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"Debt has doubled." Leigh Sales confronts Josh Frydenberg over the struggling economy, & more in News in 5.

– With AAP. 

1. “Debt has doubled.” Leigh Sales confronts Treasurer Josh Frydenberg over the struggling economy.

Host of ABC’s 7:30, Leigh Sales, has confronted Treasurer Josh Frydenberg after the mid-year economic forecast showed the surplus will be significantly smaller than first expected.

“This mid-year economic forecast has downgrades everywhere you look. Growth, inflation, wages, household consumption, business investment growth. Every sign points to a struggling economy. How is it not reckless to cling to your surplus-at-all-costs mentality?” Leigh Sales began the interview on Monday night.

Frydenberg responded, “Just to correct the record there for you, Leigh, these numbers show that the participation rate is better than what was forecast at budget, the public final demand, which is government spending on infrastructure as well as programs like the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] is also up from budget …”

Sales, however, was quick to respond to his claim, saying, “I don’t think you are correcting anything there. I’m pointing to the major economic indicators — growth, inflation, wages, household consumption.”

The Treasurer claimed that “Australians can be confident about their economic future” because “we’re living within our means” and the government will “deliver the first surplus in 11 years”.

Leigh Sales Josh Frydenberg
The Treasurer claimed that "Australians can be confident about their economic future". Image: ABC.

"What do you think Australian voters care more about — a tiny budget surplus next year, or staying out of recession?" the journalist asked Frydenberg.

When the Treasurer attempted to claim the Morrison Government is trying to "pay back the debt that we've inherited," Sales interjected and corrected the politician.

"Treasurer, sorry to keep cutting you off but I want to clear that up. It’s not debt that you have inherited. Debt has doubled since the Coalition took office," Sales said.

As Frydenberg continued to blame the debt accumulated by the Labor party, Sales questioned the "rosy picture" he was trying to paint.

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"If everything is as rosy as you suggest, why are we seeing GDP growth downgraded, household consumption growth downgraded, business investment growth downgraded and wages growth downgraded?" she asked.

The Treasurer replied saying some people are "saving as opposed to spending," before adding it is his job "to put more money in their pocket".

2. Tamil asylum-seeker family to remain detained on Christmas Island over Christmas.

A Tamil asylum-seeker family detained on Christmas Island will remain there for at least two more months ahead of a Federal Court trial.

Sri Lankan couple Priya and Nades Murugappan, and their Australian-born daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa, are fighting federal government attempts to deport the family.

Priya, Nades and Kopika have already been refused refugee status, but a Federal Court fight hinges on Tharunicaa and her right to apply for protection.

The family had settled in the Queensland country town of Biloela before being taken to detention in Melbourne in March 2018, then transferred to Christmas Island earlier this year.

A hearing is scheduled for two days in mid-to-late February and the family will remain in detention until the case is finalised.

Family friend Angela Fredericks spoke with the family over the phone on Saturday and said they're "holding up as expected".

"It was Nades birthday, so it's always hard to wish someone happy birthday while they're being held in detention and not being able to see their face," Ms Fredericks said.

"Their major concern at the moment is keeping the girls busy over the break, as this is the last week before school holidays."

Ms Fredericks said that both girls being granted permission to attend kindergarten out of the detention centre earlier this year was a massive victory.

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She also expressed her concern about the family's increased detachment from their community after their second Christmas away from Biloela.

"We've noticed an increased disconnection from them. We had a Christmas festival in the park singing carols and it's that sort of family spark that they're not having," Ms Fredericks said.

"We sent them a packet from the town with some DVDs, books and things like that so that they try to get their minds occupied while they have this ongoing battle."

The family's next hearing is likely to be heard during the weeks beginning February 17 or 24, but the precise timing has not been finalised.

Justice Mark Moshinsky on Monday also made an order allowing lawyers for Tharunicaa to request documents about the case, such as internal departmental correspondence, be handed over to them.

After the hearing, immigration lawyer Carina Ford said the Tamil family were "doing OK" but remained isolated.

The United Nations has asked they be released from Christmas Island detention but the government won't allow it.

Priya previously described the conditions as jail-like but said it was preferable to being returned to Sri Lanka.

Angela Fredericks told AAP that "there is plenty of room in Biloela", arguing that releasing the family from detention would "save money from taxpayers and provide emotional wellbeing to the town."

"This would be ending with just a signature. It's more than ever that Scot Morrison being a Christian man could show it and let that family come home."

The Australian government has previously said the family won't be returning to mainland Australia while their case is being determined.

3. Jacinda Ardern to consider major volcano probe and possible royal commission in the wake of White Island.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will decide early next year whether to launch a major probe - and possibly a royal commission - into Monday's terrifying and deadly volcano eruption.

