Furious winds sweep through parliament

Unexpected political and natural calamities have added challenges to what was already going to be a big week for Malcolm Turnbull.

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The final week of parliament before the May budget was set to be a showdown over changes to racial discrimination law changes, penalty rates for the low-paid and corporate tax cuts.

But Cyclone Debbie swept across the political landscape as it wreaked havoc in north Queensland.

A commercial dispute between sugar miller Wilmar and marketer QSL also made its way into and out of Turnbull’s in-tray.

And a long-dormant extradition treaty with China ended up being the political equivalent of juggling a steamed dumpling.

Despite its massive damage, the cyclone received relatively little attention in parliament.

Turnbull was asked one question about it, on Tuesday, before attention turned to issues of the day and on Wednesday it was off the question time radar altogether – apart from a Greens question linking the disaster to the coal industry.

However by the end of the week Turnbull and Bill Shorten flew to Bowen to see the damage first-hand and reassure residents of federal support.

The sugar growers’ dispute has been a simmering issue in north Queensland for some years.

But it has failed to register in Canberra until the Nationals started to fear One Nation was taking the lead on the issue.

On Wednesday night – just hours before Turnbull headed to the sugar-rich region of north Queensland where canegrowers were fretting about their cyclone-hit crops – Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Treasurer Scott Morrison revealed the industry would be covered by a mandatory code of conduct.

While it is a form of re-regulation of the industry, Turnbull and Morrison have copped it on the chin in order to keep the Nationals on side, north Queensland voters happy and One Nation at bay.

It also gave Turnbull a sweetener to talk about on Thursday’s trip.

The extradition treaty with China has sat on the shelf since John Howard signed it 10 years ago but didn’t ratify it.

The treaty regulations were tabled just ahead of a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Chinese leaders have raised its ratification with the Australian government at every available opportunity, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was keen for it to happen.

But a few minutes before she was due to talk to the government’s leadership group, Shorten phoned Turnbull to say the shadow cabinet had decided not to back the ratification.

A short time later Turnbull confirmed to Shorten the treaty would be pulled from the parliament’s agenda.

The prime minister was already under pressure from within coalition ranks and faced the possibility of the treaty being “disallowed” in the Senate, with the support of Labor, the Greens, crossbenchers including former Liberal Cory Bernardi, and potentially several coalition senators.

To make things worse, Tony Abbott wrote a newspaper article condemning the treaty he once spruiked as vital to Australia-China relations.

Embarrassingly, ministers were still talking up the treaty as Turnbull was telling Shorten it was off.

On Thursday, the government was seeking to return to its two priorities: watering down race-hate laws in the name of free speech and passing at least part of its plan to cut company taxes.

However, compromise was expected before MPs headed out of Canberra for the pre-budget break.

A deal on small business tax cuts, temporarily shelving breaks for big business, looked the most likely scenario.

Changes to the Racial Discrimination Act appeared almost certain to fail, despite there being unanimous support for reform of the way the Human Rights Commission handles complaints.

A messy week for the government can only feed into voter perceptions Turnbull is floundering – shown in weak personal approval ratings and Labor’s solid two-party preferred lead in the polls.

The prime minister will now have a five-week parliamentary break ahead of the May 9 budget to show he hasn’t been blown off course.

Electromagnetic work linked to form of MND

Workplace exposure to electromagnetic fields has been linked to a higher risk of developing the most common form of motor neurone disease, Netherlands research suggests.

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Experts noted an association between exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

ALS causes weakness and wasting in the limbs and people only tend to live for two to five years from first experiencing symptoms.

In the new study, Professor Roel Vermeulen, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, examined data for 58,279 men and 6,573 women aged 55 to 69, who were followed for 17 years.

Some 76 men and 60 women died of ALS during the study.

The research found that high levels of electromagnetic field exposure were largely confined to the men, and depended on their jobs.

Those whose jobs had exposed them to high levels of extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields were more than twice as likely to develop ALS as those who had never been exposed through their work, the study suggested.

Furthermore, those in the top 30 per cent of cumulative exposure (duration multiplied by intensity) were nearly twice as likely to develop the disease.

“Those whose jobs had exposed them to high levels of extremely low-frequency magnetic fields were more than twice as likely to develop ALS as those who had always been exposed to only background levels through their work,” Prof Vermeulen said.

These jobs included electric line installers, welders, sewing-machine operators and aircraft pilots.

“These are essentially jobs where workers are placed in close proximity to appliances that use a lot of electricity,” Prof Vermeulen said.

