Suicide bomber claim probe

The government is taking seriously media reports that hundreds of bombers have been dispatched around the world with orders to attack countries that support Israel, such as Britain, the US and Australia.

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The plot is believed to be funded in part with cash donations from two unnamed Australian-Indonesian businessman.

“I can tell you that the minister for foreign affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs are investigating what is reported in the papers today and we are treating it very, very seriously,” said Human Services Minister Joe Hockey.

But Australia had been a terror target for some time, he said. “That has no impact in so far as these people have targeted us for a long period of time,” Mr Hockey said.

“You only need to look at Bali and that was before any major escalation of the conflict in Lebanon and Israel. We are a target, we always have been a target and we will be for a very long period of time.”

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said the threat was a new one that warranted concern. “I am concerned that this has sprung up without earlier evidence of action between the (Australian and Indonesian) governments,” he said.

The Asian Muslim Youth Movement (AMYM) claims it has thousands of jihadists who are prepared to join the fight against Israel.

The Australian newspaper reports that about 200 of these supporters will be immediately sent to attack Jewish targets in countries that support Israel.

AMYM leader Suaib Bidu said his group would also be closely monitoring Australia’s reaction towards Israel’s current military occupation in southern Lebanon.

More Australians evacuated

Australian Ambassador to Lebanon, Lyndall Sachs, said the number of Australians registered with the Australian embassy in Beirut had grown to several hundred, prompting the federal government to resume its rescue operation.

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Ms Sachs said they had chartered a ship to evacuate citizens who made it from southern Lebanon to Beirut during a lull in fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

But the ferry leaving about 3pm local time (2200 AEST) will probably be the last one chartered by the Australian government.

Thirty Australians who escaped from towns along the Lebanese border with Israel on Tuesday will be leaving on the ferry.

She said there were still many Australians who remained in the country’s south.

“There were a large number of people down south about whom we had very serious concerns, and we still have serious concerns about those people,” Ms Sachs told ABC radio.

“We think that we have around about 170 Australians in the south of Lebanon who have been unable to depart.”

The ferry could be the last vessel chartered by the government, as hostilities intensify in Lebanon after a 48-hour limited reprieve on Israeli air bombardments expires.

Ms Sachs said there were many Australians who had chosen to remain behind in Lebanon because they had no family or support in Australia.

“It is a very difficult and traumatic situation for these people,” she said.

“To up sticks even when it seems very difficult here, and to go back to a country where they may not necessarily have family or community support, can be quite a challenge for them.

“It’s a tough decision for these people to make and I can understand why people have deferred it until it becomes impossible for them to stay.”

Ms Sachs said the rescue operation had been difficult from the start because Australia did not have resources in the area.

“We don’t have the assets in the region that many other countries do,” she said.

“So obviously we weren’t able to gear things up as quickly as countries who do have large military assets in the region were able to do so.”

She said they were also hampered by competition for buses and boats to help evacuate the Australians from the area.

“It was the competition for the scarcest resources, really that was our biggest challenge,” she said.

“Prices skyrocketed … a bus normally costs about $US350 ($A460) to hire and we were quoted prices of up to $US10,000 ($A13,100) a bus.”

Ms Sachs, who took up the role as ambassador three-and-a-half months ago, said the Australian embassy would remain open for as long as it possibly could.

Census crosses new frontiers

The 15th national poll is a chance to quiz Australians on everything, from internet access in their home to religion.

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The Census aims to take a “snapshot” of Australia every five years – collecting information on the social, economic and housing characteristics of society.

More than 13 million census forms have been handed out over the past fortnight.

The scope of the survey is vast and does not only include people in mainland Australia.

Hundreds of thousands of forms will be completed from new frontiers.

A special census collector will board Spirit of Tasmania II, which will sail across Bass Strait from Melbourne to Devonport tonight, to distribute census forms to travellers.

Researchers at Australia’s Antarctic bases will fill out their forms online.

