Illegal dumping investigator Craig Izzard denies bribery allegations at ICAC inquiry

Craig Izzard after appearing at the ICAC inquiry on Thursday. Photo: Peter RaeA former illegal dumping investigator told a corruption inquiry he was “surprised” to learn more than 200 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated waste had been dumped at a western Sydney property he was allegedly responsible for investigating.
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Craig Izzard, a former rugby league player for the Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels, endured a day of rigorous questioning at the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Friday over his alleged involvement in “black market” dumping operations last year.

Mr Izzard maintained he had done nothing improper, as counsel assisting the commission James Mack guided him point-by-point through his employment code of conduct for the Western Sydney Regional Illegal Dumping Squad (RID).

“Is it your evidence that, while employed in the Western Sydney RID, you always acted honestly?” Mr Mack inquired

“I would say so, yes,” Mr Izzard replied.

Mr Izzard is the principal person of interest in four allegations of corrupt conduct, including three times last year when he allegedly solicited bribes from people in exchange for not investigating their dumping activity.

Among the allegations, Mr Izzard is accused of soliciting a bribe from Reuben Matthews in exchange for turning a blind eye to dumping at his property in Willowdene Avenue, Luddenham.

But Mr Izzard said he had no involvement in investigating the site, despite email evidence showing he was asked by Liverpool Council to investigate dumping complaints in November 2014.

He told the commission he had been “surprised” to learn that more than 200 tonnes of waste was later dumped at the site and tests revealed it was contaminated with asbestos.

Matthews was later convicted of dumping offences and fined $55,000. Another man, Nosir Kabite, was fined $25,000 after pleading guilty to transporting the waste to the property.

Earlier in the week, Mr Mack extracted an admission from Mr Kabite that he and Mr Izzard had an understanding that involved the exchange of “favours”.

After numerous recordings of phone calls between Mr Kabite and Mr Izzard were played before the inquiry, Mr Kabite admitted the pair used the code word “drinks” when discussing bribes.

“Mr Izzard frequently asked you for drinks, and by drinks he meant bribes, and it was your job to go out and get Mr Izzard a drink? Do you agree with me?” Mr Mack asked Mr Kabite.

“Yes,” he replied.

Mr Kabite said he gave Mr Izzard money on “two or three occasions”, and each payment was between $500 and $700.

However, Mr Izzard maintained the payments were in connection with an unrelated energy business he owned, whereby Mr Kabite would sell refrigeration units for him.

He also denied attempting to solicit a bribe from another man, Antonio Barillaro, in connection with alleged illegal dumping at a property in Badgerys Creek, telling the inquiry he’d never heard of someone by that name.

The commission also heard Mr Izzard regularly advised Mr Kabite over his council-related dilemmas, including one time when he suggested Mr Kabite’s nephew could attempt to avoid a dumping-related fine by pretending someone else was responsible.

When asked by assistant commissioner Reginald Blanch if he realised he was advising someone to pervert the course of justice, he replied: “I think it was, I probably didn’t [think] about it, Mr Commissioner.”

Mr Izzard will continue giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday.

North shore offices are back in the spotlight

The north shore in Sydney is returning to its former self as more office towers are being constructed to satisfy the demand of the expanding commerce industries.
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Having gone through tough times when office vacancy reached heady levels of about 20 per cent, the area was turned into a residential zone.

But with significant stock withdrawals and rising rents in Sydney’s central business district, the demand for office accommodation across the north shore is expected to rise substantially, according to Knight Frank’s managing director, North Sydney, Angus Klem​.

He said North Sydney is now “well and truly an adjunct to the Sydney CBD”.

“Over the next two years significant stock withdrawals in the CBD will see an exodus of tenants to North Sydney and the other north shore markets,” Mr Klem said.

There is also the planned state metro line that has led the state government to buy up properties in North Sydney, which has led to a tightening of stock.

Knight Frank’s Giuseppe Ruberto​, director of office leasing, north shore, said a number of tenants were opting away from the CBD due to cost and the limited options available. He said instead tenants were choosing to operate within the north shore with North Sydney expected to be a big winner over the next 24 months.

“Effective secondary rents in the CBD core have risen by over 20 per cent in the last 12 months, with rents now sitting over $900 per square metre gross in some locations, so it is no surprise tenants are now considering other options. Recently we have seen tenants, including BT Australasia and Chubb Insurance, committing to North Sydney from the CBD,” Mr Ruberto said.

He said the lack of prime space in North Sydney was an issue of the past with 101 Miller Street as the only premium building available and experiencing strong leasing success with a number of floors leased, highlighting the demand for quality assets.

Another development is by DEXUS Property Group at 100 Mount Street,  North Sydney. The group has appointed JLL national head of leasing, Tim O’Connor, and JLL head of office leasing North Sydney, Paul Lynch, to partner with DEXUS’ leasing team, headed by Chris Hynes, on the project’s leasing.

DEXUS executive general manager of office and industrial, Kevin George, said the group had received some strong inquiries to lease the office space since it had agreed to buy 100 Mount Street. “Now that we have settled on the acquisition, we can progress leasing discussions,” Mr George said.

Knight Frank’s Tyler Talbot, director, institutional sales, North Sydney, said north shore investment activity had been strong over the past 12 months and this was expected to continue with high demand from both domestic and offshore groups.

“Limited quality stock, falling interest rates and the real prospect of significant rental growth has been driving down yields,” Mr Talbot said.

Knight Frank’s latest research report, the North Shore Office Market Overview: August 2016 found about 80,000 square metres of office stock has been earmarked for permanent withdrawal from the North Sydney market over the next four years.

