Unis not consulted over 457 visa changes

Universities were not consulted about changes to temporary foreign worker visas until after the overhaul was announced.

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The decision to replace 457 visas and slash the list of 650 occupations which qualify by 200 was scrutinised by an advisory council including industries, unions and state governments, but universities were not represented.

“The universities had an opportunity then to respond to the announcements and we’re working through a process with them to understand the nature of their concerns,” immigration department deputy secretary Rachel Noble told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Universities have flagged concerns the changes will inhibit their access to the best and brightest minds from around the world including researchers, academics, and newly-graduated PhD scholars.

Labor senator Kim Carr was incredulous the research sector wasn’t consulted sooner on the visa changes.

“Blind Freddy could have told you what their reaction would be,” he said to immigration officials.

Immigration boss Michael Pezzullo said he relied on the employment, education and training departments to determine which jobs needed to be filled.

It was his team’s job to go and fetch the talent from overseas.

“We’re basically the HR department of Australia so we go out and recruit folks,” he said.

“We’re not the personnel strategy or workforce strategy, if you want to think of it in those terms, so we take advice from the relevant expert line department.”

It was also up to the ministerial skills council to collate the list of occupations.

“We expect them to be across their brief and understand what Australia’s skills needs are,” Mr Pezzullo said.

He said government departments could consult on changes “to the nth degree” but people would always have issues.

“But you haven’t consulted, that’s the point. No degree here, none whatsoever,” Senator Carr quipped back.

He then quizzed the immigration chief about how much correspondence he’d received following the visa crackdown.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve been sort of overwhelmed but we have noticed the level of noise and the level of concern in some sectors and it can all be addressed,” Mr Pezzullo said.

Ms Noble said it was not the government’s intention to curtail research co-operation in Australia, and any unintended consequences could be rectified when the occupation list was revised every six months.

Trump becomes first sitting US president to visit Western Wall

Wearing a black skullcap, he paused in front of the holiest site where Jews can pray, then placed what appeared to be a written prayer or note between its stones, as is custom.

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Trump was not accompanied by any Israeli leaders during the hugely symbolic visit.

Allowing them to do so could have led to accusations that Washington was implicitly recognising Israel’s unilateral claim of sovereignty over the site, which would break with years of US and international precedent.

Security was tight, with the usually bustling Old City, where the Western Wall is located, essentially on lockdown and the plaza leading to the site cleared.

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As Trump’s convoy of dozens of cars entered the square around 4:00 pm (1300 GMT), armed security forces were positioned on nearly every building nearby as well as on the outer wall of the Old City.

In the nearby Jewish Quarter, barriers had been erected to make viewing the square impossible from ground level, and some residents said they had been told not to go onto their roofs overlooking the Western Wall.

Simon, a 20-year-old American studying in a nearby Jewish seminary, said he was “excited” by Trump’s visit but disappointed he would not see him.

Around a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jewish men had crammed into a tiny terrace on top of one house looking over, seemingly having been granted permission.

Related reading’A great honor – peace’

Trump was accompanied by the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitz, during his visit.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism and is married to one of the president’s top aides Jared Kushner, visited the women’s side of the wall.

Trump, who is Protestant, is the first US president to have Jewish members of his immediate family.

Under strict interpretation of Jewish law, men and women must pray separately at the wall. The rule has been repeatedly challenged by progressive Jewish movements seeking equal prayer rights.

Trump wrote “This was a great honor — peace!” before signing his name in the wall’s guest book.

Rabinovitz presented him with a gold-leafed Book of Psalms stamped with the president’s name, according to pictures released by the holy site’s administration.

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Speaking later in the day, Trump said he had been “deeply moved” by the visit.

“Words fail to capture the experience,” he said ahead of dinner at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence.

“It will leave an impression on me for ever.”

The Western Wall is the last remnant of the supporting wall of the second Jewish temple, built by King Herod and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

It is situated below the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and considered their holiest.

The visit to the Western Wall drew controversy before Trump even left Washington, when US officials declined to say whether it belonged to Israel.

The status of Jerusalem is ultra-sensitive and has been among the most difficult issues in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Mexicans turned away

Israel occupied east Jerusalem, where the Western Wall is located, and the West Bank in 1967 in moves never recognised by the international community.

It later annexed east Jerusalem and claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The traditional American position has been that Jerusalem’s status must be negotiated between the two sides.

Trump visited the wall as part of his first trip abroad as president, which includes stops at important sites for Christians, Muslims and Jews.

On Saturday and Sunday he was in Saudi Arabia, and later stops will include the Vatican.

Before visiting the Western Wall, Trump toured the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

A group of six Christian Mexicans hoping to see the church discussed ways to get out of the Old City with Israeli police, after being told they could not visit.

Group member Mauricio Guerra said he was “very disappointed” not to be able to visit the site as he had only one day in Jerusalem.

“We have travelled here to see the church,” he told AFP.

“We as Mexicans have Trump as our neighbour and now he is following us here as well,” he laughed, with Trump having pledged to build a wall between the United States and Mexico during his campaign.

“He is our cross (to bear)” he said, holding his arms wide to imitate a crucifixion.

“You can do what you like with a wall on the border, but don’t ask us to pay for it!” Guerra added of Trump’s many claims that Mexico would foot the bill.

Icebreaker contract not so bad: department

Federal bureaucrats have rejected the findings of an audit that Australia’s new $1.