The eCensus option will allow the researchers and IT-savvy Australians to submit their survey on the internet for the first time.

National head of the census, Paul Williams said “Testing suggests approximately 10 per cent of the population, or around 800,000 households, will complete their census form online.”

National statistician Dennis Trewin said he was happy, but a little nervous, about how the eCensus will go.

“Even though we’ve tested and re-tested our system and we’ve made sure it’s very, very secure, that is something in the back of my mind,” said Mr Trewin. “But we’re confident it will go according to plan.”

Mr Trewin is urging Australian youth in particular to make sure they are included.

“Young people may not realise that the mere fact of being counted in the Census can make a difference to their lives.”

Collectors will be returning to pick up forms over the next week and failure to take part will attract a penalty of up $110 a day until the census is completed.

Government MPs cross the floor

The MP’s who opposed the legislation were Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judy Moylan.

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A fourth dissenting Liberal MP, Bruce Baird, appears to have heeded Prime Minister John Howard’s plea to abstain from the vote rather than side with Labor.

Despite the three MP’s opposition to the bill, it passed the lower house and will now go to the Senate where it’s expected the legislation will go to a vote next week.

The government has a slim majority of one in the Senate.

Liberal senator Judith Troeth has signalled that she will follow the lead of Mr Georgiou, Mr Broadbent and Ms Moylan and cross the floor.

The legislation could also face opposition from Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce.

Family First undecided

Meanwhile Family First senator Steve Fielding has emerged from talks with Mr Howard, saying he is still undecided about how he will vote on controversial immigration laws.

Senator Fielding met with Indonesian ambassador Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb in Canberra this morning and said today he and his wife would meet with the Papuan community tomorrow to hear their views, but he still had not made up his mind about whether to support the bill when it reached the Senate.

He also insisted he would not do a deal with the government to secure his vote.

“Family First does not do deals,” Senator Fielding added.

The government drafted the new immigration legislation after Indonesia complained about Australia’s decision to grant asylum to 42 asylum seekers from the contested Papua province earlier this year.

If any two of three senators – Troeth, Joyce and Fielding – voted against the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill in the Senate, the vote would be tied and therefore lost.

This morning, Mr Howard said the government was not contemplating any further amendments to get the legislation through the Senate.

Worst Telstra result in 9 yrs

Australia’s largest telco reported a 26 per cent fall in annual net profit to $3.

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181 billion, from $4.31 billion in the previous year.

Chief executive Sol Trujillo said Telstra was “taking the tough medicine” as it makes new investments and provisions as part of a three to five year plan to restructure the group and embed long term value for shareholders.

“We are executing our transformation with a sense of urgency, we have momentum, we are showing results, and the results are promising,” he said.

Revenue fell 2.6 per cent to $22.838 billion, although the company still expects that rate of decline to ease over the next four years.

“As foreshadowed in our plan, we expect revenue growth of between two per cent and 2.5 per cent compounded annually between now and 2010,” Telstra said in a statement.

Full year earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) fell 20.7 per cent to $5.497 billion although the decline was at the better end of telco’s guidance.

Mr Trujillo said EBIT is expected to grow between four to six per cent this year although EBIT excluding transformation costs would be flat to down two per cent.

Telstra incurred significant costs of $1.126 billion during the year, relating to redundancies and the restructuring program announced last year, as pressure on its margins increased.

It also pointed to an accelerating decline in its high margin PSTN or fixed line revenue.

PSTN revenue fell 6.7 per cent to $7.478 billion in the year to June 30, 2006.

But mobiles revenue rose by 6.1 per cent to $4.972 billion, broadband revenues grew 64.5 per cent to $1.191 billion and advertising and directories revenue rose 7.9 per cent to $1.711 billion.

“With our next generation networks, we are putting in place the infrastructure to reduce our reliance on our traditional fixed line revenue streams and to grow our mobiles, internet and other next generation revenues while reducing the costs of operations,” Telstra said.

