French frontrunners Le Pen and Macron hold rival rallies

Macron staged his biggest rally of the campaign so far, attracting 20,000 people to the Bercy national indoor arena while a topless woman protester briefly interrupted Le Pen’s speech to 6,000 supporters at a concert hall.

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After weeks of twists and turns, the unpredictable race has narrowed dramatically, with surveys suggesting four candidates are in contention to win one of the top two spots in the vote next Sunday and progress to the run-off a fortnight later.

Scandal-hit conservative Francois Fillon and radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon are steaming up behind the two frontrunners, and with around one in four of the electorate still undecided, candidates are scrapping for every vote.

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Macron and Le Pen, who have both scored as high as 25 percent in voter surveys, stood at 23 percent and 22.5 percent respectively in the latest Ifop poll updated daily, while Melenchon has surged to 19.5 percent, equal with Fillon.

Macron delivered an upbeat speech that focused on his vision of France in five years’ time.

“We are going to turn the page on the last 20 years because our generation is ready for change,” he told a crowd who chanted: “We’re going to win.”

WATCH: The five key French presidential candidates

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‘We need the EU’ 

The 39-year-old former Rothschild banker and economy minister gave a strong defence of the European Union in the face of attacks from Le Pen, who wants to withdraw from the bloc.

“We need Europe, so we will remake it,” Macron told the crowd. “I will be the president of the awakening of our European ambitions.”

His European Union would be “less bureaucratic” and would protect both “industrial and agricultural interests”, he vowed.

In a reference to Le Pen, Macron said French voters had the choice of “hope and courage over resignation”.

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The fast-growing score of Communist-backed Melenchon — and the possibility he could square off against Le Pen in the May 7 decider — has sparked alarm over the future of the EU as both advocate leaving the bloc.

Some observers predict that if Le Pen becomes president it could strike a mortal blow to the EU, already weakened by Brexit. 

Dominique Dusart, 57, who heads Macron’s En Marche (On the Move) movement in the Yonne area south of Paris, admitted supporters were worried his support could fall off in the crucial final days.

“We’re a bit worried by Melenchon’s breakthrough,” she said. “It has been a bit of a slap in the face because we weren’t expecting it.”

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Demonstrators briefly scuffled with police outside the Zenith hall in northeast Paris where Le Pen held her rally.

And 15 minutes into her speech, a female protester burst onto the stage clutching a bunch of flowers with illegible slogans scrawled on her torso before she was bundled away by security guards.

“These left-wing extremists have got it all wrong,” Le Pen said. “A total inversion of values has disrupted this speech by the only woman who defends women.”

The National Front (FN) leader promised to tighten France’s borders and crack down on immigration.

“Behind mass immigration, there is terrorism,” she said.

WATCH: Dateline speaks with Marine Le Pen

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Melenchon’s canal cruise 

Melenchon, 65, chose the quirkiest campaign event of the day, sailing through northeast Paris on a barge, making stops along the way to greet supporters.

Addressing supporters from the boat-deck, the leftist railed against the “fear mongering” of his rivals and the media about his big-spending programme and sympathies for the leaders of nations like Cuba and Venezuela.

“They make up things about us on a daily basis,” he complained. “Keep the fire of rebellion burning inside you,” he urged.

For his part Fillon, dogged by a fake jobs scandal that has seen him charged with abuse of public funds, said he was confident he would upend the polls.

“I can see things clearly. I am absolutely sure I’ll be in the second round because there is a strong desire for change in our country and I am the only one proposing serious and reasonable change,” the 63-year-old told reporters in the southern city of Nice before giving a speech to supporters.

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Not just rich to face heat from rate rise

New research suggests when the Reserve Bank eventually increases interest rates it’s not just the rich who will be feeling the heat.

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KPMG Economics has found the bottom 20 per cent of households have recorded the highest rate of growth in investment income, including a greater exposure to activities such as negatively-geared property investment.

