2017 Budget health reforms welcomed, welfare changes draw criticism

The Medical Association is welcoming major health reforms, saying the government is winning back ground it lost after former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s 2014 Budget.

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But a major crackdown on welfare has drawn criticism from community groups who say it unfairly targets Australia’s most vulnerable.

Australia’s leading medical body has welcomed a move to unfreeze the Medicare rebate so it rises with inflation.

The cost of medicines should also come down, with funding for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme guaranteed.

Michael Gannon is the president of the Australian Medical Association.

He says the Abbott Government’s 2014 Budget was a disaster for healthcare, but this one goes a long way to repairing the damage.

“This means that we will not see patients thinking twice before visiting doctors, and we will see tremendous value that comes from these modest investments the government is making. So many health problems can be fixed by GPs, other specialists, preventing hospital admissions. There are some smart investments in this increased spending.”

Ian Yates, head of the Council of the Ageing, acknowledged there are measures in the Budget that will alleviate some of the pressures on older Australians.

He says older people consistently report that out of pocket expenses in heath is their number one concern.

Mr Yates says COTA supports changes to the Medicare levy and the retention of bulk billing incentives for diagnostics and pathology.

He also backed the restoration of pensioner concession cards for some older Australians and the one-off $75 power rebate for seniors.

“Overall, older Australians will feel mildly positive, in some cases, quite positive about this Budget. Welcome ending the Medicare freeze and a number of other measures in the health system.”

Mr Yates also welcomed measures to increase housing supply, invest in community housing and provide certainty for funding for homelessness services.

However, he says the government has missed an opportunity to focus in on the challenge and opportunities of an ageing population.

Mr Yates says the investment in retraining and reskilling older people doesn’t go far enough to meet what he said was a growing challenge.

While the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) has criticised Budget’s welfare measures.

Welfare recipients who fail to meet their job-seeking obligations will now risk major reductions in their fortnightly payments.

The three-strikes rule will see welfare recipients given demerit points for turning down jobs, missing interviews or failing to keep their appointments.

And the government will experiment with drug-testing welfare recipients, and putting them on welfare debit cards to restrict their access to cash if they fail.

ACOSS chief executive Cassandra Goldie says those on welfare should not be targeted for Budget savings.

“We’ve got a demerit system now for people who are really struggling, trying to meet their obligations on social security. We are deeply disappointed. The government has pursued this line that the problem with social security is that people are not doing the right thing. The overwhelming majority of people in Australia on social security – they are impoverished, they’re living on 38 dollars a day if you’re a single person.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison says a new tax on Australia’s five largest banks will bring in $6 billion over the next four years.

He’s urged the banks not to pass on the cost to consumers.

But Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics says that is exactly what they’ll do.

“In theory this is paid by the banks, in practice there is a relatively large risk that it actually ends up being paid by everybody with a loan – true of families, true of businesses.”

The Budget has a strong focus on infrastructure, with $75 billion allocated over the next decade.

The big-ticket items are a second airport for Sydney, an upgrade to the Snowy Hydro Scheme and a major expansion of inland rail.

But Brendan Lyon, the head of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, says those big projects have distracted the government from less glamorous, general infrastructure funding.

“Tonight’s Budget is a cut in real infrastructure funding, not a boost. It’s a cut of about 7.4 billion dollars compared to the decade-long trend. And it means that we’re going to see less infrastructure built over the next four years, not more.”

Budget 2017: Older migrants to face stricter welfare residency test

More than 2000 new migrants will be barred from the age pension or disability payments in 2018 under tighter eligibility requirements announced by the government as part of the 2017 Budget.

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Pensioners and those claiming the disability support pension (DSP) will be required to have lived in Australia for up to 15 years continuously in order to continue receiving the payments.

The savings measure will save $119 million over five years by imposing stricter residency rules for those claiming the two welfare payments.

From July 2018, applicants will have had to have lived in Australia for at least 15 years continuously before being eligible for either the pension or DSP.

WATCH: Treasurer Scott Morrison talks to SBS

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Applicants will still receive their payments if they have either 10 years of continuous residence with at least five years of that time being during their working life – ie before they’re of age pension age – or if they have lived in Australia for a decade and never received any welfare for five years in total.

The existing requirement is that an applicant must have lived in Australia for 10 years.

Treasurer Scott Morrison on welfare

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The government estimates the measure will affect about 2390 people per year.

It follows the government’s announcement last week of a new 10-year, $20,000 temporary entry visa for parents of migrants.

The age pension costs the Budget approximately $42 billion.

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WA find puts life on earth 3.5b years ago

Life thrived on land as long as 3.

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48 billion years ago – hundreds of millions of years earlier than was previously thought, scientists have learned.

The discovery raises the possibility that the earliest living things may have evolved on land rather than in the sea – and increases the chances of life on Mars.

Fossil remnants of ancient microbes were unearthed from 3.48 billion-year-old hot spring deposits in a remote region of Western Australia.

