Anti-terror laws could affect legal aid

The Law Council of Australia says, under new anti-terror laws put forward by the Federal Government, legal-aid clients would no longer be able to choose their lawyers.

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The council says the Government’s proposal, still to be passed by parliament, requires legal-aid lawyers acting on certain cases to pass security clearances first.

The Law Council’s acting president, Bob Gotterson says clients could no longer choose their lawyers in cases relating to national security.

He says clients would be forced to see lawyers approved by federal government security agencies instead.

Mr Gotterson says that would deny them fair hearings and would especially put newly arrived migrants, who often need to access legal-aid services, at a disadvantage.

“If you want to select a lawyer who speaks your native language and, therefore, get your message across much more easily, and that lawyer hasn’t got government approval, under this new system, then you are disadvantaged. What this really amounts to is moving towards a system, at least at the legal-aid level and for cases where there are national-security overtones, a system of state-controlled lawyers.”

Mr Gotterson says the federal government is intent on introducing the new laws, despite opposition from state and territory governments and from the legal profession.

He says the federal government is simply following the lead of the United States on national-security policy, rather than adopting a more independent stance.

“One might venture the view that why this proposal is coming forward is simply to harmonise the provisions that you might find in some other nations, particularly the United States, for example, and to bring Australia into line with that. National security is very important, but, under the existing court processes and disciplinary proceedings, there’s enough there to protect legitimately national-security interests.”

America remembers September 11

In New York, children guided thousands through a tearful September 11 remembrance, held under brilliant blue skies that were reminiscent of the day of the attacks in 2001.

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A total of 200 children, mostly sons and daughters of the dead, read the names of the 2,792 killed at Ground Zero.

While the event was scaled down from the first anniversary, the three-hour ceremony still carried a powerful emotional punch, compounded by the new-found uncertainties of a country at war.

President George W Bush observed the first moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington after attending a special church service.

“We remember lives lost. We remember the heroic deeds. We remember the compassion and the decency of our fellow citizens on that terrible day.”

Ceremonies were also held in Washington for the victims at the Defence Department headquarters where a third hijacked jet smashed into the building killing 184 people.

Meanwhile a bell tolled 40 times in a Pennsylvania field where a fourth jet crashed after an uprising by passengers against four al Qaeda hijackers, killing all 40 passengers and crew.

But nationals from 80 countries were killed in the attacks on New York and Washington, and mourning was held around the world.

World leaders also seized upon the anniversary to share the grief of the victims’ families and reaffirm their commitment to fight terrorism.

The danger of further attacks was emphasised by a US State Department warning that al-Qaeda could use the anniversary to stage a new strike “more devastating than the September 11 attack.”

The warning stated the European or Eurasian locations could be targeted “possibly to closely coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attack”.

Police hunt for Sweden murder suspect

Police in Sweden are searching for a homeless “drifter” with a criminal record in connection with the murder of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who was stabbed while out shopping.

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The 32-year-old man is known to use knives as his weapon of choice, two Swedish daily newspapers reported on Friday.

Tributes have been paid to the 46-year-old popular minister and mother-of-two and with national flags flying at half-mast, the Swedish parliament held a moment of silence. There has also been a special cathedral service.

Outside the Stockholm store where she was attacked, people placed flowers on the pavement and stopped to pay respects.

Tributes have also been paid around the world, with international politicians and leaders shocked by the murder of a leading campaigner for the euro.

Ms Lindh was a vocal supporter of the euro currency and there was a question mark over whether Sunday’s referendum would go ahead.

However, Prime Minister Goeran Persson said it would go ahead as planned, because to do anything else would be to give into violence.

A spokesman said initial inquiries suggest the attacker probably acted on the spur of the moment.

Police have said that they are searching for a man of Swedish origin who they described as having a haggard face and heavy build, about 1.80 meters tall.

