Death of NSW rigger was preventable: union

The death of a rigger on a Darling Harbour barge could have been prevented, with union officials denied access to inspect the construction site in late 2016, the Maritime Union of Australia says.

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NSW dad Tim Macpherson, 32, died instantly when a heavy metal beam fell on his torso and crushed him while he was working on the barge off Barangaroo on Wednesday afternoon.

“This was a needless thing that absolutely could have been prevented,” MUA Sydney deputy secretary Paul Keating told AAP on Thursday.

Mr Keating said he and another official tried to inspect the site in November after receiving a tip-off about unsafe work conditions but were turned away, despite having inspection permits.

“We were stopped from speaking to the workers and inspecting the barge, and that raised the red flags for us straight away.”

Construction giant McConnell Dowell contracted the project to Brady Marine and Civil, a company known for “substandard operations”, Mr Keating said.

Brady Marine and Civil declined to comment when contacted by AAP.

McConnell Dowell’s Australian managing director Jim Frith said the company’s thoughts were with the man’s family “at this extremely difficult time”.

“We are providing his employer with all the assistance they need to support his family, and all affected staff are being offered support and counselling,” Mr Frith said in a statement.

Mr Macpherson, from Newcastle, had been working on the project for at least six months.

Workers who saw the tragedy unfold were being offered counselling and support, CFMEU state secretary Brian Parker said on Thursday.

“They’re very distraught. These guys work with each other for long hours together each week, and some of them know each other better than they know their own families and friends,” Mr Parker told AAP.

“One of them, who witnessed the whole thing, was particularly upset and spent the whole night speaking to police about the incident.”

The young father’s family visited him at the site in recent weeks, Mr Parker said.

It’s not yet clear how the accident happened but it’s understood Mr Macpherson was helping a crane driver move the two- to four-tonne beam when it swung into another, causing one to fall and topple on him.

The site was closed off on Thursday as NSW Police and SafeWork NSW investigated.

“SafeWork will be issuing notices to stop work at the site and directing the business to review its systems,” a spokesman said.

There have been at least 1500 accidents or injuries at the Barangaroo site in recent years, Mr Parker said, with Wednesday’s incident the first fatality.

R&A’s sweeping golf rules proposals

Tiger Woods has given the thumbs up to sweeping rule-change proposals aimed at speeding up and simplifying the game of golf.

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Golfers will no longer be penalised for accidentally moving their ball while searching for it or addressing putts under more than 50 proposals put forward by the R&A and USGA.

Among other radical suggestions, players will be able to putt on greens with the flag still in the cup and the time allowed to find a lost ball will be slashed from five to three minutes.

“The entire rule book has been rewritten,” said David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of governance in a teleconference from St Andrews.

“Rule changes happen regularly. This scale of review is something that happens less frequently.

“Probably 1952 and 1984 are the most recent times we’ve done something of this scale … but we believe the changes will be good for the sport.

“We have aimed the revisions at the game as a whole so irrespective of ability and irrespective of where in the world you play.”

Woods has taken to Twitter to offer his stamp of approval.

“Lots of thought & hard work by @USGA and @RandA to modernize our rules. Great work to benefit the game,” he posted.

Hoping to remove a raft a “penalty traps” for club golfers, the R&A is also proposing to allow players to take drops from just an inch above the grass – rather than from shoulder height – while introducing an “unplayable” option from bunkers that would incur a two-stroke penalty.

While the proposed changes – to come into effect in 2019 – will more easily be enforced on the heavily scrutinised professional tours, Rickman admits some of the amendments will be open to exploitation at club level.

“We are placing even greater onus on player honesty,” he said.

“But we think the game has a good record of that. We think the game is better for its self regulating aspects.

“If players are going to not play by the rules and look to seek advantage, they can do it today (and) I completely accept that we’ve maybe added a few more that players could sail close to the wind with.”

Rickman said the “trade-off” between relaxing many rules and making them more understandable for the average player was worth it.

“Otherwise time will tell whether we’re deluding ourselves,” he said.

Almost halving the amount of time for golfers to search for their ball is the rule makers’ most significant pace-of-play initiative.

“It’s a big change,” Rickman said.

“We feel overall that five minutes is a long time when you’re looking for a golf ball and we do want the sport to keep moving on and we want players to be prompt.

“Anecdotally, we feel that most balls are found within those first three minutes and if you really can’t find the ball in that duration, then I’m afraid that the signs are not good in terms of a successful conclusion.

