‘Heinous’ gas attack in Syria kills dozens

1. Syria
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Babies and children under the age of eight are some of the scores of victims of the suspected gas attack on civilians in Syria – the worst in the country in years. [Ellen Francis/Reuters] The UN security council meets on Wednesday.

The Syrian military denies using chemical weapons but the UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson says it bears all the hallmarks of an attack by the Assad regime and said it is a “war crime.” British Prime Minister Theresa May is calling for an investigation. [ITV News]

Just days ago the Trump administration, through its ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, said the focus of the US was no longer going to be on forcing Assad out.

But responding to the gas attack, White House Secretary Sean Spicer described it as “unacceptable” although claimed it was the result of Obama’s failure to make good on his word that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line”.

Spicer said it was in the best interests of the Syrian people that Assad no longer be their leader and said the attack was “heinous.” But he stopped short of saying what the US would do about it – saying he didn’t want to pre-empt the President. [Dan Merica/CNN]

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Republican elder John McCain, before ripping both Obama and Trump.

McCain wants Trump to arm the Free Syria Army and commit to having Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, removed. Unlikely. [Eugene Scott/CNN]

As I’ve covered here before, ‘s foreign minister Julie Bishop is at odds with Britain over the question of Assad insisting he has a role to play in the transition. [Catch up]

Will this attack change that view? 2. US politics

Photo: Evan Vucci

The Wall Street Journal has a story with potentially major implications for travellers to the US from allied countries, including . [Laura Meckler] [The n]

The Trump administration could extend its so-called extreme vetting of visitors to citizens from the 38 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program – yes that includes .

This could mean handing over your telephone to border security so they can see your contacts and text messages, your private Facebook and browsing activity. Sounds like a boon in the pre-paid cellphone market in the US for travellers opting to leave their phones at home.

In other news, the Trump administration has withdrawn funding from the UN Population Fund, the largest provider of contraception globally. [Fairfax] 3. Aus politics

Philip Lowe speaking at the Reserve Bank Board Dinner in Melbourne. Photo: Pat Scala

It seems every day there is a new credible voice lending weight to Labor’s calls to wind back negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. On Tuesday night it was none other than Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe blasting “taxation arrangements” and irresponsible interest-only loans for the skyrocketing price of housing in Melbourne and Sydney. [Peter Martin/The Age]

The budget will contain a plan to recoup $25 billion in the black and cash economy. [Nassim Khadem/The Sydney Morning Herald]

Scott Morrison deployed full “it’s the vibe” mode when asking those pressing for economic modelling on what sort of benefit the tax cut for businesses turning over up to $50 million would add to the economy, when he urged the pub test instead.

Michelle Grattan is particularly excellent on this. [The Conversation]

The Grattan Institute believes the boost could be worth as little as 0.2 per cent growth per year (for $24 billion cost). [James Massola and Eryk Bagshaw/Fairfax]

Not for the first time is Morrison proving to his colleagues that he was promoted out of his depth when Turnbull made him Treasurer.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis in the Senate at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

Gratts also has a scoop on the London appointment. Turnbull wants to send Attorney-General George Brandis to Stoke Lodge but is delaying the decision. Uh oh. [The Conversation]

The High Court is due to rule on Family First Bob Day and whether he is an eligible Senator. [ABC]

Preference Whisperer Glenn Druery claims he’s stopped Pauline Hanson from claiming even more seats in numerous elections, including recently in Western . [David Lipson/Lateline] 4. UK politics

Theresa May says like Winston she prefers “jaw-jaw” over “war-war” but the situation involving Gilbraltar became a little more serious on Tuesday when the government of the overseas territory said the Spanish navy made an illegal foray into its waters. Illegal incursion into #British#Gibraltar Territorial Waters by Spanish Navy patrol ship Infanta Cristina this afternoon. #BGTWpic.twitter苏州夜总会招聘/IkYadi8XNn??? HM Govt of Gibraltar (@GibraltarGov) April 4, 2017 Photo: AP

More is known about the motives behind the St Petersburg metro terror attack.

The perpetrator has been named as a 22-year old male from Kyrgyzstan linked to radical Islamist groups. [Fairfax] 6. Spotify premium

I haven’t used iTunes since I switched to Spotify about four years ago and almost instantly decided premium was worth the ad-free and mobile experience.

