The Guardian 2024-02-18 16:31:20


Ex-senior watchdog staffer says it was ‘destined to happen’ after decade of regulatory failure

Ex-senior watchdog staffer says NSW asbestos crisis ‘destined to happen’ after decade of regulatory failure

Exclusive: Former compliance officer Jason Scarborough criticises Environment Protection Authority and industry over ‘lost opportunity’ to prevent contamination

  • Testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into NSW landscape products gamed by suppliers
  • Map and full list of locations where asbestos mulch has been found

A former senior NSW environment watchdog officer says the state’s widening asbestos contamination crisis was “destined to happen” after the regulator failed to act on problems in the waste recovery sector uncovered more than a decade ago.

Jason Scarborough was a senior waste compliance officer at the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) from 2009 t0 2018. He now runs his own consultancy providing advice on regulatory matters.

“The primary reason I’ve decided to speak out is concern for the community,” he said.

“It’s one of those situations, and I’ve had a few of them in my career, where you just want to grab all of the parties concerned and clunk their heads together and say surely you could have figured this out before now.”

Scarborough, in an exclusive interview with Guardian Australia, said:

  • “Both the regulator and industry were fully aware of these issues” in waste recovery for more than 10 years

  • The EPA abandoned much-needed reforms in 2022 for one type of recycled soil product without explanation other than saying “we’ve heard what industry had to say”

  • The regulator must now focus on “protecting the community’s health” over “saving a dollar”.

In 2013, while at the EPA, Scarborough wrote a report summarising findings his team made after investigating facilities producing a type of soil fill known as “recovered fines”. This type of soil fill is made from the processing of construction and demolition waste, including skip bin residue, after all large recyclable material has been removed.

That report concluded there was an “industry-wide deficiency” in complying with rules meant to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos into the community. It also detected poor practices including repeated retesting of samples to obtain a result that complied with contaminant limits.

A follow-up investigation in 2019, which Scarborough was not involved in, reached similar conclusions and also found 57% of facilities had asbestos in their recovered fines.

Soil fill made from construction and demolition waste can be used in NSW for construction projects and landscaping.

Scarborough’s 2013 report, and other later analyses by EPA officials, recommended a series of reforms to tighten regulations for recovered fines. But the proposals were abandoned by the watchdog in 2022 in favour of an education and monitoring campaign after pushback from industry.

The industry warned the proposed changes would force up the cost of landfill disposal, drive more waste into rubbish dumps and force skip bin companies out of business.

Scarborough said he had been watching the unfolding asbestos-contaminated mulch crisis – which has closed parks, schools and other sites across Sydney – with “a feeling of inevitability because this was something that was destined to happen”.

“I’m loathing the missed opportunity back in 2013 to deal decisively with those issues,” he said.

Scarborough said he was worried about the damage the crisis would do to the government’s broader goals of resource recovery and achieving circular economy targets.

“I’m surprised the issue reared its head in mulch first, I thought it would be recovered fines because of the observations we made in the 2013 investigation, and there has been little to no change since,” he said.

“The very nature of the material is high-risk because it contains contaminants such as lead, other heavy metals and potentially asbestos.”

The asbestos-contaminated mulch that has been identified across Sydney is a different type of recycled product from recovered fines and covered by a separate set of regulations. Greenlife Resource Recovery, which produced the mulch at the centre of the biggest environmental investigation in the EPA’s history, has said it is confident mulch leaving its facility was free from asbestos and it was not responsible for the contamination.

The EPA says the use of recycled products is regulated under the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014.

“There are very different requirements for mulch and recovered fines, which are not the same material,” a spokesperson told Guardian Australia.

“Under the mulch order and exemption, mulch should be clean, free from contamination such as plastics, glass and generated from timber offcuts, forestry materials and logs.

“Recovered fines are residues from construction and demolition activities, and different rules apply.”

There are no specific requirements that suppliers test mulch for contaminants, Guardian Australia reported last week. There are also no specific steps the supplier must take to ensure mulch contains no asbestos.

Scarborough said recycled mulch products and soil fill products made from processed construction waste were captured by the same legal framework for waste recovery.

Within this system, common problem areas had been identified, including in quality control, testing standards and traceability of the final product, he said.

“There’s a regulatory failure there but the industry shares a lot of the blame as well for being very shortsighted.”