“We hope that it will encourage players to play more provisional balls.”

The R&A has take the extraordinary step of inviting feedback via emails and letters to the club, with all proposals available online.

WA Libs submit costings to Treasury

The WA Liberals have submitted nearly $3 billion in election promises to be costed by Treasury as Labor refused to do so for its own $5 billion in pledges.

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The costings should be publicly released by Wednesday – three days before the election – and show a $10 billion reduction in debt over the next few years and a path back to surplus, Premier Colin Barnett said.

The Liberals say they submitted 70 election policies to Treasury, including some yet to be announced.

Mr Barnett said there was a “new standard in public accountability” that the Liberals were meeting by submitting their costings to Treasury and Labor should do the same.

Key Liberal commitments include selling 51 per cent of utility Western Power in an $11 billion deal to wipe out part of its record debt and help fund promises, including a new suburban rail line, the Roe 9 highway extension and tackling crime and other problems related to the drug ice.

Mr Barnett denied the Liberals couldn’t be trusted because their pledges were dependent on the success of the Western Power sale.

Those contingent on the sale, such as the rebuilding and refurbishment of schools, were identified and those budgeted for or to come from consolidated revenue were marked, he said.

Treasurer Mike Nahan said Labor’s claims about how much revenue it would have access to were “dodgy”, such as counting on the diversion of federal funding meant for the Liberals’ $1.9 billion Perth Freight Link to its big-ticket items such as the $2.9 billion Metronet rail system.

Labor defends its refusal to submit figures to Treasury, citing the fact it did in 2013 but a staff member from then Liberal treasurer Troy Buswell’s office was present when he should not have been during the meetings and Liberal Party promises were also wrongly given a tick.

Opposition leader Mark McGowan is defending Labor’s use instead of two former senior public servants, David Gilchrist and Mike Wood, to assess its costings with Mr Barnett claiming the latter was connected to Labor during the controversial WA Inc years of Brian Burke’s government.

However Mr McGowan pointed out the Liberals had in 2008 had its policies costed by an accounting firm run by former Liberal premier Sir Charles Court.

Forgotten Fawad set for Shield return

Forgotten legspinner Fawad Ahmed is set for his Sheffield Shield return after almost a year out of first-class cricket.

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Ahmed has been named in first-placed Victoria’s 12-man squad to face Western Australia from Wednesday, replacing veteran batsman Rob Quiney.

The 35-year-old helped the Bushrangers to claim victory in the past two Shield seasons and was the competition’s leading wicket-taker in 2014-15 but had found himself on the outer this season.

Victorian coach Andrew McDonald has favoured left-arm spinner Jon Holland, who has taken 38 wickets – the second most for the season behind South Australia’s Chadd Sayers.

“Fawad was unlucky not to be included but Holland played Tests in the off-season so he gets first crack at that position and we hope he can make it his own,” McDonald said at the start of the season.

“Fawad will be there in the wings and we hope there will be competition for all spots.”

The Pakistan-born Ahmed, who sought asylum in Australia and was picked in 2013 in the one-day and T20 international squads. He has not played for the Bushrangers since their seven-wicket defeat of the Redbacks in last year’s Shield final.

With two rounds remaining, Victoria remain a win clear of the Redbacks and third-placed Warriors.

Wednesday’s match will be played at Traeger Park in Alice Springs, which will also be the venue for the Shield final starting on March 26, should the Bushrangers earn hosting rights.

Cricket authorities have ceded rights to the MCG to the AFL over that period, with the league’s opening round of the 2017 season to take place on the weekend of the Shield final.

Overall childcare, welfare picture unclear

How many households will be worse off overall after a shake-up of family tax breaks and child care benefits?

It’s the question Labor and Greens senators were hell-bent to have answered when social services bosses fronted a hearing in Canberra on Thursday.

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Despite their persistent line of questioning, though, a direct answer wasn’t forthcoming.

The Turnbull government wants to pump an extra $1.6 billion into childcare fee subsidies.

It has tied the cash splash to a raft of welfare cuts including phasing out annual Family Tax Benefit supplements while slightly boosting fortnightly payments.

Social Services boss Finn Pratt cautioned senators against trying to calculate how many could stand to lose under changes to tax breaks without factoring what they would gain through child care reforms.

But, while there is a significant overlap between the two issues, his department only provides advice to government on its areas of responsibility, which includes the Family Tax Benefits.

