Make Syria information public NZ PM urged

New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key is being urged to make public the briefings he’s had on the Syrian crisis, and what action the United States plans to take.

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Mr Key spoke with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday afternoon and is due to speak with other leaders, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron, this week.

New Zealand’s UN diplomats were also due to be briefed by US officials on Wednesday night or Thursday.

The United States could launch its own intervention in Syria, with the United Nations Security Council unlikely to agree on a mandated intervention, because permanent member Russia – an ally of Syria – is likely to veto it.

Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff wants Mr Key to share what information he has with parliament and the public – and to call a debate on New Zealand’s planned response.

Mr Goff says the situation in Syria, where the government is believed to have used chemical weapons on its citizens, killing more than 350, cannot be ignored.

However, he says collective action backed by the UN is the best response, rather than a US-led military strike.

“The first step by the [UN Security Council] should be to stop all countries providing the arms and financial support that feeds the ongoing conflict. New Zealand should be outspoken in seeking that agreement,” Mr Goff said.

“We also need to learn the lessons of the past. Ten years after the military invasion of Iraq, over 1000 Iraqi people are still being killed each month in that country.

“The goal must be collective resolve and commitment to stop the conflict, secure the chemical weapons and plan for transition to a new government.”

Mr Key on Wednesday said New Zealand’s preference was for the UN Security Council “to send the strongest message it can” to Syria.

He is not yet committing New Zealand troops to any intervention.

Double risk of leukaemia for Vietnam vets

New Zealand’s Vietnam War veterans are almost twice as likely to suffer from a common form of adult leukaemia than the general public, a new study has found.

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The Otago University study found veterans, who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals including Agent Orange when deployed in Phuoc Tuy province, have a 91 per cent higher incidence of chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL).

CLL is one of the most common forms of leukaemia found in adults, particularly older adults, and is rarely diagnosed in children.

The university research analysed medical records of 2783 of the 3400 New Zealand military personnel who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. It found 0.5 per cent of them contracted the cancer, compared with an average of 0.26 per cent within the general public.

“The incidence of leukaemia is interesting,” lead author Dr David McBride told AAP.

“The Australians and the New Zealanders appear to be the only group of veterans that have shown this excess.”

Many Australians and New Zealanders fought in the same area during the Vietnam War and Dr McBride said chemicals known as Agent Orange or other pesticides used in certain areas could be the cause.

Scientists made the link between pesticides, including Agent Orange, and CLL during studies on farm workers exposed to the chemicals more than 10 years ago.

Despite this, scientists can’t pinpoint exactly what causes the increased incidence of this cancer without information about individual exposure, five decades ago.

“It’s a time and place associated with the disease, and therefore there must be something about it,” Dr McBride said.

“But we’re not sure exactly what it is.”

The study also found lung cancers claimed the most lives in both New Zealand and Australian Vietnam veterans.

However, when it came to overall deaths, the mortality rate of the former New Zealand military personnel was 15 per cent lower than the general public.

Dr McBride says this is due to something called the “healthy soldier effect” which arises from the selection process of military members.

“This is related to the fact that this cohort would have been selected for its health and fitness,” he said.

Third major beer player makes its debut

Coca Cola Amatil boss Terry Davis has a million dollars’ worth of beer to deliver to new customers this week.

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The soft drink distributor is back in the beer market after an enforced two year hiatus brought about by the sale of its brewing operations when SAB Miller took over Foster’s in 2011.

Coca Cola Amatil (CCA) is entering the profitable but increasingly crowded premium beer market with several Australian brews, plus Coors and Blue Moon beers made by North American brewing giant Molson Coors.

The first orders are relatively modest in scale but Mr Davis is expecting much larger demand to follow.

“I’m not unhappy that we’ve got our first million dollars worth of sales for delivery this week,” he told AAP.

“We don’t have a revenue target for the first year – this is about getting the brands into the marketplace.”

“Our medium term target is to get to 20 per cent of the Australian premium beer and cider market and our goal is to be the third force in beer brewing and distribution in Australia – that’s our goal.”

Mr Davis says he won’t be competing with big volume beers such as Toohey’s New and Victoria Bitter.

Instead CCA will target the premium international brands owned by the big two of Australian brewing: Kirin-owned Lion and SAB Miller-owned Foster’s.

Mainstream beer consumption is at a 60-year low in Australia but craft and premium beers are a growing segment.

“We are very much a craft brewery with big distribution and sales muscle,” he said.

CCA has joined with Australian winemaker Casella to establish The Australian Beer Company, which makes beer at a brewery in Griffith, New South Wales.

It will initially make Alehouse full and mid-strength draught beers, Arvo premium lager and Pressmans Original Australian Cider.

Molson Coors chief commercial officer Brett Vye said the Australian beer market was one of the world’s most profitable and CCA had presented as an attractive partner.

Mr Davis said CCA won’t have to make the same margins as his major competitors to turn a comfortable profit.

“Our cost of doing business ratio is so much lower than the brewers because we have such a pervasive distribution structure,” he said.

“So somewhere around 15 per cent EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) margins are more than acceptable for us. That’s our near term target.”

Comment: Gay marriage is now only a matter of political will

The High Court provided a surprise in also stating unequivocally that the Federal Parliament can pass such a law.

