Week in Brief: 8–14 April 2018

15 April 2018

Week in Brief: 8–14 April 2018

Story of the week

US, UK and French missile strikes begin after Douma chemical attack, Russia says Douma attack staged

US President Donald Trump has authorised missile strikes against Syria, after a week of escalating and walking back threats to do so following a chemical attack in Syria’s southwest, as Russia claims the attack was staged by the United Kingdom.

The chemical attack, which left 78 people dead according to the Syrian American Medical Society, occurred last Thursday in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, a rural region close to the Syrian capital of Damascus that had remained a central stronghold for up to 20,000 Syrian rebels since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.

Previously the site of the chemical attack in 2013 which left 1,429 people dead and crossed then-President Barack Obama’s “red line”, Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian Government since February 2013, and has experienced a massive upsurge in attacks from the Syrian Government since February 2018 which have left almost 2,000 people dead according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

President Trump took to Twitter to condemn the attacks, stating last Sunday that there would be a “big price to pay” for backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he named as Russia and Iran.

The war of words escalated on Thursday, when the President tweeted that Russia should “get ready” to shoot down “nice and new and ‘smart'” missiles, seemingly telegraphing impending strikes against Syrian military targets.

President Trump walked back on the comments in a tweet the next day, declaring that he had never specified when the attacks would take place, and that it could occur “very soon or not so soon at all,” as the Syrian Government moved to evacuate military personnel from airports and military bases.

The strikes were confirmed in a Friday evening address by the President, outlining a joint set of precision strikes along with the United Kingdom and France described as a “one-time shot” by US Secretary of Defence James Mattis targeting “chemical weapons infrastructure”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that Australia supports the “calibrated, proportionate and targeted response” the strikes represented, saying that “The Assad regime must not be allowed to commit such crimes with impunity.”

The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, stated that Russia had warned that the strikes would “not be left without consequences”, and described the strikes as “insulting the President of Russia”.


Australia

Homosexual and cross-dressing expungement law commences in Tasmania

Persons convicted of homosexual and cross-dressing offences in Tasmania can now apply to have these removed from their criminal records.

The Expungement of Historical Offences Act 2017 was passed in September last year, but only commenced on Monday this week.

The legislation applies to any person convicted of homosexual behaviour or male cross-dressing (or inciting, instigating, aiding or abetting such).

In 1997 Tasmania was the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality, which only occurred after a successful complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, federal legislation on the matter, and a High Court challenge.

Cross-dressing in public was decriminalised in 2001. Despite this, these offences remain on the criminal records of those convictions under them.

New South Wales allows for expungement of pre-1984 offences under the Criminal Records Act 1991, and New Zealand recently enacted similar legislation.

Western Australia and the Northern Territory are now the only Australian jurisdictions without expungement provisions.

Federal Government launches investigation into ATO conduct

Allegations of unfair treatment of small businesses and individuals have resulted in the Federal Government launching an investigation into the conduct of the Australian Tax Office.

Reports from Fairfax Media and the ABC’s Four Corners program provided the impetus for the investigation, after allegations that poor management practices at the ATO were financially crippling small businesses and individuals.

Whistleblowers within the ATO allege that they were pressured to meet divisional revenue targets.

One source told Fairfax and Four Corners that this included automatically issuing garnishee notices on every case, without consulting the taxpayer.

A garnishee notice is an order requiring the bank to hand over money from a taxpayer’s account.

Head of the ATO Chris Jordan has denied that the problems are systemic, but welcomed the investigation and indicated that there were areas for reform and improvement.

He cited restoration of “trust and confidence” in the ATO as an important goal, and suggested areas of reform should include improving dispute resolution processes and management of disputed debts.

Bushfire tears through Holsworthy army base, threatens houses

An out of control bushfire has torn through the Holsworthy military base and is now threatening houses after jumping a road.

The blaze, which started in Moorebank, is moving in a southeasterly direction, and now threatens homes and lives in Alfords Point, Menai, Barden Ridge, Voyager Point, Pleasure Point, Sandy Point, Wattle Grove.

