The Guardian 2024-02-08 12:01:18


We don’t have all the facts on allegations about UNRWA staff, Penny Wong admits

We don’t have all the facts on UNRWA allegations, Penny Wong admits

Minister says she didn’t have all the evidence about alleged UN staff links to 7 October attacks before she paused funding

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Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has said she did not have all the evidence about serious allegations regarding a key United Nations agency delivering aid to Gaza before she decided to halt funding.

Australia, the US and the UK were among more than 10 donors to suspend funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after the Israeli government alleged that as many as 12 staff members were involved in the 7 October attacks.

Wong told the ABC on Thursday night that she had spoken with commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini the previous day and was working to bring an end to the suspension, including by seeking more information regarding the allegations from the agency and from the Israeli government.

In response to a question about whether she was in “full possession of the facts” regarding the allegations, she responded “well no, we’re not”.

She said the “primary concern” was making sure that “other donors, particularly those who have not provided their next round of operational funding, core funding” gained more “confidence” about the extent of the evidence regarding the allegations by the end of the month.

“We saw these allegations. I, along with other countries, made a decision – and it is a decision I made – to pause that because the allegations were serious and because UNRWA itself recognised that those allegations were serious,” Wong said.

“Because UNRWA itself acknowledged that those allegations were serious, and I think it is incumbent upon me as Australia’s foreign minister to ensure that every dollar of aid that we provide is being used for the appropriate purposes.”

The Israeli intelligence dossier unpinning the allegations has been described as “flimsy” in recent reporting, increasing scrutiny on the decision to pause aid.

Aid agencies and Palestinian diplomats have appealed for the funding to be reinstated, citing the extreme humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza as Israel continues its military operation in the besieged territory.

Wong defended the decision, despite not having all the information at the time it was made.

There are two, I think, irrefutable truths about UNRWA. The first is it is necessary to provide support and assistance to Palestinians in Gaza,” she said.

“Truth number two is that the allegations are serious and they can’t simply be ignored.”

Wong also emphasised that the freeze related to $6m in recently announced funding to UNRWA, rather that its regular contributions.

Guardian Australia reported on Wednesday that Labor backbenchers have privately played down the impact of Australia’s pause in funding, with one MP denouncing “misinformation underpinning some online media and email campaigns”.

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‘Unconscionable’ Labor MP breaks ranks with party over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza

Labor MP breaks ranks with party over Israel’s ‘unconscionable’ bombardment of Gaza

Josh Wilson tells Australian parliament besieged territory is ‘being bombed into rubble’ following Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of ceasefire proposal

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The Labor MP Josh Wilson has broken ranks with the government, condemning Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as “unconscionable” and declaring that the besieged territory is “being bombed into rubble”.

The Australian government has repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to self-defence following Hamas’s 7 October attacks, while saying it must act in line with international law.

Wilson, a backbench MP, said Israel’s rejection of a ceasefire proposal “means the unconscionable bombardment and suffering of the people of Gaza will continue”.

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“That’s unacceptable,” Wilson told parliament on Thursday. “Every country has the right and obligation to defend its citizens but not every military action constitutes self-defence. The wholesale destruction of Gaza is not self-defence.”

Australian government ministers have expressed increasing alarm about the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza but have generally refrained from directly criticising Israel.

Wilson noted that Australia had “joined other nations in calling on all sides to deliver a ceasefire”, but then he gave a stark assessment of the situation.

“The truth is that Gaza is being bombed into rubble,” he said, citing widespread damage to buildings. He said the entire population was “being squeezed further and further south, in starvation conditions without basic medical services”.

As of 17 January, an estimated 50 to 62% of buildings in Gaza have likely been damaged or destroyed, and an even higher proportion of its homes, according to analysis of satellite data by US researchers.

The IDF has previously defended the extent of the damage in Gaza, saying Hamas “operates nearby, underneath, and within densely populated areas as a matter of routine operational practice”.

Wilson also condemned Hamas for its 7 October attacks and the taking of hostages.

He said it was “heartbreaking to learn this morning that the prospect of a ceasefire in the awful war in Gaza will not proceed at this time”, referring to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the terms of a potential deal proposed by Hamas.

Wilson said this “means more than 100 Israeli hostages remain in captivity”. He said it was “abhorrent that they were ever taken” and said these hostages “should have been freed unconditionally”.

Wilson said two-thirds of the deaths in Gaza were women and children, referring to figures from Gaza’s health ministry. “It is wrong, and it has to stop,” he said.

In a speech condemning Hamas’s attack in October, Wilson called for restraint and questioned whether children in Gaza might be “consigned to a life in a coastal strip that has been levelled to the ground”.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday there could be no solution to Israel’s security issues except “absolute victory” over Hamas.

He confirmed that Israeli forces had been instructed to commence operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where the population has swelled by hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, said she had spoken to the head of UNRWA, a key agency delivering aid to Gaza, about the ongoing investigations into its work.

“We spoke about ensuring that donors such as Australia can have the confidence to ensure that the pause is lifted, because this is important for the people of Gaza and the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territories more broadly,” Wong told reporters on Thursday.

Australia suspended $6m in top-up funding after claims raised by Israel that some of the agency’s staff were involved in the 7 October attacks.

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Right to disconnect bill passes Senate but needs fix to remove criminal penalties

Right to disconnect bill passes Senate but needs urgent fix to remove criminal penalties for employers

Labor will be forced to introduce special legislation after Coalition prevented last-minute amendments to fix the issue

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Labor’s closing loopholes bill has passed the Senate with a Greens amendment creating a new right for employees to disconnect from work emails and calls.

But the final votes were thrown into confusion by the discovery that the bill inadvertently allowed criminal penalties for breach of a stop order by the Fair Work Commission. Labor sought leave to amend this, but was denied by the Coalition.

The bill, as it stands, leaves the potential for criminal penalties. Labor will now be forced to legislate to fix this.

The workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, accused the Liberals of “trying to expose employers to potential criminal penalties after throwing a pathetic tantrum in the Senate”.

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“Despite the opposition’s idiotic and irresponsible behaviour – we will legislate to fix this,” he said, noting the provision does not take effect for another six months.

The shadow workplace relations minister, Michaelia Cash, said the government’s “rushed and chaotic approach to this bill was on full display today”.

“They were so desperate to get this through today they voted for bad legislation,” she said.

The bill was supported by Labor, the Greens, Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock, after the latter struck a deal simplifying casual conversion and narrowing the application of gig economy reforms.

Employer groups praised Pocock and the Jacqui Lambie Network for their efforts to wind back elements of the bill but have called the new right to disconnect “impractical”.

The right to disconnect will prevent employees being punished for refusing to take unreasonable work calls or answer emails in their unpaid personal time.

The Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, said the change is “impractical and will simply add unwarranted conflict and uncertainty into our workplaces”.

Willox said changes were added “at the last moment, without being properly thought through, with a view to securing the Greens’ support for the passage of the rest of the legislation” despite existing protection against unreasonable overtime in the Fair Work Act.

Under the new system, employees will be able to raise a complaint about intrusive phone calls or the expectation they answer work emails out-of-hours with their employer.

If the issue is not resolved at the workplace level, employees can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order on the employer to stop unreasonable out-of-hours contact. The Coalition is concerned the breach of an order is punishable by fines of $18,000.

On Wednesday the Senate voted to force a final vote on the bill on Thursday afternoon, confirming that Labor had the numbers to secure its passage.

The closing loopholes bill makes changes to the definition of casual employment, and gives power to the Fair Work Commission to create minimum conditions in the gig economy and the road transport industry.

On Thursday Lambie made a last-ditch attempt to add an amendment to help textile workers demerge from the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union through a secret ballot.

A furious Lambie fronted a press conference in Canberra, accusing the Greens and Labor of being unduly influenced by Victorian construction secretary, John Setka, to prevent the easier demerger procedure.

Lambie said it was “absolutely shameful” that Labor and the Greens would not support her amendment, which was defeated by 31 votes to 30 with their votes and that of Lidia Thorpe.

“Don’t you stand up and talk about women’s rights in that chamber,” Lambie said. “Because as of today in my eyes your credibility has gone down the gurgler.”

Lambie confirmed that she will use the bill returning to the Senate to fix the error about criminal penalties to again push the demerger amendment and, if that fails, move a private senator’s bill.

Setka announced his retirement on Thursday, telling unions delegates he would not nominate to run in elections later this year, a union spokesperson confirmed.

The CFMEU Victoria and Tasmania secretary has been at the helm for more than a decade, during which time he has been involved in multiple workplace controversies and a bitter and public breakdown of his marriage.

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Closing loopholes billThe right to disconnect and five other changes coming to workplaces

Explainer

Closing loopholes bill: the right to disconnect and five other changes coming to Australian workplaces

Laws agreed by Labor, Greens and David Pocock allows casuals to more easily apply to become permanent and may increase pay in gig economy

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Labor’s closing loopholes bill passed the Senate on Thursday, with a Greens amendment creating a new right for employees to disconnect from work emails and calls.

The bill – which was supported by Labor, the Greens, Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock, – will return to the House of Representatives to approve amendments, before passing into law.

We’ve taken a look at how the bill will change Australian workplaces, and what it means for workers and employers.

The right to disconnect

The right to disconnect will prevent employees being punished for refusing to take unreasonable work calls or answer emails in their unpaid personal time.

Under the new system, employees will be able to raise a complaint about intrusive phone calls or the expectation they answer work emails out-of-hours with their employer.

If the issue is not resolved at the workplace level, employees can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order on the employer to stop unreasonable out-of-hours contact.

The Coalition is concerned the breach of an order is punishable by fines of $18,000, but the Greens note this is a reflection of existing penalties in the act and won’t apply if the employer follows an order.

The new right will apply to all employees, although contact from an employer is reasonable in instances where the person being contacted is paid to be on-call or their job description requires it.

The Greens workplace relations spokesperson, Barbara Pocock, has explained that contact during an emergency or to change conditions of work such as location or hours are also deemed to be reasonable.

Gig economy

The bill will allow individuals and organisations to apply to the Fair Work Commission for orders for minimum standards in the gig economy, including on pay, penalty rates, superannuation, payment terms, record-keeping, insurance and deactivation.

Deactivation is the process of removing a gig economy worker from an app, ending their ability to earn income despite claims workers are “independent” of the platform.

The reforms are limited to digital platform workers who have low bargaining power, low authority over their work or receive pay at or below the rates of comparable employees.

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Under amendments negotiated by the independent senator David Pocock, workers will have to meet at least two of these criteria – a change employer groups think will mean it is less likely independent contractors on platforms such as Airtasker and Hipages will be caught.

A departmental analysis of the gig economy reforms before the amendments suggested the changes could be worth an estimated “$4bn in increased wages for workers over 10 years”, or $404m a year.

Casual rights

The bill makes it easier for casuals to convert to full-time work if they choose. Casuals who work full-time hours would be able to access leave entitlements and guaranteed hours if they change their employment status.

Under changes negotiated by Pocock, the existing requirement on businesses to offer conversion will be abolished creating a single pathway for casual conversion by the employee’s choice.

Employers will be able to refuse an employee request for conversion on “fair and reasonable operational grounds”.

Intractable bargaining

In 2022, the federal government legislated to allow the Fair Work Commission to arbitrate intractable bargaining disputes, providing an avenue for unions to win pay rises without reaching a new agreement with an employer.

Late in 2023, the government agreed to a Greens amendment that the terms of an arbitrated outcome “must be not less favourable to each” employee and union covered by an existing workplace pay deal.

That amendment will pass, notwithstanding concerns from the Victorian treasurer, Tim Pallas, and employer groups that it guarantees unions “will be no worse off on a clause by clause basis” if they dig in and seek an arbitrated outcome from the industrial umpire, encouraging unions to do so.

Road transport conditions

The bill empowers the Fair Work Commission to set minimum standards for the road transport industry, including the charge-out rates of independent contractor owner-drivers and therefore their rate of pay.

Amendments to the bill require the establishment of a majority owner drivers subcommittee to advise the Fair Work Commission on road transport minimum standards.

Right of entry

Currently, union officials can exercise a right of entry to workplaces to investigate potential breaches of the Fair Work Act with 24 hours’ notice or if the Fair Work Commission waives this requirement because of concerns about possible document destruction.

The bill expands the grounds to waive the 24 hours’ notice if the FWC is satisfied that the suspected contravention involves the underpayment of wages of a union member who works there.

Pocock negotiated an amendment requiring the FWC to be satisfied advanced notice of entry would hinder an effective investigation into underpayment.

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Israeli soldiers speak about fighting in Gaza

‘The destruction is massive … It’s a disaster area’: Israeli soldiers speak about fighting in Gaza

Exclusive: IDF troops shed light on their experience of fighting in the territory, where Palestinian casualties have passed 27,700

Demobilised Israeli reservists have described how they deployed massive fire power in a brutal, complex and often one-sided war of sporadic but intense clashes that has reduced much of Gaza to ruins.

They spoke, too, of the challenge of fighting on unfamiliar ground that is well-known to Hamas and which offered easy opportunities for surprise attacks, despite Israel’s conventional military superiority and air power.

Some had not seen Palestinian civilians at all, passing weeks in Gaza without encountering anyone other than small bands of Hamas militants. Others said they had been in close combat almost every day and considered those civilians who ignored Israeli instructions to flee as complicit with Hamas and thus legitimate targets. Those interviewed also expressed sympathy for civilians and said they had tried to help them.

