The Guardian 2024-02-04 18:01:07


Roger Davies died with nine broken ribs. Police deemed his death non-suspicious and sent him to a pauper’s grave

Family photos of Roger Davies, a homeless man whose body was found, showing signs of violence, in an abandoned house three years after he died

Exclusive: The 42-year-old army veteran’s treatment – in life and death – lays bare the shocking indifference driving Australia’s homelessness life expectancy crisis

by Christopher Knaus Chief investigations correspondent

In the shell of an abandoned house, beneath cobwebs spun across blackened walls, the skeleton of Roger Davies lay forgotten amid the rubbish.

Davies had come to this burnt-out home in Granville, western Sydney, seeking shelter, a place to squat alongside other rough sleepers fleeing Australia’s broken housing system.

Instead the 42-year-old army veteran found a shocking and premature end, an experience common to Australians experiencing homelessness.

Davies’ body then lay on the ground floor of that abandoned house for three long years, 140 metres down the road from the local police station.

Passersby noticed an overpowering smell but did nothing and Davies was discovered only by chance in April 2015 when a woman arrived to scavenge through the refuse.

She found Davies, still dressed in the blue shirt and brown pants he died in, a watch hanging loosely from his skeletal wrist.

Upstairs, police would later find an unanswered plea for help: an application for emergency housing filled out in Davies’ name about one month before he is believed to have died.

In shaky handwriting, Davies told the department he’d been seeking public housing for years and was now becoming desperate.

“Getting robbed all the time,” he wrote, indicating he was facing “violence and/or harassment from another person” in the squat house.

A postmortem examination would find Davies sustained fractures to nine ribs about the time of his death.

Despite the signs of potential violence and Davies’ handwritten complaints, police records show officers formed the opinion there was “no evidence of suspicious circumstances”.

“There is an absence of any severe physical injury, large amounts of blood loss, known conflicts or possible motive for any person to seriously harm the deceased,” the investigators wrote.

Instead, police formed the opinion Davies had overdosed, despite no record drug paraphernalia being found at the scene and no toxicology report or other supporting evidence.

The investigators said they had based their opinion on his “history”.

Davies’ family were told nothing of his death for more than two years, neither by police nor the state government.

Police knew Davies was from Adelaide and had the names and dates of birth of his brother and sister, but documents suggest they first called their counterparts in South Australia seeking a family contact number on 20 November 2017, two and a half years after the body was found.

“He had been put in a pauper’s grave by the time we found out … before we even found out that he was deceased,” said Davies’ sister, who asked not to be named.

“There was no closure, there’s never going to be any closure, and up until now with you, there’s no one who’s cared.”

An invisible crisis

Nobody really knows how many rough sleepers are dying in Australia. It’s a hidden crisis – there is simply no national data.

Guardian Australia has spent 12 months identifying and investigating 627 homelessness deaths like Davies’ using 10 years’ worth of non-public death reports to state coroners, an analysis of inquest findings since 2010 and interviews with dozens of homeless Australians, victims’ families, frontline support workers and researchers.

The findings are stark.

They show Australians experiencing homelessness are dying prematurely by a margin of more than three decades. The average age of death is 44.

Suicides and overdoses are major drivers. They accounted for one-fifth and one-third of the 627 deaths, respectively.

Researchers and homelessness groups describe such cases as “deaths of despair” and say they are inextricably linked to the trauma and loss of hope associated with homelessness.

Indigenous Australians were also vastly overrepresented among the 627 deaths. About 20% involved an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.

Other rough sleepers are victims of extreme violence.

They have been found dead in parks and squats, and on the street shot, stabbed or bashed to death, including one man who was found in the Domain, in the centre of Sydney, with slash wounds to his neck, and a Tasmanian man who was bashed horrifically and set on fire while sleeping rough, an attack later connected to his sudden epilepsy death.

In many cases, people experiencing homelessness died in ways that were either preventable or directly linked to systemic failures across the housing, health and justice sectors.

In two cases identified by the Guardian, rough sleepers presented to hospital as suicidal, associating their suicidal ideation with their lack of housing.

Medical notes in one of the cases show a man known by the pseudonym of Channa, a 26-year-old from the northern rivers in New South Wales, told hospital staff: “It is hard to find a reason to live when you have nowhere to live.”

No emergency housing was available and Channa was discharged. He was found dead a short time later in a suspected suicide.

In four other cases, rough sleepers died after police enforcement of minor public order offences, such as drinking in public or public nuisance, a practice experts have long urged against. The arrests either led to the use of force or to deaths in custody.

In Western Australia, Guardian Australia has spoken to two Indigenous families who say their loved ones died by suicide after being evicted from public housing.

Davies’ case and many of the 627 deaths investigated by the Guardian are policy failure writ large, the horrific reality of Australia’s inaction on housing its most vulnerable and providing them with wraparound support.

Documents show both federal and state governments have failed to take even the most basic step to investigate the crisis.

In 2021 governments across the country rebuffed or ignored requests from the homelessness sector to establish an annual count of homelessness deaths, a measure adopted by other western nations to inform policy responses and drive accountability.

For Davies’ family, this lack of interest is not new.

Davies’ sister remembers her brother as kind and protective, someone who lost his way after family trauma and discharge from the military.

She says police showed little interest in investigating his death, despite clear evidence of perimortem rib fractures and his handwritten complaints of robberies and violence.

Police documents show they declined to send items found at the scene to forensics and only interviewed two rough sleepers who had a past association with Davies before arriving at the conclusion that he overdosed.

“They wanted it to just go away,” Davies’ sister said. “I got told at the start that pretty much there was no foul play. And then it would seem that that’s not the case.

“It didn’t really seem like it mattered much … And that’s not just the police, that’s also with the media.

“No one really gave a shit.”

‘It was a dark, dark place’

When Beatrice Christian became homeless in Perth in 2018, she sought safety in numbers. She and eight other rough sleepers stuck together, watching each other’s backs.

Christian, a Koori woman, still refers to them as “my little gang”.

Five years later only three of them are still alive. “One, I went to her funeral only two weeks ago,” she says. “She was the baby of the gang.

“Another old gentleman passed of pneumonia about a month ago, I think. There’s only three of us left and their health isn’t the best either, they’ve got the stigma around them as well. They get treated as drunks.”

Studies in Australia and abroad have shown that even a single period of homelessness is profoundly harmful to a person’s physical and mental health.

“It almost drove me to suicide a few times,” Christian says. “It was a dark, dark place.”

The level of unmet demand for support is vast. Every day in 2022-23 there were nearly 295 unmet requests for help to specialist homelessness services.

Christian says she struggled to get proper healthcare. Doctors stigmatised and disbelieved her due to her homelessness, she says, and a note made on her file years ago saying she was suffering drug-induced psychosis.

But Christian is a survivor.

At 54, she has lived longer than most Australians experiencing homelessness, something she attributes to her securing housing in 2020 with the help of the Perth-based advocacy group Daydawn.

“My health would have deteriorated a lot quicker out there than it is now,” she said. “It’s slowly progressing but I would have deteriorated – I would have been gone a long time ago.”

Davies also complained of his failing health while sleeping rough.

Both his and Christian’s cases expose gaps in the health system, a problem experts say is compounded by the lack of funding for specialist homelessness healthcare services.

Davies’ handwritten housing application, seen by Guardian Australia, suggests he suffered an infection while recovering from gall bladder surgery “under a bridge”.

He also complained of struggling to walk on his prosthetic leg and of his difficulties in keeping the area clean while sleeping rough.

“I need a new prosthesis due to 2 bad blisters on either side of my knee causing me great pain to walk,” he wrote. “Having to buy new prosthetic socks every fortnight because I haven’t been able to wash them.”