The fire had moved through the Holsworthy military complex — the Department of Defence has since confirmed that no buildings or personnel were injured.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has issued emergency warnings and evacuation orders to homes in several suburbs, with more than 140 firefighters are now fighting the blaze.

Firefighting efforts hoping to focus on controlling the fire around Heathcote Road, as it connects with other areas in Holsworthy and the Royal National Park.


World

New Zealand halts offshore fossil fuel exploration

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand will stop offshore oil and gas exploration as part of the Government’s policy to address climate change. This will not affect existing permits and jobs.

Ardern said the policy was about “striking the right balance for New Zealand — we’re protecting existing industry and protecting future generations from climate change.”

While the move has been welcomed by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and WWF New Zealand, the National Party opposition has accused the government of “economic vandalism” and putting thousands of jobs at risk.

Opposition spokesperson Jonathan Young claimed that New Zealand would be forced to important emissions-heavy alternatives when existing gas reserves are depleted in 10 years.

New Zealand’s oil and gas industry generates more than $2 billion per year and employees around 11,000 people.

California may hold November vote on three-state split

Californians may be asked to vote on whether the state should be split into three separate states in November.

Businessman Tim Draper had previously attempted to get a six-state proposal on the ballot in 2016, but failed to get the required 366,000 signatures to hold a public vote.

He now claims that his three-state proposal has received more than 600,000 signatures in support.

Under the proposal, the coastal area between Monterey and Los Angeles would retain the name California and be home to 12.3 million people, while the rest of the state would be divided between Northern California and Southern California with 13.3 million and 13.9 million residents respectively.

It seems unlikely that voters will approve the measure, but if they did approval of Congress would be required.

Abdel-Magied refused entry in United States after visa error

Yassmin Abdel-Magied has been refused entry to the United States due to an issue with an incorrect visa.

The now London-based mechanical engineer had touched down in Minneapolis and was due to speak at two events for the PEN America World Voices Festival in New York, but was sent back by US Customs and Border Protection officers after they ascertained that Ms Abdel-Magied “did not possess the appropriate visa to receive monetary compensation”.

The B1/B2 visa does not permit entry to the United States for paid events, but the restriction has largely been unenforced for low-paying small events, as other visas that permit payment (such as a P or O visa) take considerably more time and expenditure to acquire.

The organisers of the annual event she was due to attend, PEN America, issued a statement calling for US Customs and Border Protection to admit Ms Abdel-Magied to the US “so that she can take her rightful place in the urgent international conversation to take place at the festival next week “. Ms Abdel-Magied released several tweets announcing the refusal of entry, and released a statement on Twitter on returning to London.

Vanuatu, China reject reports of planned Chinese military base

Following reports earlier in the week of plans for a Chinese military base in Vanuatu, both nations have sought to dispel the allegations.

Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister, Mr Ralph Regenvanu described Vanuatu as a “non-aligned country” uninterested in “militarisation”, and dismissed the reports — which appeared in Fairfax media on Tuesday — as “fake news”, stating that the Vanuatu Government has never considered a Chinese military base in Vanuatu.

This sentiment was endorsed by China’s defense ministry, which stated that the claim “did not accord with the facts”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that he has received no advice that there was any request for Chinese military bases in Vanuatu, and stressed that the “maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific is of utmost importance”.

Zuckerberg answers questions before US Congress

Mark Zuckerberg has fronted the US Congress for two days, answering questions over the Cambridge Analytica scandal over two approximately five-hour hearings.

Mr Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday, dealing with the fallout from the breach of data of some 87 million Facebook users by researchers with the Cambridge Analytica research group during the course of the 2016 election.

Taking full responsibility for the breach of privacy, Mr Zuckerberg outlined ongoing processes at Facebook to identify and discipline apps that accessed large amounts of personal information in the past as Cambridge Analytica did, internal investigations into Russian information operations on Facebook during the 2016 election, and revealed that his data was among that of the 87 million users affected by the scandal.