More than 27,700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian health officials. Many thousands more are buried in the rubble. Swathes of Gaza have been destroyed and 1.9 million of its 2.3 million people have been displaced.

Senior military officials have said the offensive could last for many more months, even into 2025.

The soldiers were not authorised to speak to the media and were interviewed by the Guardian on condition of anonymity.

Information about the actual experience of fighting in the conflict has been closely controlled by the Israeli authorities. Journalists have been barred from Gaza, except for short, carefully supervised trips with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

The IDF did not act on repeated requests by the Guardian to speak to serving soldiers who had fought in the Israel-Gaza war.

“The destruction is massive,” said one noncommissioned officer (NCO) who was in Gaza for two months with an infantry unit. “What really blew my mind was that there is nowhere for anyone to come back to. There aren’t even three walls connected. It looks like a scene of a zombie attack or something. It’s not a war zone. It’s a disaster area, like out of Hollywood.”

A recently returned veteran said: “It’s not like how you see in the media. It’s not like a computer game. There are days and days when nothing happens and you never see the terrorists then it all goes crazy for an hour or so then nothing again.”

Other demobilised reservists described intensive combat with close-quarter fighting in Hamas strongholds such as Shujaiya and Jabaliya camp.

Israel launched the offensive after a bloody surprise attack by Hamas into Israel on 7 October that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians in their homes or at a music festival. About 240 hostages were taken back to Gaza by the group.

Reservists described fighting an enemy they barely saw for more than “a few milliseconds”.

“They don’t show themselves. They avoid contact. You see the targets for a milliseconds. It’s kind of weird. You are walking through this smashed up city but it is empty. You have all this destructive power – attack helicopters, tanks, artillery that you can call for – so you feel almost omnipotent. But then at the same time you feel vulnerable,” the NCO said.

Many of those interviewed spent days trying to find and destroy a tunnel network that, they said, was far more extensive than originally thought by Israeli military planners and which allowed their enemies to emerge unexpectedly to attack.

“I was meant to be mapping [the tunnels] but in the end I just concentrated on the main tunnels, worked out where they were and then we bombed anything that we thought might be other tunnels for 2 kilometres all around,” said one.

Another said the tunnels were “all over the place, in houses, next to schools, in wasteland”.

“We tried all sorts of things to find them. Cameras on wires, going down ourselves. We were putting smoke grenades down them at one point and then looking for where the smoke came out,” he said.

Israeli officials have said that Hamas deliberately uses civilians to protect its military infrastructure and fighters, a charge denied by the Islamist group.

Officers interviewed by the Guardian in Gaza in November said the IDF warned civilians to leave in advance of any assault with telephones, media, flyers and bullhorns. Earlier in the conflict, the IDF organised what it called humanitarian corridors to allow ordinary residents of northern Gaza to evacuate and dropped leaflets telling them to flee. Aid agencies, however, have questioned the effectiveness of such orders, insisting that nowhere in the territory is safe amid Israel’s intensive bombardment campaign.

The interviews suggest that the soaring civilian death toll is at least in part due to Israel’s use of massive fire power to limit its own losses.

One soldier from the special forces Duvdevan unit said his unit had only encountered Hamas militants on three occasions during six weeks in north Gaza, from where the majority of civilians were ordered to evacuate early in the war.

When asked what tactics the unit employed in such situations, the soldier laughed.

“There are no tactics. We take some fire and identify a target. For an hour we unload everything we’ve got, our own weapons, tanks, anything we can get. Then we advance and find dead terrorists,” he said.

Another special forces soldier said that advances were “done properly” during the early stages of the war.

“We had everything we needed and all in the right order. First airstrikes and artillery, then the tanks, and only then the foot soldiers. By the time we got somewhere, there wasn’t much left,” he said.

The soldier said that more recently, following US pressure to minimise civilian casualties, tactics had changed. “Now the infantry are going in alongside the tanks and that’s why they are getting killed,” he said.

A third described how a relatively light injury to a fellow soldier triggered a “massive response”.

“We just took down the whole area where we thought the shooter was,” he said.

Senior officers have confirmed the use of its huge firepower to minimise IDF losses. Maj Gen Eliezer Toledano, the head of the IDF general staff’s strategic division, told ministers earlier this month: “We spare no munitions [when fighting] and we do everything necessary to protect the lives of our soldiers.”

Several veterans said they had not personally seen women or children killed or wounded, despite both groups comprising the majority of Gaza’s victims, which is possibly a consequence of most of these casualties being inflicted by long-range artillery or airstrikes some distance from most ground troops.

The IDF’s own estimates of civilian casualties are reported to broadly support statistics provided by Palestinian authorities in Gaza.

“You do see a lot of dead Hamas fighters, or men anyway. I didn’t see dead children or women and that helped a lot,” the NCO said.

Some of the soldiers said that they considered any civilian who remained in the combat zone after being warned to leave as complicit, and several described fighting Hamas militants in the upper stories of apartment blocks while families sheltered on the ground floor, or even in the same house.

“What am I going to think? That they’re not supporters of Hamas? What are they doing there then? We should ship them all to Yemen, if [the Houthis] like them so much,” a special forces soldier said.

Many of those interviewed said they had been shocked by maps or images in homes, schools and offices, which showed a putative Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, with no place for Israel. A third, an officer, said he had pointed out to his men that there were not many maps in Israel showing Palestinian cities or a putative Palestinian state.

“There were some [of my men] who had totally dehumanised [the civilians] but most felt some empathy. On the day of the ceasefire [in November] we saw them coming out of basements amid all this destruction and just thought, like, wow, how had they possibly survived? We didn’t even know they were there,” the NCO said.

The reservists interviewed were among the 350,000 mobilised for the conflict, of which perhaps half have now been sent home, primarily to avoid further damage to the economy. The drawdown is also to allow troops to retrain, rest or be transferred directly to the northern border, where conflict looms with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamist militant movement.

‘We were attacked, so I have to fight’: soldiers remain steadfast in support

Though many mid-level commanders have been killed, most of the senior Hamas leaders in Gaza appears to have escaped harm so far. Israeli officials have said they believe that Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, is sheltering in a command bunker under Khan Younis, the biggest city in southern Gaza and a stronghold for the group.

Israel claims to have killed 9,000 Hamas fighters and officials estimate the prewar strength of Hamas’s fighting force as between 30,000 and 40,000, including “part-timers” and security personnel such as some police.

Military officials denied pursuing a “strategy of attrition”, insisting that the aim of the offensive was to bring about the militant organisation’s swift collapse by finding its “breaking point”.

“We are absolutely not trying to kill every Hamas terrorist one by one,” one official said last month.