“While it is perhaps understandable that the poorest members of our society want to diversify and increase their incomes, this group is the least able to take on the financial risk associated with (negatively) geared investment activity,” KPMG Australia chief economist Brendan Rynne says.

He warns households across the financial spectrum have been progressively increasing their debt levels at rates faster than their disposable incomes have grown, a point reiterated in Tuesday’s release of the Reserve Bank’s April 4 board minutes.

“Any increase in our historically-low interest rates would cause serious problems given the growth of outstanding residential loans over the past decade,” Mr Rynne says.

“If the bubble does burst it will not just be the better-off who will be directly affected, the poor will be too.”

The central bank says financial stress among households remains contained, although some with home loans appear to have little or no buffer of excess mortgage repayments and could be vulnerable if household income were lower than expected.

That meeting left the cash rate at a record-low 1.5 per cent and a stance the board judged would be consistent with sustainable economic growth achieving the two to three per cent inflation target band over time.

However, it also added an additional line in its conclusion compared to previous statements.

“The board judged that developments in the labour and housing markets warranted careful monitoring over coming months,” the minutes said.

JP Morgan economist Ben Jarman thought this “an unusually specific remark”.

While housing and labour market dynamics have been pushing in different directions recently – housing too hot, unemployment too high – last week’s labour force report showing an employment surge may provide a “glimmer of more upbeat news”.

Chris Richardson, an economist at Deloitte Access Economics, does not believe the Reserve Bank will lift the cash rate until next year.

“But rise they will,” he said, painting a fairly rosy outlook for both Australia and world economies in his latest quarterly business report.

“All in all, that’s a pretty good business backdrop for the globe in 2017,” he said.

“But global markets are pricing in more inflation and growth and coming years will see rising interest rates.”

However, as Mr Rynne points out, an Australian interest rate increase could come from increases in wholesale funding overseas rather than via a Reserve Bank rate hike.

Domestic retail banks recently raised some mortgage rates independently of the central bank.

France’s Le Pen accuses rival Macron of being soft on Islamists

Le Pen pounced on remarks by Macron defending one of his top campaigners in the gritty suburbs north of Paris whom the far-right has labelled a “radical”.

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Mohamed Saou was asked to step back from Macron’s campaign after a website published several of his old Facebook messages, one of which criticised the Charlie Hebdo newspaper targeted by jihadists in January 2015 for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

“He did one or two things that were more… radical…. But he’s a good guy otherwise,” Macron told Beur FM radio on Friday, adding that he did not want to fire Saou.

WATCH: Dateline: Full Interview with Marine Le Pen

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Addressing around 1,000 flag-waving supporters in the southern city of Perpignan Le Pen accused the leader of the “En Marche” (On the Move) party of doing the bidding of Islamist groups.

“With Mr Macron, it would be Islamism on the move,” Le Pen said.

“It’s as if he’s writing a new chapter of Houllebecq’s book Soumission,” she said, referring to a novel by author Michel Houllebecq that portrays a fictional Islamist president coming to power in France.

The anti-EU, anti-immigration Le Pen and Macron, the 39-year-old europhile optimist given the best chance of beating her in a run-off, are leading polls for the first round of the election on April 23 with around 22-24 percent each.

In the past few days, radical left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative ex-premier Francois Fillon have gained ground, transforming the election into a tight four-way race. The two leaders of the first round will go through to a runoff on May 7.

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Le Pen, who says she would best defend France against the jihadists that have killed over 230 people in France since 2015, also took Fillon to task, accusing him of letting Muslims close themselves off from society when he was prime minister between 2007 and 2012.

“We must be intransigeant with the mortal danger that fundamentalist Islam represents for our country,” she said.

‘Not Charlie’ 

In a Facebook message in September Saou expressed revulsion over a cartoon by Charlie Hebdo depicting Italian earthquake victims as pasta dishes.

“I never was and never will be Charlie,” he wrote, referring to the “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) slogan that became a rallying cry for freedom of expression after the January 2015 attack on the paper’s Paris offices that left 12 people dead.

His remarks echoed those of a number of French people, who said that while they deplored the attack they felt Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons stigmatised Muslims.