The Expressen newspaper said police were able to link the 32-year-old man to a set of handprints lifted off an escalator handrail in the NK department store. Police also have information placing the man in central Stockholm hours before the attack, it said.

European magic lifts City and United before derby

Last season’s champions and runners-up meet at the Etihad Stadium, hoping midweek Champions League success can ignite their domestic campaigns after some uninspired performances from both in their first four games, each taking just seven points.

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While Wayne Rooney’s return to form in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen stole the headlines, Fellaini’s physical presence and ability to hold the ball in his first start since signing just before the transfer deadline added a new dimension.

It was no coincidence that a side who had not scored in two of their last three league games and only netted from set pieces in the other were suddenly able to put together more meaningful charges forward with the big Belgian on the pitch.

Similarly, City, who had failed to repeat the scintillating showing of their season-opening demolition of Newcastle United, rediscovered some attacking flair in a stylish 3-0 win at Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday.

“It will give confidence for all the players,” City manager Manuel Pellegrini told reporters.

“We have the derby next Sunday and always winning away in the Champions League, scoring three goals, having at least three or four more chances to score and a clean sheet – I think it will give all the players a lot of confidence.”

City midfielder Yaya Toure, who like Fellaini offers a towering presence, creative instinct and ability to read a game, scored a sublime goal at Plzen and it could well be the battle between these two powerful players that proves key on Sunday.

It will be the first Manchester derby for both clubs’ managers and they will be aware that City hold a slight advantage in recent years having taken 10 points to United’s seven in league encounters in the past three seasons.

The return of captain Vincent Kompany, who made a successful comeback from a groin injury on Tuesday, will offer the hosts a further boost ahead of what he describes as a “special game.”

“It is becoming one of the most sought-after fixtures in the world and it is always great to be involved in such games. I never take them for granted,” the Belgian defender said.

This fixture two seasons ago, which City won 1-0, proved decisive as they went on to secure the Premier League crown on goal difference from their neighbours.

It is far too early in the season to be talking of the title race but it is nevertheless a crunch game with both sides keen to establish the edge on their opponents.

MAKE AMENDS

Early season pacesetters Liverpool, who are unbeaten with 10 points from four matches, host Southampton on Saturday but have suffered a blow with midfielder Philippe Coutinho ruled out until the end of next month with a shoulder injury.

They are, however, full of confidence over the form of striker Daniel Sturridge. He has netted in all their league matches this season and will be keen to keep up his scoring escapades before the return of Uruguay striker Luis Suarez from a 10-match ban, which comes to an end after this game.

Later on Saturday, Chelsea host Fulham in a west London derby eager to make amends after suffering their first league defeat of the season at Everton last weekend and losing at home to Basel in the Champions League.

Everton, the only unbeaten Premier League side along with Merseyside rivals Liverpool, travel to West Ham United who are proving miserly at both ends of the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who both have nine points, are in action on Sunday, with Arsene Wenger hoping for more magic from record signing Mesut Ozil when they host Stoke and Andre Villas-Boas taking his team to Cardiff.

Ozil enjoyed an exciting Arsenal debut, taking only 11 minutes to create a goal against Sunderland, and team mate Aaron Ramsey, whose rich scoring vein continued in the 2-1 Champions League win at Marseille, said it was just the beginning.

“You saw what Mesut is all about with those lovely, telling through balls to set people up one on one with the keeper,” local media quoted him as saying. “That’s why he is top of the assist chart around the whole of Europe.

“He is an unbelievable talent and hopefully that is just the start of many things to come from him.

Two of the early season strugglers, West Bromwich Albion (two points) and Sunderland (one), meet at the Hawthorns on Saturday, while fellow slow starters Crystal Palace entertain Swansea City on Sunday.

The weekend’s other games are Norwich City at home to Aston Villa and Hull City travelling to Newcastle United.

(Reporting by Sonia Oxley; Editing by Sam Holden)

Gay marriage by end of year in ACT

Gay and lesbian couples should be able to get married in the ACT by the end of the year.

