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Tycoon’s ‘vinegar’ lawsuit settled

LONDON: It is a case that has transfixed and appalled the wine industry in equal measure, involving a once-in-a-lifetime discovery in a dusty Paris cellar, the American president Thomas Jefferson, a colourful German dealer, one of the world’s top wine experts and the most expensive bottle of wine ever.It is 24 years since a bottle of 1787 Lafite sold at Christie’s in London for the still-record sum of £105,000, its enormous value explained by the etched initials ”Th.J” on its side, which suggested, it was claimed, that it had been the property of the man who became America’s third president.A quarter of a century later, however, many experts believe the bottle, and others claimed to be from the same batch, are fake, leaving the billionaire collectors who bought them, and the eminent oenophiles who testified about their authenticity, red-faced.This week, the man who authenticated the Lafite and presided over its auction won an apology and damages from the publisher Random House over a bestselling book which, he argued, had suggested he had sold the wine knowing its provenance to be suspect.Michael Broadbent has retired as the senior director of Christie’s wine department but remains, according to Adam Lechmere, the editor of Decanter南京夜网, ”among the top three most respected wine critics in the world”.Mr Broadbent described the ruling as a ”great relief”, adding that he planned to celebrate with a magnum of Mouton 1990 over dinner at his club.The settlement relates to a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar by the American journalist Benjamin Wallace, which outlines the now notorious case of ”the Jefferson bottles” – and which Random House, according to Mr Broadbent’s lawyer, Sarah Webb, must now remove from bookshop shelves in Britain.A German wine dealer called Hardy Rodenstock said he bought the bottles from someone who claimed they had been found in a bricked-up cellar in Paris in 1985.Mr Broadbent, according to Mr Lechmere, had the Lafite tested by Christie’s glass and etchings experts, before pronouncing that the circumstantial evidence suggested it was genuine.”There is no question whatsoever that he would ever act in bad faith,” Mr Lechmere said.In 2005 Bill Koch, a US billionaire, became suspicious and began legal action against Mr Rodenstock for fraud, which continues.Guardian News & Media
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Dubbo gives orchestra ‘rock star’ reception

Macquarie Philharmonia’s co-founder Ron Camplin says the new Dubbo theatre has the best acoustics he’s heard.The classically-trained musicians of Macquarie Philharmonia felt like “rock stars” after performing in Dubbo’s new theatre.
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A near full house almost brought down the roof after Australia’s inland symphony orchestra played the final note of An American Dream, comprising the “best from American and American-influenced composers”.

The third appearance in Dubbo of the orchestra, made up of amateur, student and professional musicians, cemented the city’s place in its annual concert program.

As the first symphony orchestra to use the new theatre, the visit also provided confirmation of the quality of the facility.

Orchestra co-founder Ron Camplin yesterday described the theatre as “beautiful, absolutely stunning” with the acoustics being “the best I’ve ever heard”.

As an owner of radio stations, Mr Camplin is considered “astute” when it comes to sound.

The “clapping, cheering and whistling” from Saturday night’s audience also pleased the Bathurst businessman, who, with wife Stephanie, established the Macquarie Philharmonia in 2004 by rallying benefactors and regional musicians.

“They make us feel like rock stars when we go to Dubbo,” he said.

Dubbo and Bathurst are now fixtures in the annual six-concert season of the orchestra, up from two concerts when it was first formed.

