I knew nothing of bribery until after ISL collapse: Blatter

BERNE, July 14 –

“I did not know until later, after the collapse of ISL in 2001, about the bribery,” the head of soccer’s world governing body told Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick in an interview to be published on Sunday.

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“It was FIFA who then filed a claim at that time and set the whole ISL case in motion,” he added, referring to May 29 2001 when, after ISL collapsed, FIFA filed a claim for ‘suspicion of fraud, embezzlement as well as misappropriation of funds’.

“When I now say that it is difficult to measure the past by today’s standards, this is a generic statement. To me bribery is unacceptable and I neither tolerate nor seek to justify bribery. But this is what I am accused of now.

“The Swiss Federal Court has this week proven wrong all those people, who for years have accused me of having taken bribes. Now it is on record what I have always said: I have never taken nor received any bribes,” said Blatter.

“Now the same people are trying to attack me from a different angle: ‘Okay, he has not taken any bribes but he must have known.’

“Once again, I only knew after the collapse of ISL years later. And this is because we instigated the whole matter. The people who attack me now know this is the case but still they persist. They want me out.”

A Swiss prosecutor said in a legal document released this week that Havelange and former FIFA executive committee member Ricardo Teixeira took multi-million bribes on World Cup deals in the 1990s from ISL.

ISL sold the commercial rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments on behalf of FIFA. It collapsed with debts of around $300 million in 2001.

Blatter, who has been with FIFA since 1975, and succeeded Havelange as president in 1998, said on Thursday he knew that payments were being made. He referred to them as “commission” and said they were not illegal at the time.

Asked in a question-and-answer session with FIFA’s own website (www.fifa.com) on Thursday if he had known of payments, Blatter replied: “Known what? That commission was paid? Back then, such payments could even be deducted from tax as a business expense.

“Today, that would be punishable under law. You can’t judge the past on the basis of today’s standards.”

Havelange is still FIFA’s honorary president while Teixeira quit his post earlier this year, shortly after resigning as president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF). (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)

Syrian conflict engulfs university campus

“There are many arrests and raids, especially against Sunni students excelling at their studies,” said an engineering student who gave her name only as “Amira”.

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“The atmosphere is tragic… it is not easy to study when people are being killed everywhere,” she said.

“Emotionally, it is a feeling of daily humiliation because of inspections by our peers of the ‘loyal sect’,” she said, referring to the minority Alawite community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

The complex sectarian make-up of the campus reflects that of the central city itself.

Sunnis consider themselves the true natives of Homs and never took kindly to the mass influx of Alawites, who adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam, in the late 1960s when a military coup brought Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, to power.

Another student, Abu Baha, 23, said the sectarian faultlines began to surface soon after a revolt against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, quickly morphing into a civil war in which according to the UN more than 60,000 people have died.

“With the beginning of the revolution, the university devolved into a fifth column of the security forces,” said Abu Baha.

The engineering student described plain-clothes security agents patrolling the campus while the army was deployed on rooftops to bombard neighbouring Baba Amr district in a fierce assault last year.

A disturbing phenomenon, he added, was the arming of pro-regime students.

“The student union became real shabiha (pro-regime militiamen), each one given a weapon and free reign to insult or arrest fellow students for uttering a single word about freedom,” he said.

Mainly divided along confessional lines, Homs has experienced the worst sectarian violence of the 22-month revolt.

Activists accuse the authorities of deliberately fomenting sectarian strife, pointing to a day in July 2011 when some 30 people from various confessions were killed in a bloodbath the regime blamed on the opposition.

All the students quoted in this article, interviewed online in coordination with an Al-Baath student in Beirut, said they had lost friendships during the conflict ravaging Homs, where opposition areas remain under army blockade.

Divisions became “more pronounced after repeated arbitrary arrests, usually because of reports by pro-regime students, most of them Alawite,” said engineering student Abu Mohammed.

“My relations with Alawite students were completely finished after I realised what they were doing.”

“On the days of massacres you find opposition students are upset while pro-regime students are ecstatic with victory,” Amira said grimly.

Professors too are embroiled in the conflict, whether in interrogating students or working to conceal their own personal views.