Macron described the post as “hurtful to people”. Saou is being investigated by the party’s internal ethics committee. 

In other Facebook posts published by a French Jewish news site, Saou criticised the bans imposed by some towns last year on the Islamic burkini swimsuit and expressed concern about a backlash against Muslims after the July 14 truck massacre in the city of Nice.

Fillon’s camp has also seized on the controversy to attack Macron, an economic liberal who took over the frontrunner spot from Fillon after Fillon became embroiled in a fake jobs scandal in January. 

Eric Ciotti, a senior Fillon campaigner, accused former economy minister Macron of supporting “a man (Saou) who does not share our vision of France”.

Macron’s party accused both Le Pen and Ciotti of “rampant Islamophobia”.

No mercy from Raiders’ Rapana in NRL

Canberra winger Jordan Rapana has warned his right-edge teammates against complacency when they face a Manly defence publicly singled out by coach Trent Barrett.

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After the Sea Eagles’ 30-26 loss to Melbourne last weekend, Barrett described their left-edge as passive and “like a deer in the headlights”.

Things aren’t going to get any easier for Manly with the news Rapana has overcome a knee injury and will line-up for the Raiders in Friday night’s match at GIO Stadium.

That allows him up to team up with the other half of “Leipana” – centre Joey Leilua – as well as forward Elliot Whitehead and five-eighth Blake Austin on the right.

Despite the Raiders’ rich vein of form, Rapana is not taking Manly lightly on the back of Barrett’s rev up.

“They’ve got young (Brian) Kelly and he’s been quality for them and obviously Jorge Taufua is a big boy,” Rapana said on Tuesday.

“I think they’re quality players and I have no doubt they’ll be doing their homework on me, Joey, Elliott and Austo.

“We’ve just got to make sure we focus on us and don’t be complacent.”

Leilua’s brace helped the Raiders to a 20-8 victory over the Warriors on Sasturday and took the pair’s combined tries to 13 from the opening seven rounds.

While rival teams know more about them after an outstanding 2016, it hasn’t hampered their progress with a combined average of almost two tries a game, up from 1.4 last season.

And Rapana is relishing the extra attention.

“You cop a couple of cheap shots and get whacked a bit but that’s alright,” Rapana said.

“It pushes us to another level. We’ve always got to be on our game and make sure we play well.”

Rapana suffered a knock to the knee in last week’s win over the Warriors but fought through pain to play out the match.

“I’ll be training today and out there with the boys on Friday,” Rapana said.

“I just went in to a tackle and got it caught wrong but I managed to play the whole 80 (minutes) on it so it seems to be alright.

“I pulled up a bit sore but I’ve been getting physio today and it feels a lot better.”

Canberra will be searching for four consecutive NRL wins as they start to find their groove after a couple of tight losses in the opening weeks.

Rapana said their desire to keep pushing when games get tough was beginning to come to the fore.

“We’ve got a brotherhood here and everyone just wants to play for each other I think that’s a big factor,” he said.

“We never give up, we’re never out.”

North Korea weapons program poses ‘serious threat’ to Australia: Bishop

Australia’s foreign minister believes the United States will find “new and creative” ways to deal with North Korea.

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US President Donald Trump has said all options, including military action, are on the table to prevent North Korea from achieving nuclear weapons capability.

“It means the Trump administration will seek out new and creative ways to meet the North Korean challenge,” Ms Bishop told ABC radio on Tuesday.

“We certainly support the right of our allies and friends to ensure their interests are protected and their citizens defended against any possible attack.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia has long condemned North Korea’s missile launches. (AAP)EPA

Ms Bishop said the North Korean threat to regional and global peace had increased.

“Any rise in tensions is entirely due to the provocative behaviour of North Korea,” she said.

The Turnbull government believes leader Kim Jong Un has a clear ambition to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US, meaning Australia would also be within reach.

“Unless it is prevented from doing so it will be a serious threat to the peace and stability of our region and this is unacceptable,” Ms Bishop said.