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The ACT government is introducing a Marriage Equality Bill to legalise same sex marriage on Thursday.

It’s expected to pass the Legislative Assembly as soon as October, with the Greens supporting the Labor minority government on the move.

That would make the ACT the first Australian jurisdiction to allow same sex marriage.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher says the government is working towards people being able to marry under the law before the end of the year.

But she concedes it could be subject to challenge in the High Court or overturning by a vote of both houses of federal parliament.

“We know there’s some risks attached with this legislation,” Ms Gallagher told ABC radio.

“But we don’t think those risks should stop us proceeding with a commitment we made to the people of the ACT in the election campaign last year.”

Her government had waited to see if the former federal Labor government would legalise same sex marriage but decided to go ahead with territory legislation since no national position emerged.

Under the law, anyone who can’t marry under the Commonwealth’s Marriage Act will be able to wed.

The commonwealth act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Couples from outside the ACT would be able to get married in the territory but their relationships may not be recognised in their home state.

“There’s a very strong desire by couples including couples in the ACT to have their partnerships recognised legally,” Ms Gallagher said.

“I don’t think that people who want to use the Marriage Equality Bill will not use it because of fear that it may be overturned in the future.”

Her government hadn’t discussed the planned laws with new Prime Minister Tony Abbott but she didn’t expect they would come as a surprise to him.

Burrow claims maiden surfing win of 2013

Australia’s Taj Burrow has claimed his first world surfing tour victory of the season, beating compatriot Julian Wilson in the final at Trestles in California.

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A two-time world tour runner-up but never a world champion, 35-year-old Burrow posted a final score of 17.07, bettering Wilson’s 15.97, to win the Hurley Pro on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t be happier, I wanted this more than any of them,” a smiling Burrow said.

“It was a tough task but it just feels incredible to put in that effort and finish on top.

“I’m just over the moon.”

The victory bumped Burrow up one spot to fourth on the season’s rankings – behind leader and countryman Mick Fanning, American legend Kelly Slater and South Africa’s Jordy Smith – with three events remaining on the 10-stop tour.

It was Burrow 12th title in 16 years on the world championship tour and his previous win came last October at the O’Neill Coldwater Classic in Santa Cruz.

Wilson said while disappointed to miss out on winning one of his favourite events, he was glad it was fellow Australian Burrow who clinched the title.

“A huge congrats to Taj,” said Wilson, who rocketed up four places to seventh on the overall rankings.

“I’m stoked that he can get that notch on his belt that he really wanted to get.

“Everyone felt like it was his year to win this year, even though I really didn’t want him to.”

With 11-time tour champion Slater knocked out in a shock round-three defeat, Fanning reclaimed the No.1 spot on the world standings.

He now sits 1200 points clear of Slater, despite finishing 9th and without a win for the season.

Joel Parkinson, who was also eliminated in round three, has slipped from third to fifth ahead of countrymen Josh Kerr and Wilson.

The next leg of the tour starts on September 26 on the south west coast of France.

Zoe’s law sparks emotion in NSW parliament

The controversial Zoe’s law bill has sparked a heated and emotional debate in NSW parliament, as MPs weigh up changes that would allow people to be charged with hurting an unborn baby.

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The bill, which is being put to a conscience vote, was named in honour of the unborn child of Brodie Donegan, who was hit by a drug-affected driver on Christmas Day in 2009.

The proposed changes amend the law so that a person can be charged with the grievous bodily harm of a foetus that is either 20 weeks or 400 grams by allowing it to be treated as a living person.

It does not apply to anything done with a pregnant woman’s consent or during a medical procedure.

During debate on the bill on Thursday, Labor MP Paul Lynch described aspects of the proposed changes as illogical, “distinctly odd” and flawed.

“No thought seems to have been given to multiple pregnancies,” he told parliament.