‘Uncomfortable truths’

No government in Australia bothers to collect data about the life expectancy gap between people experiencing homelessness and the general population.

In an attempt to address this failing, Guardian Australia engaged researchers at the National Coronial Information System, who have access to non-public death reports made to coroners, to examine known homelessness deaths between 2010 and 2021.

In the 627 deaths they could find – nowhere near a full count of homelessness deaths – they found an average age of death of 45.2 years for men and 40.1 years for women.

That represents a life expectancy gap of more than three decades between the median age at death for the general population, which is 79 years for men and 85 years for women.

Despite the limitations of the data, it is the first time the life expectancy gap has been shown at a national level.

The finding is in line with a much more comprehensive but localised study in Perth, which found the median age at death was 50, and a study limited to three homelessness services in inner-city Sydney, which also found a median age of death of 50.

It also accords with government data in England and Wales, where the average age of deaths for people experiencing homelessness is 45 for men and 43 for women, and in Scotland, where deaths are most common among women aged 35 to 44 and men aged 45 to 54.

In 2021 the lack of Australian data prompted David Pearson, the chief executive of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, to pen a letter to the then health minister, Greg Hunt.

He warned that homelessness deaths and Australia’s failure to collect even the most basic data about them was a “national emergency that requires urgent national leadership”.

Pearson urged the Morrison government to commission the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to develop a reporting framework that would allow hospitals, coroners and health and homelessness services to report on the deaths of rough sleepers they come in contact with.

He said Hunt had not responded and that the Morrison government, despite having a minister for homelessness, had referred him to state governments.

“The commonwealth said it was a state issue,” he said. “Most of [the states] didn’t respond. Some of them said, ‘Let’s have some further conversations’, and then nothing happened.”

The Perth study, led by University of Notre Dame Australia’s Prof Lisa Wood, has shown it is possible to count homelessness deaths.

Her Home2Health research team, operating with threadbare funding, compares hospital and other death records with a pool of more than 8,500 people known to have experienced homelessness in the city, built from client lists of local homelessness services.

By cross-checking the known group against hospital records and the WA register of births, deaths and marriages, they identified 360 deaths between 2020 and 2022, with a median age at death of 50 years.

“I can’t help but think that it’s such an uncomfortable truth that in some ways it’s less confronting for governments and others if it remains hidden,” Wood says.

Preventable tragedies

The stories of Australia’s homeless dead reveal failure after systemic failure.

In the case of Terrence Malone, the missed opportunities to divert him from a premature death are almost too many to count.

Malone, an Indigenous man loved deeply by his children, spent much of his life helping others.

He worked as a firefighter and spent 16 years as a psychiatric nurse in Toowoomba, a career that ended after assaults and threats on his life triggered bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders and alcohol dependency.

Malone moved to Brisbane but was left on the streets after police impounded his van and shelters kicked him out due to their zero-tolerance alcohol policies.

In mid-2014 he was accepted by an alcohol rehabilitation service in Toowoomba but was told he could not start until he was off painkillers prescribed for a shoulder injury. The injury required surgery that the local hospital repeatedly delayed and refused to prioritise to get Malone into rehab.

Just months later Malone was imprisoned for the first time in his life on minor property offences and later had his parole revoked over a missed appointment.

Parole officers, having made an underwhelming attempt to find him, deemed his whereabouts unknown, a regular problem for rough sleepers entangled in the justice system, and ordered that he be found and locked back up.

Before he went back behind bars Malone told police – who had no real difficulty finding him – that he was suicidal and had made prior attempts on his life.

A Brisbane correctional centre failed to flag him as a suicide risk. Prison officers gave him razor blades and left him alone in a cell without regular observations.

Malone was found dead the day after his admission. He was 54.

Nick Ware, a lawyer and former police officer, represented Malone’s family at the subsequent inquest, which found that the death could have been prevented.

Ware says Malone’s death left an indelible mark on him: “It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these are people, like you and me, and they deserve to be treated equally and with compassion.”

Similar tragedies are repeated all over the country.

The Council to Homeless Persons chief executive, Deborah Di Natale, describes premature death as a “stark reality” of homelessness.

“It is really dangerous to be experiencing homelessness,” Di Natale said. “We also know that people without homes are at increased risk of death due to untreated illnesses – respiratory illnesses, mental health-related deaths and addiction-related deaths.”

Despite this, rough sleepers’ deaths rarely make their way into public discourse.

Di Natale says silence is fuelled by stigma and false assumptions. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these people are loved by their families, their communities and their [support] workers,” she says.

The housing application found next to Davies’ body shows he was in a desperate state. His handwritten words show a man of failing physical and mental health, all linked to housing.

“I’m thinking of suicide, I’ve been trying to get housing since all my stuff at a bedsitter was thrown in the charity [bin],” he wrote.

New South Wales police did not answer specific questions about the case – a spokesperson said it was a historical matter and they would not be able to review the material in time for publication.

They referred Guardian Australia to the coronial findings. The coronial inquest was not critical of the police investigation.

A Department of Communities and Justice spokesperson said destitute funerals were facilitated by NSW Health but that NSW Police were responsible “for undertaking all necessary investigations before providing advice to the coroner that senior next of kin enquiries have been exhausted and that a deceased is destitute”.

Investigators told the coroner they attempted to contact Davies’ relatives in 2015, but that phone numbers on NSW police systems were “not current”. They also said the number they eventually obtained for Davies’ brother in November 2017 from South Australian police only would have been available from June 2017 onwards.

Davies’ sister is clear-eyed about what she wants to come from her brother’s death.

She says more housing must be given to those who need it most, with wraparound support services to address their mental and physical health.

It is what housing and homelessness groups have been calling for for years, an international best-practice model known as “housing first”.

“The housing system needs to become more available for people who need it and less available for people who are just taking advantage of [it],” Davies’ sister says. “I realise that some people have drug issues and stuff that makes it hard, or make people’s priorities a bit of a mess …

“I think that they’re the ones who perhaps need the help the most. If they had somewhere to stay every night and somewhere to get off the drugs that was safe, perhaps they would. But if they’re out there, then they’re not going to want to.

“It starts from the ground up.”

Homeless Australians are dying at 44 on average in hidden crisis

Homeless Australians are dying at 44 on average in hidden crisis

Exclusive: Guardian Australia investigation lifts the veil on shocking life expectancy gap and the system failures fuelling deaths

Hundreds of Australians experiencing homelessness are dying more than 30 years prematurely in a nationwide crisis fuelled by despair, critical housing shortages, a breakdown in health provision, violence on the streets and failures of the justice system.

A 12-month Guardian Australia investigation identifying and examining more than 600 cases has found people experiencing homelessness are dying at an average age of 44, a shocking life expectancy gap that experts say is worse than any other disadvantaged group in the country.

Using analysis of hidden death reports to state and territory coroners, a review of 10 years’ worth of publicly available inquest findings, and interviews with dozens of homeless Australians, victims’ families, frontline support workers and researchers, the Guardian has found many of the deaths were both preventable and inextricably linked to the critical undersupply of housing and support services.

Despite this, documents show federal and state governments rejected or ignored a push from the homelessness sector in 2021 to take even the basic step of counting homelessness deaths, a measure adopted in the UK to understand the scale of the problem and formulate policy responses.

Guardian Australia’s investigation found that suicide and overdose are major drivers of deaths among those experiencing homelessness.

They accounted for one-fifth and one-third of deaths respectively, according to an analysis of 627 known homelessness deaths reported to the coroner between January 2010 and December 2020.

Researchers describe these as “deaths of despair” and say they are directly connected to the trauma and desperation of homelessness, and compounded by the vast waits for emergency and public housing.