“Most are afraid to speak about the situation, but in my faculty there is an Alawite professor who spends 70 percent of his lectures provoking opposition students. No one dares challenge him because we would not graduate,” said Abu Baha.

One Al-Baath University professor, himself displaced from Homs, said he went into early retirement due to the prevailing stressful atmosphere and fear of being kidnapped or killed during his daily commute.

“Many students have dropped out. The only ones left are pro-government. The rest are called ‘those from traitorous areas’,” he said during an interview in Beirut, refusing to be named for fear of his safety.

Abu Mohammed naively thought the academic sphere was a safe zone to discuss the uprising when it first erupted.

“In December 2011 I was arrested on several charges, including collaborating with an armed group to kill the dean of the architecture faculty, because of a heated debate with a loyalist Alawite student.”

He was expelled from university and said he was imprisoned for one month without evidence. “Only then did I become truly conscious about the injustice in my country.”

But despite the difficulties, some students, among them Abu Qusay, remain hopeful about the future.

“Employment opportunities were always limited due to nepotism and most young Syrians had been planning to work abroad after graduation, but after the success of the revolution I expect job opportunities to be equal between all Syrians,” he said.

“I am optimistic about a bright future for me in my country.”

NRL season all but over, Cowboys concede

North Queensland co-captain Matt Scott concedes the Cowboys chances of making the NRL finals are almost dead, saying only something special in the final six weeks of the season will steal them a top eight spot.

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After a disappointing 18-16 loss to fellow Queensland strugglers Brisbane on Friday night, a result which appears to have ended Neil Henry’s chances of coaching at the club next season, Scott said the Cowboys would need to win out to give themselves a hope.

But rather than calling it a miracle, the Queensland and Test prop said he believed anything was possible if they could win their last six games.

The Cowboys host competition front-runners South Sydney next week before a tough run home which includes finals aspirations Penrith, Cronulla, Gold Coast and Newcastle.

“It’s not impossible,” Scott said.

“I think we’ve certainly made it tough on ourselves and I think we’re at times playing footy that will get us into the eight if we maintain it.

“At the moment it’s just stupid individual errors that’s really hurting us.

“Win the next six and it’s possible but we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”

Next week North Queensland chairman Laurence Lancini will reportedly tell Henry, who signed a contract extension earlier this year, that the club will be looking elsewhere for a head coach next season.

Henry said his side had been made to pay for defensive misreads and communication breakdowns, and some players deserved better from their teammates.

The Cowboys were exposed repeatedly down their right edge defence, with all three Broncos tries coming from combinations down that side.

“We’re putting a lot of effort in to the game and we dominate field position for large parts of it,” Henry said.

“The players deserve better decisions off each other.

“They’re the men out there doing the hard yards, they’re working their backsides off for each other and they’re committed but they deserve better for each other in crucial parts of the game.

“And they didn’t do that for each other (against Brisbane) and that’s the difference, simple as that.

“It’s not a lack of confidence, it’s not a lack of will out there, it’s a couple of crucial decisions.”

Henry said he could do little if the Cowboys board decide to terminate his contract.

“I hope not but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

“We’ve got six games to go and potentially six wins and then we’ll all be marching into the finals, hopefully.

“We’ve got a big game against Souths next week and we can’t repeat (Friday night) or the season is well and truly over.”

Burke unveils marine reserves

Environment Minister Tony Burke released the final plan for 44 marine parks, including the Coral Sea and the southwest coast of Western Australia, this morning.

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“It’s time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans,” Burke said. “And Australia today is leading that next step.

“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.”

The network will increase the number of marine reserves from 27 to 60, expanding protection of creatures such as the blue whale, green turtle, critically endangered populations of grey nurse sharks, and dugongs.

Mr Burke told ABC radio the government’s created a national park system for the ocean with the Coral Sea as the “jewel in the crown”.

Commercial fishers will be compensated for losing access to the reserves, but Sunfish Queensland chief executive Judy Lynne believes the ban on commercial use will result in more foreigners fishing illegally.

Fishing, oil and gas exploration have been limited with the federal government introducing a world-first network of marine reserves around Australia.

