Services grow despite healthcare wane

Australia’s service sector returned to modest expansion in March, new figures show, but jobs-heavy health and community services industries contracted for a third consecutive month.

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The Australian Industry Group’s Performance of Services Index (PSI) rose 2.7 points to a level of 51.7 points in March, rising above the 50-point level signifying expansion.

Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the main drivers of the expansion were rebounds in measures of sales and employment.

However, he warned that the large health and community services sub-sector remained in contraction for the third straight month.

“The heavy lifting fell on the property and business and finance and insurance sub-sectors along with wholesale and retail services, which are enjoying a return to growth,” Mr Willox said in a statement.

“The pickup in new orders during March is encouraging and services businesses will be hoping that positive momentum builds over the next few months. The reduction in business taxes negotiated in the Senate last week will provide a very welcome boost for the services sector.”

The index showed sales, new orders and employment all improved in the month after being either flat or in contraction in February.

Five of the nine services sub-sectors expanded in the month, led by property and business and finance and insurance.

The large health and community sub-sector fell a further point to 47.8 points, while the the hospitality sub-sector, which has been either flat or contracting for 16 months, rose a further 0.2 points to 44.9 points.

Input prices continued to rise and wage growth improved for an eighth straight month, albeit at a slower pace again.

Selling prices lifted 3.3 points to 51.3 points in March, with Ai Group noting the rise had come in an environment of very weak price inflation.

Payne says Afghan president not asking for more troops

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is in Australia on a state visit, discussing security with the minister and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

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President Ghani has praised Australia’s assistance in his country’s long-running conflict with the Taliban.

Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, has met Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, in Canberra.

She showed him a device manufactured in Queensland used to counter improvised explosive devices.

More than 100,000 of them have been sent to Afghanistan for the local soldiers to use.

But Ms Payne says she has not received any request for more troops and any escalation of Australia’s involvement would probably depend on the actions of Australia’s allies.

“We have no current request for increased engagement, but, of course, that is always an ongoing discussion in the NATO context, other members of the operation, and we will participate in that when it comes to the appropriate time.”

While many of Australia’s combat troops have been withdrawn, the Defence Force says around 270 military people remain in Afghanistan.

Most are there to advise and assist local troops.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also met with the visiting president on his visit and says he has promised to maintain a presence until at least next year.

“I advised him that we have decided, and this was decided some time ago, to extend our … continue our military commitment for another year through to 2018. And he’s very appreciative of that. As you heard his remarks, he paid tribute to the 42 Australians that have paid the supreme sacrifice in Afghanistan.”

The war in Afghanistan is Australia’s longest.

Australian soldiers were deployed after the September 11 attack on the United States in 2001, sent to help a US-led coalition overthrow the ruling Taliban.

Ashraf Ghani paid his respects to those who have died, and he thanked Australia for its ongoing support.

“You’ve always assumed a burden of responsibility where you’ve not been directly threatened.”

Also visiting Canberra is Afghanistan’s first-ever female governor, Habiba Sarobi.

She says, after nearly four decades of conflict in her homeland, it may be some time yet before Afghanistan can be fully self-reliant.

“We have lost everything — infrastructure, human resources, from the civilian up to military — so it is a necessity that we have to get the support from the international community, especially Australia.”

 

 

Ultrasound holds promise for Alzheimer’s

Australian researchers say they have made a promising step in the future treatment of Alzheimer’s disease after discovering ultrasound can effectively and safely deliver drugs to the damaged brain.

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Scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute found the non-invasive technique successfully penetrated the blood-brain barrier to deliver a therapeutic antibody to the brain.

This then slowed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in mice, according to a study published in journal Brain.

One of the major challenges inhibiting the treatment of Alzheimer’s is that the majority of drugs designed to treat the brain disease don’t make it into the brain.

“Ultrasound safely opens up the blood-brain barrier just a tiny bit and just for short time to let the antibody into the brain and importantly into the nerve cells where the damage occurs,” said Professor Jurgen Gotz lead researcher at the QBI.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, with the number of dementia cases in Australia expected to rise to 900,000 by 2050.

Using scanning ultrasound technology, researchers at QBI delivered an antibody that specifically binds to a protein called tau implicated in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Combining ultrasound with the antibody treatment was more effective than either treatment alone in removing the toxic protein clumps, say the researchers.

“We ultimately hope in the coming years to develop an ultrasound device that is not too bulky and can also be used to treat local patients. This device may clear toxic tau in patients on its own or it may be used by delivering therapeutic agents such as drugs or antibodies,” said Prof Gotz.

This will have enormous benefits by making expensive treatment more cost-effective, says lead author Dr Rebecca Nisbet.

