The multimillion-dollar Hillsong Church does not have a policy of offering financial compensation to people who have allegedly suffered child sexual abuse within the organisation, a royal commission has heard.
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Founder and senior pastor of the global church, Brian Houston, returned to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Friday to show how safety procedures have improved since he first gave evidence to the inquiry in 2014.

The commission heard Hillsong had adopted robust policies that cover improved training and screening of staff, complaints handling and response to alleged victims.

Hillsong has no financial redress policy but Mr Houston told the inquiry: “That doesn’t mean that we’re not open to it.”

Hillsong’s 2015 annual report shows its total revenue was $112,794,565.

The church offers non-monetary support to alleged victims such as counselling and psychological care, the inquiry heard.

Mr Houston told the inquiry Hillsong was waiting on more detail about the federal government’s $4 billion national redress scheme before making a decision about opting in.

“We will consider [it], absolutely,” he said. “It’s a little hard to know what you are signing up for when there is no information about it.”

Hillsong is the best-known organisation among Australian Christian Churches (ACC), the national umbrella body that includes more than 1000 Pentecostal churches.

The commission heard the bulk of the churches were small operations which may not be able to put money towards a national redress scheme.

“Many have very limited, if any, resources,” ACC national president Wayne Alcorn told the inquiry.

“Their capacity to contribute … in the area of finances is one that is in question.

“Our heart is towards the survivors, it’s just a matter of our capacity.”

Mr Alcorn told the commission ACC has improved child protection procedures, including better training, governance and the introduction of a helpline managed by an external specialist organisation.

“We did a lot of soul-searching,” Mr Alcorn said. “We needed to enhance our culture of responsibility.”

Mr Houston told the commission Hillsong had a “no-tolerance policy” banning convicted paedophiles but conceded it was impossible to completely weed out potential offenders.

“There is a degree of safeguard there [but] you never quite know, deep down in someone’s head or mind or heart, what might be going on,” he said.

“I can’t vouch that we would catch every single person who was unhealthy.”

A report released by the commission in 2015 found Mr Houston failed to tell police his father Frank was a self-confessed child abuser. It noted he had a clear conflict of interest in dealing with the case himself.

Hillsong has introduced a conflict of interest policy as part of its improved procedures.

“We’ve been very, very supportive of the goal to make sure our church is as safe as it could possibly be,” Mr Houston said.

The hearing, before Justice Peter McClellan, has adjourned.

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A day care owner who amassed a multi-million dollar fortune through bogus government benefit claims has maintained her innocence, telling a psychologist she has no idea how or why she was found guilty.
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Melissa Jade Higgins was last year found guilty by a jury of forging children’s attendance records at her Albury-based Aussie Giggles family day care centre to rake in more than $3.6 million in taxpayer funding.

The 29-year-old’s bank account was frozen and $2,250,000 was seized along with other property, including a $90,000 car, during an arrest by the Australian Federal Police.

Higgins was convicted of 81 offences, including 66 counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception, 14 counts of using a forged document and one count of dealing with the proceeds of crime in excess of $1 million.

Higgins, who was the sole director of the company, made fake claims for special childcare benefits, which cover the cost of childcare for children who are experiencing or at risk of abuse or neglect.

The court heard Higgins claimed the subsidy at an inflated rate of up to $180 per hour for 14 children who were not at risk and others who did not attend the centre, netting her $225,000 a month over a two-year period between 2013 and 2015.

Higgins, who has been on bail since her conviction, now faces a period of imprisonment.

A sentencing hearing in the Downing Centre District Court on Friday heard that Higgins had maintained her innocence to a forensic psychologist.

The psychologist told the court that Higgins was experiencing “extremely severe” anxiety, depression and stress and would need to be very closely monitored if she was given a custodial sentence.

The court heard that Higgins had at first enjoyed operating the childcare centre but, when the centre started expanding, she “couldn’t keep up”.

Higgins, who was supported by her family in court, did not give evidence. Her mother told the court her daughter had become depressed and quiet since her conviction, and she was concerned she might harm herself.

But prosecutor Chris Taylor told the court that Higgins’ evidence could not be relied upon.

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Portrait of ACT Meteors player Erin Osborne Photo: Rohan ThomsonACT Meteors all-rounder Erin Osborne maintains elite cricketers are still committed to a revenue sharing model for all players that has propped up previous contracts.
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Osborne says Cricket Australia made some “really good improvements” in the offer tabled on Tuesday, but there remains plenty of room for negotiation with the Australian Cricketers Association.

