Frontbencher Jamie Briggs said work took him away from home 165 nights last year. Photo: Andrew Meares Mr Briggs, pictured the day after Tony Abbott lost the prime ministership, injured his knee at a party hosted by the former leader on the night he was dumped as PM. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Former minister Jamie Briggs says he has paid a heavy price for the Hong Kong incident that saw him resign from the ministry and has expressed regret over his consumption of alcohol to deal with the stress of work.

Mr Briggs, forced to resign in December after a female public servant complained about inappropriate behaviour, said he needed to learn from his mistakes.

“I shouldn’t have been in that situation, I should have been more careful, I should have been more disciplined,” he told local Adelaide Hills newspaper The Courier.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staffer at the centre of the controversy complained that, on a night out during an official visit in November, he told her she had “piercing eyes” and kissed her on the neck, although Mr Briggs said it was her cheek.

A photo of the public servant later ended up in newspapers, as well some of her private details and text messages exchanged with Mr Briggs’ chief of staff Stuart Eaton.

Mr Briggs admitted to sharing the photo with colleagues but denied giving it to the media.

“I’m not going to get into whether the error was significant or not because, in the end, the judgment of the Prime Minister was that it was an error which breached the high standards of ministers.”

Mr Briggs said he had no choice but to resign as Minister for Cities and the Built Environment and that there’s “not really a small price” to pay for mistakes in politics.

“I needed to resign because it’s a very privileged position to be a minister in a Commonwealth government and I need to learn from the error that I made.”

The former minister said he had a work-related problem with alcohol.

“I think I’ve got to consider some of my behaviours and some of the choices I’ve made, particularly when I’ve been travelling.

“I was away 165 nights last year. I flew 150-odd times and I’ve found it really difficult.

“I probably too often used alcohol as a way to deal with that [pace and intensity of travel and work] so I think in that sense, that’s probably part of the reason for the decision.”

Mr Briggs famously injured his knee at a party hosted by Tony Abbott on the night he was dumped as prime minister in September.

While originally saying he injured it running, he later admitted that he “went to tackle [Mr Abbott], I ran at him and missed, and the rest is history”.

Mr Briggs’ wife Estee also spoke with The Courier, saying she was frustrated by the controversy surrounding the Hong Kong incident, insisting that they had a strong, happy family and marriage.

Mr Briggs – who has said he will recontest his seat of Mayo – also complained that some of the media commentary was “ridiculously over the top”.

He was almost dumped from the ministry in September after Mr Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle, where he was handed the Cities and Built Environment portfolio. He was previously the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development.

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Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour on a scouting visit to Afghanistan for his new film Return To Kandahar.Movie session timesFull movies coverage
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Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour wants his new film to be an answer to “Hollywood war porn” such as American Sniper, Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty.

The paramedic who directed the touching Pakistan drama Son of a Lion and the documentary Paramedico is planning to head to Afghanistan to shoot Return to Kandahar, a drama about a former US marine going back as a tourist to track down the family of an unarmed civilian he killed during a raid on a village.

It was partly inspired by watching how Hollywood has been telling war stories.

“The propaganda machine is so powerful,” Gilmour says. “Writing the script, I was getting angrier and angrier about these films that certain Hollywood filmmakers have been putting out – the Kathryn Bigelows and Mark Boals of the world who are connected to the CIA in their propaganda objectives – to restripe history that is beneficial to the American objectives in that part of the world.”

He is particularly critical of American Sniper for “making a hero of someone that was essentially a killer who had killed hundreds of people, albeit in a war situation. That made me feel sick.”

Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.Photo: Keith Bernstein

Gilmour went to Pakistan’s North West Frontier to shoot Son of a Lion, a 2008 drama about a boy who wants to go to school rather than follow his fundamentalist father into the gun business, with local villagers.

“As a writer and filmmaker I’ve been a guest in Afghanistan and shared tea with men my age who have only ever known a state of war,” he says. “As a paramedic and aid worker I have treated the casualties of this conflict and others, including returned soldiers with physical and mental disabilities like PTSD.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that war is profoundly immoral and, in most cases, illogical and completely unnecessary.”

The script for Return to Kandahar has been inspired by Afghan hostage stories over generations of wars. One centres on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier whose experience of being held captive for five years by the Taliban is being recounted in the podcast Serial and turned into a movie by The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty team of Boal and Bigelow.

“With this film I want to obliterate the ‘Islamic terrorist’ stereotype at the centre of modern war propaganda,” Gilmour says.

As well as humanising Muslims, he hopes Return To Kandahar will “demonstrate the mercy in Islam that is so commonly ignored by extremists and Islamophobes alike.”

Gilmour has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $US30,000 to supplement finance from a Pashtun philanthropist.

While keeping details quiet for security reasons, he plans to shoot in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan later this year.