“One foetus could weigh 410 grams and its twin 390 grams, which means if they were in these circumstances they would be treated differently – a result that seems quite wrong.”

Opposition Leader John Robertson said he had met with Ms Donegan and was moved by her “unwavering love and dedication to a child she never had the opportunity to know”.

But he said he couldn’t ignore the concerns that doctors, lawyers and women’s groups had raised.

“Legislation can also have unintended consequences, and our duty must always be … to prevent future wrongs to others,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nationals MP Troy Grant argued the bill was necessary for those who had experiences like Ms Donegan.

The father of two became emotional as he described how he was the older brother of twin sisters, one of whom was stillborn due to medical reasons.

“She was buried and I visit her grave in Moree at every opportunity that I can.”

He said it was his understanding that Liberal MP Chris Spence, who introduced the private member’s bill, would be moving an amendment to include medical treatments.

“I am confident this is not a slippery slope as described by the NSW Bar Association,” Mr Grant said.

Women’s groups and the legal profession have raised concerns of the bill’s implications for reproductive rights.

CEO of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Karen Willis, has urged MPs not to support the bill, saying she could not support a bill that separates a woman from the foetus she is carrying.

Debate on the bill has been adjourned to another time.

McConnell ‘upset by christening’

Allyson McConnell, who admitted drowning her young sons in a bathtub in Canada, may have been sent into a final, fatal downward spiral after attending the christening of a friend’s baby, her lawyer says.

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A body, believed to be McConnell’s, was found under a bridge on Wednesday near her home on the NSW Central Coast.

McConnell, 34, had made multiple attempts to end her life, including just hours after drowning her sons, two-year-old Connor and 10-month-old Jayden, in Alberta, Canada, in 2010.

Her Canadian lawyer, Peter Royal, said on Wednesday McConnell became emotional and despondent after she attended a friend’s baby’s christening in Australia recently.

“I guess it brought back thoughts of her own children’s christenings,” Royal told the Canadian Press.

Royal, who represented McConnell at her murder trial in Alberta last year, also said McConnell was concerned about an appeal lodged by Canadian prosecutors that could have led to her extradition from Australia to serve extra jail time.

The appeal was to be heard next month.

At her non-jury trial in Wetaskiwin a judge found McConnell guilty of manslaughter, not second-degree murder, and sentenced her to six years’ jail.

McConnell had battled depression throughout her life and at the trial admitted drowning her sons.

However, the judge who presided over the murder trial found there was not enough evidence to show that McConnell “had the specific intent to kill her children”.

With time already served credits, she spent just 10 months in the psychiatric ward of Alberta Hospital before being deported to Australia.

McConnell’s former husband, Curtis, was outraged she received such little jail time and an appeal of the conviction and sentence was scheduled to be heard next month.

Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis had previously said McConnell’s sentence was too lenient and if prosecutors were successful in increasing McConnell’s jail time via the appeal, the province would attempt to extradite her from Australia to serve it.

Royal has filed a complaint against Denis, a lawyer, with the Law Society of Alberta, suggesting his comments were out of bounds and violated the impartiality of his job.

“The attorney-general making comments didn’t help things with such a fragile person,” Royal said.

“These are comments she was aware of.”

Denis issued a written statement on Wednesday.

“If this is indeed Ms McConnell, then it marks a disturbing end to what has been a very tragic situation and is certainly not the outcome anyone wished for,” he wrote.

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 and the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Comment: E-readers prove easy on the eye for dyslexics

By Julia Carroll, University of Warwick

Using an e-reader may help some dyslexic students understand what they read more effectively, researchers at Harvard University argue.

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In a paper published in the journal PLOS One, the authors found that a group of dyslexic teenagers showed greater reading comprehension when using an iPod e-reader than when asked to read from paper. The e-reader was formatted to display around nine lines of text on the screen at a time, with only two or three words in each line, leaving fewer visual distractions. The authors therefore concluded that this improvement is due to the reduced demands on visual attention when reading from the iPod.