The investigation also revealed deep systemic failings are fuelling the deaths, including:

  • Rough sleepers who present as suicidal to hospitals are being turned away or discharged back into homelessness due to a lack of beds, emergency housing and mental healthcare availability. In two cases identified by the Guardian, homeless Indigenous men linked their hospital presentation directly to their homelessness. One told staff: “It is hard to find a reason to live when you have nowhere to live.” They were discharged and found dead a short time later.

  • Rough sleepers are dying needlessly after encounters with police and the justice system on trivial matters, which lead to use of force or deaths in custody. In at least four cases seen by the Guardian, deaths occurred after arrests for minor public order offences, such as drinking in public and public urination.

  • Frontline workers say the chronic underfunding of specialised homelessness health services means easily treatable injuries and illnesses are being missed in early stages. This is compounding the significant toll homelessness causes on physical and mental health.

  • Homeless Australians are being subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal violence while sleeping rough, and being found in parks, squats and on the street shot, stabbed or bashed.

  • In one case, that of Sydney rough sleeper Roger Davies, police decided there were “no suspicious circumstances” despite evidence he had sustained fractures to nine ribs about the time he died and had complained of being subjected to violence and constant robberies while sleeping in a burnt-out squat house in Granville. They then failed to notify his family until more than two years after Davies was buried in a pauper’s grave.

  • In Western Australia, Indigenous families say the state government is evicting public housing residents even when it knows this will lead to homelessness. Guardian Australia is aware of at least two families whose loved ones died by suicide shortly after losing housing and becoming homeless. The state’s department of communities said terminations are sought only as a “last resort” and that they provide support to tenants facing eviction.

Indigenous Australians are also vastly overrepresented among the homeless deaths examined by the Guardian. About 20% of the 627 reported deaths involved an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, despite Indigenous Australians making up only 3.2% of the general population.

Dulcie Nannup, an Indigenous woman, says her experience of homelessness compromised her health and left her in a constant state of anxiety, fearing for her and her children’s safety.

Nannup became homeless in Perth in 2020 after being forced to leave an overcrowded and unsafe house to protect her children. By that stage she had been on the state’s public housing waiting list for four years.

She and her children slept in her car. When the car broke down, they slept at the beach.

“It was pretty dangerous,” she said. “It was kind of hard to protect us all, me and my children. I was scared. When I slept on the streets I was scared that someone would come up and kill us or something. I used to just think bad things.”

Nannup was forced to undergo triple-bypass surgery, something she associates with the constant stress and anxiety of homelessness. She is now also awaiting dialysis.

“It needs to be heard out there,” she said. “I think a lot of people need to know how unsafe it is for [people experiencing] homelessness, for families out there, mothers and children, who went through what I went through.

“It needs to be told out there. They need to know it’s unsafe to be homeless.”

Blind to the problem

The Australian government does not count the number of homelessness deaths each year, setting it apart from other western nations.

Correspondence seen by the Guardian show the former federal government and state governments rejected or ignored the homelessness sector’s pleas in 2021 to build an annual tally, including by commissioning the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to develop a reporting framework for hospitals, homelessness services and coroners.

That has left Australia blind to the problem and rendered the majority of homelessness deaths invisible.

“It’s a shocking state of affairs,” says Mark Furlong, a scholar who examined the lack of data on Australian homelessness deaths in 2021. “We don’t know how big the problem is and, unless the problem is recognised, it’s not dealt with.”

In an attempt to understand what is driving rough sleeper deaths, the Guardian reviewed coronial inquest decisions over 10 years related to homelessness and conducted interviews with dozens of Australians sleeping rough, victims’ families, frontline workers and researchers.

It also accessed hidden reports of homelessness deaths, which were notified to the coroner but not explored through an inquest, between January 2010 and December 2020. The reports were analysed by researchers at the National Coronial Information System, acting on behalf of the Guardian.

They identified 627 reported deaths – more than one death a week – where the deceased was described as homeless, itinerant, squatting or having no fixed address.

That is a vast undercount because deaths are only reported to the coroner in limited circumstances. Even when they are reported, information about a person’s housing status is often unclear or mischaracterised.

But the data obtained by the Guardian does give insight into the role suicide and overdoses are playing in killing rough sleepers.

About 20%, or 130 of the 627 deaths, could be attributed to intentional self-harm. Roughly 200 were caused by pharmaceutical drug toxicity.

‘They have no hope’

Homelessness Australia’s chief executive, Kate Colvin, said suicides and overdoses, known as deaths of despair, could not be separated from the loss of hope homelessness brought.

“One of the main causes of death is the despair that people feel. They have no hope,” she said. “They know it is so hard to be rehoused and that makes people’s hope for the future dissipate.

“The day-to-day existence is hard on the street. People are vulnerable to violence and exploitation and it is very difficult and traumatic, and then without hope for the future, my expectation is that the biggest killer is direct consequences of despair, such as suicide and drug overdose.”

The average age of death among the 627 cases was 45.2 for men and 40.1 for women.

That means those experiencing homelessness have a life expectancy gap of more than three decades compared with the median age at death for the general population, which is 79 years for men and 85 years for women.

Despite the limitations of the data, the Guardian’s investigation shows, for the first time, that this massive life expectancy gap exists across Australia.

The finding is broadly in line with comprehensive but localised studies in Perth and Sydney, and government data in the UK, which also reveal a vast life expectancy gap.

Last year a Macquarie University analysis of 324 deaths of people experiencing homelessness found their median age at death was 50.7, with overdoses and suicides accounting for 24.1% and 6.8% of deaths respectively.

The Home2Health team, responsible for the Perth research, examined 360 deaths in the city alone between 2020 and 2022.

The research team, headed by the University of Notre Dame Australia professor Lisa Wood, crosschecked multiple records of death, including hospital records and the register of births, deaths and marriages, against a pool of more than 8,500 people known to have experienced homelessness, built from homelessness services’ client lists.

The median age at death was 50 years.

“When there’s a three-decade life expectancy gap, and no other group – even the other most disadvantaged population group in the country – is anywhere near that, [homelessness] is clearly the common denominator,” Wood said.

“If we had more transparency around life expectancy then we could start to see well are we seeing any shifts … in people who are getting rapid housing, who are getting specialist healthcare, who are getting trauma counselling.

“If it remains invisible, it’s going to be hard to see whether we are making progress at all.”

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Labor review into alleged price gouging to examine whether suppliers are too scared to complain

Labor review into alleged supermarket price gouging to examine whether suppliers are too scared to complain

Inquiry head Craig Emerson suggests mandatory code could resolve disputes more quickly

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The commonwealth’s review into alleged price gouging by the major supermarkets will focus on whether suppliers are too scared of retribution to raise complaints – and whether the existing voluntary code of conduct needs to be strengthened or made mandatory.

The inquiry’s head, the former Labor minister Craig Emerson, has suggested a mandatory code with new enforcement measures – including taking stores to court – could resolve disputes more quickly.

“A mandatory code with penalty provisions would likely incentivise greater compliance by supermarkets,” he said. “Enforcement options could include infringement notices and court proceedings to impose financial penalties for non-compliance.”

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The government on Monday will release a consultation paper for Emerson’s review of the food and grocery code of conduct.

The investigation was launched after concerns were raised about how big supermarkets treated suppliers, set prices and dealt with complaints.

Farmers and shoppers have been worried for some time that declining wholesale prices for fresh produce do not always lead to similar price drops on supermarket shelves.

Emerson was appointed in January – four months after the government announced the review – as Labor came under increasing pressure to address cost-of-living concerns.

The consultation paper invites submissions by 29 February on whether the code – which governs how Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Metcash, which operates IGA, deal with suppliers and customers – should be amended. Options include making the voluntary code mandatory and reforming the complaints process.

