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PM-in-wanting Tony Abbott lacks credibility to restore good government

As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott’s utter resistance and simple oppositionism was designed to make effective government impossible, and to cause the collapse of Gillard’s working agreements with independents and minor parties. Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe modern n Senate, according to the former prime minister Tony Abbott, has ceased to be a house of review and has become instead a house of rejection. As ever when he is making thoughtful and helpful contributions to his determination to see the re-election of the Turnbull government, he has a solution for every problem.
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Abbott still seems to think that he is the person to whom the party would turn if or when it has become obvious that the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull is irretrievable. It is by no means clear that the Liberal Party has such a death-wish (or even that there is coup talk), but Abbott can sustain himself in his hopes and dreams because there are no obvious candidates jockeying for the leadership, or with talents so obvious that the party would necessarily look their way.

Sixteen months ago, Abbott awoke from deposition hangover, and pledged that there would be no undermining of the man to whom the Liberal Party had turned after it had despaired of Abbott. He didn’t mean it then, and he does not now. That does not mean that his every utterance, or every effort to be heard or noticed, is part of a conscious strategy or tactic focused at a return bout. Some of it comes from mere relevance deprivation. Some of it comes from his habitual tendency to pyromania, brainfarts and efforts to demonstrate his unique affinity with, and ear for, what the average n is thinking. Some comes from an effort to protect his reputation and legacy, a project that is made to seem more logical given that Turnbull has made no significant changes, other than in style, to the policies of the old Abbott government.

But anyone who doubts that Abbott is waiting for the call should look at some of his recent rousing speeches, for example Monday’s address to the Young Liberal Party convention, available on his website. Nor would one have to be of the party’s conservative wing to note that however flyblown the rhetoric, he remains a better and more convincing advocate for his party than his successor.

It helps, of course, that Abbott can pick and choose which Liberal policies and programs he defends or questions, and is not the world’s most accurate witness to the style and achievement of his period in office. Or, for that matter, to his record in opposition, of creating a type of hyperpartisanship and oppositionism that has led to what he now describes as a crisis in government.

It may not be entirely due to Abbott genius. The style is very similar to that adopted earlier in the United States, where Republicans decided to block everything put up by the Democrats, willing at times to bring the public administration to a halt, or to simply refuse even to consider negotiation, compromise, or the ratification of appointments. The end point of that strategy is not only the election of President Donald Trump, or the gulf between the major political parties, but deep division in the population, public despair about politicians, elites and the political class, and despair about whether the old system of constitutional checks and balances – which depend on a willingness to compromise – can endure.

No one played the game as hard as Abbott when he was leader of the opposition. All the more so when a minority Gillard government was elected, and, as Abbott saw it, Gillard usurped power by corrupt blandishments to independents who morally ought to have supported him. Abbott’s utter resistance and simple oppositionism was designed to make effective government impossible, and to cause the collapse of Gillard’s working agreements with independents and minor parties.

Abbott failed, in the sense that Gillard was remarkably effective in finding winning combinations with the Senate backbench, and was successful with much of her legislative agenda. Yet he succeeded mightily in creating a constant sense of crisis, embattlement and bitterness, and political illegitimacy, about Gillard. It was hardly surprising that Labor calculatedly decided to return the compliment in 2013, when an Abbott government was elected, if with a renewed Senate crossbench with as much claim as he to a mandate of resisting Abbott’s policies.

The architect of this chaos now insists that governments – he means parties with House of Representatives majorities – must be allowed to govern. Executive government must be allowed to implement the policies it sees as necessary. For Abbott, this is not even something that starts with a mandate theory, because he thinks that governments must also be empowered to respond to fresh events.

“Good government is much harder than it used to be,” he now sees. “We’ve become less like Westminster and more like Washington. Unlike Britain but like the US, the n government can no longer expect to get its legislation through the Parliament.

“In fact, our Wash-minster model has the worst of both worlds: like Washington, there can be no expectation of passing contentious legislation; unlike Washington there can be no expectation of security of tenure for the head of government.

“These days n prime ministers, especially centre-right ones, don’t just have to win elections, make sensible decisions and run competent administrations; they have to negotiate every piece of contentious legislation line-by-line through a Senate with an in-built populist majority…

“It’s almost impossible to win four senators out of six in any state (because that needs 57 per cent of the vote), so it’s almost impossible for the government of the day to have a Senate majority in its own right…

“It’s much easier for crossbench senators (surviving on just 5 to 10 per cent of the vote) to play politics than it is for them to take responsibility for cutting spending, upsetting lobby groups, and reducing taxes on businesses and high-income earners.”

What we need to do, apparently, is to drop the double dissolution provisions in the existing constitution, and to substitute a provision calling for a joint sitting of the existing houses of Parliament if a Senate has twice rejected government proposals over three months. Section 57 of the existing constitution deals with repeated Senate refusal to pass government legislation by having both houses of Parliament dissolved, with a joint sitting of the new Parliament being held if the Senate persists in rejecting the legislation.

The political risk to recalcitrant senators is that long-term senators, looking to a term extending through the next as well as the present Parliament, might become more realistic, pragmatic or willing to compromise if they had to face the risk of losing their seat when both long- and short-term senators are up for re-election.

That is, of course, a risk that must be weighed against the opportunity presented by an election for all senators: in all of the states, if not in the territories, the quota for election halves, increasing the possibility that a senator who has made her or his name might get enough votes to be re-elected. Last year’s double dissolution election is a good example of the risk. The government was returned with a House of Representatives majority of one, a worse position than before. And the population of affirmed their desire for a Senate containing a large (indeed larger) number of ratbags, minor party and independent senators, making negotiation of legislation through the Parliament even more difficult.

If Turnbull has had marginally more success than Abbott did in persuading crossbench senators to support his government’s program, that has not been a result of his double dissolution gamble, which must be counted a failure. It is instead a reflection of the fact that Turnbull government ministers have been more open, consultative and willing to compromise with crossbench senators than was Abbott, who generally only went through the rituals of consultation.

There is, of course, both compromise and surrender. Some Turnbull government successes, in getting through the building and construction industry authority, for example, involved the effective gutting of the government’s original proposal. About the most that could be said after the great compromise was that there, on paper, was the agency that Howard had created, Gillard had abolished, Abbott had threatened to restore, and which Turnbull had tried, rather ineffectually, to make the pivotal issue of the election.

There was another problem, of course. Strictly, Turnbull could have convened a joint sitting, only the second in ‘s history, had the Senate persisted with its rejection of the ABCC legislation. But that was unlikely to get tougher legislation, given that the government’s majority in the House of Representatives was so thin.

“We do need an effective Senate for when governments get it wrong,” Abbott says, lest anyone accuses him of undermining the role of the Senate. “The Senate has a right and duty to hold the government to account.