“The present study adds evidence to previous studies that have suggested that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields is related to ALS risk.”

Brian Dickie, director of research development at the Motor Neurone Disease Association said while the results suggested high exposure to low frequency magnetic fields is associated with the risk of MND, it was subtle.

“This only becomes apparent when relatively large numbers of people are studied, indicating that any such effect is a very subtle one.

“It does not mean that exposure causes MND.

Warm weather to stretch into winter: BOM

Don’t pack away those summer clothes just yet – warmer-than-usual weather is on the cards for the rest of autumn and the start of winter.

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The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest climate update forecasts above average temperatures for most of the country between April and June.

Below-average rainfall is expected across southern Australia, but plenty of rain is tipped to drench the east coast, Tasmania and the far north.

BOM forecasters say most climate models are continuing to suggest an El Nino will develop this winter as a result of warmer sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

“Days and nights are likely to be warmer than average for much of Australia but cooler in some areas of the far north,” senior climatologist Andrew Watkins said on Thursday.

“Below average rainfall is likely over much of Australia but it might not start out that way in several places.

“In April, tropical air may continue to bring rain to the eastern and northern coastal fringes.”

The bureau’s latest update comes after the summer heat extended into the start of autumn, with Victoria and Tasmania recording their warmest March temperatures.

And while it remained warm in much of NSW, the state’s northeast recorded two to three times as much rain as usual by mid March.

Northern Australia has also seen above average rainfall during its annual wet season, largely as a result of a monsoon trough and tropical lows.

And while Cyclone Debbie wreaked havoc in parts of north Queensland this week, there have been far fewer cyclones than usual in the region with just five recorded so far instead of the usual 11.

Earlier this month, the bureau said recent changes in the tropical Pacific Ocean and atmosphere combined with international climate model outlooks suggested there was a 50 per cent chance of an El Nino forming by July.

El Nino is associated with below average winter-spring rainfall over eastern Australia and warmer than average winter-spring maximum temperatures in southern states.

As well as a shift in temperature extremes, El Nino can increase the chances of bushfires in southeast Australia.

The El Nino that spread from 2015 into 2016 was one of the three strongest on record, causing drought and driving temperatures higher.

Temperatures were nearly 1C above average in 2016, making last year the fourth-warmest on record.

Lions boss gives 2017 AFL season the tick

Brisbane chief executive Greg Swann has seen enough this season to be pleased with the AFL strugglers’ progress – despite languishing at the bottom of the ladder.

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The Lions have three wins from 16 games but are eyeing a string of successes to close the season.

In the final six weeks, Carlton, North Melbourne, Gold Coast and the Western Bulldogs all visit the Gabba – giving Chris Fagan’s side hope of doubling their win tally.

The Lions won just three games in 2016 and four in 2015, finishing 17th in both seasons.

This season, they are 18th, four points and 20 per cent behind North Melbourne.

Regardless of whether they improve their win-loss record, Swann is happy with the gains the club has made this season.

“We’re really encouraged,” he said.

“As I said earlier this year, we’d lost nine games in a row but it was the happiest footy club I’d been in.

“There was no whingeing or bitching or finger-pointing because we knew that we were gradually getting better and the results would come.

“Hopefully, these six games set us up to go into next year really looking to make a significant improvement.”

Any further wins might take a priority pick in this year’s draft off the table.

The Lions were given an extra first-round selection in the 2016 draft.

Swann said he wasn’t concerned about securing an extra pick this year.

“Not putting any pressure on Chris but, with six to go, we might win them all and we won’t get a priority pick,” he said on Thursday.

“Let’s worry about that when it happens.”

Swann pointed to key re-signings – led by gun forward Josh Schache – as further proof of a cultural shift.

“So long as we’ve got a good culture at the footy club, we think (good players will) stay,” he said.

“We had four Queenslanders on our list – now we’ve got 15.

“We want to be a club people come to no matter what your background is.

“We’ve made some inroads there with what we do with our welfare and you can tell it’s a lot better.”

Swann also foreshadowed an announcement on the club’s new training base and playing ground at Springfield before season’s end.

“We’ve got a commitment from the council. We’ve got some submissions in with the state government which are hopefully being reviewed in the coming month or so,” he said.

Aust industry ‘a bit of a tragedy’: Gupta

Australia is not the industrial nation that it should be with the natural resources it possesses, the British billionaire industrialist who has rescued Australian steelmaker Arrium says.