Scarborough said when the 2013 investigation into producers of recovered fines was launched, officials were acting on concerns raised with the regulator about the quality of the material being produced and whether testing requirements were being adhered to.

The report recommended soil fill products made from skip bin residue only be used as cover material at rubbish dumps. It also recommended that the regulations be amended to explicitly prohibit recovered fines from being sold to landscapers and landscape material suppliers.

Scarborough said this was because officials working on the investigation formed the view that landscaping companies “weren’t equipped” to manage the risks associated with the material. He said the fill was often sold under generic names such as “turf underlay” or “cheap fill” – and once potentially contaminated product entered the supply chain it was difficult to track.

Inspections of facilities for the 2013 investigation found only about 50% of facilities producing the product were keeping records of who they had supplied it to, he said. When there were records, they often didn’t contain all of the necessary details.

“For example, there would be a record just with a registration number for a trailer or a truck,” he said.

Scarborough said given the extensive body of evidence gathered by “objective, science-based and risk-focused” EPA officials in the 2013 and 2019 investigations, he “was at a loss to explain” why various proposed reforms were not acted on.

“They were going down a pathway [of reform] that made sense but then suddenly to do a complete about-face with essentially zero explanation other than ‘we’ve heard what industry had to say about it’ – it’s unusual.

“It’s not in keeping with the culture of the organisation I was once part of. I [used to] say let’s go and look at what it says on the front door of the building – environment protection – that’s our job.”

The EPA’s spokesperson said the organisation had made changes to the regulation of the construction and demolition sector since 2013 “to improve the quality of the industry and reduce the risk of asbestos”.

They include changes that introduced requirements for closer inspections of waste upon its arrival at waste facilities.

The spokesperson said changes were also made to strengthen existing prohibitions on the recycling, reuse and unlawful disposal of asbestos waste, including by increasing maximum penalties.

Scarborough said the EPA’s responsibility was ultimately to the community and the environment first – not the profitability of industry.

“I think the focus needs to be drawn back to risk and fitness for use,” he said.

“Yes, there are cost implications involved in making changes. But what’s more important: saving a dollar or protecting the community’s health?”

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AsbestosThousands of NSW students to stay home after contaminated mulch found at two more Sydney schools

Thousands of NSW students to stay home after asbestos found in mulch at two more Sydney schools

Positive tests recorded at schools in Marsden Park and Orchard Hills takes total number of sites to have tested positive to 34 since early January

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Thousands of New South Wales students will be forced into remote learning for a week after asbestos was found at another two Sydney schools, as testing continues across the city.

The state’s environment watchdog confirmed the additional positive results on Sunday while investigators continued to trace and test mulch that may be contaminated with asbestos.

NSW Environment Protection Authority chief executive Tony Chappel announced that Sydney would be ready to welcome Taylor Swift next week after testing at her venue returned negative results.

“All of our tests at Olympic Park are negative,” he said.

“I can say with certainty that the harbour city is ready to welcome Taylor Swift with open arms.”

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Asbestos was found in mulch at two more schools over the weekend, taking the total number of sites to have tested positive to 34 since early January.

About 2,000 students at St Luke’s Catholic College at Marsden Park will be forced to learn from home for the next week while the site is remediated after testing confirmed the presence of bonded asbestos.

The NSW Department of Education secretary, Murat Dizdar, said approximately 30 cubic metres of mulch was spread across the campus so a “very precautionary” approach was being taken.

“It’s quite widespread throughout the school and that was difficult to cordon off and contain,” he said.

Contaminated mulch was also found at Penrith Christian School at Orchard Hills but the school would not close because the mulch was in a heap away from students.

Dizdar said recycled mulch contaminated with asbestos going into schools had been “a great shame”.

“There shouldn’t be recycled mulch and there should not be certainly mulch that has any remnants of any asbestos,” he said.

Dizdar said all contractors working on NSW public schools had been reminded of their obligations. Testing was under way at a further four schools.

The EPA’s investigation is being supported by an asbestos taskforce announced by the NSW environment minister, Penny Sharpe, on Thursday – more than a month after asbestos was first discovered in mulch at the Rozelle parklands.

Greenlife Resource Recovery supplied the mulch that has since been found to contain both bonded and friable asbestos across Sydney. More than 130 EPA investigators are working to “contact trace” mulch through the supply chain from Greenlife to contractors and then landscapers.