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Children frightened, confused as parents starve in protest

MERAK, Indonesia: They are promised a bright future awaits, that the gods will take care of them, but the 31 Tamil children among the 255 asylum seekers moored in Merak are deeply traumatised and confused.While some of the adults on board say they will die rather than disembark, many of the children just want to get off the wooden cargo ship, as the one toilet on board emits a stink and their parents grow more disoriented in the baking heat, refusing to eat or drink.”My son says: ‘Mama, Mama. I don’t want this. Why are you taking me? Why am I on this boat?’ It is very difficult for them to understand,” says Varshini, a mother of two from Jaffna who says she had no choice but to leave Sri Lanka after her husband was abducted.”I say: ‘Please don’t worry;the gods, God, will save us. Please wait. There will be good food and drinks, good futures and good study.”’One moment sobbing, the next proclaiming coolly her willingness to stay on board the boat ”forever” while waiting for a country other than Indonesia to take them, Varshini is erratic and at times irrational.Indonesia is not a safe place, she says, ”because of big problems with tsunamis”.Marthavan, her seven-year-old son, and Amirtha, her four-year-old daughter, spend most of their time below decks on the crowded 30-metre boat. They are taking food and water, as are some of the breastfeeding mothers and a pregnant woman.Coming up with the adults briefly, Marthavan and Amirtha stare and smile shyly, clasping their hands together in the Hindu greeting.Below, the 31 children are out of the stifling heat but there is no place to play. And there is no hope of reaching Australia any time soon, despite the desperate actions of their parents. Nine-year old Brindha, the girl who tearfully pleaded for asylum this week, told how her family was fleeing death threats and that her father was a builder.Varshini admits: ”There are lots of problem with the children. It’s very difficult. We can’t manage all of them. Some are very, very thin and we can’t manage this problem.” She said her children believed they would see their father soon. She has yet to tell them that he was taken away by ”criminals” – Sinhalese security forces – while they were asleep 18 months ago.Tamils often say that members of the dominant Sinhalese ethnic group that triumphed in the recent Sri Lankan civil war extort money. In Varshini’s case, she says ”the men always coming to my house” forced her to flee, spending the family’s savings, about $US20,000, to arrange a passage to Australia with an ”agent”.
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Afghan poll fraud inquiry will trigger run-off

WASHINGTON: An investigation of allegedly fraudulent ballots in Afghanistan’s troubled election has reduced Hamid Karzai’s share of the vote to about 47 per cent, an outcome that will trigger a run-off between the President and his closest competitor, officials say.MORE AFGHANISTAN STORIESThe tally by the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which one official called ”stunning”, was due to be finalised yesterday. Preliminary results by Afghanistan’s National Electoral Commission had given Mr Karzai 54.6 per cent of the August 20 vote.The findings have serious implications for the US Administration’s deliberations over a new Afghanistan war strategy, and could eventually help remove the cloud of illegitimacy hanging over its partner government there. But a new election could also make an already difficult situation worse, particularly if fraud is once again alleged or if the vote has to be delayed because of the onset of winter.Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, Said Tayeb Jawad, said on Thursday a second round of voting was ”likely”, although Mr Karzai has never said he would accept the results of the complaints panel, which must be certified by the election commission.Mr Jawad said it would be impossible to hold a run-off within the two weeks of certification, as required by the Afghan constitution. But ”to delay until spring is a recipe for disaster”, he said, and a new vote would have to be held within a month to avoid prolonging the uncertainty.The US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan agreed last month that if there was to be a run-off, it would have to be held by the first week in November before the harsh winter has fully set in.Ballots listing Mr Karzai and his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, printed in London in anticipation of a run-off, have already arrived at UN headquarters in Kabul, a US official in Afghanistan said, while indelible ink is ready and polling station kits are expected to be packed for distribution this week.The ”preliminary” results announced by the electoral commission last month gave Dr Abdullah, a former foreign minister, 28 per cent of the vote. The Afghan constitution mandates a run-off if no candidate wins more than half the ballots.”The big challenge is security,” the US official said of a new poll. General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, has told UN and US officials that his forces have begun preparations for providing protection during the vote.For the US, much of the delay in determining a way forward in the war has hinged on the uncertain outcome of the elections.The US President, Barack Obama, has had five closed-door meetings with his top national security advisers this month to consider General McChrystal’s recommendation that tens of thousands of additional US troops be deployed next year. White House officials say a decision is weeks away.”We’ve got to figure out a way to give legitimacy to whoever wins,” an Administration official said. A second round, ”if clean, and if done properly, basically washes away the sins of the first”.The Washington Post
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Three people in hospital after frying pan explodes

What’s the worst thing that could happen to you while you’re heating up an afternoon snack? Maybe an explosion in your kitchen?
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That’s not quite what happened to a Dubbo family on Monday, but they sure got the fright of their lives when they thought it had.

