Cycling New Zealand’s Great Taste Trail

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

Horsing around: Happy horse poo for sale at the side of the road en route to Motueka. Photo: Rob McFarland

“That’s not a hill, it’s a wrinkle,” says John with trademark understatement as we survey the ominous incline ahead. The rest of the group have sensibly chosen to remain in the van and start today’s ride at the summit. I, fuelled by male bravado and three Weet-Bix, have decided to keep him company, blissfully unaware that next month he heads to France to cycle 2000 kilometres of the Tour de France route.

I quickly realise trying to keep up is futile so instead relax and enjoy the view. We’re cycling along a quiet country back road, through the sort of idyllic rural scene that dominates much of New Zealand’s South Island. Rolling pastures dotted with sheep, weather-beaten wooden sheds with rusted iron roofs and an impressive backdrop of undulating hills in shifting shades of green.

We collect the rest of the group and continue on tranquil country lanes to the village of Wakefield, where Evan has laid out an extravagant morning tea of fruit, shortbread, tea and plunger coffee. We all tuck in heartily even though it’s less than two hours since we ate breakfast and there’s still lunch at a winery, afternoon tea and a hearty dinner to come. I suppose there’s not much point in cycling the Great Taste Trail if you’re not going to taste.

New Zealand’s cycle network has grown rapidly over the last few years, fuelled by government investment and the success of the original cycling prodigy, the Otago Central Rail Trail. There are now 23 routes that are classified as Great Rides, predominantly off-road trails that showcase the best of the country’s landscape, environment, culture and heritage. The Great Taste Trail is one of the most recent, a 175-kilometre loop around the top of the South Island that passes through Nelson.

The route focuses on the abundance of fresh produce and wineries in the region so unless you have monk-like restraint you’ll be consuming more calories than you expend.

Our five-day trip started in Christchurch where we were kitted out at PureTrail’s depot with comfortable 27-speed hybrid bikes, helmets, panniers and sexy fluorescent high-vis vests. This departure is slightly unusual because there are only four of us, compared to the normal 10-14 guests, and we have two guides rather than one (Evan is in training).

Bikes safely loaded on the trailer, we leave Christchurch, heading north and then west over the scenic Lewis Pass to Saint Arnaud, an alpine village on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. After a spot of sightseeing and a gentle 16-kilometre orientation ride, it’s back to the more pressing issue of eating. Clinker Cafe may not sound like the most salubrious of dining spots but the braised pork belly in apple cider I have for dinner is not only excellent, it’s enormous. “Heartland portions,” explains John.

Fast forward a day and our convoy of four leaves Wakefield full of coffee and shortbread and heads towards lunch. It’s easy, delightful riding – a mixture of roadside paths, quiet back roads and gravel tracks that meander past vineyards and skirt orchards bursting with apples, berries and kiwifruit. On one section we cycle along a riverbank through fragrant bursts of fennel and flickering clouds of butterflies.

Lunch is at Waimea Estates, a family-run winery where our not-very-hard-work is rewarded with generous bowls of plump, creamy, Chardonnay-steamed green lipped mussels in a sun-drenched courtyard overlooking the vines.

We’re only eight kilometres from Nelson so this afternoon’s ride is a gentle 30-minute cruise along a dedicated bike path next to the Waimea Estuary. We arrive at our accommodation, the charming mews-style Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco at 1:30pm, leaving us plenty of time to explore.

In an effort to work up an appetite for what I know will be another heartland-sized dinner, I eschew Nelson’s museums and boutiques in favour of a walk along the Maitai River to the Botanical Reserve. After a mildly strenuous climb up Botanical Hill, I arrive at what is allegedly the geographic centre of New Zealand. I later discover that several places claim this accolade but either way the 360-degree views over the harbour and the rolling hills of the surrounding national parks are sensational. And I’m pretty sure I’ve burned off a mussel.

That evening we reconvene in the garden of the pub opposite our hotel and over a sunset glass of sav blanc our merry band of six gets to know each other. Husband and wife Gerry and Penny live in Newcastle and are cycling converts after doing the Otago Central Rail Trail with PureTrails last year. Margaret is from the Gold Coast and is clearly a PureTrails fan given this is her sixth trip with them. Guides John and Evan are both diehard, shorts-in-any-weather Cantabrians and expert exponents of the region’s trademark dry sarcasm. The South Island is the “mainland” and John confesses he’ll “barrack for anyone over Auckland”.

We retire inside for dinner where I feast on a tender Angus steak washed down with a glass of Roaring Meg pinot noir. Given PureTrails also covers the cost of a dessert, it seems rude not to sample the lemon cheesecake with cream and lemon sherbet. In the distance I hear my cycling shorts crying in protest.

While superlative food and wine are the trip’s main attraction, the scenery comes a close second. The next day we cycle back along the estuary, passing through a protected wetland before crossing onto Rabbit Island for morning tea by a deserted white sand beach. A winding pine tree-lined track leads us to a tiny cove where a ferry takes us and our bikes across an inlet to the buzzy township of Mapua for lunch.

Subsequent days deliver similarly beguiling landscapes – an early morning cycle along the Motueka River, the sun filtering through the haze of a freshly limed field; vast fields of hops, their carefully trained branches resembling dancers around a maypole; orchards full of berries swathed in dew-soaked nets.

We spend two nights at the comfortable Equestrian Lodge Motel in Motueka, cycling in the mornings and sightseeing in the afternoons. Excursions include a scenic cruise from Kaiteriteri that skirts the bays and furrows of the Abel Tasman National Park and a visit to the Riwaka Resurgence, a sacred Maori site where the Riwaka River emerges from a network of caves underneath Takaka Hill.

On our final day we head back inland to complete the loop. The trail here is still being completed so John and Evan improvise with a 13-kilometre ride along a quiet valley flanked by fields of curious cows. It’s knuckle-numbingly cold when we start at 8:30am and a brisk headwind (or a “gentle cooling breeze” according to John) drags tears from our eyes. After 40 minutes we’re all happy to jump back in the van and begin the long trek back to Christchurch.

The cycling portion of the trip may be over but the tasting part isn’t. Our last lunch is a fitting finale, a lazy feast of tapas-style shared plates washed down with crisp glasses of riesling at Forrest Estate Wines’ stylish cellar door in Marlborough.



The original “Great Ride”, this 150-kilometre route through Central Otago follows a disused railway line. The perfect introduction to a multi-day cycling trip.


Starting at Rotorua, this 66-kilometre trail passes through a thermal wonderland of steaming vents, bubbling mud pools and spectacular geysers. Expect rare flora and fauna and a rich vein of Maori folklore.


This 70-kilometre off-road track through the heart of the Marlborough Sounds offers pristine wilderness, spectacular views and thigh-burning ascents.


The longest continuous cycle trail in New Zealand, this 300-kilometre jaunt starts from the country’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, and finishes in the coastal town of Oamaru. The best bit? It’s all downhill.


Beginning in the otherworldly Tongariro National Park, this four to six day route uses bike trails, public roads and a jetboat to deliver riders to the coast at Wanganui.

