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.

I had not a cent to my name, MP reveals

Anne Aly will never forget the day she broke down in tears outside a Centrelink office.

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The then 25-year-old had just left her violent husband and had two sons, aged one and three, to take care of.

“I had absolutely nothing; not a cent to my name,” the Labor MP told parliament.

She was desperate, and felt ashamed and humiliated, only to be told she would have to wait a week for her first parenting payment.

“I didn’t know how I was going to feed my children for that next week until that payment came through.

“I’ll never forget those days.”

Ms Aly said people in those situations, many of them mothers fleeing domestic violence, are not out to scam the government.

“We’re not criminals – we’re there because we have no other choice.”

The counter-terrorism expert was speaking out against a suite of welfare cuts, which cleared parliament on Wednesday night despite opposition from Labor.

Specifically, she slammed the extended waiting period for those seeking single-parent payments and the freeze on income-free areas for some payments.

The latter, she claimed, will affect 204,000 Australians on the lowest incomes.

Ms Aly told MPs that, at one point, she had to raise her children with just $400 a fortnight.

That was less than one-third of the travel allowance she gets as an opposition backbencher for four days when parliament is sitting.

“I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to stand at the shopping centre counter and return half your shopping because you simply can’t afford it that week.

“I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to delve through my purse and pick up coins just to be able to afford essentials like milk and bread.

“I will use every last breath that I have … to remind this government that there are people out there in my electorate and their electorates for whom this is not something they can push into the past – this is part of their everyday reality.”

The federal government is planning to use some of the savings to help pay for a new childcare package.

Online privacy changes sent to Trump

US Congress has sent President Donald Trump legislation that would kill an online privacy regulation, a move that could eventually allow internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to sell the browsing habits of their customers.

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The Federal Communications Commission rule issued in October was designed to give consumers greater control over how internet service providers share information.

However, critics say the rule will stifle innovation and pick winners and losers among internet companies.

The House voted 215-205 to reject the rule. The Senate had already voted to the block it.

The vote is part of an extensive effort Republicans have undertaken to void an array of regulations issued during the final months of Democratic president Barack Obama’s tenure.

Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans put profits over the privacy concerns of Americans.

“Overwhelmingly, the American people do not agree with Republicans that this information should be sold, and it certainly should not be sold without your permission,” she said.

“Our broadband providers know deeply personal information about us and our families.”

Internet companies such as Google do not have to ask users’ permission before tracking what sites they visit.

Republicans and industry groups have blasted that discrepancy, saying it is unfair and confusing for consumers.

But proponents of the privacy measure argue the company that sells you your internet connection can see even more about consumers, such as every website they visit and with whom they exchange emails.

That information would be particularly useful for advertisers and marketers.

Trump’s debt collector: Tillerson heads to NATO

The annual NATO foreign ministers talks in Brussels were brought forward at the last minute after Tillerson warned he would not be able to attend on the long-planned date.

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Washington’s top diplomat is reportedly keeping time free in early April to take part in a possible golf resort summit between Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping.

But Tillerson needs to meet with his colleagues to prepare for Trump’s first full NATO summit, on May 25.

And his apparent reluctance to commit to the NATO meeting only served to reinforce the impression that Trump places little stock in America’s decades-old alliances.

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This month, Trump’s conviction that the allies must somehow pay Washington for the reassuring presence of US forces in Europe cast a pall over talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” he tweeted.

In barnstorming speeches on the campaign trail last year, Trump declared NATO to be obsolete. But since coming to office his administration has taken a more positive stance.

Acting as the good cops while bad cop Trump lays out cash demands, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO.

Tillerson, having finally agreed to meet his colleagues at his first NATO talks, must now translate Trump’s tweets into a diplomatic strategy to strengthen the alliance.

‘Hard push’

The press-shy former oilman has kept his thoughts to himself but State Department officials – speaking on condition of anonymity – briefed reporters.  

“The first goal that Secretary Tillerson’s going to push is to get the allies to renew their commitment through increased resources for NATO defense spending,” one said.  

