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Archive for March, 2019

   Mar 13

Audit office highly critical of government funding for WestConnex

Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher at the opening of a part of WestConnex last month. Photo: Louise Kennerley The compulsory acquisitions of homes in Sydney’s inner west for WestConnex has been highly controversial. Photo: Peter Rae
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A $2 billion loan for Sydney’s new WestConnex motorway from the Coalition government failed to achieve its key goal of fast tracking the project’s second stage by two years, the National Audit Office has found.

Instead, completion of the 11-kilometre New M5 as part of ‘s largest tollroad project is less than six months ahead of its original completion date of mid-2020.

In a report highly critical of the federal government’s funding of the $16.8 billion motorway, Commonwealth Auditor-General Grant Hehir also found that upfront payments and altering milestones for later support “did not adequately protect the n government’s financial interests”.

His report, released on Tuesday, was particularly scathing of funds being paid in advance of the project’s needs.

Advice before a $500 million injection of Commonwealth funds in 2014 “identified that a payment of that magnitude was not yet required”, it said.

The $500 million was part of $1.5 billion in direct funding from the federal government for the 33-kilometre motorway.

The Audit Office has calculated that the extra cost to the government of providing the money before it was actually needed has amounted to about $20 million since 2014.

The report said a decision in May 2014 by the then Abbott government to pay the $500 million in advance led to the motorway project being approved without “any documented analysis and advice to ministers that the statutory criteria for giving such approvals has been met”.

Furthermore, three other milestone payments totalling $1 billion were designed in a way that “did not adequately protect the n government’s financial interests”.

“Advice to ministers did not adequately identify or quantify the costs and risks associated with providing a concessional loan,” the report said.

In contrast to the direct funding, the $2 billion concessional loan was made as part of an agreement with the NSW government.

The report said there was evidence the loan was “not needed to accelerate the second stage” of WestConnex.

The interest on the loan was also well below the market rate, the cost of which the Audit Office has estimated at at least $640 million.

And because the rate is fixed, the report said the government was “exposed to interest rate risk”.

Anthony Albanese, federal Labor’s transport spokesman and the sitting member for Sydney’s inner-city seat of Grayndler, accused the government of spending billions of dollars on toll roads with “no evidence as to whether they represent value for money”.

However, the Audit Office’s report noted that both the Coalition and federal Labor made commitments to funding WestConnex before the business case for the project was finalised in NSW in 2013.

And it said the decisions by both major parties to provide support at the early stages of the project were “inconsistent with the advice” from both Infrastructure and the Department of Infrastructure.

Federal Major Projects Minister Paul Fletcher said the report was a “useful reminder of Labor’s hypocrisy on WestConnex”, while he highlighted that its only recommendation was for the Department of Infrastructure to improve advice for any future loans.

Newtown Greens MP Jenny Leong said the report showed that the rationale for funding WestConnex was “deeply deficient”.

And in again calling for construction of the motorway to be halted, the WestConnex Action Group said the Audit Office had confirmed that billions of taxpayer dollars were “placed at unnecessary risk”.

It is the second time Mr Hehir has released a report critical about elements of the project.

In his previous role as NSW’s auditor-general, he released in 2014 a report into WestConnex that concluded it was not able to “form a view on whether the project is a worthwhile and prudent investment … for the NSW government”.

WestConnex has been controversial in Sydney’s inner west where a large number of properties have been compulsorily acquired to allow for its construction.

The NSW government has made clear that a priority ahead of the next state election in 2019 will be selling the benefits of the three-stage project to voters in western Sydney.

As part of a Cabinet reshuffle last month, Premier Gladys Berejiklian appointed Penrith MP Stuart Ayres to the new role of Minster for WestConnex. One of his first challenges will be overseeing the reintroduction of tolls on a widened 7.5-kilometre section of the M4 motorway, the first part of WestConnex to be opened to traffic.

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   Mar 13

Cory Bernardi, Ian Macdonald want to boot former PMs off Life Gold Pass

Cory Bernardi wants former PMs booted off the Life Gold Pass Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Senator Ian Macdonald Photo: Andrew Meares
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Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott would lose access to their taxpayer-funded business-class travel under changes being pushed by both rogue Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald and government defector Cory Bernardi.