According to Knight Frank’s Alex Pham, senior research manager, NSW, the significant withdrawal of stock saw the North Sydney vacancy rate dipping to its lowest level in four years at 7 per cent in July 2016.

Hotels sector braces for busy times ahead

The Novotel Darling Harbour was the first Accor hotel in Australia. Accor has grown to 208 hotels across the country.There are three mega trends that are being felt in the hotel sector and operators are taking up the challenge, says AccorHotel’s Asia Pacific chief executive Michael Issenberg.
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Speaking in Sydney for AccorHotel’s 25th anniversary in Australia, Mr Issenberg said hotels had a new “dream phase” where the “before and after” experiences at a hotel had changed the sector dramatically.

AccorHotels arrived in Australia with the launch of the Novotel at Darling Harbour and now has 208 hotels under 12 brands across the country. It will expand with its latest $3.9 billion purchase of the Fairmont, Swissotel and Raffles hotel.

But Mr Issenberg said amid the new sharing economy and guests’ ability to plan and book a hotel room by themselves, and where every experience is put online immediately, its still old-fashioned service during the stay that remains the constant focus of hotel operators.

“Travel is now about the time it takes to plan and then book a holiday and select the appropriate hotel, which we call the dream phase, but once the guest arrives it’s back to offering the best service we can to make the stay enjoyable,” Mr Issenberg said.

“Everything has changed with technology and the sharing generation, so service is the differential for hotel operators.”

He said now that most people bring their own electronic devices and download movies, demand for cable TV in a room has diminished, but demand has risen for better Wi-Fi and technology outlets.

Mr Issenberg said the sector’s mega trends are the inflow of Asian travellers, the increased use of private stay accommodation, such as the group’s Onefinestay​ business, and the new sharing economy, which is not just the domain of the so-called millennials but where visitors like interacting in more relaxed lobbies and common areas.

“The growth of visitors from Asia is an important mega trend that is changing the hotel and tourism sector,” he said. “That includes having dual-speaking staff and different and more varied food, among many other services.”

This comes as the sector is bracing for an inflow of visitors for events that are now booked at the new International Convention Centre, which has been rebuilt in Sydney and opens later this year.

According to ICC Sydney, there are already more than 100 events booked and it expects to generate at least $200 million a year in economic benefits for NSW. Given the time and distance of travelling to Australia, it is expected that some guests will stay and see more of the country, which will benefit other states.

Business Events Sydney has booked 43 events to be hosted at UCC Sydney, of which 39 are international, which is its core focus.

Lyn Lewis-Smith, chief executive of Business Events Sydney, said of this pipeline 17 events will be hosted  next year, although she expects this to keep increasing over the next 12 months,

Ms Lewis-Smith said international conference delegates spend up to 6.5 times more than a regular tourist, so this super high yield traveller is the NSW government’s focus.

The chief executive and founder of Ovolo Hotels, Girish Jhunjhnuwala, said Sydney was the gateway to Australia for travellers around the world. And the opening of ICC Sydney will definitely further strengthen Sydney’s position in conventions, exhibitions and entertainment segments by attracting more international business travellers to the city.

“Hotel room demand is already at an all-time high in the city, and with the ICC’s opening, it’s going to likely accelerate rate increases, which is sure to benefit hotels in Sydney,” Mr Jhunjhnuwala said. “Overall room quality, however, continues to be a big issue, as there are limited new hotel openings and the majority of the city’s hotel room inventory is old and tired. Ovolo is well positioned with recently refurbished hotels in Darling Harbour and Woolloomooloo.”

The young artists behind the Children Hospital’s new collection

Ben and Sally Zinsli, with Nathan Zinsli in the hammock, at home in Berowra Heights. Photo: Janie Barrett Benjamin Zinsli’s Noah’s Ark artwork.
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Nikki Armstrong’s Red Panda. Photo: Supplied

Benjamin Zinsli is hoping his colourful drawing of Noah’s Ark will brighten up the day for other young patients at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

The six-year-old, who was diagnosed with spina bifida and hydrocephalus soon after he was born, has taken comfort from the artwork on the hospital’s walls during countless visits, and his own piece will now hang alongside them.

“When his teacher mentioned the Operation Art competition, he said he thought he’d give it a go to try to make other kids happy who also had regular visits,” his mother Sally Zinsli said.

As part of his treatment, Benjamin has undergone scans enabled by nuclear medicine that will be produced in massive quantities in Australia by the end of next year.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is building a new facility in Lucas Heights that will ramp up production of nuclear medical agents from 550,000 doses to 10 million doses per year, the equivalent to about a quarter of global supply.

Australia’s emergence as a major exporter of the medicine will come at a time when the facilities that produce as much as 70 per cent of the world’s nuclear medicine are due to shut down because of age.

Demand for nuclear imaging agent Technetium 99-mm is currently at about 40 million doses a year, but the general manager of ANSTO Nuclear Medicine Jayne Senior said this will rise in coming years.

“This is increasing as the world population expands and more countries modernise their health system,” Ms Senior said. “So there will be a major deficit of supply, and that’s where Australia comes in.”

ANSTO’s use of low-enriched uranium technology could also drive down demand for medicine based on high-enriched uranium and contribute to non-proliferation and nuclear security goals, she said.

The nuclear medicine department at Westmead Children’s Hospital is the largest in Australia and in the top 10 internationally, and administers treatments to about 4000 children every year.

The head of the department, Professor Robert Howman-Giles, said ANSTO’s facility would be important in advancing the field, including the growing use of PET scans for children with cancer.

“It’s a major growth area worldwide,” Professor Howman-Giles said. “The new facility is going to be looking at a lot more new agents.”

Nuclear medicine treatments are mostly administered intravenously, and he said a welcoming environment is especially important in the hospital’s preparation and injection rooms.

“We’ve got a lot of art in those rooms, the entire rooms have been painted with stories and cartoons, so you can be talking to them about that.

“We have some professional, very expensive art at the department, but the kids identify a lot more with what other children produce.”

Benjamin’s artwork will be on display along with 800 pieces by schoolchildren across NSW from this weekend at the Armory Gallery at Sydney Olympic Park. A selected 50 will be given to the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

William Tyrrell: Police work on 600 persons of interest in suspected abduction investigation

William Tyrrell was three years old when he vanished while playing at his grandmother’s house on the NSW Mid North Coast in 2014. Photo: Supplied A poster on a telegraph pole at the start of Benaroon Drive, Kendall asking for information about missing toddler William Tyrrell. Photo: Max Mason Hubers
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Police searching bushland in Bonny Hills, south of Port Macquarie, in 2015, as part of investigation. Photo: Peter Gleeson

William Spedding (centre) with his wife Margaret Spedding (left) at Campbelltown Court. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Police have been given information about 600 persons of interest in the William Tyrrell investigation. Photo: Supplied

The backyard of William’s grandmother’s house on Benaroon Drive at Kendall. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Detectives investigating the suspected abduction of toddler William Tyrrell have been given information about 600 persons of interest in a mammoth case that has engaged police statewide.

As the disappearance of three-year-old William from the Mid North Coast approaches its second anniversary on Monday, the sheer size and complexity of the homicide investigation behind it can be revealed.

It serves as a startling insight into the vast resources dedicated to finding out what happened to the toddler in the Spiderman suit on the morning of September 12, 2014.

Of the 600 persons of interest that Strike Force Rosann detectives have in their sights, 200 have not been completely identified.

Those profiles may include only physical descriptions from suspicious sightings and information gathered by police.

In a bid to rule in or out each name or description on the list, information relating to about 400 persons of interest have been sent out to police local area commands across the state.

Officers in each area have the responsibility of following up on those people and reporting back to the homicide squad, which is running the investigation.

Other teams at NSW Police’s State Crime Command, home to the force’s elite squads, are also helping with the workload and have been assigned people to investigate.

Other targets have been left to the team of 14 detectives that make up Strike Force Rosann, led by Detective Chief Inspector Gary Jubelin.

The overarching strategy, which has absorbed police resources across the state, is believed to be a first for homicide investigations in NSW.

While white goods repairman William “Bill” Spedding has been the investigation’s most high-profile person of interest, Fairfax Media understands there are others police have concentrated on just as intensely.

Mr Spedding has strenuously denied any involvement in the child’s disappearance and police have previously stressed he was only one of many people questioned in the investigation.

He has not been arrested or charged in relation to the disappearance.

Earlier this year the strike force looked closely at another Mid North Coast local after his erratic behaviour drew attention his way.

This included the man walking into a police station, asking to talk to someone on the strike force and asking to be handcuffed.

However, after a detailed look at every aspect of the man’s life, he was ruled out.

Last year a photo came across the desks of NSW detectives showing a young boy and a woman in a McDonald’s in Central Queensland.

The boy looked eerily similar to William, and the woman he was with looked like his grandmother, Natalie Collins.

William’s complicated background prevents reporting of certain aspects of his family life. However Ms Collins is not the grandmother who lived at the Kendall house where William disappeared from.

Fairfax Media reported last year that the hopes of detectives were dashed when police on the ground in Queensland confirmed the mother and boy were not who they hoped.

Ms Collins had already been tagged as a person of interest in the investigation, a suggestion she strenuously disputes.

The Sydney woman said she didn’t know where William was staying at the time he disappeared or that he was going to be in Kendall.

“I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have a clue,” she said.

“Who would have known what day he was going to be there and when he was playing outside?”

Ms Collin’s friend, Kim Loweke, told A Current Affair in August that police visited her and asked if she was hiding William after they found out she intended to move into a three-bedroom house with Ms Collins.

“Why would I do that, seriously? If someone had him, I wouldn’t hide him, I would show the world,” Ms Collins said.

Other persons of interest have included child sex offenders in the Mid North Coast area, with police revealing last year that a paedophile ring in the region might be linked to William’s case.

William’s parents have been previously ruled out of their son’s disappearance as has his grandmother, who moved out of the Kendall area after the unfathomable crime was carried out in her backyard.

Dressed in his Spiderman suit, William was playing on his grandmother’s deck on Benaroon Drive on the morning of September 12 when his mother went inside to make a cup of tea. William would have turned five in late June this year.

William, his sister and parents had travelled up from Sydney the day before for a spontaneous visit to Kendall.

At some point around 10.30am, William wandered around to his grandmother’s sprawling backyard, which slopes onto Benaroon Drive.

A matter of minutes was all it took for the charismatic toddler to vanish from the quiet cul-de-sac.

NSW Police would not comment on the case ahead of the anniversary on Monday.

What’s in a name? “Organic” orange juice claims questioned

Grant Eastwood, the owner of Wild Things Food in Fitzroy North, has put up signs warning customers he does not believe Milla’s juice to be organic. Photo: Jason South Milla’s “organic” orange juice
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When “organic” is in the name, it’s reasonable to think the folksy-looking orange juice you’re paying a premium price for is just that.

But in the case of Milla’s organic orange juice, the farmer who grows the oranges and squeezes the juice says it can’t be organic.