Dubbo firefighters were called to a house on Robinson Avenue about 3pm, with reports of an explosion and two children inside.

However, when they arrived, it turned out to be a fault in an electrical frying pan that caused a wire arc, Dubbo Fire Brigade station officer Gary Barber said.

“It made a loud explosive noise … the occupants of the house were taken by ambulance to Dubbo Base Hospital to be treated for shock,” he said.

The electricity from the frayed cord hit a stainless steel sink, causing the noise and there was a burn mark on the sink, firefighter Barber said.

If the owner had been touching the frypan and the sink at the time, they would have received an electric shock, which could cause significant injury, he said.

“It’s not really very common at all for this type of thing to happen,” he said.

“But it can happen more often with older appliances that have the cloth cover instead of rubber on the cord.”

Here are some electrical appliance safety tips to ensure this doesn’t happen to you:

n Use the appliance only for its intended purpose.

n If the appliance is for indoor use only, do not use outdoors.

n Do not immerse the appliance in water unless it is designed for this purpose.

n Keep hands, fingers, feet, toes and hair away from dangerous moving parts, cutting blades and the like.

n Do not use electrical appliances in the rain.

n Make sure you have dry hands when operating an electrical appliance.

n Do not use a damaged appliance.

n Some appliances may not be intended for use by children or people with an illness or disability without supervision.

n Young children should not be allowed to play with appliances.

n Do not place cord extension sockets or portable power outlet boards where they may be splashed or where moisture may get in.

n Ensure ventilation holes or outlets are not blocked or partially obstructed.

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A second chapter for red utopia