Senator Macdonald – who made national headlines last week when he defended parliamentary entitlements, saying politicians are not particularly well paid – has written to party leaders to flag amendments to his own government’s bills to abolish the Life Gold Pass and establish a new independent expenses authority.

In the letters, Senator Macdonald says he will seek to scrap an exemption that gives ‘s former prime ministers continued access to the notorious pass, which entitles them to 10 free business-class return flights a year.

If that fails, he will seek to limit the pass to prime ministers who served a certain number of years in the top job – meaning short-serving prime ministers like Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott would likely lose out.

Senator Macdonald has not made it clear whether he will cross the floor if his amendments fail.

Senator Bernardi – who quit the Liberals last week to form his own conservative party – has proposed similar changes. He says no prime minister who serves less than a single term should get the perk.

“We have had a revolving door of prime ministers,” Senator Bernardi told the ABC. “I do not know why anybody who serves for less than four years in the job of prime minister should receive access to a gold pass.

“We need to clean up Canberra and this is a step in that direction.”

Senator Bernardi said he did not co-ordinate his amendments with Senator Macdonald but is “happy to work with anyone to get the positive policy outcomes ns expect and need”.

The changes are set to attract the support of the Greens, with leader Richard Di Natale declaring parliament should get rid of the gold pass “rort” altogether.

“We should have politicians leading by example and there is no more important role model in the n parliament than the prime minister,” he said.

Senator Macdonald will also seek to widen the scope of the entitlements authority to include all people who have their “remunerations or emolument directly or indirectly paid by the n taxpayer”, including public servants and judicial officers.

Senator Macdonald – who is paid a salary of $200,000 a year as a backbencher – was one of two Coalition MPs who used a partyroom meeting last week to speak against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s entitlements crackdown.

The Life Gold Pass once offered former MPs unlimited travel at taxpayers’ expense. Changes in 2002 limited that to 25 return flights a year and further changes in 2012 limited it to 10 return flights.

The Gillard government scrapped it for any MPs elected after 2012.

Under Mr Turnbull’s plan it will now be fully abolished for all but former prime ministers and their spouses. Mr Turnbull says he will not use it.

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   Mar 13

Conman Peter Foster moved $32 million offshore in sports betting fraud: police

Peter Foster – photographed in 2003 – is accused of defrauding an investor of $1.5 million through a sports betting company. Photo: Darren England Peter Foster with British model Samantha Fox.
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Serial conman Peter Foster was the alleged “decision maker” at a sports betting company that defrauded a least one investor of $1.5 million and funnelled $32 million into offshore accounts.

Police are now trying to trace and freeze at least some of those millions following the notorious fraudster’s arrest on the Gold Coast on Friday.

Foster is accused of falsely using the alias “Mark Hughes” in 2013 as he encouraged a South African-born investor to deposit money into accounts, including one offshore, supposedly associated with Sports Trading Club.

After a weekend in a Queensland watch house, detectives escorted Foster on Monday on a flight bound for Sydney, where he is facing seven fraud offences.

The 54-year-old didn’t come up from the cells when his case was mentioned briefly in Waverley Local Court on Tuesday morning.

His chequered history, including time spent behind bars and spruiking bogus weight loss products, is unlikely to favour any future bid he makes for bail.

Foster, who lives between Byron Bay and the upmarket Sovereign Island in Queensland, was part of the weight loss scam SensaSlim. In 2005 he was banned from having any involvement in the industry.

During the 1980s he persuaded topless model and pop singer Samantha Fox and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, to promote his product Bai Lin tea, which falsely claimed to promote weight loss and wellbeing.

The most recent allegations involve Foster calling himself “Mark Hughes” as he allegedly encouraged a man from Western to invest in STC in 2013.

After seeing an advertisement in a newspaper, Foster’s alleged victim contacted STC, spoke with Foster and made an initial deposit of $150,000 in February, 2013, police allege.

The man was in daily contact with Foster and travelled to Sydney for a meeting with STC.