The foreign minister also reiterated calls for China to use its unique and potentially decisive leverage against the North Korean regime.

“We believe there is more China can do in terms of sanctions and other economic efforts.”

Ms Bishop also warned that Australia could be at risk of attack if North Korea’s progressive weapons program continued.

“[North Korea] is on a path to achieving nuclear weapons capability and we believe Kim Jong-un has a clear ambition to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload as far as the US,” she said.

“That would mean Australia would be in reach so unless it is prevented from doing so it will be a serious threat to the peace and stability of our region and that is unacceptable.”

North Korea ready react to ‘any mode of war’ from US 

North Korea is preparing for ‘any mode of war’ triggered by US military action, Pyongyang’s envoy to the United Nations warned Monday, saying his country would respond to a missile or nuclear strike ‘in kind.’

The statement from North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kim In Ryong, followed warnings from US Vice President Mike Pence to Pyongyang not to test US resolve.

“If the United States dares opt for a military action (…) the DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the Americans,” Kim told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York.

“We will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs,” he said.

North Korea has taken “self-defensive” measures in response to US threats of military action and these reflect Pyongyang’s determination to “counter nukes and ICBM in kind,” Kim said, referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Pence: ‘Era of patience’ with North Korea over

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North Korean official says will continue missile tests: BBC

North Korea will continue to regularly test missiles and any military action against it by the United States would prompt “all out war”, a senior North Korean official told the BBC on Monday.

“We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” the BBC quoted Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-Ryol as saying in an interview.

“If the US is reckless enough to use military means it would mean from that very day, an all out war.”

The BBC reported Han also said North Korea believed its nuclear weapons protect it from the threat of military action by the United States.

WATCH: Pence arrives near DMZ after North Korea’s failed missile test

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Pence earlier told a news conference in South Korea that “the era of strategic patience is over” after North Korea on Sunday test-fired another missile and fears mounted that it may be preparing a sixth nuclear test.

Pyongyang is seeking to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead, and has so far staged five nuclear tests, two of them last year.

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Kim also confirmed that a new nuclear test was under preparation, saying that the plans had been announced and that “it will take place.”

“As far as nuclear test is concerned, it was already announced to the public. It is something that our headquarters decided. At a time and at the place where our headquarters deem necessary, it will take place,” he said.

WATCH: North Korea must change behaviour, US says

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‘Got to behave’

US President Donald Trump’s decision at the weekend to send the Carl Vinson carrier-led navy strike group to the Korean peninsula shows that the “US reckless moves for invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase,” said Kim.

The North Korean deputy envoy asserted that Pyongyang would hold the United States “wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions.”

The envoy criticized the US missile strikes that hit an air base in Syria last week, saying Washington was resorting to a “gangster-like logic” that its military action was proportionate and could apply to the Korean peninsula as well.

Trump on Monday said his message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was: “Got to behave.”

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UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric separately expressed concern over rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and said the latest missile test was “troubling”.

He urged North Korea to “take all the steps necessary to de-escalate the situation and return to dialogue on denuclearization.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will next week chair a special meeting of the UN Security Council on North Korea.

US ‘disturbed’ over apparent kidnapping and murder of gay men in Chechnya

The United States voiced concern on Monday over reported persecution of gay men, including torture and murder, by authorities in Chechnya, urging officials in the Russian region to investigate.

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“We continue to be disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement.

“If true, this violation of human rights cannot be ignored – Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses.”

Concerns rose to prominence several weeks ago as Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that more than a hundred gay men had been detained.

Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have since said the report is consistent with information they have from sources in Russia.

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Gay men in the region told SBS News they’d heard rumours of arrests and said they feared for their lives.

One man said he was sceptical of the news reports, speculating that it could just be an attempt to scare men further in a country where many fear they won’t be safe even from friends and family.

Another man told The Guardian he had arranged to meet a friend, but that upon arrival he was abducted and beaten.