Information about incidents involving Israeli casualties has also been limited to reports solely about major incidents with little detail.

Ira Moroz, 46, described how her son, serving in the paratroops reconnaissance unit, had been badly wounded in Gaza. He survived his injuries, though a team member was killed.

“They finished a mission. On the way back they saw something suspicious and went to check, and then an anti-tank device blew up. My son was the closest … but he was behind a wall. His team thought he hadn’t survived, everyone was thrown 3 metres back,” Moroz told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“A minute before the blast [my son] turned his head around and took the whole explosion in the back of the neck … His helmet burned on him, a fragment entered and was a centimetre and a half from a main artery. He’s wounded all over, but not in the bones, not in major veins … I’ve been smiling since they said in the ER that he had spoken.”

On Tuesday 23 January, Israel announced the death of 24 soldiers, by far the biggest single loss in a 24-hour period since the beginning of the conflict. The soldiers were killed on 22 January when a building in central Gaza they were preparing for demolition collapsed after being hit by grenades fired by Hamas militants. So far 219 IDF soldiers have been killed with a further 1,260 injured in the offensive.

All those who spoke to the Guardian said that Israel’s integration of female soldiers into frontline combat units, often as medics, search and rescue teams or in other roles, had been successful.

“The [women] are just like everyone else. Often much better actually, very serious. And no idiot business … No one even thinks about it,” one said.

None of the reservists interviewed doubted that Israel’s offensive and the tactics employed were justified. “Everyone in my unit knew someone who was a victim on 7 October. Any war is bad but we were there for a good reason,” said one.

Another reservist said that, as an Israeli citizen, it was his duty to take up arms when necessary. “We were attacked, so we have to fight, so I fight,” he said. “If they ask me to do it again, I’ll go back and do it again.”

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‘Our last stop is Rafah’Trapped Palestinians await the Israeli onslaught

‘Our last stop is Rafah’: trapped Palestinians await Israeli onslaught

Refugees crammed into the border city face a terrifying choice: stay for the expected attack, or flee back north through a war zone

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Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crammed into the small southern Gaza border city of Rafah are being forced to contemplate being displaced once more as an Israeli offensive looms.

Those who fled to the border city, almost half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, face a terrifying choice: stay in overcrowded Rafah – once home to 280,000 people – and wait for the attack, or risk moving north through an area of continued fighting.

Large areas are occupied by tented encampments, which have encroached even on some of Rafah’s cemeteries. Aid officials have described the city as a “pressure cooker of despair”, warning that a full-scale Israeli offensive on an area so overcrowded could cause large-scale loss of civilian life, and could be a war crime.

While Rafah has been hit by Israeli strikes throughout the war, the bombing and Israeli troops have been edging ever closer to the city, whose southern boundary is delineated by the mainly closed border with Egypt.

Fears of an imminent Israeli assault have been increased by strikes closer to Rafah, including by Israeli gunboats that shelled the western road into the city on Wednesday.

Describing the mood this week, Raed al-Nims, the media director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza, said: “Everyone is afraid of the expanding of the ground operation in Rafah.”

The growing sense of desperation has been underlined by the fact that some of the few who have tried to leave the city for areas such as Nuseirat, central Gaza, in recent days have lost contact with family members.

Most families who spoke to the Guardian this week indicated they would wait for an Israeli military evacuation order in the hope it would designate a safe exit route in the event of a full-scale assault.

With increasing food shortages, disease and insanitary conditions, the threatened offensive has plunged many into despair. Some said their children were too frightened to sleep because of the encroaching fighting.

“Yes, I’ll move if they want to invade Rafah,” said Moamen Jarad, 25, who fled to the city earlier in the war from northern Gaza, one of the first areas attacked during the Israeli ground offensive. “I’m originally from Beit Lahiya. I’m thinking of moving north, if possible. Israel will let us know where we should go and may name some specific areas to move to.”

Majed Rezeq, 46, described the challenge facing everyone considering leaving. “I’d go to our house in northern Gaza. All of my family wants to return but there is no way. It’s totally blocked. If there was a way to go to another, safer area, either through central Gaza or Khan Younis, I’d go. But it’s dangerous. It’s more dangerous than here.”

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said on Wednesday that he was “especially alarmed” by reports that the Israeli military intended to focus next on Rafah. “Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” he said.

Israeli officials have said that before any ground offensive in Rafah the military would coordinate with Egypt, which is becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect of an offensive on its border, and would seek ways of evacuating most of the displaced people northward.

However, it is not clear how, given the situation on the ground. More than half of Gaza is under Israeli military evacuation orders, while fighting and widespread destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure is continuing.

Israel has said fighting will continue in parts of northern Gaza after Hamas fighters and officials reappeared there in the past fortnight. The IDF had earlier said it had completed its operations in the north and drawn down troops.

The fear that Israel could strike Rafah next stems from a series of comments by senior Israeli officials, including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and defence minister, Yoav Gallant. Israel has continued to struggle to achieve its war aims against Hamas, despite the deaths of more than 27,000 Palestinians.

While Israel has repeatedly claimed to have devastated Hamas, the war has dragged on, with no evidence that either the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, or the leader of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, have been killed. Israel has rescued just one hostage, with others released through negotiations with Hamas.

Israel now says it believes Sinwar and other senior Hamas leaders are hiding in the far south around Rafah. “We will also reach the places where we have not yet fought in the centre of the Gaza Strip and in the south, and especially to the last remaining of Hamas [in] Rafah,” Gallant said. “Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know that his end will be like those in Khan Younis and Gaza.”

In televised comments, Gallant said Israel believed Sinwar was in effect no longer in command of Hamas. “He is not leading the forces; he is busy with his own personal survival. He became, instead of the head of Hamas, a fugitive terrorist.”

An Israel assault on Rafah would also have a secondary purpose, according to recent remarks by officials who have suggested that Israel wants to control the so-called Philadelphi route, a narrow, sandy road along the border with Egypt.

Israel sees control of the 14km route as key to preventing Hamas smuggling arms through tunnels into Gaza from Egypt. It would also allow Israel to control all access to Gaza.

Egypt strongly rejects that ambition, pointing out that the route was designated as a demilitarised zone under the terms of the 2005 Philadelphi accord between it and Israel, agreed after Israel withdrew from Gaza. That superseded an arrangement allowing Israel to patrol the route after the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

All of this has led to growing fears about the consequences of an Israeli attack on Rafah. The UN has emphasised the potential for a “large-scale” loss of civilian life.

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, emphasised that under international humanitarian law, indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas “may constitute war crimes”. He said at a briefing in Geneva: “To be clear, intensified hostilities in Rafah in this situation could lead to large-scale loss of civilian lives, and we must do everything possible within our power to avoid that.”

