Likely court overturn of marriage survey

The Turnbull government could be forced to come up with a Plan C on same-sex marriage within weeks, as controversy reins over a new “no” case advertisement.

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The High Court will next week hear a challenge to the government’s plan for a postal survey on changing marriage laws.

The voluntary survey was Plan B after the Senate blocked the compulsory plebiscite promised by the coalition at the 2016 election.

Constitutional expert George Williams said he expected a quick answer to whether the government had the power to spend money on the survey without legislation having passed parliament.

“It is facing an uphill battle in this case, with its position running counter to line of High Court authority,” Prof Williams told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“Over a series of recent decisions, the High Court has found that the federal government generally requires parliamentary approval to spend taxpayers’ money.”

The government found the $122 million needed to run the survey by using laws to make an advance payment to the finance minister in circumstances where there is an urgent need for spending and the situation was unforeseen.

Same-sex marriage advocates who are taking the matter to the court argue the spending does not fit the category of either “urgent” or “unforeseen”.

“How could this expenditure be said to be unforeseen at the relevant date of May 5, 2017, when the government had a long-standing policy of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage?” Prof Williams said.

“Overall, I would be surprised to see the government emerge with a victory.”

The advocates are also arguing the survey falls outside the powers of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which has been asked to roll it out instead of the Australian Electoral Commission which usually runs referendums and elections.

If the survey is found to be unconstitutional, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will face a choice of doing nothing further on same-sex marriage this term, allowing a private member’s bill to go to parliament or having another shot at passing the plebiscite bill.

However he has repeatedly promised not to change marriage laws without the Australian people having a say and could face the ire of coalition conservatives if he departs from that.

Meanwhile, Labor has described as hurtful and offensive an ad featuring three mothers highlighting their concerns about how the marriage law changes will effect what is taught and promoted in schools.

One of the women featured on the commercial tells viewers her son had been told he could wear a dress to school next year if he wanted to.

However, the principal of the Victorian high school from which the mother withdrew her children said the offer to students “never happened”, Fairfax media reported.

Assistant minister Zed Seselja said the mothers were simply putting the case their ability to object to “fairly radical sex education in schools” would be harder if marriage was redefined.

Storm want to send Cronk out as NRL winner

Will Chambers says Melbourne will do their best to ensure they give departing halfback Cooper Cronk a fitting farewell in his last regular-season NRL match at AAMI Park.

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The Storm host Canberra on Saturday night with the club preparing for a massive occasion. It will be Cronk’s final home-and-away game and captain Cameron Smith will equal Darren Lockyer’s record of 355 games.

Smith will also accept the JJ Giltinan Shield for the Storm winning the minor premiership.

After 14 seasons with Melbourne, Cronk remains undecided on his playing future but is moving to Sydney for personal reasons and Chambers says the team want to perform well in honour of him.

They are set to host a finals match in week one but want this last regular match to be one to remember.

“I don’t think he wants much done – Cooper shies away from it and he just wants play good footy and wants everyone to perform,” Chambers said.

“I know that the boys will give it their best for Cooper this weekend because he’s been a big part of this club for a long time.

“Everyone always talks about the big three. Well, he’s the first of them to go.”

While Cronk’s on-field contribution speaks for itself, Chambers says the Test halfback has given so much to the club and to him.

“He’s been a big mentor to me; he’s the ultimate professional and he’s got an open heart,” Chambers said.

“Any new players who come here, he takes them out to dinner and he gets to know everyone.”

Chambers moved in with Cronk when he arrived in Melbourne as an 18-year-old and said he had taught him about professionalism and having a positive outlook.

“Cooper turned up every day with a smile and that’s what I took away and tried to keep.”

Approvals show housing sector resilience

Building approvals fell by a less than expected 1.

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7 per cent in July, and economists are confident housing construction is on track for a gradual easing.

Weakness in approvals for apartments dragged down overall activity in July, though the decline was less than the five per cent fall economists had been expecting.

CBA economist John Peters said the numbers indicate more resilience than markets had anticipated.

“Today’s residential approvals outcome is consistent with our medium-term view that that the widely anticipated decline in residential construction over the next two years will be gradual and protracted rather than something sharp and painful,” he said.

Approvals for private sector houses remained nearly steady at 9,743 in July, continuing the stabilisation seen in recent months.

However, the ‘other dwellings’ category, which includes apartment blocks and townhouses, slipped 6.7 per cent to 8,080, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said.

An increase in total dwelling approvals in June was revised to 11.7 per cent, but over the 12 months to July approvals are down 13.9 per cent.

The data reinforces figures released by the Housing Industry Association on Tuesday, which showed overall new home sales fell by 3.7 per cent in July, led by significantly fewer new apartments being sold.

The renewed weakness comes amid tighter lending conditions and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s warnings about the rising levels of housing debt.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority capped interest-only mortgage lending on March 31, telling lenders to limit higher risk interest-only loans to 30 per cent of new residential mortgages.