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9 billion Antarctic icebreaker isn’t good value for money.

The contract to build a replacement for the Aurora Australis – which is chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division – was awarded to a Dutch company, with the new ship to be built in Romania.

An audit published in March found the environment department’s tender process largely non-competitive after one of the two competing companies withdrew before the contract was awarded.

It also found the cost of operating the new icebreaker would be significantly higher over the 34-year contract than what the government pays now to lease the Aurora Australis.

But department head Gordon de Brouwer told senators on Tuesday the figures the auditor used weren’t comparable, with some taking into account fuel and insurance costs and others not.

“We reject the ANAO report,” he told the Senate committee hearing.

“We’ll take the learnings from it but we reject … that it’s not value for money.”

The department has not investigated options for terminating the contract and starting the tender process afresh.

West Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds told the officials she was very disappointed to see the work go offshore.

“We already have the capability in Western Australia to fabricate that ship,” she told them.

“Defence have shifted focus to Australia-first and they’re finding we’ve got the capability to do more than perhaps government departments in Canberra thought we did.”

Officials said the bulk of the $1.9 billion would be spent on operations and maintenance over 30 years, which would support Tasmanian businesses.

Come clean on Middle East air strikes: HRW

Human Rights Watch has demanded the Defence department come clean on the extent of civilian casualties in its past air strikes in Iraq and Syria.

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The department has begun a new transparency drive publishing fortnightly reports on its website.

Its first report, a day before the May 9 budget, carried a brief description of seven strikes on the Iraqi city of Mosul between April 18-30.

The second report, released on Tuesday, detailed 12 operations on Mosul between May 1-18.

It says the focus was on west Mosul.

“The rate of effort has increased since the previous report to align with Iraqi Security Forces offensive operations,” Defence said.

Neither publication specifically mentioned any reports of civilian casualties and a spokesman for Defence Minister Marise Payne said the department would respond to any allegations of that nature.

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Elaine Pearson said the reports were a good first step and urged the department to provide backdated reports from the past two-and-a-half years.

Senator Payne’s spokesman ruled out issuing backdated reports.

Ms Pearson called on Senator Payne to detail any past investigations into civilian casualties.

“We urge you to immediately release details on civilian casualties caused by Australian air strikes, and if you are not collecting such information, to start doing so without delay,” she said in a letter to the minister.

Ms Pearson said reliance on video assessments taken from the air wouldn’t give the full picture of casualties, especially in densely populated areas.

“The government should actively seek this information and not wait for it to be publicly reported before beginning an investigation,” she said.

Documents released under freedom of information in March said the federal government did not collect “authoritative” data on the enemy or civilian casualties.

Ms Pearson said the government should also collaborate with Airwars, a non-government group monitoring air strikes and civilian deaths in the Middle East.

It estimates 3530 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes.

The US-led coalition acknowledges an estimated 352 civilian deaths.

Airwars last year rated Australia one of the least transparent members of the international military coalition.

The US is the only member of the coalition against Islamic State militants that has admitted to causing civilian casualties.

Missile ready for mass production: NKorea

North Korea says it’s successfully tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile, and says it met all technical requirements and can now be mass-produced, although US officials and experts are questioning the extent of its progress.

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The US, which has condemned repeated North Korean missile launches, says Sunday’s launch of what North Korea dubbed the Pukguksong-2 was of a “medium-range” missile, and US-based experts doubted the reliability of the relatively new solid-fuel type after so few tests.

US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the test did not demonstrate a new capability, or one that could threaten the US directly. But the test was North Korea’s second in a week and South Korea’s new liberal government said it dashed its hopes for peace.

US officials have been far less sanguine about the test of a long-range KN-17, or Hwasong-12, missile just over a week ago, which US officials believe survived re-entry to some degree.

North Korea said that launch tested the capability to carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” and put the US mainland within “sighting range.”

Western experts say the Hwasong-12 test did appear to have advanced North Korea’s aim of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland, even if it is still some way off from achieving that capability.

The UN Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss Sunday’s test, which defies Security Council resolutions and sanctions.

Washington has been trying to persuade China to agree to new sanctions on North Korea, which has conducted dozens of missile firings and tested two nuclear bombs since the start of last year.

US President Donald Trump has warned that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea is possible over its weapons programmes, although US officials say tougher sanctions, not military force, are the preferred option.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said the latest missile test was supervised by leader Kim Jong Un and verified the reliability of Pukguksong-2’s solid-fuel engine, stage separation and late-stage guidance for a nuclear warhead. It said data was recorded by a device mounted on the warhead.

“Saying with pride that the missile’s rate of hits is very accurate and Pukguksong-2 is a successful strategic weapon, he (Kim) approved the deployment of this weapon system for action,” KCNA said.

“Now that its tactical and technical data met the requirements of the Party, this type of missile should be rapidly mass-produced in a serial way …, he said.”

South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 500 kilometres and reached an altitude of 560 kilometres.

It said the test would have provided more “meaningful data” for North Korea’s missile programme, but further analysis was necessary to determine whether Pyongyang had mastered the technology needed to stop the warhead burning up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

US-based experts said the Pukguksong-2 would have a maximum range of about 1,500km and questioned North Korea’s assertion that the reliability of the solid-fuel missile had been proven, given limited testing.

“Entering mass production at this early in the development phase is risky, but perhaps a risk North Korea feels comfortable managing,” said Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.