Monday, February 15, 2021

Scott Morrison to tear up Victoria's controversial Belt and Road deal with China in just a few weeks as declares there is 'no benefit' to Australia

Two fingers to China. Their attempt to bully Australia is a complete flop

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed Victoria's controversial Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China has no benefits.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 with China relating to its mega, $1.5 trillion 'One Belt, One Road' policy, but the deal - which would have given Beijing's funding and control of key Victorian infrastructure - came under heavy criticism.

Now the PM looks to have confirmed that particular deal is all but over, sending Andrews a blunt message on its future.

'I haven't seen the benefits of it,' Mr Morrison said to the Herald Sun. 'If there are benefits, what are they and what was paid for them? I don't have the answers to those questions at this point, but the assessment of those arrangements will continue.'

Andrews, and other state premiers and chief ministers, must detail to the commonwealth all agreements made with foreign powers by March 10.

Andrews has so far defended the agreement and had promised it would mean 'more jobs and more trade and investment for Victorians', but there has been concerned state deals could become a back door to foreign nations increasing their influence.

Morrison confirmed his desire to see Australian federal policy driving all foreign relations. 'That's a very important principle … There has to be consistency when national governments deal with other national governments,' Mr Morrison said.

'We didn't agree with it in the first place, still don't agree with it, and no doubt decisions on that will be made in due course,' Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said of the Victoria-China agreement.

The intervention was made possible when Federal legislation was passed in December allowing the foreign minister to review and scrap state, territory, local council and public university deals with other nations.

China responded by accusing Australia of 'putting bacteria' in the relationship between the two nations after Morrison tabled the new legislation.

When asked in Beijing on Thursday about the Australian government's plan to tear up Victoria's deal, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian sang the praises of the initiative and lashed out at Canberra.

'We hope Australia will view such cooperation objectively and reasonably, and stop putting bacteria into this relationship and do more to improve our mutual benefits,' The Australian reported. 'China's cooperation with the Victorian state under the BRI has enhanced the benefits for people on both sides of the deal.'

Australian National University Professor Rory Medcalf argued premiers and first ministers need the best possible advice on foreign interference and a greater say on Australia's national security policy, as rival countries 'show no respect for the niceties of federation'.

This included security issues related to critical infrastructure, as well as those associated with espionage, propaganda and cyber threats.

Professor Medcalf says federal security briefings to state-based counterparts - such as those which occurred on the BRI - are not always taken seriously enough, often because state officials are not cleared to hear all details.

According to the Lowy Institute, the Belt and Road Initiative is motivated by strategic as well as economic factors.

'The combination of strategic and economic drivers is not always easy to reconcile,' wrote Peter Cai, the institute's Project Director, Australia-China Relations.

'In some cases, China's strategic objectives make it difficult to sell the economic aspects of the initiative to China's neighbours.'


Australian churches on collision course with the government over AstraZeneca vaccine

Major churches are at odds with authorities over the AstraZeneca vaccine, with religious leaders telling parishioners they are entitled to request a different jab but the federal government saying most people won’t have a choice.

Religious concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine arise from its use of decades-old aborted fetal cells in the development process, which is common scientific practice that some Christians find objectionable.

The stoush could frustrate or delay attempts to inoculate the country against further COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns as authorities prepare to start the vaccine rollout later this month.

While Australia will import 20 million Pfizer doses for high-risk populations, most Australians will be offered the AstraZeneca jab, with 50 million doses to be made locally and expected to begin in late March. A third vaccine, Novavax, should be available later in the year pending clinical trials and regulatory approval.

Catholic and Anglican archbishops told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age that while it was ethical for people with concerns to take the AstraZeneca vaccine if necessary, they should be entitled to request a different jab.

On Friday a spokesman for Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said he was a strong advocate of vaccinations but “like any medicine they must be safe and ethically obtained”. “Fortunately, the Novavax and Pfizer vaccines will be made available in Australia, they seem if anything to have higher success rates, and they are morally uncompromised,” he said.

“Anyone who is concerned about the ethics of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be confident in requesting an alternative, but also be confident that it is not unethical to use the AstraZeneca vaccine if there is no alternative reasonably available.”

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said the church would clarify its ethical position on the vaccines next week, but in the meantime referred to his remarks in a letter to the faithful last year.

“Where there is a choice, we encourage people to use a vaccine that has not been developed using human fetal cells deriving from abortion,” he wrote at the time. “The bishops accept that the use of an ethically compromised vaccine is acceptable if no other option is available.”

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies was among the religious leaders who signed a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year complaining the AstraZeneca vaccine “makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human fetus”.

“I was one of the church leaders who urged the Prime Minister to give Australians a choice, in order to assure the highest vaccination rate possible,” Archbishop Davies said on Friday.

