Beijing, May 29 (AP/UNB) — Australian navy helicopter pilots were hit by lasers while exercising in the South China Sea, forcing them to land as a precaution, a witness said, describing the latest incident in the disputed waters where China has stepped up the defense of its sweeping territorial claims.
Scholar Euan Graham, who was onboard the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra on a voyage from Vietnam to Singapore, said that the lasers had been pointed from passing fishing vessels while the Canberra was being trailed by a Chinese warship.
China maintains a robust maritime militia in the South China Sea composed of fishing vessels equipped to carry out missions just short of combat. China claims the strategic waterway virtually in its entirety and is sensitive to all foreign naval action in the area, especially by the U.S. and allies such as Australia.
"Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China's maritime militia? It's hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific," Euan Graham wrote on the website The Strategist run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute , an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra. The account of the incident appeared Tuesday.
Similar incidents involving lasers and the Chinese military have also been reported as far away as Djibouti, where the U.S. and China have bases. Last year, the U.S. complained to China after lasers were directed at aircraft in the Horn of Africa nation that resulted in minor injuries to two American pilots.
China denied that its forces targeted the U.S. military aircraft.
Graham said that while bridge-to-bridge communications with the Chinese during the voyage were courteous, the Chinese requested the Australian warships notify them in advance of any corrections to their course.
That was something the Australian navy was "not about to concede while exercising its high-seas freedoms," Graham wrote.
He wrote that the constant presence of Chinese vessels shadowing foreign ships appeared to indicate that the Chinese fleet had grown large enough to allow it to have vessels lying in wait for just such orders.
He said their trailing actions also appeared to show that China's over-the-horizon surveillance capability was also maturing, supported by technology based at points such as Fiery Cross Reef in the contested Spratly island group where China has built military installations and an airstrip atop coral reefs.
Five other governments have claims in the South China Sea that overlap with China's, and the U.S. and its allies insist on the right to sail and fly anywhere in the area is permitted under international law, despite China's differing interpretation of such guidelines.
Graham, who is executive director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University in Australia, was one of several academics invited to observe Australia's engagement exercise Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019.
Sydney, May 29 (AP/UNB) — Scott Morrison was sworn in as Australia's prime minister on Wednesday, 11 days after retaining the position in the country's general election.
Along with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, Morrison was sworn in by Queen Elizabeth's official representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, at a ceremony in the capital, Canberra.
Also sworn in was Morrison's revamped Cabinet, which includes an equal-record seven women, and Australia's first Aboriginal federal cabinet minister, Ken Wyatt.
Wyatt, the new indigenous affairs minister, received a standing ovation from the small gathering at the ceremony when he stepped up to be sworn in. He wore a traditional kangaroo skin, called a "booka", given to him by indigenous people from his home state, Western Australia.
Morrison became Australia's 30th prime minister through an internal party vote last August in which he replaced Malcolm Turnbull as chief of the ruling Liberal Party.
It was the fourth switch of Australia's leader through an internal party vote in just eight years, sparking heated criticism from many voters. Yet Morrison was returned to his post in the May 18 election, and with an increased majority for the conservative Liberal-National party coalition.
With voting continuing in two close seats, the coalition was ahead in 77 seats, with the opposition Labor Party leading in 68, and with six seats having been secured by independent candidates and minor parties. A total of 76 seats is needed for majority government.
Ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, Morrison said his "hungry, committed and united" team would focus on the aspirations of ordinary Australians during this coalition government's third successive term in power.
"They are the reason we have the opportunity and the great privilege to serve them each and every day," he told colleagues on Tuesday, at coalition lawmakers' first meeting since the election.
"We must burn for the Australian people every single day that we have this privilege of serving them, in this party room and as a government."
Australia's 46th Parliament is expected to open in the first week of July.
Sydney, May 20 (AP/UNB) — A jubilant Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed Sunday to get straight back to work after a shock election victory by his conservative government that has left bewildered voters wondering how they were taken by surprise.
The opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, began another bout of postelection soul searching while starting the task of finding a new leader, after Bill Shorten stepped down following an emphatic defeat Saturday in a poll many had seen as unlosable for his party.
Center-left Labor, which has governed Australia for only 38 of its 118 years as a federation, was rated an overwhelming favorite, both in opinion polls and with odds-makers, to topple the conservative Liberal-National coalition government after its six years in power.
Instead, Morrison — who became prime minister only last August when a contentious internal party vote dumped Malcolm Turnbull as its leader — swept the coalition to victory with what is likely to be an increased representation in Parliament.
The result is much the same as the last election, which delivered the government a single-seat majority in 2016. Since then, public expectations have taken a roller coaster ride based on the media's reporting of polls.
Opinion polling has been a factor in conservative and Labor governments ousting four of their own prime ministers in the past decade, mostly recently elevating Morrison to prime minister.
Sydney University political scientist Stewart Jackson said the polls that had put Labor ahead of the government for the past two years were too consistent for too long to be credible.
"That indicates 'herding,' where the pollsters themselves are getting results that they don't think are right and are adjusting them," Jackson said. "Because statistically, polls should never come up like that."
