Trump sours on Russia but not China, NATO

After less than three months in office, US President Donald Trump has abruptly shifted his stance on an array of foreign policy issues from the US relationship with Russia and China to the value of the NATO alliance.

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Trump, who ran for the White House on a pledge to shake up the status quo in Washington, repeatedly lashed out at China during the campaign, accusing Beijing of being a “grand champion” of currency manipulation.

During the campaign he also dismissed the NATO military alliance as obsolete and said he hoped to build warmer ties with Russia.

But at a White House news conference and in a newspaper interview on Wednesday, Trump offered starkly different views on those issues, saying his relationship with Moscow was souring while ties with Beijing were improving. He also lavished praise on NATO, saying it was adapting to changing global threats.

“I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” Trump said as he stood at a news conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House East Room on Wednesday.

The reversals on Russia and NATO could reassure US allies in Europe who were rattled by Trump’s overtures toward Moscow during the campaign. But the president’s talk of “bonding” with Chinese President Xi Jinping could sow confusion in Asia, where US allies are fearful of a rising China.

Trump’s apparent shifts toward a more conventional foreign policy came amid infighting within his administration that has lately seen a decline in the influence of political operatives, mainly his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Six months ago, candidate Trump suggested he was eager for an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said last September.

But on Wednesday Trump said he had growing concerns about Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia,” said Trump, who ordered the firing of U.S. cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield last week to punish Assad for suspected use of poison gas in Syria’s civil war.

While criticising Russia on Wednesday, Trump said he and Xi had bonded during the Chinese president’s visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where they dined together with their wives and held talks.

Ahead of that visit, Trump had predicted “difficult” discussions on trade.

The improving ties with Beijing were underscored when Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on Wednesday that he would not declare China a currency manipulator as he had pledged to do on his first day in office.

Trump, a former real estate developer, took office in January as a government novice whose foreign policy mantra during was a vow to keep America safe and build up the US military.

The evolving Trump foreign policy appears to reflect less of the influence of his campaign team and more the views of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, all of whom are deeply skeptical of Russia.

China stepping up on North Korea: Pyne

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne has welcomed China “stepping up to the mark” to pressure rogue state North Korea to behave itself.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to US President Donald Trump on the telephone overnight and has called for a peaceful resolution to the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Trump said on Twitter that Wednesday’s call with Xi, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, was a “very good” discussion of the “menace of North Korea”.

He later praised China in a news conference for sending coal ships back to North Korea under UN sanctions, and said he thought Xi wanted to help.

Mr Pyne said the responsibility to rein in North Korea mostly rests with China – “the Hermit Kingdom’s closest ally” since the 1960s.

“The Chinese Government has overnight stepped up to the mark and is putting pressure on North Korea to ensure it behaves itself,” he told reporters in Adelaide on Thursday.

Tensions have escalated on the Korean peninsula, with talk of US military action gaining traction following its strikes against Syria last week, while there are concerns the North may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test.

US warships at the weekend were diverted to Korean waters from a planned visit to Australia after the reclusive state launched a ballistic missile last week.

North Korea has warned it is prepared to respond to any aggression.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has labelled North Korea a rogue nation.

“There is not a cigarette paper of difference between (Malcolm) Turnbull and myself on this matter,” he said.

Global experts to study Syrian gas attack

Global chemical weapons investigators have gone to Turkey to collect samples as part of an inquiry into an alleged chemical weapons attack in neighbouring Syria that killed 87 people.

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The fact-finding mission was sent by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague to gather biometric samples and interview survivors, sources told Reuters on Thursday.

The toxic gas attack on April 4, which killed scores of people including children, prompted a US cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base and widened a rift between the US and Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his conflict with rebels and militants.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied using any chemical weapons.

Russian officials said the gas had been released by an air strike on a poison gas storage depot controlled by rebels.

Washington said that account was not credible and rebels have denied it.

Samples taken from the poison gas site in Syria’s Idlib governorate tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, the British delegation at the OPCW said on Thursday.

“UK scientists have analysed samples taken from Khan Sheikhoun. These have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance,” the delegation said during a special session at the OPCW in The Hague.

The UK result confirmed earlier testing by Turkish authorities that concluded sarin had been used for the first time on a large scale in Syria’s civil war since 2013.

The OPCW mission will determine whether chemical weapons were used, but is not mandated to assign blame.

Its findings, expected in three to four weeks, will be passed to a joint United Nations-OPCW chemical weapons investigation.