“I believe very strongly in authenticity,” he says. “If I’m making a film that purports to reveal a truth about these people and a path to peace, I need to shoot on location with the very people the story is about.

“I’m not going to be dressing up Mexicans as Afghans.” Star Wars takes summer holidays box office title

Over the summer holidays, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has dominated cinemas like no movie since Avatar six years ago.

In six weeks it has taken $88.2 million and seems set to finish with more than $90 million – second on the all-time list but, without multiple repeat visits, well short of Avatar’s record $115.6 million.

By last weekend, the next biggest hit over the holidays was the comedy Daddy’s Home with $19.9 million.

On the back of a dozen Oscar nominations, The Revenant has reached a solid $13.2 million in three weeks.

While the holidays are usually a strong time for animated movies, there were decent but still somewhat disappointing takings for three this summer – The Good Dinosaur ($13.9 million), Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip ($12.6 million) and especially Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie ($7.2 million).

The hottest ticket last weekend was The Hateful Eight. Boosted by a high-profile visit by Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell, it took $2.4 million to top the box office chart, reaching $3.4 million with two weeks of 70mm screenings. Alvin’s purple patch at Slamdance

Screening at Slamdance: Teik-Kim Pok in Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites.

Australian filmmaker Platon Theodoris has been enjoying unfamiliar weather – “it’s minus three outside and there’s a metre of snow on the streets” – as Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites screens at Slamdance in Utah.

An informal co-production between Australia and Indonesia, the quirky blend of comedy, drama, road movie and magical realism tells a story about a pedantic translator (Teik-Kim Pok) who discovers a new world in his roof after a neighbour (Vashti Hughes) suspects their building has a flea infestation.

Made with funds raised privately, it was shot in Sydney, Kalgoorlie and Jakarta and is screening in a festival sometimes described as Sundance’s Director’s Fortnight.

“Slamdance is where the true spirit of independent film making thrives,” says Theodoris. “The film had a sold-out screening here on Saturday and we’ve already sold-out our second screening this Thursday.”

Alvin’s Harmonious World will have what’s described as a “bespoke” cinema release in March, including a a Melbourne premiere at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image with a Q&A on March 26, Sydney’s Golden Age on April 10 and Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres with a Q&A on April 20. The film’s web site is here.  Cleverman to debut in Berlin

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen in Cleverman.

The Indigenous sci-film TV series Cleverman will have its world premiere as one of four Australian projects selected for the Berlin Film Festival next month.

Produced by Goalpost Pictures (The Sapphires, Holding The Man) and directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, it will screen as one of six TV series selected from around the world in a section called Berlinale Special Series.

Cleverman is based on an idea by writer Ryan Griffen, who describes it as a show about Australia’s own superheroes.

“It’s a modern story with ancient roots, about how humans treat others in a world where Aboriginal dreamtime creatures exist,” he told Screen Blog.

The cast includes Hunter Page-Lochard, Frances O’Connor, Deborah Mailman, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr.

Thrilled producer Rosemary Blight says selection of the ABC series for Berlin is “nerve-wracking and wonderful at the same time.”

Also screening at the festival is theatre director Rosemary Myers’ quirky coming-of-age film Girl Asleep in the children’s section Generation 14plus and two Australian shorts: Bryn Chainey’s Kill Your Dinner and actor-director Alice Englert’s The Boyfriend Game.

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Ian Jacobs, Vice-Chancellor of the University of NSW. Comment: We need to scrap the ATAR as the main judge of student potential
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The Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales has called for an end to the ATAR university admissions system as it currently stands, after a Fairfax Media investigation revealed that the practice of admitting students with low marks was rampant across the sector.

UNSW’s Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs said NSW should move away from the ATAR as the only measurement of academic success as quickly as possible.

“We need a set of criteria that identifies the most talented students from all backgrounds, not ATAR alone,” he said.

On Tuesday, an analysis of confidential data from the University of Sydney, Macquarie, Western Sydney University and UNSW revealed that students with ATARs as low as 30 were being offered places in business, teaching and engineering degrees.

An ATAR [Australia Tertiary Admissions Rank] is given to more than 50,000 NSW high school students in December each year. It has become the uniform four-digit rank to measure a student’s ability against what universities believe is the minimum academic standard required to complete a course, as well as supply and demand for the degree.

In an opinion piece for Fairfax Media, Professor Jacobs’ deputy, Iain Martin, argues there should be radical changes to the admissions process.

“Reducing six years of education to a single ranking is simplistic, let’s have a constructive debate about what could replace the ATAR alone as a fairer, more comprehensive and contextual measure of academic potential”. The measures could include secondary school performance in specific subjects beyond the HSC relevant to a particular degree and taking a students background into account before final marks are generated.