“Substantially higher financial penalties would be needed” to effectively enforce breaches of the grocery code if the government decided to make financial penalties available, the paper states. It notes that penalties under existing industry codes are generally limited to $187,800 for each offence.

That’s not high enough to be an effective deterrent, considering the market power of the supermarkets, the paper argues.

The competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, does not have the power under the existing code to level financial penalties for non-compliance. The paper says the former ACCC chair Rod Sims “has described the absence of financial penalties for breaches of the code as a deep deficiency”.

Previous reviews of the grocery code found few suppliers raised disputes – with just five cases since an arbitration model was introduced in 2021. But the government’s consultation paper suggests that could hint at a deeper problem.

“Critics of the voluntary code argue that suppliers are too frightened to raise a dispute with a supermarket for fear of their product being removed from the supermarket’s shelves,” Emerson writes in a foreword to the paper.

He acknowledged any ACCC action could involve a lengthy process, a point raised by supporters of the voluntary code, but he suggested better mediation could help – including through settings like the Australian small business and family enterprise ombudsman.

The agriculture minister, Murray Watt, and the assistant minister for competition, Andrew Leigh, said the public should put forward their views during the consultation period.

Leigh encouraged suppliers and stakeholders to voice their concerns while Watt said producers should also get involved.

“Many farmers have talked to me about how hard they find it to deal with the supermarket chains and the lack of transparency that exists in those negotiations,” Watt said.

I asked Lowitja O’Donoghue why she’d lived the life she had. She replied, ‘Because I loved my people’

I asked Lowitja O’Donoghue why she’d lived the life she had. She replied, ‘Because I loved my people’

Stuart Rintoul

Like Aboriginal children the country over, she was raised to be a servant. She wanted more, declaring: ‘I decided that I wanted to be somebody

Lowitja O’Donoghue is gone and my mind is flooded with memories: of driving across dry paddocks together until we found an old bough shed where we had been told she was born; of a door being closed in her face by a woman who had long ago decided to take the secrets of their family to the grave; of her tears, even though she said she felt nothing, as she walked away from the grave of her father, who had abandoned her to missionaries at the age of two.

And of sitting with her the morning after a Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration in which Noel Pearson called her the greatest Aboriginal leader of the modern era.

As she flicked through old photographs that morning, pausing to look at the girl she no longer was, and the many champions of the Aboriginal struggle she fought alongside, I asked her why she had lived the life she lived.

She looked at me and said: “Because I loved my people.”

When she was born, near Indulkana, in the far north of South Australia, sometime around 1 August 1932, Aboriginal people lived in shadows. The last massacre, at Coniston station in the Northern Territory, had occurred only a few years earlier, while a few years after her birth “protectors” from across the nation came together over three fine cool days to discuss the destiny of Aboriginal people, during which no Aboriginal voice was heard.

Lowitja’s mother, Lily, was a Yankunytjatjara woman. Her father, Tom O’Donoghue, was first-generation Irish Australian. In 1927 he handed his first two children to the missionaries of the United Aborigines Mission, zealous Christian women who were scouring the outback for “half-caste” children to bring to God. In 1934 he handed them three more, including Lowitja, who was two years old. In 1940, when he was charged and fined for cohabitating with an Aboriginal woman, which was a crime, he walked away.

If her mother called her Lowitja, it was not the name the missionaries gave her. They gave her a different, biblical name, and they gave her a birthdate, 1 August – the birthday of horses.

For Lowitja, the Colebrook children’s home was a place of rigid discipline and joyless religious observance, bad food, endless hymn singing and praising of the Lord. She did not feel loved. She was often in trouble. I remember in my very earliest days standing up for what I believed in,” she said. “One of the earliest memories I have is of coming between the matron and the strap. I would often stand in the way when the strap was intended for others, with the result being that I, too, got a beating.”

She asked herself terrible questions: where is my mother, why doesn’t she come for me, doesn’t she love me?

But Lowitja’s mother did look for her – and for her other children.

Of all the records found during the writing of Lowitja’s biography, the most painful was of a woman who arrived in the Flinders Ranges town of Quorn just before Christmas in 1945, with two young children at her side. She had travelled more than 500km through desert country from the remote township of William Creek. She told the police sergeant, Bill Kitchin, that her name was Lily and she was making her way to the Port Augusta mission, where she believed she would find her five children who had been taken away.

If Kitchin, a police officer for 33 years, knew, or suspected, that Lily’s children were at Colebrook – which was at Quorn for 17 years but had moved the previous year to Eden Hills in the Adelaide foothills – he did not tell her. Instead he bought her a ticket to Port Augusta. Then he sat down and wrote to the chief protector of Aborigines, William Richard Penhall, and asked to be reimbursed for his costs.

Lowitja, like Aboriginal children the country over, was raised to be a servant. She wanted more. “I decided that I wanted to be ‘somebody’,” she said. “That God had given me intelligence and that I was going to use it.”

Fighting against discrimination and low expectations – the battle she fought all her life – she became one of the first Aboriginal nurses. She campaigned for equal rights and bit her tongue when a patient said, “Don’t put your black hands on me.” In 1962 she went to India, working as a nurse among Baptist missionaries in the foothills of the Himalayas.

In 1967, the year of the referendum to count Aboriginal people in the census, she joined South Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs and, always hoping to be reunited with her mother, was sent to the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy as a welfare officer. She had not long arrived when she heard a group of people sitting outside a store say, “That’s Lily’s daughter.” In the weeks that followed, Lily waited for her daughter in the outback town of Oodnadatta, staring off into the desert, waiting for her daughter to come home.

The reunion was not easy. They did not embrace. They did not know how to be with one another. Her mother did all that she could to hide the brokenness of her life and the poverty in which she was living. Lowitja’s mind was filled with questions and she asked none of them. “By the time I met my mother, of course, it was far too emotional to talk about,” she recalled.

In the years that followed Lowitja worked as an outback nurse, never being invited into the homes of the white people who had high tea in the afternoon, and then rose through an Aboriginal affairs bureaucracy in which she was one of few Aboriginal people. In 1990 she was appointed as the first chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which grew into a $1bn bureaucracy. In 1993, after the high court’s Mabo decision, she led complex native title negotiations with the then prime minister, Paul Keating, amid a firestorm of conservative opposition. Keating called her a remarkable Australian leader.

“To be a woman, to be an Aboriginal, and to want a decent living is a difficult path,” she once said. “Believe me, it’s all been uphill. As John Lennon once sang, woman is the nigger of the world. I am both, I’m proud of it and nobody is going to change that.”

Throughout her life, Lowitja received many honours: Order of Australia; Commander of the Order of the British Empire; Australian of the Year; Australian National Living Treasure; Companion of the Order of Australia; Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great – a papal honour even though she was not Catholic. She received many honorary doctorates from Australian universities. The Lowitja Institute, an Indigenous-controlled health research institute, was named in her honour.

A few years ago Lowitja told me she could feel “the old Lowitja” slipping away.

She hated it, that loss of herself. Sometimes her mind was tormented by the past and sometimes it was filled with hymns. At the end, her family and friends came just to sit with her, among them Indigenous leaders carrying the weight of the lost referendum, wishing she could have lived to see Aboriginal people recognised in Australia’s constitution.

  • Stuart Rintoul is the author of Lowitja – the authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue (Allen & Unwin, 2020)

Lowitja O’DonoghueCelebrated campaigner for Aboriginal Australians dies aged 91

Lowitja O’Donoghue, celebrated campaigner for Aboriginal Australians, dies aged 91

A member of the stolen generations, the Yankunytjatjara leader was only reunited with her mother through a chance meeting 30 years later

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Lowitja O’Donoghue, a Yankunytjatjara leader and activist, has died at the age of 91.