Ashraf, 40, another displaced Palestinian in Rafah, said: “We’ll wait for the order from Israel to tell us where to go. Our last stop is Rafah. We are not going to anywhere else out of Gaza Strip. We either go home to our houses, or we die here.”

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Family of missing Ballarat woman make emotional plea for her return

Family of missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy make emotional plea for her return

‘We need you at home with us,’ daughter Jess says. The 51-year-old was last seen leaving home in Victoria early on Sunday to go for a run

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The family of Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy have made an emotional plea for her to come home, five days after she disappeared when heading out for a run.

Murphy’s eldest daughter, Jess, broke down in tears as she spoke directly to her mum at a press conference at Ballarat West police station on Thursday.

“Mum, we love you so much, and we miss you, and we need you at home with us,” she said.

“Please come home soon. I can’t wait to see you and to give you the biggest hug when I do, and to tell you off for giving us so much stress. I love you.”

Jess said her mother was “a really strong woman, and she’s far too determined to give up this fight”.

“I know she’s out there somewhere, so if you could please continue to search for her to give us something to work with,” she said.

She said she did not feel comfortable at home given the presence of news crews and asked for her family’s privacy to be respected.

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Murphy’s husband, Michael, repeated her plea for privacy.

“If we’ve got something, we’ll come out and say it,” he said.

Michael urged anyone with information about his wife’s disappearance to come forward.

“People just don’t vanish into thin air. Someone has got to know something,” he said.

“Whether it be any little thing that you might think is relevant, just call the police, let them know.”

He also thanked the community for its support.

“The generosity throughout the community has been unbelievable,” he said.

Murphy, 51, was last seen leaving her Eureka Street home at Ballarat East about 7am on Sunday.

Crews have been searching in the Canadian Forest area since Monday before shifting their focus to the suburb of Mount Helen, east of Geelong Road, on Wednesday, with a third search party canvassing paddocks in nearby Warrenheip.

Police on Wednesday released more CCTV footage they initially believed showed Murphy running at 7.16am on Sunday near her home heading towards Yankee Flat Road.

But on Thursday afternoon they said a member of the community had come forward and identified themselves as the person depicted running.

Police said the footage was no longer relevant to the search for Murphy.

However, they continued to urge residents in the area to review any CCTV they have between 7am and 11am on Sunday.

Ballarat police acting inspector Lisa McDougall reiterated this on Thursday.

“We would like the community to not make any decisions about what is or isn’t relevant. Certainly, if they find anything of interest on the footage, we’d like them to let police know that,” McDougall said.

She said no suspicious circumstances had been identified and investigators were “keeping an open mind”.

“We’re keeping an open mind and considering all possibilities and we’re being extremely thorough and methodical with that investigation,” she said.

“The search is ongoing and we’re throwing all those resources at it in the hope that we find Samantha and get some answers for her family who are obviously concerned.”

Murphy is white, about 173cm tall with a slim build and shoulder-length blond hair. She was last seen wearing black half-length leggings and a maroon or brown singlet.

The search involving Victoria police’s search and rescue team, the mounted branch, canine unit, State Emergency Service and Country Fire Authority volunteers, and locals continues.

With Australian Associated Press

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Family of missing Ballarat woman make emotional plea for her return

Family of missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy make emotional plea for her return

‘We need you at home with us,’ daughter Jess says. The 51-year-old was last seen leaving home in Victoria early on Sunday to go for a run

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The family of Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy have made an emotional plea for her to come home, five days after she disappeared when heading out for a run.

Murphy’s eldest daughter, Jess, broke down in tears as she spoke directly to her mum at a press conference at Ballarat West police station on Thursday.

“Mum, we love you so much, and we miss you, and we need you at home with us,” she said.

“Please come home soon. I can’t wait to see you and to give you the biggest hug when I do, and to tell you off for giving us so much stress. I love you.”

Jess said her mother was “a really strong woman, and she’s far too determined to give up this fight”.

“I know she’s out there somewhere, so if you could please continue to search for her to give us something to work with,” she said.

She said she did not feel comfortable at home given the presence of news crews and asked for her family’s privacy to be respected.

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

Murphy’s husband, Michael, repeated her plea for privacy.

“If we’ve got something, we’ll come out and say it,” he said.

Michael urged anyone with information about his wife’s disappearance to come forward.

“People just don’t vanish into thin air. Someone has got to know something,” he said.

“Whether it be any little thing that you might think is relevant, just call the police, let them know.”

He also thanked the community for its support.

“The generosity throughout the community has been unbelievable,” he said.

Murphy, 51, was last seen leaving her Eureka Street home at Ballarat East about 7am on Sunday.

Crews have been searching in the Canadian Forest area since Monday before shifting their focus to the suburb of Mount Helen, east of Geelong Road, on Wednesday, with a third search party canvassing paddocks in nearby Warrenheip.

Police on Wednesday released more CCTV footage they initially believed showed Murphy running at 7.16am on Sunday near her home heading towards Yankee Flat Road.

But on Thursday afternoon they said a member of the community had come forward and identified themselves as the person depicted running.

Police said the footage was no longer relevant to the search for Murphy.

However, they continued to urge residents in the area to review any CCTV they have between 7am and 11am on Sunday.

Ballarat police acting inspector Lisa McDougall reiterated this on Thursday.

“We would like the community to not make any decisions about what is or isn’t relevant. Certainly, if they find anything of interest on the footage, we’d like them to let police know that,” McDougall said.

She said no suspicious circumstances had been identified and investigators were “keeping an open mind”.

“We’re keeping an open mind and considering all possibilities and we’re being extremely thorough and methodical with that investigation,” she said.

“The search is ongoing and we’re throwing all those resources at it in the hope that we find Samantha and get some answers for her family who are obviously concerned.”

Murphy is white, about 173cm tall with a slim build and shoulder-length blond hair. She was last seen wearing black half-length leggings and a maroon or brown singlet.

The search involving Victoria police’s search and rescue team, the mounted branch, canine unit, State Emergency Service and Country Fire Authority volunteers, and locals continues.

With Australian Associated Press

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Labor to provide $97m for victims of predatory insurance provider

Labor to provide $97m for victims of predatory insurance provider ACBF-Youpla

The support program will run for two years and aim to bring ‘peace of mind’ to thousands of Indigenous Australians

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The Albanese government has announced a $97m fund to support thousands of mostly low-income Aboriginal families who were left with nothing after the collapse of predatory insurance provider, ACBF-Youpla, in 2022.

The Youpla support program will begin on 1 July this year and run for two years.

ACBF-Youpla collapsed in March 2022, leaving more than 13,000 Aboriginal people, some of them elderly and in palliative care, without the means to pay for funerals. Families had to resort to crowdfunding and some were forced to leave their loved ones’ bodies in the morgue while they raised the funds.