Environment Minister Tony Burke released the final plan for 44 marine parks including the Coral Sea and the southwest coast of Western Australia on Thursday.

The new reserves will cover 3.1 million square kilometres, or a third of Australian waters.

The reserves will limit fishing and some oil and gas exploration.

Mr Burke unveiled the marine reserve maps at Sydney Aquarium on Thursday morning.

“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations,” Mr Burke told The Australian Financial Review beforehand.

The marine reserve announcement comes on the eve of the United Nations Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in Brazil and will give Prime Minister Julia Gillard a public relations boost.

Environment group Pew described the marine reserve plan as a “turning point” in marine protection.

Spokeswoman Michelle Grady said establishing large marine sanctuaries would lead to rapid growth in eco tourism and increased stocks of marine life.

“But critical areas remain vulnerable to the threat of oil spills, including the tourist mecca of Margaret River, the blue whale feeding grounds off South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and the extraordinary coral reefs at Rowley Shoals off the Kimberley coast,” she said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry said the plan would make Australia a “global leader” in ocean protection.

“Although the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea, the northwest region has been left vulnerable to these threats,” he said.

Commercial fishers are set to receive compensation from the federal government.

“We’ve got an adjustment policy where we will work case by case with the different companies involved,” Mr Burke told ABC Radio on Thursday.

Psychopaths can ‘switch on’ empathy

An ability to empathise at will may partly explain the evil cunning of psychopaths, a study suggests.

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Scientists had thought psychopaths, such as movie serial killer Hannibal Lecter, could not feel compassion because of their brain wiring.

But new research indicates that although naturally unaffected by other people’s feelings, they can turn on the empathy when required.

“Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathise, but a reduced propensity to empathise paired with a preserved capacity to empathise when required to do so,” study leader Dr Valeria Gazzola, from Groningen University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said.

The ability to “switch on” empathy may contribute to the famous social cunning of psychopaths, the scientists said.

On a more positive note, the fact that psychopaths had empathy potential raised the possibility of harnessing it as a form of treatment.

The research, reported in the journal Brain, involved 18 convicted criminal psychopaths and a group of ordinary individuals who watched movie clips of one hand touching another in loving, painful, socially rejecting or neutral ways.

At certain points the volunteers were asked to “empathise with one of the actors in the movie”.

Their responses, shown on brain scans, were compared with those seen when they engaged in similar hand interactions themselves.

The tests showed that when watching the film clips, psychopaths generally displayed a reduced level of brain responses linked to empathy.

But when explicitly asked to empathise, they were able to activate the circuits.

The study focused on the brain’s “mirror system” which helps us feel other people’s pain, almost literally.

The same brain regions that contribute to our own pain and distress are activated when we see another person suffering the same way.

In psychopaths, the mirror system does not seem to be a “default” mechanism but can be deliberately brought into play.

BSkyB extends TV deal with English soccer’s lower level

Sky Bet, the online betting arm of BSkyB, will also become the title sponsor of the Football League under the new agreement which runs until 2018.

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The Football League, made up of the 72 professional clubs below the elite Premier League, was only a year into its current three-year TV deal with BSkyB.

The new TV agreement will be worth between 85-90 million pounds per season when it starts in 2015, according to a source close to the talks, up from 65 million pounds under the current deal.

BSkyB will show 148 live matches, an increase from the 111 it shows at present.

The sums involved pale in comparison with the one billion pounds a year that BSkyB and BT are paying for domestic TV rights to the 20-team Premier League.

“It’s the biggest deal the League has ever done,” said Chief Commercial Officer Richard Heaselgrave.

Heaselgrave had told Reuters earlier this year that the League planned to make an early start on contract renewal talks to capitalise on the growing sporting rivalry between BSkyB and BT.

Telecoms provider BT is launching new sports channels in August, having bought a share of the Premier League rights as a second broadcaster alongside BSkyB.

BT wants to use sports rights to maintain its leadership of the market for broadband services, with many consumers now looking to buy bundles of pay TV, telephony and broadband.

