The Guardian 2024-02-14 06:01:05


Ten must pay Lisa Wilkinson’s legal fees in Lehrmann defamation case, court rules; 174,000 Victorian homes still without power

Lisa Wilkinson has won her bid to have the Ten network pay her legal fees.

Justice Michael Lee has delivered his judgement in the two day cross-claim in the federal court:

This is not a case where Ms Wilkinson acted unthinkingly in retaining separate representation.

Wilkinson took Ten to court over its refusal to pay more than $700,000 in legal costs in the Lehrmann defamation case.

Lehrmann defamation case‘Significant credit issues’ with both Lehrmann and Higgins, judge says

‘Significant credit issues’ with both Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins in defamation case, judge says

Justice Michael Lee made remarks during cross-claim hearing made by journalist Lisa Wilkinson against Network Ten over legal fees

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There are “significant credit issues” with both Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins in the defamation case the former Liberal staffer brought against Network Ten and its presenter Lisa Wilkinson, Justice Michael Lee has told the federal court.

“There are a number of significant differences they’ve given in court, a number of in-court representations and out-of-court representations,” Justice Lee said of the two principal witnesses.

The federal court judge is in the final stages of writing his judgment in the Lehrmann defamation case and will deliver his findings in March or April, he revealed on Wednesday.

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Lehrmann is suing Ten and Wilkinson for defamation over an interview with Higgins on The Project in which she alleged she was raped in Parliament House.

Lehrmann maintains his innocence and at his criminal trial pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent, denying that any sexual activity had occurred.

After his criminal trial was aborted in December 2022 prosecutors dropped charges against Lehrmann for the alleged rape of Higgins, saying a retrial would pose an “unacceptable risk” to her health.

Justice Lee made the remarks about the matter of “credit” during a two-day hearing of a cross-claim for legal fees made by Wilkinson against her employer Network Ten.

Justice Lee said he would deliver his judgment in the cross-claim on whether Ten has to pay Wilkinson’s legal fees of more than $700,000 by the end of Wednesday, so that he can return to the “main game” of the defamation judgment.

He asked the legal teams to think carefully about the issue of credit in their final submissions.

“You have to be careful … when you’re making credit findings, working out, if there are general credit problems with witnesses, what parts of their evidence you can believe,” Lee said. “Hence, credit is particularly important in this case.”

“So I just want to give everyone a chance to deal with anything they want to say concerning the issue of credit.”

Justice Lee raised the example of credit in relation to Higgins’ evidence in her personal injury claim for compensation from the commonwealth.

Higgins received $2.3m in compensation, but after legal fees and taxes were taken out she got $1.9m, she told the court in December.

Higgins gave “a whole series of representations” under oath about liability “which are in contrast to the evidence that she’s given in some respects”, he said.

“In relation to the principal issue, it is clear that there are significant credit issues in relation to the two principal witnesses … certainly Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins,” he said.

Sue Chrysanthou SC, representing Wilkinson, told the court her client has been a journalist for 40 years but has never been a news reporter or a court reporter, and has never been sued for defamation.

The court has heard Wilkinson relied on Ten for legal advice on whether or not to give an acceptance speech at the 2022 Logies, in which she referenced Higgins’ allegations.

Wilkinson earlier told the court she felt “alone” and unsupported by Network Ten as her reputation was being “trashed in the media” after the speech because it led to the delay of Lehrmann’s criminal trial.

“It’s hard to imagine any occasion where my client would have had to consider making a comment on judicial proceedings,” Chrysanthou said. “And I think the evidence was she’d never been sued for defamation before, so had very little information or knowledge about that.”

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VictoriaHomes lost to fire and hundreds of thousands left without power after storms

Victoria storms: farmer killed, homes lost in fires and power outages for hundreds of thousands across state

Dairy farmer dead after wild weather in South Gippsland, while about 174,000 properties are still without electricity

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A dairy farmer is dead, homes have been lost and more than 170,000 households and businesses remain without power after bushfires and storms ravaged Victoria.

The Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan, confirmed a 50-year-old man died when storms hit the South Gippsland region, in the state’s east, on Tuesday night. She expressed her condolences to his family and first responders.

The 50-year-old was found dead at a Darlimurla property. WorkSafe Victoria is investigating the incident.

“The death is the second confirmed workplace fatality for 2024. There were nine work-related deaths at the same time last year,” they said.

Police said the man was working on the property when he was struck by debris. They said they would prepare a report for the coroner.

It came as bushfires burn in western Victoria, where authorities were trying to confirm how many homes have been lost, and electricity outages continue in parts of the state. Some schools in central and western Victoria, as well as in Melbourne’s south-east, were closed as a result.

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Allan said the catastrophic bushfire risk declared on Tuesday was downgraded to extreme on Wednesday morning.

“To give it some context, yesterday was only the second day since the fires of Black Saturday in 2009, 15 years ago, that had that catastrophic rating” she said. Fire crews battled to control the bushfires overnight.

Hundreds of thousands of homes were left without power after damaging winds brought down major transmission towers, causing a coal power station to shut down.

Outages affected the Wonthaggi hospital and Phillip Island health hub, with surgeries cancelled for patients. Cancer and haemodialysis services, pathology and emergency dental appointments were cancelled.

In a statement, operator Bass Coast Health said visitors could still visit loved ones in the health care centres.

“All services except for theatre are operating,” they said. “Our emergency department at Wonthaggi Hospital and urgent care centres at Cowes remain open for people who are unwell.”

As at Wednesday afternoon, about 174,000 homes and businesses were still without power.

A spokesperson for VicEmergency said the State Emergency Service had 124 of its 150 units deployed in recovery efforts.

“SES has had approximately 3900 requests across the state for volunteer assistance since 9:00am 13 February. Approximately 600 of those requests have related to building damage,” they said.

Fire crews were on Tuesday assessing the impact that a blaze near the Grampians national park has had on Pomonal.

