US confident in Afghan forces

US officials insisted on Thursday they were confident in the increased ability of Afghan forces to secure landmark weekend elections, despite an outburst of rebel violence targeting the polls.

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Two senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, argued that Afghan forces partnering NATO soldiers were significantly more accomplished than they were during corruption-marred presidential polls last year.

“Security is going to be a challenge,” said one of the officials, on a day when Taliban-linked rebels killed three NATO soldiers, two election workers and five security guards in separate attacks, two days ahead of a parliamentary vote.

“What I am suggesting is that the Afghan forces who are in the lead in dealing with that security problem are also a year more mature than they were last year,” the official said, noting close cooperation with NATO forces.

“We think given the set of circumstances that Afghanistan is in, that appropriate measures have been taken.”

The official portrayed the polls as a “milestone” and an important sign of progress in the US-led effort to help frame a stable Afghan government and beat back insurgents to provide security to Afghan people.

But he also warned that the Taliban were sure to target the elections because “they are threatened” by a countrywide event that calls their legitimacy into question.

The Taliban has threatened to attack polling centres during Saturday’s election, only the second parliamentary polls in Afghanistan since the Islamic militia was removed from power in 2001.

Tens of thousands of Afghan and US-led NATO forces will provide security for Saturday’s vote, but there are still fears of fraud, violence and a low turnout.

The officials also stressed that reforms in the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission had been introduced in a bid to head off some of the fraud that marred the presidential polls.

But they conceded that given the security context in Afghanistan and the political situation, the elections were not going to be without problems, and some irregularities would be likely.

“We believe the election will be better, but not perfect,” another senior official said, comparing the polls to the presidential elections.

The elections come amid widening questions in the United States about the efficacy of President Barack Obama’s war effort, as and his surge strategy reaches a peak of numbers with more than 100,000 US troops now deployed.

Around 10.5 million Afghans are eligible to vote for the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.

Rents gobble up pension rise

Single pension recipients will receive an extra $15 a fortnight from Monday, but rents for public housing in several states are set to absorb it.

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Australia’s four million pensioners are unlikely to enjoy equal benefits.

NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT have rebuffed federal government calls to permanently quarantine last year’s one-off $30-a-week pension increase from rent calculations.

This means single age and disability pensioners in those states will be hit with an extra $19 fortnightly public housing bill from Monday as their welfare payments climb by $15 through indexation.

Under the latest biannual indexation, the single pension will rise to $716 a fortnight, which includes $58 in supplementary utility allowances.

Couples on the pension will see their welfare payments rise by $23 a fortnight to $1080.

Those without a partner living in public housing in some parts of Australia are unlikely to be so happy.

State and territory public housing bodies calculate fortnightly rent based on a quarter of the base single pension, which rises to $658 from Monday.

Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have agreed to permanently quarantine last year’s one-off $30-a-week single pension increase from future rent calculations.

But in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT, that one-off pension increase will be included in the overall calculation of income when rent is charged for public housing.

That means single pensioners in those states will be paying $19 a fortnight more for accommodation from Monday.

The Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of NSW has urged those state governments to remember why the federal government increased the single pension by $30 a week in the first place last year.

“The pension reform was to help single pensioners who are doing it tough,” policy co-ordinator Charmaine Crowe told AAP.

“It shouldn’t be going to public housing authorities in the states and territories.”

Other welfare recipients are also set to receive a smaller increase, prompting welfare experts to accuse the government of treating some recipients as less deserving than others.

The Newstart unemployment allowance rises by $7 a fortnight to $470 from Monday.

Welfare Rights Centre calculations show the gap between jobless benefits and the pension has widened to $123 a week – up from less than $6.50 in the early 1980s.

“Instead of a system of social security, we have a system based on social insecurity,” director Maree O’Halloran said.

The youth allowance stays at $377 a fortnight while the Newstart allowance for carers with a child rises by $7 to $508.

Welfare payments are indexed every six months for inflation.

Hockeyroos coach to quit after Delhi

Murray has decided to not see out his contract through to the London Olympics in 2012 and is happy with the decision and timing given it still gives his replacement plenty of time to prepare for the Olympics campaign.

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Murray dismissed talk of disharmony in the ranks between himself and the players after a successful six years in charge where he took the Hockeyroos to the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold, two Olympic silver medals and a World Cup silver and bronze.

“It’s probably time for someone else to have a go and this is a young group, and it gives the next coach time to do something with them prior to London,” Murray said.

“It is hard of course because I have spent the last 20 years doing this and I have enjoyed it, and still enjoy it, but I do think it is the right time.

“What a new coach will do is bring in fresh ideas and the players will respond. That doesn’t mean they don’t respond now, they do, and they are still a good bunch of girls to work with.”

His decision comes after a disappointing recent World Cup in Rosario, Argentina for the Hockeyroos where they missed the semi-finals but beat Korea to finish fifth, the lowest placing since sixth at the 1986 World Cup.

Murray is still happy with the team announced with 11 Commonwealth Games debutants and is confident of adding a third gold medal in just the fourth time it has been held at the Games.

England, New Zealand and India, who finished third, seven and ninth respectively at the World Cup, will provide the toughest opposition.

“It’s a good team and one that’s capable of winning. We’ve got a couple of good opposition teams in England, New Zealand and India, but this team is certainly up for it,” he said.

“We won the gold in 2006 and think we are capable of winning it again, that’s the pressure that we put on ourselves rather than it coming from external sources.”

Captain Madonna Blyth will have even more leadership responsibility following the retirements of Hope Munro and most recently Kim Walker after the World Cup, and with defender Teneal Attard out with a knee injury, but is confident the team will win gold again.

“We were a little bit disappointing in Argentina, but there’s always enough motivation for the Commonwealth Games. As a hockey player it’s always one of your favourite events to go to, but there was a little bit more out of Argentina,” Blyth said.

“Saying goodbye to a head coach is also something that you want to do to the best of your ability and for us that means winning gold, and sending him out on a positive winning note.”

RBA hints next rate move will be up

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has given a strong hint that the next move for interest rates will be up, as policy makers manage what they describe as a “robust economic upswing”.

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RBA governor Glenn Stevens also said, in a speech on Monday, that while Australia’s economic growth should be above trend in 2011, the low rate of inflation seen over the past two years was near its trough.

“We think the global economy will record reasonable growth over the coming year, though not as strong as the past year – a strength that, incidentally, surprised most observers,” Mr Stevens said.

“Of course, that central forecast could turn out to be wrong. Something could turn up internationally or at home that produces some other outcome.

“But if downside possibilities do not materialise, the task ahead is likely to be one of managing a fairly robust upswing. Part of that task will, clearly, fall to monetary policy.”

Mr Stevens, speaking in Shepparton in regional Victoria, also said he expected growth to continue because of high export prices and “the largest minerals and energy boom since the 19th century”.

This is despite the caution shown by consumers in recent years.

“We think that means the fall in inflation over the past two years won’t go much further,” he said.

The central bank’s stated mission is to keep inflation in a target band of two to three per cent on average over the medium term.

The RBA rapidly increased the cash rate, from three per cent to its current 4.5 per cent, in six increments between October last year and May.

The underlying rate of inflation, which influences the RBA’s rate decisions, fell from 4.7 per cent in the September quarter of 2008 to 2.7 per cent at June 2010.

Much of Mr Stevens’s speech to the Food Bowl Unlimited Forum Business Luncheon focussed on explaining how monetary policy works and reassuring his regional audience that they are kept in mind when rate decisions are made.

“Monetary policy is, by design, appropriately a national policy. In conducting it, the RBA devotes considerable attention to finding out and understanding what is happening at the regional and industry level.

“That helps us to maintain an overall set of financial conditions that are appropriate for the national economy.

“But we know that there will always be some differences in how changes to monetary policy are felt, though it is not always to be assumed that these impacts are necessarily greatest in country areas.”

Mr Stevens also gave an explanation for the sometimes guarded comments of RBA board members when speaking in public.

“Often, the expectation of what will happen to the cash rate in the future is just as important as, or even more important than, the level of the cash rate today,” he said.

“For this reason, what the Bank says – or what people think we have said – can be very influential on markets and behaviour.

“It is for this reason that central bankers are usually so guarded in public comments.”

The next rate-setting RBA board meeting is scheduled for October 5, while the minutes of its September meeting are due to be published on Tuesday.

The debt futures market is currently pricing in a slim chance of a rate rise in October.

NSW temporarily halts rent increase

The NSW government says public housing rents won’t be increased until it finally decides whether to quarantine last year’s $30 pension rise.

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The federal government, pensioners’ groups and the NSW opposition have all called on the state government not to increase rents, after a 12-month moratorium expired on Monday.

The NSW government agreed to temporarily exclude a one-off $30 increase from its rent calculations last year.

Twelve months on, there are fears pensioners could soon be slugged with a $18.60 fortnightly rent increase.

This would wipe out Monday’s indexed welfare rise, which has seen single, aged and disability pensioners getting an extra $15 a fortnight and couples an additional $23.

Federal Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin on Monday called on the NSW government to permanently quarantine the $30 increase, already agreed to by Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

“We’ve made it absolutely plain to the NSW government that we do not agree with them clawing back the pension rise,” she told ABC Television on Monday.

“We delivered a historic increase to the pension last year and we want to see that pension rise in the pockets of pensioners, not going into increased housing rents.

“So, we’ll be making our position absolutely clear to the NSW government.”

A spokesman for NSW Housing Minister Frank Terenzini couldn’t say when a final decision would be made although he said rents would not be increased in the meantime.

“Nobody’s interested in dragging this out,” he said.

“(Ms Macklin’s) request is now being reviewed, and no rents will go up while that is being reviewed.”

NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell said it was unfair to claw back the pension increase through rent hikes.

If the coalition won government next March, it would review the rental increase formula, he promised.

“We don’t believe the one-off increases that are given to pensioners to recognise the increased cost of living … should be clawed back by a state government to increase public housing rents,” he said.

National Seniors Australia (NSA) said it was “unthinkable” that state governments would try to seize some of last year’s pension increase through rent increases.

A Western Australian moratorium also expired on Monday, while Victoria and the ACT have only quarantined the $30 pension increase until next year.

“National Seniors fought hard to get this historic rise for pensioners last year and will not stand by and watch the state governments absorb it into state revenue in a move which can only be described as mean and insensitive,” the group’s spokesman Paul Versteege said.

“The NSW and the WA governments would do well to join Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory in quarantining the $30 a week pension increase from rent calculations.”

All hearty Jets need are cash and crowds

The Jets cast aside another week of uncertainty over their future to register a first win of the season with a 2-0 triumph at EnergyAustralia Stadium on Friday night.

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Culina said his players had done themselves and the club proud with a deserved win but spoke of the importance of backing up the performance against Gold Coast on Wednesday – should the match go ahead. “It’s no good winning today and then dropping the next one,” Culina said. “You have to get some consistency in your results. “It’s been extremely, extremely tiring for us in the last three or four weeks in particular. I just want everything off the park to die, to go away so we can just play football because this team is quite capable of being a very good team.” The Jets’ future will become clearer on Monday, when owner Con Constantine continues talks with Football Federation Australia about a plan to rescue the club. Culina said he was preparing for the Skilled Park match as normal but may have to make do without defender Tarek Elrich after he was forced off just before half time with a corked thigh. “Hopefully it’s nothing serious … but we’ve got a bit of depth so hopefully if Tarek’s unable to make it others will come in,” he said. The sour point of a positive night for the club came with a disappointing turnout on Friday night. Despite a passionate call to arms by Culina and the club to send a message about how badly Newcastle wanted a team in the league, less than 7000 fans were present to see the win over the Glory. “Our job is to do the business on the park,” Culina said. “I told the players, we can’t control what happens off the park and therefore let’s not worry about it, let’s just do the job. “I’d like to think this city’s got potentially a wonderful football team , so it’s up to them to decide if they want to support it or not. “But we will do everything we can as long as we’re given the opportunity to do the best we can every time we run out.”

Home and Away scene too raunchy for NZ

A “raunchy and sexually charged” scene on primetime soap opera Home and Away, along with a graphic scene depicting oral sex in comedy-drama series Hung, breached broadcasting standards, the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has ruled.

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In decisions released on Monday, the BSA said the Home and Away episode, which aired on TV3 at 5.30pm on March 24 with a General (G) classification, breached standards relating to responsible programming, children’s interests, and good taste and decency.