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Achieving marriage equality Australia-wide is now only a matter of political will.

Contention had surrounded whether the Federal Parliament could enact a same-sex marriage law. The question hinged on the word ”marriage” in section 51 of the constitution, which defined the scope of federal power in the area.

The meaning to be given to ”marriage” exposed two very different ways of interpreting the constitution. On the one hand, the High Court could limit ”marriage” to being between a man and woman by taking an originalist perspective, that is, by reading the constitution according to the intentions of its framers. Alternatively, the court might take a more liberal approach by allowing the word to evolve.

Opponents of same-sex marriage made much of this lingering constitutional uncertainty. Lawyers for the Preservation of the Definition of Marriage argued for several years that any federal same-sex marriage law would be struck down by the High Court.

They were fortified in their position by speculation by members of the High Court. For example, Justice Michael McHugh had said that ”in 1901 ‘marriage’ was seen as meaning a voluntary union for life between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. If that level of abstraction were now accepted, it would deny the Parliament of the Commonwealth the power to legislate for same-sex marriages”.

Several questions were posed for the High Court in the ACT case. None was on whether the federal ”marriage” power extends to same-sex marriage. The court did not strictly need to deal with this because the case involved a territory, and the Commonwealth has a separate power to regulate any aspect of territory affairs.

The High Court’s decision to resolve the matter, and to find that the Federal Parliament can pass a same-sex marriage law, blindsided the opponents of the reform. Despite the outcome of the case, this amounts to a significant victory for Australian Marriage Equality. It intervened in the High Court to put arguments on this point.

No one appeared in the case to put the contrary argument. This was a significant strategic failure on the part of bodies fighting tooth and nail against same-sex marriage, such as Australian Christian Lobby.

Although Australian Marriage Equality lost this battle, the High Court decision will enable it to win the war. It is now clear that the Australian constitution allows marriage to change over time to include people of the same sex.

The legal barriers have been removed, but it remains doubtful that Australia will gain a national law legalising same-sex marriage during the current Parliament. Even if a conscience vote is granted, it is unlikely enough Coalition members will support the change.

Another federal failure will return attention to the idea of a state or territory law. It is here that the effect of the High Court decision has been exaggerated. The court overturned the ACT law because it was inconsistent with the federal Marriage Act. The court did not say how differently drafted state or territory law might fare.

One of the problems facing the ACT was its law was not drafted in a form that gave it the best chance of success. It was crafted explicitly as a marriage equality measure, not as a law that established an entirely separate form of same-sex marriage at the territory level.

Problems with the ACT law were apparent before the High Court decision. Hence, the view of leading NSW barrister Bret Walker, SC, was that the ACT law was invalid, but that a differently drafted law could survive constitutional attack.

The High Court decision to strike down the ACT law makes it more difficult for a state or territory to legislate in the area. But it remains open for them to try. They might take heart from where state laws have been struck down, only to survive subsequent High Court challenge after being redrafted. A recent example is control orders on bikies. South Australia’s law was struck down by the High Court in 2010, as was a NSW law in 2011. The laws were redrafted, and in 2013 Queensland had its law upheld.

Moves are already afoot to pass a differently drafted same-sex marriage law at the state level. They began last week in the West Australian Parliament when a same-sex marriage bill was introduced. That bill avoids the drafting problems of the ACT law. Such attempts will no doubt continue until Australia finally achieves a national marriage equality law.

George Williams is a Professor of Law at UNSW.

Pacific climate pledge lacks teeth

Sitting on a remote island which is at risk of disappearing below rising oceans, Pacific leaders have made a unified call for stronger steps to address climate change.

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But the region’s two largest polluters are refusing to change their own commitments.

Leaders from the 15 Pacific Islands Forum member states, including Australia and New Zealand, met at a retreat on Eneko Island in the Marshall Islands on Thursday, where they discussed ways the world can rein in carbon emissions.

They released the Majuro Declaration – a joint statement committing to “action that contributes to the urgent reduction and phase-down of greenhouse gas pollution”.

But rather than requiring supporters commit to targets, they are only “strongly encouraged” to reduce and phase down greenhouse gas pollution.

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak told a press conference following the retreat that he believes Australia and New Zealand will be spurred to come up with more ambitious carbon reduction targets than their meagre existing pledges.

However, Australian minister Jacinta Collins and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key say they have no plans to change their countries’ carbon goals, and they made no new commitments at the retreat.

Asked whether the declaration was as bold as small island leaders had originally promised, Mr Key called it “realistic”.

Forum members will take the declaration to big emitters the US, China and India at the post-forum dialogue on Friday, before Mr Loeak presents it to the United Nations later this month.

Also high on the retreat agenda was suspended member Fiji, which is due to hold elections next September around the time of the next forum, in Palau.

Forum secretary-general Tuiloma Neroni Slade told media after Thursday’s talks leaders will not revisit their decision to suspend Fiji until after it holds elections.

Mr Key says the forum will be “rewarding what we see as good behaviour” with reinstatement.

“The view of Australia and New Zealand, and increasingly others, was that there’s a test here, it’s sort of a bright line: hold free and fair elections and you’re over the line.”

The leaders also expressed abhorrence at the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its citizens, and called on the UN Security Council to hold it to account.