“It’s essential that the allies honor their commitment from the last two previous summits to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product on defense,” he explained.

In addition to the two per cent goal, the official said, Tillerson will push very hard for allies to spend a fifth of their defense budgets on military-capacity building. 

The 28-member alliance met in Wales in 2014 and agreed that each would boost defense spending to the two percent goal by 2024 – leaving them today with a seven year grace period.

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But Trump has made it clear he regards previous shortfalls in this goal – even before the Wales deal – as representing a growing debt from member states towards the alliance.

Some NATO members, particularly those on the alliance’s eastern flank exposed to potential Russian interference, have met or are close to meeting the goal.

But Trump wants NATO to refocus its efforts away from deterring Vladimir Putin’s Russia and towards his global goal of eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism.”

“Secretary Tillerson will be pushing allies in that way as well,” a senior State Department official said.     

The US defense budget is 68 per cent of NATO members’ combined spending, but previous presidents have assumed the burden as part of a global leadership role.

Russia meanwhile has taken increasingly provocative steps in Ukraine and Syria, just across NATO’s eastern and southern borders, spooking many of the allies.

Allied warplanes regularly intercept Russian bombers over the North Sea and Russia is accused of covertly backing anti-EU and anti-NATO populist movements across Europe.

Unsustainable spending

Washington still insists it has the allies’ back – but apparently not at any price.

“The President has made very clear, and the Secretary will reinforce this on Friday,” a senior US official said.

“It’s no longer sustainable for the United States to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s deterrence and defense spending.” 

On Thursday, Tillerson will be in Ankara, meeting senior leaders of NATO ally Turkey, which has increasingly strained relations with European capitals but a key role in Syria.

While he is there, NATO ambassadors will meet their Russian counterpart as part of the NATO-Russia council, a forum which has been mothballed since Moscow’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.

On Friday, Tillerson – who had such friendly ties with Putin as CEO of energy giant ExxonMobil that he won a Kremlin medal – will meet with his Ukrainian counterpart.  

And he will lend American support to NATO’s efforts “to push Russia to end its aggression” in Ukraine.    

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Hardy north Qlders battered but unbowed

Broken but not beaten.

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That was the message on a sign at Airlie Beach business Plants Whitsunday on Wednesday after copping Cyclone Debbie’s fury.

But it also reflected the sentiment of north Queenslanders as they emerged from their homes to survey the damage of the Category 4 cyclone.

Some were left devastated, while others couldn’t help but feel they had a lucky escape.

One of the hardest hit areas was Shute Harbour, 10km from Airlie Beach.

Australia’s second largest ferry terminal was destroyed by Debbie as it tore across the coast on Tuesday.

Boats were slammed into the shore, piers and buildings were damaged beyond repair.

Boat owner James Wighton walked around in disbelief as he examined the worst cyclone devastation he had ever seen.

“This is millions of dollars worth of infrastructure,” he told AAP.

Mr Wighton also woke to the news his $30,000 uninsured boat was destroyed during the 260km per hour winds.

“Mine is still on its mooring. But it’s upside down,” he said.

Down the road, Shute Harbour Motel owner Dave McInerney was visibly shattered as the realisation his life’s work had been demolished sunk in.

Mr McInerney spent Tuesday cowering in one of the toilets with his caretaker Dave Thompson and dog Spotty.

“We could just hear really huge noises and that outside,” he told AAP.

“You don’t know what you’re going to meet when you come out.”

What they saw at daybreak on Wednesday was irreparable damage.

Mr McInerney said he would walk away from the business his dad built 50 years ago.

“More than likely it’ll be demolished and sold as a development site,” he told AAP.

Mr Thompson said the force of Tuesday’s cyclone had been an “eye opener” and it was time for him to leave north Queensland.

“I’ll probably pack up and go now, that’s enough,” the long-time Airlie Beach resident said. “I’ve seen some pretty bad storms but this one took the cake.