Homes, hostels and business were evacuated across the region. But 750 metres from the Grampians national park, Aidan Banfield said he was “really confident” about staying to defend his camping and caravan parkland.

“Beyond a certain size or property, people have a lot of [firefighting] equipment, particularly big farmers. They’ve been on the land for a long time and have a lot of experience,” he said.

“The classic pitch you see … is a little hose fighting fires, and that happens. But there’s definitely others that have really significant power.”

Banfield said having lived through the 2006 Mount Lubra fires helped prepare himself and other residents to fight future fires.

The fire threat has eased in the Mount Stapylton and Bellfield areas in the Grampians national park after residents were told seek shelter on Tuesday afternoon.

Conditions were also better on Wednesday around a bushfire at Newtown near Ballarat after residents were told to evacuate after a grassfire spread into a forest and morphed into a bushfire.

The transport department on Wednesday urged motorists to be patient and stay alert for hazards as storm damage had affected the road and transport network.

A number of bus replacement services were in place on Wednesday morning and the Western Highway remains closed between Horsham and Stawell.

Firefighters in burnover at Pomonal

Five country firefighters suffered minor injuries after their truck was involved in a burnover at a fire ground at Pomonal on Tuesday night.

The firefighters were pre-positioned in the town and tasked with protecting homes and critical infrastructure, said Chris Hardman, chief of Forest Fire Management Victoria.

“When the wind change came through, the fire moved very rapidly into Pomonal and those firefighters were caught between the fire front and the work they were doing in protecting communities,” Hardman told ABC News.

“We don’t have a full understanding of the fire front and the impact it’s had on the township, but it certainly has impacted sections of the Pomonal township and we’ve had some losses.”

Phillip Vaughan’s Australian native nursery in Pomonal was damaged by the fires, losing “significant” gardens and plants grown over the last four decades.

“We’re just trying to get the water back up and running so we can water the nursery,” he said.

Vaughan told Guardian Australia plants grown for the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show next month were damaged in the fire, including rare native grown for a show garden display.

“It will be interesting trying to replace [plants], but it’s the people who’ve lost their houses we’re more concerned about. We’ll soldier on. We can do a bit of replanting and do whatever we can do,” he said.

With additional reporting by Australian Associated Press

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‘Deliberate choices’CBA posts $5bn half-yearly cash profit after shrinking of home loan book

Commonwealth Bank posts $5bn half-yearly cash profit after ‘deliberate’ shrinking of home loan book

Latest financial results show CBA now targeting savers over mortgage holders, amid concerns over weakening competition among major lenders

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Australia’s biggest lender, Commonwealth Bank, is losing market share in its home loan book through a deliberate strategy of not competing for less lucrative mortgage customers.

The bank’s tactics feed into concerns there are few signs of healthy price competition between Australia’s major lenders operating in one of the most concentrated sectors among comparable economies.

On Wednesday, the bank recorded a $5bn cash profit for the first half of the financial year, just shy of its record six-month profit recorded a year earlier.

After the release of the financial results, the Commonwealth Bank chief executive, Matt Comyn, said the lender was not leading pricing activity in the sector.

“We have made very deliberate choices about where to compete and how best to,” Comyn told analysts.

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The bank revealed its home loan book balance shrunk by $2bn in the most recent six-month reporting period because it was taking a “disciplined approach to managing margins to deliver sustainable returns”.

This occurred in the months after CBA wound back programs designed to entice customers, a posture that many of its peers then copied, leading to tepid competition in the mortgage market and a willingness by lenders to let customers go they deem higher risk or less profitable.

“We’ve sought to particularly compete in some areas, obviously retention of our customer base and probably investor over owner-occupier – there are higher margins there,” Comyn said.

Australian banks have enjoyed a period of very high profits by taking advantage of rapid-fire rises in the official cash rate to increase profit margins.

The bank’s financial results released on Wednesday showed its net interest margin, a key gauge of profitability, compressed by six basis points in the December half to 1.99%, which it blamed on increasing competition for deposits, a trend that shows that it is now competing more fiercely for savers than mortgage holders.

Angus Gilfillan, the chief executive at broking group Finspo, said he was seeing more competitive rates offered by second-tier lenders as opposed to the big four banks.

“The competitive intensity we saw coming out of the pandemic years has really slowed,” said Gilfillan.

“That price provided to new customers has been increasing and CBA has absolutely been leading the market up in terms of that repricing and readjustment to mortgage pricing.”

Analysis by Canstar shows there is a 0.64 percentage point difference between the average variable interest rate for existing borrowers compared to the lowest equivalent rates offered in the market.

This represents a potential saving of $248 a month on a $600,000 loan.

An ACTU price-gouging report headed by the former competition watchdog Allan Fels noted last week there had been few signs of strong competition between the banks over the past 15 years.

Only Germany has a higher banking concentration than Australia among major economies, according to the report.

Comyn said on Wednesday he expected financial strain on customers to build in 2024, as households come under pressure from the lagged impact of interest rate rises.

While the number of bank customers falling behind on repayments has increased, it remains at a relatively low number and has not led to widespread loan defaults.

CBA’s shares traded slightly lower after the results were released on Wednesday morning, although they are still hovering near record highs.

CBA announced an interim dividend of $2.15 a share, 2% higher than the corresponding half.

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ADF chief unaware Fijian officer handed senior army role was accused of torture, parliament told

ADF chief unaware Fijian officer handed senior Australian army role was accused of torture, parliament told

Angus Campbell tells parliament recently appointed brigade deputy commander Penioni (Ben) Naliva is entitled to presumption of innocence

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The chief of the Australian defence force has told a parliamentary committee he was unaware of serious allegations against a Fijian military officer before approving his appointment to an Australian army brigade.

Colonel Penioni (Ben) Naliva, an officer from the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), was named last month as a deputy commander of the 7th Brigade based at Gallipoli barracks in Brisbane.

Some allegations against Naliva were read into the parliamentary record during a Senate estimates committee hearing in Canberra on Wednesday.

