EU has no ‘Plan B’ for France poll upset

The European Union has no special plan if the two anti-EU candidates reach the final round of France’s election on Sunday, diplomats say, leaving the bloc to brace itself and hope for a centrist victor.

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Even without a shock outcome, Brussels worries that neither of the more mainstream candidates can revive France’s economy or help Germany confront doubts about the EU’s future if they are victorious in a May run-off.

Despite repeated Islamist militant attacks in France, the euro zone’s No.2 economy remains Brussels’ overriding worry.

Diplomats said France needs a leader who will modernise heavily-regulated sectors of the economy and tackle the rigid French labour market, helping to reverse its decline as an economic power relative to Germany over the past two decades.

There is concern that neither youthful independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who lacks experience, nor centre-right former prime minister Francois Fillon, whose campaign was dogged by scandal, would have the vision or authority to bring change.

“If Marine Le Pen wins the election, the European Union as we know it ceases to exist,” said one senior EU diplomat who formerly served in Paris of the far-right leader who threatens to leave the EU without a quick renegotiation.

“Then we have to think about other models … There is no Plan B,” the diplomat said. “The city is shivering inside,” the diplomat said of Brussels.

Klaus Regling, the managing director of the euro zone’s bailout fund, told a forum in Washington this week he doubted Le Pen would gain support to change France’s constitution to take the country out of the EU or the euro zone.

“But it would mean a standstill, growth would remain low,” he said of a Le Pen victory.

Despite improving economic data, France’s national debt is rising and the economy is barely growing. It remains uncompetitive and suffers from falling productivity, the European Commission has said, adding that recent reforms are not enough.

EU leaders will be able to take stock of any first-round surprise at a summit on April 29 arranged to discuss preparations for Britain’s exit negotiations. But diplomats insisted there was no plan if Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon go into the May 7 run-off.

South Korea on heightened alert

South Korea is on heightened alert ahead of another important anniversary in North Korea, with a large concentration of military hardware amassed on both sides of the border amid concerns about a new nuclear test by Pyongyang.

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US officials said there was a higher-than-usual level of activity by Chinese bombers, signalling a possible heightened state of readiness by Beijing, reclusive North Korea’s sole major ally, although the officials played down concern and left open a range of possible reasons.

In Russia, a Kremlin spokesman declined to comment on media reports that Russia was moving military hardware and troops towards the border with North Korea, the RIA news agency quoted him as saying.

US and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks that the North could soon stage another nuclear test in violation of United Nations sanctions, something both the United States and China have warned against.

North Korea marks the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday, an important anniversary that comes at the end of major winter military drills, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said.

Top envoys from the United States, South Korea and Japan on North Korea are due to meet on Tuesday, South Korea’s foreign ministry said, to “discuss plans to rein in North Korea’s additional high-strength provocations, to maximise pressure on the North, and to ensure China’s constructive role in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue”.

South Korea and the US have also been conducting annual joint military exercises, which the North routinely criticises as a prelude to invasion.

US President Donald Trump on Thursday praised Chinese efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea”, after North Korean state media warned the United States of a “super-mighty preemptive strike”.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday North Korea’s rhetoric was provocative but he had learned not to trust it.

US Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Sydney

The US Vice President Mike Pence has arrived in Sydney for the Australian leg of his whirlwind Asia-Pacific tour.

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NSW Police warns motorists will not be able to park along certain roads, with special clearways set up in and around the Sydney CBD, Kirribilli and Mosman between 10am on Friday and 10am on Monday.

People will see “a range of police resources” around the CBD and Sydney Harbour, and those planning to use public transport, including ferries, are being advised to check ahead for any disruptions.

Watch: Mike Pence arrives in Sydney

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Mr Pence is expected to take a harbour cruise during his weekend visit. He will depart for Hawaii on Monday.

“There will be a range of traffic changes and a number of special event clearways that will be put in place to facilitate the movements of the vice president, and to ensure minimum disruption to road users,” NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch said in a statement.

“It is our aim to strike a balance between the security needs commensurate with visits of this kind and the needs of the community.”

The vice president is accompanied on his 10-day tour of key Asia-Pacific allies by his wife Karen and two daughters, Charlotte and Audrey.

The delegation has already stopped in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia in a trip aimed at reinforcing traditional US alliances.

Mr Pence is expected to turn on the charm for Malcolm Turnbull after that notorious phone call in January, when US President Donald Trump blasted the Australian prime minister over an asylum-seeker deal.

Mr Turnbull says he’s looking forward to meeting Mr Pence.

Watch: Era of patience with North Korea is over, Pence says

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“It is very noteworthy that this is a very early visit, I believe the earliest visit by a vice president to Australia, in the new administration,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Thursday.

“Many people – including wise people in the media – were sceptical of the Trump administration’s commitment to the region, and as you can see the commitment is very real.”

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Labor aims to take heat out of housing

Federal Labor has admitted the aim of its housing affordability package is to take the heat out of the residential property market rather than bring down house prices.