Spotify has 100 million users (half subscribers) but is loathed by sections of the music community including popstars Beyonce and Jay-Z who bought rival service Tidal (and then memorably tried to promote it as though it was some kind of social movement, by encouraging their club of mega-rich musician pals to turn their social media profiles blue accompanied by the cringeworthy hashtag #TidalForAll.)

The stars complain their music is streamed for what amounts to be a pittance in royalties, leading to some to boycott Spotify entirely (like Taylor Swift) while others delay the release of their albums on the platform to boost sales and downloads (like Adele.)

Adele performs at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, . Photo: Graham Denholm

Now Spotify, which still operates at a loss, has signed a deal with Universal music to stream new albums for two weeks to its premium customers before all tracks are released to general users.

Spotify hopes to sign deals with Sony and Warner, ahead of a stock market flotation. [BBC]

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‘Mr Probity’: the ethics adviser scrutinising the land titles sell-off

Former NSW Mining Minister Ian Macdonald found guilty of misconduct in public office leaves court, Sydney. 30th March, 2017. Photo: Kate Geraghty Photo: Kate GeraghtyThe man hired to cast his ethical eye over the land titles registry privatisation is the same person who once declared former mining minister Ian Macdonald had “acted within [his] powers” when he gave a lucrative exploration licence to a friend.
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Fairfax Media can reveal the probity adviser on the Berejiklian government’s 35-year lease of Land and Property Information (LPI) is Rory O’Connor, managing director of professional services firm O’Connor Marsden and Associates (OCM).

Mr O’Connor, known as “Mr Probity” on Macquarie Street, has scrutinised several controversial deals of Labor powerbrokers, including the sale of Currawong union retreat and the Blackwattle Bay lease.

He attracted media attention after OCM concluded in a 2010 report for the Labor government that Mr Macdonald had “acted within the powers afforded to him” when he granted, without tender, an exploration licence to Doyles Creek Mining, a company chaired by union boss John Maitland.

When the O’Farrell government took power, it obtained a second opinion from Clayton Utz, which found OCM’s report was “deficient in several significant respects … specifically, it did not adequately review the conduct of the minister”.

In 2013, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found Mr Macdonald had acted corruptly by “gifting” the licence to Mr Maitland out of a “desire to benefit his mate”.

Now, Mr Macdonald is facing jail time after a Supreme Court jury last week found him guilty of criminal misconduct in relation to the Doyles Creek deal.

The Berejiklian government is expected to announce this week the consortium that has won the right to operate LPI – a monopoly provider of essential titling and registry services – for the next 35 years.

A leaked Treasury document shows Mr O’Connor has been hired to “ensure the procedures adopted in the [LPI] transaction are fair, equitable and conducted in accordance with the established probity framework”.

The Labor opposition is attempting to repeal the legislation enabling the LPI lease, saying fees will increase, jobs will be sent offshore, and title insurance will be forced upon home buyers. Blackwattle Bay marina

Fairfax Media can also reveal Mr O’Connor conducted a “probity quality assurance review” of NSW Maritime’s 2009 decision to award the tender for a maritime development on the Blackwattle Bay site to Joe Elias, an associate of the family of former Labor minister Eddie Obeid.

The tender was presided over by then Labor ports minister Joe Tripodi and then NSW Maritime’s CEO Steve Dunn. Mr Tripodi appointed Mr Dunn to his position at the behest of Mr Obeid.

Mr O’Connor found “no evidence of inappropriate processes or activities or that any party was unfairly discriminated against or given advantage over another”, according to Roads and Maritime Services.

However, it is worth noting ICAC has since found Mr Tripodi, Mr Dunn and Mr Obeid had acted corruptly in an unrelated matter – the Obeid family’s Circular Quay leases.

Mr Elias’ Blackwattle Bay development never happened, and with the Berejiklian government’s $250 million plan to build a new Sydney Fish Market, he is in for a windfall. Currawong union retreat

Mr O’Connor also wrote a probity report on Unions NSW’s 2007 sale of its Currawong holiday retreat to Eco-Villages, whose directors were Allen Linz and Eduard Litver. KWC Capital Partners, founded by David Tanevski, brokered the sale.

Amid outrage that Currawong didn’t go to the highest bidder, Labor MP John Robertson asked Mr O’Connor to do a probity report and review the relationship between Mr Tanevski and Mr Linz.

Mr O’Connor’s report failed to ascertain that Mr Linz owned half of KWC Capital Partners and failed to note that Mr Linz, Mr Tanevski and Mr Robertson had been in business together.