The Greens senator David Shoebridge told the committee: “In 2011, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of expression named Colonel Naliva, in a report to the Human Rights Council, citing his [alleged] role in the savage beating of [a] Suva businessman and former politician.”

Shoebridge asked the chief of the ADF, Gen Angus Campbell, whether he was aware of this allegation “when you appointed him to be second in charge of 3,000 Australian soldiers”.

“No, I was not, senator,” Campbell told Senate estimates.

Shoebridge also told the committee that a former prime minister of Fiji had written a book that set out “allegations of the torture that Colonel Naliva inflicted upon one of his then political opponents”.

Guardian Australia has not been able to verify the allegations but has attempted to contact Naliva, through the Australian Department of Defence and the RFMF, to seek his response.

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Appearing before the Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee on Wednesday, Campbell acknowledged shortcomings with the appointment vetting process.

“The process that we undertake to consider those persons being nominated for appointments did not occur as it should have in this case,” Campbell told Senate estimates in response to Shoebridge’s summary of the allegations.

“And I’ve heard what you’ve just read out. It is, of course, very disturbing. It is an allegation and concerningly, unfortunately, I’m advised that no relevant authority has received a complaint from those who are making those allegations.”

Campbell confirmed that he, as chief of the ADF, was responsible for approving the appointment, which was part of a program of “further strengthening the relationship between Pacific military forces and Australia”.

Under questioning from the independent senator Jacqui Lambie, Campbell said Naliva “was recommended by the commander of the Fijian military forces”.

Campbell would “consider next steps” after taking further advice.

“I have directed that the process be completed, as it ought to have been, so as to present me with the full view, including the advice offered from the government of Fiji and the commander of the Fiji military forces as much as the considerations of our own vetting mechanisms,” he said.

Campbell said Naliva had not been stood down but was “working from home at present and supporting his family in a fairly stressful circumstance”.

Campbell said it was important to work through that process carefully, because he had a duty of care to the individual and also to the ADF.

“Progressing beyond one error to make a second error without undertaking what should have been a correct process is simply a perpetuation of the error,” Campbell said. Naliva was entitled to “a presumption of innocence”, Campbell said.

During the Senate estimates exchange, Shoebridge contended that Campbell’s handling of the matter was an “abject failure”.

The Labor senator Jenny McAllister, representing the defence minister at the committee hearing, responded that the government took “all allegations of wrongdoing seriously” and Campbell was taking steps “to remedy those matters”.

The first assistant secretary of Defence’s Pacific division, Susan Bowdell, told the committee that in the case of Naliva, “we got confirmation from the government of Fiji that he had a clear police clearance and national security checks”.

“These are allegations against the individual, so they would not have been picked up in that criminal check from the government,” Bowdell told the committee.

“Yes, it was a gap of information that, unfortunately, was not put to the CDF in the appointment process.”

Fiji’s home affairs minister, Pio Tikoduadua, told the Australian newspaper last week it was “understandable that individuals may have faced challenges or concerns about coming forward with their claims, especially considering the political and social context at the time”.

Tikoduadua stressed the need for due process for Naliva and “a thorough and impartial discussion” of the allegations.

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A case of bubonic plague was reported in Oregon. Here’s what to know

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A case of bubonic plague was reported in Oregon. Here’s what to know

US cases of plague are exceedingly rare, and modern therapies are effective when patients are treated in time

  • Oregon resident caught bubonic plague from cat, officials say

A case of bubonic plague – the disease that killed tens of millions of people in medieval Europe – was reported in rural Oregon last week. The afflicted individual was promptly treated, and health officials believe that there is “little risk to the community” that the disease will spread.

Though the disease, which officials believe was likely passed on to the individual from a sick pet cat, is exceedingly rare in the modern day, a few cases are reported each year. But in 2024, doctors know much better how to treat the disease and prevent its spread.

Here what to know about how an illness once known as the “black death” became treatable:

What is the plague?

The bubonic plague is an infectious disease that can affect mammals, caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. It is often transmitted via fleas infected with the bacteria. It can also be caught by inhaling respiratory droplets after close contact with animals or humans sick with pneumonic plague, the most severe form of the disease. Another way it can be caught is “from direct contact with infected tissues or fluids while handling an animal that is sick with or that has died from plague,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Plague symptoms can manifest in a few ways. Bubonic plague – the kind contracted by the Oregon resident – happens when the plague bacteria gets into the lymph nodes. It can cause fever, headache, weakness and painful, swollen lymph nodes. It usually happens from the bite of an infected flea, according to the CDC.

Septicemic plague symptoms happen if the bacteria gets into the bloodstream. It can occur initially or after bubonic plague goes untreated. This form of plague causes the same fever, chills and weakness, as well as abdominal pain, shock and sometimes other symptoms like bleeding into the skin and blackened fingers, toes or nose. The CDC says this form comes from flea bites or from handling an infected animal.

Pneumonic plague is the most serious form of the disease, and it occurs when the bacteria gets into the lungs. Pneumonic plague adds rapidly developing pneumonia to the list of plague symptoms. It is the only form of plague that can be spread from person to person by inhaling infectious droplets.

All forms of plague are treatable with common antibiotics, and people who seek treatment early have a better chance of a full recovery, according to the CDC.

Who is at risk?

In the US, an average of seven cases of human plague are reported each year, according to the CDC, and about 80% of them are the bubonic form of the disease. Most of those cases are reported in the rural western and south-western US.

A welder in central Oregon contracted bubonic plague in 2012 when he pulled a rodent out of his choking cat’s mouth – he survived but lost his fingertips and toes to the disease. A Colorado teen contracted a fatal case while hunting in 2015, and Colorado officials confirmed at least two cases last year – one of them fatal.