Richard Hill, a researcher in university management at Griffith University, said that the admission of students who were barely capable of completing an essay was a “chronic” problem throughout the tertiary education industry.

“If you have a pulse you can get in,” said Professor Hill. “It’s a very serious issue at the coalface for academics who often have to teach students who are semi-literate, if you ask any academic that has become a massive concern”.

“We’ve known about diminishing standards, pressures on academics, and letting people into courses with ATARs of 30, how on earth are they getting away with this without a public inquiry?”

He said the the low quality of candidates entering universities put the future of the Australian workforce at risk, particularly in key industries such as nursing and engineering.

“Employer organisations have been saying for a long time that a lot of graduates coming out of universities aren’t equipped to go into the workforce”.

The fallout comes as Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced on Wednesday that record numbers of students had enrolled in higher education in 2016, with 1.2 million students now undertaking tertiary courses.

The 3 per cent increase in student numbers since 2014 has brought the total cost to taxpayers up to $16 billion this year on the back of un-capped student places. Since 2012 universities have been able to enrol as many students as they want.

Mr Birmingham said that although the demand-driven system has provided unprecedented access and must be protected it has come at a significantly higher cost to the taxpayer.

“Recent attrition rates show that almost 15 per cent of these Australians do not progress to their second year. Universities must take responsibility for those students they choose to enrol and ensure they have the capabilities and support to succeed” .

The president of the NSW Board of Studies, Tom Alegounarias said the university admission system needed an overhaul to provide greater clarity on the academic ability of students.

“If universities use measurements other than the ATAR then those have to be transparent and reliable. It is crucial that students know what the rules are and what the bar they have to get over is,” he said.

“If the bar changes without the students’ knowledge then those who are most disadvantaged will suffer”.

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Senator Cory Bernardi will vote against same-sex marriage no matter what the Australian public says. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Warren Entsch describes the Abetz and Bernardi stance as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘bizarre’. Photo: Andrew Meares
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Analysis: Turnbull’s moderate vision begins to fraySketch: Aiding and Abetzing the flat-earthers

Same-sex marriage reform advocates within the Turnbull government have reacted angrily to the plans of some hardline conservatives to vote “no change” in Parliament even if a future plebiscite votes “yes”.

Arrangements for the plebiscite are being worked through with a view to a final set of options within weeks.

Opponents, including Abbott loyalist Eric Abetz and conservative strongman Cory Bernardi, have begun speaking out, declaring they will not back the change, regardless of public opinion. One MP said he expected others would also vote against reform, “come what may”.

The move represents a direct challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has publicly stated that the decision of voters, in a yet-to-be-finalised plebiscite, would be reflected absolutely by the government and the Parliament.

Senator Abetz has said he would not necessarily vote with the majority while Senator Bernardi revealed he would definitely not vote in favour of same-sex marriage, regardless of the public’s verdict.

Liberal National MP Warren Entsch, a leading advocate of same-sex marriage, slammed his colleagues’ stance as “bizarre” and “extraordinary”. He pointed out that Senator Abetz had been a part of the very (Abbott) cabinet that had set the plebiscite timetable, in order to forestall a faster parliamentary vote, and that he had expressed no complaints.

He said the Tasmanian backbencher would get the same opportunity to vote against marriage equality as everyone else: “in the plebiscite”.

A national vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage after the next election, is expected to cost about $160 million. Government sources confirmed the “mechanics” of the plebiscite, including its timing, and the question to be put, could go to Cabinet as early as February or March. Mr Entsch also dismissed fears on the party’s right, that the pro-change advocates were hijacking the process, arguing any formula would be taken to the party room first.

Mr Turnbull told Parliament last year that “the consequence of a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite will be that same-sex marriage will be legal in Australia”.

“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick,” he said in October. “It will be decisive. It will be respected by this government and by this Parliament and this nation.”

But Senator Bernardi told Fairfax Media on Wednesday: “Even if the public voted for [same-sex marriage], I wouldn’t vote for it.

“It goes against what I believe in. This is a substantial issue and, in the annals of public policy, you want to be on the record about your views.”

Senator Bernardi said he still expected Parliament would “respect the views of the Australian people” because not all parliamentarians were as passionate about the issue as he and they would be guided by the plebiscite result.

Senator Abetz, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, earlier said he would reserve his judgment following the plebiscite result.

When asked about Senator Abetz’s comments, Mr Entsch told Fairfax Media: “Given he was part of the decision-making process [on a plebiscite], I find it rather extraordinary.

“It makes you wonder why we would spend millions of dollars on a plebiscite if you’re not going to respect the result. I find it rather bizarre.

“If people make a decision either way we should respect that.

“It will be a very brave individual – either in the House of Representatives or the Senate – who seeks to challenge the views of the Australian people.”

Senator Abetz’s comments come as Mr Abbott prepares to address US anti-gay marriage group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, in New York.