However when he got to the offices in May, 2013, STC staff were there but Foster was not, instead calling in via Skype.

After watching his investment grow significantly through the STC online account, the investor deposited more money.

In June 2014, the man travelled to STC offices in London for meetings about investing in the purchase of a licence for STC to operate in South Africa.

Police allege Foster wasn’t there in person but called in via a Skype video call.

Foster is accused of convincing the alleged victim to deposit $1.1 million into a Hong Kong account – Bella Developments Pty Ltd – to purchase the licence.

The man coughed up another $200,000, deposited in the STC Westpac account, after Foster “demanded” further payment, police allege.

The scheme began to unravel in August, 2013, when the director of STC sent the investor a message referring to a man called Peter Foster.

An internet search revealed a video of Foster and the victim matched that to the man he knew as Mark Hughes.

The man had deposited more than $1.5 million into STC and the Hong Kong accounts, but has not seen a cent of that money since.

Police allege another investor recorded a conversation with Foster – using the name Mark Hughes – in 2014.

This audio was used to compare to interviews Foster did with the ABC and helped police identify Foster as the conman.

Police allege that since it started, $32 million had been deposited in the STC Westpac account, with most of that funnelled into offshore accounts, court documents show.

Proceedings are underway in the NSW Supreme Court to freeze $10 million in two Hong Kong accounts after deposits were made from the STC Westpac account, based in Sydney.

It is alleged in court documents that Foster was the decision-maker in relation to STC’s activities.

Despite his history, Foster told Southport Magistrates Court on the Friday following his arrest that he was a changed man.

“My past is bad I admit, but even God can’t change the sins of the past,” Foster said from the dock.

“I’m not the person I was 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”

His case will be mentioned in Central Local Court in April.

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   Mar 13

Michael Flynn a dramatic early casualty in Donald Trump’s administration

Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming National Security Adviser, listens during the presidential inaugural Chairman’s Global Dinner, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Photo: Evan Vucci Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, at the White House during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At left is National Security Adviser Michael Flynn; at right is Steve Bannon. Photo: New York Times
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Michael Flynn has been under pressure over his contact with Russia. Photo: Carolyn Kaster

Washington: Donald Trump’s embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late on Monday, a dramatic early casualty in an administration hobbled by security chaos and confusion and a firming sense that the administration and its intelligence agencies are openly at war.

Flynn was left with nowhere to turn after being caught out – he lied to Vice-President Mike Pence, insisting that he had not discussed the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December, prompting Pence to defend him publicly.

But US intelligence had monitored Flynn’s call and provided a transcript to the White House.

It was a final bittersweet moment in an ugly and escalating war between Flynn and the combined US intelligence agencies. Flynn, and his boss the President, have repeatedly taunted the agencies as incompetent – but on Monday those same agencies were probably patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

Administration officials said Pence, always sceptical of Flynn’s usefulness, had told others in the White House that he believed Flynn lied to him.

The retired general’s departure makes him one of the shortest-serving senior security officials in US history. His withdrawal as a keynote speaker at a special operations forces banquet on Monday night was a straw in the wind after days in which Trump refused to express confidence in him.

His ignominious resignation comes amid reports that the US intelligence agencies now withhold sensitive intelligence from their presidential briefings, a follow-on from earlier inside accounts alleging that those agencies had taken to advising their foreign counterparts not to share intelligence that they could not afford to have revealed by an administration that leaks like a sieve.

In his letter of resignation to Trump, Flynn defended himself, claiming his intention was to “facilitate a smooth transition” and that he was trying “to build the necessary relationships” for the new administration.

“Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice-President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador,” Flynn wrote. “I have sincerely apologised to the President and the Vice-President, and they have accepted my apology.”

Speaking on background, a senior White House official told reporters that Flynn walked – Trump did not push him. The National Security Council’s chief had quit, he said, because of “the cumulative effect” of damaging news coverage about his communications with the ambassador.

Flynn’s position was further eroded by a report on Monday, in The Washington Post, that in late January, then acting attorney-general Sally Yates told the White House that in misleading Pence, Flynn had left himself open to Russian blackmail – and that the outgoing national intelligence and CIA directors had agreed with her assessment.