Telstra maintained its final dividend at 14 cents per share, taking the total dividend for the year to 34 cents, from 40 cents in 2004/05.

Senate to decide asylum fate

Three Liberal Party backbenchers – Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan – defied Prime Minister John Howard and crossed the floor in the House of Representatives to vote against the hardline policy.

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The Liberal Party colleague Bruce Baird abstained from the vote as did National Party MP John Forrest, who subsequently quit his position as the chief Nationals whip because of his decision.

The defiance from the government backbenchers was ultimately fruitless and the bill passed 78 to 62.

But it sets the stage for the Senate debate next week, when at least three crucial votes remain in doubt.

Senate position unclear

Liberal Party senator Judith Troeth openly opposes the government’s plan to send all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat offshore for processing.

She has not committed to crossing the floor, or abstaining, but sat in the public gallery of the House of Representatives to watch her fellow dissidents oppose the bill.

Senator Troeth needs the support of just one coalition colleague or Senator Fielding to tie the vote and have the bill thrown out.

National Party senator Barnaby Joyce has also refused to rule out crossing the floor.

Prime Minister John Howard has held discussions with Senator Fielding, but both were silent on the details of their discussion.

Senator Fielding says he will not sell the government his vote on the bill in exchange for promises on other legislation and policies. “Family First does not do deals,” he told reporters.

He holds a crucial position in the upper house where the government has a majority of one, but he was elected with just 1.9 percent of the primary vote in Victoria on the back of preferences from Labor, the coalition, and minor parties.

He says he has not yet decided how he will vote ahead of a meeting with representatives of the Papuan community, which he will attend with his wife.

He was also given an audience with Indonesian ambassador Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb.

Indonesia has been pushing hard to have the new legislation brought in because of the influx to Australia of asylum seekers from the Indonesian province of West Papua.

The government’s policy shift in April followed a diplomatic row with Indonesia when Australia granted 42 Papuans asylum.

Ceasefire swings into force

It’s the first step in a process that includes the deployment of a 15 thousand strong UN force.

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But just before the truce took effect Israeli warplanes struck a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee camp killing one person.

The truce, follows a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to hostilities, which was passed unanimously on Friday after weeks of diplomatic wrangling.

However, it is a fragile ceasefire with the Israeli army saying it will continue to maintain an air and sea blockade of Lebanon until there is a system to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel has also said its troops would return fire if they came under attack.

Just hours after the ceasefire the first casualty – a Hezbollah fighter was killed in southern Lebanon in clashes with Israeli troops.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government, although approving the ceasefire resolution, has postponed indefinitely a meeting on disarming Hezbollah.

Hours earlier

Just hours before the ceasefire Israel launched an 11th hour bid to crush Hezbollah with waves of deadly air strikes while Shiite fighters unleashed a barrage of rockets.

More than 30 Lebanese civilians were killed as warplanes kept up their deadly bombing while five Israeli soldiers were also killed in action.

UN-Lebanese force

Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s Deputy Secretary General, said it might take a month before a joint UN-Lebanese force was fully in place.

“It’s going to be weeks, not days and may even, before you hit the full total, be a month or so,” he told the BBC.

Israel meanwhile has urged the world to apply the UN resolution firmly, warning that Hezbollah must be dismantled and the Lebanese army quickly deployed in the south.

Bloodshed

Israeli air strikes continued until minutes before the truce began.

In one of the deadliest raids over the weekend, at least 10 people were killed and 20 wounded by Israeli air strikes that hit eight buildings and a mosque in Beirut’s southern suburbs, emergency services said.

Israel’s army estimates it’s killed 530 Hezbollah guerrillas during one month of fighting in Lebanon and has released the names of 180 whose deaths it says have been verified.

However, Hezbollah has acknowledged only a few dozen dead during the conflict.

Peace activist’s son killed

Meanwhile the Israeli army said that Uri Grossman, the son of prominent Israeli author David Grossman, was among the 24 Israeli soldiers killed in combat on Saturday, just days after his father urged his government to reach a truce.