While the dominant theoretical explanation of dyslexia lies in phonological processing, or understanding the sound structure of speech, there is growing evidence that dyslexia is caused by multiple factors. This includes difficulties in visual attention. It seems that some, but not all, dyslexics have difficulties in processing detailed visual information.

In normal reading, there is a sensitive and highly efficient link between eye movements and understanding what we read. People often believe that when we read, our eyes move continuously and gradually, but that is not the case. Eye movements when reading involve a series of short “jumps” or saccades, followed by a brief period of stillness while the brain processes the letters in front of the eyes. The “visual span” is the number of letters that can be processed during the period of stillness, before moving ones eyes again.

Problems in the text, such as typos or unknown words, prompt an almost immediate response, with eyes tracking backwards and forwards to check the surrounding context to help resolve the issue. This shows that we are interpreting what we read word by word, continually updating our understanding.

In skilled reading, this process is so automatic we hardly notice it. However, many dyslexic readers seem to have difficulties, including a shorter visual span and less efficient eye movements. The e-reader means that readers do not need to make these saccades in the same way, and their visual span is less crucial (since the lines of text are so short).

This study shows a significant interaction between visual span and method of reading. Using an iPod improves comprehension in those students with short visual spans, but it reduces comprehension in those with long or good visual spans. This very neatly shows that the visual abilities of the reader is crucial in predicting whether this method will be beneficial or not.

These findings suggest that e-readers may be a useful tool in the support of dyslexic students, since around a third of the students involved showed a better understanding of what they were reading when using an iPod. However, as the authors state, this would only ever be an adjunct to direct teaching and practise in reading in multiple contexts. They tested adolescent students in a specialist school for children with language learning impairments, and it is not clear that the findings can be extrapolated to older or younger readers, or less severely impaired students.

The study also has implications for our wider understanding of dyslexia. Historically, the evidence for the causal role of visual impairments in dyslexia has been mixed.

Some researchers have argued that, because of the close link between cognition and eye movements, the less efficient eye movements of dyslexic students might reflect their reading problems, rather than causing them. If many of the words that a reader encounters are unknown, they are likely to show many regressions, through checks forward and backward, to improve understanding.

However, the study shows this is not the full explanation. Simplifying the layout of text actually improves understanding in a third of these students, indicating that the eye movements themselves are making it harder for the dyslexic students to understand what they read.

Julia Carroll does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Bernanke warns about US debt showdown

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that threats by Congress not to raise the US debt limit had potentially serious consequences for the world’s largest economy.

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“A government shutdown, and perhaps even more so a failure to raise the debt limit, could have very serious consequences for the financial markets and for the economy,” Bernanke said on Wednesday after a meeting of the Fed’s rate-setting Open Market Committee.

He warned that the central bank’s “ability to offset these shocks is very limited, particularly a debt limit shock.”

“It’s extraordinarily important that Congress and the administration work together to find a way to make sure that the government is funded, public services are provided, that the government pays its bills and that we avoid any kind of event like 2011, which had at least for a time a noticeable adverse effect on confidence and on the economy,” Bernanke said.

Opposition Republicans in Congress are preparing for a showdown with President Barack Obama over both a short-term spending measure to keep the government funded and a separate vote on increasing the nation’s debt limit.

House Speaker John Boehner said earlier on Wednesday that Republicans would tie the measures to efforts to stall implementation of Obama’s signature health care law.

The move sets up a showdown with the Democratic-controlled Senate that could cause Congress to run out of time before an existing spending measure ends, forcing the government to largely shut down.

In a meeting with business leaders, Obama denounced an “ideological fight” that avoids talking about the actual budget issues involved.

“You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president – or a governing party – and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt,” he said.

Syria attacked by al-Qaeda: Assad

President Bashar al-Assad insists Syria is not gripped by civil war but has been attacked by tens of thousands of foreign jihadist fighters allied to al-Qaeda.

