Australia, Jan 25 (AP/UNB) — Scorching heat knocked out power to homes and businesses, raised wildfire risks and sent tennis fans looking for water and shade Friday in Australia's second-largest city, which recorded its hottest day in five years.
Melbourne reached 42 .8 C (109 F) by early afternoon before a sudden cooldown, though the outskirts of the city remained hot, with the airport recording 46 C (114.8 F). It was the hottest day since 2014 in the Victoria state capital, which has a population of 5 million.
The power grid began load sharing as temperatures climbed in the early afternoon, with 30,000 households and businesses at a time being switched off for as long as two hours so that supply could keep up with demand.
But by late afternoon, the state's power generation was able to meet demand, Victoria Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio said.
"The situation changed very, very quickly," she told reporters. "People should be rightly disappointed that the power grid was not up to the task today."
Scores of wildfires are raging in heatwave conditions across much of drought-parched southeast Australia, with authorities warning the fire risk is high.
Adelaide, 640 kilometers (400 miles) west of Melbourne, on Thursday recorded the hottest day for a major Australian city, a searing 46.6 C (115.9 F).
The previous record had been the 46.4 C (115.5 F) set in Melbourne on Feb. 7, 2009 — a day of catastrophic wildfires that killed 173 people and razed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria that is remembered as Black Saturday.
At the Australian Open in Melbourne, tennis fans shielded themselves with umbrellas and walked by water sprinklers for relief. On Thursday, the tournament had invoked its extreme-heat policy and closed the main stadium's roof during a women's semifinal match.
Heat records have tumbled across Australia's southeast in recent days. The small town of Swan Hill recorded its highest ever maximum of 47.5 C (117.5 F) on Friday and the renowned winemaking town of Rutherglen recorded its warmest ever overnight minimum of 29.3 C (84.7 F).
"The heatwaves we have had since the start of summer are almost unprecedented," meteorologist Kevin Parkin said.
"Relentless days of 40-plus degrees followed by warm nights — is it any wonder people and communities in that part of the world are doing it tough?" he added.
Bureau of Meteorology forecasters say this January is on track to become Australia's hottest January on record with heatwave conditions likely to persist.
Last year was Australia's third-warmest on record.
Canberra, Jan 14 (Xinhua/UNB) -Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ruled out calling an early general election, setting the stage for the nation to go to the polls in May.
Asked on Monday whether he had changed his mind on the election during his Christmas holidays and would call it for March, the PM answered "no."
"There are no changes there," he said during a regular appearance on breakfast television.
Morrison has repeatedly said he would not hold an election before May but rumours persisted that a poll would be called for March in late January.
Instead, Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will hand down the Federal Budget, which is expected to deliver the first surplus in over a decade, on April 2 before going to an election.
December's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) projected a 4.1 billion Australian dollar budget surplus in the 2019/20 financial year.
However, global ratings giant Fitch Solutions in January cast doubt on that projection, warning that Frydenberg will "struggle to register a fiscal surplus" on account of slowing revenue growth.
Morrison on Monday admitted that economic headwinds were stronger than expected.
"The economic storm clouds globally are a bit stronger than they were. In fact, a lot stronger this year than they were 12 months ago," he said.
"There are other tensions out there whether it's trade tensions between two of our biggest world players, plus what's happening in Europe.
"There are plenty of concerns out there. We're in a strong position but we will only stay there if we stay on the strong economic track we're on."
According to opinion polls Morrison's governing Liberal National Party (LNP) is facing a landslide defeat at the election, with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) set to take power for the first time in five years.
Bangkok, Jan 11 (AP/UNB) — Australia's foreign minister praised Thailand for its handling of a young Saudi woman who fled her family to seek asylum in Australia, but also reminded it of continuing concern about a Bahraini soccer player granted asylum in Australia who remains in Thai detention.
Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday after Australia announced it would assess the request for asylum by 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who was stopped Saturday at a Bangkok airport on her way to Australia and her passport seized. She said she was fleeing abuse by her family.
Payne told reporters that Australia's review of Alqunun's case is already underway.
She quashed speculation that Alqunun might accompany her back to Australia "because there are steps which are required in the process which Australia, and any other country considering such a matter, would have to go through."
Confined to an airport transit hotel, Alqunun conducted an online appeal for help, garnering tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees quickly deemed her a legitimate refugee.
Alqunun's case has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.
She has attracted interest worldwide, particularly in Australia. In downtown Sydney on Thursday, four women dressed in jeans and calling themselves the Secret Sisterhood held a topless protest outside the building housing the Saudi Consulate, calling on Australia to grant Alqunun residency.
Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Thailand Immigration Police chief Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said the father denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.