Philip Williamson, from Murray River Farm Kurrnung Citrus, even sells the exact same juice he supplies to Milla’s Farm Direct under his own brand, the Great Australian Squeeze, and he doesn’t label it organic.

That’s because even though he tries to avoid harsh chemicals where possible he does use herbicides on his NSW property. And just last year he had to spray “poison on the trees” when there was a fruit fly outbreak in the region.

Although he opts for biological pest control it would be economically impossible for him to never use chemicals, Mr Williamson said.

“Milla’s would like people to believe it’s organic but I can’t grow certified organic oranges on my farm,” he said.

“I wouldn’t dare to put the word organic on our own brand, which is the same juice as Milla’s. We promote Australian grown product and are proud of our juice.”

The discovery so incensed a health food shop owner in Melbourne’s inner north that he took to the issue with a permanent marker, crossing out the word “organic” on each individual bottle of Milla’s in his shop.

Grant Eastwood, the owner of Wild Things Food in Fitzroy North, later put up a sign to warn customers that although it’s still the “best tasting, pure OJ available” it is not organic.

“They are doing a lot of the right things on the farm but I hope that they just drop the false label and rely on the fact that they have a really good product,” Mr Eastwood said.

Organic Federation Australia chairman Adam Willson said the industry body was lobbying the government to introduce a domestic regulation for the industry, under Standards Australia.

“We’re facing the challenge that the word organic isn’t covered by legislation in the Australian market at this point, but [it] is a huge marketing advantage on a product,” Mr Willson said.

“Under AS6000, the minimum standard we want to introduce to the domestic market, the term organic would be legally enforceable through the ACCC.”

NASAA chair and owner of Karra Organic Farm Jan Denham said people need to look out for a Certified Organic logo to be sure it was the real deal.

“It’s especially important that companies that make organic claims must be able to substantiate those claims,” she said.

An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission spokesman refused to say if it was investigating Milla’s organic claims.

But the spokesman did say that Australian consumer law requires businesses to not engage in conduct that is likely to mislead or deceive; or make false or misleading claims or statements.

“Products labelled as organic generally attract a premium price compared to those produced using artificial fertiliser, chemicals or pesticides and non-essential food additives or processing aids,” he said.

“Businesses that make organic claims must be able to substantiate those claims.”

A Milla’s Farm director declined to comment.

Narendra Modi’s yoga diplomacy, or how India is winning friends and influencing people

Indian Prime Minister Narendra​ Modi​ is a big fan of yoga.
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He calls it “India’s gift to the world” and recommends people make yoga as much a part of daily life as their mobile phone. After sweeping to power in 2014, Modi even appointed India’s first government minister for yoga.

But yoga is also a key asset in Modi’s push to promote and develop India’s soft power – described by Harvard academic Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”.

Modi often talks about yoga in speeches and during meetings with world leaders. The day he addressed the Australian Parliament in November 2014 Modi told reporters, “I know yoga is enormously popular here. We need to connect our people more.” It was reported Modi discussed the benefits of yoga with US President Barack Obama over dinner at the White House in 2014.

Modi won support from the United Nations for the first international day of yoga on June 21 this year. He marked it with an early morning yoga session with about 30,000 devotees in the north Indian city of Chandigarh. Millions more participated across the world, including thousands in Australia.

“What Mr Modi has been able to do is put an India brand on it through the international day of yoga,” said India’s High Commissioner to Australia Navdeep​ Suri​. “Hopefully when people think yoga, they will think of India in a positive way.”

But there’s much more than yoga in India’s soft power toolbox. From the glitz and glamour of Bollywood​ to the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, India is flush with cultural attributes that interest and engage people in other parts of the world. It also boasts a 25-million-strong diaspora that is relatively wealthy and increasingly politically engaged. The director of the Australia India Institute, Professor Craig Jeffrey, points out that India has been Australia’s largest source of permanent skilled migrants since 2008. “Australia is a lot more Indian than it was 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.

For years India’s soft power potential remained largely untapped. But Professor Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat to India and head of Australian National University’s National Security College, says that is changing.

“It’s very clear that the Modi government has been working to harness Indian soft power and Indian cultural appeal more effectively that previous Indian governments have,” he says.

Australia will get to sample a little of this cultural charm offensive over the next two months as a program of Indian dance, theatre, music – and of course, yoga – rolls out across seven cities. The Confluence Festival of India in Australia, billed as “the biggest showcase of Indian arts and culture ever to be staged in Australia” is sponsored by the Indian government. Organisers say it will have a “strong and positive impact on the bilateral relationship, fostering mutual cultural connections, promoting tourism and migration and highlighting business opportunities between Australia and India.” Modi himself announced the festival during his historic 2014 visit.

Suri, who took up his post as India’s High Commissioner in April last year, was previously the head of public diplomacy at the Indian foreign ministry and has been involved with festivals sponsored by the Indian government in South Africa and Egypt.

“I’m a great believer in the power of cultural diplomacy, whether you call it soft power or anything else,” he says.

Suri says staging cultural festivals enabled diplomats to “get out of the box” of routine government-to-government interactions.

“What we’ve found is they have allowed us to very significantly broaden the range of contacts that we have from the narrow bureaucratic circles into the arts, the writers, intellectuals and people who are public figures – culture became a great way to connect with them,” he says. “In democracies like India and Australia centres of power are dispersed. It’s a 21st century diplomat’s task to connect with a much broader range of actors as compared to the traditional diplomacy of engaging on a government to government basis.” Buddhism, Bollywood and India’s most potent cultural exports

The rich performance traditions that will feature in the Confluence festival are often overshadowed by Indian cinema. Bollywood has won global recognition and now rates among India’s most potent cultural exports. The film industry has a major following in many parts of Asia and the Middle East. India also boasts a cadre of globally renowned writers and public intellectuals including Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Amartya Sen.