Cricket Australia’s offer would see the average salary for a Southern Stars player shoot from $79,000 to $179,000, with the average for domestic female players to increase from $22,000 to $52,000.

The move has been hailed as a landmark moment for women’s sport, but the ACA ultimately see it as a slap in the face with only men’s players offered revenue share.

It is understood Cricket Australia would fund the proposal if it was signed off on, easing the financial burden on state associations like Cricket ACT.

Osborne says while Cricket Australia’s proposal is a big step forward, the revenue sharing model is something the players won’t go without.

The ACA have been conducting regular state visits to keep players in the loop about negotiations.

The offer remains a big step for cricket, which seems to have been a step ahead of rival codes for some time on the women’s front.

The Women’s National Cricket League began in 1996, and the Women’s Big Bash League catapulted the game into the spotlight during the inaugural 2015-16 season.

“I think it’s a fantastic time to be growing up in Australia if you’re a young girl who wants to play sport,” Osborne said.

“It’s really pleasing to see and it’s nice to know that the current players are trying to look after the game and leave it in a better position than what we found it.

“I think that’s really important to note, that the playing group really believes in the revenue model and giving back to the grassroots cricket, and ensuring that the future of cricket in Australia is well looked after.”

The day all elite women’s cricketers become professional is drawing closer and Osborne has lauded Cricket Australia for “taking the initiative” and identifying “room for growth”.

“It’s fantastic what they’re doing, and I know I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve received as a player,” Osborne said.

“Being able to play cricket professionally, full-time, I didn’t expect that to happen in my career. I always hoped it would and believed that would happen in the future but it’s wonderful for it to be happening now.”

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Treasurer Scott Morrison has urged financial regulators to crack down harder on loans to real estate investors amid revelations that foreign buyers are spending $8 billion per year on new homes in NSW and Victoria, locking out owner-occupiers.
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The call came as the Treasurer and his state counterparts met on Friday to find solutions to problems of housing affordability exacerbated by a return to the market of investors after earlier attempts to contain them had “worn off”.

“I have been concerned, over the last couple of months, that the measures that were put in place a few years [ago] have worn off and it is now for the council of financial regulators to determine what the next step is,” Mr Morrison said on Friday.

Mr Morrison referred to “a sharp increase in the level of investor credit, particularly over the last couple of months”.

He said it was was no longer just a question of housing affordability, but “frankly, also an issue about household debt…and the need to make sure that is well-managed from a financial stability point of view”.

His comments highlight the federal government’s increasing concern about housing affordability and its determination to make it a focus of the May budget.

Within minutes of the Treasurer’s press conference the Commonwealth Bank raised its standard variable rate for investors by a quarter of a per cent to 5.8, while raising its rate for owner-occupiers just 0.03 per cent. Bendigo Bank also moved within an hour of the meeting, lifting its investment interest rate by 0.25 per cent while leaving its rate for owner-occupiers unchanged. Westpac and ANZ moved during the meeting to lift theirs rate on interest-only loans saying the changes reflected higher lending costs and a “range of regulatory and risk factors”.

Analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data by Fairfax Media shows the share of loans taken out by investors had climbed above 50 per cent for the first time since the Prudential Regulation Authority took action to slow down bank lending to would-be landlords and negative gearers in 2015.

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A separate analysis released by Credit Suisse on Friday finds that foreign buyers are spending $8 billion a year on new houses in NSW and Victoria, buying one in five new homes across the two states.

Pre-empting an official move against lending to investors and negative gearers, ANZ group executive Fred Ohlsson said the bank had pushed up its rate for investors in order to “closely manage” regulatory obligations and its own exposure to risk in a competitive environment.

“We believe this is a balanced decision that reflects the range of regulatory and risk factors, and the pressures on family budgets,” he said.

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Managing Director Mike Hirst said the move would help “meet regulators expectations in dampening demand for investor lending.”

Housing affordability was a key subject of discussion in the treasurers’ meeting in Canberra. The Turnbull government is considering creating a new affordable housing finance corporation to lend millions of dollars to build community housing.

Mr Morrison said the proposed ‘bond aggregator’ model had been taken to “the next level” with agreement from the states.

Mr Morrison said the next meeting of treasurers would look at supporting housing associations “so they can play an even greater role in ensuring enough affordable housing is out there in the market.”