Surachate said the father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision. Surachate described him as a governor in Saudi Arabia.
"He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes," Surachate said.
Payne was also asked by reporters about the case of Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain's national soccer team, who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured. He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.
She said she raised Australia's concerns about the case with Thailand's deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
"The Thai government is most certainly aware of the importance of this matter to Australia," she said. "I do note that there are legal proceedings underway in relation to Mr. al-Araibi, and Australia will continue to be in very close contact with Thai authorities in relation to this."
Al-Araibi, who now plays for Melbourne's Pascoe Vale Football Club, has been publicly critical of the Bahrain royal family's alleged involvement in sports scandals, which puts him at risk of punishment by the Bahraini government.
Al-Araibi has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain in 2012. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, and has a reputation for harsh repression since its failed "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011.
Craig Foster, a former Australian soccer player, held a news conference Thursday in Sydney to issue a joint call for al-Araibi's release with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Sydney-based Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
After commending FIFA, soccer's world governing body, and Australia's Football Federation for supporting al-Araibi's release, Foster criticized the Asian Football Confederation and its head, Salman al-Khalifa.
"Sheikh Salman is obligated to support Hakeem. He is obligated to do everything in his power to advocate, both privately and publicly, and to use the immense leverage that football has, with the Bahrain government, his own government, he's a Bahrainian national, and also with the Thai government to release Hakeem. The silence of the Asian Football Confederation is not just confounding, it's absolutely disgraceful," he said.
Sydney, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — Australian police arrested a man after 38 suspicious packages containing a possibly hazardous substance were sent to foreign consulates in the Australian cities of Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.
The 48-year-old was arrested at his home in Shepparton, Victoria state, on Wednesday night, and charged with sending dangerous articles to be carried by a postal service, police said. He was due to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court later on Thursday.
Around 10 diplomatic missions, mostly in Melbourne, on Wednesday reported the delivery of suspicious packages, some of them labelled "asbestos." The missions included those from the United States, Britain, India, South Korea, Pakistan, Israel, Switzerland and Greece.
This followed the discovery and removal on Monday of a suspicious package at the Argentinian Consulate in Sydney.
Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police said in a joint statement they will allege the substance in the packages was sourced from the man's Shepparton home.
"Police have so far recovered 29 of these packages, with forensic testing to be undertaken on them to determine the exact composition of the material in them," the statement said.
"Police have identified all intended recipients and have put processes in place to recover the outstanding packages. There is no ongoing threat to the general public," it added.
Sydney, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — Four women held a topless protest in Sydney on Thursday to support runaway Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, as Australia began considering her bid to settle in the country as a refugee.
Alqunun was on Wednesday deemed a refugee by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, after being detained in Bangkok en route to Australia. The 18-year-old publicized her case via social media after barricading herself in her Bangkok hotel room, saying she feared for her safety if sent back to her family in Saudi Arabia.
In downtown Sydney on Thursday morning, four women, dressed only in jeans and calling themselves the Secret Sisterhood, protested outside the building housing the Saudi Consulate, calling on Australia to grant Alqunun residency.
With "Secret Sisterhood" written on their backs, the women held placards with messages including "Let her in," ''Rahaf Sisterhood Hero" and "All women free + safe."
Secret Sisterhood founder Jacquie Love said the protest was held to urge the Australian government to recognize Alqunun's plight, and that of oppressed women everywhere.
"We are here to encourage them to let her in," Love said. "She's been recognized by the U.N. as a refugee so we believe the Australian government needs to step up, recognize her plight and recognize what she's gone through, and she could be an icon for the rest of the world that women shouldn't be oppressed and they should be fleeing countries that they are oppressed in."
"We decided to go topless because we believe all women should be able to express themselves freely and safely and we wanted to send a message to Rahaf that we can actually do that in Australia, that women can actually be free and safe," Love said.
Secret Sisterhood has also set up a GoFundMe account, which had raised $2,290 dollars for Alqunun by Thursday morning.
Alqunun's case has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.
After mounting a campaign for assistance on Twitter from her Bangkok airport hotel, Alqunun was allowed to temporarily stay in Thailand under the care of the U.N. refugee agency, which ruled her claim for asylum valid and referred her case to Australia. Following that decision, Australia's Home Affairs Department said it would "consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals."
Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him.
Thailand's Immigration Police chief Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said the father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.
Surachate said Alqunun's father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision. Surachate described the father as being a governor in Saudi Arabia.
"He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes," Surachate said. "But he didn't go into detail."
Before the U.N. agency's decision to refer her case to Australia, the country's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said there would be no "special treatment" for her.
However, Health Minister Greg Hunt, also speaking before the U.N.'s decision, said: "If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa."