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Former Victorian premiers call for fast, direct route


They are expected to back a new above-ground link between the airport and Sunshine, with trains to run along existing tracks between the western hub and the city via the new Metro Tunnel.

This will kill a proposal from superannuation fund giant IFM Investors to build a $7 billion tunnel between the city and Sunshine, allowing fast express airport services on dedicated tracks.

Former Liberal premier Mr Kennett – who reserved land for a rail line through Broadmeadows while in power but prioritised the construction of CityLink – called for an express rail link from the city to the airport to ensure the service was competitive with road-based alternatives.

“I think if people are going to use it in large volumes, you’ve got to get to and from the airport quickly,” he said.

“There’s no point in stopping at one or several stations along the way; its self-defeating.”

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Mr Baillieu – who promised to build rail links to Avalon and Tullamarine when he was premier – said, when asked why the project has been put off so long, that the “more direct” airport rail routes had always proven more costly.

“It has been difficult to demonstrate the benefits in terms of speed and time for passengers and, secondly, it seems to be getting more expensive by the day,” he said.

But he believes in the need for “dedicated track” all the way to the airport and easy access points to other transport options at either end of the line, to motivate people to use it.

“Commuters will judge this very quickly and very harshly,” he said. “It will be judged on frequency, speed and cost to them – not to the taxpayer– and what happens at each end. That’ll be it.”

Mr Bracks won the 1999 election promising Melbourne an airport rail link, and he envisioned it would be built under a private-public partnership model.

He said vested interests – the taxi lobby and Melbourne Airport – sought to stop the project.

“Now the airport is a supporter,” he said. “They’ve got so big they can have car parking and fast rail.”

At the time, Labor wanted to investigate opening the line to “suburban commuters as well as airport commuters, so it’s not just businesspeople who use it. If we could capture some of the customers on the way in some suburbs, [we thought] that will help the economic viability of the line.”

The 2001 collapse of Australian airline Ansett – reducing the number of commuters expected to use the line – was the “key” reason for putting the project on hold, Mr Bracks said.

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The former Labor premier, who is also West of Melbourne Economic Development Alliance chairman, said plans to turn Sunshine station into a major hub would be a “great boon for Melbourne’s west”.

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said the government would provide a “quick, frequent and affordable service for all passengers”.

“We’re in the midst of the biggest ever public transport investment in Victoria’s history – as Melbourne continues to grow, the projects we’re delivering will ensure our entire network is a reliable, viable and cost-effective alternative to road travel.”

A federal government spokesman said airport rail was a “huge and complex project” and Canberra and Spring Street were working constructively to build it.

“Our ambition is to have a train journey to the airport from the city that is fast, affordable and meets the needs of travellers,” he said. “We want to see it built as soon as possible.”

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BlackRock’s green dream got complicated fast


Not long after the asset manager’s role with the Fed was announced, Republican senators wrote Fed Chair Jerome Powell and US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin seeking guarantees that BlackRock would hew to its fiduciary role and not leave out energy and transportation (read: coal) companies. Democrats soon followed up, urging Powell and Mnuchin to ensure debt purchases aren’t used to bail out fossil fuel companies that were in trouble before the new coronavirus struck.

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Fink has told shareholders the pandemic should be used as an “opportunity to accelerate into a more sustainable world.” But when it comes to the company’s work for the Fed, his hands are tied. Although BlackRock scoops up corporate bonds and exchange-traded funds on behalf of the government, it must follow Fed guidelines rather than its own. That means buying investment-grade and high-yield debt from companies in need regardless of environmental footprint-thus leaving fossil fuel companies free to participate.

For Fink, who has privately warned of a coming wave of US bankruptcies, the gravity of BlackRock’s pandemic assignment seems clear. It may mean that the urgency of saving the economy comes at some cost to a more sweeping vision of saving the planet.

BlackRock is one of the biggest holders of shares in US publicly traded companies, counting sovereign wealth funds and state pension plans among its clients. In the past the company has seemed reluctant to vote for corporate climate initiatives or push for sustainable reforms, drawing criticism as it lagged peers in support for environmental proposals.