But maybe India’s greatest cultural export is Buddhism, which originated in north India and has gradually gained adherents through much of Asia. The region would be very different if not for that ancient manifestation of Indian soft power.

Modi has appealed to the vast Buddhist populations in east and south-east Asia by emphasising India’s historic connections to this spiritual tradition. In a speech in September last year he said: “India is taking the lead in boosting the Buddhist heritage across Asia.” Indian scholars have dubbed this “Buddhist diplomacy”.

“The prime minister is diligently pursuing India’s ‘Buddhist agenda’ and taking it beyond its borders, emphasising the Indian and Hindu links with Buddhism,” wrote Indian academic Rishika​ Chauhan​ in a recent paper titled Modi and Buddhism: Between Cultural and Faith-Based Diplomacy.

India’s more assertive use of soft power has sparked inevitable comparisons with its giant regional counterpart, China.

Professor Michael Wesley, director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Studies at ANU, says the key difference is that China starts out with a “significant set” of disadvantages.

“China has an authoritarian regime and people are very aware of that,” he says. “India is far from perfect but it doesn’t have a Tiananmen Square in its recent past. India is a much more benign presence internationally … it is simply less of a threat.”

Wesley says the recent controversies over Chinese influence in Australian politics had underscored a “nasty side” to China’s attempts to wield soft power.

“India starts from a much easier position to create positive attitudes,” he says.

Medcalf says it would be a mistake for India’s “global cultural offensive to look anywhere near as orchestrated” as China’s.

“The good news is India is a long, long way from that,” he says.

Modi’s rhetoric suggests he wants India to exert far more intellectual and cultural influence in future. While addressing a packed audience at Sydney’s Allphones Arena in November 2014 Modi said he dreamed of India being a “vishwa​ guru” or guru of the world.

But some are concerned that India’s more assertive soft power push is too closely linked to the Hindu nationalism popular with Modi’s political power base and a hallmark of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Raja Mohan, one of India’s leading strategic analysts, wrote in the Indian Express newspaper that Modi’s efforts to project soft power “are likely to come to nought if the government continues to allow a free run to groups that seek to anchor India’s rich cultural inheritance on a narrow and religious basis”.

Medcalf agrees. Becoming too focused on cultural expressions linked to Hinduism would “dilute” the soft power strengths that set India apart from China.

“There is a risk for India in its global soft power push being too closely associated with Hindu nationalism, or with Hinduism exclusively,” he says. “India’s great advantage is that it’s diverse and democratic.”

The truth about home ownership and the age pension

The family home is protected in public policy settings.The idea that your home does not count when you are assessed for the pension is political fiction. It does count, and so it should. It ought to count for more than it does.
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More on that later, but first I need to clear up some confusion. A few readers have queried my Sunday Moneycolumn last week, which stated that your home counts for $200,000 in the new pension assets test, which takes effect on January 1, 2017.

I’ll explain.

If you are a single homeowner, you can own $250,000 in assessable assets before you start losing the pension. If you are a single non-homeowner the threshold is $450,000.

A couple who owns a home is allowed $375,000 before they start losing the pension, while a couple without a home can have $575,000.

In other words, whether you’re single or part of a couple, home ownership is valued at $200,000 in the new pension assets test.

These amounts were passed by parliament and incorporated into the Social Security Act in mid-2015.

Note this is not a vast change of policy. Under the old assets test, a single homeowner could own $209,000 in assessable assets, while a single non-homeowner had a higher threshold of $360,500. For couples it was $296,500 and $448,000.

So under the old assets test, home ownership was worth $151,500.

The value of home ownership has increased in the new assets test, but the threshold has also increased.

No one will lose the full pension as a result of the changes and about 50,000 extra people will get it. Another 120,000 part-pensioners are likely to see an increase in payments.

So far, so good.

But as most Money readers would know, there are also hundreds of thousands of Australians who will lose their part pension from January 1 because a much steeper taper rate will apply.

Pensioners will lose $3 a fortnight for every $1000 in assets above the full-pension threshold. That’s the same taper rate that applied a decade ago, before the Howard-Costello government changed it to a more-generous $1.50 in the 2006 budget.

That means that single homeowners will lose their pension if they hold $542,500 in assets, while single non-homeowners are permitted $742,500. For couples the cut-off is $816,000 if they own a home and $1.016 million if they don’t.

Again, home ownership is valued at about $200,000. Income limits also apply.

Depending on your perspective it’s either much harsher or much more targeted than the old threshold, which let couples own $1.175 million in addition to the family home and still claim a part pension.

But those thresholds are subject to the regular indexation of the pension, which occurs every March and September. The exact cut-offs will be known later this month when the Department of Social Security announces the new pension figures.

It’s expected that about 91,000 people will lose their part pension, while another 235,000 will have their payments reduced as a result.

It’s an awful lot more than the very small number of wealthy retirees affected by proposed changes to superannuation.

I have sympathy for people who counted on the part pension in their retirement planning and are simply trying to make ends meet.

But the truth is that pension reform should go further, specifically that home ownership should count for far more than $200,000.

A renter would burn through $200,000 in just over seven years at Sydney’s median rent of $530 a week for a house or $525 for an apartment, and that’s under the unlikely scenario of no rent rises during that time.