Worldwide, most human cases of plague in recent decades have occurred in people living in rural towns and villages in Africa, particularly in Madagascar and the Congo, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

People can reduce the risk of plague by making their homes and outdoor living areas less inviting for rodents, by clearing brush and junk piles and keeping pet food inaccessible. Ground squirrels, chipmunks and wood rats can carry plague, as can other rodents, and so people with bird and squirrel feeders may want to consider the risks if they live in an area with a plague outbreak.

The CDC says repellent with Deet can also help protect people from rodent fleas when camping or working outdoors.

Flea-control products can help keep fleas from infecting household pets. If a pet gets sick, it should be taken to a vet as soon as possible, according to the CDC.

Isn’t plague from the Middle Ages?

The black death in the 14th century was perhaps the most infamous plague epidemic, killing up to half the population as it spread through Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. It began devastating communities in the Middle East and Europe between 1347 and 1351, and significant outbreaks continued for roughly the next 400 years.

An earlier major plague pandemic, dubbed the Justinian plague, started in Rome around 541 and continued to erupt for the next couple hundred years.

The third major plague pandemic started in the Yunnan region of China in the mid-1800s and spread along trade routes, arriving in Hong Kong and Bombay about 40 years later. It eventually reached every continent except Antarctica, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and is estimated to have killed roughly 12 million people in China and India alone.

In the late 1800s, an effective treatment with an antiserum was developed. That treatment was later replaced by even more effective antibiotics a few decades later.

Though plague remains a serious illness, antibiotic and supportive therapies are effective for even the most dangerous pneumonic form when patients are treated in time, according to the World Health Organization.

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Full reportOregon resident caught the bubonic plague from their cat, local officials say

Oregon resident caught the bubonic plague from their cat, local officials say

Officials say disease, which killed millions in medieval Europe, was identified and treated early, ‘posing little risk to the community’

A pet owner in Oregon has caught the bubonic plague from their cat in a rare example of the potentially deadly illness surfacing in the United States, local authorities have said.

The plague was responsible for the Black Death in medieval Europe and elsewhere which killed millions of people and devastated the continent. In modern times it has become much rarer.

Local officials said the unnamed person in rural Deschutes county, Oregon, had probably caught the plague from their pet, which was displaying symptoms of the disease.

“All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness,” said Dr Richard Fawcett, Deschutes county health officer, in a statement.

The case is the first example of the bubonic plague in Oregon since 2015. It is usually found in the area being carried by squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other rodents.

Symptoms of the plague begin two to eight days after exposure to an infected animal or flea and may include fever, nausea, weakness, chills, muscle aches and visibly swollen lymph nodes called buboes, which give the plague its name.

“Fortunately, this case was identified and treated in the earlier stages of the disease, posing little risk to the community. No additional cases of plague have emerged during the communicable disease investigation,” the county said in a statement.

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Five iPads and other devices sniffed out by police dogs at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home

Alleged mushroom poisoning: five iPads and other devices sniffed out by police dogs at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home

Australian federal police tell Senate estimates that the electronics were not found during initial searches

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Five iPads, a mobile phone, a USB and a smartwatch were among items found by sniffer dogs at the home of the Victorian woman at the centre of an alleged mushroom poisoning plot during a six-hour police raid last year, Senate estimates has heard.

The Australian federal police deployed technology detector dogs to help Victoria police execute a search warrant at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home, in the state’s south-east, last November.

Police allege Patterson killed three people and left a fourth fighting for his life after serving a beef wellington dish laced with death cap mushrooms at a lunch on 29 July last year.

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The AFP’s commissioner, Reece Kershaw, told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday night that the force had assisted Victoria police in their investigation into the fatal mushroom lunch.

“Technology detector dog Georgia found one USB, a micro secure digital card and a sim card,” he told the hearing. “Technology detector dog Alma found a mobile phone, five iPads, a trail camera and secure digital card and a smartwatch.”

Kershaw said the items were not found during the officers’ initial searches.

Patterson, who denies any wrongdoing, has remained behind bars since she was charged in November with three counts of murder and five of attempted murder.

Her former in-laws, Gail and Don Patterson, both 70, and Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66, died after she hosted them for lunch at her home.

Wilkinson’s husband, Ian Wilkinson, survived after spending almost two months in hospital.

Patterson is also charged with four counts of attempted murder related to her former partner, Simon Patterson, including on the day of the fatal lunch. He was not present for that meal.

According to police documents filed in court, Patterson is accused of attempting to murder her former partner in November 2021, in May 2022, on 6 September 2022 and on 29 July.

Police allege Patterson also attempted to murder Ian Wilkinson on 29 July.

She appeared at the Latrobe Valley magistrates court, in Victoria’s south-east, in November. During the hearing, police sought a 20-week adjournment to analyse computer equipment seized at the Leongatha home.

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Five iPads and other devices sniffed out by police dogs at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home

Alleged mushroom poisoning: five iPads and other devices sniffed out by police dogs at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home

Australian federal police tell Senate estimates that the electronics were not found during initial searches

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Five iPads, a mobile phone, a USB and a smartwatch were among items found by sniffer dogs at the home of the Victorian woman at the centre of an alleged mushroom poisoning plot during a six-hour police raid last year, Senate estimates has heard.

The Australian federal police deployed technology detector dogs to help Victoria police execute a search warrant at Erin Patterson’s Leongatha home, in the state’s south-east, last November.

Police allege Patterson killed three people and left a fourth fighting for his life after serving a beef wellington dish laced with death cap mushrooms at a lunch on 29 July last year.

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

The AFP’s commissioner, Reece Kershaw, told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday night that the force had assisted Victoria police in their investigation into the fatal mushroom lunch.

“Technology detector dog Georgia found one USB, a micro secure digital card and a sim card,” he told the hearing. “Technology detector dog Alma found a mobile phone, five iPads, a trail camera and secure digital card and a smartwatch.”

Kershaw said the items were not found during the officers’ initial searches.

Patterson, who denies any wrongdoing, has remained behind bars since she was charged in November with three counts of murder and five of attempted murder.