“You’re increasing the amount of therapeutic agents that can enter the brain thereby reducing the number of a doses and the amount that needs to be delivered,” Dr Nisbet said.

QBI director Professor Pankaj Sah said it was exciting research that could one day help millions of Australians.

“The discovery is another promising step made towards future therapeutic treatments for dementia,” Prof Sah said.

The ultimate hope is that the technique will also allow for the effective treatment of other brain diseases like Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease.

Spieth makes easy work of return to scene of Masters collapse

Spieth, who was leading the Masters last year until his debacle at the par-three 12th, stuck his tee shot about a foot from the pin on the same hole on Tuesday.

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“I really could have used that one about 12 months ago,” an amused Spieth turned and said to the crowd, prompting laughter, before going on to tap in for a birdie.

Those two shots, the first time he has played the hole in front of a crowd since last year, could prove just the tonic for the former world number one as he chases a second Masters title.

Spieth took a five-shot lead into the back nine last year in his bid to become the first player to lead from start to finish at Augusta National in successive years.

The Texan reached the 12th tee with a one-stroke lead and walked off the green after a quadruple-bogey sitting three shots behind new leader and eventual winner Danny Willett.

While Spieth has moved on from the most memorable moment of last year’s Masters, he admits it is one he will not forget.

“It will surely be there and it has been,” Spieth told a news conference on Tuesday. “It is one of many tournaments I’ve lost given a certain performance on a hole or a stretch of holes. It happens in this game.

“But I’m excited about the opportunity ahead, which is now I can go back and really tear this golf course up.”

The 23-year-old world number six has one win and two runner-up finishes in his three Masters appearances.

He enters the year’s first major, which begins on Thursday, with a win and four top-10 finishes this season and said he was not worried about last week’s missed cut in Houston hindering his chances at Augusta National.

“I feel very comfortable out there,” said Spieth.

“I feel like we have it mapped out and, as we dissect the golf course, we know the spots to go, where not to go and therefore the commitment on shots.

“Certain shots you hit versus others, you obviously feel more comfortable, but I feel like we’re freed up because we know where those spots are and where they aren’t.”

(Editing by Ken Ferris)

Russia identifies metro bomber as St Petersburg mourns 14 dead

The Investigative Committee said in a statement that Djalilov “carried out an explosion” in the carriage of a train travelling between two busy stations on Monday afternoon.

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Djalilov’s “genetic trace” was also found on a bag containing a second bomb left at another metro station and later defused, the statement said.

Authorities in Central Asian Kyrgyzstan said that Djalilov was an ethnic Uzbek who was born in its southern city of Osh but was a citizen of Russia and had lived there since the age of 16.

The remains of the bomber were found at the scene of the blast, but it was not clear if he is included in the official toll of the attack.

Flags flew at half-mast in Russia’s second city and flowers and candles piled up at an impromptu memorial outside the metro station rocked by the attack, as authorities beefed up security on the busy underground transport system.

The Kremlin said the bombing was “a challenge to every Russian”, including President Vladimir Putin.

The bombing raised jitters ahead of the Confederations Cup football tournament in June, with the opening game and final set to be held in Saint Petersburg as Russia gears up towards hosting the World Cup next year.

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Commuters on the busy Saint Petersburg metro remained on edge after the system temporarily shut down Monday in the wake of the attack.

“Everyone in the metro can only think of this,” said 45-year-old Svetlana Golubeva as she entered the underground.

Resident Dmitry Leonov said there was a sense of shock that terror could strike the city as he picked his way through the candles and flower tributes lining the gates of the station.

“Now we’re all under threat,” he said.

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‘Food for thought’

Putin, who hails from Saint Petersburg, was holding a meeting near the city at the time of the bombing and later on Monday added his own floral tribute at the scene.

“The fact that the act of terror was perpetrated at the moment that the head of state was in the city is food for thought,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan’s security services, Rakhat Sulaimanov, told AFP in Bishkek that authorities of the ex-Soviet republic were in contact with their Russian counterparts over the case.

There has not been a claim of responsibility for the attack, which came after the Islamic State group called for attacks on Russia in retribution for its military intervention in Syria against the jihadists.

Russia has long been battling an Islamist insurgency in its volatile Caucasus region and has suffered a string of bloody terror attacks over the years.

Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the toll from the blast had climbed from 11 to 14 Tuesday as three people succumbed to their injuries, adding that 49 more people remained in hospital.

Those hurt include citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as Russians from 13 different regions, according to the Saint Petersburg authorities.

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The chief of the Saint Petersburg metro, Vladimir Garyugin, said Tuesday that quick actions by staff prevented a much higher toll and that passengers had helped each other instead of panicking.