Later, he said there was “no provision in the agreement” to disclose Mr Tanevski and Mr Linz’s business relationship.

He told Fairfax Media at the time that he was unable to explain these anomalies as he no longer had access to his working files, but could confirm the work was conducted in “good faith”.

The Currawong sale returned to the spotlight when ICAC found that in the dying days of the Labor government in March 2011, then land department chief Warwick Watkins and then planning minister Tony Kelly had acted corruptly in backdating a letter to allow Mr Linz to sell Currawong to the government. Concerns rejected

Mr O’Connor, a probity practitioner with more than 20 years’ experience, told Fairfax Media that OCM was a leader in its field and a member of state and federal probity panels.

In regards to the “interim” Clayton Utz report, he said he had significant issues with its content and quality.

“Indeed Clayton Utz acknowledged that they did not have access to the briefing papers and instructions provided to OCM, which obviously also limited the extent to which they were in a position to assess our work,” he said.

Mr O’Connor said following the report, OCM’s accreditation was reviewed and reaffirmed.

He said OCM won the LPI contract through a competitive tender process.

“We are surprised that anyone would [have concerns about our involvement], and reject any such concerns,” he said.

A Treasury spokesperson said the government conducted a competitive tender process in accordance with strict government procurement processes.

“The current probity advisers … are taken from a panel that are required to undergo an extensive evaluation process to ensure they have the integrity, capability and experience to represent the state on these matters,” she said.

Opposition Leader Luke Foley said it beggars belief the Berejiklian government would rely on Mr O’Connor to run the rule over the integrity of the LPI privatisation.

“Nothing about this sale makes sense and that is why of all of this government’s privatisations, flogging off our safe and secure land titles system is the single dopiest,” he said.

Read letters to the editor concerning the LPI privatisation on December 5, December 10, February 3, March 14, March 29, April 3 and the Herald’s editorial.

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Melbourne University to offload Sturt Street car park site

Melbourne University has moved to offload a large vacant site in Southbank now used as a public car park as it seeks funds to build the new home for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music nearby.
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The university has placed a 4176 square metre plot on the market at a time of peaking demand in the property cycle when developers are pushing hard out on the CBD’s fringes.

The site at 268 Sturt Street, located behind a small nature reserve on the corner of Sturt Street and Kings Way, is used as a public car park.

Land in Southbank typically fetches around $7500 per square metre.

A site of that size in Sturt Street could fetch up to $30 million, a significant boost for the university, which faces construction of its new $105.5 million Melbourne Conservatorium of Music this year.

Melbourne University announced last year it would begin building the conservatorium after gaining a lease extension from the state government and a $3.5 million grant for a site next to the Melbourne Recital Centre and Southbank Theatre at the other end of Sturt Street.

Colliers International’s Trent Hobart, Bryson Cameron and Brett Griffith have been appointed to market the site by Charter Keck Cramer, which has acted on behalf of the university.

The university has extensive inner city campuses and is one of the central city’s largest landholders.

Its director of campus strategy Long Nguyen said the Sturt Street site was surplus to the university’s needs and its sale would help fund future projects.

“After assessing our current portfolio and project pipeline, along with the buoyancy of the current development market, we determined that the capital value of this asset could be strategically reallocated into future projects,” Mr Nguyen said.

The proposed sale of the car park follows BRW Rich Lister Lloyd Williams offloading the Southbank premises of his property development outfit Hudson Conway at 250 Sturt Street to a mainland Chinese company for $11 million.

Mr Williams had wanted to develop a 40-storey residential tower on the 832 square metre site, a proposal rejected by planning minister Richard Wynne before a scaled-down 16-level apartment was subsequently approved.

A super site nearby in South Melbourne sold this March for $41 million to the Langer family’s GLG Group.

Private owner Aviation Consolidated Holdings sold the 4641 square metre property, opposite South Melbourne market, which was on 10 separate titles, bounded by Cecil, York, Northumberland and Market streets.

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Netanyahu investigators hoping for chat with globe-trotting Packer: reports

As NSW gaming authorities conduct a probity check on James Packer ahead of his planned return to the Crown Resorts board, the news from overseas is not getting any better for the billionaire casino mogul.
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An Israeli investigation into lavish gift giving to its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been extended as the police have been unable to interview key figures including Packer, according to reports from Israel.

Reports state the graft investigation, which was meant to be completed by now, will continue for another two months as some judicial inquiries abroad still haven’t been carried out. This includes setting a date to question the globe-trotting Packer.