“But the government also has a right and duty to put in place the policy that the country needs, including – sometimes – policy that wasn’t a specific election mandate.

“Differences between the government and its opponents in the Senate should be resolved by the people at the next election. They shouldn’t be allowed to stop the government from doing what, after due consideration and full debate, it believes is in the national interest.

“In the end, the government of the day has to be allowed to govern – and not with one hand tied behind its back because its legislation can’t pass.

“Do we want an that’s capable of hard-but-needed reform, as in the Hawke-Howard era of relatively amenable senates; or an that increasingly resembles Italy with a revolving door prime ministership and an inability to get things done because of gridlock between the two houses of Parliament?

“The need to negotiate so much past a crossbench of critics and rivals makes the government look impotent if it fails; and weak and unprincipled even if it succeeds.

“It’s no wonder people are losing faith in sensible centre-right politics. To win people back and to restore faith in our system of government, we’ve got to give ourselves more chance to succeed.

“So let’s get on with it, so that our country can have the government it needs and so that in 2017 our political system can start to recover from the trauma of the past few years.”

Somehow I cannot see the idea taking either the Senate or the electorate by storm. Least of all when it comes from Abbott.

But it is worth wondering whether the development of minor parties, governments without control of the Senate, and the increasing acrimony in politics requires some new responses, if only to cut through the logjams. Two-party systems are in decline everywhere except in the US, and even there, something must soon break. Most of the nations of Europe are now governed by coalitions in which parties must continually talk and compromise if practical administration is not to be paralysed.

is unusual for the strength and rigidity of its party discipline. Labor or Liberal, parties do not respect independence of mind or character: elected representatives are expected to vote as one. Yet the unifying principles of the major parties do not necessarily have to depend on everyone being of the same mind about freedom of speech, social legislation, or about climate change, the future of agriculture or the need for submarines. It might well be that there would be much more flexibility, and room for compromise, in modern politics if parties confined themselves to a narrower field in which they insisted that everyone was bound by Caucus solidarity.

It might also help if the House of Representatives, as much as the Senate, lifted its game to be a real debating chamber and forum of idea. It is in the representatives that governments are made and unmade, but in practice, once a government is made, it is the ministry – the executive government – which controls the chamber, the agenda and the parliamentary timetable. A government that placed more focus on the role of the parliamentarian, the backbencher, the argument and the rationale might have more chance of enlisting some sympathy and help from voters and from senators. But I would hardly expect that voters, or politicians, would be looking to Abbott for inspiration for this change of approach.

Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor.

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Wrecking ball: With Steve Bannon, the power behind Donald Trump, it’s ‘always noon at the OK Corral’

Steve Bannon: “The most malevolent voice in the US President’s head.” Photo: Ron SachsWashington: Malcolm Turnbull can’t complain too much. Donald Trump did lash out at the n prime minister, but at least Turnbull was spared the muscle-flexing invasion threat that the new commander-in-chief was dishing out to others – in the case of Mexico, to stomp out drug barons; and in the case of Iraq, to steal the country’s vast oil reserves.
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And Turnbull was never a target for the US President. Instead, the n prime minister was collateral damage in a shootout between factions in the new administration – in which Trump’s angry dressing-down of Turnbull was leaked as proof of what is being dubbed Trump’s shock-and-awe first days in the Oval Office; and with it, the swift and extraordinary consolidation of power by his anarchic strategy chief, Stephen Bannon.

Canberra reeled in the wake of The Washington Post’s unprecedented, chapter-and-verse account of anger and condescension spilling down a phone line from the White House, as Trump made serial “pleased to meet you” calls to world leaders last weekend. And when Trump breasted the microphone at a national prayer breakfast in Washington on Thursday, he wasn’t quite ready to drop the shock-and-awe bit.

“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it.” Trump said: “We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

In anyone’s language the deal, by which Canberra talked the Obama administration into taking 1250 refugees who still languish in Nauru and on Manus Island, was a cunning stunt that was sure to get up Trump’s nose – hence this tweet on Wednesday evening, in which Trump exaggerated the numbers: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from . Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Amidst an outpouring of social media affection for , former senior US diplomats rushed in to douse the flames, with most refusing to speak publicly about the damage they feared Trump might have inflicted, lest their critique goad the new President to direct even greater heat at Canberra. “It’s serious – I don’t want to enflame things,” a former Bush-appointed ambassador told Fairfax Media.

Later, Trump seemed to have got the message, declaring: “I love as a country.” But as much as he grudgingly accepted that he was obliged to honour Obama’s resettlement deal, the President remained angry: “I just said ‘why?'”

And his spokesman, Sean Spicer, who at various points in his daily press briefing referred to the prime minister as “Trunbull” and “Trumbull”, warned that all the detainees would be subjected to Trump’s “extreme vetting”, leaving moot how many, if any, of the 1250 refugees would end up in the US.

Ironically, the Post’s report on Trump dissing Turnbull came during what had the appearance of a respite from the wall-to-wall protests and executive-order madness of the new President’s first days in office – Trump didn’t care, but Turnbull could reasonably have expected that with no leaks in the intervening days, the ugly detail of his unpleasant exchange with ‘s most important ally would stay under wraps; and in naming his pick to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, Trump’s choice of the youthful originalist Neil Gorsuch was well within the bounds of Republican expectations.

But when Trump anointed Gorsuch at a live-televised ceremony under grand chandeliers in the East Room at the White House, as much as all eyes were on the nominee, many also wondered about the rumpled figure standing off to the left, an enigmatic grin creasing his ruddy complexion.

This was Bannon, well known to Americans since his appointment as Trump’s campaign chief last year and, since winning the election, his appointment as Trump’s chief strategist. But it was not until this week that they understood the enormity of the power amassed by this brash, bumptious newcomer to public service. In some quarters, he’s already referred to as President Bannon.

As Team Trump trooped into the White House, different power bases were ticked off by analysts – Bannon and his policy adviser sidekick Stephen Miller were the outsiders, some would say the bomb throwers; and Vice-President Mike Pence and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus were the GOP establishment guys, who many in the party believed had used the transition process to outmanoeuvre Bannon by stacking the White House with their hand-picked establishment loyalists.

Between those two was the Trump family beachhead – the President’s son-in-law, trusted confidant and counsellor Jared Kushner; and floating between these three powerbases on an issue-by-issue basis, was Kellyanne Conway, a key campaign figure who Trump has also appointed as a White House counsellor.

None expected the shakedown to be as quick as it was. But amidst the chaos generated by the executive order by which Trump shuttered the global US refugee program for four months, and indefinitely in the case of those from Syria, and put a bar on arrivals from seven majority-Muslim countries, Trump slipped another executive order into the mix – he was appointing Bannon to the National Security Council … on which, more in a minute.