The Trump administration can now expect to come under pressure for having stood by Flynn in subsequent weeks and, seemingly, not to have acted on the Yates warning.

On Monday, the White House sent conflicting signals on Flynn’s fate.

Spokesman Sean Spicer said that Trump was “still evaluating” the revelations on Flynn’s call to the ambassador and his subsequent efforts to conceal the nature of the conversation. Working from a completely different song sheet, White House counsel Kellyanne Conway insisted during an appearance on MSNBC that Flynn “does enjoy the full confidence of the President”.

By some accounts, there is ambiguity in the transcript of the Flynn-Kislyak conversation. But that Flynn made the call feeds a deep distrust of him in particular, and the Trump administration in general, over their as-yet unexplained close dealings with Moscow, which include a paid appearance by Flynn at a December 2015 event in Moscow, hosted by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today cable channel – at which Flynn was honoured with a seat at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dinner table.

As Flynn resigned, The New York Times reported that he was also under investigation by the US Army over the payment for his Moscow appearance which, if proved, may be breach of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars former military officers from receiving money from foreign governments without congressional approval.

“[Flynn’s] unpardonable sin was hanging the Vice-President out to dry,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said.

Flynn’s struggle to survive coincides with a raft of seemingly well-sourced reports, from inside the administration and the agencies on a presidential transition wracked by unprecedented chaos and distrust.

Flynn’s National Security Council is described as anxious and chaotic – as staff struggle to make policy sense of Trump’s tweets while looking over their shoulders as their loyalty is questioned over multiple leaks.

In reconfiguring the NSC, Trump has increased the military staff numbers, many of them Flynn acolytes, meaning that greater emphasis is given to military solutions than to diplomatic. At the same time, the NSC standing of the military and intelligence chiefs has been downgraded and the executive order by which Trump appointed Bannon to a permanent NSC post had to be re-issued to ensure that Trump’s new CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, had the same standing.

The intelligence agencies’ refusal to issue a security clearance for one of Flynn’s senior deputies was read in some quarters as payback for Flynn’s charges that the agencies’ work on Russia, in particular, was inadequate and politically motivated – but Pompeo backed the agencies’ decision.

Flynn, who was sacked by the Obama administration from his job as chief of military intelligence, has also seemed out of his depth, revealing surprise on being informed that both the State Department and Congress had key roles in deciding foreign arms sales and technology transfers. Apparently he was of the belief that Trump could unilaterally agree new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A CNN report on Friday said intelligence sources had confirmed the veracity of much of the content of what has been described as the “dodgy” dossier – the explosive 35-page report by a former senior British intelligence agent.

Conversations between foreign nationals as described in the dossier did take place – and those involved were known to US intelligence to have been “heavily involved” in collecting information damaging to Hillary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump.

There has been no confirmation of the salacious aspects of the dossier – in particular, that Russia had a compromising “sex tape”, purportedly recorded when Trump was in Moscow in 2013.

Former NSC analyst and counter-intelligence officer John Schindler wrote: “I can confirm from my friends still serving in the [intelligence community] that [the intelligence] which corroborates some of the dossier, is damning for the administration. Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections – and they are starting to push back.”

Schindler quotes a senior Pentagon intelligence official who told him: “‘Since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the White House Situation Room – there’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,’ the official added in wry frustration.”

Flynn had a reputation for making dubious, ill-founded statements and for having no regard for documented facts. During his term as chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), from which he was sacked for managerial incompetence and poor judgment, his staff coined the term “Flynn facts”.

In December, Trump sacked Flynn’s son from his transition team for tweeting the bogus claim that Clinton and other senior Democrats were running a child sex ring through a Washington pizzeria – but he spared the father who also tweeted such nonsense.

On Monday night, the father copped it too.

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   Mar 13

Kids boost bottom line for childcare landlords Folkestone Education

Childcare centres are proving their worth to investors. The big-picture demand for childcare services is rising and Mayfield Childcare in Victoria thinks its time for a new entrant as it rolls 16 centres under one roof. Photo: Karleen Minney
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Parents, do you love and value your kids? Well you’re not alone, corporate does too.