Greenlife has insisted it is not responsible for the contamination and that multiple rounds of testing by independent laboratories showed their mulch was free from asbestos before it was distributed to customers.

Chappel said the investigation was still assessing “all lines of inquiry”.

“It’s certainly unhelpful at this point for anyone to attribute blame,” he warned on Sunday.

“This is a complex supply chain and the investigation is ongoing. When we’ve concluded, we will release the full report to the public as well as any potential court processes that follow.”

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Sydney asbestos mulch sitesMap and full list of locations

Sydney asbestos mulch sites: map and full list of locations where asbestos has been found

Hundreds of sites including schools are being investigated amid the growing asbestos mulch crisis across NSW. This map shows contaminated parks and other locations

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Asbestos-contaminated landscaping materials have potentially been used at hundreds of locations across Sydney and at least one in regional New South Wales.

The premier, Chris Minns, has said the Environment Protection Authority is examining the sites as it undertakes its largest investigation ever.

The escalating crisis started in early January when a child took home a piece of bonded asbestos from a playground at Rozelle parklands in the city’s inner west.

An investigation by the transport department found bonded asbestos in recycled mulch at 17 locations in and around the park built on top of the Rozelle interchange.

Since then, more sites have been confirmed to have asbestos including transport infrastructure projects, a primary school and a hospital.

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All but one sample has been bonded asbestos – meaning it is mixed with a harder substance such as concrete and is considered less immediately dangerous because the toxic particles are less likely to become airborne.

All of the mulch found to be contaminated has been supplied by the landscaping products manufacturer Greenlife Resource Recovery. Greenlife has said it “maintains that mulch leaving GRRF’s facility has tested negative for asbestos”.

The following map shows where asbestos has been found so far:

Here are the same locations in a searchable list:

Where has asbestos-contaminated mulch been found in Sydney and NSW?

  • Rozelle parklands – 17 locations in and around the park

  • Two sites along the Prospect Highway project between Prospect and Blacktown

  • Electricity substation at Dulwich Hill railway station

  • Electricity substation at Canterbury railway station

  • Electricity substation at Campsie railway station

  • Belmore railway station in a landscaped area near the car park

  • Punchbowl railway station in the railway corridor

  • Nowra Bridge

  • Regatta Park in Emu Plains

  • Liverpool West public school

  • Campbelltown hospital

  • Belmore Park in Haymarket

  • Victoria Park in Camperdown

  • Harmony Park in Surry Hills (friable asbestos)

  • The Parramatta light rail project at Telopea

  • St John of God hospital in North Richmond

  • Woolworths in Kellyville

  • Transport for NSW park in Wiley Park

  • Allambie Heights public school

  • Munn Park, Millers Point

  • Two new residential estates under construction in Sydney’s south-west (not publicly accessible)

Schools being tested for asbestos-contaminated mulch

Ten Sydney schools are testing for asbestos in mulch. The NSW EPA says it is “precautionary testing only” and so far there is no evidence of contamination at the following schools:

  • International grammar school in Ultimo

  • Mt Annan Christian college in Mt Annan

  • North Sydney public school in North Sydney

  • Penrith Christian school in Orchard Hills

  • St Luke’s Catholic college in Marsden Park (closed Friday)

  • Westmead Christian grammar in Westmead

  • Domremy College in Five Dock

  • Edmondson Park Public School in Edmondson Park

  • St Michael’s Catholic Primary School in Daceyville

  • Trinity Catholic Primary School in Kemps Creek

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TestingRegime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into NSW landscape products gamed by suppliers

Testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into NSW landscape products gamed by suppliers

Exclusive: Manufacturers retest contaminated soil fill until it ‘complies’ with regulations and can then be used at childcare centres, schools or parks

  • Map and full list of locations where asbestos mulch has been found
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A testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into landscaping products in New South Wales has been gamed by suppliers who kept retesting samples until they passed.

Waste facilities making soil fill from construction and demolition waste – called “recovered fines” – are required to test their product for hazardous contaminants and report results to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) if they exceed legislated thresholds.

But a 2019 investigation by the environment watchdog – obtained exclusively by Guardian Australia – found almost half of the manufacturers instead asked the laboratories to simply retest the samples until they achieved an acceptable result. On one occasion a sample was tested six times in total.