It was the highest single-day toll since the war began on July 12.

UN resolution

The UN resolution, unanimously adopted Friday by the Security Council, calls for a full cessation of hostilities and the deployment of a 15,000-strong international force in southern Lebanon.

Morocco, Indonesia, Italy, Turkey, Spain and Malaysia have already agreed to send troops to bolster the UN force there but Australia is still to make a decision on whether to take part.

The UN resolution also calls for the release of the two captive Israeli soldiers whose seizure on July 12 triggered the conflict, and for a solution to the issue of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

While approving the resolution, the Lebanese cabinet expressed reservations that it did not go far enough in condemning the large-scale Israeli destruction and that it failed to address the issue of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa farms.

September election for Qld

Mr Beattie, who has been premier since 1998, said he would have preferred to wait until February to hold the election, but that the pending retirement of an MP due to ill-health meant his government would have had to face either a by-election or call a statewide poll.

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He said he had chosen the latter because it was in the best interests of the state, not the interests of his party, “The timing of this general election couldn’t be worse for the government.”

The Labor government holds a 16 seat majority in Queensland’s 89 seat parliament, but it has battled controversies recently, including a crisis in the public hospital system and the dwindling supply of water.

An opinion poll published last weekend gave the Nationals-Liberal coalition a two percentage point lead over Labor on primary votes. Labor has lost three seats in by- elections over the last 12 months.

Leadership

Mr Beattie said he would he would remain leader of the Labor party only if he won this election.

“I will remain as leader of the party as long as my party wants me to… If we lost, I wouldn’t remain as leader,” he told a news conference.

Mr Beattie also took a swipe at his opposition – the National and Liberal parties, saying its leadership is weak. “If you look at the alternatives, they do not have the unity to provide any certainty and they will not be able to deliver their policies because they will be fighting one another.

“You all know, because you have covered the elections, they actually hate one another more than they hate us,” he told reporters at the conference.

Coalition leaders

Meanwhile, Queensland’s coalition leaders have refused to spell out who would become premier if Labor is ousted at the poll if the Liberals take more seats than the Nationals.

The National Party is the traditional senior party of the coalition in Queensland – they currently have 16 MPs to the Liberals seven.

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg confirmed that if the Nationals remained dominant, he would be premier in a coalition government but when asked would not go into detail about what would happen if more Liberals than Nationals were elected.

“Internal working issues between two parties are always matters that are internal working issues,” Mr Springborg told reporters.

Liberal leader Dr Bruce Flegg, who took the leadership only last week declared that the coalition’s position was clear.

“Lawrence is the leader of the coalition and the alternative premier,” Dr Flegg said.

Mr Springborg said the election was about leadership, “Leadership is about running on your record – it’s not about running away from your record.”

“This government is running away from its record on health .. water and roads.”

The coalition has also promised to deliver four new dams within 12 months if it wins the election, using state owned land to speed up the process, instead of the Beattie government’s proposed two new dams which are being held up by environmental concerns.

Tributes for Vietnam veterans

Today is the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan in which 108 Australian soldiers fought a Viet Cong force that outnumbered them 10 to one.

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The battle, in torrential rain in a rubber plantation south east of Saigon, left 18 Australians dead and 24 wounded.

August 18 is now Australia’s annual Vietnam Veterans Day.

‘Best characteristics of soldiers’

Mr Jeffrey, himself a veteran of the war, told a service at the Australian War Memorial that Long Tan displayed the best characteristics of Australian soldiers.

“This epic struggle reinforced traits for which Australian soldiers have become world-renowned – courage and determination, mateship and teamwork, leadership and tenacity, compassion and humour,” he said.

“It further reinforced our international reputation as a skilled exponent of the profession of arms.”

‘Inadequate recognition’

In parliament yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard said Australia had “collectively failed” to give adequate recognition to the 50,000 Australians who fought in the unpopular war.