Last week, the good-looking, charismatic and Western-savvy Communist Party chief of Chongqing municipality led his local cadres in a thumping recital of old-time revolution songs. The cadres sang awkwardly from their little red song books, as the TV cameras rolled, but their leader, Bo Xilai, knew the words by heart.Bo kicked off with Revolutionaries are Always Young and segued into other Communist favourites, with improvised introductions about his favourite lines. “Chairman Mao said the world is yours, and is also ours. But in the end it’s yours …”Bo liked that particular line so much he messaged a version of it to those of Chongqing’s 31 million citizens who had mobile phones, which these days is most of them. Recipients reportedly liked the lyric so much they forwarded it 17 million times.Then Bo produced two statues, recognisable to all veterans of the old Chinese propaganda system, of the model cadre Jiao Yulu and the model worker Wang “Iron Man” Jinxi.”I hope Chongqing could produce more cadres like Jiao Yulu and Wang Jinxi,” said Bo, echoing the words of Chairman Mao in the early Cultural Revolution days.”All district and county chiefs should be like Iron Man Wang: fearing no hardship and sacrifice; preparing to rush forward at the moment of truth,” said Bo.This burst of revolutionary nostalgia has not been confined to Bo Xilai’s Chongqing. In April, Xi Jinping, the presumed next president, marked the run-up to tomb-sweeping day by visiting the memorial hall of model worker Jiao Yulu. Xi called Jiao “the guiding spirit” of China’s grassroots cadres.President Hu Jintao has also been caught in the outbreak of red fever. His National Day speech on October 1 was crammed with references to Mao. “Long live Mao Zedong thought,” read a huge red banner beneath a house-sized portrait of the Great Helmsman that drove past an applauding Politburo on Chang’An Avenue.In December, the Xinhua news agency awkwardly labelled Hu’s tribute to 30 years of economic reform as a “reform eulogy”.Fan Jinggang, who runs a Beijing bookshop called Utopia and a prominent website of the same name, laments that the recent red fervour is superficial and there have been no “real” socialist leaders since the chairman died in 1976.”The past 10 years has seen ultra-rightist reform and there has been no remarkable achievements by socialist reformers,” says Fan.But perhaps Fan is being too modest. The past year has also seen the state tighten its grip on the political sphere and increase its reach in the economy.This week’s edition of China Newsweek reports that there are major economic reforms in progress – it just depends on your definition. The magazine went to the entrepreneurial heartland of Taizhou, Zhejiang province, where officials told of the ambitious “shareholder reform” of Taizhou’s top 100 private companies. For most of the past 30 years, shareholder reform has meant privatising schlerotic state-owned companies. This year, in Taizhou, it’s the other way around.”In the coming five years, Taizhou’s state-owned enterprises will grow their share of the economy from 2 per cent to 30 per cent,” said Zhang Ruimin, in charge of the area’s economic reform program.To some extent, Taizhou’s “reforms” mirror what is taking place across the world. The city’s export manufacturers (including the world’s biggest sewing-machine maker) were hit badly by the export downturn and the Government instructed state-owned banks to bail them out. It is logical that the Chinese Government wants an ownership share in the businesses it assisted, although it is also targeting firms that needed no help.Elsewhere in China, there is talk about industry nationalisation without any obvious link to the global economic crisis. The private coalmines of Shanxi province produce about as much coal each year as the whole of Australia. Shanxi’s governor Wang Jun has said he is committed to nationalising almost all of them, citing safety concerns.Angry Shanxi coal bosses told the Herald that safety was merely a fig leaf for provincial government officials to give even greater powers to themselves and pay off their mates in state-owned enterprises.”Whether you merge is not up to you … it’s totally forced under threat of closure,” said one coal boss, who said he would receive 50 million yuan in compensation for an asset that was worth 600 million yuan.”State-owned enterprises are raping private enterprise,” said a local official and businessmen, who buys coal but does not produce it.The official, who has a seat on the Taiyuan City People’s Congress, said he had been in a private meeting where the governor had advocated ”guo jin min tui” – which means ”advance of the state and retreat of private enterprise”.This week’s Hurun Rich List appeared to corroborate the view that the state is increasingly dictating who in China will make money, and who will not. Seven of last year’s top 10 have tumbled out of the charts.Two of last year’s leaders, including the richest man, Huang Guangyu, have spent the year in detention without charge following investigations into financial irregularities.Last year’s No. 2, Du Shuanghua, has hurtled to 39th place after the Shandong provincial government decided to buy his Rizhao Steel operations at a fraction of the market price. Du appears to be getting little say in the matter.Another steel maker, Zhang Zhixiang, had plunged from 10 to 31 after mafia groups connected with a rusty state-owned company called Tonghua Steel foiled his