“I was in room nine but the windows came in and that was it. Lucky I moved when I did because the whole back of the building came off anyway.”

But among the heartache was some joy.

Two baby girls were born at ambulance stations in the region early Wednesday morning.

Torrential rain hampered the efforts of emergency crews to assess the damage done in Bowen and the more badly-affected Proserpine.

Whitsunday Regional Council mayor Andrew Willcox described the area as a “war zone”, but police later confirmed major infrastructure had been relatively unscathed.

Business owners and residents at Airlie Beach, one of the hardest hit areas, started the clean-up early.

They mopped floors, cleared fallen trees and gave comfort to those who had been badly affected.

Boost Juice manager Nina Carr was moved to tears by the damage, but said the community would get on with the job of rebuilding.

“We’re a strong community and we’ll band together and try and make it better than it was before,” she told AAP.

“But we also need the rest of the country to come and embrace us. Come to north Queensland,” she pleaded

Burger and Bar capitalised on the lack of power by using portable barbecues to sell $5 hamburgers and bacon and egg rolls to hungry locals, as bobcats moved in to remove fallen trees from footpaths and roads.

More than 50,000 people were without power and water, and most of the major connecting roads remain blocked because of floodwaters.

The clean-up will take weeks, maybe even months.

But for the tough people of north Queensland life goes on.

They will recover, just as they have before.

Debbie hits agriculture and tourism hard

The physical battering sustained by Queensland communities hit by Cyclone Debbie will be followed with an economic hit, as the total damage to the Whitsunday region becomes clear.

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The tourism, agriculture and mining sectors are all reeling for the category four cyclone which continues to damage the state.

Farmers were in the immediate firing line of the system, with heavy rain and winds tearing through local sugarcane, vegetable and fruit crops.

The region accounts for 95 per cent of Australia’s tomato and capsicum crop at this time of year, and the Queensland Farmers’ Federation said those producers would feel the pain in the short term.

“Unfortunately there’s no kind of insurance for these types of losses, so they’re definitely going to go backwards,” the QFF’s Ross Henry told AAP.

“There’s over a billion dollars worth of agricultural production in that region, and it’s just been hit with a category 4 cyclone, so we expect the damage to be quite large.”

The region’s canegrowers have also been devastated by the storm, with a 300km stretch of cane fields ravaged.

More than 1000 cane growers live in the area, and are responsible for supplying about half of Australia’s $2 billion sugar industry.

“We do know that hundreds of hectares of sugarcane has been flattened by Cyclone Debbie’s winds with the Mackay and Proserpine districts the worst affected,” Canegrowers CEO Dan Galligan said.

“Some of the cane will have been snapped or pulled up by the roots and some of it is underwater.”

There’s also serious concerns about the fate of the Wilmar-owned mill at Proserpine, which was right in Debbie’s path.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on Wednesday travelled to Bowen to survey damage wrought by the storm, and has flagged possible assistance packages for affected farmers.

“I will be speaking with the prime minister about that, because we want to make sure that we help our farmers on the road to recovery,” she said.

The tourism industry is fearful it could see long-term effects from Debbie’s destruction – which wrought havoc on Hayman, Hamilton Daydream Islands, as well as Airlie Beach’s marinas.

The Whitsunday region generates $700 million annually through tourism, supporting around 10,000 jobs.

“When tourism stops, everyone suddenly realises they’re in the tourism industry,” Queensland Tourism Industry Council boss Daniel Gschwind said.

“They may not have direct contact with businesses, but there are businesses supplying tourism businesses and supporting them, and those tourism dollars flow through the community.”

Mr Gschwind said local industry took a $400 million hit following Cyclone Yasi in 2011, which was mostly caused by public perception, not reality.

“Cairns for example, we’ve had reports of people cancelling trips there. Entirely unnecessary, Cairns is fine.”

Col Mckenzie from Australian Marine Park Tourism Operators said the government needed to look after the tourism industry as much as farmers.

In addition, most central Queensland mines and railways are at a standstill as driving rain threatens to halt coal production for some time.