The country’s largest ASX-listed childcare centre owner, Folkestone Education Trust, has been busy proving toddlers in their childcare centres have good monetary value as well as being, uhm, cute!

It reported Tuesday a 16 per cent rise in profits over six months to December last year, declaring a statutory profit of $69.1 million up from $59.5 million the corresponding previous period.

The childcare centre landlord has also been busy proving that the nightmare days of the collapse of ABC Learning under founder Eddy Groves are well behind the sector.

With a total of 402 properties in trust, it is just one quarter the size of its earlier, failed, counterpart while producing similar profits, highlighting the sector’s maturity.

The fund reported it had increased its development pipeline of childcare centres to 22 with a total value of $121.8 million.

“One development property was completed and commenced operations during the half year with a completion value of $9.3 million,” it said.

The group’s entire portfolio was valued at more than $792 million.

Over the six month period, Folkestone settled on two existing centres in NSW and Queensland and on six development sites.

It sold one property for $1.9 million on a yield of 7.8 per cent.

Market rent reviews continue to proved an extra boost to Folkestone’s annual rent growth, Shaw and Partners said in a note to clients.

Rent reviews and renewals gave the group a 4.9 per cent uplift and extended the portfolio’s WALE (weighted average lease expiry) to 8.5 years.

Shaw and Partners said it was a “clean result with no obvious surprises.”

“While acquisitions also remain a potential growth driver, the market remains competitive, with ‘cheap’ opportunities harder to find – (thankfully) management remain disciplined in their approach,” analysts said.

Gearing was up slightly to 27.4 per cent from 26.6 per cent midway through 2016 but still below management’s target 30-40 per cent range.

Folkestone will return a 7.1 cent distribution per unit to investors, an increase of 6 per cent and a result in line with the annual financial year forecast of 14.2 cents per unit.

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   Mar 13

How fast exactly? ACCC tackles confusion over broadband speeds

The ACCC will begin monitoring providers’ speed claims. Photo: Glenn HuntFinding it difficult to make sense of providers’ broadband speed promises? You’re not alone in , and the ACCC has promised to help.
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Recent research by the ACCC reveals that 80 per cent of fixed broadband consumers are confused by the jargon around speeds offered by retail service providers (RSPs) such as Telstra, TPG and Optus.

In the consultation of more than 400 participants, consumers suggested they want broadband speed information in a simple, standardised format so they can more easily compare providers.

The research was motivated by a 48 per cent increase in complaints to the ombudsman over fixed and mobile broadband speeds, which became the largest issue for complaints during 2015-16, the commission said.

“The ACCC is concerned that the use of vague speed claims is not providing consumers accurate, comparable, or useful information … causing a high level of complaints, confusion, and dissatisfaction,” chairman Rod Sims said.

The commission has published guidance principles and promised to consult further on the implementation of findings to help ensure RSPs don’t mislead consumers under n Consumer Law.

It has also said it will begin monitoring providers’ speed claims, with mixed responses from telcos.

In their submissions many providers were, unsurprisingly, not pleased with the prospect of intervention by the ACCC.

Telstra deemed the monitoring of its speeds unnecessary, instead suggesting accountability via a market solution, while TPG flatly opposed any regulation at all.

Other players in the industry, however, have been more welcoming.

“We are delighted that the ACCC has called the traditional telcos to account for fudging their internet download speeds. ISPs need a complete rethink and an “un-telco” approach,” said Luke Clifton, group executive at Macquarie Telecom.

The dissatisfaction among consumers comes amid growing unease around the NBN network roll-out.

At the start of the year, NBN removed speed guidelines from its website.

Since then, NBN providers have been less confident to specify available speeds when spruiking their services, further heightening confusion for consumers.

In response, Telstra announced it will begin publishing the speeds of its NBN service in April.

“Not all experiences are the same, not all NBN services are the same,” Telstra chief executive Andy Penn told News Corp recently.

“The industry should be publishing the speeds that they are delivering. What’s critical is that the industry comes along on that journey so there’s no game-playing.”

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