The changes to child care are being steered elsewhere by education and training officials.

“We only look at what we are responsible for and of course the government’s package – as we’ve said a few times – includes a range of other measures,” Mr Pratt told senators.

Regardless, Labor senator Murray Watt was determined to dig for a “global” picture of the fallout.

“Has anybody provided ministers with advice about how many people overall will be worse off from these changes?” he asked the social services heads.

Liberal Senator Scott Ryan soon jumped in, arguing the bureaucrats fronting the hearing could only answer questions regarding their own department.

“So ministers are going ahead with these changes despite knowing how many families will be worse off?” Senator Watt said.

Senator Ryan quickly stomped on the grenade but Labor Senator Louise Pratt pressed on.

“It seems pretty extraordinary to me that you wouldn’t model the child care impacts relative to the impacts on people’s family income,” she said.

“That’s what we’re expected to do in parliament, as they’re all rolled into the one bill.”

Sharks lose NRL opener to Broncos

Cronulla’s premiership defence is off to a losing start, with the Sharks downed by a slick Brisbane 26-18 in Thursday night’s opening game of the NRL season.

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The Broncos appeared headed for a cruisy victory after captain Darius Boyd set up two of his side’s three tries on the way to building a 20-6 lead early in the second half.

But back-to-back Sharks tries brought the Southern Cross Group Stadium crowd of 11,493 to life, before they were silenced again by a moment of Anthony Milford magic late in the game.

The Broncos’ five-eighth received the ball off a switch of play in the 70th minute, stepped sharply off both feet and then powered his way through for the game-sealing try.

The reigning premiers showed their intent to defend their title from the kickoff, forcing Broncos prop Adam Blair back into his in-goal on the first hit-up of the match.

It was a ferocious start from the hosts, but the visitors steadied when Jordan Kahu beat two defenders for the opening try in the fifth minute.

Stand-in Sharks fullback Gerard Beale replied not long after, only for James Roberts to show his speed in racing to a Milford grubber to give Brisbane the halftime lead.

Boyd assisted for Corey Oates soon after the resumption, before Cronulla made a game of it through tries to James Maloney and Ricky Leutele in the space of 10 minutes.

But Milford’s effort gave them the breathing space they needed to topple a Sharks side, missing departed grand final heroes Michael Ennis and Ben Barba, as well as injured Valentine Holmes.

Boyd was arguably the Broncos’ best, but was aided by strong performances from his starting forwards, all of whom carried the ball for more than 100 metres.

Broncos forward Alex Glenn failed to finish the night after a first-half concussion.

Broncos coach Wayne Bennett admitted it was a scrappy game, but was delighted with the way his team fought off the Sharks’ second-half comeback despite losing Glenn at halftime.

“Just our refusal to give in. A player down at halftime there, a lot more pressure on everybody else,” Bennett said after the win.

“Our ball control in the second half won us the game. It allowed us to maintain the lead. Cronulla played like a premiership team. That’s what premierships do.”

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said his team let themselves down with ill discipline.

“Can’t win football games when you turn over the ball and give penalties away. We were 10-5 in errors and 10-5 in penalties. We just gave them too much football,” he said.

“We were our own worst enemies. Disappointing from the standards we set ourselves last year so we’re really disappointed.”

Man arrested over fatal Melbourne blaze

A man is being questioned by police over a Melbourne factory fire which killed three people.

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The Arson and Explosives Squad is investigating the suspicious fire at an abandoned Melbourne factory, a day after new plans for the site were approved.

Three bodies were found shortly after firefighters extinguished the blaze in a rear room of an old Footscray ropeworks factory at just after midnight on Thursday.

They are believed to be squatters who had lived in the small room for months, if not years.

But police have not yet been able to identify names, ages or sexes of the deceased.

“It’s too early to tell,” Detective Senior Sergeant Brad Nichols told reporters on Thursday.

He wouldn’t elaborate on why police thought the fire was suspicious, but said it warranted further investigation.

“There was a fuel can located at the scene but we’re not sure that is part of it or whether that was there before the fire,” he said.

Witnesses heard screaming but were unable to help those trapped inside.

“I heard some screaming, but I was not sure who was screaming,” a man who identified himself as Muhammad told reporters.

“I saw the front person was throwing water from the back, but the fire was so large they couldn’t control it.”

A man, 52, was arrested in the CBD on Thursday afternoon.