For a complete list of NZ’s Great Rides, see nzcycletrail杭州龙凤419m.


The writer travelled as a guest of PureTrails and Air New Zealand.




Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Christchurch. Phone 13 24 76; see airnewzealand杭州龙凤


PureTrails offers regular departures of its guided five-day Great Taste Trail cycle trip between October and April, from $1400 including accommodation, meals and excursions. See puretrailsnewzealand杭州龙凤

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RSL Clubs could be the next victim of Sydney property boom

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

South Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

Hurstville RSL Club in Hurstville Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Fairfax Media

The RSL Club used to be part of the social fabric, a place to go for a special occasion or a cheap meal when mum or dad couldn’t be bothered cooking or for a few quick drinks after work.

Many are now fighting for their financial futures due to a combination of falling patronage, outdated facilities, demographic changes and competition from modern alternative entertainment options.

But where many see an outdated and tired business model and board members heavy with age property developers see large, well-located freehold sites, ideal for residential redevelopment.

Take the current saga surrounding South Hurstville RSL and Hurstville RSL.

South Hurstville RSL is a financially strong club with an upward trajectory.

Hurstville RSL on the other hand been in the red for the past few years, with growing losses, declining revenues and dwindling net assets.

As a result, both have voted in favour of an amalgamation . However those decisions are being challenged by a group called “The Friends of Hurstville”, who prefer a plan for a mixed use redevelopment being put forward by property developer Will McDonald of Skye Pacific Properties Pty Ltd.

Mr McDonald  leads a consortium that includes Parkview Constructions and Dickson Rothschild Architects.

The chairman of the pro-development Friends of Hurstville group, Ed Mason, said a meeting held at Hursville RSL on August 10 (to vote on the decision to amalgamate) was a “farce” and that some members of Chinese background were unhappy.

When asked specifically about the vote, Mr Mason couldn’t confirm any actual numbers as he is not a member of Hurstville RSL. He was issued a membership card when he applied but said he then had his application refused at the board level.

Mr Mason did confirm there were about 120 people, all of which he said wanted to vote at the meeting, at a lunch meeting of the Friends of Hurstville group which was paid for by the property group led by Mr McDonald.

Hurstville RSL general manager Rod Bell, and the CEO of South Hurstville RSL, Simon Mikkelsen, refute Mr Mason’s and Mr McDonald’s claims and say that all votes have been conducted correctly and have been validated by a separate NSW Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR) investigation.

“Everything has been done by the book to allow both clubs’ members’ wishes to proceed,” Mr Mikkelsen said.

Mr Bell said Hurstville RSL has looked over and rejected a number of property development proposals submitted for their site because the board considered they did not have the members’ best interests at heart and risked rendering the RSL insolvent.

“Our only and best chance of surviving as a community club is by joining with South Hurstville RSL,” Mr Bell said. “Club members should realise that if the developer gets control of this club it will be closed for up to two years and may never reopen.”

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority has adjourned their decision on the amalgamation to assess the claims made by the warring factions. Mr Bell feels this gives the development proposal an unfair advantage.

“We now need the Minister Troy Grant to instruct ILGA to support the wishes of both clubs’ real members and not a bunch that are more than happy to see another RSL disappear in this Anzac centenary year,” he said.

The ILGA said it deferred its decision on December 17 “so it could receive further detailed submissions about claims it received questioning whether the correct steps had been followed in the merger process”.

A final decision is expected by March.

Two highly publicised  property development deals where financially stricken clubs have been “rescued”  by property developers are the proposed Balmain / Rozelle Village development deal and the Souths on Chalmers development deal.

Souths on Chalmers was put into administration and then closed, with significant debts, and Balmain Leagues have borrowed millions for lead time costs (to continue operating at a temporary venue) and still have no formal resolution.

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More to be caught in tax net on surging Sydney land values

More property investors will be caught in the property tax net with the resurgent Sydney property market pushing up residential land values at a double-digit pace in the wake of historically low interest rates and the revived NSW economy.

Land values across the state rose 11.2 per cent in 2014, which was led by a strong 13.1 per cent rise in residential land values, according to data released on Friday by the NSW Valuer General.

Willoughby, Bankstown and Hornsby led the gains in residential land values across Sydney, with Mosman, Camden and Ryde witnessing the lowest rise in values among Sydney council areas.

The eastern suburbs regained the crown from the lower north shore as the area with the most expensive median land values in the state, with median residential land values in Woollahra, which takes in Double Bay, Point Piper and Vaucluse, reaching $1.4 million, eclipsing Mosman’s median of $1.39 million.

“The past 12 months has seen a significant increase in large parts of the market – particularly the middle ring,” said the NSW Valuer General,  Simon Gilkes.

“There were not the large increases at the high end of the market and in the outer areas, but rather the inner west and areas close to transport, such as Chatswood and the Hills district, partly due to the new rail link.”

Low interest rates has brought both owner occupiers and investors into the market, he said.

The values are based primarily on property sales data, with more than 43,000 sales assessed.

The year was market by a “ripple out effect” from gains in the inner ring of the city’s suburbs, he said.

Median land values in areas such as Leichhardt and Marrickville continued to rise strongly – up 17.4 per cent and 19.9 per cent respectively – but this was outpaced by gains a little further out such as Canterbury – up 21.4 per cent – and Bankstown (up 29.4 per cent).

The updated valuation data will have a direct effect in broadening the land tax net, where it is applicable, and is also used by councils when assessing rate variations, Mr Gilkes said. At the top end of the market, the rise in land values have been more restrained which is due in part to the already high level of prices in those areas.

“The increases were not as strong in the highly valued suburbs since fewer people may have been able to raise the money needed” to buy into these suburbs, Mr Gilkes said.

Slavko Romic, the principal of Elders Double Bay, said the new year has started where last year finished.

“It’s been strong since the start of the new year. Inquiries are running at peak levels, and we’re not alone with other agents reporting the same level of activity,” he said.

“There is not a lot of stock available, so over-demand and under-supply, along with low interest rates, is keeping interest high.”

A year ago, only Mosman and Woollahra had land values of more than $1 million. Now, they have been joined by Willoughby, Manly, Hunters Hill and Waverley, with North Sydney and Lane Cove just falling short of this figure.

The updated valuation data are used by about one third of councils each year when revising rates. This year, Blacktown, Liverpool, Ku-ring-gai, the Hills, Maitland and Leichhardt will use the updated data when setting rates.

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Sydney shootings: Michael Ibrahim peace talks failed in the days before attack

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Relatives of a known Sydney criminal had tried to peacefully resolve an ongoing dispute he had with Michael Ibrahim in the days before the brother of Kings Cross tsar John Ibrahim was shot in Sydney’s CBD.

Michael, the youngest of the six Ibrahim siblings, had been enjoying a party lifestyle in the four months since he was released from jail having served more than six years for manslaughter.

He’d recently been enjoying Sydney’s bar scene at Cafe Del Mar at Darling Harbour and the “floating-beach club” The Island and had started a new relationship.