Mr Packer declined to comment on the reports, and there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on his part.

The long-running investigation by Israeli authorities is into the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Netanyahu’s family, and alleged benefactors such as Packer who have funded the acquisition of champagne, cigars, fine clothes and jewellery.

In the case of Packer, this reportedly includes luxury holidays and hotels for the PM’s family, as well as free tickets to concerts given by his then fiancee, Mariah Carey.

Israeli state employees and elected officials are forbidden from accepting gifts, but Mr Netanyahu has characterised the items in question as personal gifts from friends.

Packer has a home in Tel Aviv, which has the Netanyahu family as a neighbour – as well as long time Packer family friend, Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan.

“Spending time with Arnon and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been an amazing eye-opener for me and it reinforces how lucky we all are in ,” Packer told The Daily Telegraph in 2015.

According to earlier reports, Milchan recruited Packer to help fund the gift giving after tiring of the demands from the Netanyahu family.

The reports, from what has been a heavily leaked investigation, state that Netanyahu was questioned by police investigators for a fourth time, last week.

It comes on top of Packer’s China woes, with the ongoing detention of 14 Crown staff. The China crisis triggered a sweeping restructure of his gambling empire and a retreat to the safer shores of .

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Rates on hold amid increasing concern about house prices

The Reserve Bank of has held the cash rate steady at 1.5 per cent for the 12th consecutive month amid growing pressure for it to increase rates to contain soaring house prices.
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The futures market is pricing in no change in rates until late 2018, when there will be an increase.

In the year to March 31, Sydney home prices climbed 18.9 per cent, Melbourne prices 15.9 per cent and the average of capital city prices 12.9 per cent.

In the past week, both the n Prudential Regulation Authority and the n Securities and Investments Commission have announced tighter rules and increased supervision of banks’ lending to investors in an effort to contain the growth in lending to investors to 10 per cent.

In a statement released in Melbourne as the board meeting concluded, governor Philip Lowe said growth in household borrowing, largely to purchase property, continued “to outpace growth in household income”.

“By reinforcing strong lending standards, the recently announced supervisory measures should help address the risks associated with high and rising levels of indebtedness,” he said.

“Lenders need to ensure that the serviceability metrics that they use are appropriate for current conditions. A reduced reliance on interest-only housing loans in the n market would also be a positive development.

“Conditions in the housing market continue to vary considerably around the country. In some markets, conditions are strong and prices are rising briskly. In other markets, prices are declining. In the eastern capital cities, a considerable additional supply of apartments is scheduled to come on stream over the next couple of years. Growth in rents is the slowest for two decades.”

Dr Lowe is also expected to address the question of house prices on Monday night in an unusual televised address to an RBA board dinner in Melbourne.

CoreLogic head of research Tim Lawless the board was stuck “between a rock and hard place”.

“They aren’t likely to push rates higher just to quell housing market exuberance; doing so could push inflation lower and the n dollar higher as well as cancel out some of the much-needed stimulus that many sectors of the economy are benefiting from,” he said.

“On the other hand, the bank would be loath to push rates lower out of concern for adding further fuel to an already overheated housing market.”

Dr Lowe said the economy was continuing its transition following the end of the mining investment boom with recent data consistent with ongoing moderate economic growth.

“Most measures of business confidence are at, or above, average and non-mining business investment has risen over the past year,” he said.

“At the same time, some indicators of conditions in the labour market have softened recently. In particular, the unemployment rate has moved a little higher and employment growth is modest. The various forward-looking indicators still point to continued growth in employment over the period ahead. Wage growth remains slow.”

On the announcement, the n dollar slipped from US76.04?? to US75.80??

UBS economist George Tharenou said there was not enough change in the outlook to shift the RBA’s “neutral” stance.

“They see an improved global backdrop … and moderate domestic growth, which is now coupled by an elevated focus on household leverage,” he said in a note.

“However, the RBA has already shown a clear willingness to use further macro-prudential tightening, rather than the ‘blunt stick’ of rate hikes.

“Indeed, as inflation remains “quite low”, and the labour market “softened recently”, they are showing little near-term urgency (in contrast to prior cycles) to back away from a record low cash rate.”

ANZ Research’s Felicity Emmett said the RBA was clearly concerned about the risks from rising household debt, but its comments around domestic inflation and wage growth were little changed.

“On balance, we expect that the combination of persistently low inflation and strong house price growth is likely to keep the bank on hold for a prolonged period,” she wrote.

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