All this – the messages from Trump, the rate at which he threw them out and the extent to which Americans were seeing the unvarnished, unrestrained Trump – is attributed to Bannon’s brilliance. In declaring Bannon responsible for making “Trump the disrupter” the accent for these vivid first days in office, Time magazine quoted a veteran Republican who said: “It’s already over, and Bannon won.”

And this from BuzzFeed, in the crazy first days of Trump’s migration crackdown: “A weekend of chaos and conflict has produced one piece of clarity: Steve Bannon is the central force shaping Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Bannon seemed to concur with Time’s assessments that he was the one who kept the doctrine pure, he was the true believer who was in it not for money or position, but to change history.

“What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order,” Bannon said in an email to The Washington Post.

And that’s the thing. For much of the campaign and even into the transition period, a lot of what Trump had promised was dismissed as campaign theatrics – more hot air from the New York blowhard. The underlying belief was that Trump didn’t have the bottle – but Bannon is Trump’s bottle.

Historically, an army of advisers swarms around a new president, telling him what he can’t do; but Bannon marches into the Oval Office each day, telling Trump what he can do. And he does it – sometimes secretly, like much of the groundwork on the migration crackdown.

Increasingly his decisions are seen to be in line with Bannon’s instinctive gut feeling – which insiders say is much like Trump’s.

It’s not surprising that Bannon could elbow Priebus aside. But amid speculation that Washington politics is proving to be more of a challenge than they had expected, some wide-eyed reporters are asking what happened to Kushner and his wife – Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

Kushner is rated as a steadying, mollifying influence on Trump. An explanation being offered for some of the wilder rides by the administration – usually on Fridays – is that Kushner absents himself from the White House to observe the Sabbath rituals of his Jewish faith. But some suspect that he is being undermined and is less able to haul Trump back from Bannon’s pyrotechnic sphere of influence.

Kushner’s predictions in meetings with the business community that Trump would be “rational” when it came to his dealing with Muslims and building a border wall didn’t hold up – and usually mild-mannered, the son-in-law reportedly was enraged by the collapse of a deal on which he had laboured to ensure that a meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto would proceed.

“Kushner was f—ing furious,” according to a source quoted by Vanity Fair magazine. “I’d never once heard him say he was angry throughout the entire campaign, but he was furious.”

In the main, Trump’s commitments have been to those who he calls “the forgotten people”. Uniting the political tribes of the US is not at the top of his list and he doesn’t dwell on healing divisions – quite the contrary, in fact.

Miller, the policy chief, shares Bannon’s penchant for disruption, explaining to CBS News: “Anytime you do anything hugely successful that challenges a failed orthodoxy, you’re going to see protests. In fact, if nobody is disagreeing with what you’re doing, then you’re probably not doing anything that really matters in the scheme of things.”

Bannon and Miller reportedly were the authors of Trump’s “American carnage” inauguration speech, and the duo are presumed to be the authors of most of Trump’s executive orders. Similarly Bannon is said to have influenced Trump’s decision to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the so-called angry president, near his desk.

For Bannon, the NSC appointment was pure political gold – Americans and the world can only guess at what it might mean for them.

Already, even before Trump’s nominated secretary of state, former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, had been approved by the Senate, the President has, with the aid of Bannon and Michael Flynn, their worrisome national security adviser, signalled what The Washington Post describes as the abandonment of traditional diplomacy in favour of concentrated decision-making by these few aides, infusing a combative, iconoclastic foreign policy with their “America First” ethos.

Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, used her first visit to UN headquarters in New York to announce that Washington would be on the watch for those who “don’t have our back” and she paused, before adding: “We’re taking names.”

As Trump hectors China and Iran, the worry for some observers is that even as Tillerson settles behind his desk at the State Department, Trump and his gang will have so articulated a world view and a belief in how it should be managed that Tillerson will have to fight to be heard.

Trump’s reorganisation of the Security Council to accommodate Bannon is staggering – not only has he elevated a political adviser to a seat on the NSC principals committee, a Cabinet-level forum that tries to deal in fact; he has made Bannon’s rise all the more powerful by downgrading the NSC standing of the heads of the military and intelligence.

Bannon, a former US Navy officer and admiral’s aide, Goldman Sachs investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart flame-thrower, is now on par with the secretaries of defence and state.

“The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they’re talking about national security,” Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, defence secretary and CIA director in two Democratic administrations told The New York Times.

“I’ve never seen that happen, and it shouldn’t happen. It’s not like he has broad experience in foreign policy and national security issues. He doesn’t. His primary role is to control or guide the President’s conscience based on his campaign promises. That’s not what the National Security Council is supposed to be about.”

And if, as a Democratic appointee, Panetta sounds partisan, George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, Josh Bolten, seemingly agreed. Having barred Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser, from NSC meetings, he argued at a conference last year that a president’s decisions made with his NSC advisers “involve life and death for the people in uniform” and should “not be tainted by any political decisions”.

Trump reportedly respects Bannon because being independently wealthy, he doesn’t need the job, and for his pleasure in blowing things up – he is said to have told a fellow guest at a party that he was like Lenin, sharing the Russian revolutionary’s eagerness to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment”.

More troubling, given Bannon’s NSC appointment, is information shared by his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, who describes his obsessive interest in wars and warfare.

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war – it’s almost poetry to him,” she told The Daily Beast last year. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome … every battle, every war … Never back down, never apologise, never show weakness … He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the OK Corral.”

But public opinion moves fast when you are having fun. A Public Policy Polling survey released on Thursday shows that 40 per cent of Americans already want to impeach Trump – up from 35 per cent just a week ago.

In the meantime, American commentators are running out of words to describe Trump’s excesses. This is what The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker is reduced to as she attempts to describe the unfolding early days of Trump: “Every day is a jack-in-the-box – or a dozen – a fresh page from Hieronymus Bosch’s sketchpad.”

Malcolm Turnbull gets the picture. Trump sketched it at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast: “The world is in trouble, but we’re gonna straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do – I fix things. We’re gonna straighten it out. Believe me.”

Amen.