He said his captors went through his phone to identify other gay men and dumped him back with his family, telling his father: “Your son is a fa**ot. Do what you need to with him,” The Guardian reported.

Russian and Chechen authorities have strongly denied the reports.

“You cannot detain and oppress someone who simply does not exist in the republic,” a spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov told Interfax after the Novaya Gazeta report.

“If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

Ambassador Haley said the US was “against all forms of discrimination, including against people based on sexual orientation,” adding that such abuse can lead to destabilisation and conflict.

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Lawmakers from both sides of the US political aisle have also spoken out against the apparent crackdown.

Senator Ben Cardin said he was “gravely concerned” about threats facing gays and lesbians in the overwhelmingly Muslim northern Caucasus region.

Senator Cardin, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Ramzan Kadyrov “has created an atmosphere of terror for LGBT individuals.”

“But in the Russian Federation, the buck stops with President Vladimir Putin – who must immediately signal that any violence against individuals on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity is unacceptable.”

Republican Senator Thom Tillis branded Kadyrov a “Putin loyalist” and accused Putin himself of denying that “shameful” human rights violations have occurred.

“Chechnya officials are kidnapping and torturing gay men. I condemn this gross violation of #HumanRights,” Senator Tillis said on Twitter.

The US may raise the issue in a human rights meeting at the UN Security Council tomorrow.

Chechnya was the scene of two separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the region has been largely pacified under Kadyrov’s iron-fisted rule.

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Vice Documentary: Gay conversion therapy in the United States

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Melbourne man pleads guilty to marrying child

A 34-year-old man and the 14-year-old bride he illegally married have both cried in a Melbourne court as he pleaded guilty to his crime.

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Mohammad Shakir pleaded guilty to going through a formal ceremony of marriage with a person not of marriageable age at Noble Park last September.

The “wedding” was conducted by former imam, Ibrahim Omerdic.

As part of Shakir’s plea, two charges were withdrawn by prosecutors in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.

They included allegations Shakir had sex with the girl between September 30 and October 1, 2016, following their wedding.

Shakir, who has been in custody for six months, shed tears after entering his plea during what was to be a pre-trial committal hearing.

He was helped in court by a Burmese interpreter.

The complainant, who was in court, also wiped tears from her eyes.

The imam who oversaw the ceremony, Ibrahim Omerdic, 61, is charged with conduct that caused a minor to enter into a forced marriage at Noble Park on September 29 last year.

The Muslim cleric, who was Imam of the Bosnian Islamic Society and Noble Park Mosque, has since been sacked.

At the time, the Board of Imams Victoria issued a statement against forced and child marriages.

“Underage marriages are illegal in Australia. As Australian Muslims we are required to observe and respect the laws of Australia,” the statement said.

The board said imams should meet both the bride and groom in person before the marriage ceremony to ensure they are of marriageable age and both consented.

Omerdic will face a contest mention hearing in May, while Shakir’s matter was adjourned to the County Court in September.

Suspect in Facebook video killing troubled

The life of the suspect in the random killing of a retiree – the video of which was posted on Facebook – was unravelling under the weight of gambling debts and trouble with his girlfriend.

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Rambling videos he shared showed his despair, saying he was out of options and wanted to kill as many innocent people as he could.

The manhunt for Steve Stephens stretched into a third day on Tuesday and far beyond the neighbourhood where police said he shot a 74-year-old man who was picking up aluminium cans on Sunday after spending Easter with some of his children.

A $US50,000 reward is being offered for information leading to Stephens’ capture and prosecution.

Stephens posted a video of himself killing Robert Godwin, a former foundry worker who had 10 children, police said.

In it, he said, “I snapped, I just snapped.” But police would not speculate on what was behind it.

In the video, Stephens told Godwin a woman’s name and said, “She’s the reason that this is about to happen to you.” Godwin did not seem to recognise the name.

The woman Stephens spoke of, Joy Lane, said in a text message to America’s CBS television network that “we had been in a relationship for several years. I am sorry that all of this has happened.”

She also said Stephens was “a nice guy” who was good to her and her children.