The Lowitja Institute announced her death on Sunday. A pioneering leader in Aboriginal advancement and recognition campaigns, O’Donoghue was a “formidable leader who was never afraid to listen, speak and act”, her family said.

“Yankunytjatjara woman, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, aged 91, died peacefully on Sunday 4 February 2024 on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia, with her immediate family by her side,” Deb Edwards, O’Donoghue’s niece, said in the statement.

“Our Aunty and Nana was the matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives. We adored and admired her when we were young and have grown up full of never-ending pride as she became one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, paid tribute to O’Donoghue as “one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known”.

“As we mourn her passing, we give thanks for the better Australia she helped make possible,” he said in a statement.

“Dr O’Donoghue had an abiding faith in the possibility of a more united and reconciled Australia. It was a faith she embodied with her own unceasing efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to bring about meaningful and lasting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.”

Like other members of the stolen generations, O’Donoghue was taken from her family and home at a young age and raised in an institution. From the age of two she was brought up by missionaries at the Colebrook home for half-caste children. She was born on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands at Granite Downs station in SA but did not know her birthdate. Missionaries assigned her the birthday of 1 August 1932.

By the age of 16 O’Dononghue was employed as a domestic servant in Victor Harbour in SA before campaigning to be allowed to pursue nursing training.

She became the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide hospital, the first Aboriginal person to be named a Companion of the Order of Australia, and the first to address the UN general assembly.

She campaigned for the recognition of Aboriginal peoples in the 1967 referendum and went on to work with the prime minister Paul Keating as a lead negotiator on the Native Title Act after the 1992 Mabo decision.

A chance meeting with an aunt and uncle who recognised O’Donoghue in the SA town of Coober Pedy in the late 1960s led to her being reunited with her birth mother, Lily, more than 30 years after they were torn apart. She told the Australian Biography project that the moment had brought “new meaning and a whole new dimension” to her life and a resolve to devote herself to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In 1984 she was named Australian of the Year and in 2005 was honoured with a papal award, becoming Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great.

She was the founding chair of the National Aboriginal Conference in 1977 and, in 1990, the first chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

“Aunty Lowitja dedicated her entire lifetime of work to the rights, health, and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” Edwards said.

“We thank and honour her for all that she has done – for all the pathways she created, for all the doors she opened, for all the issues she tackled head-on, for all the tables she sat at and for all the arguments she fought and won.”

O’Donoghue was the first Aboriginal woman named in the Order of Australia in 1976, and later a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1999 – both for her commitment to public service and leadership in Indigenous affairs.

Naidoc described her as “one of the great and sustaining forces for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

The Lowitja Institute, dedicated to advancing Indigenous health outcomes, was named in her honour in 2010.

Her family on Sunday gave permission for O’Donoghue’s name and image to be used.

The Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, paid tribute to O’Donoghue as a “fearless and passionate advocate”.

“Australia mourns the passing of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue and it is with great sadness and love that I pay tribute to her remarkable legacy,” she said.

“Throughout her career in public life, Dr O’Donoghue displayed enormous courage, dignity and grace. She dedicated her life to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians and deserves our deepest respect and gratitude …

“She was a truly extraordinary leader. Lowitja was not just a giant for those of us who knew her, but a giant for our country.”

Pat Dodson, the former Labor senator known as the father of reconciliation, said: “This is a sad day for first peoples of this nation. We have lost an extraordinary person of great courage and strength.”

Dodson said O’Donoghue’s leadership in the battle for justice was legendary.

“Hers was a strong voice, and her intelligent navigation for our rightful place in a resistant society resulted in many of the privileges we enjoy today. She will be forever remembered in our hearts.”

Noel Pearson said O’Donoghue “was our greatest leader of the modern era”.

“She was full of grace and fortitude. She was the definition of courage and never lapsed in her principles. Her love and loyalty to our people across the country was boundless,” he said.

“We owed her an unrepayable debt for the sacrifices she made while she lived. Her memory will never be forgotten and her legacy will endure.”

Labor unveils proposal, highlighting petrol savings of $1,000 a year for motorists

Fuel efficiency standards: Labor unveils proposal, highlighting petrol savings of $1,000 a year for motorists

Coalition-led scare campaign predicted for plan to place yearly cap on emissions for new cars sold in Australia

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The Albanese government has unveiled its long-awaited plan for fuel efficiency standards for new cars while highlighting potential savings of $1,000 a year and predicting a Coalition-led scare campaign.

The proposed model, announced on Sunday, would place a yearly cap on the emissions output for new cars sold in Australia to incentivise carmakers to supply low- and zero-emissions vehicles and penalise companies that do not.

Legislation required to create the standards – which only apply to new passenger and light commercial vehicles – would be introduced to federal parliament in the first half of 2024 and take effect from January 2025, the government said.

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Australia, along with Russia, remains one of the few countries in the OECD without standards. Industry analysts have routinely warned manufacturers are treating Australia as a dumping ground for heavy-polluting vehicles due to a lack of penalties.

The government’s preferred option is expected to deliver a reduction of 369m tonnes of CO2 by 2050 – equivalent to the last six years’ of emissions from light vehicles in Australia.

The climate change minister, Chris Bowen, pitched the new standards as a cost-of-living measure, given that new vehicles sold in Australia are about 40% less efficient than those sold in the EU.

“Australians are paying more than they need to for petrol,” Bowen said.

Car manufacturers that failed to meet the standards across their entire fleet would face a financial penalty from 1 January 2025. The proposed fine was $100 for every gram over the target.

“We expect companies to comply with the law,” Bowen said on Sunday. “They don’t like the bad press that comes with not meeting fuel emissions standards and that’s why the system works in all comparable countries.”

An analysis released by the government claimed that by 2028 the standards would save a new car owner $5,170 over five years. It also suggested that over the life of the vehicle, Australians could save about $17,000 by paying less money for fuel.

The Electric Vehicle Council’s chief executive, Behyad Jafari, welcomed the announcement and agreed the new standards would save consumers money and provide them more choice.

“Because previous federal governments failed to introduce new vehicle efficiency standards, some car manufacturers have treated Australia as a dumping ground for their most inefficient models,” Jafari said.

The Climate Council chief executive, Amanda McKenzie, called for the standards to be fast-tracked and introduced before the end of 2024.

“Many Australians are doing it tough right now, with petrol one of the expenses causing the most financial stress for households. At the same time, pollution from inefficient petrol-guzzling cars is fuelling harmful climate change,” McKenzie said.

The NRMA described the new standards as “a responsible and achievable option” that would reduce emissions, save consumers money and increase competition.

“Australia could not continue down the path of voluntary targets as it left us behind when it came to choice and the NRMA is strong advocates for choice so that motorists can buy the cars they wish to drive,” said the NRMA chief executive, Rohan Lund.

“A business-as-usual approach meant that Australian families and businesses were not benefiting from the best technology designed to reduce fuel consumption.”

Despite praise from many industry groups, senior ministers are mindful the opposition may try to repeat a scare campaign rolled out during the 2019 federal election campaign.

The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, claimed Labor’s electric vehicle policy would “end the weekend”.

“Let me predict a few scare campaigns,” Bowen said. “This is not a requirement on car manufacturers not to send any particular brand or model to Australia. It’s not a restriction on what Australians can buy. You can still buy a used SUV or a ute or whatever you like.”

On Sunday the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, accused the government of trying to take away the country ute and of discriminating against regional people.

“We can’t let ideology get in the road of practical reality,” Littleproud told the Nine Network.