bid to take it over – by throwing Zhang’s right-hand man out of his office building and to his death.But the same Hurun list shows the pile of Chinese US-dollar billionaires has grown from 3 to 130 in just five years. State intervention may be “churning” but not reversing the rise of China’s private sector.Chen Naixing, the director of the Small and Medium Enterprise Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says liberalising reform is slowing but not retreating.”Yes, of course, you get slower as you climb higher,” says Chen. “Because you encounter more difficult problems.”Fan says “it’s too early to say nationalisation is making a comeback”.But Anne Stevenson-Yang, who manages the Asia division of a US equities research firm called Wedge Partners, says she is seeing evidence of a “power grab” by the Chinese state taking place in coal, iron ore importing and mining, steel and a host of other industries.”We are in the middle of a massive recentralisation of power that is going to be seriously detrimental to the economy,” she says. Most worrying, she says, is the ever-increasing presence of China’s public and state security apparatus in the Chinese economy. “This is ultimately engendering protection rackets, extortion and bribery on a destabilising scale,” she says. Some architects of China’s economic reforms appear to share these views.Zhu Rongji was the premier who reformed China’s state-owned companies in the 1990s and steered China into the World Trade Organisation. He has studiously kept a low profile since retiring in 2002 until last month, when he released a carefully edited collection of his press conferences.”In the war against corruption, we should beat the tiger before beating the wolves,” said Zhu, in one of his memorable interviews.”As for the tiger, we should never show mercy. Let us prepare one hundred coffins, including one for me.”For some Chinese readers it was revelatory to learn how a Chinese leader could be grilled on the toughest political questions by foreign journalists and handle them with ease and good humour. The book immediately jumped to the top of China’s best-seller charts. Whatever Zhu’s intentions, it is being interpreted as an eloquent and dignified protest at the reversal in China’s path towards openness and economic reform.”Zhu was in a class of his own,” wrote blogger Jia Junjun on the sina南京夜网.cn website.”His courage, his close interaction with the common people, his incorruptibility, his self-composure in front of the public, his steadfast managerial style and his lack of mercy for corrupt and mediocre officials – all of these [characteristics] regrettably do not belong to this age.”A close acquaintance of Zhu’s says it is no coincidence Zhu’s most important economic adviser, Wu Jinglian, was also emerging from obscurity in the lead-up to China’s 60th birthday party on October 1.”I’m not optimistic about the future,” Wu told The New York Times in a rare interview. “The Maoists want to go back to central planning and the cronies want to get richer.”Wu knows more than a little about China’s crony capitalists, who may have been behind rumours in the official press that Wu was being investigated for subversion. He also knows about the new-age Maoists, who habitually vilify him on websites such as Utopia.”If reform were completely achieved in accordance with collaborator Wu Jinglian’s neo-liberal trash, we couldn’t imagine how miserable China would be today,” read one of the less-profane essays on the Utopia website, by contributor Shen Shuigen.China’s new left has emerged in response to the harsher edge of China’s breakneck economic rise: inequality, corruption and a perceived ideological and moral vacuum. Recently, the rise of the new left has been accelerated by China’s spectacular emergence from the global financial crisis. For many, including in the top leadership, it proved that China’s “model” of tight capital controls and pervasive state intervention in the economy was superior to those of the West.Economic liberals such as Wu Jinglian and Zhu Rongji believe state controls are making China’s problems worse because they exacerbate China’s economic imbalances and magnify opportunities for crony capitalism. Those who browse the bookshelves and websites such as Utopia tend to believe the opposite is true.It is perhaps ironic that China’s revival of revolutionary nostalgia is now being led by Chongqing’s Party chief, Bo Xilai. Bo was previously China’s minister of commerce and knows how the wheels of global capitalism turn. He saw that the more power that his Commerce Department bureaucrats obtained, the worse their corruption scandals grew.Bo’s conversion to Maoist symbolism is stranger still when you consider that his own father, who was one of the Eight Elders of the Chinese Communist Party, was imprisoned and tortured for a decade during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Bo Xilai escaped with being imprisoned for five years from the age of 17. But his mother was beaten to death.Perhaps Bo Xilai is gambling that he can harness his considerable charisma, courage and revolutionary pedigree to vault over his colourless rivals to the top of the Chinese Communist Party. Bo might be an unelected cadre who has brutal experience with the underside to Mao’s revolutionary fervour, but he’s betting that he knows what the masses want.with Sanghee Liu
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Early to rise for new drive-through bakery

