Germany, France press Greece to make credible proposals

 

Extended coverage: Greek debt crisis

After a meeting in Paris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said Athens must move quickly if it wants to secure a cash-for-reform deal with international creditors and avoid crashing out of the euro.

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Raising the stakes on the Greek leader ahead of a euro-zone summit on Tuesday, the European Central Bank decided to keep a tight grip on funding to Greek banks, which have been closed for more than a week to avoid a massive outflow of money that could lead to their collapse.

The ECB also decided to raise the amount of collateral Greek banks must post for any loans. The move doesn’t affect the lenders right away, but it was a warning shot by the ECB to Greek banks that their fate lies in its hands.

And a German finance ministry official dismissed the idea that Berlin would be willing to concede some debt relief to Athens, a position that Tsipras’ government has long sought.

Still, in a sign that Athens is keen to seek a new deal, Greece’s combative finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, resigned, apparently under pressure from other euro zone finance ministers who did not want him as a negotiating partner.

Tsipras had earlier promised Merkel that Greece would bring a proposal for a deal to an emergency summit of euro zone leaders on Tuesday, a Greek official said. It was unclear how much it would differ from other proposals rejected in the past.

“The door is open for discussion,” Hollande told reporters, standing next to Merkel after talks at the Elysee Palace.

“It’s now up to the government of Alexis Tsipras to offer serious, credible proposals so that this will can be turned into a program which gives a long-term perspective, because Greece needs a long-term perspective in the euro zone with stable rules, as the euro zone itself does.”

Not much time

Hollande stressed that there is not much time left while Merkel urged Greece to put proposals on the table this week.

After the Greek ‘No’ vote, gloomy officials in Brussels and Berlin said a Greek exit from the currency area now looked ever more likely.

But they also said talks to avert it would be easier without Varoufakis, an avowed “erratic Marxist” economist who infuriated fellow euro zone finance ministers with his casual style and indignant lectures. He had campaigned for Sunday’s ‘No’ vote, accusing Greece’ creditors of “terrorism”.

His sacrifice suggested Tsipras was determined to try to reach a last-ditch compromise with European leaders.

Greece’s political leaders, more accustomed to screaming abuse at each other in parliament, issued an unprecedented joint statement after a day of talks at the president’s office backing efforts to reach a deal with creditors.

They called for immediate steps to reopen banks and said any deal must address debt sustainability – code for reducing Athens’ crushing debt – but gave no hint of concessions from the Greek side towards its creditors’ demands for deep spending cuts and far-reaching reforms of pensions and labor markets.

The chief negotiator in aid talks with international creditors, Euclid Tsakalotos, a soft-spoken academic economist, was appointed finance minister.

To win any new deal, Greece will have to overcome deep distrust among partners, above all Germany, Greece’s biggest creditor and the EU’s biggest economy, where public opinion has hardened in favor of cutting Greece loose from the euro.

Defiance

While jubilant Greeks celebrated their national gesture of defiance late into the night, there was gloom in Brussels.

European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said there was no easy way out of the crisis and the referendum result had widened the gap between Greece and other euro zone countries.

An EU source said barring some major Greek concession, euro zone leaders were more likely to discuss on Tuesday how to cope with a Greek exit, and how to reinforce the remaining currency union, than any new aid program for Athens.

While France and Italy have emphasized the importance of more talks, a big majority of the 19 euro zone government favor taking a hard line with Greece, diplomats said, and German public opinion is running out of patience.

Merkel’s vice-chancellor, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, told a news conference: “If Greece wants to stay in the euro, the Greek government must quickly make a substantive offer that goes beyond its willingness thus far.”

Blind woman takes on ABC

A blind woman has launched an unlawful discrimination case against the ABC for failing to make audio description part of its regular programming.

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Audio description is a second track that describes actions, scene changes, gestures and facial expressions for those with no or low vision.

Suzanne Hudson believes that by not making programs accessible for people who are blind or have low vision, the public broadcaster has engaged in indirect discrimination.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre is representing Ms Hudson in the Federal Circuit Court and the centre’s chief executive, Edward Santow, says Australia lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to providing audio description.

“Many countries, including the UK, US, Ireland, Germany and Spain, already provide the service on free-to-air or subscription services,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

“By comparison, 20 per cent of the UK Channel 4’s programs offer audio description, which works out at more than 33 hours per week.”

That means that vision-impaired people in the UK can watch Home and Away with the service, while viewers in Australia can’t.

The ABC trialled the service for 13 weeks in 2012 on its primary channel ABC1.

After handing a report to government, the communications minister agreed late last year to fund a further 15 months trial on iview.

“The technical trial will test the digital delivery path for audio description services within the ABC,” the public broadcaster says on its website.

It will also provide a greater understanding of the issues associated with the public’s access to and use of such a service.

A report will be handed back to government in the second half of 2016.

Mr Santow said the iview trial was welcomed by the vision-impaired community, but there remained significant barriers to accessing the online service, especially for those who rely on screen reading software.

“The technology and accessible content exists, so we are urging the ABC to take this important, permanent step towards equality,” he said.