Previously, the most ancient evidence of terrestrial life came from South African rocks dating back 2.7 to 2.9 billion years.

“Our exciting findings don’t just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by three billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, by up to about 580 million years,” lead researcher Tara Djokic, from the University of NSW, said.

“This may have implications for an origin of life in freshwater hot springs on land, rather than the more widely discussed idea that life developed in the ocean and adapted to land later.”

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature Communications, is said to have major implications for the search for life on Mars.

The Red Planet has ancient hot spring deposits similar in age to those that yielded evidence of the ancient microbes in the Pilbara.

“If life can be preserved in hot springs so far back in Earth’s history, then there is a good chance it could be preserved in Martian hot springs too,” Ms Djokic said.

Within the Pilbara deposits, the scientists identified stromatolites, which are layered rock structures created by communities of ancient bugs.

Other signs of early life included preserved bubbles thought to have been trapped in a sticky microbial substance.

The presence of geyserite, a mineral only found in terrestrial hot spring environments, was evidence that the deposits were formed on land and not in the ocean.

New dinosaur with feathers, beak revealed

A clutch of enormous fossil eggs from China has led to the discovery of a new species of giant bird-like dinosaur.

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Flightless Beibeilong sinensis, which lived around 90 million years ago, had feathers, primitive wings and a beak, but dwarfed any of its modern bird relatives.

Based on their analysis of a hatchling that died while emerging from one of the eggs, experts believe the adult creature was around 8m long and weighed three tons.

Other dinosaurs of the same type, known as oviraptorosaurs, have seldom measured more than about 2m.

Several Beibeilong eggs were found in Henan Province, central China, in a ring-shaped clutch which was part of a nest 2-3m in diameter.

The eggs are up to 45cm across and weighed about 5kg.

“For many years, it was a mystery as to what kind of dinosaur laid these enormous eggs,” Professor Darla Zelenitsky, from the University of Calgary, whose team described the fossils in the journal Nature Communications, said.

“Because fossils of large theropods, like tyrannosaurs, were also found in the rocks in Henan, some people initially thought the eggs may have belonged to a tyrannosaur.

“Thanks to this fossil, we now know that these eggs were laid by a gigantic oviraptorosaur, a dinosaur that would have looked a lot like an overgrown cassowary. It would have been a sight to behold with a three-ton animal like this sitting on its nest of eggs.”

The new species of giant oviraptorosaur is thought to be the largest dinosaur known that cared for its young in a similar way to modern birds.

The scientists estimated the size of the adult after studying the bones of the hatchling and making comparisons with other dinosaurs.

It was the stillborn dinosaur that led to the name chosen for the species. Beibeilong sinensis translates as “baby dragon from China”.

Greek, Turkish Cypriots build trust through basketball

The PeacePlayers, one of a number of offshoots of an international group that uses sport to build trust in divided communities, has ballooned since it was set up in 2006.

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It now has more than 250 players and 12 teams that play all over the island, including in Nicosia, on a court at the Ledra Palace hotel in the United Nations-controlled no-man’s-land separating the Greek and Turkish sides of the divided capital.

“PeacePlayers is the bridge where we are building our relationships,” Serife Ertay, one of the group’s Turkish-Cypriot players, said on Tuesday.

PeacePlayers is about to add more coaches and will be able to take in more players following a donation from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is holding its annual meeting this year in Nicosia.

The bank had hoped to hold its meeting with reunification clearly in sight.

The reunification talks are focused on bringing the island, split along ethnic lines since 1974, under a federal umbrella of two semi-autonomous zones. But they have lost some momentum since the start of the year, causing frustration for diplomats who had seen the chances of a deal as the best in decades.

Harris Georgiades, finance minister of the Greek Cypriot-led government that represents Cyprus in the EU, who was watching the PeacePlayers practice, would not comment on the reunification process when asked by Reuters.

Instead he said both the PeacePlayers group and the EBRD’s decision to hold its meeting on the island were of symbolic importance for Cyprus.

“It is an opportunity for us to portray Cyprus as a safe, stable destination,” Georgiades said.

The Ledra Palace hotel backdrop to Tuesday’s basketball practice has rich historic associations in Cyprus. These days it is used by British troops, but in its heyday was frequented by Hollywood stars.

It was the venue of talks between the then-British colonial administration and Greek Cypriots seeking independence in 1955, it became a sanctuary for stranded tourists during a Turkish invasion in 1974 that followed a brief Greek-inspired coup, and has also been used as a prisoner-of-war exchange point.

For the teenagers taking part in Tuesday’s practice, however, the basketball games are not about politics or even, primarily, about the sport but about making new friends.

“It gives us so many opportunities that other things cannot give us,” said Nicos Mashias, one of the Greek Cypriot PeacePlayers.

Ertay added: “I have made so many friends from the south.”

(Reporting by Marc Jones; Editing by Gareth Jones)