“If you take away particularly utes, they’re tools of trade, particularly for people, not just tradies in the cities, but also people in the bush. And if you put a tonne on the back of an electric ute at the moment, you don’t get far.”

Labor unveils proposal, highlighting petrol savings of $1,000 a year for motorists

Fuel efficiency standards: Labor unveils proposal, highlighting petrol savings of $1,000 a year for motorists

Coalition-led scare campaign predicted for plan to place yearly cap on emissions for new cars sold in Australia

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The Albanese government has unveiled its long-awaited plan for fuel efficiency standards for new cars while highlighting potential savings of $1,000 a year and predicting a Coalition-led scare campaign.

The proposed model, announced on Sunday, would place a yearly cap on the emissions output for new cars sold in Australia to incentivise carmakers to supply low- and zero-emissions vehicles and penalise companies that do not.

Legislation required to create the standards – which only apply to new passenger and light commercial vehicles – would be introduced to federal parliament in the first half of 2024 and take effect from January 2025, the government said.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

Australia, along with Russia, remains one of the few countries in the OECD without standards. Industry analysts have routinely warned manufacturers are treating Australia as a dumping ground for heavy-polluting vehicles due to a lack of penalties.

The government’s preferred option is expected to deliver a reduction of 369m tonnes of CO2 by 2050 – equivalent to the last six years’ of emissions from light vehicles in Australia.

The climate change minister, Chris Bowen, pitched the new standards as a cost-of-living measure, given that new vehicles sold in Australia are about 40% less efficient than those sold in the EU.

“Australians are paying more than they need to for petrol,” Bowen said.

Car manufacturers that failed to meet the standards across their entire fleet would face a financial penalty from 1 January 2025. The proposed fine was $100 for every gram over the target.

“We expect companies to comply with the law,” Bowen said on Sunday. “They don’t like the bad press that comes with not meeting fuel emissions standards and that’s why the system works in all comparable countries.”

An analysis released by the government claimed that by 2028 the standards would save a new car owner $5,170 over five years. It also suggested that over the life of the vehicle, Australians could save about $17,000 by paying less money for fuel.

The Electric Vehicle Council’s chief executive, Behyad Jafari, welcomed the announcement and agreed the new standards would save consumers money and provide them more choice.

“Because previous federal governments failed to introduce new vehicle efficiency standards, some car manufacturers have treated Australia as a dumping ground for their most inefficient models,” Jafari said.

The Climate Council chief executive, Amanda McKenzie, called for the standards to be fast-tracked and introduced before the end of 2024.

“Many Australians are doing it tough right now, with petrol one of the expenses causing the most financial stress for households. At the same time, pollution from inefficient petrol-guzzling cars is fuelling harmful climate change,” McKenzie said.

The NRMA described the new standards as “a responsible and achievable option” that would reduce emissions, save consumers money and increase competition.

“Australia could not continue down the path of voluntary targets as it left us behind when it came to choice and the NRMA is strong advocates for choice so that motorists can buy the cars they wish to drive,” said the NRMA chief executive, Rohan Lund.

“A business-as-usual approach meant that Australian families and businesses were not benefiting from the best technology designed to reduce fuel consumption.”

Despite praise from many industry groups, senior ministers are mindful the opposition may try to repeat a scare campaign rolled out during the 2019 federal election campaign.

The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, claimed Labor’s electric vehicle policy would “end the weekend”.

“Let me predict a few scare campaigns,” Bowen said. “This is not a requirement on car manufacturers not to send any particular brand or model to Australia. It’s not a restriction on what Australians can buy. You can still buy a used SUV or a ute or whatever you like.”

On Sunday the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, accused the government of trying to take away the country ute and of discriminating against regional people.

“We can’t let ideology get in the road of practical reality,” Littleproud told the Nine Network.

“If you take away particularly utes, they’re tools of trade, particularly for people, not just tradies in the cities, but also people in the bush. And if you put a tonne on the back of an electric ute at the moment, you don’t get far.”

Melbourne reaches 37C, the city’s first officially hot day of summer

Hot weather: temperatures soar across Australia’s south-east with Melbourne hitting 37C

Victorian capital records first officially ‘hot’ day of summer

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Australia’s south-east is sweltering through a scorching summer day with authorities urging parents to take particular care of younger children.

Parts of regional Victoria and South Australia were forecast to reach temperatures exceeding 40C on Sunday.

Melbourne reached 37.1C before 5pm – making it the hottest day of summer so far. Previously, the city was yet to record a “hot” day – classified by the Bureau of Meteorology as above 35C.

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Victoria’s regional areas experienced hotter temperatures, with Shepparton hitting 38.4C on Sunday afternoon. The Country Fire Authority announced a total fire ban for the state’s north-east with wind conditions of up to 40km/hour posing a challenge to firefighters.

In Sydney’s western suburbs, Penrith hit 39.2C, while the city reached 31C. The bureau recorded 44.5C at Wilcannia in north-western NSW just before 2pm on Sunday.

Adelaide hit a top of 39.6C shortly after 2pm while Port Augusta in South Australia’s west reached 44.2C.

Angus Hines, a senior meteorologist at the BoM, said warm weather in Western Australia had swept across to the nation’s east.

“We’re seeing some north-westerly winds drag that heat across from the west and it’s reaching central and south-eastern places today,” he said.

“Part of the reason we’re seeing those north-westerly [winds] is ahead of the approaching cool change and they will switch around to the much cooler, south-westerly winds once that change has gone through.”

Hines said a cool change was expected for many areas across the south-east on Sunday evening.

Melbourne’s temperature was forecast to drop to a top of 22C on Monday and continue in the mid-20s throughout the week. Cooler temperatures were also forecast for much of South Australia.

But there will be little respite for western Sydney, with a top of 38C forecast for Penrith on Monday.

Health practitioners encouraged people to keep cool and covered and avoid sun exposure, which can cause pain as well as lead to skin cancer.

Staff at the Women’s and Children’s hospital in North Adelaide have treated 15 patients for severe sunburn in recent weeks.

Dr Bernard Carney said parents and carers could not be too cautious about children being in the sun.

“It is incredibly distressing for children to be treated for sunburn,” he said. “They are often in severe pain and require frequent dressing changes. No parent wants to see their child suffer, especially from something that’s preventable.”

Carney encouraged people to stay hydrated, wear a hat and loose clothes, and use sunscreen.

The UV index in each city will reach extreme levels, with sun protection recommended until about 5.30pm.

Hot temperatures could be dangerous for everyone’s health, NSW’s health department said, while emphasising the impact on people 65 and older, young children, pregnant women and those with medical conditions.

Closing doors, windows and blinds and using air-conditioning or electric fans would help cool homes, NSW Health said.

Ex-president will spend more time in court than on campaign trail, says Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley: Trump spends more time ‘ranting’ than fighting for American people

Republican candidate attacks Trump for being more concerned with himself than with country ahead of South Carolina primary

Nikki Haley pressed her case on Sunday to become the Republican presidential nominee by launching a sharp attack on her rival Donald Trump as a candidate who is set to spend more time in court than on the campaign trail this year and is intent on ranting about his own supposed victimhood rather than fighting for the American people.

With less than three weeks to go before the Republican primary in her home state of South Carolina, which many observers see as the former governor and UN ambassador’s last stand, Haley attacked Trump for being more concerned with himself than with the future of the country. She told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning TV show that his multiple court cases, in which he faces 91 charges across four criminal cases, amounted to a “real issue”.

Turning Trump’s own words against him, Haley said that the former president is “going to be spending more time in a courtroom than he’s going to be spending on the campaign trail”. At a time when the US is “in disarray and the world is on fire, we need a president that’s going to give us eight years of focus and discipline, not one that’s going to be sitting there ranting about how he’s a victim.”.