Later today, at the main Vietnam Veterans Day commemorative service at the Vietnam War Memorial in Canberra, Mr Howard drew parallels between Long Tan and the western front battle of Fromelles 90 years ago which claimed 5,500 Australian casualties.

Mr Howard told the service he recognised the psychological strain suffered by many Vietnam veterans from an unpopular war.

Earlier, former defence force chief Peter Cosgrove told the Nine network that Australian society had failed to address the feelings of isolation and alienation suffered by thousands of Vietnam veterans.

General Cosgrove, who was a platoon commander in Vietnam, says the failure of society to recognise the psychological effects of the veterans’ public vilification for fighting an unpopular war had to be addressed.

‘Country’s shame’

Mr Jeffrey said it was “to our country’s shame” that it did not recognise its Vietnam veterans until the national welcome home parade in 1987.

“We honour those who did not return and those who returned hurt in body or mind,” he said. “None should ever be forgotten. None will be forgotten, nor indeed will the families and loved ones who supported us.”

The Governor-General told the hundreds of veterans who attended the war memorial they should be proud of their service.

“Be proud of what you achieved and hold your heads high in the knowledge that you were the equal of the very best that ever went away to serve our nation, from the Boer War to the present day, and that you did indeed make a difference,” Mr Jeffrey said.

“Let us never forget.”

Stem cell comments draw ire

Health Minister Tony Abbott, a strong opponent of so-called therapeutic cloning, yesterday accused scientists of peddling false hope to sufferers of chronic diseases without offering convincing evidence.

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They were some of Mr Abbott’s strongest comments on the issue as MPs head towards a conscience vote on overturning the four-year-old ban on therapeutic cloning – the creation of embryos to produce stem cells.

West Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer, a former GP, said Mr Abbott had done himself a disservice.

“There’s a lot of inaccuracies, misinformation and the usual hysteria you get generated against something that’s pretty simple,” Dr Washer told ABC radio.

“I think if you don’t have a reasonable argument, you tend to run to the irrational and hysteria and the scare tactics.”

Mr Washer also described Mr Abbott’s warning of the creation of possible human-animal hybrids as “sensationalist”.

Meanwhile Professor Ian Frazer, who was named 2006 Australian of the Year for developing a vaccine for cervical cancer, said while he advocated an overturning of the ban, the health minister was entitled to his opinion.

Professor Frazer told Southern Cross Broadcasting: “I think that one of the problems with scientists is that you spend a lot of time basically peddling hope because once you know the thing works you don’t bother to go out there to try and promote it any more, you get out there and use it,” he said.

“While we’re still trying to find out what stem cells can be used for then clearly we have to go out there and talk about the potential of the research work, otherwise we won’t get any funding.”

Abbott entitled to view: Howard

Prime Minister John Howard has refused to condemn Mr Abbott’s comments, insisting he had the right to express his views, telling ABC radio: “It is right to have a free vote and Tony Abbott should not be restricted in what he says just because he’s the health minister”.

“What happens in these debates is that you do tend to look at them through the prism of your own prejudices and you do tend to see a strong expression of the opposite view as being ill-tempered and that moderate views are those that accord with your own,” he said.

“That’s the nature of these debates, but I’m quite sure the Liberal Party, in it’s normal, mature fashion, will have an open debate on this and there’ll be a range of views, they’ll be put passionately.”

Accusations of facts being distorted would happen on both sides of the argument, Mr Howard said.

Mr Howard said he had yet to make up his mind on the issue and acknowledged concerns about Mr Abbott’s views.

Cabinet rejected an expert committee’s recommendation to overturn the ban on therapeutic cloning in June, but Mr Howard bowed to backbench pressure and promised his MPs a conscience vote a week ago.

Two senators are preparing private members’ bills that aim to end the ban on therapeutic cloning – Democrat Natasha Stott Despoja and Liberal Kay Patterson, a former health minister.