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The minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said the new measures will hopefully bring “peace of mind” to thousands of vulnerable people.

This is an acknowledgment by the Albanese government that this was just shocking practice. And I can tell you, it didn’t really matter where I went in the country, particularly Queensland and New South Wales, people raised this issue with me with very, very deep concern. It was so widespread,” Burney said.

Eligible recipients will have the choice of a funeral bond or a cash payment worth 60% of the value of their policy. Financial counselling will be offered to help them better understand their options.

“So it really is about what people want to do, how they would like to go forward. It’s not the government that will make those decisions, it will be the people who had the premiums,” Burney said.

ACBF-Youpla targeted Indigenous people using marketing materials in the distinctive red, black and yellow colours of the Aboriginal flag, including stuffed toys and colouring books for children, turning up to community events and by conducting door-to-door sales.

It was investigated by various regulators over the years, but it was not until 2018 when its conduct was exposed in the banking royal commission, that its licence to sell new products was withdrawn.

Regulators and the government were warned the company was then at risk of collapse. In 2021, after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) questioned its solvency, the company’s directors finally pulled the plug.

The then Coalition minister for financial services, Jane Hume, said the Morrison government did not intend to intervene and those affected could apply for a state-assisted funeral, commonly known in the industry as a “pauper’s” funeral.

After the 2022 election, Burney and the financial services minister, Stephen Jones, announced an interim fund for families to pay for funerals, while an enduring solution was worked out.

The “Save sorry business” coalition – community financial advisers who have advocated for thousands of affected policyholders – said the final scheme is “a fair outcome”.

“Under the previous federal government, the answer that we were going to get was ‘nothing’. Under this government we got a interim solution, which allowed us to let people be buried with dignity. And they made a promise to design an enduring resolution and they’ve kept that promise,” Campaign coordinator, Bettina Cooper said.

The scheme will be open to anyone with an active policy at 1 August 2015, which was when the federal government took ACBF-Youpla off its Centrepay system.

Centrepay allowed people to have their bills automatically deducted from their income support payment. The service was generally reserved for essentials like rent and electricity, but ACBF-Youpla was allowed to join and collected around $169m in payments before it was finally removed in 2017.

In 2022 Guardian Australia revealed that the founder of the company, Ron Pattenden collected more than $20m in tax-free income from the business through a complex web of offshore companies and continued to make money from it even after he sold it to new operators.

In August 2023 Asic commenced proceedings in federal court against five former directors and officers for breaches of their duties.

“Asic’s case seeks to hold to account those involved in the alleged governance failures and director misconduct that impacted the First Nations people who were members of the Funds,” Asic deputy chair, Sarah Court said.

Asic alleges the directors and officers maintained insurance arrangements with Crown Insurance, a Vanuatu-based company owned and controlled by Pattenden and another director, Johnathan Law, and did not act in the best interest of the ACBF entities and members.

Breaches of director’s duties can attract a maximum penalty of $200,000 for each breach that occurred between 2017 and March 2019.

The case will return to court in April 2024.

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Olympics boss tells Queensland to ditch $2.7bn plan for demolition and rebuild

Olympics boss tells Queensland to ditch $2.7bn plan for Gabba demolition and rebuild

John Coates tells review of 2032 infrastructure that stadium proposal risks turning people against hosting Olympic Games

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East Brisbane community leaders are quietly confident the $2.7bn plan to demolish and rebuild Brisbane’s Gabba stadium will not go ahead, after Olympics bosses withdrew support for the plan.

On Tuesday, a delegation including International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates told the Queensland government’s review of games infrastructure that the rebuild had become a “distraction” and risked turning people against the Games. They recommended using other venues instead, including Suncorp Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies and the Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre in Nathan for athletics.

In one of his first acts in the role, the premier, Steven Miles, paused the Gabba rebuild plan and in January ordered a review by former Brisbane mayor Graham Quirk.

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In a statement on Thursday, the Brisbane 2032 organising committee president, Andrew Liveris, declared Coates’ views “should be listened to very carefully”.

“I lament the loss of time, and the distraction that has taken a little away from the amazing accomplishment of winning these games,” Liveris said.

“We need to move forward post haste after this independent review is completed. We need to not re-litigate every decision on venues and infrastructure.”

The $2.7bn rebuild of the cricket and AFL stadium – the world’s third-most expensive stadium project – was to be met entirely by the state taxpayer. It would also require the demolition of a neighbouring heritage-listed primary school and the use of a nearby park for an athletics warmup track.

Melissa Occhipinti, from Rethink the Gabba said it was heartening to see momentum shifting against the stadium knock-down plan.

“To have [Coates] come out this morning and actually support all of the recommendations we’ve been putting to government for the last three years has been quite extraordinary,” she said.

The president of the East Brisbane state school parents and citizens association, Austin Gibbs, said they were quietly hopeful of a reprieve, but would await the final review.

“We’re very hopeful that whatever happens to the Gabba is not a complete knock down and rebuild, and instead is something more modest, that will incorporate a design that involves leaving the school where it is,” he said.

“That’s certainly the hope and [there is] cautious optimism among the community that that is where it’s headed.”

Ted O’Brien, the former Morrison government special envoy for the Olympics said the state government had “nearly killed” the city’s bid for the games when it “blind-sided” everyone with the Gabba proposal.

“It flew in the face of everything we were pitching to the IOC about avoiding a big spend on venues and it also broke faith with the people of Queensland who had been assured the 2032 Games would not become a spendathon with taxpayer money,” he said.

“Ever since, venue decisions such as the Gabba have failed any genuine public consultation process and instead they’ve been made in-house on a “government knows best” principle, in the offices of Anastacia Palaszczuk and Steven Miles.”

The Australian Olympic Committee CEO, Matt Carroll, told a Senate inquiry last year that the Gabba rebuild was not required by Olympics organising bodies in order to hold the games. Instead he said the reconstruction was for its day-to-day use as an AFL and cricket ground.

The Quirk review is set to make its recommendations to the state government on 18 March.

The state infrastructure minister, Grace Grace, said the views of Liveris and Coates would be taken on board, but she didn’t want to pre-empt the review by declaring the Gabba rebuild dead.

“We want to deliver legacy outcomes, transport and all those legacy fantastic projects that we’ve got on the list already, but we also have to deliver venues,” she said.

“And … if there’s a better way of doing it as a minister, I’m more than happy to plough ahead and deliver them along those lines.”

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Catholic church loses high court bid to prevent accuser’s father suing for damages

Catholic church loses high court bid to prevent father of George Pell accuser suing for damages

Father’s lawyers label high court of Australia decision a ‘monumental outcome’ for families of clergy sexual abuse victims

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Australia’s highest court has rejected the Catholic church’s bid to avoid paying damages to the father of a choirboy allegedly sexually abused by Cardinal George Pell.