BT underlined its challenge to BSkyB on Wednesday when it did a four-year deal to screen the FA Cup, the leading domestic knock-out competition in English football.

The Football League, which has former champions Nottingham Forest and Leeds United in its top tier, had been looking for a sponsor after German owned energy company Npower dropped out at the end of last season.

(Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

Q&A: Julia Gillard’s national security strategy

The Prime Minister today outlined a national security strategy that aims to build closer links with Asia and toughen Australia’s cyber security defences.

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At the same time Ms Gillard warned that the budget for domestic security will only get tighter.

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asks Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, what the new strategy will mean for Australians.

This speech is really the first time we’ve heard Julia Gillard make a definitive address on the issue of national security – is this report overdue?

It’s been in the offing for several years to be honest; Prime Minister Rudd in late 2008 tabled a national security statement in parliament and said that this was going to become a regular thing. Since then there’s been nothing until the Prime Minister’s speech today and the release of her national security strategy, so it has been a long time in the making.

There was much mention of building stronger links with Asia, of maintaining strong links with the US and at the same time of the need to get ‘value for money’ from the national security budget. How difficult is it going to be for the federal government to balance these outcomes?

The budget issue I think is the most critical thing here because it’s clear from the Prime Minister’s statement that there’s going to be, as she describes it, a period of austerity in coming years for spending in the national security area, and frankly I think this is a problem. We’re sort of hearing in some ways mixed messages here. One the one hand, a message that the strategic environment is becoming more complex and more difficult, and on the other a message that there is no more money.

And, in fact, that there’s less money into the national security parts of government and this is a problem. I think the fact that the national security statement doesn’t really deal in precise terms with funding issues is a disappointment. And in a sense what that points to is the enormous difficulty that the government has in making decisions about what the right spending priorities should be.

The PM identified effective partnerships, cyber security and regional engagement as the biggest priorities for national security today. Are these the right priorities for Australia, in your view?

They’re all pretty obvious things. When she talks about effective partnerships I think she’s talking about a more effective integration of different parts of the public service and the national security community working together and these reflect in some way I think quite obvious priorities, but no less important for that.

Julia Gillard has certainly set her sights on cyber security in recent weeks and it was a big topic in today’s national security announcement. How serious is the threat of cyber-attacks for Australians?

It’s a real threat. I think it needs to be taken very seriously and what you see here is that clearly the government has seen a change between the Rudd statement of a few years ago and now. So I think that it’s appropriate more emphasis is given to cyber security. Of course with these things, the devil is in the detail. It’s not completely clear what this new cyber centre is going to do, whether it’s actually going to be involved in the nitty-gritty of cyber security — which is actually performed by a number of Australian agencies already — or if it has some sort of higher policy function than that. But on the face of it, it seems like a sensible initiative.

Have there been specific incidents that may have prompted more action in cyber security?

There’ve been a number, it is publically known for example the parliamentary computer network early last year had been infiltrated, and in the private sector I think there are many, many attacks against Australian companies, Australian banks, the resources sector; and government departments (who) regularly find their cyber security tested by maligned cyber activists seeking to infiltrate government systems. So yes, it’s a constant risk and it’s something that I think is only going to become more of a problem in coming years.

If we look at international comparisons, are there any cyber safety initiatives around the world that Julia Gillard might be looking to emulate?

Well I think within Australia’s closest defence partners the US, the UK and Canada to a slightly lesser extent, these are the countries which probably reflect best-practice in terms of cyber defence systems. In many ways both those countries have been investing more deeply in cyber – as we have — over the last few years. So this is a trend. I think increasingly now Asia Pacific countries are looking to do the same thing. If last decade was the national security decade, as Julia Gillard described it, maybe this decade will become known as the cyber security decade.

The federal opposition also made note of government cuts in this area.

Well I know the opposition has been making those comments, but they too are declining to make any commitment to increasing expenditure in the national security space. I would say both to the government and to the opposition that strategy without dollars attached to it is really wishful thinking. I think we have a right to expect better from both. The government and the opposition need to think harder about just what the right priorities should be for the national security budget in the coming years.