Melburnians would have closer to 10 years, with a median rent of $400 a week for a house and $380 for units. The prices are from Domain’s Rental Report for the June quarter.

While retirees who own a home may not have much in liquid assets, retirees without a home deserve more help than they get.

It’s also about intergenerational fairness. The property boom since the late 1980s has made a lot of Baby Boomers very rich, even if they don’t feel rich. It’s all relative.

Quarantining the family home from the pension assets test and other tax measures such as capital gains tax discourages people from downsizing to unlock capital.

Yet Baby Boomers are such a big demographic group that whatever they do – buy, sell or hold – can distort the market. If they’re staying in homes that are bigger than their needs because of tax and pension benefits, then that decreases the natural supply in the housing market.

Building new housing stock can only help around the fringes since most of us buy our houses secondhand.

Grattan Institute analysis from 2013 suggested that 80 per cent of mature-age households with $1 million in net assets receive welfare benefits, on average, more than $200 a week.

Grattan is in favour of counting the true value of owner-occupied housing in the age pension assets test. In order to protect asset-rich but income-poor households, people could choose to remain in their home and receive the pension but the government would accumulate a claim against the property.

There is merit to this idea. The purpose of exempting the family home from the pension test is because pensioners need somewhere to live, not to protect one type of asset for the purposes of inheritance.

Those of us in Generation X and Generation Y are happy to be the tax base for the age pension, because supporting our fellow citizens in old age is part of being in a society. But many of us feel rightly aggrieved that we’re supporting property millionaires to get the pension while we can’t afford homes of our own.

I have a huge mortgage instead, which makes me one of the lucky ones.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is Money editor. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter.This article has been updated with the new indexation figures announced September 14, which provides us with the exact asset test limits effective from January 1.

US citizens renouncing because of tax laws affecting Australian superannuation

Karen and Frank Alpert gave up their American citizenship in June this year. They became Australian citizens 17 years ago after falling in love with Australia. Photo: Robert ShakespeareMost Americans would rather die than surrender their passports, but when Brisbane academic Karen Alpert renounced her US citizenship in Sydney with her husband and daughter she was angry.
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The Californian who migrated to Australia 20 years ago wasn’t quitting because of the prospect of Republican candidate Donald Trump, although she does predict others may quit too if he is elected President.

Like thousands of Americans who are now giving up their citizenship, the Alperts were protesting at United States tax policy. Other than Eritrea, it is the only country in the world that taxes non-resident citizens – and even holders of a Green Card (alien resident permit) who are also living outside the USA – on their worldwide income, regardless of where it is earned or where they live.

This requires the estimated 200,000 Americans who live in Australia, many of whom are dual citizens, to file an annual tax return in both countries. Compliance is cumbersome: the American tax code is 74,608 pages compared with Australia’s 3657 pages. Many dual citizens who live in Australia claim the American treatment of Australian superannuation means they are effectively being taxed twice.

Until the introduction of the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act or FATCA, the US government had no way of uncovering the earnings of the eight million Americans who live abroad. And most expatriates were unaware that they were required to file annual tax returns in both countries.

That’s changed. Now about 192 countries, including Australia, have agreed to FATCA, which obliges all banks and financial institutions to provide details of every American citizen’s bank balance and earnings. If the banks don’t oblige, they can be banned from operating in the US.

Because of FATCA more than 4500 US citizens gave up their citizenship last year, compared with 231 in the year before it was introduced. Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook, gave up his citizenship a few years ago, and others including the former mayor of London Boris Johnson – who was born in the US – have also threatened to quit in protest at the US tax policies.

Ashy Bines members claim payments were taken after cancellation

Ashy Bines leads a workout at the Sydney Show Grounds. Photo: Brook Mitchell Women getting in the spirit at the Ashy Bines World Booty Tour in July. Photo: Brook Mitchell
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Ashy Bines arrives to lead a class for her World Booty Tour. Photo: Brook Mitchell

More than 4000 Ashy Bines fans turned up at Sydney Olympic Park in July for the sold-out $28 Ashy Bines fitness session. Photo: Brook Mitchell

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Australian women who have signed up to one or more programs hosted by Gold Coast fitness mentor Ashy Bines have complained about being charged up to $US30 a month after cancelling their memberships.

The social media fitness star is well known for her “12-week Bikini Challenge” and her “World Booty Tour”, a ticketed event that involves mass fitness sessions for thousands of Ashy Bines members.

But members on social media pages for Ashy Bines have said they have struggled to cancel their memberships, with some being blocked from online forums for which they have paid to access.

“I’ve been a follower of Ashy Bines for years. I’m originally from Sweden and I bought her program when I first came here,” said 27-year-old Diana, who has asked for her surname not to be published.

“With her plans you get access to online forums, girls share recipes, talk, ask each other for tips. Every plan you purchase  gives you access to a different forum.”

For $US7.70 the Ashy Bines Booty Challenges includes a full workout plan, a video library, a tailored nutrition plan and access to the online forum.

Diana had already spent $177 on a VIP ticket to the Ashy Bines Sydney Booty Tour, including access to online forums and a program app, when she signed up to Ashy Bines’ The Life program.

At a cost of 1 cent for the first four weeks, and then $US29.95 a month thereafter, the program offered access to a “celebrity-like support team…to put a stop to that terrible yo-yo experience of losing weight…”

All charges for Ashy Bines programs are in US dollars, unless otherwise stipulated.

“When I joined in May I decided to cancel the same day, and I received confirmation that I would not incur any further charges,” Diana said.

However by the end of August, Diana found four withdrawals from her account plus foreign transaction fees, totalling around $US30 each.