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But it argues measures targeted at investors who hoard vacant properties, foreign buyers and self-managed super funds will give first-home buyers a better chance of success.

While the government dismissed the package as “lazy, reckless, ideological and counterproductive”, the Property Council and Housing Industry Association gave qualified support to some aspects.

Labor’s pre-emptive strike on housing policy – ahead of the government’s flagged response in its May 9 budget – includes 2016 election pledges to limit negative gearing tax breaks for property investors and tightening the capital gains tax discount.

Other measures include:

* A tax on investors who leave properties vacant.

* Doubling the foreign investment application fees for residential purchases.

* Prohibiting self-managed superannuation funds from borrowing for property purchases.

* A bond aggregator to increase investment in affordable housing.

* $88 million over two years for a new Safe Housing Fund to increase transitional options for women and children escaping domestic and family violence, young people exiting out-of-home care and older women on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was time to tackle the housing affordability crisis and give more middle and working class families a shot at home ownership.

“The great Australian dream has turned into a nightmare on Malcolm Turnbull’s watch,” he said.

“Right now, the system is rigged against ordinary Australians.”

Mr Shorten said Labor’s plan was good for housing, the budget and good for jobs.

It would drive the construction of more than 55,000 new homes over three years and boost employment by 25,000 new jobs per year.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the policy was designed to take the heat out of the housing market, and help first-home buyers who were competing against investors with one hand tied behind their back.

“They get less support from the government than the fifth, sixth or seventh home buyer adding to their property portfolio,” he told reporters in south-western Sydney.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said a one-size-fits-all approach to housing affordability was not the way to go.

“Taking a sledgehammer to these things … could have a very negative impact on other parts of the market, outside Sydney and Melbourne in particular,” he said from Washington.

Michael Sukkar, the government’s point man on housing affordability, said the budget would deliver a considered, well thought-through policy unlike Labor’s “grab bag, dog’s breakfast”.

The Property Council said the Labor plan was an important addition to the housing affordability debate, even allowing for what it said were “some unwelcome elements”.

It supports negotiating a new National Affordable Housing Agreement to lower the cost and increase the supply of new housing.

It also backs the plan for a bond aggregator – a measure the government has flagged – and the safe housing fund.

But it’s disappointed with the policy’s ‘blame the foreigner’ and investor focus, rather than accepting that most of the affordability challenges are the result of the log-jam of regulation and excessive taxation across the three levels of government.

It dismissed as an “urban myth” the notion that investment properties were being deliberately left vacant.

The Housing Industry Association said affordability couldn’t be addressed nationally with “both eyes solely on Sydney and Melbourne”.

Souths slam NRL refs after loss to Broncos

South Sydney coach Michael Maguire has delivered a withering spray to the NRL’s referees in the wake of his side’s controversial 25-24 loss to Brisbane at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.

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An emotional Maguire slammed the officials for a string of decisions and said he was devastated for his players and the club’s supporters. A furious Shane Richardson – Souths’ general manager of football – stormed into the press box after the match and bellowed “write about the bunker now” after the Broncos were awarded one of the most controversial tries of the season through Tautau Moga.

Brisbane scraped over the line thanks to an Anthony Milford field goal however replays suggested the five-eighth bobbled the ball just before firing the winning one-pointer in the 78th minute.

While Broncos coach Wayne Bennett had no doubt it was a legal play, the normally measured Maguire was adamant the call potentially cost his side two points.

“Well the Channel Nine commentators saw it and they thought it was a knock-on,” Maguire said.

“I came in here looking to blow up but to be truthfully honest I don’t think that will do anything. They’ll just hang me out for a fine which is what happens in this situation.”

Even Bennett admitted his side was on the receiving end of some fortunate calls.

After Souths scored three tries in 11 minutes to take the lead midway through the second half, Moga crossed to even up the scores in the 69th.

Just moments earlier, Milford crossed the line but was held up and the ball came out the back of the ruck for Moga to scoop it up and dive over the line.

South Sydney skipper Sam Burgess and Maguire argued the tackle had been made and the play should have been dead, however the bunker ruled a four-pointer.

“How do I explain that to a playing group that is busting their arse?” Maguire said.

“We’ve got fans out there that live and breathe this club, how do I explain the decisions that are being made.”

Souths officials will this week contact the NRL to ensure that the Broncos are investigated after Milford kicked a penalty goal on the stroke of half-time and was subsequently taken off for a head injury assessment.

The Broncos earned a penalty when Burgess hit Milford high. Broncos doctor Peter Hackney reviewed the footage and decided to bring him off to be checked but only after he had taken the shot at goal.

Rabbitohs officials were adamant he should have been pulled straight away and not allowed to take the kick.

Bennett said the Broncos had followed proper protocol.

“The doctor made the decision (to bring Milford off), we didn’t make the decision,” Bennett said.

“The trainer thought he was OK to continue, he didn’t think there was a serious issue there.

“The doctor wanted him off. And Anthony had no symptoms and I spoke to him at halftime.”