You mentioned earlier Kevin Rudd’s statement on this topic back in 2008. One issue the then PM targeted was climate change – something we also saw US President Barack Obama mention in detail in his inauguration speech yesterday. Do you think it’s significant that Julia Gillard has not referred to it here?

There may be other political reasons which is driving the Prime Minister’s approach on that. What I can say is one doesn’t need to describe the causes of climate change to realise the impact of climate change is one which does require a national security response. Be that domestically through bushfires and floods and through the region, it does look as though we have to deal with the consequence of an increasing number of extreme climate events and that’s going to be a cost to not only defence, but to state police and emergency management services. And if one sees that as part of the national security approach, then clearly this is something that has to be factored into funding and planning for the future.

Opposition defence science spokesman Stuart Robert also made a point of noting asylum seekers were not mentioned today. To what extent do asylum seeker issues constitute a national security threat?

Well I think partly the politics of asylum seeker issue has turned it into a national security threat, because the challenges and the costs of maintaining that naval and customs capability to track vessels is obviously highly expensive. It may well be that there are other more cost-effective ways with which we can deal with that particular issue. But certainly at the moment I think it’s fair to say that it has been cast as a national security problem.

What was missing from Julia Gillard’s national security strategy presented today?

Money. It’s big talk, but where are the dollars to make it happen? What’s clear is that the government is actually giving a lower priority to national security and you can tell that by tracking what’s happened to the budget in that area over the last few years. So it’s a bit of a tricky sell for the PM to, on one hand, state how just critical this is but at the same time deal with the fact that spending in this area has been reduced significantly in recent years.

Australian navy search for missing asylum boat

Australian authorities were Saturday scrambling to locate an asylum-seeker boat feared to have sunk off the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, officials said.

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The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, said a navy vessel and two merchant ships along with three aircraft were searching the area about 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island following a tip-off from customs and border protection officials on Friday morning.

“They advised us that there was a potential vessel there,” an AMSA spokesman said. “It is believed to be an asylum-seeker vessel.

“We had a warship out yesterday, didn’t find it. And today there are three aircraft conducting searches and also three vessels… (which) happened to be passing by,” the spokesman told AFP.

“We don’t have any information to suggest it’s sinking now… but there is a belief that it may have.”

AMSA said the search may last until Sunday in the area off Christmas Island, a remote territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and home to the country’s main processing centre for boatpeople.

“When we are in situations like this we do seek medical advice about the survivability of people in the water. At the moment, there’s a significant search underway, they will review that at the end of the day,” the spokesman added.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed through a spokesman that the search for a “possible foundered vessel” was underway.

No details were available on the number of people onboard the boat, but vessels carrying asylum-seekers are regularly overcrowded with scores of people.

Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many paying people-smugglers for passage from Indonesia on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.

Hundreds have drowned at sea over the past few years while trying to reach Australia, with about 90 thought to have died when a boat carrying about 200 people capsized in June 2012. About 50 were killed in a horrific shipwreck on the cliffs of Christmas Island in December 2010, including 15 children.

Late last month, Australian authorities found an unexplained batch of life jackets washed up on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off Western Australia state, a discovery that prompted fears that another asylum-seeker boat had struck trouble while making the journey. No evidence of a vessel was found.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said he had no details on the latest missing boat, but that vessels were arriving regularly, with more than 10,000 people landing by boat with the aim of seeking asylum in Australia since the beginning of this year.

Cibulkova takes revenge on Radwanska to win Stanford title

Earlier this year in the Sydney final, Radwanska handed the Slovakian a humiliating 6-0 6-0 loss which Cibulkova said affected her for weeks.

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But in Sunday’s final, the 24-year-old Cibulkova immediately shook off her nerves by winning the first game and fought tooth and nail to seal the win in two-and-a-half hours.

“The difference between Sydney and today was I made the first game and after that I looked at my coach and said ‘Here we go, I am here and it’s going to be good today,'” the Slovakian said.

“It was big deal for me because I never beat Aga before and she’s a really tough competitor and I had to earn every point. It was really tough physically and mentally. That’s why I am so happy that I won.”

World number four Radwanska entered the final with a 4-0 record against Cibulkova, and appeared to be in control after winning the first set with creative and steady play.