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The Elphie, Germany’s answer to the Opera House

The Elphie, in Hamburg, German, was wrought from the bones of an 1875 warehouse.It’s been dubbed the project of the decade and also the new Sydney Opera House. Finally, the Elbphilharmonie​, in Hamburg, Germany, has opened to the public, six years late and 10 times the original budget – but who’s counting? Designed by Swiss architectural powerhouse Herzog & de Meuron of Tate Modern fame, and wrought from the bones of an 1875 warehouse, the Elphie is crowned with an undulating, sequined roof with 1000 curved glass panels that glitter and reflect the sun, sky and the waters of the Elbe River. Comprising three concert halls, the largest is the 2100-seat Grand Hall, now in the throes of a three-week long opening festival, replete with works commissioned specifically for the opening that showcasing the Elphie’s resident orchestras. The key to the concert hall’s pure sound is the acoustic “white skin” on the walls, made from 10,000 panels that steer the sound into every corner. Although the architects took reference from sports stadiums and the ancient temple at Delphi (as well as tents), those who like to see the whites of the performing musicians’ eyes will be pleased to note that even the back seats are no more than 30 metres from the conductor. Set on a peninsula jutting into the river, the complex also includes the four-star, 250-room Westin Hotel Hamburg, with rooms from $US213. A public plaza, reached by a curved, 82-metre escalator, is open to all comers, so even if you’re not a fine music fan, or not really into architecture, it’s worth a visit for its expansive views of the north German harbour city and the rejuvenated precinct around the concert hall. See elbphilharmonie.de, westinhamburg苏州夜总会招聘
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Five places that made me: Alex Zabotto-Bentley, design director

ROSEBUD, MORNINGTON PENINSULA
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Growing up, summer holidays were always a family affair. All the cousins would get together, and the families would bring their own house-made salami, ricotta, pasta, and all the bounty from their suburban gardens to a holiday house on the Mornington Peninsula. It was a classic coming of age story; we kids were like a tribe, hitchhiking up to Portsea, trying that first swig of grappa, sunbaking with baby oil, first kiss on a ride at Rye Carnival … ATHENS AND ROME

After studying classics at university, visiting Athens was a pure epiphany. Right in front of me, these temples embodied the beauty of mathematical principles, of form and balance, and everything made sense. I immediately wanted to delve further into Greco Roman art, so I hightailed it to Trastevere in Rome, where I was struck by the power of the statuary: the proud bearing and aquiline noses. I started sketching them for myself and I still do. Nothing beats a great Roman nose. PARIS

The Picasso Museum in Paris was a very special experience. As a kid, I had stolen a page from a library book, depicting Picasso’s The Pan Flute painted in 1923. I had this Picasso print on my wall and I was obsessed with cubism and its offbeat colours, which I often use in my work. I had longed to see the original, and there it was, recently restored. Time literally stood still. I actually asked the attendant to allow me five minutes alone with it … and he did. They got everyone out of the room and I kind of communed with it. Unforgettable. TRIESTE

A few years ago, both my parents passed away within a short time. I decided to make a pilgrimage to Trieste, Italy, where they were married. I needed to return them in spirit to the place where they had come together, but I didn’t know exactly which church it was. I searched out members of their bridal party, distant cousins and people in the village that had attended, and explained my story. I was able to track down the church and just as I entered and took a pew, the bells began to toll. It was incredibly moving. I climbed a giant rhododendron tree outside the church and attached two santini (memorial photos of my parents), with my cousins clapping in celebration. It was a fitting closure to a beautiful love story and an almighty homecoming. MALTA

Last year, I was honoured to be the style director for Malta’s entry for Eurovision. For a boy from Coburg who had spent every Eurovision contest glued to the TV with family and friends, to go to Stockholm and be backstage was almost unbelievable. We created a video for singer Ira Losco that celebrated Malta, from the crumbling palazzi to the wild coastline. It’s hard to convey the feeling of doing my dream job in such a spectacular country.

Alex Zabotto-Bentley is the award-winning owner of AZBCreative, known for his innovative approach to design. Coming up: Mjolner, a Viking-inspired restaurant in Redfern’s Old Tobacco Factory, and several international hotel projects including Flores, Bali, and London. See azbthecreative苏州夜总会招聘

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Government MPs working to bring same-sex marriage policy to a head over next fortnight

Rainbow Families opposed to a plebiscite on same sex marriage outside Parliament House in Canberra in September 2016. Photo: Andrew Meares The push to allow a free vote is being driven by the backbench, though some cabinet ministers are aware the discussions are underway. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull personally supports same-sex marriage. Photo: Penny Stephens

Liberal Party MPs who support same-sex marriage will push to abandon the government’s plebiscite policy over the next fortnight in favour of a free vote on the floor of Parliament, in a move that could divide the Coalition and create a fresh political headache for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Fairfax Media understands Liberal MPs including Dean Smith, Warren Entsch, Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans and Melissa Price are among those leading discussions on how to advance the issue.

The push to allow a free vote is being driven by the backbench, though some cabinet ministers are aware the discussions are underway.

The majority of the Turnbull cabinet, including Mr Turnbull, personally support same-sex marriage, but the issue has been dormant since late last year.

The argument in favour of a free vote is that Liberal MPs have historically had a conscience vote on such issues and that the position adopted under Tony Abbott, which bound MPs to support a plebiscite, was an aberration.

In November last year, Mr Wilson said in a speech that he had “discharged” his responsibility to vote for the proposed February 11 plebiscite – a vote that was defeated – and that he believed a vote could be held before the next election. Supporters believe Mr Wilson’s argument is correct and they are now entitled to a free vote.

They argue that once the plebiscite date passes, and a Senate inquiry into the bill proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis is handed down in mid-February, the Liberal party room should debate the issue in the second week of the new parliamentary year, commencing February 13.

Significantly, they hope to bring the issue to a vote this year – possibly as soon as the end of March – to deal with the issue and get it off the political agenda ahead of the next election.

“No one wants this issue to go in into the May budget session, so lets deal with this quickly and relatively painlessly,” one supporter of the move said.

“This could be world’s biggest pain between now and the next poll.”

Another MP said compromises that allow religious exemptions would be necessary and that “the feeling is that this issue won’t go away, it is obstructing the government’s agenda and there is now a willingness to revisit this”.

“No one can have everything they want. But if the Parliament can agree on a compromise, that is a good thing.”

As the backbench group agitates for change, same-sex marriage campaigners ns for Equality will on Sunday launch a new advertising campaign across TV, newspapers and on billboards in strategic locations such as Canberra Airport, to greet MPs when they arrive on Monday for the resumption of Parliament.

ns for Equality director Tiernan Brady said the campaign would be the biggest, most expensive one of its kind launched in and focus on “changing the law to reflect n values”.

Mr Brady said the push to legalise same-sex marriage would not go away and the ad campaign would focus on the idea that “politicians should do their jobs” and vote on the issue.

“ns are for marriage equality,” he said. “They are not unsure, they are not a little in favour, it’s 65 per cent-plus in favour. is in the top 10 countries in the world in favour of marriage equality.”

Some Liberal Party MPs Fairfax Media has spoken to who oppose legalising same-sex marriage believe the law change is inevitable and that it may be time for the change to happen via a free vote given the issue sucks up oxygen and distracts from the Coalition’s core agenda.

If a free vote was allowed for Liberal Party MPs, it is likely the laws would be passed with the support of Labor, the Greens and crossbench MPs. It would see join other anglophone countries including the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland in allowing the unions.