But sources connected to the 36-year-old say he had also been using his freedom to “catch-up” with a number of previous associates, some whom he believed owed him money from before he went to jail.

They say the relationship with one former ally, a south-western Sydney crime figure who has done significant jail time, deteriorated rapidly to the extent that his family had intervened to try and broker peace last weekend.

However a series of messages sent between Ibrahim and the other man are said to have inflamed tensions even further before Ibrahim was hit once in the shoulder by a shot fired at 10.30pm on Macquarie Street in the city last Sunday.

The attack has been the most high-profile in a spate of public shootings in Sydney in the past five weeks.

There was a shooting every three days in December but it came at the end of a year in which gun crime declined. Non-fatal shootings fell by 17 per cent and charges for unlawfully discharging a firearm fell by 24 per cent in the two years to September.

Acting Deputy Commissioner Jeff Loy said police had made a concerted effort to seize more guns in 2014, with a 29 per cent increase in firearms charges.

“Like any offence, there are peaks and troughs in the number of shooting offences throughout the year,” he said. “Anecdotally, we often find a spike in shooting offences will be linked to conflict amongst criminal groups.”

Police do not believe most of the shootings are linked and instead are isolated incidents fuelled by domestic disputes and drug deals.

However Fairfax Media understands that the crime figure in dispute with Ibrahim has also previously clashed with another victim of the recent gun violence, former Comanchero and construction industry figure Bilal Fatrouni.

Fatrouni, 38, walked himself into hospital on December 27 after allegedly being shot twice in the back by Mahmoud Dandachli outside Dandachli’s home in Greenacre.

Police do not believe it was linked to the fatal shooting of construction industry figure Bilal Taha, who was executed on the driveway of his Condell Park home the next day.

It was retaliation attack in a feud between members of two local families, police said. The rival family have a history of extortion and drug crime and had tried to shoot Mr Taha weeks earlier, Fairfax Media understands.

It was the third time the families had shot at each other following two drive-bys on homes in Condell Park in October.

A relative, Aasiya Rose, said Mr Taha was “a victim of other people’s bad choices”. In a tribute to Mr Taha online she said: “you stayed away from trouble but it found you regardless”.

More than 60 police from Operation Talon, the team of officers tasked with ending Sydney’s gun violence, saturated Fifth Avenue and Ethel Street on Thursday night as a show of force against those involved in the Taha shooting and the nearby shooting of a 34-year-old man two days later.

Police searched homes to ensure a handful of known criminals in the area with Firearm Prohibition Orders were abiding by them.

Bankstown commander Superintendent Dave Eardley said police would keep returning to the area until the Taha family’s conflict was suppressed.

“Police will keep returning in numbers, as often as is required, to ensure this conflict is suppressed and to reaffirm our commitment to the community,” he said.

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Mixed feelings for family after Jessica Small reward announced

WAITING: Ricki Small and her daughter Rebecca Small after the announcement of a reward in the Jessica Small case. Photo: PHILL MURRAY 010915pjess2THE confirmation from police that a reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of Bathurst teenager Jessica Small’s killer was a double-edged sword for her family Friday.
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Jessica’s mother, Ricki Small, said while she was pleased that a reward had finally been announced more than 17 years after her daughter went missing, the amount of $100,000 was disappointing.

Deputy state coroner Sharon Freund recommended, at the conclusion of an inquest last year into Jessica’s death, that a sum of not less than $500,000 be offered.

Speaking in Bathurst, Mrs Small said she was hopeful it would be enough to entice someone with information about the case to come forward.

“Yes, I’m disappointed that it’s not a bigger amount, but nonetheless it is a reward and I’m hoping it’s enough to flush someone out,” she said.

“After 17 years I’m grateful that it has been announced.”

Asked if she thought $100,000 was enough, she said she was praying so.

“I’m praying it will make a difference. I need help from the public [to find out what happened to Jessica],” she said.

Jessica was just 15 when she was abducted from Hereford Street after she and her friend Vanessa Conlan accepted a lift with a man they did not know.

Vanessa made it out of the car to raise the alarm, but Jessica has not been seen since.

It is now well known that the initial police investigation into her abduction was seriously flawed.

Police failed to take statements from critical witnesses, including a man who was possibly the last person to see Jessica alive.

Mrs Small said she had no option but to keep fighting for her daughter.

“It’s a fight that I’ve always wanted to win. I didn’t want to let Jess down – she has already been let down – but at this point I would just like some answers.”

Mrs Small said she also had to keep going for her other children Matt and Rebecca. She said the family just needed some closure.

“This has been going on and on. At the inquest we thought we may have been getting close [to finding out whathappened], but that went out the window.

“I’m just now hoping this reward might bring someone forward.”

Police described the reward as significant. Mrs Small disagreed.

“I don’t see it as significant; this has been going on for 17 years. Obviously I would have preferred it to be higher,” she said.

Jessica’s sister Rebecca Small agreed.

“The coroner recommended no less than $500,000. Why wasn’t that offered?” she asked.

“It’s a kick in the teeth.”

NSW Homicide Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Michael Willing, who announced the reward, said while he was not able to comment on the figure, it was in line with rewards in other similar cases.

Superintendent Willing said he supported the application from Detective Sergeant Peter Smith – who led the investigation into Jessica’s disappearance – for a $500,000 reward, but said it was the Reward Evaluation Advisory Committee which decided the amount.

He said he was well aware of the flaws in the initial investigation, but commended Detective Sergeant Smith for his work on Strike Force Carica II.

Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

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Screen grabs

Reggae’s godfather: Uprising Live! provides an insight into the enduring nature of Bob Marley’s work. Revelation: Sarah Snook in Predestination.
Shanghai night field

The Lady from Shanghai: Traces of personal bitterness.

Charming: Fantasy Life.

Revelation: Sarah Snook in Predestination.

Reggae’s godfather: Uprising Live! provides an insight into the enduring nature of Bob Marley’s work.

Revelation: Sarah Snook in Predestination.

The Lady from Shanghai: Traces of personal bitterness.

Reggae’s godfather: Uprising Live! provides an insight into the enduring nature of Bob Marley’s work.

Revelation: Sarah Snook in Predestination.

The Lady from Shanghai: Traces of personal bitterness.