But in 2020, BlackRock joined Climate Action 100+, a group of 450 investors who manage a combined $US40 trillion. Together they seek to convince the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters that reform is in their best interest. BlackRock also recently won a contract to develop sustainability strategies for the European Union’s banking system.

Still, those in the environmental community view the company with suspicion. BlackRock holds almost two-thirds of its assets in products linked to indexes, a big part of a passive investing strategy that’s brought down fees for small investors. These indexes-which BlackRock mostly doesn’t control-include fossil fuel giants such as Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP, some of the planet’s worst polluters.

Among the changes Fink outlined in his January letter was making sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management. He pledged to double sustainable ETF offerings, push index providers to expand their environmental, social and governance benchmarks, and drop thermal coal producers from BlackRock’s approximately $US1.8 trillion in active strategies.

In the past the company has seemed reluctant to vote for corporate climate initiatives or push for sustainable reforms, drawing criticism as it lagged peers in support for environmental proposals.

With proxy season under way, there’s additional focus on its voting behaviour. The company said it’s voted against 25 directors and cast no-confidence votes against two boards in 2020, all on climate-related concerns, and that it’s supported two climate-oriented shareholder proposals. But it’s also courted controversy, given Fink’s pledge, by voting against climate-related resolutions involving Australian oil companies Woodside and Santos.

Diana Best, senior finance campaigner at the Sunrise Project, says that even though Fink’s plans are a step forward, BlackRock still warrants scrutiny. One thing she says is needed is more disclosure on how the company is updating its sustainability analysis and the risk factors it’s considering. “The words don’t mean anything until we see concrete action,” she says.

Climate activists say they had hoped the Fed’s massive outlay, and BlackRock’s role in it, could serve as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to jump-start American investment in a renewable future. Only three days after the company’s selection, environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club urged Powell to weigh climate risk when deciding what sectors of the economy get financial support. But to no avail.

 BlackRock's green credentials have long been questioned.

BlackRock’s green credentials have long been questioned.Credit:Victor J. Blue

Brian Deese, BlackRock’s global head of sustainable investing, declined to comment on the Fed programs. He said investors are watching whether governments will infuse rescue packages with sustainable components.

“There’s obviously a lot of conversation, particularly in [the EU], about ways to use the unprecedented fiscal response,” he said. “Whether global policymakers take this moment to actually try to do recovery in a way that accelerates the trend toward sustainability is going to be one of the key outstanding questions.”

Beyond the bailout, Deese said, the pandemic could turbocharge client interest in the green investing strategies Fink highlighted. Environmentalists agree, saying the coronavirus may make investors reconsider their fossil fuel holdings, which have been negatively affected by the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, stay-at-home orders, industrial shutdowns, and a cratering travel sector.

One S&P index of energy providers shed more than half its value in the first quarter. By contrast the MSCI Global Environment Index, which focuses on companies contributing to a more sustainable future, was down only 17 per cent over the period. BlackRock said 94 per cent of sustainable indexes it examined outperformed benchmarks in the first quarter COVID-19 sell-off. And even though its own clients withdrew a net $US19 billion from long-term investment products in the first quarter, the company’s ESG-focused products generated about $US10 billion of inflows.

“We’ve seen firsthand how this turns our world upside down-our economy, our health and our safety,” said Mindy Lubber, CEO of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres. “If we can learn that climate change has the potential to turn our world upside down maybe as badly or worse, our incredibly maniacal short-term thinking might get broadened out.”

But in a worst-case scenario for environmentalists, the pandemic could instead send more investors fleeing for shorter-term safety without concern for climate-forward policies.

Eric Walters, president of SilverCrest Wealth Planning in Colorado, says he sees no sign of investors he works with shunning energy companies as a result of the coronavirus crash. Mitchell Kraus, owner of Capital Intelligence Associates, said that for most of his clients, “their primary concern is their return,” though he adds that many “are thrilled to be out of fossil fuels.”

