MORNING RUSH: news, sport, weather, traffic and online buzz

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8.30am That's it from us this morning. Have a fabulous Thursday. See you tomorrow for the TGIF edition of the Rush.

8.12am Check out Charlie, the new Australian sea lion at Taronga Zoo!

8.08am Managers at the Australian Taxation Office trying to use scratchies to fight sickies among their public servants this Christmas have hit a snag. A workplace trade union has put the boot into the scheme, which rewards good attendance with a chance to win scratch cards, arguing the plan discriminates against tax officials who don't show up to work.

8.06am Have you been snapped out & about in the Illawarra? Check out our gallery of social pics here.

8.04am HSC: Nearly a third of NSW HSC students are set to receive an ATAR of 80 or more. That's impressive!

8.02am STRANGE BUT TRUE: No words needed really.

8am This time next week it will be Christmas Day. That is distressing.

7.58am Good morning! We're in for a cloudy day with a top of 24 degrees. There is a medium chance of showers & a thunderstorm this afternoon. All good on the roads & rail.

7.56am LOCAL NEWS: The "I'll Ride With You" movement took over social media this week, a show of solidarity for Muslims who feared retribution in the wake of the Sydney siege. A team of water safety educators hopes its "I'll Surf With You" tagline picks up as much steam. NB great pic from snapper Sylvia Liber too!

*Reporter Josh Butler has the story.

7.54am STRANGE BUT TRUE (YES!): People, I bring you wine-infused ice-cream. If you need me, I'll be in the corner eating three pints of this stuff.

7.52am CELEB GOSS ALERT: We're on baby bump watch here on the Rush and ... yep, we can definitely see Jessica Biel's bump.

7.50am SPORT: Western Sydney's frustrating Club World Cup campaign has ended with a loss on penalties to African champions ES Setif of Algeria in the playoff for fifth place.

7.48am On dessert duty for Christmas? Try this white chocolate parfait.

7.46am SYDNEY SIEGE: PM Tony Abbott has suggested that firearm laws may need to change as he said that the Martin Place gunman had a gun licence despite having a long criminal history that included being out on bail for being an accessory to murder. (SMH)

7.44am Sally Fitzgibbons is in town today signing copies of her new book. She'll be at Dymocks Wollongong from 11am.

7.42am Have you made your NYE plans yet? It's not that far away!

7.40am NATIONAL: Woolworths has been accused of bullying suppliers into paying millions of dollars to fund a discount war, prompting the competition watchdog to examine whether the supermarket giant is in breach of competition and consumer laws. #cheapcheapintrouble

7.38am CELEB GOSS ALERT: So you think you spoil your kids - there are reports that Kim Kardashian & Kanye West are getting baby North a diamond-encrusted tiara & a replica-child's SUV for Christmas. Price tag? $120,000.

7.36am LOCAL SPORT: The Hawks' 3-12 start to the season may have tested the resolve of fans, but the faith of 11-year-old Caleb Jordan has never wavered. A lovely story from reporter Mitch Jennings here.

7.34am Looking for somewhere to holiday in 2015? Look beyond Phuket and check out these other amazing Thai islands.

7.32am SYDNEY SIEGE: Tributes have continued to pour into Martin Place for the victims of Monday's siege.

7.30am Have you entered your house in the Mercury's Christmas lights competition? Get in quick - entries close Monday. Register here.

7.28am WORLD NEWS: The LA Police Department is buying 7000 body-worn cameras for its officers, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced this week. The decision is not directly related to the protests in Ferguson or NYC in the past several weeks, as the department has been testing the cameras for months. (SMH)

7.26am Keen to cook up your own bread this Christmas day? Check out this recipe for rosemary olive oil bread. Yum.

7.24am Want to congratulate your child/mate/neighbour on their ATAR results? Leave them a message here.

7.22am LOCAL NEWS: The late Wollongong District Court judge Joe Phelan will be remembered as a brilliant legal mind and a compassionate man with a strong sense of justice.

*Reporter Louise Turk has the story.

7.20am Prince George, you have stolen my heart - look at him having a GREAT time with mum at the Winter Wonderland fair in London. #socute

7.18am CELEB NEWS: R&B singer Ashanti has had to take the witness stand in court, forced to answer questions from a delusional fan who had already been convicted, in 2009, of stalking her. Read more.

7.16am NSW: More than 5300 NSW homes may be riddled with deadly Mr Fluffy asbestos insulation and the state government should demolish and buy affected properties, a parliamentary report has found.

7.14am Don't forget the annual Gerringong street parade is on this Saturday.

7.12am TIARA ALERT: Kate Middleton wore her TRACKIES to a publicity event in the UK. I repeat, her TRACKIES. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. TRACKIES.

7.10am SYDNEY SIEGE: NSW Police were right to try to negotiate with the gunman, according to a former senior police officer familiar with counter terrorism training. "There is a very strong history that negotiations work and time does solve problems," said the former officer, who asked not to be named.

7.08am LOCAL NEWS: Vocalist Isabella Hanley truly had something to sing about yesterday, when she found out she was 10th in the state in her Higher School Certificate music course.

*Reporter Kate McIlwain has the story.

7.06am A little Christmas joke for you.

7.04am SYDNEY: A man wearing a gas mask and shouting threats has been arrested on board a train heading into Sydney. The 44 year-old boarded the train at Newcastle and began yelling shortly before arriving at Central station.

7.02am CELEB NEWS: Comedian Russell Brand has criticised the mainstream media and Prime Minister Tony Abbott for referring to Sydney's Lindt cafe siege as an act of terrorism. Read more.

7am STRANGE BUT TRUE: This man spent more than $150,000 to look like Kim Kardashian. I kid you not.