It’s been an awfully long dry spell for 3DS fans, with very few games of substance released in the past six months, and several of those (notably Pokemon and Alex Wright: Ace Attorney) are just spruced-up versions of titles from older Nintendo consoles. Fantasy Life, then, is one of the few bright spots, a role-playing game that will feel familiar if you’ve played Harvest Moon or Legend of Zelda. You start by choosing from one of 12 professions, which range from the glamorous (alchemist) to the mundane (tailor, blacksmith); then you set about fulfilling little quests (build a table, darn a cloak) to level up, earn money and unlock new goodies, along the way chatting with Fantasy Life’s many odd characters and fighting the odd monster. Outside your own career, there’s a narrative involving the royal family and the impending end of the world, which you’ll need to help with at some stage, but there’s no rush. What’s not to like? Well, there’s an awful lot of talking to get through when you meet significant characters, the mini games can get repetitive and the fighting is similarly basic. Overall, though, it’s a charming addition to the genre. AH



British actor and comedian Simon Farnaby (perhaps best known here for his work in The Mighty Boosh and Horrible Histories) has long been fascinated with superheroes and people with “superhuman” abilities. In this new series he travels the world seeking out real-life super humans, ordinary people with seemingly extraordinary abilities. In this first episode, Superhuman Force, he sets off to meet people who can claim to control nature’s most powerful forces. For some reason Eastern Europe is a hub for people claiming magnetic powers, and tonight Farnaby travels to Georgia, Serbia and Croatia to meet a nine-year-old boy with apparent powers, a local legend whose chest can apparently hold huge metal weights and, the most compelling of all, the ‘human battery”: Serbian man Biba Struja, whose body can conduct electricity. Be genuinely freaked out as we watch him withstand a million volts and even cook sausages with his bare hands. KN



Australian filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig (Undead, Daybreakers) reunite with their Daybreakers star Ethan Hawke in an elegant, painstaking adaptation of a Robert Heinlein time-travel story about an undercover agent who criss-crosses time seeking to avert a crime. There’s not a budget for splashy effects; instead, the Spierigs and their collaborators concentrate on ambience, imaginative production design and carefully constructed performances. The film is more about the mystery of human identity than the ramifications of science fiction; Hawke seems to relish the transformative challenges of his character; Noah Taylor, in a cameo, is quietly enigmatic; and Sarah Snook, in a role of constant twists and turns, is a revelation. PH



Bob Marley’s influence on popular culture, through his music and spirit, is much greater than one may have ever expected when he was alive. Filmed on June 13, 1980, in Dortmund, Germany, this live performance for the TV show Rockpalast is one of the last to capture Marley before his death in May 1981 from cancer. The set list is a reminder of his legacy, including all his classics: I Shot The Sheriff, Is This Love, Jamming, Get Up, Stand Up, Could This Be Love, Redemption Song and No Woman, No Cry. It’s an indoor concert at night, and the groove is Marley all the way. Great for chilling out with Bob on your mind – and a fabulous insight into why the godfather of reggae’s work resonates to this day. JK



Orson Welles’ reign as cinema’s boy genius was ending when he shot this 1947 film noir – an astonishing wreck of a movie, mingling grotesque black comedy with delirious romantic fatalism.  Even before the climax set in a literal hall of mirrors, there’s a sense that the Hollywood dream factory has been blown to smithereens, with Welles as war correspondent wandering dazed through the wreckage.  Besides writing and directing, he plays the unlikely role of Michael O’Hara, an Irish sailor with an anti-fascist past, a poetic turn of phrase and a mile-wide streak of gullibility, drawn into a convoluted murder plot by a woman of mystery (Welles’ soon to be ex-wife Rita Hayworth) who’s either the ultimate victim or the spider at the centre of the web.  It’s the movies multiplied by themselves, liberated from the need to make rational sense.  Impossibly beautiful or vivid faces loom at us in close-up, reciting phrases like those we’ve heard a thousand times before: “I’m not what you think I am, I just try to be.”  “Keep trying, you just might make it.”  Yet the film is more than a stylistic tour de force; not far beneath the dazzlement there’s the tang of a personal bitterness, a knowledge of what it means to have gambled and lost. JW

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Sydney Festival 2015: The Famous Spiegeltent

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
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Portable: The Famous Spiegeltent takes 12 hours to erect. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Surprising: Festival director Lieven Bertels in The Famous Spiegeltent – where his parents met in Belgium decades ago. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

For over a decade The Famous Spiegeltent has been a landmark venue for Sydney Festival, and it’s a fair bet that few who have set foot inside haven’t paused for a moment in genuine awe before the gorgeous interior of polished wood, antique stained glass and cunningly positioned mirrors.

Australian producer David Bates has owned The Famous Spiegeltent since 2000, the first year he brought it Down Under for the Adelaide Fringe. “I had been using it as a venue at the Edinburgh Fringe since 1996, but this was the first time anyone had seen it in Australia.”

Bates had first played in it as a jazz musician in 1987, and immediately fell under its spell. “I loved it as a performance space, but also the intimacy of it means that the audience falls in love with the experience.”

If you’ve not encountered Spiegeltents before, some explanation is in order.

Also known as “mirror tents” they’re a unique Belgian invention, originally designed in the late 19th century as a portable dancehall to be transported around towns that did not have their own permanent venue.

Hence they are cleverly designed such that no piece is too heavy for a single person to carry: an achievement that not even IKEA can match.

“There’s about 3000 pieces, it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Bates says. “But when you’re in it, it feels like a permanent building.”

When it’s not at the Sydney Festival it travels all around the world in two 40-foot shipping containers before being erected wherever required. “It takes about 12 hours to assemble, and then it takes a day or two to put in the lights and sound and get it ready for the productions it’s going to house.”

The venues has done a lot of road miles too. The Famous Spiegeltent was constructed in 1920 and spent its formative years travelling around dances and festivals in the Flanders region of Belgium as recently as the 1960s.

In fact, if you were living in Antwerp in those pre-Tinder days, the intricate glasswork of a Spiegeltent was your best bet for unobtrusively checking out the local talent.

“They’re bevelled mirrors, so you can see angles,” Bates explains with a chuckle. “When they were used as travelling dancehalls you could check out people in the mirrors without being seen. In fact, someone recently told me that there was a Belgian expression for them as a result: a tickle or flirting-garden.”

In fact, that flirting had a direct influence on this year’s Sydney Festival. Were it not for The Famous Spiegeltent, the Sydney Festival Director may not even exist.

“My grandparents actually met in this very Spiegeltent,” Belgian-born Lieven Bertels reveals with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for The Famous Spiegeltent!”

It sounds almost too good to be true, but he’s done his research: “This tent was from the northern part of Flanders and we know my grandparents met in a Spiegeltent, and this is the only one that toured,” he explains. “Thus it must have been this one!”

Future festival directors aside, it’s a space that’s also particularly beloved by artists. After all, how often can one stand on the same stage that has supported everyone from festival mainstays like La Clique, the Cat Empire and Amanda Palmer to global legends like Marlene Dietrich?

“There’s a sense of mystery in the tent, it asks you to go a bit further than just performing a regular gig,” says actor/performer Brendan Maclean. “And because it’s usually housing three shows a night there is always a little community of artists waiting just outside the exit door, all from different backgrounds and often different countries. Whole new projects have started from that camaraderie.”

“It can be very hot playing them in summer, but excellent because the stage is low and the audience is close and you can see everyone’s faces,” enthuses singer/songwriter Holly Throsby. “Plus wood and mirrors and painted flowers!”

With The Famous Spiegeltent approaching its first century as a working venue, there are still a few performers that Bates would love to see on that historical stage.

“Tom Waits or Nick Cave would be perfect,” he enthuses. “Of course they’re too big to be in venues like this, but their music is so intimate: they would be perfect.”

The Famous Spiegeltent is located in the Sydney Festival Village, open until January 26.