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Some companies that were brimming with plans for green investment are instead focusing on solvency. BlackRock acknowledged this new reality in its first-quarter stewardship report, in which it said corporations will be given some flexibility in reporting on climate risk as they deal with the current crisis. But though the pandemic may induce some short-term thinking, the asset manager contends companies that incorporate sustainability will perform better under future stress.

Lubber says any marginalisation of green investing will be temporary. “I haven’t seen any of the companies we work with say this is taking us off-topic on climate,” she says. “There will be a little bit of a dip in energy and focus, but nobody is giving up on it.”

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Australia must “move on” from the dream of fast rail: Grattan Institute


But the Grattan Institute’s head of the cities and transport program Marion Terrill said the government should stop using public money to continually study these proposals.

While the sound of a Eurostar, Shinkansen, or TGV might sound appealing, fast rail networks in Europe and Asia connect large and concentrated populations even where the distances covered are very long. Countries similar to Australia in population size and spread — such as Canada and the US — do not have bullet trains.

“As regrettable as it might be given the undeniable appeal of an Australian east-coast bullet train, we should put the idea to bed and move on,” Ms Terrill states in her new Fast Rail Fever report.

Rail upgrades such as electrifying track or removing bends and inclines to enable speeds as high as 200km/h makes more sense in Australia, and may improve life for people in regional cities, the report suggests.

But claims they will take pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions are “overblown”.

“Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links. And governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions.

“Every proposed rail renovation project in Australia should be reviewed in light of the COVID crisis. The costs and benefit of each one should be rigorously assessed, and those that don’t stack up should be abandoned.”

The analysis also warned that once a bullet train was up and running, it would emit far less than today’s planes, but construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions intensive.

The Victorian government has invested $100 million in its Western Rail Plan, to improve speeds on the Geelong and Ballarat lines by fully separating regional and metro services.

The federal government launched its Faster Rail Plan last year to speed up links between Melbourne and Geelong, Shepparton, Albury and Traralgon.

It provided funding to the Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) company, which proposed to build two inland cities in Victoria and a further six in New South Wales that are linked by high-speed rail lines between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has renewed calls for an east-coast bullet train in the wake of the pandemic after developing the policy a decade ago. He argued it would “revolutionise” interstate travel and become an “economic game-changer” for regional communities.

Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said the government’s ambition over the next two decades is to “connect the big capital cities to the satellite regional centres surrounding them”.

“In doing so, it can allow people to live in those regional centres and have the cheaper housing and lifestyle associated with that, while still being able to easily access the big city employment centres on a convenient and affordable basis.”

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Federal opposition transport, infrastructure and regional development spokeswoman Catherine King reiterated that Labor was a firm supporter of rail – “whether that be urban, regional, freight or high speed”.

“High Speed Rail is a transformative, nation-building project which would reshape all of eastern Australia and deliver major decentralisation and development benefits to regional centres along the route.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said high speed rail along the eastern coast was a matter for the commonwealth government.

“We make no apologies for delivering on our election commitments to deliver fast rail to our regional cities – that will not only deliver faster travel times, but boost our economy and support jobs.”

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How safe are fast food restaurants like McDonald’s?


A worker at fast food chain Chick-fil-A in Dallas, USA.

A worker at fast food chain Chick-fil-A in Dallas, USA. Credit:AP

“At a place like McDonald’s, part of the reason they’re so successful is because they’ve got systems in place to ensure they can produce food quickly and safely. It’s a production line basically,” Professor Vally said. “The extra risk is person-to-person transmission. But as it’s a system-based method, it in theory makes it easier for them to adapt to the current situation.”

Victoria’s “McCluster” has brought the fast food industry under scrutiny, with 12 COVID-19 cases linked to Fawkner McDonald’s, including four workers and eight close contacts.

One of those contacts worked at Craigieburn McDonald’s, which shut for cleaning on Friday.

The closure of 12 McDonald’s venues on Sunday was due to a delivery driver visiting while asymptomatic, with 1000 McDonald’s employees asked to stay away from work for 14 days as a precaution.

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A Domino’s restaurant also closed on Sunday after an infectious person visited the store.

The Victorian Health Department has consistently stated the risk of spreading coronavirus via food or packaging was extremely low.