The second bomb was an explosive device fashioned from a fire extinguisher and hidden in a bag, he said.

“A metro employee quickly cordoned off the area and called in experts,” Garyugin said in televised remarks.

‘Barbaric act’

In the wake of the attack Putin spoke to a string of leaders around the globe — including holding only his second phone call with US President Donald Trump overnight.

Trump offered Putin the “full support of the United States Government,” according to a White House statement.

Putin also talked up cooperation in the fight against terrorism with leaders in Germany, France, Turkey and the king of Saudi Arabia.

The attack in Saint Petersburg is the first in several years to hit a major city in Russia.

In October 2015, a bomb attack claimed by IS downed a plane carrying holidaymakers back to Saint Petersburg from Egypt in October 2015. All 224 people onboard were killed.

Russian ground transport has also been hit by extremists before, including in the Moscow metro and the Domodedovo airport, where a blast claimed by Islamic insurgents killed 37 people in 2011.

In an apparently unrelated incident, two traffic policemen were killed overnight in the southern city of Astrakhan when unidentified assailants opened fire on them, the regional governor said, calling them “radical Islamists.”

 

Take your medicine to tame Augusta, says McIlroy

The Northern Irishman led the tournament going into the final round in 2011 but carded an ugly 80 to blow his chances.

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After top-10 finishes in the last three years, however, he believes he now has the experience to deal with any conditions at Augusta and he received advice this week from six-times Masters champion Jack Nicklaus.

“He said to me that he took on too much a couple of times and it cost him a couple of Green Jackets,” McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday.

“He said, it is a golf course that can tempt you into doing a little bit too much.”

McIlroy remembered a costly error of judgement on the 11th hole of his third round at Augusta last year when he drove the ball into the pine straw bordering the fairway.

“I’m trying to hit this low hook around and catch the hill, and trying to get it up on to the green and hit this heroic shot, and it goes in the water and I make a six. That’s the last thing I needed,” he said.

“Even if you make five, five is better than six. Take the water out of play. Just little things like that where the golf course tempts you to do something. So it’s just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on.”

McIlroy, 27, has had a quiet start to the season, missing several weeks due to a rib injury, but he has enjoyed his low-key preparations for the year’s first major.

“The break allowed me to work on a few things in my game that whenever you’re playing week-in, week-out you may neglect a little bit,” he said.

“So I spent a good bit of time around the short-game area and the putting green. Obviously, it’s of huge importance this week to have your short game as sharp as possible,” McIlroy added.

The world number two, who won the last of his four major titles in 2014, has played 99 practice holes at Augusta over the last two weeks.

“Physically, I’m fine. I’ve played the golf course enough, I feel. I’m ready to go.”

(Editing by Neville Dalton)

Sri Lanka take opening T20 over Bangladesh

Kusal Perera hit 77 runs off 53 deliveries to propel Sri Lanka to a six-wicket win over Bangladesh in the first of their two Twenty20 internationals.

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Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza won the toss and elected to bat, with his team going on to make 6-155 wickets in 20 overs. Mosaddek Hossain top-scored for the tourists with an unbeaten 34.

Lasith Malinga took two wickets for Sri Lanka before Sri Lanka reached their target with seven deliveries to spare. Perera’s sixth half-century innings in Twenty20 internationals included a six and nine boundaries.

Malinga gave Sri Lanka a promising start with the ball, bowling out in-form Tamim Iqbal with the second delivery of the match.

But Soumya Sarkar (29) and Sabbir Rahman (16) led a recovery, adding 57 runs for the second wicket with more than 10 runs an over. But a brilliant direct hit from Seekkuge Prasanna found Rahman inches short of his crease.

Bangladesh lost another wicket without addition to the score when Sarkar was caught by Thisara Perera off seamer Vikum Sanjaya.

Sri Lanka’s bowlers soon had Bangladesh 5-82, before Hossain and Mahmudullah Riyad shared 57 runs for the sixth wicket to help the tourists to a competitive total.

Kusal Perera led Sri Lanka’s reply, sharing 65 runs at a run rate of 10 per over with captain Upul Tharanga.

Tharanga was caught by Mustafizur Rahman off a delivery from Mortaza, who then caught and bowled Dilshan Munaweera for eight.

Asela Gunaratne was run out for 17 and Perera was out last caught by Sarkar off seam bowler Taskin Ahmed.

Prasanna scored 22 runs off 12 deliveries including two sixes and a boundary to seal Sri Lanka’s victory.