2015’s Spiegeltent must-sees:

Camille O’Sullivan: Changeling The Irish-French singer, a favourite of many local musicians, brings her passionate touch to music by Arcade Fire, Nick Cave and Radiohead. $50-$65. 8pm. Until January 18.

Black Cabaret A subversive, hilarious take on black-white relations in Australia – with song and dance. $45-$55. 8pm. January 20-25.

Jessica Pratt It’s not all circus and cabaret: this San Francisco singer-songwriter has a soulful voice that will grip you. Making her Australian premiere. $39. 5.45pm. January 10.

The Wau Wau Sisters: As Naked As the Day They Were Born This New York burlesque duo are festival favourites, and for a reason: expect nudity, energy and belly laughs. $41-$55. 10.30pm. January 20-25.

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Charlie Hebdo shootings: Paris has changed

While 12 people were being murdered in my neighbourhood, I was safely tucked away in a classroom on the other side of the Seine. Only a chance glimpse at a news website warned me that France’s worst terrorist attack in decades had unfolded just a couple of blocks from my apartment.
Shanghai night field

Many Parisians would have been enjoying similar states of oblivion as they left their workplaces on a typically grey winter afternoon in Paris. Instead, they emerged to images of police all over the city, hunting down those responsible for the killings.

The 11th arrondissement in Paris’ east has been my home since I moved to France 18 months ago to study. It is a thriving neighbourhood, the streets lined with beautiful old buildings and dozens of boulangeries, cafes and shops.

On Wednesday morning, it became the site where 12 people were slain with chilling efficiency at the home of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Despite the gunmen not having been captured, the streets were brimming as I walked home that afternoon. My neighbourhood appeared as untainted by terror as it had when I left it that morning. Outraged at the attack on their city, thousands of Parisians gathered at Place de la  République, bereft of anger and pens raised respectfully.

Many of those chanting “Je suis Charlie” had probably never read the controversial publication. But that wasn’t the point; it was the violation of the values that the French have held dear since the 18th century storming of the Bastille – liberté, égalité, fraternité.

As France observed a day of mourning on Thursday, the traumatised capital tried to get on with la vie normale. But it was different. Friends told me their usually chaotic peak-hour metro was so serene they were able to get a seat – a minor miracle in Paris.

Not far from the shootings, the market at the Place de la Bastille – the great icon of the French Revolution – was open as usual, but unusually quiet. So, too, was the normally busy Rue de Rivoli in the adjacent 4th arrondissement.

At the Louvre, the threat of terrorism deterred neither the tourists in long queues, nor the vendors selling miniature Eiffel towers. The sobering appearance of armed police was the only sign that something was amiss.

Among the tourists walking along Rue de Rivoli headed for the Louvre were Steve and Kathy from Sydney. The couple had also been in the Sydney city centre when the terrorist attack occurred at the Lindt Café.

Unlike that situation, they said, Paris was not in full lock-down, although the police presence was palpable. While the Sydney attack seemed more random, the attack in Paris was more eerily calculating.

“It is an attack on free speech,” Steve said.

While the crowd at République delivered a strong message to terrorists – “Not Afraid” – this defiance masks a deep sadness and vulnerability. Perhaps it was perpetuated by French President Francois Hollande’s troubling revelation that several terror attacks had been foiled in recent weeks.

Could the city’s people continue to take the metro, walk the dog, go for a run late at night, in the naïve belief that faceless people weren’t plotting to inflict harm?

“Paris a changé,” says a waitress at a café a couple of blocks from the shootings. Paris has changed.

“Yesterday I was shocked. Today I am sad. Tomorrow I will be more engaged,” she says. She did not join the vigil at République; she has two small children and was afraid.

At another café, Parisian couple Nathalie and Sebastien discuss the attack on their city. “I don’t want to be afraid, because then they win,” Nathalie says. “Anywhere in Paris is dangerous. These acts are not isolated any more. Even if we find these men, it’s not going to stop these attacks. But they will not make us shut our mouths. And I encourage journalists not to shut their mouths.”

Carol Nader is a former Age journalist completing a Master of Public Health in Paris. 

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Charlie Hebdo shooting: Hostages held in massive police manhunt

Live coverage: Police close in on killers 

Dammartin-en-Goele: A hostage was being held as a manhunt for the men believed responsible for the Paris massacre late on Friday night [Australian time] closed in on a town north-east of the French capital.

Police swooped on the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, 41 kilometres outside Paris after reports of gunshots and an attempted carjacking.

Two suspects – Said Kouachi, 34, and his 32-year-old brother Cherif – were holed up with a hostage at a small printing works in the town.

Special forces were deployed to confront the killers who have been at large since gunning down 12 people at the office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.

Three helicopters, including a large military craft, hovered over the town and negotiators were brought in. Media reported that the brothers had indicated they were prepared to die for their cause.

Armed and flack-jacketed police blocked all access to the area, waving vehicles away. “It is very dangerous here,” we were told. “Drive further away.”

School children were detained in their classrooms and the town’s residents were told to stay home, turn off all lights and lay low.

A string of emergency vehicles sped through the roadblock into the town, including an ambulance and convoys of police.

The small town of Dammartin-en-Geoele is set among picturesque green fields.  It is 13.5 kilometres from Charles De Gaulle international airport where several runways were closed.

Earlier on Friday, elite counter-terrorist police surrounded three hamlets 70 kilometers north-east of Paris in an effort to find the Kouachi brothers. The villages – Corcy, Fleury, and Longpont – border a dense forest larger than the city of Paris.

The French government has mobilised 80,000 police and soldiers across the country to protect public buildings and join the hunt, one of the biggest in the nation’s history, as the country mourned those who died in the attack.

The security forces also guarded the main roads into Paris, amid fears the still-armed terrorists might head back to the capital to commit more atrocities.

The national day of mourning was marred by some violence – with reports of attacks on mosques, and the deadly shooting of a policewoman in southern Paris, which authorities said was unconnected to the Hebdo massacre.

The Hebdo killers had initially evaded police on Wednesday by abandoning their car. However an ID card they left behind led police to name them as Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his 34-year-old brother, Said.

They held up a petrol station on Thursday morning, taking petrol and food, but the manager recognised them and called police, and anti-terrorist officers swooped on the area near Villers-Cotterets, north-east of Paris.

Officers conducted door-to-door searches of nearby towns and scoured farms and woodland using night-vision equipment and dogs after the gunmen’s new stolen car was found abandoned nearby.

According to one report they even scoured a large cave for the brothers.

After hours of unsuccessful search into Thursday night some units returned to Paris and five helicopters joined the hunt.

French officials said 11 people had been taken into custody in connection with the attack, including the Kouachi brothers’ 18-year-old brother in law, and more than 90 witnesses had been interviewed.

It has emerged that the brothers, Paris-born of Algerian descent, both had links to al-Qaeda.

Cherif Kouachi had spent 18 months in prison from 2008 for recruiting Islamist fighters for al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.

And the other brother, Said, was believed to have trained with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen in 2011.