Cibulkova then settled down, breaking Radwanska to lead 4-3 and holding on to win the second set when her opponent missed a return.

The Slovakian wobbled in the decider, with a double-fault conceding a break and allowing Radwanska to take a 4-2 lead, but she broke back immediately and closed out the contest with a searing backhand crosscourt winner.

She fell to her back in joy and her father Milan jumped on to the court to embrace her.

Cibulkova has flirted with the top 10, reaching a career-high 12 back in 2009, but has struggled to break through to the next level.

She has failed to make an impression at the grand slams this year, but will head into the fourth and final slam, the U.S. Open, with renewed belief.

“I believe I can reach the top 10, but every time I get close I feel so much pressure and I feel these expectations, which is sometimes too much,” said Cibulkova, whose win will push her to 21st in the world rankings.

“Maybe (I’ll make it) when I get enough experience, and it could be this year, or next year.”

Radwanska, who was coming off a disappointing defeat in the Wimbledon semi-finals to Sabine Lisicki, was disappointed with her performance.

“Pretty much everything was a problem for me today,” she said. “I didn’t play my best and my serve wasn’t good. I couldn’t hit a ball the whole tournament and I didn’t feel like I had good touch here.”

(Editing by Ian Ransom)

ACCC probing online shopping ‘discrimination’

The ACCC says it’s looking into reports that some fashion importers are asking retail websites to charge Aussies more or block them from buying certain brands.

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Australians are increasingly making their fashion purchases in virtual stores rather than in physical ones.

Some fashion importers say Australia’s appetite for online deals is destroying their livelihood, but the issue is so sensitive for them that they refused to be named.

In order to survive, a handful have made agreements with designer labels either not to sell their products to Australians online, or to charge them more for the same items than customers from elsewhere.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says it’s looking into recently-reached deals to establish whether they constitute anti-competitive behaviour.

Chairman Rod Sims urged any online shopper who suspected they were being charged more for an item because of their location to contact the ACCC.

He added that shoppers should always look around before making their purchases.

Whether or not more companies follow suit and strike price deals will depend on shoppers’ reactions, according to Choice spokesperson Ingrid Just.

Consumers were tech-savvy and would find ways around importers’ attempts to charge them more – either by choosing a different brand, or by using third-party shipping websites, she said.

SBS contacted the International Fashion Group – which is reported to have made a deal with some US denim designers – but has not yet received a reply.

The Australian Retailers Association says this country is one of the most expensive in the world to run a bricks-and-mortar store.

“The ARA has recently put submissions forward which call for changes to contemporary wage and penalty rate structures to ensure they’re able to employ people to keep stores open and meet the demands of the modern consumer and remain globally competitive,” Executive Director Russell Zimmerman said in a statement.

It was also calling for the Low Value Imports Threshold to be slashed to zero in order to “level the playing field” for retailers competing with overseas businesses, he added.

Some business owners told SBS they wouldn’t survive if they sold their wares at online prices

They wouldn’t be able to afford the rent, or pay their staff Australia’s relatively high minimum wage, they said.

They added that consumers just didn’t want to know their side of the story.

According to PayPal, 45 per cent of Australians start off by searching for products on local sites, but 30 per cent end up buying from overseas.

Watch this report on YouTube:

Watch the full interview with the ACCC’s Rod Sims:

Watch the full interview with a Choice spokeswoman:

Plan to send humans to Mars

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The world’s first space tourist, United States multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, has announced the plan, involving his non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation.

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It calls for sending a man and a woman on a year-and-a-half mission to Mars and back.

On the 5th of January, 2018, the planets will literally align, allowing a spaceship to travel from Earth to Mars and back again in 501 days.

In a rare opportunity, the flight path between the two planets will be a route allowing gravity to guide the flight with no need for major rocket-engine firings.

The two space travellers selected for the mission would not land on the Red Planet — or even enter its orbit — but just fly through the vicinity and back.

The United States space agency, NASA, has aimed for the 2030s in its vague projections of a manned mission to Mars.

It is focusing, in the shorter term, on sending robots, like the Curiosity Rover that landed last year.