Stephens filed for bankruptcy two years ago despite holding down a job as a counsellor helping young people develop job skills and find employment.

The agency where he worked said an extensive background check before he was hired turned up nothing worrisome.

In one video posted on Facebook, Stephens said that he gambled away everything and that he and his girlfriend had planned to marry.

On Monday evening, Facebook announced that it was launching a review for reporting harmful content following the killing.

The company said that Stephens posted a video of himself announcing his intent to commit murder, then two minutes later posted another video of himself shooting and killing Godwin. A few minutes after that, he went live and confessed.

The company said it disabled Stephens’ account within 23 minutes of receiving the first report about the video of the fatal shooting.

No drumlines after fatal shark attack

The West Australian government has ruled out deploying drumlines following a shark attack that killed a teenage girl, saying it will soon detail its shark policy with a focus on personal electronic deterrent devices,

A 17-year-old girl, who was surfing with her father while on a family holiday in Esperance, was bitten on the leg and suffered massive blood loss on Easter Monday.

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Fisheries minister Dave Kelly described the girl’s death as a tragedy but said drumlines would not be deployed.

“We made it clear in opposition that we don’t see the merit in automatically deploying drumlines because they don’t actually make our beaches any safer,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Mr Kelly said the new Labor government wanted to promote individual shark deterrents that provided genuine protection.

He said the serious threat policy guidelines were being reviewed and he hoped to announce a new policy in the next few weeks.

“Obviously the whole incident is very raw at this point in time so I don’t intend to debate the whole pros and cons of various elements of the shark mitigation policy today,” he said.

“It would be great if we were in position where we could actually prevent further incidences rather than debating what you should do after an attack.”

Last year while in opposition, Labor made an election promise for a $200,000 subsidy scheme for personal shark deterrent devices.

Leader Mark McGowan said under the proposed trial, 1000 devices such as Shark Shield would be available with a $200 state government subsidy.

Mr McGowan said drones could be trialled at populated beaches but were no use at remote beaches where people surfed.

He was supported at the time by Rick Gerring, whose 29-year-old brother Ben was fatally mauled by a shark at Falcon on May 31, leaving behind his pregnant fiancee.

The new premier has not publicly commented about the latest fatality.

Move to ban removal of plane passengers

A bill to ban the forcible removal of travellers from flights by state or local government employees has been introduced by a lawmaker in the US state of Illinois.

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The Airline Passenger Protection Act comes after Dr. David Dao, 69, was pulled from a United flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to make space for four crew members.

The rough treatment of Dao sparked international outrage, as well as multiple apologies from the carrier, and raised questions about the overbooking policies of airlines.

Under the bill, passengers could not be removed from flights unless they were presenting a danger to themselves or others, an emergency was taking place or the passenger had caused a serious disturbance.

“A commercial airline that removes validly seated customers without serious cause breaches the sacred trust between passengers and their airlines,” the bill said.

Dao, who was travelling to Louisville, Kentucky, on April 9, suffered a broken nose, a concussion and lost two teeth when he was pulled from his seat by officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation to make room for four employees on the overbooked flight.

The three officers, who have not been named, were put on paid leave last week, the department said.

“The treatment of the passenger in last week’s incident at O’Hare is inexcusable and must be stopped,” lawmaker Peter Breen said.

United chief executive Oscar Munoz on Monday again apologised for the incident, and the company said on Friday it was changing its policy on booking its flight crews onto its own planes.

Meanwhile, its first-quarter earnings on Monday beat analysts’ expectations on several key measures.

United’s parent company reported earnings of 41 cents per share, excluding special items, beating analysts’ consensus forecast of 38 cents.

Revenue of $US8.4 billion ($A11.1 billion) was up 2.7 per cent year-over-year, slightly above the average estimate of $US8.38 billion ($A11.04 billion).

“In the first quarter of 2017, our financial and operational performance gives us a lot of confidence about the foundation we are building. It is obvious from recent experiences that we need to do a much better job serving our customers,” Munoz said.