Her former in-laws, Gail and Don Patterson, both 70, and Gail’s sister, Heather Wilkinson, 66, died after she hosted them for lunch at her home.

Wilkinson’s husband, Ian Wilkinson, survived after spending almost two months in hospital.

Patterson is also charged with four counts of attempted murder related to her former partner, Simon Patterson, including on the day of the fatal lunch. He was not present for that meal.

According to police documents filed in court, Patterson is accused of attempting to murder her former partner in November 2021, in May 2022, on 6 September 2022 and on 29 July.

Police allege Patterson also attempted to murder Ian Wilkinson on 29 July.

She appeared at the Latrobe Valley magistrates court, in Victoria’s south-east, in November. During the hearing, police sought a 20-week adjournment to analyse computer equipment seized at the Leongatha home.

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West Papua rebels release video of kidnapped New Zealand pilot

‘They are treating me well’: West Papua rebels release video of kidnapped New Zealand pilot

Soon to be released after year in captivity, Phillip Mehrtens requests ebook reader with ‘as many English books as possible’

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Rebels in Indonesia’s West Papua region have released a video of New Zealand pilot, Phillip Mehrtens, in which he tells his family he loves them and is being treated well by his captors.

Mehrtens, an Air Susi pilot, was taken hostage by the West Papua National Liberation Army a year ago as a bargaining chip for its push for independence from Indonesia. The video was filmed on 22 December – prior to the army announcing last week Mehrtens would soon be freed, but not confirming when.

“I’m OK, they are treating me well, I’m trying to stay positive,” Mehrtens said in the video message directed to his family. He added that the “Komadan” – which is Bahasa for commander – who took the video said he can try calling his family next time the commander visits him.

“I love you both lots and miss you both lots and hope to be able to talk with you soon.”

In a second video that was also released, Mehrtens said the Komadan was able to help order “a couple of things for me”, requesting two ventolin inhalers and an ebook reader with “as many English books as possible”.

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“That would be very much appreciated,” he said in the video. It’s unclear who the second video was directed at.

On 7 February, a year to the day since Mehrtens was kidnapped after he landed a small commercial passenger plane at Paro airport in Nduga (epicenter of the growing Papuan insurgency), the army announced Mehrtens would be freed “to protect humanity and ensure human rights”.

In a statement announcing the release, the chief of general staff of the West Papua National Liberation Army, Terianus Satto, criticised the Indonesian and New Zealand governments for not meeting the terms for peace negotiations to begin between Indonesia and West Papua in exchange for Mehrtens’ release.

In May last year, the army threatened to shoot Mehrtens if the Indonesian government did not meet its demands to begin independence talks.

Mehrtens’ kidnapping has renewed attention on the long-running and deadly conflict that has raged in West Papua, which makes up the western half of Papua New Guinea, since Indonesia took control of the former Dutch colony in 1969.

The Free West Papua Movement, of which the West Papua National Liberation Army is the armed wing and regularly engages in skirmishes with Indonesian security forces, has continued to demand a fair vote on self-determination.

Peaceful acts of civil disobedience by Indigenous West Papuans, such as raising the banned “Morning Star” flag, are met with police and military brutality and long jail sentences.

In 2022, UN human rights experts called for urgent and unrestricted humanitarian access to the region because of serious concerns about “shocking abuses against Indigenous Papuans, including child killings, disappearances, torture and mass displacement of people”.

On the same day the army announced Mehrtens would be released, New Zealand’s minister for foreign affairs, Winston Peters, released a statement appealing for Mehrtens to be freed immediately, adding the government had been working with the Indonesian authorities to secure his release.

“Let me be absolutely clear. There can never be any justification for hostage taking,” Peters said.

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Tom Suozzi wins seat vacated by George Santos in boost for Biden

New York special election: Tom Suozzi wins seat vacated by George Santos in boost for Biden

The contest between Democrat Suozzi and little-known Republican Mazi Pilip was seen as a bellwether for November’s presidential election

Democrat Tom Suozzi won the New York congressional seat vacated by the disgraced Republican George Santos on Tuesday night, in a boost for Joe Biden ahead of the presidential election.

The victory narrows the slim Republican majority in the House and gives Democrats a much-needed win in New York City’s Long Island suburbs, where Republican candidates have shown strength in recent elections.

The Associated Press called the result after 52% of votes were counted, with Suozzi on 59% compared with 41% for Republican candidate Mazi Pilip.

“The people of Queens and Long Island are sick and tired of political bickering,” Suozzi said during a victory speech. “They want us to come together and solve problems.”

In what had become an increasingly bitter campaign, the inexperienced Pilip attempted to tie Suozzi to the immigration situation at the US-Mexico border.

Pilip conceded the race and said she congratulated Suozzi in a phone call on Tuesday night. “Yes we lost, but it doesn’t mean we are going to end here,” Pilip told supporters at her election watch party.

The seat, in Long Island, was seen as a key indicator of voter sentiment before the expected Biden-Donald Trump election in November. Biden won the district in 2020, but the area swung Republican in the 2022 midterm elections, when Santos was elected.

However, forecasting for November could be complicated given that turnout was potentially hampered by a storm that dumped several inches of snow on the district on election day. Both campaigns offered voters free rides to the polls as plows cleared slush from the roads.

The result leaves Republicans with a 219-213 majority that has already proved hard to manage, illustrated by the chamber’s failure last week to pass a measure to impeach Biden’s top border official, Alejandro Mayorkas, which fell short by one vote when a few Republicans voted no. The House approved the measure on Tuesday, after Republican Steve Scalise returned from cancer treatment to cast a decisive vote.

Santos was expelled from Congress in December after he was charged with more than 20 counts of fraud, sparking a special election. Even before the charges, Santos had proved an intense source of embarrassment for Republicans, after it emerged he had fabricated huge chunks of his personal history.

Suozzi, who previously spent six years in the House of Representatives before quitting to run, unsuccessfully, for New York governor, will have to run again for the seat in the nationwide congressional elections in November.

