long-term incentives.

Medibank, along with its peers including nib and Bupa, will increase its premiums by more than five per cent from April 1 after recently securing approval from Health Minister Sussan Ley.

In February, Medibank forecast annual operating profit of more than $470 million and premium revenue growth of between 4.5 per cent and five per cent.

Medibank shares ended up one cent at $2.85 in a lower overall market.

No Miami final for Murray after Dimitrov upset

The Scotsman might have sensed trouble was in the air at Crandon Park after the opening two matches on Stadium court ended in shock results with women’s world number one Serena Williams and number two Agnieszka Radwanska both upset victims.

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“To be honest, I just played better in the big moments today,” Dimitrov told reporters. “I had quite a few opportunities and I used them.

“Even though I lost the first set, I kept good composure. I had to stay in the match and I had to be really focused. I’m happy with all those things.”

After winning a tight opening set by breezing through a 7-1 tie-break, Murray quickly found himself down a break 2-0 in the second and that was all the 26th-seeded Dimitrov needed to level the match.

Murray, a two-times Miami champion who had reached the final three times in the last four years, grabbed the initiative in the third set, breaking his Russian opponent to nose ahead 3-1 but a determined Dimitrov broke right back to get the decisive set back on level terms.

Service breaks continued with Dimitrov going on top again 4-3 and the Bulgarian consolidated his advantage by holding serve for a 5-3 lead.

With Murray serving to stay in the match Dimitrov broke yet again, closing out the rollercoaster contest on his first match point in two hours 25 minutes.

“(I made) a lot of unforced errors in the third set,” Murray said. “After winning a close first set you want to try and put your opponent under pressure.

“Credit to him. He was more solid than me.”

Next up for Dimitrov will be Frenchman Gael Monfils, who hit 13 aces in a 6-3 6-4 win over Pablo Cuevas.

Sixth seed Kei Nishikori of Japan eased into the fourth round past Ukraine’s Alexander Dolgopolov 6-2 6-2, while ninth-seeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was shown the Crandon Park exit by Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut 2-6 6-3 7-6(3).

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine/Peter Rutherford)

AGL sells Diamantina power plant stake

AGL Energy has offloaded its 50 per cent stake in the Diamantina Power Station to joint venture partner APA Group for $151 million as it continues to shed unwanted assets.

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Chief financial officer Brett Redman said Diamantina was not a strategic asset for AGL and the sale price for the remaining interest in the Queensland gas-fired power plant was above book value.

“Its sale represents another milestone in meeting one of our key targets to realise $1 billion in asset sales,” Mr Redman said.

AGL will continue to supply gas to the Diamantina Power Station under an existing sales agreement which runs until 2023.

Last year AGL unveiled plans to sell more than $1 billion worth of assets and cut costs by $200 million by the end of fiscal 2017 as it focuses on solar energy and smart metering.

Analysts believe the company’s remaining coal seam gas (CSG) assets in NSW will be next on the chopping block after attracting negative publicity.

The company has launched a fund to develop up to $3 billion of large scale renewables projects and recently quit gas exploration and production following the collapse in oil and gas prices.

AGL is Australia’s biggest owner of coal-fired power stations and has committed to closing all of its existing greenhouse gas-emitting plants by 2050.

After buying AGL’s interest in Diamantina, infrastructure provider APA Group upgraded its 2016 earnings forecast to between $1.3 billion and $1.335 billion, up from $1.275-$1.310 billion.

APA Managing director Mick McCormack said the acquisition fitted with APA’s strategy to expand its energy infrastructure business.

The company will fund the acquisition with cash and debt, with a total funding requirement of $550 million.

Ratings agency Moody’s said the incremental earnings and cash flows from the Diamantina acquisition would assist APA in maintaining its credit rating.

The Diamantina Power Station receives gas through APA’s Carpentaria gas pipeline and supplies electricity to Glencore’s Mount Isa mines and the Queensland government’s Ergon Energy.

The transaction is expected to close on Thursday.

IG Markets analyst Evan Lucas said AGL’s rate of return for its base-load power had been diminishing.

“Retail base-load power is still becoming a headache for them,” Mr Lucas said.

“They’ve had a lot of local protests in NSW around the issues of CSG and they would probably be the assets that would go next.”

Capital expenditure for new renewables projects was still extremely expensive and would not drive profit, he said.

AGL Energy shares ended 20 cents, or 1.1 per cent, lower at $18.23 while APA Group’s shares finished one cent, or 0.12 per cent, lower at $8.50.