“I contacted her support and they put me in a queue…So I decided to write to her on Instagram, and so many girls replied with the same experience…but the comments were deleted very quickly.”

Diana has since received her refund but has been blocked from all Ashy Bines forums, even those she has paid separately to access.

Other women on social media and product review websites have stated that they only elected to sign up to the $US7.70 Booty Challenge package, but were still being charged $US30 a month for The Life program.

In a statement to Fairfax Media, a spokesperson for Ashy Bines Inc said when someone signs up for the 28-day Booty Challenge, they are not automatically signed up to The Life program. “It is an option provided and agreed to at the sign up stage.”

She said subscribers to The Life program would be charged a fee if they did not opt out within the 28-day free trial period, but they could still opt out by emailing.

“However, if anyone believes they been charged by accident after they have emailed…we encourage them to please get in touch and we will investigate on an individual case-by-case basis, as this should not be the case.”

A spokesperson for NSW Fair Trading said customers who were dissatisfied in their dealings with Ashy Bines should contact the trader to  try to resolve the matter in the first instance, or “lodge a written complaint with Fair Trading” if they are unable to resolve their issues.

More than 4000 Ashy Bines fans turned up at Sydney Olympic Park in July for a sold-out $28 fitness session, where they were led through a 45-minute “booty lifting and sculpting workout” by Ms Bines.

Her success is often attributed to her Facebook page, which has more than 1.5 million followers.

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Wallabies v Springboks: Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper shine brightly in Brisbane

Call it a one-game winning streak. The Wallabies are finally on the board for 2016 after grinding out a 23-17 victory over South Africa in front of a disappointing crowd at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
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It was highly entertaining in patches, scrappy in others, but after dropping six-straight Tests, the Wallabies were going to lap up any victory with glee as the pressure lifts in the wake of a pair of heavy defeats at the hands of the untouchable All Blacks.

Green jerseys would prove far more agreeable for the Australians, who were spearheaded by the relentless Michael Hooper, who helped the home side rebound from a 14-3 deficit to claim the Mandela Plate in front of 30,327 fans on a wet night in Queensland.

Bernard Foley had the veritable mixed bag, throwing an intercept that set up a Springbok try, but scoring one of his own in the second half to add to his five-from-five with the boot.

The old Reds combination of Will Genia and Quade Cooper looked far more effective, with Cooper highly involved and orchestrating some promising raids as his combination with Foley at inside centre began to flourish.

Winger Reece Hodge looks a keeper for Michael Cheika, while Samu Kerevi is slowly working out how much of a physical impact he can have with his midfield carries when he runs with vigour and confidence.

“It’s been a long while, it’s a good feeling. We’ve hung in there right throughout. They played well tonight but we’re very happy to win,” said captain Stephen Moore after the match.

The rain that had persisted over Brisbane for much of the afternoon lifted by kick-off but the Wallabies were still miserable. After just two minutes the Springboks were over through number eight Warren Whitely, despite some desperate defence from Genia.

Cooper had some good early touches, and his short kicks behind the rushing Boks defence were turning them on their heels. They were unlucky not to get more pay when Hodge almost pocketed one up with the line in sight, although the three points from the scrum penalty had them on the board.

But such had been the Wallaby woes that even the most promising of movements could end in tears. Israel Folau, Kerevi and Cooper were part of a glittering raid down the Springbok left which had their line in tatters.

It was swung back to the right, but with gold jerseys swarming, Foley managed to find a green one. The Adriaan Strauss intercept made its way to Johan Goosen, who ended the 80m effort under the posts and saw the South Africans lead 14-3 after 20 minutes.

The Wallabies were trailing, but applying most of the pressure. Moore twice shunned penalty shots from wide out to kick to the corner and his persistence paid dividends as Adam Coleman crossed for his first Test try, making it 14-10 with half an hour down.

More quality backline interchanges, Foley and Cooper featuring prominently, poured the pressure on the Boks to start the second half, and the dividend was three points and key line-out man Eben Etzebeth shown a yellow card for a professional foul.

Foley made it four-from-four and the Wallabies were in front with a spring in their step. It took a brilliant try-saver from Goosen to stop Kerevi from scoring in the corner, whose leg was ruled to graze the line at the exact moment he touched down the ball.

But the Wallabies were asserting control. An 18-phase raid in the corner opened it right up for Foley, who dummied his way over under the posts to make it 23-14 to the home side, only for that to be whittled back to 23-17 after a quickfire penalty.

But the Boks didn’t have enough in the tank to steal the result, as the Wallabies did in this very fixture last year. Perhaps this victory will produce the same long-term bounce for Cheika and his embattled troops.

Wallabies v Springboks: Improved performance eases pressure on Michael Cheika

The Wallabies were far from a polished product – and there is no suggestion this year will be smooth sailing, but there were definite improvements in their 23-17 win over the Springboks in Brisbane.
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It is not as simple as saying the Wallabies are back on track, as we will no doubt hear from countless players and coaches over the next few days.

South Africa were supposedly an out of sorts outfit – it’s easy to draw that conclusion after a loss to Argentina – but the fact the Pumas scored more points (19) in one half against the All Blacks on Saturday than the Wallabies did in Sydney and Wellington combined, indicates they are a slick outfit and will be no pushovers in Perth next week.

The easy way for the Wallabies to silence critics would have been to pump the Springboks with the attacking rugby they lived and died by last year.

The result has answered questions – Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper can star alongside each other – and restored confidence in the lineout, but hardly injected confidence Australia will be world-beaters anytime soon.