The father, who cannot be named, claims he suffered nervous shock after learning of allegations that the cardinal sexually abused his now-deceased son in the mid-1990s.

Cardinal Pell maintained his innocence over the allegations until his death in January 2023, and had five convictions for abusing the man’s son and another boy overturned by the high court in 2020.

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The man, known as RWQ for legal reasons, is seeking damages against the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Cardinal Pell’s estate in Victoria’s supreme court.

The church had tried to excuse itself from the case by using a legal loophole, the Ellis defence, and arguing the man could not sue as he was not the direct victim of the alleged sexual abuse.

But in August 2022, the supreme court found he could sue the church as a secondary victim of child abuse.

The church challenged this ruling in the state’s court of appeal, which was rejected.

The clergy then sought to take its challenge to the high court, filing paperwork in October, however special leave to appeal was refused on Thursday.

Lawyers for the father said it was a “monumental outcome” for families of clergy sexual abuse victims.

“The highest court in the country has today affirmed the church can be held liable for that suffering, and we encourage families left devastated by abuse to pursue justice of their own,” Shine Lawyers chief legal officer Lisa Flynn said.

“The church has made considerable efforts to exploit the legal system to extricate itself from these proceedings, and we are glad to see another loophole closed.”

The ruling means the father can continue with his claim against the church, which is progressing through Victoria’s supreme court.

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Catholic church loses high court bid to prevent accuser’s father suing for damages

Catholic church loses high court bid to prevent father of George Pell accuser suing for damages

Father’s lawyers label high court of Australia decision a ‘monumental outcome’ for families of clergy sexual abuse victims

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Australia’s highest court has rejected the Catholic church’s bid to avoid paying damages to the father of a choirboy allegedly sexually abused by Cardinal George Pell.

The father, who cannot be named, claims he suffered nervous shock after learning of allegations that the cardinal sexually abused his now-deceased son in the mid-1990s.

Cardinal Pell maintained his innocence over the allegations until his death in January 2023, and had five convictions for abusing the man’s son and another boy overturned by the high court in 2020.

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The man, known as RWQ for legal reasons, is seeking damages against the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Cardinal Pell’s estate in Victoria’s supreme court.

The church had tried to excuse itself from the case by using a legal loophole, the Ellis defence, and arguing the man could not sue as he was not the direct victim of the alleged sexual abuse.

But in August 2022, the supreme court found he could sue the church as a secondary victim of child abuse.

The church challenged this ruling in the state’s court of appeal, which was rejected.

The clergy then sought to take its challenge to the high court, filing paperwork in October, however special leave to appeal was refused on Thursday.

Lawyers for the father said it was a “monumental outcome” for families of clergy sexual abuse victims.

“The highest court in the country has today affirmed the church can be held liable for that suffering, and we encourage families left devastated by abuse to pursue justice of their own,” Shine Lawyers chief legal officer Lisa Flynn said.

“The church has made considerable efforts to exploit the legal system to extricate itself from these proceedings, and we are glad to see another loophole closed.”

The ruling means the father can continue with his claim against the church, which is progressing through Victoria’s supreme court.

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Subsidised psychologist sessions plummet amid calls on Labor to reinstate extra visits

Subsidised psychologist sessions plummet amid calls on Labor to reinstate extra Medicare visits

Health minister resists push to boost number of sessions to 20 as new data shows visits have dropped by almost quarter of a million

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Australians accessed almost a quarter of a million fewer subsidised psychology sessions last financial year, prompting psychologists to urge the federal government once again to double the number available to patients and work to reduce high gap fees.

The latest government services data, released last Wednesday, showed the number of subsidised psychologist sessions had declined from 6.67m in 2021-22 to 6.43m in 2022-23.

Under the government’s Better Access scheme, patients with a GP-approved mental healthcare plan can receive a Medicare rebate of $93 a session with a general psychologist. The rebate increases to $137 a session with a clinical psychologist.

Australians accessing subsidised mental health services overall for the first time had also declined slightly year on year as a proportion, dropping from 26.4% in 2021-22 to 26.1% in 2022-23, the data showed.

The new figures coincide with a renewed push by peak psychology bodies and mental health experts to lower the cost barriers Australians face when trying to book a therapy session.

Survey data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in November showed the number of people who delayed seeing a health professional for mental health reasons due to the cost had increased to 19.3% in 2022-23 from 16.7% in 2021-22.

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The Australian Psychological Society (APS), one of two peak national psychology bodies, said it is calling for the reinstatement of the extra 10 subsidised Medicare sessions a year for those with the most complex needs and establishing early intervention programs in the school system to address the trend.

The body’s chief executive, Zena Burgess, said its members have continued to report that patients were “rationing” their sessions amid the cost-of-living crisis.

“This troubling data shows that too many people can’t afford to see a psychologist when they need to,” she said.

“In a cost-of-living crisis, our most vulnerable should only need their Medicare card, not their credit card, to access psychology services. Making psychologists more affordable helps patients faster, while also reducing pressure on GPs, first responders and emergency departments.

“Reinstating 20 sessions for people with complex needs and those from disadvantaged groups will give people seeking help a better chance to thrive and live healthy lives.”

But the health minister, Mark Butler, has so far resisted calls to reinstate the Coalition’s Covid-era policy, instead saying the decision had “worsened” access to the cheaper sessions and resulted in many Australians living on lower incomes and in regional, rural and remote areas missing out.

The Better Access report, released in December 2022, showed the number of new people accessing psychology sessions fell by 7.25% between 2020 and 2021 and out-of-pocket costs increased from $74 a session in 2021 to $90 in 2022.

It found while the extra 10 sessions led to better outcomes, it “disproportionately” favoured people on relatively higher incomes in major cities. However, the review recommended the extra 10 sessions remain but instead be targeted towards those with “complex mental health needs”.

Butler said 43,544 more people had received Better Access sessions in 2023 compared with the same period in 2022.

“While this is a positive step, more work is needed so all Australians – no matter where they live or what their circumstances – can get the mental healthcare they need,” he said.

“The government will continue to work with the sector and people with lived experience of mental illness to progress reform.”

An advisory committee, made up of experts and research groups, has been set up to evaluate the program and recommended changes to improve access and affordability. It has met four times since September 2023.

Meanwhile the Coalition and the Greens are calling for the immediate return to 20 cheaper therapy sessions a year, both pointing to the tough financial circumstances households are under.

The shadow assistant mental health minister, Melissa McIntosh, said figures from various reports painted an alarming picture of the growing mental health issue in the country.

She pointed to a recent Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ Health of the Nation report, which showed 72% of GPs rated mental health in their top three reasons for patient presentations.

“Australia’s disease burden from mental health is amongst the highest in the world. Additionally, the mental health and cost-of-living crises are colliding,” McIntosh said.