The demographic of New York’s third congressional district had made this a closely watched election nationwide. The district, seen as a political bellwether, is largely suburban and was one of 18 districts that Biden won in 2020, but which then went on to vote for a Republican House representative in 2022.

Immigration, abortion and aid to Israel featured heavily in both Suozzi and Pilip’s election campaigns, issues which are likely to remain important later this year.

Pilip, a relatively unknown local politician who was criticized for avoiding the press during the campaign, sought to tie Suozzi to Biden, claiming the pair had “created the migrant crisis”.

Suozzi tried to distance himself from the left of the Democratic party by promising to “battle” progressive members of Congress. He accused Pilip of being anti-abortion – Pilip said she is “pro-life”, but would not support a national abortion ban.

Both Pilip, an Orthodox Jew who was born in Ethiopia before moving to Israel and who served in the Israel Defense Forces before coming to the US, and Suozzi are fervent supporters of continued aid, which became a key issue in a district which the Jewish Democratic Council of America estimates has one of the largest Jewish populations of anywhere in the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Joyce encouraged to take personal leave after footpath incident

‘It’s up to Barnaby now’: Joyce encouraged to take personal leave after footpath incident

David Littleproud says Nationals MP ‘embarrassed himself’ but says there are ‘circumstances’ he needs to deal with

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Barnaby Joyce has been encouraged to take personal leave to deal with “family circumstances” after an incident last week where he was filmed lying down on a Canberra footpath and swearing profanities into his phone.

The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, told ABC on Wednesday that he had spoken to Joyce about the incident, encouraging him to take leave for what he described as “not normal behaviour”.

“He’s embarrassed himself and he’s embarrassed his family,” Littleproud said.

“But it’s important to understand that there are circumstances that are greater than what has publicly been [said] around a mixture of medication and alcohol.

“There’s some family circumstances that his family need to deal with, and I encouraged him to take some time to deal with that emotionally to make sure that his family understood that he was there for them.”

Daily Mail Australia on Friday published night-time footage of Joyce in Canberra lying face up on the pavement with his feet on a planter box, having a phone conversation and uttering profanities.

Joyce explained the incident was a “big mistake” after he had mixed alcohol and prescription drugs during an event at Parliament House. But Littleproud alluded to “other driving forces” playing a part.

“If Barnaby wants to make that public, it’s up to him,” he said. “But I’ve got to work through this with the information that I’m provided to make sure that I create that environment of support, and ensuring that he gets every piece of support that he needs.”

Littleproud said if Joyce didn’t take up the offer for time off, he’ll need to show he can do his job “unimpeded”.

“It’s up to Barnaby now if he wants to take that time,” he said.

“If he doesn’t want to take it, he’ll want to demonstrate to us that he can continue on unimpeded and I think that’s important and he’s made big steps towards that,” he said.

The Nationals leader said Joyce had “welcomed the offer” but “wanted to go away and consider it”.

Guardian Australia contacted Joyce for a response. He declined to comment.

Joyce said he was “not looking for sympathy” on Monday after explaining the incident.

“I’m on a prescription drug, and they say certain things may happen to you if you drink, and they were absolutely 100% right,” he said.

“I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not looking for an excuse. I’ll just stand by that. What I said is what I said. I came back, I sat on a planter box, I fell off, and I was videotaped. There you go. What else can you say?”

Politicians across the major parties have expressed concern about Joyce’s welfare after the incident, while the Greens and the independent senator Lidia Thorpe said the response revealed a double standard.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said there would be “widespread condemnation” had a female politician found themselves in a similar position.

Thorpe told Guardian Australia that Anthony Albanese had treated her differently after an altercation she was involved with outside a Melbourne strip club last year.

“It’s real boys club in this place and it’s just a bloke’s thing to get away with it,” she said.

The Labor MP Tania Lawrence counteracted Labor’s messaging on the incident, calling the footage embarrassing for everyone in parliament regardless of party or political persuasion.

“We are under the spotlight and we should be acting accordingly. And if we can’t, then we must also be able to understand that there isn’t a single member here who is irreplaceable,” she told parliament on Monday.

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Joyce encouraged to take personal leave after footpath incident

‘It’s up to Barnaby now’: Joyce encouraged to take personal leave after footpath incident

David Littleproud says Nationals MP ‘embarrassed himself’ but says there are ‘circumstances’ he needs to deal with

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Barnaby Joyce has been encouraged to take personal leave to deal with “family circumstances” after an incident last week where he was filmed lying down on a Canberra footpath and swearing profanities into his phone.

The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, told ABC on Wednesday that he had spoken to Joyce about the incident, encouraging him to take leave for what he described as “not normal behaviour”.

“He’s embarrassed himself and he’s embarrassed his family,” Littleproud said.

“But it’s important to understand that there are circumstances that are greater than what has publicly been [said] around a mixture of medication and alcohol.

“There’s some family circumstances that his family need to deal with, and I encouraged him to take some time to deal with that emotionally to make sure that his family understood that he was there for them.”

Daily Mail Australia on Friday published night-time footage of Joyce in Canberra lying face up on the pavement with his feet on a planter box, having a phone conversation and uttering profanities.

Joyce explained the incident was a “big mistake” after he had mixed alcohol and prescription drugs during an event at Parliament House. But Littleproud alluded to “other driving forces” playing a part.

“If Barnaby wants to make that public, it’s up to him,” he said. “But I’ve got to work through this with the information that I’m provided to make sure that I create that environment of support, and ensuring that he gets every piece of support that he needs.”

Littleproud said if Joyce didn’t take up the offer for time off, he’ll need to show he can do his job “unimpeded”.

“It’s up to Barnaby now if he wants to take that time,” he said.

“If he doesn’t want to take it, he’ll want to demonstrate to us that he can continue on unimpeded and I think that’s important and he’s made big steps towards that,” he said.

The Nationals leader said Joyce had “welcomed the offer” but “wanted to go away and consider it”.