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But Sanjeev Gupta says he sees that “problem” as an opportunity.

Mr Gupta, who visited a OneSteel plant – part of his new enterprise – in western Sydney on Thursday, says Australia’s natural assets attracted him to the nation.

His London-based GFG Alliance signed a binding agreement to buy Arrium earlier this month and he is now in Australia inspecting the facilities and meeting workers.

“Australia has an abundance of natural resources. It should be an industrial nation, its a bit of a tragedy that it’s not,” he told reporters at the Rooty Hill-based steel mill.

“That loss is also an opportunity, so we see that opportunity clearly.

“Instead of exporting raw materials like iron ore, like coal, like scrap, we’d like to see that turned into steel here and we would like to see our business here turn into a world class, world-scale, steel producer.”

Mr Gupta said the other vertical elements of his business, such as power, aluminium, mining, financial services, logistics and infrastructure, will also play a role in its expansion in Australia.

“They all sort of come together as an ecosystem – they are all independent but they are part of an alliance which comes together to generate value overall,” he said.

“So we will look to do the same as we’ve looked to have that in the UK.”

Mr Gupta has been nicknamed the “man of steel” for his efforts turning around battling steel plants and saving jobs in the UK.

Mr Gupta said Arrium facilities such as those at Rooty Hill – which has 280 staff – would experience some changes under its new owners, but not a significant alteration in the structure of its labour force.

GFG Alliance signed a binding agreement earlier this month to buy Arrium for an undisclosed sum, with the deal expected to be finalised in August.

Fewer Victorian youths doing gang crime

Fewer young crooks are working in gangs in Victoria, crime figures show, despite a recent spate of home invasions and carjackings involving youths.

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Crime Statistics Agency data from 2016 found 56 per cent of young offenders aged 10 to 17 committed at least one offence with other people, down from 63 per cent in 2007.

Of those young offenders, 17 per cent offended with four or more people in 2016, they we’re most likely to be male and living in disadvantaged areas.

Groups are most likely to commit robberies, followed by burglary and public nuisance, the agency said on Thursday.

“Young people were less likely to commit serious assaults and motor vehicle thefts in company, and co-offending for these crimes have both decreased compared to 2007,” chief statistician Fiona Dowsley said in a statement.

But there is still widespread concern about youth crime across Melbourne, particularly among jewellers, who are being targeted almost weekly in smash-and-grab attacks.

Five teens, aged 16 and 17, were arrested in January after an allegedly violent robbery of a Toorak jewellery store in which a worker was beaten with a gun.

It was the second time in three months the shop had been targeted – one of more than a dozen such stores hit in the past year.

Victoria Police said the research highlighted the types of crimes officers were dealing with.

“We know that the number of young offenders is decreasing, yet there remains a small number of repeat offenders committing very serious crimes and causing fear in the community,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

“Getting caught up in crime and having a criminal record at such a young age can start a pattern of offending into adulthood.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to look at the underlying issues driving this offending, as a community, to ensure these young people don’t enter the justice system to begin with.”

The agency also found the number of serious assault offences involving co-offenders had the largest decrease, dropping from 41.3 per cent in 2007 to 29 per cent in 2016.

Overall, young offenders were more likely to co-offend compared to adults aged 18 to 24, of which only 30 per cent committed an offence with someone else.

Scales tip in fight against HIV

The scales have tipped in the fight against AIDS, with more than half of people infected with HIV now getting treatment and AIDS-related deaths almost halving since 2005, the UN says.

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In its latest global report on the pandemic, which has killed around 35 million people worldwide since it began in the 1980s, the UNAIDS agency said there were particularly encouraging signs in Africa, a continent ravaged by the disease.

Eastern and southern Africa are leading the way, reducing new HIV infections by nearly 30 percent since 2010, the report said. Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe have gone further, cutting new HIV infections by 40 per cent or more since 2010.

And among the most significant impacts of a vast scale-up of HIV testing, treatment and prevention programs, has been in the reduction of AIDS-related deaths, which have dropped by almost half since 2005.

As a result, more people in what had been some of the worst affected countries, are now living longer. In eastern and southern Africa, for example, average life expectancy increased by nearly 10 years from 2006 to 2016.

“Communities and families are thriving as AIDS is being pushed back,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe. “As we bring the epidemic under control, health outcomes are improving and nations are becoming stronger.”

The report warned, however, that not all regions are making progress. In the Middle East and North Africa, and in eastern Europe and central Asia, AIDS-related deaths have risen by 48 per cent and 38 per cent respectively, it said, mostly due to HIV-positive patients not getting access to treatment.