International investigators have concluded that sarin, chlorine and sulphur mustard gas have been used in Syria’s six-year-old conflict, with government forces using chlorine and Islamic State militants using sulphur mustard.

New Whopper ad triggers Google devices

Fast-food chain Burger King says it’s started televising a commercial for its signature Whopper burger that’s designed to activate Google voice-controlled devices, raising questions about whether marketing tactics have become too invasive.

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The 15-second ad starts with a Burger King employee holding up a burger saying, “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich. But I’ve got an idea. OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”

If a viewer has the Google Home assistant or an Android phone with voice search enabled within listening range of the TV, that last phrase – “Hello Google, what is the Whopper burger?” – is intended to trigger the device to search for Whopper on Google and read out the finding from Wikipedia.

“Burger King saw an opportunity to do something exciting with the emerging technology of intelligent personal assistant devices,” a Burger King representative said.

Burger King, owned by Restaurant Brands International Inc. , said the ad is not in collaboration with Google.

Google declined to comment and Wikipedia was not available for comment.

The ad, which became available on YouTube on Wednesday, will run in the United States during prime-time on networks such as Spike, Comedy Central, MTV, E! and Bravo, and also on late-night shows starring Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.

Some media outlets, including CNN Money, reported that Google Home stopped responding to the commercial shortly after the ad became available on YouTube.

Voice-powered digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon’s Echo have been largely a novelty for consumers since Apple’s Siri introduced the technology to the masses in 2011. The devices can have a conversation by understanding context and relationships, and many use them for daily activities such as sending text messages and checking appointments.

Many in the industry believe the voice technology will soon become one of the main ways users interact with devices, and Apple, Google and Amazon are racing to present their assistants to as many people as possible.

Greg Hunt rolls up sleeve for flu jab

Health Minister Greg Hunt has rolled up his sleeve to get the flu jab to launch this year’s national influenza vaccine program.

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Up to 170 Australians lose their lives to the flu each year, something Mr Hunt described as “a tragic outcome”.

Also volunteering for the flu jab on Thursday was a pregnant woman and an elderly man, both of whom fall into the high-risk category.

Only 29 per cent of pregnant women in NSW last year were vaccinated for the flu, according to NSW Health.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy has urged pregnant women to take advantage of the free flu vaccinations this year, stating the current uptake from this group is still relatively low.

“Influenza is a much more serious disease in pregnancy, not many women are aware of that, and it can be a significant disease in newborn babies so vaccination of a mother is two in one,” Mr Murphy said.

“The flu vaccination is very safe for expectant mothers and their babies and also provides protection in the infant’s early months,” Vicky Sheppeard, Director Communicable Diseases, NSW Health said.

Under the National Immunisation Program, the Turnbull government is providing 4.5 million free influenza vaccinations for people most at risk of contracting the influenza virus.

Eligible parties for free flu shots include people aged 65 years and over, most Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islander people, those who suffer chronic conditions and pregnant women.

People are being encouraged to vaccinate early in April so immunity can develop before winter. This will prevent transmissions of the virus during peak flu season around August.

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Hizb ut-Tahrir video condoning family violence under fire

The federal minister for women Michaelia Cash has condemned a Facebook video by Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir which condones domestic violence and describes hitting wives as “a beautiful blessing”.

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The 30-minute video was posted to the Facebook page of the controversial Islamic political movement.

It shows two women Reem Allouche, a Sydney primary school teacher, and Indian-born scholar Atika Latifi involved in a discussion, interpreting verses from the Koran to explain issues such as gender differences, leadership roles, and domestic violence. 

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“The third measure which is permitted, I want to make this point very clear that he is permitted, not obliged here or encourage, but permitted to hit her,” Ms Latifi says in the video.

“It’s very evident that this is symbolic in nature and it’s not as what people have understood or what people would like to have understood. This is the reality of the third disciplinary option.” 

The video was shot during an all-women’s event in Sydney’s west. 

Senator Cash said the attitudes promoted in the footage “have no place in modern Australia”.

“Domestic violence is abuse – plain and simple,” she said, adding that on average one women is murdered every week by a partner or former partner.

Watch: Cash critical of Hizb ut-Tahrir online video

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Labor’s shadow minister for women, Tanya Plibersek, has also condemned the video.

“”I think it’s very important to say again and again that men and women are equal,” she said.

“There is circumstance in which the man in the relationship gets to call the shots, to control the relationship.