Guardian Australia can reveal:

  • 43% of facilities were requesting retesting and were only doing so after they received a result that breached state regulations

  • Waste facilities were sending in samples for testing that looked very different to material EPA officials collected from their stockpiles, a separate 2013 report shows

  • One testing laboratory alleged it was asked by manufacturers “not to report the presence of suspected asbestos”.

The revelations will create further headaches for the Minns government which is already dealing with a snowballing crisis related to asbestos-contaminated mulch – which is covered by a separate set of regulations.

Parks and schools have been closed while areas of hospitals and supermarkets have been fenced off. The scandal has led to the largest probe ever by the EPA with 130 staff working on the criminal investigation.

Internal EPA documents obtained by Guardian Australia show the retesting of recovered fines samples had the effect of making it look as though products sold to consumers complied with state regulations, when they did not.

In one presentation, the EPA wrote the practice of retesting created “type 1 errors in decision making – concluding the waste is compliant when in fact it is not”.

Ian Wright, an environmental scientist and associate professor at Western Sydney University who has studied toxins in products such as recycled concrete, said retesting was “a real worry”.

“That’s as logical as a doctor or pathologist retesting for a life-threatening illness, getting bad news five times and then on test six you get a different result and that’s the result you share with the patient,” he told Guardian Australia of the self-regulatory system. “How is that appropriate?”

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Recovered fines are a soil or sand substitute made from the processing of construction and demolition waste – including skip bin residue – after all large recyclable material has been removed.

Waste facilities in NSW produce about 700,000 tonnes of recovered fines each year that are sold as fill for projects including landscaping, sporting fields and residential developments. The product is not allowed to be used on agricultural land or around water infrastructure.

In one example uncovered by the 2019 EPA investigation, a facility asked a lab to retest a sample an additional five times for lead. Only the sixth and final test returned a favourable result of 68mg/kg – under the EPA’s absolute maximum concentration limit of 250mg/kg.

The five other results ranged from 2,850mg/kg to 5,610mg/kg – between 10 and 20 times the limit. The facility discounted the first five measurements and used the sixth as evidence it had “passed”.

The watchdog’s investigation found 43% of facilities were requesting retesting after breaches that included exceeding absolute maximum concentration limits for different types of contaminants and maximum average concentration limits.

Requests were also made after asbestos was detected. Under the laws, facilities are not required to test for asbestos and the EPA investigation found only 29% were doing so.

Guardian Australia revealed in late January that the EPA had known about concerns regarding recovered fines products for more than a decade, after two investigations found widespread breaches of regulations meant to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos.

The regulator walked away from a plan to tighten regulations after pushback from industry, despite noting there was a risk that up to 658,000 tonnes of “non-compliant material” could be used in the community each year, including on “sensitive land” such as residential sites, childcare facilities, schools and parks.

Documents show the EPA was also aware retesting was occurring more than a decade ago when a 2013 investigation of the industry detected the practice.

EPA investigators wrote in that report it “was apparent that reanalysis was the method of choice to deal with non-compliant sample results”.

The 2013 investigation uncovered other concerning practices including “significant inconsistencies” – both visual and analytical – between samples some facilities provided to laboratories for testing and samples EPA officials collected purportedly from the same stockpiles.

Side-by-side photos in the report show the visual differences, with the samples some facilities sent to laboratories appearing to contain more clean soil than the recovered fines EPA officials collected on site.

The report states that given the short timeframe between the facilities’ own sampling and the EPA sampling, the inconsistencies were best explained by: “Consultants not competently sampling materials; non-representative sampling by facility operators; laboratories not competently handling/analysing received samples; and/or deliberate misrepresentation by facilities and/or laboratories of recovered fines produced.”

The EPA officials who worked on the 2013 investigation also reported that one laboratory said staff “often find suspected asbestos-containing material in samples of recovered fines submitted for analysis”.

“According to the laboratory representative, they have been advised by the sample submitters not to report the presence of suspected asbestos-containing material as it is not a specific requirement in the [regulations],” the report stated.

“This situation is a perverse interpretation … as any waste containing asbestos is, by definition, asbestos waste. This is also an interpretation that can potentially put end users of recovered fines at unnecessary risks.”

The report recommended soil fill made from skip bin materials only be used as cover material at rubbish dumps. It recommended regulations be amended to explicitly prohibit recovered fines from being sold to landscapers and landscape material suppliers. The recommendations weren’t adopted.

