Week in Brief: 11-17 March 2018

18 March 2018

Week in Brief: 11-17 March 2018

Story of the week

Russia-UK relations plummet sparking speculation of a Cold War 2.0

Relations between Russia and the UK have plummeted after the Kremlin did not meet a deadline to provide an explanation as to how a Soviet-made nerve agent was used in the attack on a former Russian double agent in England.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May directly blamed the Russian Government for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

During her address, Ms May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, the potential freezing of Russian state assets, new laws aimed at countering hostile foreign state activity and a ministerial and Royal boycott of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The Prime Minister said:

“[Russia’s] response demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. They have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent. No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom. No explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons program in contravention of international law. Instead, they have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”

In a press release on Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the expulsion of 23 British diplomats in response to Britain’s “provocative actions” and “groundless accusations”, and that the British Council has been shut down.

An agreement for the establishing of a UK Consulate General in St Petersburg has also been recalled by the Russian Government due to the “disparity in the number of the two countries’ consular missions”.

The statement said, “The British side is warned that in case of further unfriendly actions against Russia, the Russian side reserves the right to take further retaliatory measures.”

Russia continues to vehemently deny the allegations and has expressed a willingess to work with the UK in the investigation, but its request for a sample of the substance has gone unanswered.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The British Government has made a choice in favour of confrontation with Russia.”

Russian, UK and US diplomats sparred at an emergency UN Security Council meeting called for by Britain on Wednesday.

Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, reaffirmed his Government’s position.

“We demand that material proof be provided of allegedly found Russian trace,” Mr Nebenzia said, as cited by ABC.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the council to take, “immediate, concrete measures to address this now”.


Australia

Dutton sparks controversy over white Afrikaner farmers

Minister for Home Affairs Peter dutton has sparked controversy over comments he made about resettling white farmers from South Africa.

Mr Dutton ordered his department to investigate how to settle Afrikaner farmers from South Africa in Australia after watching television footage and reading articles that convinced him of the need to help the farmers.

“We have the potential to help some of these people that are being persecuted,” said the Minister. “People do need help and they need help from a civilised country like ours.”

The South African Foreign Ministry has asked the Minister to retract the comments, taking offence to the implication that Australia is a more “civilised” nation, and rejecting the concerns that the Afrikaner farmers were in special need of help.

Afirforum, the rights group that represents the Afrikaner community, has argued that the Afrikaner farmer community faces more violence than other citizens and thanked Mr Dutton for his comments, but said that they did not think the solution to the problem was for the famers affected to leave South Africa.

Mr Dutton’s comments have been supported by several conservative MPs, with Ian Goodenough, Andrew Hastie and David Lleyonhelm voicing their support for accepting the farmers.

The response more generally to the Ministers comments have been mixed, with Richard Di Natale of the Australian Greens condemning Mr Dutton as an “out and out racist” for supporting the plight of the white Afrikaner farmers over other minority groups seeking asylum.

Border Force Commissioner sacked after investigation concludes

Roman Quaedvlieg, the Border Force Commissioner, has been sacked after a 10 month review into his conduct.

Following investigations by the office of Prime Minister & Cabinet and Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, the Government decided to terminate Mr Quaedvlieg’s position, finding he did not disclose a relationship with his girlfriend who was seeking employment in the Border Force and misled the Immigration Minister about the relationship.

Mr Quaedvlieg had previously denied any wrongdoing, and had stepped aside from his position in May last year while the investigation continued.

On paid leave from his $617,000 a year job, Mr Quaedvlieg earned more than $500,000 over the course of the investigation.

A career police officer who had previously been the chief police officer of ACT Policing, Mr Quaedvlieg was the inaugural commisioner of the Australian Border Force when it started operations in 2015.

Royal Commission into Financial Services uncovers lax lending controls

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry began its first public hearings this week, with witnesses including executives from the National Australia Bank (NAB) and Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA).

Although only five witnesses appeared over a three-day period, the Royal Commission has already heard that the financial circumstances of borrowers is not adequately verified, and that many borrowers are being granted inappropriate loans.