The primary consideration is whether an already-running workplace inquiry and the yet-to-be-launched coronial inquest leaves "any gaps" for questions as to how the tragedy occurred.

A week after the blast, the death toll stands at 16, with a further two people unaccounted for.

white island new zealand volcano
Image AAP.
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Ardern says she's been advised that the WorkSafe investigation will take a year - which is also the legislated maximum time the workplace health and safety regulator has before recommending possible charges.

The penalties for those charges are capped at $NZ3 million ($A2.9 million) and up to five years in prison.

"As a cabinet we know that it's possible there will be broader issues that won't be covered by these inquiries," the prime minister said.

"Therefore I have asked for advice from officials to look into whether there are any gaps that need to be addressed that fall outside of a potential coronial inquiry and the WorkSafe investigation.

"I expect advice on this in the new year."

Ardern also announced a $NZ5 million ($A4.8 million) relief fund for small businesses in both Whakatane and Westland - a South Island tourist town hit by flooding - to help make ends meet after their disasters.

"I don't see this necessarily being the totality of the need but we wanted to make sure that we are working to address immediate needs," she said.

It remains unclear whether any operators that may be the subject of the WorkSafe investigation - like White Island Tours - will be a recipient of those funds.

4. Two Queensland towns told to leave their homes as bushfires fast approach.

Residents in the regional Queensland community of Mount Maria, about 75 kilometres north of Bundaberg, have been told to leave their homes as a bushfire fast approaches.

The same Leave Now warning has been issued for Gregory River (north of Childers).

Mt Maria residents living on Tableland Road, between Cross Road and Hills Road have been told to travel north towards Miriam Vale, 70km south of Gladstone.

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Significant damage is expected and lives could be put at risk if shelter is not taken, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service said.

Residents at Gregory River are being told to head towards Childers, as fire threatens several properties.

All residents between Foleys Road and Onoprienkos Road on both sides of Childers Road need to leave now.

The Queensland Police declared an emergency in the area, and closed Childers Road between Foleys Road and Pine Creek Road.

The eastern side of a fast-moving fire is travelling northeasterly towards Newlands Road and Voss Road.

Other towns across the state are watching fires closely after being told to prepare to leave.

Upper Kandanga (west of the Sunshine Coast) and Kumbarilla State Forest (south-west of Dalby) are all on alert.

It comes as scorching temperatures hit the state, with Brisbane equalling its record for the hottest December day at 41.2C.

5. Sydney man 'left Syria when told to fight'.

A Sydney man photographed with an AK-47 rifle in Syria has denied Islamic State expected him to fire the weapon at a checkpoint if the need arose.

Belal Betka also told a judge he travelled to Syria with his then-wife for honourable and humanitarian reasons, but left after being told he had to fight for IS and because its members were mistreating civilians.

He referred to "a miserable time" when he and others had to bury about 80 people - mainly civilians - over a three-day period.

"Our job was to gather the bodies and then take them and put them in a big grave that had been dug by an excavator machine," Betka said in an affidavit tendered at his NSW Supreme Court sentence hearing on Monday.

The 27-year-old has pleaded guilty to engaging in hostile activity in a foreign country in 2015 and has asked the judge to take into account a second charge of entering Al-Raqqa province in Syria, a declared area.

Betka said smugglers were paid to get him and his then-wife out of Syria, before they returned to Sydney in October 2015.

He said he was "completely disillusioned", split with his wife, moved back in with his parents, started a truck driving business and had no interest in Islamic State, religion or politics.

He was arrested in December 2017.

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A bearded Betka had his long hair tied in a ponytail and was wearing a suit and tie when he gave evidence on Monday as his supportive family watched on from the public gallery.

Referring to the AK-rifle photo, Betka said there was never any expectation from IS that he had to fire the weapon.

"I was never involved in any actual armed conflict, nor did I ever go out on patrol or fire my weapon at anyone or attempt to destroy any property."

He had been prompted to travel to Syria after being misled by watching IS promotional videos which were like "Hollywood editing", and other videos about the mistreatment of innocent women and children.

"I was naive and I thought I was doing the honourable thing," he said.

He believed it would be a happy lifestyle there and he was planning to do humanitarian work.

"I look back on this period and do not understand what I was thinking," he said.

"It now seems crazy to have simply packed up my wife and life and decided to set up a new community in Syria while all this fighting was going on.

"I never considered myself particularly radical, I simply felt like it was some sort of calling and that I had to help somehow."

Betka said he did not identify with the "type of religious extremists" he was forced to now live with at the High-Risk Correctional Centre at Goulburn.

He does not support Islamic State nor have any interest in being involved in fighting in Syria and is not radicalised in any way.

"My emotions had the better of me and now I am more mature," he said.

Earlier this month in the District Court, Betka was jailed for at least four years for money laundering.

Justice Ian Harrison adjourned the terror-related sentence hearing to Tuesday.

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