Both were on US terrorist watch lists and French authorities came under pressure to explain how they had not been under closer surveillance.

French media reported that Cherif had been a member of the so-called Buttes Chaumont network, based in a northern Paris neighbourhood: petty criminals, usually Muslim,  radicalised by Islamic preachers to fight against US forces in Iraq.

He was arrested in 2005 trying to travel to Damascus, and sentenced for “preparing to commit acts of terrorism”.

Thursday was a national day of mourning in France for the 12 who died during the attack.

Bells tolled across Paris from the towers of Notre Dame after a minute’s silence at midday, and traumatised Parisians left improvised shrines made of candles, flowers, posters and pens at the police roadblocks surrounding the Hebdo offices.

In the evening the lights on the Eiffel Tower were symbolically extinguished to honour the dead.

On Thursday morning, in the south Paris suburb of Montrouge a man wearing a flakjacket and armed with an assault weapon shot a policewoman. The attack also left a streetsweeper injured. The policewoman later died of her injuries.

However Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said that there was no known link to the Hebdo attack.

“The succession of these two extremely violent dramas aimed at press freedom and the police must be met with dignity and general condemnation,” he said.

Fears of reprisals grew among France’s large Muslim community after reports of attacks on mosques in the 24 hours after the Hebdo attack.

“Everybody is looking at us as if we did it,” one Muslim told the BBC in the Paris suburb where one of the attackers lived.

Thursday saw a series of top-level government meetings in response to the attack on Hebdo, including one between President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and opposition leader Nicholas Sarkozy.

Mr Sarkozy said the attack on Hebdo had been “an attack by fanatics committed against civilisation”.

Staff of Charlie Hebdo vowed  their magazine would come out again next week – with a million copies to t on sale.

France has been in the midst of one of the largest manhunts in its history after masked men brandishing Kalashnikov assault weapons shot at people at the magazine’s offices. Famous for its biting commentary and cheeky — often offensive — cartoons, Charlie Hebdo had earlier in the day tweeted a cartoon of an Islamic State emir.

Tensions mounted yesterday after a policewoman was shot and killed just outside Paris, although there’s no indication the incident is connected to the earlier attack.

With agencies

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Charlie Hebdo shootings: Liberty, equality and an act of barbarity

As the bells toll from the towers of Notre Dame after a minute of silence for the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Sofia offers half her umbrella in the slanted rain, huddling against the cold in her grey coat and black gloves.

She seems grief-stricken, angry and maudlin. Others around her are holding up pens in a middle-finger-like salute against terrorism. A few sob, more than a few have tears disguised by the weather.

The bells ring on for 10 minutes, giving plenty of time for reflection.

The calculated and merciless murders by two brothers born and raised in the city but enthralled by a barbaric ideology. The assault on freedom of speech, one of the cherished symbols of the French republic and identity. And the night of bullets fired and missiles thrown at mosques that followed across the country.

Asked what she was thinking, Sofia looks up as if the famous cathedral could tell her the answer.

“I am thinking, ‘what next’?”

When Sofia spoke, the killers remained on the run, eluding a massive manhunt. Paris was on edge, its terrorism alert on the highest possible level. The prospect of another attack in the next days and hours was chilling and real.

But her question resonates far wider and deeper, for France and the world.

The new threat posed by Islamic State that has seized the world and sparked the deployment of troops to Iraq and Syria has sparked a small but persistent flurry of attacks in the West by small-time, lone operators, inspired, but not directed, by the militant group.

Cars rammed into passing soldiers; a lone gunman on the rampage at Canada’s Parliament and Brussel’s Jewish Museum; the poorly planned siege at Sydney’s Lindt cafe.

What unfolded in the offices of France’s revered satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was altogether different, more like the sophisticated and deadly attacks that devastated New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid and London, a time when jihadists were inspired by Osama bin Laden, not the self-proclaimed caliphate of IS.

Perhaps most chillingly, were the words the gunmen uttered to Hebdo illustrator Corinne Rey that suggests the battle against terrorism is entering a more menacing new phase.

“They spoke perfect French and claimed to be from al-Qaeda,” she told  L’Humanite.

Parisians believed responsible

It was Rey, better known as “Coco”,  who ushered in the killers into Charlie Hebdo office, held at gunpoint after she was intercepted outside the highly secure building after picking up her child from play group.

The men who monstered her and her terrified daughter were believed to be Cherif Kouachi, along with his and his brother Said, two Paris-born men of Algerian descent.

They were armed with automatic weapons, masked with black balaclavas and protected by bulletproof vests.

It was a well-planned operation. The brothers apparently knew Hebdo was holding its usual Wednesday morning editorial meeting.

A dozen journalists, including editor Stephane Charbonnier and the paper’s top cartoonists, were spitballing ideas on the topic of racism.

The attackers opened fire almost as soon as they were inside. They ran upstairs shouting “Where is Charb?”, the editor who quickly became their first victim, followed by almost everyone else in the meeting room.

They left behind what one eyewitness called “absolute carnage”, a newsroom painted in blood.

The pair then made their way up the street, firing ahead of them.

At one point they encountered a group of police and opened fire, wounding one, then almost casually shooting him in the head at close range as he lay helpless on the pavement.

Clearly comfortable with their weapons, they had switched to single-shot mode, and appeared to be good marksmen as they coolly eliminated the threat from the police.

As they fled in the car, one was captured on video saying: “Hey, we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

By the end of the assault, 12 people were dead, and four people were seriously injured, requiring surgery. Seven more were hospitalised with minor injuries and 65 people hadshown signs of trauma. and were receiving psychiatric treatment.

Hebdo, a French institution, lost its editor, three of its most cherished cartoonists and other staff members. The policeman who guarded their office was also slain.

The magazine was founded by cartoonists and editors who established their wildly iconoclastic reputation by lampooning the hero of France’s Fifth Republic Charles de Gaulle during a period of national mourning.

Ever since, it has pilloried politicians of all persuasions, and mocked the pretensions of the world’s religions.

It’s decision to re-publish cartoons from Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 2006 earned the ire of extremists.

The initial publication of the images – it is considered a grave offence in Islam to portray its prophet in physical form – sparked protests by Muslims across the world. But for Cabu there was an important principle to defend – free speech.

No random attack, this was a carefully chosen target for the Kouachi brothers, aimed to draw sympathy from other Muslims.

And this was an assassination, not a suicide bombing. The men had plotted their escape through the traffic-clogged streets of Paris.

They abandoned their car after another trigger-happy encounter with police (leaving behind an ID card that gave away their identity, as well as, according to some reports, a dozen Molotov cocktails and two jihadists flags).

At the time of writing, they remained at large.

Cherif Kouachi was well known to police. A former hip-hop loving dope-smoker, he and his brother grew up in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, a hardscrabble precinct densely populated with immigrants and their children.

He was sentenced to prison in 2006 for helping recruit fighters to go to Iraq for the predecessor of IS, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That was before IS was renamed after splitting from al-Qaeda and took its own path, and the leadership of the global jihadi movement.