But other more conservative MPs would fight tooth and nail to stop any fresh push and warned a civil war could erupt if Mr Turnbull did not stop the push.

Another complication is the Coalition agreement between the Liberal Party and Nationals specifies that a plebiscite be held, suggesting any attempt to engineer a free vote could set off a brawl between the two governing parties.

As recently as December, Mr Turnbull said the plebiscite remained Coalition policy and insisted it was the mechanism by which same-sex marriage could become reality.

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Ron Medich murder trial hears of divorce, wire taps, and expensive contract killings

Ron Medich allegedly baulked at spending $300,000 on a contract killing. Photo: Nick Moir Ron Medich arriving at the Supreme Court. Photo: Daniel Munoz
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Lucky Gattellari is the key Crown witness against Ron Medich. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Lucky Gattellari, the Crown’s star witness, sat in the witness box with a fixed smile on his face, twirling his reading glasses around with some vigour.

He had just listened to a phone tap. It was October 8, 2010 and Ron Medich’s son Peter was heard apologising to Gattellari that his father wasn’t going to be able to meet up at the Babylon massage parlour in Haymarket as arranged.

Gattellari explained to a Supreme Court jury hearing Mr Medich’s murder trial that he and Mr Medich needed to talk in person as they were sure their phone calls were being recorded.

Two days later Peter Medich again phoned to say his father “got caught up – he’s not coming”.

Asked if he saw Mr Medich again, Gattellari replied bitterly: “No, I didn’t. My observation was that he was avoiding me at all costs.”

Gattellari was right to be worried about the fallout of the murder.

On the evening of September 3, 2009, Haissam Safetli, then 45, and 19-year-old Christopher Estephan had driven to the Cremorne home of businessman Michael McGurk where they shot him in the back of the head as he was getting out of his car.

A Supreme Court jury has heard allegations that Mr Medich was enraged over a string of law suits in which he and McGurk were embroiled. It’s alleged that in late 2008 and early 2009, Mr Medich asked his then close friend Gattellari to organise McGurk’s murder.

Gattellari said that after initially baulking at the cost, Mr Medich had agreed to pay the $300,000 Safetli had demanded.

“F—, that’s a lot of money,” he is alleged to have said of the cost.

Gattellari responded saying, “If you don’t want to pay it, let’s forget about it.”

But Mr Medich brushed aside cost issues. “No, it’s all right. I want it done.”

It was now a year after the murder and the police were closing in. A number of those involved in the murder had been hauled before the NSW Crime Commission, the jury heard.

On September 15, 2010 Gattellari organised a meeting inside his lighting factory at Chipping Norton. He told the jury that he thought the noise of the machinery would make it impossible for police to overhear what they were saying.

He was mistaken. As the conspirators talked about the police closing in on them, and their concern that “the kid” [Estephan] would crack, Gattellari was heard urging Safetli to “put his hand up” to save the rest of them.

“If the shit hits the fan, I would like you to put something in your handwriting clearing everybody,” Gattellari instructed.

In return, he promised that Safetli’s family would be looked after and his legal expenses paid for.

The jury heard the only problem with this scheme was that the only man with money, Mr Medich, was making himself scarce.

What none of them knew was that someone had “cracked”. It was Safetli, who was now wearing a listening device.

In another conversation recorded on October 5, 2010, Gattellari expressed the conspirators’ common worry about the police. “I believe every time you go to the toilet they know … they’ve got every f—ing move we make.”

Safetli asked, “How’s the big boss?”

Gattellari replied that he was getting divorced and that he’d been called in twice by the Crime Commission.

“Is he panicking?” asked Safelti, to which Gattellari replied, “No, he’s calm.”

Gattellari told the jury that the “big boss” was Ron Medich.

In another conversation Gattellari told Safetli that the rule of British law was in their favour. “You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty beyond a shadow of a f—ing doubt.”

“You’ve done nothin’ f—ing wrong,” he assured the contract killer.

“I have, Lucky, I am sorry but I have,” replied Safetli. “You’ve got to understand that in my position time is running out.”

Time was running out. Eight days later, on October 13, Gattellari, his driver Senad Kaminic, Safetli and “the kid” Estephan were arrested and charged over the 2009 murder of Mr Medich’s former business partner Michael McGurk.

Gattellari received a substantial discount on his sentence for his role in the murder in return for giving evidence against Mr Medich.

The jury heard that Gattellari had met Safetli and his brother Bassam several years earlier when they were doing some debt collecting work for him.

On one occasion Bassam Safetli said: “If you guys want anything heavy done or even a final job done, we’d been more than happy to help you.”

With Medich allegedly determined to rid himself of McGurk, Gattellari said he organised a meeting with the Safetli brothers, saying: “That comment you made about going further with a job, is that still on the table?”

He said the brothers looked at each other, went to the corner of the room to talk in private and, when they returned, they said they would take the contract.

The following day they said they wanted $300,000 plus expenses for the murder.

But the months dragged on and still the murder, which the conspirators referred to in code as “the tyres”, had not occurred.

Medich, Gattellari said, was continually irritated by the delay. Gattellari had allegedly already collected $250,000 in cash from Medich’s Point Piper home.

Of that amount, $45,000 was given to the Safetlis as an advance on the murder. Gattellari used the rest for his electrical business.

In July he gave the brothers around $6000 in order to go to the snow to kill McGurk while he was on a skiing holiday. But the Safetlis didn’t get organised in time.

Gattellari later suggested that McGurk be killed by a drug overdose as he was “a current user of drugs”.

The murder was eventually done by Haiss Safetli, who was accompanied on the night by Estephan, a 19-year-old friend of his nephew’s. Both pleaded guilty to their roles in the murder.

The trial before Justice Geoffrey Bellew continues.

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People power pushes council mergers to the brink

“The byelection was the last chance we had to make our voices heard”: Marj Bollinger. Photo: James Brickwood An anti-merger protest outside Bathurst MP Paul Toole’s office last year. Photo: Supplied
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It was a policy dictated from the heart of commercial Sydney; from government office blocks in Macquarie Street and Martin Place, and from consultants’ suites in Barangaroo. But if the state’s council amalgamations plans are defeated in the coming days, or at least pared back, it will owe to political power exercised from RSL clubs, town halls, and showgrounds on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. Decision-making tends to flow from east to west in this state: here the west may have reversed the tide.

“We are laid-back people,” says farmer Marjorie Armstrong, 73, who has led the grassroots revolt against mergers in Oberon. “But you try and take local government from small communities and, yes, we will revolt.”

When Mike Baird stood for election in March 2015, he had not articulated a policy on council mergers. Yet in some ways states are always looking at changing the rules around local government. Councils receive no mention in ‘s constitution. They exist only as creatures of state law, created because states needed to ensure local facilities such as roads and street lights, but would not pay for them directly. In the bush, particularly, they remain important sources of decent jobs.