Locals say the squatters kept to themselves and had been known to lock themselves inside at night.

They say the squatters’ presence had been linked to less vandalism at nearby Footscray City College.

“They were definitely getting settled in,” local resident Rebecca told AAP on Thursday.

“It’s very sad because you don’t want people to die like that,” Footscray man Phillip O’Connor said.

The squatters alcove was packed with furniture, clothes, plants, a bike, and locals said a chicken also lived there.

The local council says it had been aware of the squatters for six months and had informed them of local homelessness services recently.

The heritage-listed site between Ballarat Rd and Kinnear St was recently sold for $60 million and is set to be redeveloped.

Plans for 200 apartments were approved on Tuesday night, Maribyrnong Mayor Catherine Cumming told reporters on Thursday.

She showed reporters an artist’s impression of the redevelopment.

She said her thoughts went out to the friends and family of the victims who were tragically killed.

“This is a powerful reminder of the ongoing issue of homelessness in our city and indeed across the nation,” she said.

Site owners R & F Estate was “saddened and distressed” about the loss of life.

“R & F is co-operating with emergency services and other authorities to identify the background to the tragedy and any measures required on the site,” a spokesman said.

George Christensen uses final hours as whip to push 18C reform

Rogue government backbencher George Christensen has warned that any inaction on watering down race-hate speech laws would be a “fundamental breach” of faith with the Coalition base.

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Mr Christensen accused the Turnbull Government of offering “nonsense” arguments for not acting on the issue of Section 18C, which outlaws speech likely to offend or insult someone based on their race.

“We should repeal, or at the very least amend, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act sooner rather than later,” Mr Christensen said in a statement.

His broadside prompted a fierce response from his party’s leader, Barnaby Joyce, who slapped down his “good mate” and said changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were not “paramount” in the minds of those in rural Australia.

“I’ll go up and talk to the cane farmers and say, ‘look, fellas, I was going to try and sort this out but apparently I’m going to talk about 18C. Now you haven’t looked it up so Google it’,” Mr Joyce said.

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Treasurer Scott Morrison joined Nationals MPs in declaring that changing race-hate speech laws aren’t a major issue for most Australians because the issue doesn’t create one job or extra hour of work.

“Neither does the Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform Bill, but we’re still doing that,” Mr Christensen said.

On Tuesday Mr Christensen quit as the National Party’s chief whip, forfeiting an additional $26,000 a year, because he felt his “outspokenness” on a variety of issues was “incompatible” with the party position.

“I did feel some of my colleagues may have been aggrieved that the enforcer of discipline was being somewhat ill-disciplined himself,” Mr Christensen said on Tuesday.

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He’s been replaced in the role by Nationals colleague, and Federal Member for Murray, Damian Drum.

“I would like to thank George Christensen for the excellent work he has done as chief Nationals whip,” Mr Drum said.

“I am thrilled and honoured my colleagues have put their trust in me and put me forward for this role.”

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Insight: Minority Report. Who gave a major boost to the minor parties in the Federal Election and why?

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Labor asks AFP to investigate minister

Labor has asked federal police to investigate whether the minister responsible for Centrelink broke the law in sharing private information without consent.

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Opposition MP Linda Burney has asked the AFP to investigate whether Human Services Minister Alan Tudge acted illegally in releasing an individual’s personal Centrelink details to the media.

“The actions of Mr Tudge are reckless and immoral at best and illegal at worst,” Ms Burney told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

“Did he respond through political vindictiveness or did he respond to correct the record in light of the Social Security Act?”

The minister quickly responded, saying information he provided to the media was approved by his department’s chief lawyer to correct false assertions from the individual involved.

“If unanswered, accusations of this kind may have the effect of diminishing public confidence in (public institutions),” Mr Tudge told AAP.

Ms Burney’s referral came hours after Centrelink bosses, appearing before a Senate estimates hearing, were grilled about sharing private client information with the media.

Human Services head Kathryn Campbell said the agency could release information to “correct the record” in a bid to maintain integrity and confidence in the system, and had done so for many years.

Centrelink bosses agreed an individual’s personal information handed to a journalist last week was protected information, saying it was run by the minister’s office first and provided under lawful exemptions.

The same exemption had been used many times.

Releasing the information was “essential” for retaining public confidence in the welfare system.

“The only information which we are able to release is information which is specifically to correct the record,” Human Services staffer Jonathon Hutson told senators.