Both witness testimony and documentary evidence indicates substantial fraud and misconduct by bankers, borrowers and brokers.

It was also revealed that policies intended to detect and protect against fraud and misconduct have failed because the systems were easy to manipulate.

Incentives to maximise loan amounts and repayment times have led to brokers deliberately falsifying documents for borrowers, and banks have failed to properly verify the information provided.

OPMG covered all three days of the hearings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Queensland wins $5 billion armoured vehicle manufacturing contract

Queensland has won its bid to build $5 billion worth of armoured vehicles as part of the Australian Army’s largest purchase in history.

A new facility in Ipswich will house the production of 211 Rheinmetall Boxer CRV’s under a deal with the German defence contractor.

The Federal Government estimates 330 jobs will be created in Queensland as well as 170 in Victoria and 140 in New South Wales, with the potential to create 1450 jobs nationwide.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said Australian businesses in all states will benefit greatly from the deal.

“And of course, most importantly, we’re providing the capability the Defence Force needs to be a modern army meeting the challenges that we may face at some stage in the future,” he said.

Speaking at Enoggera Army Barracks in Brisbane on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “As one of the troopers said to me just a moment ago, this is about lethality and survivability. This is about capability and protection. This is about Australia’s security. But it’s not simply or solely about capability in a military sense. It is about ensuring that we have, for the first time, a fully integrated national sovereign defence industry.”

The vehicles are expected to have a lifetime of 30 years and will be equipped for both peacekeeping and high-threat operations.


World

Stephen Hawking dies at age 76

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, England, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, according to a statement from his family.

“His family have kindly requested that they be given the time and privacy to mourn his passing, but they would like to thank everyone who has been by Professor Hawking’s side — and supported him — throughout his life,” the statement said.

His children Lucy, Robert and Tim said their father’s passing was deeply saddening.

They said:

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, ‘it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love’. We will miss him forever.”

The University of Cambridge will open a book of condolence at Gonville and Caius College for anyone who wants to pay tribute to Mr Hawking’s life.

Over 12,000 flee bombing in Ghouta

For nearly a month now, Syria’s eastern Ghouta has been bombarded by Syrian Government and Russian air strikes.

There has also been an attack on the ground which has cut towns in the area off from each other.

The strikes are supposed to be targeting terrorists hiding in the area, but there are tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged area, with little access to food or medical supplies.

The UN Security Council have called for a long-term ceasefire.

Now, however, civilians are fleeing the area at an alarming rate, with hundreds leaving each day.

Estimates put the number that have currently left at around 12,500, which still leaves many in danger and needing help.

Students march against gun violence in US

Tens of thousands of students, from over 3000 schools across the United States, walked out of school last Thursday in a mass protest against gun violence, in what has been one of the largest demonstrations of its kind for years.

This happened one month to the day after the Florida high school shooting, where 14 students and three staff were killed.

People used the hashtag #ENOUGH on the day, railing against US President Donald Trump’s suggestion to equip teachers with firearms, and demanding stronger action on gun control.

There have been calls for further background checks for those purchasing firearms, a ban on assault weapons, and raising the minimum age for gun buyers.

However, the only motion to be approved so far has been funding violence prevention measures at schools.

No collusion between Trump Campaign and Russia, says House Intel. Committee

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee has concluded in a draft report that there was no collusion or coopoeration between the Trump Campaign and Russia.

Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, Republican leading the committee, says dozens of witness interviews have been conducted and the report will be shared with Democrats on Tuesday (local time).

The report will not be made public until it has been reviewed by both the Democrats and the intelligence community.

First Amazon Go store opens to the public

In Seattle, the first Amazon Go store has opened to the public, as of this Monday.

Customers can walk in, check in with an Amazon Go app, and then take items off the shelves and walk out.

The proper amount will then be automatically deducted from their account.

There are no cashiers, and the only staff are those checking your ID if you’re taking alcohol, or re-stocking the shelves.

The system works through hundreds of cameras throughout the store, both regular and infrared, that can identify exactly what you take — and even if you put it back again.

While it may take some getting used to, this may be what the stores of the future look like.