A drive-through bakery is to open on the corner of Cobra and Gipps streets where until recently Oporto stood. Photo: AMY GRIFFITHSIt seems the chicken really did come before the egg – at least in Dubbo’s case.
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A drive-through bakery is to open on the corner of Cobra and Gipps streets where until recently the Portuguese-style chicken restaurant chain Oporto stood.

It’s to be a locally run-and-owned business partnership between the property’s owner Paul Kempston and Dubbo resident Nick McKechie, with the pair expecting to be ready for business as soon as next month.

Mr Kempston said they hoped to employ about 20 staff, including four bakers, and source their supplies from local businesses such as Midwest Foods.

Mr Kempston bought the site about two years ago and though he owned no other businesses said he “couldn’t leave it sit there when Oporto went belly up”.

About 12 jobs were lost when Oporto closed its Dubbo store in April after a tumultuous couple of years.

Mr Kempston said a bakery was thought to be “the best idea” for the site and it was currently being prepped to become the city’s first drive-through option.

“There’s no bakery up East or South Dubbo,” he said.

“We just thought the opportunity might be there to spoil the people in that area.”

Mr Kempston said it would take about seven weeks to fit the store out and convert it into a workable drive-though bakery, complete with children’s playground.

He said the business was expected to be up and running by early August.

Dubbo Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Warren Williams said it was promising the Cobra Street site would be in use again.

“It’s obviously encouraging to see another business is going to open on that corner,” Mr Williams said.

“And with Orana Mall expanding there appears to be investment money available in town, which is encouraging for Dubbo.”

When Oporto Dubbo closed down, franchising CEO Jeff Fisher said strong competition and a lack of loyal customers forced the franchisees to close down the business.

“Dubbo has very well established fast food businesses in town,” Mr Fisher said.

“There is a lot of competition in Dubbo and it takes a considerable amount of time to gain traction and for people to get comfortable with a new offering in town.”

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Weaker by the hour, united in a show of strength

MERAK: The hunger-striking Sri Lankans who were prevented from reaching Australia and are stuck in Indonesia were defiant yesterday, insisting they would not leave their ship or consume liquids despite the blazing heat and humidity.Talking to media as their ship was berthed in the port of Merak in western Java, their spokesman, ”Alex”, said they would ignore the entreaties of their supporters to drink water, even as three of their number were taken to hospital with dehydration and four were treated onboard.”We want the international community to see how desperate we are,” said Alex, pleading for a consular official from Australia or any Western country to ”please come and speak to us, that’s our only demand”.The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has rejected the pleas of the asylum seekers and no consular official has visited the boat, even though a diplomatic official and an Australian Federal Police officer have been stationed at the port since Sunday, watching developments from a distance.Earlier yesterday, Indonesia’s local navy commander, Colonel Irawan, said up to 70 per cent of those on board wanted to disembark. But in a staged show of strength before the cameras, Alex asked if anybody wanted to go or felt compelled to stay and received a resounding ”No”.A mother onboard, Varshini, told the Herald many of the 31 children, including her own, had asked why they were on the boat and there were ”big problems” looking after them within the cramped confines of the old wooden vessel.Varshini is among the many women and all of the men refusing food and water. The children, one pregnant woman and two breastfeeding mothers have not joined the hunger strike.As the navy ship to which their vessel had been tethered steamed off the horizon, the vessel moved next to the dock, giving the asylum seekers the chance to engage freely with a growing pack of media, who were not allowed onboard the boat.Many of those on the hunger strike looked unwell. Alex – who developed his American accent while working in call centres in India – said he was very weak. People can survive without food for weeks, but failing to take liquids can lead quickly to serious illness and death, especially in the searing heat of Java.From one moment to the next, Alex said he was prepared to die and not prepared to die.Many of the asylum seekers told reporters of their professions and said they were neither poor nor seeking economic opportunities in Australia, but they were fleeing persecution from the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka who routed the Tamil Tigers in a civil war, resulting in many going to camps that are closed to the press and aid workers.A roll-call of occupations included accountants, carpenters, electricians, a jewellery shop owner and many information technology workers.Conditions are so bad in Sri Lanka that ”there will be many more boats on the way”, said Alex. ”What does Kevin Rudd have to say about that?”Indonesian officials are losing patience with the Sri Lankans. The immigration chief of Banten, Harry Purwanto, said they were potential suicide bombers. ”Suicide bombing is not monopolised by al-Qaeda only. They do it, too,” he said. ”So if they said they’re ready to die, they mean it.”The Tigers are seen as originators of suicide bombing, but those onboard denied being members.Makeshift accommodation has been arranged in nearby Cilegon and transport is ready to take them at the end of the stand-off.
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Cameras? Just give us more cops: MP

The State Government has ignored a plea by NSW leader of The Nationals Andrew Stoner to save lives by boosting the presence of highway patrol police across NSW, including Dubbo.
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Instead, a spokesperson for NSW Roads Minister David Borger defended the re-introduction in NSW of mobile speed cameras from July 19 that he said had reduced casualty crashes by more than 25 per cent in Queensland and Victoria.