That set off a fresh round of rate increases by the major lenders, with banks repricing their loan books to make interest-only and investor loans more expensive.

The Australian dollar jumped after the release of the approvals data, and figures showing a sharper than expected increase in construction work done in the June quarter.

The local currency was trading at 79.89 US cents at 1545 AEST, up from 79.67 US cents ahead of the release of data at 1130 AEST.

Rohingya, others caught between fighting, border

Rohingya Muslims and others fleeing towards Bangladesh to escape violence in western Myanmar are facing the twin dangers of sickness and exile.

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A series of attacks on security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last week, allegedly by Rohingya rebels, has triggered a mass migration by villagers.

Over a hundred people have been killed in the clashes, most of them militants but also including civilians and members of the security forces.

Still, authorities in Bangladesh are trying to stop people and send them back into Myanmar.

People caught in between, like this woman Win who fears the Rohingya militants, say they cannot go home.

“I will not live there again, even if someone gives us gold or money. I will live if there are no more Muslims. I will not live at all if there are Muslims. I feel bad from my heart. My husband was also killed, as they slit his neck.”

This Rohingya woman, identifying herself only as Begum, says the Rohingya fleeing the violence have no choice either.

“In Myanmar, they are killing us. They burn our houses, killing Muslims, and, because of that, we have come here. They rounded us up with helicopters, looted our belongings, chasing and killing our men. They killed many people. So we came here.”

Conflict has simmered since last October, when a smaller series of Rohingya militant attacks on security posts prompted a fierce military response.

Myanmar’s national security adviser, Thaung Tu, has condemned the latest violence by the militants.

“It is a crime against Myanmar citizens. It is a crime against your country. It is crime against civilised nations that cannot be accepted by the civilised world.”

The United Nations has focused on the fighting in the area, issuing a plea that civilians be allowed to seek shelter.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, says the recent events can be put down to years of civil-liberty breaches.

“I utterly condemn the violent attacks on security personnel, which have led to the loss of many lives and the displacement of thousands of people. Unfortunately, what we feared appears to be occurring. Decades of persistent and systematic human-rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”

Bangladesh border guards reportedly have sent about 550 Rohingya back to Myanmar.

Still, more than 8,700 have registered in Bangladesh since late last week.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots that go back centuries.

 

Trump visits Texas as storm damage grows

Tropical storm Harvey is not going anywhere fast, the slow-moving nature of the storm causing further havoc and catching authorities by surprise.

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Thousands of people across the state have been affected by the intense weather conditions, which have brought the city of Houston to a standstill.

Among the dead is a Houston police officer.

The city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, relayed the news in an emotional press conference.

“This morning at 8am, the dive team was out there again, which was their number one priority, and, within 20 minutes, they found him. Unfortunately, in the darkness, Sergeant Perez drove into an underpass that’s about 16-and-a-half feet (5m) deep, drove into the water, and he died in a flood drowning-type event.”

Residents in Texas’s south-eastern Harris County were told to leave as workers released water to alleviate pressure on reservoirs built to handle drainage waters.

They had begun to overflow.

The Pentagon, which would usually be in recovery mode by this stage, says it is instead preparing for further calls for help as the storm continues to sit over the Gulf of Mexico.

Officials say shelters are struggling to cope with the demand, with the main shelter housed in a downtown convention centre at nearly double its capacity.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner has appealed for greater resources.

“The reality is that not only are we providing shelter for Houstonians, but we are also providing shelter for people who are coming from outside the city of Houston, who have been directly impacted by the storm. We’re not turning anyone away, but it does mean that we need to expand our capabilities and our capacity.”

At least one site south of Houston has had its rainfall record broken by Harvey, recording 1.25 metres of precipitation since the storm began.

Around 3,500 people have already been rescued in the Houston area, and police say they are seeing instances of looting.

The crisis has drawn comparisons to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when then-president George W. Bush faced criticism over his response as almost 2,000 people died.

Speaking in Corpus Christi, where Harvey first made landfall, US president Donald Trump says he wants to set a precedent for disaster management.

“This was of epic proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And I just want to say that working with the governor and his entire team has been an honour for us. So, Governor, again, thank you very much. And we won’t say congratulations, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to congratulate. We will congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”

Mr Trump planned to head next to the state’s capital, Austin, because he could not reach Houston in the hazardous conditions.

The United Nations says climate change could be responsible for the hurricane’s ferocity.

It says rising temperatures are likely to blame for increased humidity and heavier rainfalls.

Rebuilding efforts are expected to take years and cost billions of dollars.

Houston resident Jose Gonzalez says the mental scars will take longer to heal.

“It’s bad, man. It’s terrible. It’s really bad. The water is way … it’s almost, I want to say, up to my knees, just about, but it’s really bad over there. Nobody expected this.”