Mr Morrison would not comment on state requests for Commonwealth land to be released for housing, and appeared to rule out a Greens proposal to help the states replace stamp duty with a land tax, saying that changes to stamp duty were a matter for them.

“The government will iron out its package with the budget,” he said.

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It looks like an invitation you should not refuse. Inside pharmacies, a GP will question you about your risk factors for stroke, and if they add up refer you to have an ultrasound of key arteries free of charge.
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Given an Australian has a stroke every 10 minutes, the idea appears well-intentioned. An ultrasound could reveal a build-up of plaque or narrowing in the carotid artery in your neck – a sign you might be at risk of stroke and need to see a specialist.

The problem is, if you have no symptoms of carotid artery stenosis (narrowing of the artery), health authorities say this test is likely to cause you more harm than good. The ultrasound will also cost taxpayers hundreds of dollars through Medicare.

Leading vascular surgeons, the Australian Medical Association and the Stroke Foundation are all warning the public to avoid “Strokecheck”, a new charity that has partnered with Amcal pharmacies and workplaces to host GP consultations about stroke risks.

The group, which appears to be directed by people with no medical experience, is promoting its work on social media and has teamed up with a gym, university and a large company to promote its work.

An Amcal pharmacy spokesman, James Nevile, said Strokecheck was paying about 300 Amcal pharmacies a confidential “modest” fee to refer people with risk factors to them for GP consultations and for use of their facilities – a payment Strokecheck will not comment on.

But surgeons say they are seeing patients who have been terrified by the group because the ultrasounds produce many “false positive” results, meaning some people are being told they’re at risk of stroke when they’re not at significant risk.

President of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Vascular Surgeons, Dr Bernard Bourke, said he was concerned the group was disease-mongering and masquerading as a charity to make money out of Medicare.

“It’s a rip-off,” he said. “They’re putting the fear of God into people.”

He said there was no evidence that people without symptoms of stroke should be getting screened for their stroke risk and having ultrasounds, and said people should talk to their regular GPs about their health instead.

Dr Bourke said the highly regarded US Preventive Services Taskforce reviewed the use of ultrasounds to screen the general population for stroke risk in 2014 and concluded it does more harm than good.

The group’s report said approximately 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent of the population has carotid artery stenosis and that there is no validated, reliable tool to determine who is at increased risk of the condition – or at risk of a stroke when it is present.

The taskforce said it therefore puts people at risk of harm because those who get a positive result on ultrasound may choose to see a surgeon and demand surgery to remove the plaque. Depending on the experience of the surgeon, the operation – a carotid endarterectomy – is associated with an up-to-6 per cent risk of stroke or death within 30 days. It also carries a 2.2 per cent risk of heart attack within 30 days.

A second procedure is carotid stenting which has been controversial. Up to 10 per cent of patients will have a stroke following it within 30 days.

Neurologist and spokesman for the Stroke Foundation, Associate Professor Tim Kleinig???, said his group did not endorse Strokecheck or support unnecessary medical tests.

“Carotid artery screening for stroke prevention is a highly controversial area and is not endorsed by national or international guidelines,” he said.

“While Strokecheck is referring to one of our stroke statistics, this should not be seen as an endorsement of its services.”

President of the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association and GP, Lorraine Baker, said if people were worried about having a stroke, they should discuss it with their GP, who is likely to know their family history, previous test results and other information relevant to the discussion.

Melbourne vascular surgeon Jason Chuen said it was important not to confuse the use of ultrasound for the general population with no symptoms of carotid artery stenosis with people who have a history of stroke.

“In patients who have had a stroke or ministroke then it is critically important that they have an ultrasound and we identify carotid artery stenosis, so we don’t want to discourage those patients,” he said.

Requests to interview Strokecheck’s directors – Michael O’Connor, David Boon and Darren Tappouras – were declined, but a PR firm and lawyers answered questions on email with sometimes conflicting results.

Last week, the PR firm said the group bulk-billed Medicare for consultations and had arrangements with external providers for bulk-billed scans.

But yesterday, lawyers for the group said Strokecheck does not bill Medicare.

Despite promotional material on the internet saying Strokecheck offers testing to assess plaque and stenosis in the carotid artery, abdominal aorta and peripheral arteries next to a picture of an ultrasound, a lawyer for Strokecheck also said it does not offer an ultrasound service.

The lawyer said the group’s purpose was to “educate the Australian public and raise awareness to lower the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and stroke” and that the “awareness program saves lives and lowers the cost burden of cardiovascular disease on the Australian community”.

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