Professor Vally said this was due to tight food hygiene measures and because the heat of cooking food would kill viruses. In late March McDonald’s closed all 1400 restaurants in the UK and Ireland, citing the safety of employees and customers.

McDonald’s workers in the United States have recently threatened strikes due to safety concerns.

In Australia, customers have been banned from dining in. A McDonald’s spokeswoman said workers were following “strict” cleaning and hygiene processes including wearing gloves, regularly washing their hands and “increased cleaning” of surfaces and touch-screen machines.

Fast Food and Retail Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan said the view of fast food outlets as being structured, safer employers was a “common misconception”. He said the high proportion of teenage workers often voided hygiene processes.

“At McDonald’s 80 per cent of their workforce is under 21. They’re not used to workplace safety precautions,” he said.

“When a manager says, go and work in the drive-through, it doesn’t occur to them to wash their hands between every transaction, or they’re too nervous to mention it.

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“[Fast food outlets] are not a wet market or an abattoir, but if we’re concerned about schools or general retail environments, McDonald’s is out there in front.”

Professor Vally said customers should use drive-through where possible and avoid ordering through touch screens.

However, for customers “there’s no real difference between what’s happening at McDonald’s and what will happen at cafes in a couple of weeks [when they open to 20 people in Victoria]”, he said.

“Because we’ve done so well, we don’t need to be shutting down or avoiding places just because there’s some small risk associated with it.”

Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen on Monday compared fast food workers’ risk of infection to teachers, police and construction staff who work on site.

Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s chair of epidemiology, said fast food restaurants benefited from the job involving low physical exertion and being able to stagger lunch breaks.

“I think some food places are probably better than [offices] because hygiene is such a key part of their compliance with food safety,” she said.

With Aisha Dow

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Mike Singer über seinen Social-Media-Rückzug: “Ich war fast depressiv”


Seitdem er zwölf Jahre alt ist, macht er Musik. Durch die Casting Show „The Voice Kids” erlangte er 2013 Bekanntheit. Berühmt machte ihn dann die Videoplattform Youtube. Dort lud er selbst interpretierte Coversongs hoch – und erreichte Tausende Leute. Doch mit der wachsenden Bekanntheit im Internet wuchs auch die Anzahl der Hasskommentare. 2017 bekam er sogar Morddrohungen im Netz. Die rissen ihn emotional zu Boden. „Mir kamen auch fast die Tränen. Es war über einen längeren Zeitraum auch so, dass ich fast depressiv war“, gesteht der Sänger. 

Auch seine Eltern bleiben von solchen Kommentaren nicht verschont. Bis heute ist er dem Hass immer wieder ausgesetzt. In seinem neuen Album verarbeitet er nun die Schattenseite des Ruhms, wie er im Interview erklärt.



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Social-Media-Quiz: 8 Online-Communitys, die wir fast vergessen hätten – DIE WELT



Social-Media-Quiz: 8 Online-Communitys, die wir fast vergessen hätten  DIE WELT



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Astronomers discover new fast radio burst with China’s giant telescope


Astronomers have recently discovered a new fast radio burst (FRB), mysterious signals believed to be from the distant universe, with the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built.

An international team led by scientists at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) made the discovery by analyzing the data from the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).

FRBs are the brightest bursts known in the universe. They are called “fast” because these blips are very short, only several milliseconds in duration. But there is no reasonable explanation for their origin yet.

By using his own novel search method incorporating deep-learning artificial intelligence, Zhu Weiwei, an astronomer at NAOC, found the new burst, coded FRB 181123, from the massive survey data of FAST.

The discovery will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The analysis shows that this burst may come from the remote universe. And this new discovery demonstrates FAST’s unique advantages in finding remote FRBs through blind search, said Li Di, the chief scientist of FAST and one of the co-authors.

The telescope is expected to discover more FRBs and carry out deep follow-up observations, which could help shed light on the origin and physical mechanisms of FRBs, Li said.

Located in a naturally deep and round karst depression in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, FAST was completed in September 2016 and started regular operations earlier this year.