Mr Turnbull has defended his right to speak at the event, saying there were “fellow members of the Coalition who have different views, and they are . . . entitled to express them”.

Mr Entsch has been working on the wording for a plebiscite question with Attorney-General George Brandis to be presented to the Coalition party room early this year.

Coalition frontbencher Steve Ciobo said it would be “passing strange” for politicians to defy the will of the Australian people.

“I think any politician, any member of Parliament, would have to think twice about snubbing their nose at the views of Australians,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.

Another conservative Liberal MP said he would expect many Coalition MPs, including himself, who oppose same-sex marriage to abstain from a vote if a plebiscite proved successful. This would respect the public’s verdict while not forcing MPs to vote against their conscience, he said.

The MP, who asked not to be named, said he was concerned about the process leading up to a plebiscite.

“I hope this isn’t just something being cooked up by Warren Entsch and George Brandis,” he said. “There needs to be broad consultation.”

Mr Entsch said “many colleagues” may have voted “no” last year but agreed to the compromise put forward by Mr Abbott. He said Mr Turnbull was doing no more or less than honouring that commitment.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said: “Eric Abetz has let the cat out of the bag, admitting the Liberals are not planning to take any notice of the expressed will of the Australian people. This absurd notion makes a complete joke of our democratic process and renders a $160 million national plebiscite totally pointless.”

Other opponents of same-sex marriage have previously vowed to vote according to the plebiscite.

“Certainly I, as somebody who has advocated for all Australians to have a say, clearly I’ll be bound by what all Australians have to say,” Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said last year.

“I don’t believe that the majority view will support [change], but if that’s not the case then, of course, I would support that.”

Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos appeared to add to the confusion telling Sky News initially that MPs “owe” it to voters to respect their will if they express one, but later stating: “My view on that is if you as a parliamentarian very strongly feel you can’t vote for something based on your conscience, in the Liberal Party we respect that.”

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Many of Sydney’s ferry services now experience their peak loads for the week on Sundays. Photo: James AlcockTaxpayers are paying “substantial amounts” to Sydney’s main private ferry operator for extra services because locals and tourists are rushing to take advantage of a $2.50 cap on fares on Sundays.
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Demand for ferries on Sundays to destinations such as Taronga Zoo and stops along the Parramatta River has risen substantially since the $2.50 limit was introduced several years ago. In response, the state’s pricing regulator wants to increase ferry fares on Sunday to spread the demand.

Many ferry services now experience their peak loads for the week on Sundays as travellers delay their trips to take advantage of the cheaper fares.

Transport for NSW has told the state’s pricing regulator that Harbour City Ferries is receiving “substantial amounts” to provide extra services on Sundays to cope with the demand.

However, the department will not reveal how much the government is paying the private operator, citing commercial sensitivities.

The state government awarded Harbour City Ferries – a consortium of ASX-listed Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield Services) and multinational Transdev – an $800 million contract in 2012 to operate Sydney Ferries for seven years.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal believes the $2.50 cap on the cost of public transport on Sundays is “too low”, especially for ferries, and is a key reason for the spike in demand on Sundays.

“Private ferry operators are being paid substantial amounts to provide supplementary services,” the tribunal said in an information paper.

“High demand for ferry services is driving up the costs of providing public transport.”

Many passengers are also able to travel for free on weekends because they often reach their weekly travel reward. Under the existing structure, travel is free after eight trips in a week.

The tribunal’s analysis shows ferry loads on Sundays has increased significantly since the $2.50 travel cap was introduced several years ago. Ferry services to destinations such as Taronga Zoo, Manly, the eastern suburbs and along the Parramatta River now report peak loads for the week on Sundays.

Outbound ferries from central Sydney to stops in the eastern suburbs and along the Parramatta River operated at more than 100 per cent of their maximum capacity on Sundays in May last year when a count was carried out by the Bureau of Transport Statistics.

The pricing regulator wants the daily cap for Opal fares on Saturday and Sunday set at the same level in order to spread demand more evenly over the weekend. It has proposed a daily cap for travel  at weekends at $7.20 for adults, $5.40 for concession-card holders and $3.60 for children and Gold Opal holders.

However, the tribunal decided against recommending in its draft report, released just before Christmas, to exclude ferry services from the Sunday cap because it believed it would be confusing for passengers if it applied to only some modes of public transport.

A spokesman for Transport for NSW said the tribunal’s review of public transport fares needed to be looked at in its entirety.

“These are draft recommendations and I urge customers to take a close look at what’s been proposed and provide feedback before the final report is delivered to government,” he said.

The first of six new ferries the government is buying as part of the first stage of upgrading Sydney’s fleet will begin sailing late this year. They will service routes in the inner harbour from Watsons Bay in the east to Cockatoo Island in the west.

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