Mr Stoner has criticised the Government for the inclusion in the State Budget of “a massive $137 million increase in fines”, calling it proof of revenue raising at the expense of road safety.

He said the Government should fix the “hundreds of accident black spots” on NSW roads and increase highway patrols.

“Highway patrol plays a crucial role in reducing the State’s road fatalities as they offer much more than a speed camera,” Mr Stoner said.

“As well as detecting speeding drivers, highway patrol officers will notice illegal actions, such as drivers doing U-turns over unbroken lines and not indicating when turning, and act as a highly visible reminder for motorists to drive safely.

“It is essential that mobile speed cameras operate alongside, rather than instead of, highway patrol.”

Mr Borger’s spokesperson said the mobile speed cameras were being reintroduced to “save lives”.

“Last year 213 people were killed in speeding-related crashes on NSW roads, which accounts for almost half of the 2009 road toll,” he said.

“These cameras are effective in reducing speed-related crashes across the entire network because people reduce their speed at all times, rather than only on the approach to a fixed camera.”

The RTA’s Centre for Road safety will determine where the cameras will be placed, in consultation with police and the NRMA.

“The locations will be chosen taking into account criteria such as the location and time of crashes, site suitability and police intelligence,” the spokesperson said.

He said a list of the mobile speed camera locations would be published on the RTA website.

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Luxury hotel to open in Mecca

THE pilgrimage to Mecca has always involved hardship and sacrifice, whether months spent travelling on foot through barren valleys and sleeping in the open with no shelter from the elements or stripping oneself of earthly trappings. But help is at hand for the pilgrim who cannot bear to be without comfort while executing the fifth pillar of Islam.Raffles, which gave thirsty wanderers the Singapore Sling, is opening a luxury hotel in Mecca offering pilgrims a coffee sommelier, a chocolate room where chefs will prepare bespoke pralines and truffles, and a 24-hour butler service.Undeterred by restrictions on beautifying oneself during the hajj, the hotel will also have segregated gyms, beauty parlours, grooming salons and a spa.Mohammed Arkobi, the general manager of the new hotel, did not explain how a chocolate room and spa would help pilgrims achieve spiritual fulfilment. Nor was he able to comment on how the amenities complied with the ethos of the hajj, which is about simplicity and humility.But he did say that the “comprehensive range of services” were designed to meet the needs of the “discerning” travellers they were targeting.It is being developed by the Saudi Binladin Company, one of the largest construction firms in the Arab world. The company was set up by Mohammed bin Laden, father of Osama.Around 4 million people visit Mecca for the hajj, with millions more passing through the rest of the year to perform the lesser pilgrimage. Mecca has undergone a dramatic transformation over the decades to cope with demand. Homes have been bulldozed, mountains flattened and historic sites razed to provide more hotel rooms and amenities.Ali al-Ahmed, the director of Washington’s Institute for Gulf Affairs, is an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime: “The al-Sauds want to make Mecca like Dubai, it is a money-making operation. By developing Mecca in this way they are making it inaccessible and unaffordable for the majority of Muslims. It will only be for the elite,” he said.The city’s increasing Westernisation was a “perversion of the religion”, and that he was aghast at the silence of Muslims on the subject. “Let’s take Jerusalem as an example. Muslims are outraged when Israelis do something in the Old City, but in Mecca things are being systematically destroyed and nobody is raising an eyebrow. It is a catastrophe.”Raffles Mecca is due to open in April.Guardian News & Media
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