Not my job to comment on Greece: Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott won’t be offering a running commentary on what the troubled economies of Greece and China should be doing.

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Instead, his job is to build a strong and prosperous Australia, he says.

Mr Abbott was spruiking the government’s grocery code of conduct, outside a western Sydney store of supermarket giant Woolworths on Tuesday when he was quizzed by reporters on developments in Europe and China.

But he stayed very much on message, saying the important thing was for the government to do whatever it could to build a strong and prosperous economy.

That meant a grocery code of conduct.

“This is about ensuring we have the strongest possible local businesses to supply the strongest possible local businesses,” he said.

Acting Treasurer Bruce Billson was more to the point, saying the next few days would be “very significant” as Greece and eurozone finance ministers try to thrash out a bailout solution.

Finance ministers later on Tuesday will be urging the Greek authorities to devise a new proposition that appeases lenders and allows a renewed supply of funding to the Greek economy after Sunday’s referendum rejected bailout terms.

“Now what needs to happen is a clear definition of what’s next,” Mr Billson told ABC radio, adding the Australian government was closely monitoring developments.

Mr Billson also believes Chinese authorities have intervened to stop a shares slump in a “confident and bold way”.

Former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello warns the Greek crisis provides lessons for Australia, arguing the time to worry about debt is before it gets out of control.

The Australian government was still borrowing $100 million a day, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

While the government could easily borrow that amount, it shouldn’t do it indefinitely, he said.

Australian consumers are clearly worried events in Greece, and problems in China, will flow through to the Australian economy.

The ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence index fell 4.6 per cent in the past week, eroding most of gains made since the May budget.

Calls for private health insurance inquiry

Doctors and consumer groups are demanding an inquiry into Australia’s private health insurance industry, as exorbitant fees force private patients to use the public system.

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Brisbane obstetrician Gino Pecoraro says it’s “criminal” that even the most comprehensive insurance policies are failing to cover patients for the cost of their medical bills, leaving them with out-of-pocket fees they can’t afford to pay.

The former president of the Australian Medical Association in Queensland says the problem lies with legislation that prevents insurers from paying more for procedures than the Medicare Benefits Schedule fee.

He also blames a lack of competition.

“We should have a Senate inquiry into the whole industry and open it up,” Dr Pecoraro told AAP on Tuesday.

“Why can’t we open up to health funds from all around the world and let Australian citizens buy a product that actually means something.”

The Consumers Health Forum says an inquiry is overdue, with the most recent review by the Productivity Commission now almost 20 years old.

Forum chief executive Leanne Wells says consumers are becoming disillusioned, with private patients more likely to face higher out-of-pocket costs than those without insurance.

Rising premiums and policy exclusions also have left many considering dropping out altogether.

Meanwhile, complaints to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman in the March quarter were up 23 per cent from last year.

“It’s timely to ask what problem is private health insurance trying to solve, now, and do we need to do a rethink about whether it does what it was set up to do,” Ms Wells said.

The Australian Medical Association also supports an inquiry into the industry.

But Private Healthcare Australia president Michael Armitage said it would be “a waste of money”.

The problem lay with exorbitant doctors fees and patients who forget what their policy covers.

“We agree people pay too much, but that’s not our fault, we don’t set the fees, the doctors set the fees,” Mr Armitage told AAP.

Mission to help whale stuck in Qld lagoon

Marine experts have hit the waters off Cairns in a bid to save a whale stranded in a reef lagoon for at least three weeks.

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Wildlife officers have gone to Elford reef in a bid to coax the whale, believed to be between six and eight metres long, to safety.

After studying footage of the animal, which is trapped in a small lagoon surrounded by a maze of reefs, CSIRO’s Dr Matt Curnock believes the whale could be an Antarctic minke, rarely spotted on the Great Barrier Reef.

Helicopter pilot Bronwyn Loud was taking a tourist on a scenic flight over the reef last month when one of her passengers noticed the whale. Three weeks on, it’s still in the same spot.

“It’s not really moving much, just ducking up and down under the water,” she told the Seven Network. “It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.”

Dr Curnock says wildlife officers who went to the site on Monday tried herding the animal to safety. That didn’t work and they’re now trying to use the whale’s natural curiosity to lure it out into open water.

“I doubt it’s able to feed there,” he told AAP on Tuesday. “It eats large schools of fish and krill and the like. If it doesn’t get out, running out of energy reserves is a real risk for it.”

He said a similar incident involving a dwarf minke in 1982 didn’t end well. In that case the whale remained trapped for three months and died despite efforts to save it. Its skeleton is now in a Townsville museum.

Dr Curnock said he wanted to confirm the species of whale involved in the current drama.

“It may be an Antarctic minke,” he said. “It’s pretty rare, but not unheard of, for this species to be on the Great Barrier Reef.”

“There was a confirmed sighting of an Antarctic minke back in 2001.”

He said wildlife officers would be doing their best not to stress the animal.

“We’re certainly hoping this one is going to find its way out soon,” Dr Curnock said.