Reuters

‘Grumpy’ Scott Morrison takes reporter’s phone during press conference

A live press conference with Treasurer Scott Morrison ended on a bizarre note after he took a reporter’s phone and offered to read his questions aloud.

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Mr Morrison had been fielding questions about housing affordibility alongside the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar in Melbourne on Thursday.

ABC reporter Guy Stayner later quizzed Mr Morrison about why the government gave $30 million to Fox Sports as part of its latest Budget.

After persistent questioning, Mr Morrison’s patience appeared to wear thin.

Do you think ScoMo got grumpy with being grilled by @GuyStayner? I think ScoMo got grumpy. pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/1yVcN9K0g5

— Matthew Doran (@MattDoran91) July 20, 2017

“It appears there’s no paper trail for this $30 million fund,” Mr Stayner began, before being cut off by Mr Morrison.

“Well, you can make all the assertions you like, but that doesn’t make them true,” the Treasurer said.

“Is there a paper trail?” Mr Stayner followed up.

“Again, I’m happy to deal with the issue offline,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Stayner appeared to try and ask two more questions from his phone on another topic, prompting Mr Morrison to reach for Mr Stayner’s phone and offer to read out the questions for him.

Those nearby could be heard laughing as Mr Stayner agreed to hand it over.

“I’ll just read the questions out, I’ll save you the trouble,” Mr Morrison laughed. “Who’s sending me the questions? I should know who’s asking them actually.”

The questions were about whether Mr Morrison supported a plebiscite for pre-selection in New South Wales.

As he answered, Mr Morrison appeared to hand the phone back to Mr Stayner.

At the end of the press conference, Mr Stayner jokingly asked if Mr Morrison had anything else he wanted to read.

“I’ll send a text message back,” the Treasurer laughed.

ABC Political reporter Matt Doran later posted a video of the exchange on Twitter.

“Do you think ScoMo got grumpy with being grilled by @GuyStayner? I think ScoMo got grumpy,” he wrote.

Mr Stayner laughed off the exchange by tweeting a selfie with the Treasurer. 

@ScottMorrisonMP stole my phone mid-presser but he did give it back for this selfie @abcnews @abcnewsMelb pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/RHyRiDbVP7

— Guy Stayner (@GuyStayner) July 20, 2017

Trump calls for cuts to fund border wall

President Donald Trump is proposing immediate budget cuts of $US18 billion ($A24 billion) from programs like medical research, infrastructure and community grants so US taxpayers, not Mexico, can cover the down payment on his border wall.

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The White House documents were submitted to Congress amid negotiations over a catchall spending bill that would avert a partial government shutdown at the end of next month.

The package would wrap up $US1.1 ($A1.4) trillion in unfinished spending bills and address the Trump administration’s request for an immediate $US30 billion ($A39 billion) in additional Pentagon spending.

The latest Trump proposal would eliminate $US1.2 billion ($A1.6 billion) in National Institutes of Health research grants, a favourite of both parties.

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The community development block grant program, also popular, would be halved, amounting to a cut of $US1.5 billion ($A2.0 billion), and Trump would strip $US500 million ($A655 million) from a popular grant program for transportation projects.

Like Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, which was panned by both Democrats and Republicans earlier this month, the proposals have little chance of being enacted.

But they could create bad political optics for the struggling Trump White House, since the administration asked earlier for $US3 billion ($A3.9 billion) to pay for the Trump’s controversial US-Mexico border wall and other immigration enforcement plans.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall, a claim the country has disputed.

“The administration is asking the American taxpayer to cover the cost of a wall – unneeded, ineffective, absurdly expensive – that Mexico was supposed to pay for, and he is cutting programs vital to the middle class to get that done,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Build the wall or repair or build a bridge or tunnel or road in your community? What’s the choice?”

Watch: Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer slams Donald Trump’s wall funding plan

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Senate Republicans are considering backing away from a showdown with Democrats over whether to fund Trump’s request for immediate funding to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.

Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster any provision providing money for the wall. And many Republicans aren’t very enthusiastic about the proposal, saying the White House hasn’t given them many specifics to go on.

“I’d like to hear the details. What is this wall?” asked Republican Senator John McCain.

Asked about including border wall financing in the broader spending package, Republican senator Roy Blunt, a key negotiator, said: “They will not pass together. That’s just my view.”