For the past century, however, the trend has been to shrink their number: since 1906 the number of councils in the state dropped from 327 to 152. This is why so many state politicians are so often asked to rule out undermining their independence, mostly in local newspapers who also depend on councils for both advertising and stories. “A Liberals and Nationals government will also ensure there are no forced council amalgamations,” the Nationals candidate for Bathurst, Paul Toole, told his local newspaper prior to the 2011 election.

Under Baird’s predecessor Barry O’Farrell, the government started looking at local government reform in 2012. An initial report, prepared by a panel headed by Professor Graham Sansom, recommended multiple functional changes, including allowing councils to charge higher rates for apartment owners. It also recommended fewer local governments. “NSW simply cannot sustain 152 councils,” the panel’s final report in late 2013 said. “There are shortages of highly-skilled personnel. The shortage of engineers, for example, is a significant factor limiting the capacity of councils to deal with infrastructure backlogs.”

By the 2015 election, Baird had not signalled what he would do on the issue. But he also refused to rule out forced mergers. Soon after the election, councils were asked to submit proposals as to why they should continue to stand alone, or to consider aligning themselves with neighbours for voluntary mergers. The result was a frenzy of deal-making and, in places, the nascent signs of a resistance. In the eastern suburbs, for instance, Waverley and Randwick councils agreed to a merger, while Woollahra resolved to stand alone. In the inner west, Labor and Liberal councillors agreed to a merger between Ashfield, Leichhardt, and Marrickville, though the area’s Greens and independents said the councils should stand and fight.

Country men and women also started organising. “There were people from Oberon writing to politicians,” says Armstrong “Country people don’t do that. I was stunned we could even get people to rally.”

In October 2015, over 600 people packed the local RSL in Oberon for a community vote on the issue.

Oberon Shire, home to around 5000 people largely employed in farming and forestry, was facing the prospect of being merged with the much larger Bathurst Council. The RSL vote was emphatic: 94.3 per cent were against the merger. A few months later, it was standing room only as locals crowded into a second meeting at the Oberon showgrounds. The public meeting was open to comment, and 83 people registered to speak – all but one of them in opposition to the merger.

In Cabonne Shire, less than two hours’ drive away, a similar movement was afoot. In May 2015, community group Amalgamation No Thank You (ANTY) formed after 400 locals turned up to a meeting in Molong to protest the proposed merger with Orange and Blayney councils. In New England, which was expected to host a tough battle in the July 2016 election, federal Nationals leader and canny retail politician Barnaby Joyce started to campaign against any forced merger of the small Walcha council.

The result was that the eventual announcement of forced mergers in May 2016 was both a bombshell, yet only a partial job. Baird and Toole, the local government minister, announced the creation of 19 new bodies formed from the immediate sacking of 42 councils. But they didn’t touch Walcha because of Joyce’s intervention. And they didn’t create a further nine councils, to be formed from the sacking of 25 existing bodies, because some of those councils had signalled their intent to challenge their mergers through the courts.

But the announcement did not quell the opposition. In fact, the manner in which it was made only intensified the disquiet. Mayors and councillors were given little or no forewarning of their dismissal. Bob Stewart, Mayor of Bombala in the state’s Monaro region, was driving into town from his farm when he learned by ABC radio he and his colleagues had been sacked.

“We could never get a meeting,” says Marj Bollinger, a Molong-local and ANTY spokeswoman of her attempts to talk to the government. “They were invited to every rally, every meeting, everything we had. They were never available.”

Toole, who had once promised Oberon locals he would oppose mergers and was now in charge of implementing them, was not explaining himself to the community, Oberon mayor Kathy Sajowitz says.

“There is a general feeling in the community Mr Toole has let Oberon down,” she says. “The community has lost faith in their local member.”

Adding to the government’s troubles, it found it increasingly hard to sell the potential benefits of mergers in local media that had always had a close relationships with its councils and councillors. On the radio, Alan Jones was decrying Baird’s despotism. Those who had been agnostic or supportive of mergers found that the issue had been swept up in fast-surging anti-government sentiment. The narrative had been established: mergers were on the nose.

The opportunity to fight back emerged in November when a by-election was held in Orange to replace Andrew Gee, a National who had left for federal parliament. By this stage, regional community groups had become something of a network of anti-amalgamation activists. They crossed shire districts for rallies and protests, placarded Cabonne, and on election day, manned polling booths in Orange.

“The byelection was the last chance we had to make our voices heard,” says Bollinger.

The result, also influenced by Baird’s greyhound racing ban, was a crushing loss for the Nationals in a seat it had held by almost 22 per cent. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party won its first ever lower-house position. An emboldened Robert Borsak, one of its two upper house MLCs, told Fairfax Media at the time preparations were under way for a lower house campaign for the 2019 election. The party, which has been consistent in its opposition to forced mergers, intends to take on the Nationals in eight to 10 seats.

For the Nationals, the loss precipitated a spill. The Member for Monaro, John Barilaro, claimed the leadership and the deputy premiership from Troy Grant, and started on trying to repair the party’s relationship with its bush base. In December, he met with the Oberon anti-amalgamation group that had previously failed to gain a meeting with Toole. Spokeswoman Marj Armstrong articulated to Barilaro a sentiment bubbling across the state’s pending council districts. “We won’t give in, and we won’t give up. And we will put the Liberals and Nationals last every time we vote,” says Armstrong of her message.

In the heights of government, the change in political sentiment has been rapid. When Baird stood down last month, Barilaro immediately insisted there would be no more forced amalgamations in country areas. And the day before the incoming premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was unanimously elected Liberal party leader, some of her closest confidantes and advisers met to discuss controversial policy areas that were ripe for dumping or overhaul. Council amalgamations was first on the list. Keith Rhoades, the president of industry group Local Government NSW, said he had hour-long meetings with both Barilaro and new Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton on Wednesday. “I found them to be very receptive,” says Rhoades.

Even now, a third of the proposed new councils are still pending the resolution of legal disputes. While that drags on, 29 councils are in limbo. Many councillors and mayors who were elected on four-year terms and were due to face an election in September last year are now serving overtime. Late last year, the NSW electoral commission added another layer of complexity to the unfolding democratic debacle when it said it may not be able to hold elections until 2020 for councils whose disputes extend beyond August. Such a delay would expose the government to wrath of voters at the 2019 state election.

Yet the unravelling of the amalgamations policy may be as messy as the policy’s development. There is as yet no clear indication of what the government will do, though Fairfax Media has reported there is likely to be a halt for further forced amalgamations and mini-plebiscites to allow for communities to decide the future of their councils. It remains unclear what will happen to councils that have already been merged – though one suggestion is that they too could face plebiscites about the prospects of de-merging, potentially as late as 2020. Berejiklian said this week a decision was “imminent” and councils that have fought the proposal are sniffing victory.

“This is a win for democracy,” says Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer. “Clearly the state government has listened and they have got the message loud and clear that local communities want to have a say on the future of their local areas.”

However Upton need look no further than her Vaucluse electorate for an indication of the complexities to come. Although Woollahra is firmly opposed to a merger (a position endorsed by Upton as recently as 2015), Waverley and Randwick remain keen. “To a certain extent Waverley has already had a plebiscite,” Waverley’s Mayor Sally Betts says. Surveys of residents and ratepayers showed strong support for the amalgamation in that area. “We’ve identified fantastic savings for all our residents, including Woollahra residents. It would be a pity. Our residents would lose out on some pretty good savings and funding to fix up all sorts of infrastructure.”

But the benefits were evaluated based on the three-council scenario, and should the government put a new proposition on the table – such as a merger just with Randwick Council – all bets are off. “We would need to go back and do a completely different assessment,” Cr Betts says, adding “If the government changes its policy we would prefer to stand by ourselves.”

And if Woollahra Council, which has already spent $850,000 on legal appeals, is allowed to remain independent while other mergers stand, that is sure to stoke questions of political equity. It would mean, for instance, there would be one council for Woollahra’s 60,000 residents (in the city’s most exclusive suburbs), and one council for Canterbury-Bankstown’s 360,000 residents. Hunters Hill, with its 15,000 residents, continues to fight to stand alone.

“It just stinks, it’s got politics written all over it,” says the former mayor of Parramatta, Paul Garrard, who says he will be campaigning for Cumberland Council to be de-merged.

“It’s like there’s two laws in this place. The inner city and west are being treated differently and now there’s a fear we are going to be treated from our country cousins as well,” says Garrard.

Unscrambling mergers that have proceeded would be its own nightmare. The government has already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in incentive payments to merged councils, on top of the millions it spent on consultants such as KPMG to prepare reports into the mergers.

One issue is that if there were plebiscites would those plebiscites provide the opportunity for residents in the old council areas to vote? Or would the votes of the new combined council areas be tallied together? The results could point to very different outcomes.

There are myriad of other practical considerations. Administrator of the new Inner West Council, Richard Pearson, says reverting to three councils – Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield – would involve unpicking the “very well advanced” integration process, and imbue the council’s functions with uncertainty.

“The prospect of a plebiscite means you would have to also be more conservative in your decision-making,” says Pearson, scheduled to be replaced by elected councillors in September. “You don’t want to be spending public money and then in six months time have to reverse your decisions.”

Long-term savings which underpinned the rationale of the merger process, and made largely from the retrenchment of staff, would immediately be jettisoned. Redundancy packages paid out to former general managers, and other senior management across the three councils would be sunk costs.

“You’d have to re-recruit a whole management layer,” he says. “You are reinstituting a cost that the merger was designed to save.”

Restoring the three councils management structures is expected to cost $4.5 million annually. While the councils await a clear decision from the Berejiklian government, the uncertainty is destabilising for council staff. “There’s a lot of people here who are saying ‘What’s going on?’,” Pearson said.

Greg Wright, the administrator of Bayside Council formed in September from the former Botany and Rockdale councils, said it would be increasingly difficult to pick apart functions that had started to come together. “We are starting to integrate systems and people and locations,” Wright said.

Another factor is that while a backdown on mergers might deliver some political reward, Berejiklian may also face a backlash within her own party.

Fairfax Media has been told many Liberal councillors who agreed to back mergers in their own areas to support the government are furious at the prospect of a plebiscite option. “After doing the right thing by the party and local government state wide, to let these recalcitrant councils off the hook is a betrayal of good councillors across the state,” said a senior Liberal local government source.

And then there is the business community, and the original arguments in favour of amalgamations. “Whatever they do will have consequences,” says Patricia Forsythe from the Sydney Business Chamber.

“The future of Sydney requires strong local government, it requires them to have adequate resources and infrastructure to manage the growth and none of that has changed,” says Forsythe, who would prefer Sydney’s councils reduced to only six.

More by-elections may nevertheless drive the changes. After the retirement of Baird and health minister Jillian Skinner, Berejiklian faces polls in the seats of Manly and North Shore – both areas where the mergers issue has been a flashpoint of community anger. Both seats have been historically vulnerable to strong independent candidates.

On the North Shore, Mosman mayor Peter Abelson says the anti-merge voice will be heard “loud and clear” at the ballot box. “There’s no doubt that if there were a by-election without this being sorted out there would be a very strong protest vote against the Liberals.”

According to sources, the Premier wants a resolution on the issue before Parliament returns on Tuesday, February 14.

Fixing the merger mess may be a daunting and costly task with its own political risks. But the prospect of a repeat of the Orange result in these two Liberal heartland seats could just be enough to convince Berejiklian it is worth it.

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Suburban office market stirred by sales

Two interconnected buildings at 1100 Pascoe Vale Road next to the Broadmeadows Railway Station sold for an undisclosed price believed to be around $10 million. Photo: SuppliedPerth-based syndicator Property Bank is preparing to recycle two Melbourne office assets after successfully offloading a suburban building last year for $23.5 million at a peak point in the property cycle.
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Property Bank’s move follows the year’s first sale of another small office in Broadmeadows.

The syndicator has called for submissions from estate agents on a three-level office in the Richmond Corporate Park which it purchased seven years ago for $18.5 million.

A second suburban office asset in Market Street South Melbourne that the syndicator purchased in 2011 for $8.95 million is also likely to be offered to the market, said people familiar with the matter who didn’t want to be named.

Both assets have been held by the fund for more than six years and would see significant upside if sold in the present market.

Value estimates vary but both offices have been refurbished and are fully let.

The Richmond building at 8/658 Church Street could fetch in excess of $40 million, while the three-level South Melbourne office at 17-33 Market Street might go for more than $15 million.

Property Bank would need to get sign off from fund investors before putting the assets up for sale. The group was approached for comment.

The office that the fund manager sold at 630 Church Street in August last year transacted on a 5.1 per cent yield, highlighting the strength of one of Melbourne’s most sought-after inner-city pockets.

It was snapped up by Manny Stul and stepson Paul Solomon, the pair behind global toy powerhouse Moose Enterprises whose Shopkins Small Mart figurines are on the must-have list of millions of girls aged four to 11 around the world.

Meanwhile, an office owned and developed by Victorian Rail Track in Melbourne’s outer north was purchased by a private investor.

Agents Gray Johnson, Cushman & Wakefield and Kypa Real Estate transacted the two interconnected buildings at 1100 Pascoe Vale Road next to the Broadmeadows Railway Station for an undisclosed price believed to be around $10 million.

The building has a mix of 18 public and private sector tenants returning annual rental income around $1.2 million.