Guardian Australia contacted Joyce for a response. He declined to comment.

Joyce said he was “not looking for sympathy” on Monday after explaining the incident.

“I’m on a prescription drug, and they say certain things may happen to you if you drink, and they were absolutely 100% right,” he said.

“I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not looking for an excuse. I’ll just stand by that. What I said is what I said. I came back, I sat on a planter box, I fell off, and I was videotaped. There you go. What else can you say?”

Politicians across the major parties have expressed concern about Joyce’s welfare after the incident, while the Greens and the independent senator Lidia Thorpe said the response revealed a double standard.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said there would be “widespread condemnation” had a female politician found themselves in a similar position.

Thorpe told Guardian Australia that Anthony Albanese had treated her differently after an altercation she was involved with outside a Melbourne strip club last year.

“It’s real boys club in this place and it’s just a bloke’s thing to get away with it,” she said.

The Labor MP Tania Lawrence counteracted Labor’s messaging on the incident, calling the footage embarrassing for everyone in parliament regardless of party or political persuasion.

“We are under the spotlight and we should be acting accordingly. And if we can’t, then we must also be able to understand that there isn’t a single member here who is irreplaceable,” she told parliament on Monday.

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Kelly Wilkinson’s estranged husband pleads guilty to murdering her in Gold Coast home

Kelly Wilkinson’s estranged husband pleads guilty to murdering her in Gold Coast home

Prosecutors previously alleged Brian Earl Johnston, 37, tied up the mother-of-three before dousing her with petrol and setting her alight

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The estranged husband of Kelly Wilkinson, who was doused in petrol and set alight, has pleaded guilty to her murder less than a month before his scheduled trial.

Brian Earl Johnston, 37, appeared before Brisbane supreme court on Wednesday via video link for arraignment on one count of murdering 27-year-old Wilkinson on 20 April 2021 in a Gold Coast backyard as a domestic violence offence.

Justice Peter Callaghan asked Johnston to repeat his plea of guilty as it was not clear on the video link from custody.

Prosecutors previously alleged Johnston tied up the mother-of-three before setting her alight at her Arundel home.

The former US marine was previously also charged with breaching a domestic violence order and his bail conditions.

Johnston was arrested two blocks from the home suffering burns to his hands.

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In court on Wednesday, Johnston did not respond when asked if he wanted to say anything as to why sentence should not be passed upon him.

Defence barrister Kim Bryson said she had agreed with crown prosecutor Philip McCarthy that 13 March would be suitable for a sentencing hearing.

“There are some factual matters that remain contested in relation to the background of the relationship … we have been frustrated in our efforts to get out to the prison due to the lockdowns that have occurred,” Bryson said.

McCarthy said there was also a contest of facts over the motivation for Johnston murdering Wilkinson.

Justice Callaghan said he could change the sentencing date if needed and ordered that Johnston remain in custody.

Wilkinson’s murder sparked community outrage as she had sought domestic violence protection from Johnston in the weeks before her death.

At the time she was the third Queensland woman to die after allegedly being set on fire by abusive partners in the space of 12 months.

Businesswoman Tamika Smith set up a community fundraiser to build a new home for Wilkinson’s children and mining magnate Clive Palmer donated vacant land at Hope Island.

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Elderly man becomes first known fatality from virus

Alaskapox: elderly man becomes first known death from virus

The virus recently discovered in Alaska is transmitted from small mammals and symptoms normally include a rash and muscle pain

An elderly man has died from Alaskapox, the first known fatality from the recently discovered virus, Alaskan state health officials have said.

The man, who lived in the remote Kenai Peninsula, was hospitalised in November last year and died in late January, according to a bulletin issued last week by public health officials.

The man was undergoing cancer treatment and had a suppressed immune system because of the drugs, which may have contributed to the severity of his illness, the bulletin said. It described him as elderly but didn’t provide his age.

Alaskapox, also known as AKPV, is related to smallpox, cowpox and mpox, health officials said. Symptoms can include a rash, swollen lymph nodes and joint or muscle pain.

Only six other cases of the virus have been reported to Alaska health officials since the first one in 2015. All involved people were living in the Fairbanks area, more than 483km (300 miles) from the Kenai Peninsula, health officials said.

All had mild cases and recovered without being hospitalised.

The man who died “resided alone in a forested area and reported no recent travel and no close contacts with recent travel, illness, or similar lesions,” the health bulletin said.

It’s unclear how AKPV is transmitted but researchers say it may be zoonotic, meaning it can jump from animals to humans. The bulletin said that tests found evidence of current or previous infection in several species of small mammals in the Fairbanks area, including red-backed voles, and at least one domestic pet.

The man said he had cared for a stray cat at his home, the bulletin said.

The cat tested negative for the virus but it “regularly hunted small mammals and frequently scratched the patient”, the bulletin said.

That opens the possibility that the cat had the virus on its claws when it scratched him. The bulletin said a “notable” scratch near the armpit area where the first symptom – a red lesion – was seen.

Health officials said there hadn’t been any documented cases of humans passing on the virus but they recommended people with skin lesions possibly caused by Alaskapox to cover the affected area with a bandage.

Other suggestions included thoroughly washing hands, avoiding sharing clothing that might have touched the lesions and to launder clothing and sheets separately from other household items.

Health authorities also urged Alaskans to follow federal health precautions when around wildlife to avoid potential Alaskapox infections.

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US House impeaches homeland security secretary

US House impeaches Biden homeland security secretary in historic vote

Alejandro Mayorkas, rebuked by Republicans who voted against key immigration bill, first to face such punishment in over 150 years

The US House of Representatives has voted to impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, Joe Biden’s secretary of homeland security, on explicitly political charges related to conditions at the southern border as Republicans attempt to capitalize on the issue in an election year.

The evening roll call proved tight, with speaker Mike Johnson’s threadbare Republican majority and in the face of staunch Democratic opposition to impeaching Mayorkas, the first cabinet secretary facing charges in nearly 150 years.

