The Week in Brief: 14-20 January 2018

21 January 2018

The Week in Brief: 14-20 January 2018

US Government shuts down

Image credit: James Palinsad (Flickr) — CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

The US federal Government shut down at 12:01am on Saturday after the US Senate did not pass a spending measure to continue federal government funding before the midnight deadline.

The Senate voted 50-49 in favour of the measure (which passed the House of Representatives on Thursday and would have kept the government open to 16 February) but did not reach the 60 yes votes it needed to pass.

The shutdown came after Senate Democrats sought concessions on other issues, including protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, domestic spending, and aid for Puerto Rico among other measures.

A meeting with President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier on Saturday evening had given high hopes for a compromise, with Mr Schumer conceding to higher military spending levels and discussing funding for President Trump’s border wall with Mexico in exchange for immigration concessions.

However, disagreements arose between the two men on the length of the temporary spending measure to keep the US Government open and objections to deals made on illegal immigration.

The shutdown means that non-essential government employees are temporarily out of work; essential workers like national security workers and soldiers stay on the job.

Other essential services like electricity and trains will continue to run, most Medicare programs will remain operational, and National Parks will be kept open this time, after estimates that their closure during the last shutdown in 2013 cost $US500 million in lost visitor spending.


Bushfires in NSW and VIC brought under control

Image credit: Sally Langford (Instagram)

Bushfires that erupted in Sydney’s Royal National park amidst a day of high temperatures and fire bans have been downgraded to “Watch and Act” status.

The two out of control blazes were confirmed in the early afternoon on Saturday along the Sir Bertram Stevens Drive.

The blazes started with an estimated 1,000 people in the national park attempting to enjoy the beaches and rockpools in the area, with beachgoers at Little Garie, Garie, North Era, South Era and Burning Palms Beaches ordered to stay in place by the NSW Rural Fire Service, and many evacuated from the surrounding area.

A fire also broke out on Creswick Newstead Road near Smeaton, north-west of Melbourne, burning through 80 hectares of land. All three fires have been brought under control.

Total fire bans will remain in place in the Greater Hunter, Central Ranges, Noth Western and Southern Ranges areas in NSW today, as the mercury hits 30 degrees across the state.


China and Russia now main national security threat: Mattis

Image credit: Gleb Garanich (Reuters)

The US Secretary of Defence has stated that China and Russia – not terrorism – are now the United States’ main national security focus.

Former general James Mattis made the remarks during a speech at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to unveil the U.S. National Defense Strategy.

With Islamic State’s “physical caliphate” defeated, “great power competition” between “revisionist powers” like a militarily expanding China and an increasingly confrontational Russia is “now the primary focus of US national security”, said Mr Mattis.

Amid calls from the Defence Secretary for the US to work closely with allies and partners,  commentary has begun on Australia’s role in the change in focus, with the Government welcoming the new National Defence Strategy and keeping on track to increase defense spending by 2% of GDP by 2020.


NSW train strike still likely despite promising talks

Image credit: Andy Leung (Pixabay) — CC0 public domain dedication

Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) NSW secretary Alex Classens has said recent talks with the State Transport Minister Andrew Constance were positive.

Mr Classens said: “It was a respectful meeting. We worked collaboratively with the Minister to hear what his issues were [and] he listened to what ours were. Today he was really conciliatory.”

According to ABC News, Mr Claassens said the Transport Minister seemed committed to “try to resolve this mess, as we all are”.

“Nobody wants to have a total disruption of our transport network. The Minister showed us today that we all need to get on and fix this thing.”

However, despite this exchange of goodwill, a train strike seems to remain on the cards as the Government refuses to budge on the union’s demands.

The RTBU wants an annual pay rise of 6% for its workers over the next four years. The Government has so far said it will not increase its offer of a 2.5% annual pay rise.

The union also says recent timetable changes, which includes extra services, is running the workforce too thin.

If the 24-hour strike on January 29 goes through, over one million people who rely on NSW rail services everyday will need to find alternative transport, and will likely cost the local economy upward of $100 million.

Speaking to the press on Friday, Minister Constance said, “Over the next 48 hours we will continue to crunch numbers and work with the union leadership to finalise a package which can go back to the workforce and hopefully get a green light from them.”

He concluded by saying, “We are so grateful to our workforce. Our workforce, from our train drivers to our station staff, have lifted customer satisfaction by 10 per cent in the last six years. So that’s just an example of how hard the workforce is working.”


GOP Senator Jeff Flake compares Trump to Stalin

Image credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr) – CC BY-SA 2.0

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake likened President Donald Trump to Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin in a scathing speech delivered to the US Senate on Wednesday.

“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Sen. Flake said.

The speech heavily criticised the President’s attacks on the media, with Sen. Flake saying, “The president has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”

In response, Republican National Сommittee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted:

The speech came as President Trump announced his 2017 Fake News Awards.


Russians mark Epiphany with icy water plunge

Image credit: Kremlin.ru (website)

Despite parts of Russia dipping as low as -60°C, Epiphany celebrations went ahead as usual on 19 January with many Russians immersing themselves in holes cut into frozen rivers and lakes. Upon exiting, participants are blessed by a priest.

The day, which marks the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, is among the most important holidays in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the tradition at a monastery after a working visit to St Petersburg. The water reportedly no lower than -7°C.


Greens MP receives death and rape threats

Lidia Thorpe, the first female Aboriginal Member of Parliament in Victoria, has reported a number of threats made to her of both death and gang rape.

These were responses to her recent call for flags to be flown at half-mast on Australia Day, recognising the crimes that had been committed against the Aboriginal people on that day.

It comes as the #changethedate debate resurfaces with some calling it “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day”. The Greens Party are vocal supporters of the campaign.

While Thorpe appears to have been shaken by the threats, she isn’t backing down.

Ms Thorpe said, “This is not going to be tolerated and it’s not going to silence me. It’s going to make me more determined to put the message out there and to stand up as an Aboriginal woman.”


State of emergency in Jamaica: tourists advised to stay in resorts

Image credit: Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0

The Jamaican Government has declared a state of emergency for the parish of St James, following a steep rise in gang-related crime.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness said that the state of emergency is “necessary [to] restore public safety” in the parish, while Chief of Defence, Major General Rocky Meade, said that military forces would primarily be targeting gangs responsible for murders, fraud, arms trafficking and extortion.

St James parish includes the popular Montego Bay tourist destination.

The British Foreign Office has advised tourists to stay within the confines of their resorts, but has not outrightly warned against travelling.

The Australian Government has continued to advise travellers to exercise a high degree of caution throughout Jamaica.