The government would shut down except for some functions at midnight April 28 without successful action on spending.

GOP leaders are eager to avoid a politically damaging shutdown, especially in the wake of last week’s embarrassing failure to pass the Trump bill to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Watch: Trump targets Obama’s climate plans

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South Africa lucky to nab draw: Du Plessis

South African skipper Faf du Plessis admits his side was saved by the rain on the final day of the series decider against New Zealand in Hamilton.

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Not a single ball was delivered at Seddon Park on Wednesday after a sub-par Proteas showing in the previous day’s action.

The Black Caps were in a strong position to level the series with the tourists 5-80 in their second innings, after leading by 175 runs in the first dig.

“From a team perspective we were still very driven in making sure we do whatever it takes to get through,” du Plessis said.

“(But) they dominated this Test and deserved to have a crack at us today.

“It’s a real fair assessment to say we’ve been saved by the rain.”

Quinton de Kock (15) and du Plessis (15) were at the crease at stumps on day four, giving the Proteas some reason for hope, but the early removal of either batsman on Wednesday would’ve all but guaranteed a Kiwi victory and tied series.

Instead, the heavens came to du Plessis’ rescue and gifted his side a 1-0 series win ahead of their two-month international cricket hiatus.

“From a team perspective we were still very driven in making sure we do whatever it takes to get through,” du Plessis told reporters.

“(But) they dominated this Test and deserved to have a crack at us today.

“It’s a real fair assessment to say we’ve been saved by the rain.”

On the whole, du Plessis was pleased with only half his touring squad, which picked up two draws and coasted to victory in Wellington after the Kiwis imploded.

Morne Morkel re-established himself as a bona fide seaming star after a 14-month injury lay-off, while spinner Keshav Maharaj was the Proteas find of the summer.

Young gun Kagiso Rabada also goes from strength to strength.

But the South African performance with the willow was another matter entirely – particularly that of the openers and specialist batsmen.

Of the top seven’s combined 39 Test innings on Kiwi soil, only 10 progressed past the 50-mark – and just the single, by Dean Elgar in Dunedin, hit triple figures.

“You’re playing with your backs against the wall most of the time as a batting unit,” the 32-year-old du Plessis said.

“That’s a real concern for me and something we need to step up and be better at.”

Nevertheless, the 1-0 victory on Kiwi soil hands du Plessis’ Proteas the No.2 world Test ranking after series wins against Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand twice since August last year.

Tests against England, Bangladesh, India and Australia in next summer’s campaign will also give them the chance to become world No.1.

Weatherill defends power offer rejection

The South Australian government is standing by its decision to reject an offer from Alinta Energy to keep a local coal-fired power station running for another three years for a $24 million payment.

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The move has been slammed by the SA Liberals and federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, who says it has exposed Jay Weatherill as “the premier with no clothes” given the offer was cheaper than his energy plan.

But Mr Weatherill says it did not make sense to accept the offer that would not have guaranteed Alinta’s northern power station would have remained operational.

A letter released by the SA Liberals on Wednesday revealed Alinta Energy told the state government in May 2015 it could keep the station at Port Augusta running until mid-2018 for a subsidy of about $24 million.

Opposition Leader Steven Marshall says the government’s decision to refuse the offer, reflected in the power station’s closure in May 2016, was “economically damaging” and boosted SA power bills by 10 per cent.

His criticism has been backed by Mr Frydenberg, just weeks after he traded insults with Mr Weatherill at an Adelaide event.

Mr Frydenberg says Mr Weatherill has repeatedly denied keeping the Port Augusta power station open would have been cheaper than the $550 million energy strategy he announced this month.

But he said the premier has now been proven wrong, with the offer revealed to be “22 times cheaper than his $550 million admission of failure”.

“Today Jay Weatherill was exposed as the premier with no clothes,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Mr Weatherill defended the decision on Wednesday, telling reporters the subsidy would not have guaranteed the Northern Power Station would stay on.

“What we were being asked to do is to throw taxpayers’ money at an old coal-fired power station with no guarantee it would stay open for any period of time,” he told reporters.

“Coal and Northern represented the past and it just did not make sense to be investing in something that no private company could make viable.”

Earlier, SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis said accepting the offer also would have run the risk of other power companies asking for similar payments.

He said the government would still have needed its energy plan, which includes a new gas-fired power station and battery storage for renewable energy, given this week’s closure of the Hazelwood power station in Victoria.