It is worth keeping in mind that after the Perth fixture the Wallabies play their next eight Tests abroad; Pretoria, London, Auckland and then a Spring Tour. Things are not going to get easier and it could be a long year if beating a Springboks side lacking any real structure was not as straightforward a task as they would have liked.

2005 was the last time the Wallabies lost seven on the trot. Eddie Jones was in charge. Two games later, after a 22-24 loss to Wales, he was sacked as coach. You have to trawl the history books to 1969 to find the last time the Wallabies went down seven in a row before that.

Such a crisis has been averted, but only just, thanks to a 62nd minute try to Foley.

In the blink of an eye the Wallabies trailed 7-0 and were on the backfoot once again. A collective sigh echoed through a slightly fuller than half Suncorp Stadium. It was then hands on heads when Foley threw an intercept pass to Adriaan Strauss finished off by fullback Johan Goosen to put the visitors ahead 14-3.

Foley redeemed himself though, scoring late to give Australia a nice buffer and give further credit to Cheika’s plan of having he and Cooper forge a long-term No.10 and No.12 combination.

The lineout was far better. Stephen Moore didn’t miss a throw all night and is no doubt sleeping easier without the prying hands of New Zealand’s Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick in front of him.

He backed himself and let his throwing do the talking.

Adam Coleman, solid across the park, dived over for his first Test try in the 27th minute to mark Australia’s second try in 187 minutes of play.

Reece Hodge was a standout on his starting debut while Cooper produced glimpses of brilliance, including a behind-the-back flick pass to Samu Kerevi to go with a string of inside passes that are working an absolute treat at the moment.

Australia’s forwards were direct and possessed plenty of punch and power through the middle, while Michael Hooper picked his moments cleverly at the breakdown.

It wasn’t the wet war of attrition expected given the Brisbane weather prior to kick-off, but the Wallabies were up for the fight, because, well, they had to be.

And we might see more Cheika pre-game chats with referees after the Wallabies were the beneficiaries of a 11-8 penalty count. There was also the stroke of good luck keeping Israel Folau on the park after a questionable late hit on Goosen.

Cheika was, however, visibly perplexed at Kerevi’s non-try early in the second half with the Wallabies up by two points.

For now though, the pressure on Cheika has been alleviated with this latest, albeit narrow, victory.

He will enjoy being back in the winner’s circle but the Wallabies missed a perfect chance to make a statement and change a perception they are a markedly different team to the one that galvanised the nation some 10 months ago.

Australian cricketer Steve O’Keefe quits alcohol for six months after pub incident

Steve O’Keefe always liked a drink and a chat. It was just that one Saturday night last month on the Corso in Manly he did a bit too much of both.
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There were reasons behind the NSW and Australian spinner tying one on and then letting his frustration get the better of him and verbally abusing police when he was denied entry to a pub. The devastation of tearing a hamstring midway through Australia’s first Test in Sri Lanka, and wondering whether he would ever suit up for his country again, was chief among them.

O’Keefe, 31, does not want to make any excuses, though. In fact, the episode has not just left him $10,000 lighter on due to a Cricket Australia fine but with a renewed focus on getting as much out of his career as he can.

Hence he has put an increased focus on recovery, more specific training – and has decided to quit the booze for six months. The latter is a well worn path for athletes who have run into strife on a night out. But while O’Keefe’s incident doesn’t rate too highly on the scale of player misbehaviour, particularly compared to the misadventures of athletes in other codes, he has taken something productive out of it.

“I’m getting older and I’m getting injuries like the hamstring, which I’d never done before, and if I want to at my age give myself a realistic chance of having the long career that I want then I need to be doing these other things outside the game,” he said.

“It’s not something I go around touting to every individual. I’m planning to go [without alcohol for] the cricket season. It’s not for everyone. I love a beer and having a beer at the end of the game with your mates you certainly got a lot out of. You sit back and relax and some of those conversations you have really extend your cricket.

“But I think for me right now it’s the best thing I can do to give myself every chance of playing the best cricket and being as healthy as I possibly can.

“I’m into day 31, I’ve been ticking them off.”

O’Keefe had been so embarrassed by his behaviour outside the Steyne Hotel last month that he spoke to police the next day and apologised to the hotel manager.

What had been building up inside him in the 11 days before had been the disappointment of another missed opportunity, having broken down so early in the Test series in Sri Lanka. There had already been frustration for O’Keefe at the cancelled tour of Bangladesh last year, on which he was likely to feature, and the hamstring injury in Kandy was another setback.

Spin city: Steve O’Keefe is a possibility for the tour of India in February. Photo: AP

It was fine when he was still with Steve Smith’s squad, where he remained upbeat around teammates, but when he returned home reality was tougher to swallow.

“I think I mainly just felt sorry for myself,” O’Keefe said. “I’d been home for a week and I felt like I had things under wraps and then you have a couple of drinks and those other thoughts that are sitting around in the back of your head start to come to fruition. You think, ‘is that it? Is that your last opportunity to play cricket for Australia?’

“When you go home and you’re on your own, you sit down and reflect on it and the Test is on the TV, it’s a hard thing to take. Obviously it’s fair to say I didn’t handle it appropriately at all.”

The likelihood is more chances will come O’Keefe’s way. He is in selectors’ plans for the tour of India in February and March and could get a start even earlier, having played alongside Nathan Lyon in the weather-affected Sydney Test against the West Indies in January.

“India is there and will be in the back of your mind, but it’s just a day by day thing at the moment,” he said. “You’ve got to be performing well for the Blues and there is a lot of guys out there now, particularly young spinners around the country, doing really well.”