Martin O'Shannessy, who headed the respected Newspoll market research company in Sydney for a decade until 2015, said he was "shocked" by the government's victory, given the polling.
"It's not possible to tell exactly how the current polls are being conducted because they don't have the same method statement that polls in the past have had," O'Shannessy said.
Until Saturday, Newspoll had accurately predicted the winner of every Australian state and federal election since its inception in 1985. Australia has made voting compulsory, so pollsters' surveys of Australians' party preferences usually come close to the election result.
Newspolls are published every few weeks and are reported by the Australian media like a game score of the government and opposition's popularity and achievements.
Morrison's predecessor, Turnbull, justified overthrowing his predecessor, Tony Abbott, in 2015 on the basis of "30 losing Newspolls."
Turnbull's administration had trailed Labor in more than 30 Newspolls before his government replaced him with Morrison as elections loomed.
O'Shannessy said Sunday, "You should never sack the prime minister on the basis of a Newspoll — ever."
Labor lawmaker Anthony Albanese, who was defeated by Shorten in a ballot of the party leadership in 2013 and will contest for the job again, said he had expected to be in government based on polling.
"The truth is that clearly there is a major gap between what the polling was showing and what the outcome was," Albanese said. "That is something that no doubt will be examined over coming days and weeks."
With just over 75% of votes counted by Sunday evening, the coalition had won 73 of the 76 seats needed to form a majority government, according to calculations from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. With seven seats still undecided, the coalition was expected to make further gains by the end of counting. The government had gone into the election as a minority government, with just 73 seats.
Labor was holding 65 seats, with independents and minor parties claiming six.
The possibility remains that the coalition will again have to govern in the minority, relying on agreements with independent and minor party lawmakers to do government business.
Still, Shorten's move to concede defeat late Saturday night confirmed a resounding victory for the Morrison administration.
Speaking before attending church in his electorate in southern Sydney on Sunday morning, Morrison thanked Australians for returning him to office.
"I give thanks to live in the greatest country in all the world," he said. "Thanks again to all Australians all across the country."
The 51-year-old, who received a congratulatory phone call from President Donald Trump earlier Sunday, said he was eager to return to work on Monday to form his new government.
A key Morrison ally, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, paid tribute to his leader's campaigning for securing the victory.
"The prime minister led from the front," Frydenberg told ABC TV. "From the minute the starter's gun was fired in this campaign, we knew we were behind, but we also knew we were in it, and no one knew this better than the prime minister."
"He crisscrossed the country with great energy, belief, and conviction. He was assured, he was confident, and he was across the detail, and he sold our economic plan to the Australian people, a plan that resonated with them," Frydenberg said.
Analysts credited the result also to a simple coalition platform centering on promises of keeping taxes to a minimum.
Labor entered the race grappling with a low popularity rating for Shorten, a 52-year-old former union boss widely seen as having a pallid personality. Rather than frame the election as a battle between him and the more outgoing Morrison, Labor strategists instead pushed a broad platform of policies.
Shorten campaigned heavily on reducing greenhouse emissions, while promising a range of other reforms, including the government paying all of a patient's costs for cancer treatment, and a reduction in tax breaks for landlords.
While senior Labor lawmaker Chris Bowen conceded his party may have suffered for what, for an opposition party, was an unusually detailed campaign, Shorten insisted it had been right to fight the election on issues rather than personalities.
"I'm disappointed for people who depend upon Labor, but I'm glad that we argued what was right, not what was easy," Shorten told supporters.
Shorten would have been Australia's sixth prime minister in six years had he been elected. Many Australians have at least welcomed Morrison's announcement of a change in Liberal policy in that the party can no longer dump a prime minister by internal party vote, meaning they will lead the country for a full three-year term unless an early election is called.
So high was public confidence of a Labor victory, Australian online bookmaker Sportsbet paid out 1.3 million Australian dollars ($900,000) to bettors who backed Labor two days before the vote. Sportsbet said 70% of wagers had been placed on Labor at the slender odds of $1.16 to $1.00.
As Labor absorbed the defeat, deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and Albanese told reporters they were considering running for the party's leadership.
Vienna, May 19 (AP/UNB) — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called Saturday for an early election after his vice chancellor resigned over a covertly shot video that showed him apparently promising government contracts to a prospective Russian investor.
Kurz said he would ask President Alexander Van der Bellen to set a date for a new election "as soon as possible."
Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party which is in Austria's ruling coalition with Kurz's People's Party, had resigned earlier Saturday, a day after the video was published.
The video hit a nerve amid broader concerns about ties between Russia and right-wing populist parties critical of the European Union, the more so because the Freedom Party is part of a Western government. In 2016, Strache went to Moscow to sign a "cooperation pact" with the United Russia party, which is loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Strache's resignation was also a black eye for the populist and nationalist forces who favor tighter European immigration policies. It came only a few days before the May 23-26 elections in 28 European Union nations to fill the 751-seat European Parliament. Nationalists and populists across Europe are competing to achieve a strong showing in that vote.