Tenants include Victorian Legal Aid, MIA, Wesley Mission Victoria and Campbell Page . oOh! Media and Vodafone have signage and telecommunications facilities on the building.

Gray Johnson director Matt Hoath said the building had an estimated net lettable area of 4238 square metres and rental potential of $1.35 million if fully occupied and leased.

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One-third of NSW children prefer fine dining over fast food: OpenTable survey

Julia Lipari and her daughters, Isabella (left) and Lily (right) dig in at Otto in Woolloomooloo. Photo: Dominic LorrimerWhen it comes to children and food, fussy eating now has a whole new meaning.
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Kids are going gourmet, swapping fish fingers for lobster, sausages for wagyu beef and cordial for coconut milk.

One-third of NSW children prefer fine dining over fast food and 49 per cent have dined at a hatted restaurant at least once, a new survey for OpenTable has found.

Three-quarters of n parents say their children eat out more often than they did growing up, with 18 per cent taking their kids to a restaurant at least once a week. A quarter of parents are willing to spend over $26 on a meal for their child.

North shore mother Julia Lipari has always encouraged her four daughters to try different foods and said eating together was an important part of family life.

She said her middle children Lily, 8, and Isabella, 7, were “absolute foodies” with adventurous tastes, happily eating everything from curries and sushi to olives, anchovies and blue vein cheese. “They’ll basically try anything,” Mrs Lipari said.

Like 75 per cent of n parents surveyed, she said her kids preferred to order from the adult menu rather than the children’s menu when dining out.

“I often try to talk them into ordering off the kids’ menu because it’s cheaper, but then they get jealous of what we’re having,” she said. “If we go out to breakfast they’ll want the smashed avocado and haloumi. If I’m entertaining and I put out a platter … they come and eat half of it.”

Lily said she liked trying new foods. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. But if you do, then it’s good.”

Mrs Lipari said that as a schoolboy in  her Italian husband was too embarrassed to take spaghetti to school for lunch. But in today’s multicultural society kids were open to all kinds of flavours and cuisines.

“Even at the school canteen they have hokkien noodles and sushi, so they are exposed to a really wide range of things,” she said.

The survey of 1250 people nationwide was conducted for OpenTable, the world’s leading provider of online restaurant reservations. “As a nation home to such a vibrant food scene, it’s exciting to see children are so engaged with emerging food trends and open to taste testing multicultural flavours,” said Lisa Hasen, vice-president of OpenTable, Asia Pacific.

John Fink, creative director with the Fink Group, whose restaurants include Bennelong and Otto, and the three hatters Quay and The Bridge Room, said he was seeing an increase in children of all ages – “from first day of kindy to last day of school” – eating at his establishments with their parents.

“It is more likely that the kids want to eat from the grown-up menu these days,” he said. “Young palates with grown-up tastes.”

Mr Fink said the popularity of MasterChef had “changed everything, hands down. Ever since MasterChef hit the small screens in living rooms across the nation young ns have developed a unique fascination with good food and restaurant dining.”

Attitudes to eating out were also changing, he said.

” has a growing culture of what I like to call ‘socialised sophistication’,” he said. “Years back, mum and dad going to a restaurant was a bit posh, and a bit of a deal. Babysitters and taxis got involved. Nowadays folk will head out for a meal with the kids. Dining in a restaurant is part of family life now.”

The 10 most popular gourmet choices for n children, in order of preference:

Sushi

Macaroons

Smashed eggs on toast

Coconut water

Scallops

Veal

Crème brûlée

Wagyu beef

Almond milk

Lobster

Source: Galaxy Research for OpenTable

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Trust sector looks to busy year ahead

Sydney commercial property is the most sought after by investors. Photo: SuppliedThe n real estate investment trust sector is the first cab off the rank in the upcoming reporting season with expectations the office and industrial managers will be popping the champagne corks, while the retailers will be on the chardonnay.
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The residential sector is resilient but with a slower rate of growth and affordability will remain the topic of discussion.

More takeover activity is predicted, with Mirvac and Investa Office Fund tipped to be the two big targets.

Giving the office landlords a boost were the latest Property Council of Office Market Reports, which showed that while there has been a small rise in vacancy levels, any excess space is likely to be snapped up this year.

Leasing agents agree, saying that telco, internet-related businesses and the new co-sharing enterprises are taking up any spare offices they can find.

And while there has been a lot of new developments, the continued desire to convert older stock in the apartments will help ease the pressure for C and D-grade properties, which are being left behind for the new buildings.

The same applies to the industrial market, where distribution centres are in high demand from the ever-growing e-commerce sector and expectations that will only get stronger.

Retailer are under pressure from overseas entrants, which puts pressure on landlords for rental increases, but investors are still willing to pay high prices for the malls.

CLSA head of real estate Sholto Maconochie says mergers and acquisitions will likely involve Investa Office, where he envisages three scenarios.

“One, it is taken private by Cromwell Property, which already own 9.8 per cent; Cromwell sells its stake to the Investa Commercial Property Fund, which already owns 19 per cent, and it will continue to manage IOF, or Cromwell sells its stake to CIC which then privatises IOF with Mirvac as manager,” he said.

Another is that GPT Group acquires Mirvac and spins off the residential division and Charter Hall Retail REIT merges with Shopping Centres Australasia, but led by Charter Hall.

Winston Sammut​, managing director of Folkestone Maxim Asset Management, has also earmarked IOF and Mirvac as two potential targets.

Mr Sammut’s Folkestone Maxim A-REIT Securities Fund has been reported as the No.1 performing fund over one, two and three years in the Mercer Investment Performance Survey of n Real Estate Securities (REIT) (Active Funds) at December 31, 2016.

He said the fund was focused on the social infrastructure sector such as childcare and medical, and its underweight position in the retail sector was driven by the view that retail is facing enormous headwinds from internet retailing, a competitive retail marketplace with a growing number of international retailers and ongoing margin compression.

Overall, CLSA, says for 2017, despite expectations of bond yields rising, the company has forecast capitalisation rates to compress and valuations to peak.

“We expect regional retail to outperform; large format retail to re-rate; residential to stay resilient but earnings to peak; and strong office fundamentals to finally show up in earnings, but more weighted to the second half of 2017-18 year,” Mr Maconochie said.

“We see a shift from yield to more growth-driven outperformance and expect a 9 per cent total shareholder return, with a preference for active A-REITS over passive.”

Mr Maconochie said he expects prime and secondary office to outperform again this year, but limited to Sydney, Melbourne and potentially Brisbane, due to favourable fundamentals, strong effective rental growth of 5 to 13 per cent, declining vacancy and investor demand.

With prime assets scarce and prime office capitalisation rates at lows of 5.8 per cent, investors are chasing secondary office or developing them to be premium grade, which will see them outperform other assets.

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