According to the EPA’s 2019 study, 57% of facilities had asbestos in their recovered fines.

The NSW Greens environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said the practices uncovered in the 2013 and 2019 investigations were “evidence of regulatory failure”.

“The buck starts and stops with the EPA,” she said.

An EPA spokesperson said when the authority became aware that labs were finding asbestos in recovered fine samples but were asked not to report it by clients “we reinforced their obligations to always report asbestos presence in samples when detected”.

“We also advised that any laboratory that does not report the known presence of asbestos may have supplied false or misleading information,” the spokesperson said on Friday, adding penalties of up to $1m could apply.

“If the EPA receives a report that information being provided in lab reports or waste classification reports is false and misleading, the EPA investigates these allegations and has prosecuted these types of incidents in the past.”

The authority said that since 2013 it had “undertaken a series of reforms to the regulation of the construction and demolition sector to improve the quality of the industry”.

The EPA’s executive director of regulatory practice and services, Stephen Beaman, said “retesting is not best practice and we want to stamp it out”.

“Retesting [is] only acceptable if there is an actual laboratory or analytical error that would mean the test result was not reliable and needed to be repeated,” he told Guardian Australia.

“To reduce this practice, the EPA provided industry with best practice sampling and reporting information and resources to improve staff training.”

Beaman said the EPA was conducting site inspections and sampling to assess the compliance of facilities that produce recovered fines. The results of that enforcement campaign are expected by the end of March 2024.

The campaign is not examining historical sampling data or looking at retesting.

The management of asbestos in recovered fines remains under review by the state’s chief scientist whose report is expected later this year.

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Australia’s best known carbon-neutral farm can no longer offset its emissions

Saturation point: Australia’s best known carbon-neutral farm can no longer offset its emissions

That the trees and soil on Jigsaw Farms in western Victoria have now passed peak sequestration reflects the challenge for the broader red meat industry

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Mark Wootton and his wife, Eve Kantor, were the carbon neutral pioneers of Australia’s red meat industry.

Years before the Paris agreement to keep global heating below 1.5C, and a decade before the Australian government committed to reaching net zero emissions, their family farm in south-western Victoria was declared carbon neutral.

“In the early 2010s we were pretty cocky that we had conquered this thing,” Wootton says. “We thought we’d cracked the formula.”

Jigsaw Farms, a mosaic of lush pastures, eucalypt plantations, wildlife corridors and wetlands about 250km north-west of Melbourne, near the town of Hamilton, was the envy of the industry. It was lionised by the media, a favoured photo opportunity by politicians and held up by the red meat sector as a vision of the future.

The farm’s carbon-rich soils, 20% of which were forested, sequestered enough CO2 to offset its annual emissions from wool, lamb and beef production.

Or at least it did, until recently. The latest report tracking Jigsaw’s emissions, which is now undergoing peer review, confirmed that since about 2017 – the same year industry body Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) announced a target of net zero emissions by 2030 – Jigsaw Farms has been emitting more greenhouse gases than it could sequester.

“Cows and sheep are still there producing the same amount of methane [every year], but the trees grow up and carbon sequestration slows down,” says the report author, Prof Richard Eckard.

Eckard is an agricultural economist and the director of the school of agriculture, food and ecosystem sciences at the University of Melbourne. He became involved in measuring Jigsaw’s emissions a decade ago.

The 3,378 hectare farm spans six titles, bought by Wootton and Kantor between 1996 and 2003. Hardwood timber plantations cover 295 hectares, 24 hectares is remnant forest and another 268 hectares is set aside for biodiversity. It hosts a fine wool merino operation with about 20,000 ewes, and 550 head of cattle.

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Initially, the hundreds and thousands of trees they planted, combined with a switch to perennial grasses, significantly increased the amount of carbon sequestered on the property.

But those trees have now matured and passed peak sequestration, meaning they absorb less C02 year-on-year, and the soil is so carbon rich it can’t sequester any additional C02 from the atmosphere.

“Ten years later it all slows down because carbon saturation. It’s just the law of diminishing returns,” Eckard says.

The latest Jigsaw study estimated that in 2021, the farm sequestered 70.3% to 83.2% of its annual emissions. By 2031, as the farm’s forests grow older, models predict it will absorb just over half of what it did when carbon sequestration peaked in 2012.