At a news conference late Saturday, Kurz said talks with other officials from the Freedom Party showed they were not willing to make the changes that Kurz felt were necessary to continue the current coalition. Kurz also said a possible coalition with the center-left Social Democrats would derail the government's program of limiting debt and taxes.
No date was immediately given for a new vote. Austria's public ORF television reported analysts saying the vote could take place in September.
Two German publications, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel, published extracts Friday of a covert video purportedly showing Strache during an alcohol-fueled evening on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza offering Austrian government contracts to a Russian woman, purportedly the niece of a Russian oligarch and interested in investing large amounts of money in Austria.
In his resignation statement Saturday, Strache apologized but said he was set up in a "political assassination" that illegally used surveillance equipment. He conceded his behavior in the video was "stupid, irresponsible and a mistake."
The publications declined to say where they got the video. In it, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she could expect lucrative construction work if she bought Austria's Kronen Zeitung newspaper and supported the Freedom Party.
The 49-year-old politician said he had been in a state of "increasing alcohol intoxication" and had "behaved like a teenager" in an attempt to "impress the attractive host." He said he had had no further contact with the woman and she did not donate to his party.
Key topics in the EU elections have been debates over immigration, democracy and human rights after Europe faced an influx in 2015 of migrants and asylum-seekers from war-torn areas in the Mideast and Asia.
On one side are nationalist, anti-immigrant movements critical of the EU such as Austria's Freedom Party, the Alternative for Germany party, France's far-right National Rally and Italy's League party. They want to halt most immigration into Europe, especially from Muslim areas, and give more control back to national governments from EU headquarters in Brussels.
On the other side, pro-European movements such as continent's mainstream center-right and center-left parties see the EU parliament vote as a chance to reject populism and support European cooperation and integration.
In the video, Strache also appeared to suggest ways of funneling money to his party via an unconnected foundation to circumvent Austrian rules on political donations.
A spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party, Hannes Jarolim, has asked prosecutors to look into the video, the APA news agency reported. Jarolim reportedly claimed the statements in the video could constitute offenses or attempted offenses such as misuse of office, bribery and money laundering.
Canberra, May 18 (AP/UNB) — Political leaders continued frenetic 11th-hour campaigning as Australians vote on Saturday in an election likely to deliver the nation's sixth prime minister in as many years.
Opinion polls suggest the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition will lose its bid for a third three-year term and Scott Morrison will have had one of the shortest tenures as prime minister in the 118-year history of the Australian federation.
Morrison is the conservatives' third prime minister since they were first elected in 2013. He replaced Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership ballot of government colleagues in August.
Morrison began the day campaigning in the island state of Tasmania in seats he hopes his party will win from the center-left Labor Party opposition. He then flew 900 kilometers (560 miles) home to Sydney to vote and to campaign in Sydney seats.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten contained his campaigning to polling centers in his home town of Melbourne where he voted Saturday morning with his wife Chloe Shorten.
Shorten said he was confident Labor would win government and promised to start governing from Sunday. He said his top priorities would be to increase wages for low-paid workers, increase pay rates for working Sundays and reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
"The world will know that if Labor gets elected, Australia's back in the fight against climate change," Shorten told reporters.
Shorten has been campaigning hard on more ambitious targets to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas. It is also one of the world's worst carbon gas polluters per capita because of a heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity.
As the driest continent after Antarctica, it is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as wildfires and destructive storms.
The government has committed Australia to reduce its emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 45% reduction in the same time frame.
Shorten, a 52-year-old former labor union leader, has also promised a range of reforms, including the government paying all the patients' costs for cancer treatment and a reduction of tax breaks for landlords.
Morrison, a 51-year-old former tourism marketer, said he had closed Labor's lead in opinion polls during the five-week campaign and predicted a close result.
"It's not the time to engage in Bill Shorten's big, risky project of big taxes and big spending," Morrison said.
Morrison promises lower taxes and better economic management than Labor.
An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead of the conservatives 51.5% to 48.5%.
The Newspoll-brand poll was based on a nationwide survey of 3,038 voters from Monday to Friday. It has a 1.8 percentage point margin of error.
Political analyst William Bowe said it was unclear how the greater support for Labor evident in polls would translate into seats.
He said the conservatives had been "trying to plot a narrow path to victory" by targeting their campaigning on vulnerable Labor seats in Sydney, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Neither the ruling coalition nor Labor holds a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government. The government lost two seats and its single-seat majority in the lower chamber in blood-letting over the dumping of Turnbull in the face of poor opinion polling.
The government goes to the election holding 74 seats in the chamber that is expanding at this election from 150 seats to 151.
Labor has 69 seats, with independents and minor parties holding the remainder.
Both major parties are promising that whoever wins the election will remain prime minister until he next faces the voters' judgment. The parties have changed their rules to make the process of lawmakers replacing a prime minister more difficult.
During Labor's last six years in office, the party replaced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his deputy Julia Gillard, then dumped her for Rudd.
Polling on Australia's west coast began two hours after the east coast stations opened. East coast stations will close at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT), two hour before voting ends in the west.