During the episode, two adult characters, Martha and Liam, began kissing and Liam removed Martha’s bathrobe, leaving her in a bra and pyjama pants.

Liam then lay back on a table while Martha straddled him as they continued to kiss until another character walked in.

TV3’s broadcaster TVWorks said that the program had screened in a timeslot that was not considered to be predominately children’s viewing time on the channel and that child viewers would not be alarmed or distressed by such scenes.

The BSA disagreed, saying the program was “raunchy and sexually charged” and went well beyond the level of sexual activity that should be included in a G-rated show.

“For the broadcaster to argue that 5.30pm is ‘not considered to be predominately children’s viewing time on TV3 and that the program was ‘aimed at an older ‘G’ audience’ displays, in our view, disregard for the G classification and the guidelines in the Free-to-Air Television Code.”

The complaint was the first about sexual content in Home and Away to be upheld.

In its second decision, the BSA ruled an episode of Hung, described by a complainant as “soft porn”, breached the good taste and decency standard.

The episode screened on TV One at 9.50pm on March 22, and showed a male prostitute, Ray, lifting up a woman’s skirt and removing her underwear, and included a brief shot of the woman’s genital area.

The woman then sat down on a couch and placed her legs over Ray’s shoulders while he performed oral sex.

TVNZ said the scene had been relatively brief, not detailed, obviously acted and important in the context of the series.

However, the majority of the BSA found the content went well beyond the level of sexual material that viewers would expect to see on free-to-air television.

“In the majority’s view, the scene complained about was prolonged, explicit and gratuitous, leaving nothing to the imagination and designed solely for the purpose of shocking and titillating the audience,” the decision said.

“In these circumstances factors such as the program’s AO classification and the use of a written and verbal warning were not sufficient to prevent the broadcast breaching standards of good taste and decency.”

The BSA did not issue penalties for either decision.

Lobby group Family Fist NZ national director Bob McCoskrie welcomed the decisions and said he hoped they would set a precedent.

“Finally, the authority has put the welfare and protection of families before the rights of broadcasters to offend children and families with sexual and offensive content.”

Police remember fallen colleagues

Hundreds of police are riding to Canberra on motorbikes on Saturday to remember fallen colleagues, including Sydney’s recently slain detective William Crews.

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“This ride’s been a long time in the planning. Having said that it couldn’t have come at a more important time for us as a profession,” NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione told reporters in Sydney. He is among more than 600 police officers expected to arrive at Canberra’s National Police Memorial Wall on Saturday afternoon. A contingent of around 200 NSW police set off from Sydney at 9.30am (AEST) as part of the first ever Wall to Wall motorbike ride, in memory of all Australian police officers killed on duty. Among them was Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tofirst ever Wall to Wall motorbike ride, in memory of all Australian police officers killed on duty.ny Negus, acting Tasmania Commissioner Darren Hine and Northern Territory Commissioner John McRoberts. A group of about 50 officers from Perth, who have spent the week riding across the country, will meet them on the way. More officers from Victoria and Canberra will also meet the ride just outside Canberra, before the whole group rides past Parliament House, stopping at the memorial wall. Money raised by the ride will go to the Police Legacy fund. The West Australian police riders are raising money for the sick daughter of a colleague. There are 249 names of police officers killed in the line of duty on the NSW Police Wall of Remembrance. William Crews, 26, promoted posthumously to detective after being shot during a botched drugs raid in Sydney on September 8, will become the 250th.

Detention protest continues following death

The 36-year-old’s death at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre sparked a rooftop protest yesterday by about eight other asylum seekers whose refugee claims have also reportedly been rejected.

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Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the Fijian had been living in the community while his claim was being processed but was detained last month for removal purposes once those processes were completed.

Refugee advocate Sara Nathan says the seven Sri Lankan Tamils and one Afghan detainee climbed onto the roof saying they’d take their own lives rather than be deported.

The 36-year-old’s death in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre on Monday morning sparked a rooftop protest by up to eight more asylum seekers who allegedly have had their claims rejected by Australia.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the Fijian, who had arrived in Australia by plane, had been living in the community while his refugee claim was processed.

“He was detained (in mid-August) for removal purposes once those processes were completed,” Mr Bowen said.

“His removal was part of normal compliance operations.”