She added that Trump, in recent days, “hasn’t once talked about the American people. And that’s a problem.”

She went on to accuse him of having a “temper tantrum” after she garnered 43% of the vote in New Hampshire last month. “Why? Because he wasn’t controlling the situation.”

Haley’s caustic attack on Trump came as he continues to command a seemingly unassailable lead in the Republican nomination contest. He comfortably won elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is now showing a double digit lead in opinion polls in South Carolina, where the Republican primary contest is on 24 February.

In the latest Washington Post-Monmouth University poll of potential Republican primary voters in South Carolina, Trump was 26 points ahead on 58% to Haley’s 32%.

As part of her increasingly direct assault on the standing and reputation of Trump, Haley has also taken to comparing him to Joe Biden. She pointedly predicted that if Trump became the Republican nominee, there would be a woman in the White House.

In that circumstance, “Joe Biden will win and Kamala Harris will become president,” she said.

She said that America deserved better than either Trump or Biden as leader. “Why are we doing this? We are allowing ourselves to have two 80-year-olds, who can’t serve eight years, who are both diminished whether it’s in their character or in their mental capacity.”

For his part, Biden surprised no one by taking more than 95% of the primary vote in South Carolina on Saturday. His two competitors, Dean Phillips, a congressman from Minnesota, and self-help author Marianne Williamson, lagged far behind.

South Carolina has been promoted by the Democratic party as its first official primary election, partly out of recognition that it was the state in which African American voters gifted Biden a huge win in 2020 that lifted him to the Democratic nomination. Jim Clyburn, the Democratic congressman from South Carolina who was seminal in turning that vote to Biden, was asked by CNN whether was retaining the support of Black voters in this election cycle.

“Joe Biden has not lost any support among African Americans. You can go out and talk to 10 people, purposely find one who maybe gives off a different thought, but he has not lost any support among African Americans,” Clyburn said.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic party leader in the House of Representatives, hinted at better things to come for Biden as he struggles to best Trump in many opinion polls.

“It was a tremendous victory in South Carolina, a decisive one and I think it demonstrates that as we enter into the campaign season that the American people are beginning to focus on President Biden’s incredible track record of results,” he said.

Jeffries cited economic and health measures executed by the Biden administration as the US worked its way out from the Covid-19 pandemic, “allowing the American economy to emerge as the most advanced in the world”.

He added: “Yes, more needs to be done in addressing affordability and the inflationary pressures and President Biden has a vision to do that.”

Biden was scheduled to travel to Las Vegas on Sunday for a campaign event in the Historic Westside neighborhood ahead of Nevada’s Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Nevada is a key swing state for Biden to win again this year. He beat Trump by less than three points there in 2020, relying heavily on support from Hispanic and working class union member voters in the Las Vegas area.

Biden needs a good showing in the Democratic primary, while the nominating race for the Republicans in Nevada is a confusing and messy one with two contests two days apart and Trump having a clear advantage over Haley.

Museum inters 200-year-old remains of Black Philadelphians

‘Stolen and disrespected’: museum inters 200-year-old remains of Black Philadelphians

Bones had been used to provide disproven scientific justification for white supremacy before being housed in the Penn Museum

The remains of 19 Black Philadelphians have finally been laid to rest, almost 200 years after they were stolen and corralled into the Morton Cranial Collection, the world’s largest 19th-century assemblage of human skulls. The individuals’ bones had been used to provide pseudo-scientific justification for white supremacy in the lead-up to the American civil war.

The Penn Museum, the branch of the University of Pennsylvania which has housed the remains since 1966, staged an interfaith service on Saturday to commemorate their restitution to hallowed ground.

“Finally, after nearly 200 years, we can begin to make it right,” said the Rev Charles Lattimore Howard, the university’s chaplain, at a service in the museum’s Harrison auditorium. He said the event was part memorial service, part truth-telling and repentance, part “an opportunity for closure”.

But the buildup to Saturday’s historic event – which marked one of the first voluntary burials of the remains of people of color from a major anatomical collection – was engulfed in controversy. Outside researchers and activists have accused the museum of ignoring the wishes of the local Black community, which wanted a more thorough investigation into the identity of the 19 individuals, who remain unidentified, before their bones were interred, and for the Penn Museum to loosen its control over the restitution process.

Amid the heated debate, the museum admitted that it had quietly laid the bones to rest on 22 January at Eden cemetery, the city’s earliest African American burial ground. The 19 Philadephians’ remains had been placed in two simple grey granite mausoleums created specially for the purpose.

The collision of these conflicting ideas about approach left the event – one which academic institutions around the world are watching closely for clues as to how to conduct their own reparative processes – coming across as fraught and troubled. The Rev Dr J Wendell Mapson Jr, a pastor with the Monumental Baptist church, recognized as much at the memorial service.

“This commemoration,” he said, “has not come without some pain, discomfort and tension.”

A sordid history

The Morton Cranial Collection was amassed by Samuel Morton, a physician at Penn’s medical school who gathered about 900 craniums in the 1830s and 1840s from around the world. He measured the skulls in a spurious and thoroughly debunked attempt to prove that white people had larger brains and were more intelligent than other races.

After Morton’s death in 1851, skulls continued to be sent to the collection from around the globe, increasing its size to about 1,700 individual remains.

In recent years, the collection has come under mounting public scrutiny given its egregious uses in the pre-civil war period. According to Paul Wolff Mitchell, a leading researcher of the collection who is now at the University of Amsterdam, Morton was “about as infamous as anyone in the history of US scientific racism. He articulated perhaps the most extreme vision of white supremacy as scientific racist ideology in the 19th century.” Morton was also a leading proponent of polygenesis – the theory that different human races were in effect separate species.

The Penn Museum’s move to address the racism embedded in its anthropological collection was supercharged by the reckoning that followed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. A year later, the museum had to contend with further criticism when it was revealed that one of its top curators, Janet Monge, had used the bones of a child killed in the 1985 police bombing of a Black Philadelphia liberation group, Move, as a prop in her online classes on forensic anthropology. Relatives were unaware that the child’s remains were even in the university’s possession.

At Saturday’s service, John Jackson, the university’s provost, apologized for the possession and treatment of the bones. “The remains of these people – human beings, our brothers and sisters, anonymized, dehumanized – should never have been on display,” he said. “For that, on behalf of the entire university, please accept my regrets and deepest apologies.”

During his address, Howard noted that as a Black man connected with the Ivy League institution he felt “deep resentment and anger at the way Black bodies were stolen and disrespected”. He also expressed “deep pain at the bogus scientific research used to justify it”.

‘This is just to placate the community’

Little is currently known about the 12 women and seven men who have been laid to rest at Eden cemetery.

Finding Ceremony, a reparations project which has helped establish a descendants group around the Morton collection, has accused the museum of failing to conduct sufficient research on the provenance and identities of the skulls. Though the lack of names of the 19 has rendered it impossible to find their literal descendants, the group claims general ancestry as part of the Philadelphia Black community.

The project’s co-convener, Lyra Monteiro, said that her main objection to the way the restitution of the bones had been conducted is based on a fundamental justice principle: decisions over ancestral remains should not be made by the very institution that caused the harm. “The museum is calling the shots,” said Monteiro, who was denied entry to Saturday’s service. “They are not listening to descendants – they are making their own decisions, and we absolutely have a problem with that.”

Alex Wilson, a member of the descendants group who attended the commemoration, said that she was sceptical of the process conducted by the Penn Museum. She worried the event was “something just to placate the community”.

The museum insists that it does consult with the local community, working through the Morton collection’s community advisory group, which it founded in 2021. The panel consists of university and city officials, community organizations and spiritual advisers.