“I think it’s very worrying that people might interpret the video as justification for domestic violence when domestic violence is always wrong. It’s always a crime.”

Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia’s media office has issued a statement on Facebook saying it understands “concern expressed from sections of our Muslim community” in relation to the video.

“We firmly believe that we, as a community, must not shy away from the clarification of Islamic injunctions, however controversial, let alone succumb to reinterpretations of Islam forced by liberal hounding,” the statement said.

“Nevertheless, there is a need to be sensitive to the environment in which we operate and the context in which we are speaking.

“When mud-slinging at Islam is the order of the day in an increasingly hostile West, more thought needs to be given to the question of purpose, worth and risk of sharing content online.

“We acknowledge our mistake in this respect in this instance. We would especially like to acknowledge in this regard sisters in our community involved in the domestic violence space and their advice on how things can be misconstrued on this topic and we thank them for their tremendous ongoing work.

“Domestic violence is an abomination that Islam rejects in the strongest terms.”

The statement also condemned the portrayal of Muslim women in the media.

Under Section 61 of the NSW Crimes Act  and similar legislation in all states says common assault is an offence in Australia, regardless of whether serious harm is done.

National domestic violence helpline: 1800 737 732 or 1800RESPECT. In an emergency call triple-zero.

– with AAP

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Gay apology goes a long way in Tasmania

Human rights and community groups have welcomed an apology from Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman to people previously convicted under the state’s historic and now-defunct anti-gay laws.

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The Liberal leader on Thursday told parliament he supports legislative change to expunge convictions for acts once considered a criminal offence, including gay sex and cross-dressing.

In 1997, Tasmania was the last Australian jurisdiction to scrap anti-gay laws and Mr Hodgman said the time was right to move further forward.

“Laws criminalising consensual homosexual activity and cross-dressing were unfair and unjust,” the premier said.

“We acknowledge that Tasmanians suffered as a result of these laws, which were repealed 20 years ago, and we apologise to those directly affected in this way, to their families and loved ones.”

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The words were echoed by leaders of the Labor opposition and state Greens.

Human Rights Law Centre lawyer Lee Carnie said the apology and expungement bill follows similar moves in Victoria, NSW and the ACT.

“This apology will help repair the harm caused by these unjust laws and moving forward sends a clear message to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people that they are valued members of the community,” she said.

Gay rights activist Rodney Croome congratulated Mr Hodgman on becoming the nation’s first Liberal leader to offer such an apology.

“It will help heal the damage inflicted by by our old laws, including blackmail, ostracism, ignominy, hate crimes and even sometimes suicide,” he said.

Up until 1997, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Tasmania were charged and convicted of offences ranging from sodomy and gross indecency to cross-dressing, with maximum penalties including up to 21 years in prison.

The subsequent life-long criminal record has affected job prospects, international travel and volunteering opportunities, the government noted.

“People should never have been charged or convicted … even if it was thought at the time it was the right thing to do, it was not,” Mr Hodgman said.

“We can’t change the past, nor can we undo that harm. We can apologise for it and we do so.”

Watch: Growing up gay and Arab in regional Australia

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Rio champ Chalmers learns harsh lesson

If anyone knows how Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers feels after learning a harsh lesson at the national swim titles in Brisbane, it’s the man who helped deliver it – Cameron McEvoy.

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Chalmers – just 18 – admitted to a poolside TV reporter he had found it difficult under the sudden spotlight after four-time champion McEvoy relegated him to silver in the 100m freestyle final on Wednesday night.

But McEvoy believed Chalmers would learn from his Brisbane experience and bounce back at July’s world titles in Budapest.

He would know.

McEvoy was the red hot 100m favourite at Rio but faded to sixth in the final as a then unheralded Chalmers surged to gold, prompting Australian coach Jacco Verhaeren to claim the dual Olympian had suffered “stage fright”.

A mentally stronger McEvoy emerged at this week’s national titles to fire an ominous warning to sprint rivals in Hungary.

He held out Chalmers’ trademark whirlwind finish to win in 47.91 seconds – the year’s fastest 100m time.

“From my experience it is a change going in as underdog and then having to race your next in the spotlight,” McEvoy said of Chalmers.

“It’s not something that is really instinctual to a human.

“It’s pretty hit and miss the first time you do it.

“But he is a quick learner and I am sure he would have soaked up as much experience he could.

“He might be perfectly fine for worlds.”