Immigration Department spokesman Sandi Logan was asked about allegations Villawood staff had been warned that the Fijian was suicidal after being told recently he was to be deported.

“We understand that there, certainly, is some history behind this client,” Mr Logan told reporters in Canberra.

“There is a history in the department … of several instances of non-compliance and, unfortunately, that’s why this man was in detention.

“He was awaiting removal from Australia.”

Mr Logan said he could not comment on reports that the man was about to blow the whistle on a Fijian passport scam.

“(That) must remain confidential,” he said.

Refugee advocate Sara Nathan told AAP seven Sri Lankan Tamils and one Afghan detainee climbed onto the Villawood detention centre’s roof following the Fijian’s death.

All have had their asylum claims rejected, Ms Nathan said.

“They are very fearful that they will be deported, and they have also clearly said that rather than be deported they will take their lives,” she said.

Ms Nathan said the detainees would only come down if the Immigration Department assured them their cases would be reviewed.

Mr Logan said detainees protesting on centre roofs was not uncommon.

He said there were just five people on Villawood’s roof on Monday afternoon, of varying nationalities, and he was “reasonably confident” they would come down after negotiations.

The department spokesman rejected any suggestion Villawood was now in “chaos”.

“Some in the refugee activist and refugee advocacy community would will upon us, unfortunately, the most appalling outcomes,” he said.

“(But) we have very good control of all of our immigration detention centres.”

Mr Logan’s comments were, in part, directed at Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul, who claims the dead Fijian faced deportation along with a younger relative believed to be his nephew.

“The suicide of a Fijian man facing deportation from the Villawood detention centre this morning has thrown the detention centre into chaos,” Mr Rintoul said.

“One report from inside the detention centre said the Fijian man’s relative had been handcuffed and taken away by police.”

The Immigration Department refused to comment on reports the 36-year-old had been declared a refugee by the United Nations.

“But, generally speaking, a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) mandate as a refugee is taken into account in processing, but it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that a visa will be granted,” a departmental spokesman said.

“We have to go through our own processes.”

The man died at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre at about 10am (AEST) on Monday.

MacKillop relic unveiled in Rome

Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer and Sister Maria Casey have unveiled a unique reliquary containing a lock of Blessed Mary MacKillop’s hair at the Caravita Oratory in the centre of Rome.

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The reliquary – a receptacle for a relic – is made from a red gum fence post from the South Australian Penola property where Mary MacKillop founded the Australian Sisters of Saint Joseph with Julian Tenison Woods.

It has been carved into a cross with a sculpture using an antique piece of glass set into its centre containing the relic of Blessed Mary.

The reliquary will be presented to Pope Benedict XVI next month during the October 17 canonisation ceremony at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Five other saints from Italy, Canada, Poland and Spain are being canonised on the same day.

The Australian Embassy to the Holy See is expecting around 7000 to 8000 Australian visitors to the city for the canonisation ceremony of Australia’s first saint.

Several events are planned for the weekend of the ceremony, including a special evening opening of the Vatican Museums on Friday October 15, accompanied by a performance of indigenous dancing and didgeridoo playing, a Saturday prayer vigil and a mass to be celebrated by the head of the church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell with several other bishops and priests in Saint Paul’s Basilica Outside the Walls on Monday after the canonisation.

“I think believers and non-believers alike agree that Mary MacKillop was a great Australian,” Mr Fischer said.

“This is a rare opportunity for Australia to boost its profile in Rome which is also a hub for global food security with organisations like the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Food Programme based here.”

Mr Fischer is keeping Australians attending the canonisation up to date by using social media network Twitter, ‘tweeting’ information about tickets for the ceremony and other travel advice.

He has issued a special warning to visitors to be on the lookout for pickpockets.

“We replaced 400 passports for Australians last year in Italy,” Mr Fischer said.

He said the number 64 bus that takes visitors to Vatican City from the city centre was one of the most frequent routes used by pickpockets, and the train from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to the main Termini station had been dubbed the Pickpockets Express.

“Rome is not a dangerous place but travellers should be especially on the lookout for thieves who work in gangs of two or three, bumping into people to distract them while another relieves them of their wallet,” he said.

“We have even had purses stolen from nuns and priests.”