6.58am Good morning! We're in for a cloudy day with a top of 24 degrees. There is a medium chance of showers & a thunderstorm this afternoon. All good on the roads & rail.

6.56am LOCAL NEWS: Two long-serving Balarang Public School teachers were treated to a truck ride to mark their retirements on Wednesday.

*Get the full story here.

6.54am Want to keep the calories down this festive season? Try these easy food swaps - goodbye potato chips, hello vegetables!

6.52am WORLD NEWS: A shocked Pakistan yesterday began burying 132 students killed in an attack on their school by seven Taliban militants.

6.50am Heading out tonight to check out the Illawarra's best Christmas lights? Take this handy guide with you - we've got them all wrapped up for you.

6.48am CELEB GOSS ALERT: Things are not looking good for Spice Girl Mel B. Reports are swirling that she's splitting with her husband & moving out of their LA home.

6.46am If you haven't seen this yet, WATCH IT NOW. Quite possibly the DUMBEST response to a first question on Millionaire Hotseat EVER.

6.44am HEALTH: Health professionals need to focus on family needs, listening and respect when dealing with end-of-life planning for patients, according to research which has revealed a gap in what health professionals and patients believe is important. Read more.

6.42am Can you believe it's just a week until Christmas!? #notready

6.40am MUSIC NEWS: Soundwave promoter AJ Maddah has pulled off a major surprise by announcing one of the biggest names in 90s indie rock, BIlly Corgan vehicle Smashing Pumpkins, to join his touring heavy rock and punk festival in early 2015.

6.38am LOCAL NEWS: Christians and Muslims prayed together on Wednesday, as part of a special interfaith mass in memory of the victims of the Sydney siege.

*Reporter Josh Butler has the story.

6.36am TV NEWS: Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake have taken it back to the '90s for a skit on Fallon's show - they stayed up late at "summer camp" to sing Third Eye Blind. Nice!

6.34am NATIONAL: 2014 has now been declared the "deadliest year" for migrants, with a record 4868 people dying while trying to cross treacherous oceans in 2014 - double the 2013 tally. Read more.

6.32am Have you voted for your Illawarra Sportsperson of the Year? Get in quick - register your vote here.

6.30am Quark. Freekeh. Buckwheat. No, I'm not speaking a different language - these are the foods we'll be eating in 2015, according to the SMH.

6.28am Check out Beyonce's latest picture with daughter Blue Ivy. Cute!

6.26am MOVIE NEWS: It's bad news for Seth Rogen & James Franco's new film The Interview. It's New York premiere has been cancelled as theatres across the US start dropping the movie, amid fears of terrorist attacks.

6.24am NSW: Former NRL player Craig Field has been sentenced to at least seven and a half years' jail for the one-punch killing of a farmer at a pub in 2012.

6.22am Don't forget the Sunset Cinema kicks off at the Wollongong Botanic Gardens on Boxing Day. Have you got your tickets!?

6.20am CELEB GOSS ALERT: Selena Gomez was spotted crying over Justin Bieber at Taylor Swift's 25th birthday party. Oh dear. NB that was a LOT of celeb name-dropping in one sentence.

6.18am TV NEWS: HBO appears to be borrowing from the book of Snapchat for its latest Game of Thrones teaser campaign, deleting a tantalising vision of season five released to fans after just one viewing. But of course, someone's figured out a way around it! Check it out.

6.16am LOCAL NEWS: An Illawarra teen who got his four-year-old niece to perform a sexual act on him under the pretence they were playing a game has avoided a full-time jail sentence.

*Court reporter Shannon Tonkin has the details.

6.14am Ever seen a baby beaver? Now you have - awwww.

6.12am Year 12 students received their HSC marks yesterday. Hope it was good news. It's ATARs today - good luck.

6.10am WORLD NEWS: US President Barack Obama has opened the door to restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba after 50 years of sanctions and embargo, announcing that the US would seek to open an embassy in the coming months and to relax economic and travel restrictions.

6.08am CELEB NEWS: 7th Heaven star Stephen Collins has admitted in an interview overnight that he sexually abused three underage girls. "I did something terribly wrong", he said.

6.06am And in national news, via the SMH:

*In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis was wide awake and agitated, the father of one hostage says. Joel Herat, 21, has told his family Monis was starting to herd the frightened hostages into separate groups inside the Lindt cafe, raising fears they would "not survive until the morning if they did not do something". Read more.

*Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ordered an urgent inquiry into the deadly Martin Place siege as authorities faced fierce scrutiny over why the gunman was free despite the raft of serious criminal charges against him.

*ABC journalists were in tears on Wednesday after being told their positions could become redundant. Close to a third of more than 300 ABC staff in pools with similarly skilled colleagues were expected to learn their fate by 5pm.

6.04am Here's what's making news in your Mercury today:

*An intellectually impaired resident gorged on a jar of hazelnut chocolate spread and choked to death at an Illawarra group home - just 18 months after a similar death at another home. Read more.

*There was a distinct lack of Christmas cheer at Shellharbour City Council’s final meeting of the year, which began with independent councillor Peter Moran being unceremoniously dumped as the council’s representative on the Killalea State Park Trust Board.

*Matthew Paul Wiggins, the man accused of gunning down Darko Janceski in 2012, has been committed to stand trial for murder.

6.02am Let's kick things off with the latest weather & traffic.

WEATHER We're in for a cloudy day with a top of 24 degrees. There is a medium chance of showers & a thunderstorm this afternoon.

TRAFFIC All good on our roads & for the drive to Sydney.

TRAINS There is a good service on the South Coast line.

6am Good morning Illawarra! Hope you're having a good week - we're on the steady slide into the weekend! Stay with me this morning for all the latest news etc.

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