Notwithstanding the witness accounts of the men claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda and the group’s rapid endorsement of the act on social media, the precise links between the killers and the plot against Hebdo to al-Qaeda, Islamic State or, indeed, any other jihadist group remain uncertain.

But, according to the New York Times, US officials believe Cherif trained in Yemen for several months in 2011, joining up with an  al-Qaeda affiliate on the Arabian Peninsula.

The possibility of al-Qaeda’s re-emergence is vexing counter-terrorism authorities. If Al Qaeda is back in the business of sponsoring terrorism in the West, it represents a sharply more potent threat.

“The last time al-Qaeda or one its affiliates tried to launch an attack on the West was 2009,” says Tobias Feakin, the senior security analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

That was when a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit with an explosive device secreted in his underwear.

He carried enough explosives to bring down the jet, but botched the detonation.

Al-Qaeda has been overshadowed by the stunning march of IS across Syria and Iraq but, say Feakin, it has always remained a potent force.

“In terms of numbers, al-Qaeda could well be in a stronger position than IS,” says Feakin.

It certainly has a greater global reach, with affiliates across the middle east and north Africa.

Its split from IS was based on personal animosity at a leadership level, concern at the medieval brutality of IS foot soldiers against other Muslims and the rejection of its claims to a caliphate.

There’s also an important strategic difference between the two groups. IS has always focused on creating its own state, defeating governments in the Middle East and punishing Muslims who do not adhere to its nihilistic and twisted vision of Islam.

IS only called for attacks on the West after the US and its allies (including France and Australia) weighed in to deploy military assets to counter it in Iraq and Syria.

Al-Qaeda’s number one enemy has always been the West, the “overseer” of the apostate Muslim states they believe are oppressing Muslims.

Letters captured from Osama bin Laden after the raid on his compound in Abbottabad show the al-Qaeda figurehead spent much of his time bemoaning other Islamic jihadis who were not strictly adhering to his vision.

Al-Qaeda also has a deeper understanding of terrorist tactics and methods after more than two decades of activity.

The implication of its re-emergence are obvious, and alarming, for security services.

Pen a mighty symbol

Across Paris, reaction to the attacks ranged from personal to political.

Little tributes and memorials to the fallen sprung up at Place de la Republique and on the fringes of the police cordon around the Hebdo offices.

Visitors left flowers, candles, little cartoons, posters and poems – and pens. Piles of pens.

At one such shrine, a young woman carrying a bouquet suddenly burst into tears, embracing her friends as she sobbed uncontrollably.

In Republique, where a big statue of Liberty sports a new black armband, the phrase of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” was scrawled on paving stones, and plastered across statues and lamp-posts.

Philippe Brinsolaro, brother of one of the police officers killed in the Charlie Hebdo assault, said “the whole of France is mobilising against this”.

“We cannot accept the infringement of freedom of speech and liberty of expression,” he said.

Veteran French journalist Christine Ockrent told the BBC that the attack on Hebdo had created a moment that initially bound people together.

“This is a moment when people feel they belong to the nation – in emotional terms and in political terms,” she said.

But she was less optimistic about what could follow this short-term solidarity. The attack would also feed into the country’s “great unease about immigrants”, she said – even second or third-generation immigrants which the attackers appeared to be – and mistrust of the country’s six million Muslims.

“This is precisely where the far right has been building its followers,” she said, referring to the recent success of political parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

The far right was quick to link the attack to its continuing theme that Islam’s expansion in France was causing an irreparable division in society.

The leader of France’s anti-immigration Front National delegation in the European Parliament, Aymeric Chauprade, told the BBC that France should “stop Islamisation” and groups who were “promoting sharia law on French territory. We should consider that it’s not possible now to accept radical mosques, to accept radical imams and this expansion”.

Marine Le Pen blamed the attack on “Islamic fundamentalism … which causes thousands of deaths every day around the world”.

She said that she would speak to the President about “the level of infiltration of radical Islam in our country and the means which must be implemented to protect our countrymen” – which should include a return of the death penalty for such attacks, she said.

The angst about growing social division goes well beyond France to the rest of Europe, where right-wing parties have gained support ever since the global financial crisis and the recession that has lingered across much of the continent.

The attacks on French mosques, Islamic prayer halls and restaurants in the aftermath of the attack suggest that the extraordinary and brave show of solidarity on the streets of Paris just after the attack and the quick and unequivocal condemnation from Muslim groups may not be enough to sweep away the rising Islamophobia.

As Feakin points out, such divisions please the terrorists. It makes it easier for them to harvest new recruits.

Addressing the nation, French president Francois Hollande declared that “unity is our greatest weapon” against extremism.

As that call struggles to be heeded, French citizens have started another twitter campaign, this time using the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed.

It honours Ahmed Merabet, the policeman shot in the street outside the Charlie Hebdo office, a murder so shockingly captured on video by bystanders.

Merabet was Muslim. His death defending an outlet that made fun of his religion was evidence that freedom of speech does cross religious and ethnic divides.

It is also an important reminder that it is Muslims – far more than other religous adherents – who have suffered the most casualties at the hands of militants purporting to be advocates for their faith.

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Transport demands growing at Green Square, the densest site in Australia

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Linda King (left) and Eileen and Mark Woodbridge walk through the area. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Residents of Zetland, standing near Mary O’Brian Park, are unhappy about the increased traffic in their streets due to the Green Square development. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Green Square development seen from Portman Lane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The NSW government is struggling to keep pace with the transport needs of the largest urban renewal project in Australia – the construction of almost 30,000 apartments at Green Square – multiple secret reports into the area show.

When a rash of development is completed over the next 15 years, the suburbs around Green Square to the south of Sydney’s central business district will form the densest precinct in the country.

But two major reports commissioned by the state government include numerous recommendations about the transport capacity of the area that have not been acted on by authorities.

The Updated Transport Management and Accessibility Plan for Green Square was finished in September 2012, and a separate Botany Road Corridor Action was finished in November 2011.

Neither document has been released by the government, but were obtained by a community group using freedom of information laws.

The transport management plan says bus numbers through the area will need to double in the next 15 years. “This is likely to place additional pressure on already congested city streets and CBD bus termini,” the report says.

The report also proposes increased bus priority measures on Botany Road and Bourke Road. And it recommends providing a “high capacity public transport corridor” along a route the City of Sydney has mostly reserved for a light rail line.

In response, a spokeswoman for Transport for NSW said 187 new bus services a week had been added on two routes through the area – the 301 and the 348 – and a bus corridor on Botany Road would be “subject to future targeted investment for bus infrastructure.”

But the department was unable to provide examples of better priority for buses through the congested area – a key issue for local residents.

In addition, the report highlights the need to significantly increase the frequency of rail services. “The rail network must deliver a minimum of 20 trains an hour during peak periods, in both directions, or it will not fulfil its critical targets,” the report says.

Sydney Trains currently runs about eight trains an hour through Green Square Station. Transport for NSW would not say when an upgrade to 20 might occur.