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In an interview on Wednesday with US network Fox News, the Syrian leader urged US President Barack Obama not to threaten Syria but to “listen to the common sense of your people.”

“What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It’s a new kind of war,” he said, alleging that Islamist guerillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight.

“We know that we have tens of thousands of jihadists, but we are on the ground, we live in this country,” he said, disputing an expert report that suggested 30,000 out of around 100,000 rebels were hardliners.

“What I can tell you that 80 – and some say it is 90 – to be precise, we don’t have clear data and precise data, 80 to 90 per cent of the underground terrorists are al-Qaeda and their offshoots.”

Assad admitted that at the start of the uprising there were non-jihadi Syrian rebels, but alleged that since the end of 2012, due to funding and influence from abroad, extremists had become a majority.

He added that “tens of thousands of Syrians” and 15,000 government troops had been killed “mainly because of the terrorist attacks, assassinations and suicide bombers.”

And he also repeated his insistence that an August 21 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus had been carried out by rebels, and not by government forces.

Western capitals, most Arab states and several independent rights watchdogs say there is clear evidence that the attack was launched by Syrian government troops.

also in the interview Assad pledged to destroy his stockpile of chemical arms but warned it will take a year to do so.

“I think it’s a very complicated operation, technically. And it needs a lot of money, about a billion,” Assad said in the interview broadcast on Wednesday.

“So it depends, you have to ask the experts what they mean by quickly. It has a certain schedule. It needs a year, or maybe a little bit more.”

Starbucks urges customers to leave their guns at home

Starbuck’s chairman Howard Schultz has written an open letter to customers urging them to leave their firearms at home, shifting company policy as the American gun control debate intensifies in the wake of multiple mass shootings.

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The coffee chain’s longstanding policy has been to conform to local gun laws, including “open carry” regulations which enable members of the public to display their firearms as they conduct their daily business.

Mr Schultz has stressed in the letter that guns are not banned from Starbucks outlets but has encouraged patrons to co-operate with the request.

The request does not apply to law enforcement personnel.

Read the letter in its entirety below.

Dear Fellow Americans,

Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns. In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.

From the beginning, our vision at Starbucks has been to create a “third place” between home and work where people can come together to enjoy the peace and pleasure of coffee and community. Our values have always centered on building community rather than dividing people, and our stores exist to give every customer a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life.

We appreciate that there is a highly sensitive balance of rights and responsibilities surrounding America’s gun laws, and we recognize the deep passion for and against the “open carry” laws adopted by many states. (In the United States, “open carry” is the term used for openly carrying a firearm in public.) For years we have listened carefully to input from our customers, partners, community leaders and voices on both sides of this complicated, highly charged issue.

Our company’s longstanding approach to “open carry” has been to follow local laws: we permit it in states where allowed and we prohibit it in states where these laws don’t exist. We have chosen this approach because we believe our store partners should not be put in the uncomfortable position of requiring customers to disarm or leave our stores. We believe that gun policy should be addressed by government and law enforcement—not by Starbucks and our store partners.

Recently, however, we’ve seen the “open carry” debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening. Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called “Starbucks Appreciation Days” that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of “open carry.” To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores. Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners.

For these reasons, today we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where “open carry” is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.

I would like to clarify two points. First, this is a request and not an outright ban. Why? Because we want to give responsible gun owners the chance to respect our request—and also because enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers, and that is not a role I am comfortable asking Starbucks partners to take on. Second, we know we cannot satisfy everyone. For those who oppose “open carry,” we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores. For those who champion “open carry,” please respect that Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable. The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.

I am proud of our country and our heritage of civil discourse and debate. It is in this spirit that we make today’s request. Whatever your view, I encourage you to be responsible and respectful of each other as citizens and neighbors.