“Information concerning an individual which has not been made otherwise public is not released and has not been released in this circumstance.”

Ms Campbell said the person involved made a number of unfounded claims which could have a knock-on effect.

“It was in the opinion of officers that this was likely to concern other individuals, that they may see this and think that they too had erred and not met their commitments.”

Ms Campbell also backed the welfare agency’s controversial debt recovery system.

She said “data-matching” in debt recovery is nothing new and almost half of recent complaints aired in the media have nothing to do with Centrelink’s automated system.

Ms Campbell conceded about 6600 people learned about money owed to Centrelink through debt collectors.

But the number was far short of the “hundreds of thousands” reported in the media and the agency was now using registered post and other measures to avoid problems with its debt letter mailouts.

It was also confirmed Centrelink staff trawl social media for complaints about the welfare agency and may refer serious gripes to the responsible minister.

Senior bureaucrats responsible for Centrelink say their workers sift through print, broadcast and social media for individual complaints.

Deciding on whether to report grievances to the human services minister depended on the circumstances of each case.

Syria regime, rebels committed war crimes in Aleppo: UN

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Syria documented the violations in a report covering July 21 to December 22 last year — the regime’s five-month siege of eastern Aleppo, formerly the opposition’s key stronghold.

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“The scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented in the Syrian conflict”, COI chairman Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva.

The Syrian air force and its Russian ally “conducted daily air strikes” on Aleppo, an iconic city that was once the country’s economic capital but has now been reduced to rubble, the COI said.

There is conclusive evidence that Syrian aircraft dropped “toxic industrial chemicals, including chlorine”, the inquiry found. However, no information indicates the Russians used chemical weapons, it added.  

The bombardments saw hospitals, markets and residential buildings repeatedly hit.  

In a major new finding, investigators also said there was proof that Damascus was responsible for September 19 air strikes in Aleppo province that deliberately targeted a humanitarian convoy, killing at least 10 aid workers.

Civilians had ‘no option’

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has categorically denied responsibility for the bombardment in Urem al-Kubra and a separate UN probe in December said it was impossible to establish blame.

But after analysing satellite images, forensic evidence and other material the COI determined that “Syrian air forces targeted (the) humanitarian aid convoy”.

The evidence “strongly” suggests that the attack — which forced relief workers to pause deliveries of relief supplies — was “meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out” to hinder humanitarian work, according to the inquiry.

The Syria COI, set up in 2011 to investigate the most serious crimes committed in the country’s civil war, was asked by the UN rights council in October to specifically probe the battle for Aleppo.

The latest findings were released in Geneva, where the UN was also hosting regime and opposition delegations for faltering peace talks.  

Pinheiro voiced frustration that Assad’s government did not cooperate with the probe, even after he told Damascus “it was in their interest to have their narrative” included in the findings.

Investigators described Aleppo as a scene of “unrelenting violence” in which civilians in the rebel-held east and government-controlled west fell “victim to war crimes committed by all parties”.

The disparate rebel factions in Aleppo, including former Al-Qaeda-affiliate Fatah al-Sham Front, shelled civilians in western Aleppo and indiscriminately fired with no clear military target, the COI said.

Reprisals

As the opposition resistance was crumbling and civilians tried to escape, “some armed groups violently prevented them and used them as human shields”, the inquiry found.

The evacuation deal agreed between warring parties that marked regime’s victory allowed for civilians to move into western Aleppo or be transported to Idlib, an opposition stronghold in Syria’s northwest.

Those evacuations, which were observed by UN staff and the International Committee of the Red Cross, left civilians with “no option to remain”, the COI said.

“Such agreements amount to the war crime of forced displacement of the civilian population”, UN investigators concluded, stressing that the deal in Aleppo was made “for strategic reasons – and not for the security of civilians.”

The Aleppo fight was among the most horrifying episodes in a six-year war that has claimed more than 310,000 lives. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders described the city’s east as a “kill box.”

The battle began to decisively turn in the regime’s favour in late November, setting off a series of reprisal killings perpetrated by both Syrian soldiers and allied fighters.

“These included cases of Syrian soldiers killing their own relatives” who backed the opposition, and pro-government forces executing the wife and daughter of a rebel commander as they tried to enter western Aleppo, the report said.

Assad’s forces have reportedly been backed by Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi forces among others, but the COI did not decisively link individual militias to specific atrocities.