The museum also stresses that research on the remains is ongoing. Christopher Woods, the museum’s director, said at the memorial service that it was his “sincere hope that continued research will be successful in determining the identity of some of the remains”.

The fight for more adequate research

In 2021 Mitchell, the Morton collection researcher, published a report on the Black Philadelphians whose remains were held. The study, which helped inform the events leading to Saturday’s commemoration, chronicled how bodies of Black Philadelphians were often stolen from graves for dissection and anatomical research.

Many came from the former grounds of the Blockley almshouse, upon which the Penn Museum is built. Poor Black and white people, orphans and unhoused people resided at the institution in prison-like conditions, and after death their bones were often trafficked for medical research or for dispatch to the burgeoning Morton collection.

Some of the 19 are known to have been in the almshouse. It is almost certain, given the demographics of Philadelphia at the time Morton was collecting, that some were enslaved people at birth.

Finding Ceremony has conducted its own research, and discovered last month that the museum’s original plan to lay to rest a 20th Black Philadelphian may have been a violation of federal law because the remains belonged to a man with Native American ancestry.

The individual, John Voorhees, was the only Black Philadelphian in the group whose identity has been confirmed. He was listed in Morton’s own catalogue of his collection as a “mulatto” who died in the almshouse in 1846.

Finding Ceremony found that a few weeks before he died Voorhees was interviewed by the Quaker group which oversaw the almshouse. He told them that his mother was “an ‘Indian Squaw’”, suggesting that he was of part Native American descent.

Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra), Native American remains have to be returned to the relevant tribe or lineal descendant. As a result of Finding Ceremony’s discovery, the museum withdrew Voorhees’ skull from its burial plans.

A spokesperson for the Penn Museum said that the institution has always carried out its responsibilities under Nagpra, and that if a claim regarding Voorhees were made by a federally recognized tribe, the museum would consult with tribal representatives.

Monteiro, an assistant history professor at Rutgers University, said that the Voorhees experience exposed the inadequate nature of the museum’s research. She said that Finding Ceremony had evidence that could lead to the identification of five of the 19 individuals interred at Eden cemetery, which could in turn provide clues as to their descendants.

But she also said she feared that unless the university begins to put more resources into researching the provenance of the remains in the Morton collection, making a focused effort to uncover the human stories contained within them, then connections with the modern world could remain hidden. “The descendant community is in danger of losing the ability to lay to rest their own ancestors in a way that is meaningful for them,” she cautioned.

For his part, Woods said that the Eden cemetery mausoleums had been built above ground precisely to allow access: “If future research should learn of the identification of any of the individuals, their remains can easily be retrieved and returned to their families.” 

At the end of a poignant day in Philadelphia, the ceremony left attendees looking to the future. A historic step had been taken, fraught with tension though it may have been. Still, many more difficult decisions lie ahead relating to as many as 1,500 other human remains stored in the Morton collection.

As Dr Mapson put it: “Society treats its dead as it treats its living, not always with dignity, sometimes with contempt … If the same mistakes are made again, shame on us.”

First UK patients receive experimental messenger RNA therapy

First UK patients receive experimental messenger RNA cancer therapy

The British clinical trial of the revolutionary new mRNA treatment will test its effectiveness in combating a range of cancers

A revolutionary new cancer treatment known as mRNA therapy has been administered to patients at Hammersmith hospital in west London. The trial has been set up to evaluate the therapy’s safety and effectiveness in treating melanoma, lung cancer and other solid tumours.

The new treatment uses genetic material known as messenger RNA – or mRNA – and works by presenting common markers from tumours to the patient’s immune system.

The aim is to help it recognise and fight cancer cells that express those markers.

“New mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies offer an avenue for recruiting the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer,” said Dr David Pinato of Imperial College London, an investigator with the trial’s UK arm.

Pinato said this research was still in its early stages and could take years before becoming available for patients. However, the new trial was laying crucial groundwork that could help develop less toxic and more precise new anti-cancer therapies. “We desperately need these to turn the tide against cancer,” he added.

A number of cancer vaccines have recently entered clinical trials across the globe. These fall into two categories: personalised cancer immunotherapies, which rely on extracting a patient’s own genetic material from their tumours; and therapeutic cancer immunotherapies, such as the mRNA therapy newly launched in London, which are “ready made” and tailored to a particular type of cancer.

The primary aim of the new trial – known as Mobilize – is to discover if this particular type of mRNA therapy is safe and tolerated by patients with lung or skin cancers and can shrink tumours. It will be administered alone in some cases and in combination with the existing cancer drug pembrolizumab in others.

Researchers say that while the experimental therapy is still in the early stages of testing, they hope it may ultimately lead to a new treatment option for difficult-to-treat cancers, should the approach be proven to be safe and effective.

Nearly one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. A range of therapies have been developed to treat patients, including chemotherapy and immune therapies.

However, cancer cells can become resistant to drugs, making tumours more difficult to treat, and scientists are keen to seek new approaches for tackling cancers.

Preclinical testing in both cell and animal models of cancer provided evidence that new mRNA therapy had an effect on the immune system and could be offered to patients in early-phase clinical trials.

Woman rescued from mountain after fall while scattering father’s ashes

Woman rescued from Welsh mountain after fall while scattering father’s ashes

Kitty Harrison tells how she clung to tiny ledge above 90-metre drop for over three hours before being saved

A woman has told of how she had to be rescued by a helicopter and 12-strong mountain rescue team when she slipped while scattering her father’s ashes on one of Wales’s highest mountains.

Kitty Harrison had just given her father, Steve Parry, an emotional send-off on the summit of Tryfan in Snowdonia when she lost her footing. The 32-year-old trainee dental nurse had to cling to a tiny ledge where she balanced precariously above a 91-metre (300ft) drop for more than three hours.

“My foot slipped on the loose shingle and I slipped quite a way and I landed on a tiny ledge,” Harrison told the BBC’s SOS: Extreme Rescues programme. “If I hadn’t gone down that side, I’d have gone straight down the mountain and I’m not sure I’d be here today.”

The experienced climber was a third of the way down from the 917-metre summit, where she had said her final goodbye to her father. Volunteers located her using her mobile phone GPS and spotters from the coastguard helicopter. The rescue took seven hours in total.

“I was in such a state that I couldn’t have got out of there myself,” Harrison said. “They deserve so much credit and praise, they are heroes.”

But due to the rugged topography and wind speed, the helicopter could not get close to Harrison, who was perched in a gully. The only way for rescuers to retrieve her was to go above her and abseil down.

“You go from hope to proper doom, to fear that no one is going to find me,” Harrison said. “As time went on, I was shivering cold and damp and couldn’t move a muscle because of the exercise climbing up the mountain, my legs were tired and shaking. I thought I could fall off here before they find me.”

Robin Woodward of Ogwen mountain rescue, who dropped 30 metres down to rescue Harrison and carry her to safety, said: “She was quite distraught and in quite a scary place for some time.

“This was someone properly worrying for their own life. It wouldn’t have turned out well for her if she’d slipped further down.”

Ogwen mountain rescue is one of the UK’s busiest rescue agencies, working across the mountains, coasts and forests of Eryri and Snowdonia. Harrison’s was one of a record 178 incidents the team dealt with in 2022 – 40% of them on Tryfan.

“When the rescuers said there’s BBC cameras with us, part of me thought I don’t care who’s with you just get me off this mountain,” Harrison told the programme. “The other part thought: ‘That’s typical, I have one bad day and that’s the day the BBC decided to come and see me’.

“I’d also ripped my leggings when I fell and I was like: ‘Please don’t put my bum on the telly’ – my mum would’ve killed me.”

The 12-part series is available on BBC iPlayer and on Mondays at 7pm on BBC One.