The reports were obtained by the president of the Friends of Erskineville group, Darren Jenkins. Mr Jenkins said: “Erskineville and Green Square are twin victims of the NSW government’s metropolitan myopia.

“The cold hard truth is that we need swift action now to defuse a ticking time-bomb in the inner city.”

When completed, the Green Square area will have an average density of around 20,000 residents per square kilometre. The entire city of Melbourne includes only one square kilometre, housing more than 8000 people, according to a report released last month by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The City of Sydney Council, meanwhile, is demanding the government improve Green Square and surrounding areas.

“Fifty new apartments will be completed every week for the next four years,” a spokeswoman for the Council said.

“Residents tell us the trains and buses in Green Square are already overcrowded.”

The spokesman said the government’s study showed the frequency of both trains and buses must be at least doubled; new bus routes were needed; bus priority be installed at intersections; and safer road crossings be provided for locals.

Linda King purchased a property on Elizabeth Street, Zetland, in 2005, one of the few streets in the area retaining terrace housing.

Ms King said she purchased the property knowing that the area would develop, but was convinced by council plans that her street would be converted into a local road.

That has not happened, and in the meantime, “the traffic has just become gridlocked”.

“If you try and catch a bus in peak time, they’re often late – the bus could be stuck at a roundabout for three light changes sometimes,” Ms King said.

Labor councillor on the City of Sydney, Linda Scott, said: “I have met with endless streams of residents who are rightly very concerned about the lack of transport infrastructure in the area, given the density of development,” she said.

“The state government has provided no solution to what is clearly a huge problem – and to be clear, the council hasn’t done enough either.”

The council has invested more than $40 million in land for a proposed Eastern Transit Corridor, a four-kilometre bus and light rail route from Green Square to Central.

The most recent report commissioned by the government is supportive of this plan, but the government will not commit to it.

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Changes to GST to come? Labor thinks so

Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term. Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.

Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.

Mathias Cormann: ‘Absolutely no plans’ to raise GST this term.

Acting Treasurer Mathias Cormann has tried to squash any suggestion that the Abbott government is considering raising  GST, saying there are “absolutely no plans” to do so this term, despite Trade Minister Andrew Robb outing himself as a supporter of expanding  GST.

Mr Robb said this week that the goods and services tax should be extended to products such as fresh food and education, in what could be the first clear sign of a coordinated campaign underway within the Abbott government to tackle the thorny issue.

He told Fairfax Media that the government did not have plans to change the tax before the next federal election, which is due in 2016, but his comments echoed three Liberal backbenchers who this week called for the big shift in taxation policy.

It was enough for Labor to claim  the government was now mounting a guerrilla campaign to build support for changing the tax.

“Australians now know the Liberal Party’s campaign to increase the GST goes right to the cabinet table,” shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said on Friday.

But Mr Cormann, also Minister for Finance, told Fairfax Media the government had no plans to change the rate or the base of the GST – this term.

“The government’s position on the GST has not changed since before the last election, when we made the clear and unambiguous commitment that there would be no change to the GST in this term of government,” Mr Cormann said.

“We have, however, also always said that we would go through a comprehensive tax review process during this term.

“The only circumstance in which proposals in relation to the GST will be entertained, is if there is broad community consensus in support, including a broad consensus in favour of such proposals across the Parliament and if there is unanimous support from all state and territory governments, including Labor governments,” he said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has previously promised there will be no changes to the 10 per cent GST, and on Friday he said it would not be going up in the government’s current term.

He added that no changes could be made to the GST without the support of all the states and territories.

“The GST will not change in this term of Parliament and it cannot change in any term of Parliament without first of all the support of all the states and territories including the Labor states and territories and without effectively a parliamentary consensus,” Mr Abbott said.

But a 2013 legal opinion by barristers Bret Walker and Anthony Lang suggests that the intergovernmental agreement which contains this requirement for consensus was not legally binding, and therefore the GST legislation could be changed simply by a vote in both houses of federal parliament.

“As far as I am concerned what we should be on about is lower taxes not higher taxes. Lower, simpler, fairer taxes is the absolute objective that we are taking into this tax white paper process this year,” Mr Abbott told Sydney radio 2GB on Friday.

Mr Abbott wished “good luck” to those advocating a better tax system, which includes several government backbenchers led by Country Liberal Victorian Dan Tehan who have called for a debate about extending the GST in the event the Coalition wins the next election.

But Victorian Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews, says there are no circumstances where he would support an increase in the tax or applying it to fresh food.

“If Victoria refuses to support it, and we won’t, going on food or the rate increasing, then it can’t go up,” Mr Andrews said.

“The Goods and Services Tax is not a fair tax because it has no regard for a person’s capacity to pay,” he said.

South Australian Labor Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said the GST was a “regressive” tax and his state did not support changes to broaden its base or lift its rate.

A spokesman for the Liberal Tasmanian government said: “We don’t support any changes to the GST.”

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ASIC’s Medcraft faces carpeting from senators over fraud case

Greg Medcraft will be questioned over ASIC’s handling of a case involving an alleged $110 million loan fraud.Senators have vowed to grill the corporate watchdog over its failure to stop a key figure in an alleged $110 million loan fraud from fleeing the country despite notifying the suspect he was under investigation.

The chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, is due to front up to a Senate estimates hearing in February.

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said he would question Mr Medcraft over ASIC’s handling of the case, which saw one suspect flee and another continue to work in the finance industry for three years after coming under suspicion.

It will be the latest in a string of Senate appearances where Mr Medcraft has been called upon to explain his agency’s performance, including its handling of the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal.

A Victoria Police affidavit relating to the case, obtained by Fairfax Media, reveals alleged suspect Mohamed Hamood fled to Bahrain two days after a search warrant of his house was executed in December 2012. It is unclear whether he has returned to Australia. 

Three other suspects – Manija Zayee, Najam Shah and Aizaz Hassan – were charged last week, four years after ASIC launched an investigation following a complaint in January 2011.

On Friday Senator Dastyari called ASIC’s handling of the case “deplorable” and urged it to explain why it took so long to act.

“It’s time ASIC came clean about what exactly has gone on here, what’s happened,” he said.

“That’s the least the victims deserve to know – why it took them so long to act and why a situation was allowed to happen where some of the alleged perpetrators have been able to flee overseas.”

ASIC was forced to respond to criticism on Friday, with a media release defending its “commitment to tackling loan fraud in Australia”.

The statement said there were some parts of the investigation that it was not able to divulge due to “legal restrictions”, and said the decision to stop an individual from travelling could only be made by a judge after an application in court.

“ASIC has followed common and carefully developed principles in its investigation and legal actions in the Myra case,” it said.

Spokesman for ASIC Andre Khoury failed to respond to questions from Fairfax Media on Friday.

Nationals Senator John Williams said ASIC’s handling of the case appeared to be a repeat of its handling of the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal.

“What is the problem here. Are they under-resourced? Are they afraid to act?” he said.

“ASIC obviously knew about [the case], they investigated it, why didn’t they act sooner?

“It is now 2015, getting on to four years after [the investigation started]. In the meantime people are getting their fingers burnt.”

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