In the historic rebuke, the House impeached Mayorkas 214-213.

Three Republicans voted against party lines. Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin, Ken Buck from Colorado, and Tom McClintock from California said the Mayorkas impeachment did not meet the bar laid out in the constitution.

Joe Biden said in a statement released after the vote: “History will not look kindly on House Republicans for their blatant act of unconstitutional partisanship that has targeted an honorable public servant in order to play petty political games.”

Last weekend, Mayorkas told NBC that Republicans’ allegations against him were “baseless … and that’s why I’m really not distracted by them.

“I’m focused on the work of the Department of Homeland Security. I’m inspired every single day by the remarkable work that 216,000 men and women in our department perform on behalf of the American public.”

Mayorkas is also not the only Biden administration official House Republicans wish to impeach. Republicans have filed legislation to impeach a long list, including Kamala Harris, the vice-president; Merrick Garland, the attorney general; Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary.

But those attempts are far from coming to fruition, unlike the situation with Mayorkas.

Mayorkas, who did not appear to testify in the impeachment proceedings, placed the border crisis squarely on Congress for failing to update immigration laws during a time of global migration.

Conditions at the border with Mexico, where numbers of undocumented migrants remain high, “certainly” represented “a crisis”, Mayorkas said.

But he said the Biden administration did not “bear responsibility for a broken system. And we’re doing a tremendous amount within that broken system. But fundamentally, Congress is the only one who can fix it.”

Last week, Republicans in the Senate abandoned and sank an immigration and border deal – proposed after extensive negotiations with Democrats – after Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, made his opposition clear.

“House Republicans will be remembered by history for trampling on the constitution for political gain rather than working to solve the serious challenges at our border,” homeland security spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg said in a statement.

“While Secretary Mayorkas was helping a group of Republican and Democratic senators develop bipartisan solutions to strengthen border security and get needed resources for enforcement, House Republicans have wasted months with this baseless, unconstitutional impeachment.”

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AFP officer tells Senate he would repeat undercover operation on autistic teenager

AFP officer tells Senate he would repeat undercover operation on autistic teenager

Deputy commissioner Ian McCartney defends controversial counter-terror decision that was criticised by a magistrate

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The Australian federal police officer who authorised an undercover operation that resulted in an autistic boy being charged with terror offences has told a Senate estimates hearing that he would do so again under the same circumstances.

Guardian Australia revealed earlier this month that a Victorian children’s court had granted a permanent stay in the case of the boy, given the pseudonym Thomas Carrick, with magistrate Lesley Fleming making a raft of serious findings against police, including that they had fed his fixation with Islamic State.

The AFP deputy commissioner Ian McCartney said attempts to deradicalise the boy after his parents approached Victoria police in April 2021 had failed, and he was thought to be becoming a greater threat when McCartney authorised the major operation.

That operation involved Thomas being targeted by an undercover officer online.

McCartney, whose conduct was not directly criticised in the magistrate’s decision, told the Senate late on Tuesday that “if I had the same set of circumstances, I would sign that [authorisation] again”.

“He’d expressed a desire to carry out a violent act. He had expressed a desire to carry out a school shooting. He was researching material on how to build a bomb. He was engaging with likeminded individuals.

“There was a concerted three and half month focus on the CVE [countering violent extremism] strategy, however – a really important point – by late July the decision had been made this … was not working.

“The decision made by that [Victoria police] team was that it wasn’t being effective. He was becoming more and more radicalised.”

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McCartney said this was when the case was referred to the joint counter-terror team, which includes AFP, Victoria police and Asio members, eventually leading to the decision to authorise an undercover operation.

He said that after Fleming made her findings in October last year the AFP initiated a review into its handling of the case, which will be overseen by deputy commissioner Lesa Gale, and he said would include a review of the conduct of the officers involved.

It will focus on the online undercover strategy and how Thomas was engaged with, the challenges the AFP face in these matters and how to handle similar cases in future, and the “flow of information” as part of that online strategy through the JCTT, including the information provided to McCartney before he authorised the operation.

But the Greens senator David Shoebridge said McCartney’s statement that he would authorise the operation showed why it was so “deeply troubling” there was not an independent investigation into the case, adding that the current review could not result in any officer being sanctioned.

Shoebridge referred McCartney to a specific passage of Fleming’s decision, in which she said the undercover operative’s evidence should not be admitted.

“The [operative’s] evidence in its entirety revealed an orchestrated litany of communications between the seasoned covert operator and the child over an extended period of time in frequency and regularity which was so highly improper to count significantly against the admission of the evidence,” Fleming found.

Shoebridge said the passage showed “a clear, unambiguous, extraordinary criticism of the behaviour of one of your undercover operatives … and that undercover operative, like you, is facing no possibility of sanctions”.

McCartney agreed that neither he nor the undercover operative was subject to a professional standards investigation.

Gale did not respond to questions from Shoebridge about whether she was able to sanction officers involved in the investigation, saying only that she expected to make a range of recommendations after a “transparent” review.

The AFP commissioner, Reece Kershaw, told the hearing that professional standards could “act at any time” to investigate officers involved in the case, should it see fit.

Earlier in estimates on Tuesday, the acting commonwealth director of public prosecutions, Scott Bruckard, said it was in the public interest to charge Thomas.

He also said the courts had previously acknowledged there was a “fine line” between acceptable and improper conduct when it came to the work of undercover operatives.

Bruckard said the CDPP was not currently reviewing the case.

He did not directly respond when asked by Shoebridge if he had ever seen “such a complete savaging” of a case as Fleming delivered, but said a permanent stay was “an unusual outcome” for a prosecution.

“We’re mindful of that. It was an unusual, difficult case,” he said.

“We’re conscious of the criticism that’s been leveled at some of the activities of the police in the course of the investigation.

”I point out in the course of the ruling delivered by the magistrate, she also said that there was sufficient evidence of criminal conduct in the … possession of investigators for the young person to be charged.”

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