US Senate clashes over Trump Supreme Court pick

The Senate began formal debate on federal Judge Neil Gorsuch, as opposition Democrats insisted they have the necessary votes to block his nomination through use of a tactic known as a filibuster.

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Sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster and end debate in the 100-seat Senate. Republicans hold 52 seats. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that “due to an unprecedented filibuster threat,” he was setting up the crucial test vote for Thursday morning.

Due to an unprecedented filibuster threat, I just filed cloture on the Judge #Gorsuch nomination. #SCOTUS

— Leader McConnell (@SenateMajLdr) 4 April 2017

A confirmation vote follows on Friday, after which Congress shutters for a two-week recess.

The expected failure of the test vote sets the stage for Republican leaders to employ the “nuclear option,” which would change Senate rules in order to advance the nomination — and all subsequent Supreme Court nominees — by a simple majority vote.

McConnell warned that the Democrats’ filibuster could do something “truly detrimental to this body and to our country.”

Democrats were “hurtling toward the abyss,” he said, “and trying to take the Senate with them. They need to reconsider.”

To overcome the filibuster, Republicans need eight Democrats to back Gorsuch, named by Trump to fill the seat of conservative justice Antonin Scalia who died in February 2016.

To date, just four Democrats have announced their support.

President Donald Trump announces 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch as his choice for Supreme Court Justice AAP

“They’re pretty much dug in,” Republican Senator John Thune said of Democratic colleagues.

McConnell will need to put the rules change to a majority vote. He said he has enough votes from his party for the change to succeed, but some Republicans have bristled at the nuclear option and how the threat of using it has poisoned the atmosphere.

Senator John McCain fumed to reporters that whoever thought it was a good idea to blow up longstanding Senate rules “is a stupid idiot.”

But fellow Republican Tom Cotton appeared unperturbed, saying he would be glad to be rid of Democratic threats to block any conservative nominee that Trump puts forward. 

“Republicans aren’t going to be played for suckers and chumps,” Cotton said on the Senate floor.

Lawmakers from both parties have observed that the nuclear option will lead to fewer consensus Supreme Court nominees and more fringe justices.

“This fallout will be dangerously and perhaps disastrously radioactive for the Senate in years to come,” Democrat Richard Blumenthal said.

But there were no apparent signs of a deal to avoid the filibuster, or the nuclear option.

Top Democrat Chuck Schumer pointed to McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings or a vote on Merrick Garland, whom then-president Barack Obama had tapped to replace Scalia.

When Trump won November’s presidential election, the Garland nomination was dead, infuriating Democrats.

“We lost one, they lost one,” Schumer said. 

“No one is forcing Senator McConnell to change the rules,” he added. “He’s doing it at his own volition.”

Trump blames Assad and Obama for chemical attack

Trump said the attack in Syria’s Idlib province was “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilised world”, although he also sought to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama.

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“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement.

Watch: UN Security COuncil to meet over attack

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“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

The Syrian military denied responsibility and said it would never use chemical weapons.

The chemical weapons attack on Tuesday, which killed scores of people, including children, came a week after both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said their focus in Syria was on stopping

Islamic State militants rather than pushing Assad to leave power.

A senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday the government was looking at policy options after the attack in Idlib but that the options were limited and that the views expressed by Tillerson and Haley still held.

Watch: UN says chemical weapons are a threat to international peace

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Fairfax in $30m newsroom restructure

Fairfax Media has announced new cuts to its editorial operations aimed at delivering about $30 million in annual savings.

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The major structural overhaul will affect newsrooms at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday.

Managing director of Fairfax’s Australian Metro Publishing division, Chris Janz, said the proposed changes are required to “secure” the futures of its metropolitan mastheads.

“The primary focus of Fairfax Media over recent years has been to lay the groundwork for the creation of a sustainable publishing model. We are now within reach of that goal,” Mr Janz said in a statement.

“Our publications will be genuine digital businesses with the capabilities and cost base to best operate in the current media environment.”

Mr Janz said the majority of the savings are expected in 2017/18.

He also committed Fairfax to print publishing “for many years”, saying it would remain part of the company’s mix “so long as our newspapers have an audience and advertisers”.

The restructuring announcement comes less than two months after Fairfax confirmed it was conducting a strategic review of its Domain real estate listing business, with a possible float on the Australian Securities Exchange by the end of 2017.

Fairfax said at the time it would retain a 60 to 70 per cent stake in Domain, preserving a valuable revenue stream while opening the business up to further investment.

Fairfax journalists are being briefed on the proposed restructuring changes on Wednesday.

Initially, the restructuring news lifted Fairfax’s share price two cents to $1.065 but at 1133 AEST the stock was flat at $1.045.