“I welcome the fact that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for distribution in Australia since this vaccine is free from ethical concerns in its production. This is a matter of individual choice for each Australian but I want to encourage widespread vaccination in our population throughout 2021.”

Asked about the archbishops’ comments, the federal health department referred The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age to remarks by secretary and former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy on February 4 in which he said most people would not have a choice of vaccines. “In the main, there won’t be a choice, and I think both vaccines are extremely good, and I would be very happy to have either of them,” Professor Murphy said.

About 70 per cent of Australians report some kind of religious affiliation in the census, including about 50 per cent who identify as Christian, though not all would hold concerns about abortion or the use of an aborted fetus in vaccine production.

A spokesperson for Australian Christian Churches, which has more than 375,000 Pentecostal followers, said the ACC “does not hold an official ethical position on the use of vaccines and encourages individuals to make a decision based on personal conscience”.

Church newsletters have also contained commentary raising concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine. For example, in the December issue of the Sydney Anglican magazine Southern Cross, Bishop Chris Edwards warned of “problems” with the vaccine due to its use of the aborted cells. “The ethical issues around this are very complex,” he wrote.


Australia suspends travel bubble with New Zealand after Auckland lockdown

Australia has suspended its quarantine-free travel arrangement with New Zealand following the detection of COVID-19 in a couple and their daughter in Auckland at the weekend.

After initially saying there would be no change to the travel bubble, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly convened an urgent meeting late on Sunday with the chief health officers from NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

“It was decided at this meeting today that all flights originating in New Zealand will be classified as Red Zone flights for an initial period of 72 hours from 12.01am on 15 February”, a statement from the Department of Health reads.

“As a result of this, all people arriving on such flights originating within this three-day period will need to go into 14 days of supervised hotel quarantine.

“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee will consider further updates from New Zealand tomorrow and provide advice to the Chief Medical Officer regarding the management of travel arrangements between New Zealand and Australia.”

It comes after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a snap three-day lockdown on Sunday night following the detection of the new cases, New Zealand’s first since late January, when a returned traveller tested positive after leaving quarantine. At the time, Australia temporarily suspended the travel bubble with New Zealand and mandated 14-day hotel quarantine for arrivals.

The news comes as NSW recorded its 28th day without a local case of COVID-19, its longest stretch since the pandemic began.

During an earlier press conference on Sunday, Professor Kelly said that, for the time being, there would be no change to the green-zone flights coming from New Zealand as the risk was perceived to be “very low”.

“But of course we will and we have looked at what those exposure sites are in New Zealand and we’ll be looking at that for anyone coming across the border from New Zealand,” Professor Kelly said.

However, in the later statement, he said he had convened an urgent meeting with the chief health officers of states to discuss the three-day lockdown.

“States will determine how to manage people who have already arrived in Australia from New Zealand and who may pose a risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus,” the statement reads.

“The National Incident Room will assist states and territories by seeking relevant flight manifests.”

Caps on international arrivals in a number of states, including NSW, are also set to return to previous levels on Monday after being cut by half in January following the emergence of a highly contagious strain of the virus in the UK.

Weekly arrivals were capped at 1050 in NSW, 500 in Queensland and 512 in Western Australia for a month, after a national cabinet meeting on January 8.

On Monday, those caps will return to previous levels of 3010 people a week in NSW and 1000 people in Queensland. Western Australia’s cap will remain at 512.

However, Victoria has temporarily stopped accepting international arrivals during its lockdown. Its cap was originally due to increase from 1120 to 1310 on February 15.

A NSW Health spokesperson said strong arrangements were in place between multiple government agencies, including NSW Police, to effectively manage the return to the previous daily arrivals cap.

NSW’s 28-day milestone came amid new requirements that anyone who returned to NSW from Victoria after midnight on Friday, February 12, must comply with the five-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown in place in Victoria after more than a dozen cases were linked to a cluster originating at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport.

“The previous longest stretch without local cases was 26 days, when there were no cases diagnosed in the reporting cycles between 8pm on November 6 and 8pm on December 2,” NSW Health reported on Sunday.

NSW has recorded no new local cases of COVID-19 for 28 consecutive days, the longest stretch of no community transmission since the start of the pandemic.

“While this milestone is pleasing, it does not mean we can drop our guard. Cases are present in other states and are regularly being detected among international travellers arriving from overseas.”

Lyn Gilbert, a professor and senior researcher at the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, said the chances of the infection spreading to NSW were “quite small” but the state’s success in maintaining no community transmission would depend on contact tracing and luck.

“In NSW, we’ve got a pretty good record of finding people who are contacts but there’s always a possibility that it will spread, it’s a tricky virus,” she said.

“It’s always a combination of a really good system and fast responses and, to some extent, luck. And this is just going to have to continue until everyone’s vaccinated and even then, the vaccine won’t have 100 per cent uptake or effectiveness.”




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