Sincerely,

Howard Schultz

Comment: Albo and Shorten should look to New Zealand for primary guidance

By Grant Duncan, Massey University

While Australia’s Labor Party is digesting a significant electoral defeat, the New Zealand Labour Party, in opposition since 2008, has gone through another leadership change and is positioning itself to compete for office at the next general election, to be held by November 2014.

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Labour not only has a new leader in David Cunliffe, but for the first time used a “primary-style” internal party process for electing him. And some have compared Cunliffe to Kevin Rudd. With Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten engaging in the first contest for the leadership of the ALP involving a direct vote by party members, the Cunliffe result is worth examining in detail.

But first, some background. Helen Clark’s Labour-led government was defeated in 2008, just after the worst of the global financial crisis had struck. The incoming minority conservative National-led government was headed by prime minister John Key. National were returned to office in the 2011 election with 47.3% of the party vote, the largest ever under the proportional representation system in place in New Zealand since 1996.

Labour, by contrast, gained a mere 27.5% of the party vote, and a contest for the party leadership began soon afterwards in early 2012. This was won by David Shearer, whose main rival was Cunliffe. Shearer, however, never really cut it as leader of the opposition. Relatively new to parliamentary politics, Shearer spent most of his career in humanitarian work in the developing world. He lacked experience and insider savvy, and rarely displayed the cut-through required of a politician on television and in the debating chamber.

Shearer narrowly avoided the sack by resigning, and this set in train a new process for Labour to elect its leader – a ballot weighted 40% for caucus, 40% for paid-up party members and 20% for affiliated trade unions. Hustings events were quickly set up across the country and the process was covered extensively by the news media.

As there were three candidates, a preferential vote was applied.

Cunliffe won on the first round with a total of 51%, but only a third of his caucus colleagues voted for him. Nearly half of them preferred instead his closest rival, former deputy leader Grant Robertson. It was the wider party membership and affiliates whose votes won the race for Cunliffe.

Naturally this has raised questions about how unified the Labour caucus will be under Cunliffe’s leadership, but the desire to win office in 2014 may well take care of that, at least on the surface. In the meantime, though, the prime minister can taunt the leader of the opposition about an apparent lack of support from his caucus colleagues.

The party election results also reflect what many have said for some time about Cunliffe – that he is very intelligent and articulate, with a media presence that Shearer lacked, but with a divisive style. He appeals to the party rank and file but is prone to being a bit grandiose and seemingly narcissistic – or at least he fails to hide those less desirable self-regarding traits that are probably quite common among political leaders. Many of those who have to work with him appear to be less than keen. Hence the comparisons (justified or not) with Kevin Rudd.

 

Will new Labour leader David Cunliffe be able to take the fight to prime minister John Key? flickr/Kelvinhu

 

The important comparison for Cunliffe, though, will be with John Key, the present prime minister. Key’s intelligence and business nous are combined with an unassuming and down-to-earth manner that connects well with Kiwi voters, while simultaneously making sense to “the markets.” He has seen off three Labour opponents so far, and his government is in good enough shape at present to help him see off this next contender.

Key’s repeated message is that Labour is heading to “the far left.” As Labour will probably need a coalition with (at least) the Green party to form a government, then a vote for them next election is also implicitly a vote in favour of the Greens. And there is no doubt that Labour’s recent “primary” election has shown that their strategy is to pitch for the left, especially for the one third of those eligible who did not vote in 2011.

Their aim is thus to shift the position of the median voter to the left by encouraging the poor and disfranchised who didn’t vote last time to vote Labour next time. Hence, Cunliffe has made promises about raising low wages and taxing the well-off in order to win that support.

This is a socially worthy but politically high-risk strategy for Labour, especially if it means losing ground from the all-important centre. As an Ivy-league educated, business-friendly middle-class white guy, there is a risk that Cunliffe simply won’t inspire the unemployed or low-income workers, especially Maori or Pacific-Islanders, to come out and vote for him.

Grant Duncan is a member of the New Zealand Labour party.