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Builders call for fast track out of crisis


While such a shutdown was averted, with the government last month declaring construction an “essential industry”, property leaders say Spring Street must unlock the planning system to ensure a pipeline of building projects.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia Victorian division has urged the government to speed up local and state planning decisions and called for the appointment of a special new committee to streamline approvals under the red tape-slashing Commissioner for Better Regulation, Anna Cronin.

It also wants more resources for planning – including to help unclog the state appeals tribunal, which has an estimated backlog of $3.5 billion in planning matters, made worse by live hearings not being held because of COVID-19.

The institute has called for development fees and levies to be cut, and for an increase in the first-home owner grant.

Its president, Ashley Williams, said the reality for the development industry was that property sales had “pretty much stopped” and that approvals for projects already in the system needed to be fast-tracked.

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But others outside the industry say the cutting of red tape would not necessarily generate construction jobs and much-needed affordable homes, and that the government would be better off investing in social housing.

Terry Rawnsley, an economist and principal with analysts SGS Economics and Planning and a leading commentator on the economy, population and housing, has forecast that the coronavirus pandemic will shrink the Victorian economy by up to 10 per cent in 2020.

“I’m seeing all these calls from the property sector about trying to cut red tape and planning approvals, which is weird,” Mr Rawnsley said. “The problem is not lack of supply, it’s a lack of demand.”

Net immigration was likely to fall to zero, while population growth would be slashed, he predicted.

Victoria, in particular, would feel the impact of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call to those on temporary visas unable to support themselves – including students – to “go home”.

Mr Rawnsley said now was the perfect time to build social housing and to make it available to key workers such as nurses and teachers, who had been priced out of the Melbourne housing market.

“Social housing, after all, is not a cost to Victorian taxpayers, it’s an investment in an asset,” Mr Rawnsley said.

In response to questions about how the government might respond to calls for construction stimulus, a government spokeswoman said: “We’re working closely with industry and continuing to look at further options to support families and businesses through this pandemic.”

Union boss John Setka.

Union boss John Setka.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The construction industry is also seeking government help in tackling the growing problem of delays on major civic construction projects due to the complexities of dealing with the coronavirus.

In a joint letter to Premier Daniel Andrews, Master Builders Association of Victoria chief executive Rebecca Casson and Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union Victorian secretary John Setka have called on Mr Andrews and the national cabinet to commit to not pursuing “liquidated damages” – compensation – for delays on big government projects.

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Liquidated damages are the payments agreed to by parties to a building contract in the case of contract breaches that tend to lead to delays.

The call coincides with warnings that the government’s $11 billion Metro Tunnel could face many millions of dollars in extra costs and months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter, Ms Casson and Mr Setka argue that COVID-19 is a risk that could not have been foreseen.

“We call on both federal and state governments to publicly announce that they will not pursue liquidated damages in any supply contracts and ask that private clients take a similar approach.

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World needs to move fast to avoid prolonged economic slump, says El-Erian


Mohamed El-Erian said the world’s policy makers will do all they can to keep the coronavirus from spurring a deeper economic slump, but he said it’s worrisome that international policy coordination isn’t as solid as it was in the past.

“I foresee a whatever-it-takes policy approach that is going to be both in central banks and government agencies,” Mr El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview. A sudden economic halt “is particularly dangerous because it destroys both demand and supply, and that is what we are living through right now.”

Mohamed El-Erian says world leaders have to take a co-ordinated approach to stave off a prolonged economic slump.

Mohamed El-Erian says world leaders have to take a co-ordinated approach to stave off a prolonged economic slump.Credit:Bloomberg

Policy makers “have massive catch-up to play” as the scope of the challenge becomes clearer, said Mr El-Erian. He said he doesn’t see direct parallels with the start of the crisis in 2008 because he isn’t worried about banks and potential issues with the payments and settlements system. But he said another comparison is more worrying: the world’s economic authorities so far aren’t acting in concert as they have in the past.

“The extent of global policy coordination is much lower, and whether it’s the coronavirus, whether the excessive reliance on liquidity, whether it is markets that have been mispriced for a long time, this is a global problem that requires collective action,” he said.



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