“We’re seeing Australians with mental ill health being left behind with no affordable options after the Better Access cuts, as families struggle under this cost-of-living crisis.”

The Greens senator and the party’s health spokesperson, Jordon Steele-John, said bringing back 20 sessions was the “absolute least” the Albanese government could do to prevent people rationing 10 sessions over the course of a year.

“This is beyond crisis point. The government needs to explore other ways for people to get affordable mental healthcare, including expanding the range of mental healthcare professionals that can offer services through Medicare,” Steele-John said.

According to APS’s schedule of recommended fees, psychologists are recommended to charge about $300 a session, meaning the gap fee can range between $100 and $200.

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Consumer prices plunge at fastest rate for 15 years as deflation fears deepen

China consumer prices plunge at fastest rate for 15 years as deflation fears deepen

Plummeting food prices feed steep annual drop amid renewed calls to stimulate economy and offset weakening demand

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China’s consumer prices fell at their fastest pace in 15 years in January, as the world’s second-largest economy sank deeper into deflation amid weakening demand.

Data released on Thursday showed that China’s consumer price index tumbled last month, falling by 0.8% compared with a year earlier. It marks the fourth consecutive month of declines, as well as the sharpest drop since September 2009, when the global economy was still grappling with aftershocks from the 2008 banking crisis.

Food prices were the biggest drag on the headline inflation figure, having fallen by 5.9% on an annual basis, due in part to a 17% slump in pork prices. Fresh vegetables fell by 12.7%, while fruit dropped by 9.1%.

China’s economy has been struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic after restrictions were lifted in late 2022. It has also been dealt a significant blow by the contraction in its indebted property sector, leading to the developer Evergrande being ordered to liquidate last month.

China’s economy first entered deflation last summer, with prices falling at a faster pace since then. Its factories have also cut prices, with the latest producer price index pointing to a 2.5% drop in annual prices in January, after a 2.7% fall in December.

However, ING’s chief economist, Lynn Song, said it was worth noting that the latest data may be skewed due to the fact that lunar new year falls in February, rather than January, this year. It means that household demand for food such as pork could bounce back once next month’s data takes the holiday season into account.

“While a far cry from the above-target inflation levels seen in many other economies, these numbers do not imply China is stuck in a deflationary spiral,” Song said.

“Considering the more favourable base effects for February’s data, we see a high likelihood that January’s data could mark the low point for year-on-year inflation in the current cycle,” she added.

However, the prospect of fresh economic stimulus from Beijing to counter weaker demand was enough to send Chinese stocks higher on Thursday, with the Shanghai Composite rising by nearly 1.3%.

“While a very concerning sign for China’s economy, which could be becoming entrenched in a debt and deflation cycle, the markets arguably responded in a positive way to the news,” said Kyle Rodda, senior financial market analyst at capital.com.

“Perhaps markets see the terribly low number as a potential catalyst for more muscular monetary or fiscal stimulus from the central government, which, up until this point, has been moderate in applying countercyclical policy.”

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Woman invented sexual assault allegations to gain sympathy from fiance, court told

Kurtley Beale trial: woman invented sexual assault allegations to gain sympathy from fiance, court told

Defence lawyer tells court accuser ‘curated’ her version of events after alleged incident at Bondi Beach pub in December 2022

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The rugby star Kurtley Beale’s lawyer has told a court his alleged rape victim concocted the allegations to gain sympathy from her fiance.

As the two-week trial draws to a close, Margaret Cunneen SC began her closing address on Thursday before the jury retires to consider its decision.

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Beale, 35, is facing one count of sexual intercourse without consent and two of sexual touching in the NSW district court, after an alleged incident at Bondi’s Beach Road Hotel in December 2022. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The woman, who cannot be legally identified, alleges Beale touched her bottom and forced her to perform oral sex in a toilet cubicle.

“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t shrink from suggesting to you that [the alleged victim] is a manipulative woman who curated the circumstances of the night,” Cunneen told the jury.

“To turn the table, to turn herself into a victim and to become someone who everyone had to feel sorry for and support.”

During the trial, Cunneen probed text messages between the woman and her fiance about a dispute they were having at the time of the incident.

Both the woman and her fiance have played down their exchange as normal, despite admitting it was to do with trust and may have been the lowest point in their relationship.

Cunneen told the jury that when someone claimed to have been sexually assaulted, those closest to them were highly unlikely to question it.

“You don’t doubt them, you don’t cross-examine them, you don’t say, ‘Well what were you doing?’ or anything like that, you just accept it,” she said.

“We know that that’s what people must do.”

Cunneen spoke at length about a phone call between the woman and Beale that was recorded by police without his knowledge and played during the trial.

In the call, Beale apologises to the woman, telling her he “misread” the situation.

According to the defence version, Beale’s apology was not for having raped the woman but out of concern for her and his possible misunderstanding of the situation.

Cunneen told the jury they had to be satisfied of several elements for the offences to be proven, including that a sex act occurred and that it was non-consensual.

“There’s a third element just as important as the first two,” she said. “Knowing that the alleged victim had not consented.”

The defence closing submissions are continuing.

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Medals will contain chunks of Eiffel Tower

Paris Olympic and Paralympic medals will contain chunks of Eiffel Tower

  • Design for Paris 2024 medals unveiled by jeweller Chaumet
  • ‘The absolute symbol of Paris and France is the Eiffel Tower’

Podium finishers at the upcoming Paris Olympics will be rewarded with a piece of the Eiffel Tower, organisers said on Thursday, unveiling the event’s medals which are set with hexagon-shaped tokens forged out of scrap metal from the monument.

The idea was to link the Games with symbols of France, said Thierry Reboul, creative director of Paris 2024. “The absolute symbol of Paris and France is the Eiffel Tower,” Reboul told reporters. “It’s the opportunity for the athletes to bring back a piece of Paris with them.”

Designed by the jeweller Chaumet, the 18-gram hexagon tokens, representing the shape of France, are made of iron taken from the Tower during past refurbishments then stored for years in a warehouse whose location is secret. They sit in the centre of the gold, silver and bronze medals, ringed with grooves evoking light rays bursting outward – drawn from a tiara design in Chaumet’s archives.

The back of the medals features the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, charging forward, with the Acropolis to one side and the Eiffel Tower to the other.

Paralympics medals feature a view of the Eiffel Tower from underneath, and are stamped with Paris 2024 in braille – a homage to the Frenchman who invented it. The 5,084 medals are produced by France’s mint, the Monnaie de Paris.

“We want to make sure those pieces of Eiffel Tower stay at home,” the French wheelchair tennis player Pauline Déroulède told reporters. “Seeing them so close gives some extra motivation,” added another home nation athlete, the wrestler Koumba Larroque.

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