Asked if he was finally comfortable in the spotlight, McEvoy said: “I feel like I am.

“There was a pretty big build-up (for 100m) but I felt I held it together pretty well.

“Through the last 18 months I have learned a lot about how to approach things.”

McEvoy needed the newfound mental strength after his 200m freestyle final fizzer on Monday night.

The three-time defending champion was relegated to fifth, denying him an individual 200m berth at Budapest.

However, McEvoy regrouped to add a fourth straight national 100m title to his 50m freestyle crown sealed on the opening night in Brisbane.

“After the 200m I went home and thought about what I did in the 50m and how I had been feeling in the water,” McEvoy said.

“So it (200m finish) really didn’t make an impact on how I viewed the 100m.

“It’s a good lesson to kids watching – you can have a disastrous race and still turn around and come back and swim well.”

Turnbull slaps down super-for-housing push

Malcolm Turnbull is trying to shut down debate on allowing first home buyers to raid their superannuation for housing deposits ahead of a budget ‘razor gang’ meeting.

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The prime minister has previously described the proposal as a “thoroughly bad idea.

On Wednesday in India he dismissed this week’s debate, which has split coalition MPs, as going “round and round”.

“I’ve read all of the speculation. Standing here in Mumbai I won’t contribute to it, although I’ve expressed fairly strong views about it in the past,” Mr Turnbull told reporters.

Cabinet’s expenditure review committee is expected to examine a range of housing affordability measures on Thursday in Canberra after the prime minister returns.

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Cabinet minister Matt Canavan and former prime minister Tony Abbott have both backed the option of giving young home buyers access to their super.

But cabinet Minister Christopher Pyne says anyone seeking to “fiddle” with Australia’s superannuation system “are putting that at risk”.

“The is no evidence to suggest that if superannuation was able to be used for housing that would somehow bring house prices down,” Mr Pyne told ABC Radio on Thursday.

Acting Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has sidestepped the issue by pointing out that there is no housing affordability crisis in regional areas.

Labor and some crossbenchers have already labelled the superannuation idea “crazy”.

Prominent economist Chris Richardson said such a change would likely push housing prices up to one per cent higher.

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Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said either this “bad policy” will be chosen, or Treasurer Scott Morrison – who reportedly supports the idea – will be rolled.

“The Treasurer’s position just looks untenable from this position,” Mr Bowen told reporters in Sydney.

Labor supports limiting negative gearing, a policy change bluntly dismissed by the government.

Mr Bowen pointed to the latest statistics from the Australian Taxation Office to underline the case for reform.

They show the group of property investors who own at least five properties is growing at triple the rate of investors who own just one.

“Yet this government tells us that it remains the case that Australians need more support through the taxation system, through negative gearing to buy your fifth, sixth or seventh property than your first,” he said.

WATCH: Chris Richardson on China economic impact

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Australia needs to ‘keep its head down’ on North Korea: Bob Carr

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr says Australian politicians should not kid themselves that lecturing China over North Korea “does anyone any good”.

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Mr Carr told SBS News Australia instead needed to “keep its head down and to talk quietly to the United States and to China about what the options are”.

“China is concerned about North Korea, they don’t have to be told what a menace this mediaeval dictatorship is to the world and to China as its neighbour in particular,” he said.

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“Less lecturing of China and more engaging with China about what China recognises is a common problem.”

Mr Carr said Chinese nationalist media had recently been siding more with America and attacking North Korea, but he played down the influence China had over the rogue nation.

“We’d all like to think that there’s a magic button that China’s got to use, but it’s very difficult for the Chinese,” he said.

“The Chinese have got less influence over North Korea, even though it’s nominally an ally than they would have with any of the other 20 countries they call neighbours.

“China understands this is a rogue regime run by a murderous family according to mediaeval principles. They can’t view this regime with anything other but great suspicion and great irritation.”

Watch: Bob Carr on China’s influence over North Korea

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There are some calls for China to engineer an economic collapse in North Korea to bring the regime to its knees, but Mr Carr poured cold water on this idea.

“China could work hard at trying to bring about an economic collapse in North Korea, but that could take years,” he said.

“This is a very tough regime that has forced huge sacrifices out of its people in the past and is armed with nuclear weapons.”

Mr Carr said he found the Trump administration’s approach to China “encouraging” and said it was good for the world.

“They’ve got to share more with the Chinese and they achieve nothing by lecturing China on what China should do in respect to North Korea,” he said. 

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