Disconnection: Hazelwood leaves the grid

Hazelwood’s unit 1 generator has been firing since November 30, 1964 and it was the last to go offline after three days of shutdown at the Victorian power station.

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The 200 megawatt unit was desynchronised from the national energy grid at 4.56pm on Wednesday.

After more than 50 years of power generation, the brown coal plant will cease business completely on Friday.

Decommissioning of the facility and its adjoining mine will begin next week and take about a year.

“While Friday will be the end of an era and a very sad day for everyone who has had an involvement with Hazelwood over the past 52 years, it should also be a very proud day,” Engie Australia chief executive Alex Keisser said in a statement on Wednesday.

Victorians should take pride in the plant produced the electricity “that has underpinned the state’s economic development and wellbeing”, he said.

Mr Keisser said Engie had explored “all options” to keep Hazelwood open, but it had become too inefficient.

“While it was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1964, it has now reached the end of its productive life, lasting far longer than anyone would have anticipated when its life began,” he said.

However, for many workers, they have hung up their hard hats only to face an uncertain future.

The state government announced earlier this month that about 150 workers at AGL’s Loy Yang A coal mine will be made redundant and their jobs given to retrenched staff from Hazelwood.

But workers at Hazelwood say they are yet to hear anything about the jobs.

“Talk to the workers out there and there’s a lot of uncertainty about anyone getting a transfer position,” worker Troy Makepeace told reporters on Wednesday. “No one knows the logistics. No one knows when, or how many.”

Premier Daniel Andrews secretly visited the station on Wednesday, leaving some workers angry that he turned up on the day of the shutdown.

Mr Andrews said the terms of his visit were organised by Engie and the union and said it was made clear they “didn’t want a media event”.

He said some progress had been made on the job transfer scheme but it was a “complex and difficult process” although Engie had taken a further step on Wednesday.

He didn’t outline what that step was.

Opposition leader Matthew Guy said the premier had turned his back on the region and put the state at risk of “brownouts and blackouts”.

He said Mr Andrews had tripled the coal tax, slugging operators with an extra $252 million in taxes, effectively forcing the closure of Hazelwood.

“More than 700 jobs here in Morwell will disappear. These are 700 families whose future six months ago was quite secure,” Mr Guy said in Morwell on Wednesday.

The Australian Energy Market Operator says despite the loss of Hazelwood, Victoria will remain a net exporter of energy – a message backed by the premier.

No engine failure in Melbourne plane crash

A pilot made seven mayday calls before his plane crashed in Melbourne but anything else uttered in the last moments of the five men onboard remains a mystery because the black box failed.

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Max Quartermain was flying four Americans to King Island to play golf when the small plane crashed into the DFO shopping centre and exploded in a fireball moments after take-off from Essendon Airport last month.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s preliminary report ruled out an early theory of catastrophic engine failure during take-off.

“Cores of both engines were rotating and there was no evidence of pre-impact failure of either engine’s internal components,” the report released on Wednesday said.

“However a number of engine components were retained for further examination and testing.”

ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood says the aircraft is so damaged it has not yet been possible to say what caused the crash.

“I offer my deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those on board the aircraft. Every effort is being made to determine the cause of this tragic accident,” he said.

Air traffic control audio records Mr Quartermain calling ‘mayday’ seven times but crucially there was no audio from the plane’s black box.

Investigators don’t know why the Beechcraft King Air’s black box did not record on its final flight on February 21 – but it did record a previous trip.

“All the recovered audio was from a previous flight on January 3, 2017,” the report says.

Witnesses familiar with the aircraft type reported the take-off roll along the runway was longer than normal.

After becoming airborne it was seen to move left, then perform a shallow climbing left turn while remaining relatively level.

Further investigation will be done on the propellers to determine the blade angles at impact, their pre-impact condition and to assess the impact damage.

Essendon Fields chief executive Chris Cowan said the tragic accident could have happened anywhere in the world and he took aim at people casting aspersions on the airport’s safety.

“Much of the speculation to date has been wrong and has not been appropriate, especially to the victims’ grieving families,” he said.

“It’s a reality of modern society that airports operate in close proximity to urban environments.”

The Essendon airport is surrounded by shops, houses and freeways, with the plane crash resulting in a huge explosion metres from peak hour traffic.

Texan retirees Greg De Haven, Russell Munsch, Glenn Garland and John Washburn died on impact with Mr Quartermain when the plane hit the DFO.

They had been in Australia on a golfing “trip of a lifetime” with their wives, who were not on the flight.

The ATSB will release a final report in about 12 months.