Inspiration Mars, by contrast, is starting essentially from nothing, with neither a vehicle nor a clear source of funding.

But founder Dennis Tito, a former NASA astronautical engineer, says it is a pretty easy mission.

“We fly within a hundred miles (160 kilometres) of Mars. I mean that’s essentially being there. It’s just that easy to go out, swing by, use the gravitational shift of Mars and come back to earth. Just like a boomerang, you don’t need to have any propulsive manoeuvres. It’s really simple.”

An Australian space expert, Jonathan Nally, says, by foregoing a landing, the mission lessens the risks and simplifies the manoeuvring required.

And, he says, the five-year time frame is too short for the appropriate technology to be developed for a landing.

“Not really enough time to develop the kind of landing craft to get you down to the surface in these huge heat shields and all the problems of living on the surface of another planet, and then getting off again. To do that kind of mission, you need all those extra technologies, and, also, you’d need the different kind of trajectory and alignment of the planets, which would give you a three-and-a-half-year mission, as opposed to this new proposal, which would only be a one-and-a-half-year mission.”

The Inspiration Mars Foundation acknowledges it will be a risky mission.

But the foundation’s chief technology officer, Taber McCallum, says it is achievable.

Mr McCallum says existing technologies and systems only need to be properly integrated, tested and prepared for flight.

But he says it will be a bare-bones* mission, with as little automation as possible and the crew doing its own repairs and responsible for its own water and waste management.

“The crew will drink the same water over and over again, breathe the same oxygen over and over again. In fact, the crew’s drinking water will be recycled from urine and perspiration that’s processed through distillation and filtration systems, and they’ll probably drink the same water every other day. We’ll get the contaminants out of the atmosphere by oxidising them and treating them, just the way it’s done on the International Space Station. And, of course, the crew will consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide and water. We’ll scrub that carbon dioxide and water out of the air and, through a series of chemical processes, remake the oxygen available for the crew to breathe over and over again.”

Taber McCallum was one of eight people to live in a sealed artificial world, known as Biosphere 2, for two years in the early 1990s.

He and his wife Jayne Poynter — they met during the project — are considered experts in how to live in confined spaces.

Jayne Poynter says the psychological and behavioural health of the crew is a major challenge for the mission.

Ms Poynter says, as the man and woman selected are going to be confined alone together for 501 days, they will need external support.

“And so, of course, that’s what we’ll be offering the crew on Inspiration Mars. They will get psychological support during the mission. They will get extensive training before the mission in this, because there is a lot of training you can do to help. And then there’s, of course, the crew-selection process, and that will be a rigorous process to make sure the people we select are resilient and can, in fact, maintain an upbeat and happy attitude in the face of adversity.”

Dennis Tito says the mission will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration.

“This is not a commercial mission. This is not a mission that, if it’s successful, I’m going to come out to be a lot wealthier. Let me guarantee you, I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them.”

Syrian crisis to dominate G8 summit

Thousands of protesters are expected on the streets of Belfast to urge G8 leaders to act on global poverty, although the issue looks likely to be overshadowed by concerns over the Syria conflict.

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Police in the Northern Ireland capital expect 10,000 people to join two demonstrations organised by trade unions and campaigners against global hunger ahead of the G8 summit on Monday and Tuesday.

The British-controlled province, still suffering sectarian violence despite a peace deal in 1998, has organised its biggest-ever police operation for the talks, with 8,000 officers deployed.

They will be split between Belfast and the luxury Lough Erne resort where the G8 leaders, including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be staying.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the summit, is pushing for agreement on his three G8 priorities of trade, tax and transparency.

In a newspaper interview published on Saturday, he revealed plans to require companies in Britain to register their ultimate beneficiaries to make it harder to avoid tax, and said he would urge his G8 colleagues to adopt a similar approach.

There was progress late Friday towards what he has admitted would be the biggest prize of the summit — the start of formal negotiations between the European Union and the United States on a free trade agreement.

EU trade ministers finally thrashed out a deal on how to negotiate for a deal, after meeting a French demand to exclude the key audiovisual sector.

But the Syrian conflict looks set to dominate the talks after Washington upped the ante by pledging military aid to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the regime had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on multiple occasions against the opposition — crossing what it has described as a red line.

The issue of Syria topped the agenda of an hour-long pre-summit videoconference on Friday between Obama and the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

“They discussed the situation in Syria and how G8 countries should all agree to work on together a political transition to end the conflict,” a spokeswoman for Cameron’s Downing Street office said.

Officials said Washington would increase military support to the rebels, a move welcomed by Britain and France who successfully pushed for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last month.

Damascus rejected the US accusations as “lies”, while Moscow, a key player because of its long-standing support for Assad, said they were “unconvincing” and hurt efforts to make peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Cameron in London for pre-summit talks on Sunday and then hold a bilateral with Obama in Belfast on Monday.

The US and Russian leaders will kick-start the G8 discussions on Syria, which British officials hope will get all parties in the conflict closer to the negotiating table.

Moscow and Washington have jointly proposed a peace conference in Geneva, building on a similar meeting last year, but no date has yet been set.

Egypt’s Morsi calls for calm as crowd pelts US embassy

Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on Thursday slammed a film deemed to mock the Muslim prophet but warned against the use of violence as angry crowds pelted the US embassy in Cairo.

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Police fired teargas to disperse the latest protest by stone- and bottle-throwing demonstrators, which came after a night of sporadic clashes and as Yemeni demonstrators stormed the US embassy in Sanaa before being expelled by police.

“We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet. I condemn and oppose all who… insult our prophet,” Morsi said in remarks broadcast by state television in reference to the controversial film.

“(But) it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad,” said the president, who is on a visit to Brussels.

“I call on everyone to take that into consideration, not to violate Egyptian law… not to assault embassies,” he added, referring to a Tuesday assault on the US mission in Cairo in which protesters tore down the Stars and Stripes and replaced it with a black Islamic flag.

Morsi condemned an attack the same evening on the US consulate in Benghazi in neighbouring Libya, which claimed the lives of four American officials, including the ambassador.

“We condemn what happened in Benghazi,” Morsi said.

“We all know that killing innocent people goes against Islam. The freedom to express opinions and demonstrate… are guaranteed but without attacks on private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies.”

Morsi said that he had spoken with US President Barack Obama and told him that it was necessary to put in place “legal measures which will discourage those seeking to damage relations… between the Egyptian and American peoples.”

Armoured vehicles were deployed around the US embassy in Cairo on Thursday, an AFP correspondent reported.

The health ministry said 16 people were injured during sporadic clashes outside the embassy during the night.

Protests against the film “Innocence of Muslims” were also held on Wednesday outside US missions in Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia. In Tunis, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred.

The low-budget movie, in which actors have strong American accents, portrays Muslims as immoral and gratuitously violent.

It pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed and touches on themes of paedophilia and homosexuality, while showing him sleeping with women, talking about killing children and referring to a donkey as “the first Muslim animal.”

Mystery has deepened over the film, with conflicting accounts from backers and promoters but no one owning up to having actually directed it.

US media initially cited someone claiming to be an American-Israeli calling himself Sam Bacile as saying he made the film on a $5 million budget with the help of 100 Jews, but no record of such a person has been found.

Coptic Christians have been accused of promoting an Arabic-adapted version of the English-language film in Egypt, where clips were shown on an Egyptian television channel at the weekend, apparently setting off the protests.

And a late Wednesday report cited by US media identified Nakoula Basseley Nakoula as saying he managed the company that produced the film, and that he was a Coptic Christian.

Obama called Libyan as well as Egyptian leaders to review security cooperation following the violence, the White House said.

Obama urged Egypt to uphold its commitments to protect US diplomats and called on Libya to work with US authorities to bring those behind the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi to justice.

“President Obama underscored the importance of Egypt following through on its commitment to cooperate with the United States in securing US diplomatic facilities and personnel,” it said.

Both attacks were initially believed to have been motivated by outrage over the US-made amateur Internet film, but US officials later said the Benghazi attack might have been a planned, pre-meditated assault by jihadist militants among the crowd.