The dilemma Jigsaw now faces reflects the broader challenge of decarbonising Australia’s red meat industry, Eckard says.

The industry claims it has reduced its emissions by 65% compared with 2005 levels, but this reduction relies on recorded decreases in deforestation and increases in forest regrowth, which some analysis suggests is overstated.

“Carbon sequestration through forestry is a short-term buy out of trouble,” Eckard says. “You can plant your way out of trouble and, like Jigsaw, get seven years of net zero, but ultimately, unless you do something about the methane, you’re not going to stay net zero.”

Climate neutrality v the ‘seaweed solution’

Other efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint have focused on attempting to reduce the amount of methane expelled from the rumen, which accounts for 80% of the sector’s emissions. MLA has put more than $180m towards the problem, with no solution forthcoming. The results from the longest running commercial trial of a seaweed cow-feed, which aimed to cut methane by more than 80%, were lacklustre.

Selective breeding and dietary changes can help, says Eckard, but it’s slow going.

“It took the animal 50m years to evolve to produce meat and eat grass the way it does,” he says. “That can’t be overcome in three-year funding rounds.”

But he says that if producers adopt current best practices that will reduce their emissions intensity per kilogram of meat produced while research finds the “seaweed solution”.

On Jigsaw Farms, high reproductive rates, fast-growing livestock due to genetic selection and ample feed, and grazing stock at double the density of other farms in the district helps reduce the emissions that go into producing each animal.

“If that lamb or calf grows faster, so it gets to market quicker, so it grows faster, so, to be brutal, it can die and be eaten – your carbon intensity is dropping,” Wootton says.

This allows Jigsaw to sell its wool, lamb and beef at a premium in a market that is increasingly looking for farmers who can demonstrate strong environmental credentials.

This is particularly important for the export-focused Australian market, Eckard says. Seventy per cent of Australian-grown beef is sold into global supply chains ruled by international corporations, all of whom have net zero targets.

That’s the impetus behind the MLA’s “world leading” net zero target. This month Guardian Australia reported that the industry body described the target as “aligning the industry” towards improvement and said it did not need to be met, though it remains publicly committed to the goal. Environmental scientists say reporting on the goal is based on unreliable land clearing data.

David Jochinke, the president of the National Farmers Federation (NFF), says the target is about the “aspiration” towards decarbonisation.

“We’ve always said at the NFF, we’re not going to reduce production in an attempt to get to net zero,” he says. “Will we make it? I’m not really sure, but we are going to give it a red hot go.”

A 2023 CSIRO report found the industry would fall short of the net zero goal and recommended a “climate neutral” target be adopted instead, which would theoretically be achieved by reaching a point where the sector no longer causes any additional warming to the planet.

Australia’s peak cattle body, Cattle Australia, has also called for a shift to climate neutrality. But both Eckard and Wootton say the industry shouldn’t change course.

“I fear that if the industry fiddled with the metric what they would be effectively saying is ‘methane is no longer an issue so we don’t have to worry about it’,” Eckard says.

The director of the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Mark Howden, says that unachievable or “false [climate] targets” are ineffective and can alienate both industries and the public.

He says the red meat sector’s goal is “in a sense the wrong target”. “We do need to go net zero in terms of C02, but in the case of methane we need to reduce it by about two-thirds in the long term to effectively meet the Paris agreement,” he says.

Wootton says the benefits of their regenerative approach to farming persist even if the farm’s carbon accounts are now in the red.

They did not initially set out to be carbon neutral. The timber plantations were established on Jigsaw Farms to offer an alternative source of income. They planted permanent native vegetation to encourage biodiversity and shelter belts to protect livestock, and dug deep dams so they would always have a secure water supply.

A bird survey in 1996 found 46 bird species on the land. Today, there are 174. The land is healthier – that is, ironically, why carbon sequestration has stabilised.

“People come to us and go, shit, if they can’t go carbon neutral, what does that mean for us,” Wootton says.

“It means you’ll have to do some of what we’ve done, do things differently from what we’ve done, and do some other things that we don’t even know we can do yet.

“There’s no silver bullet here, but there’s some silver buckshot, hopefully.”

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Dozens found in WA taken to Nauru amid renewed political stoush over border arrivals

Asylum seekers taken to Nauru amid renewed political stoush over border arrivals

Move comes after second group found in Western Australia and believed to have arrived on same boat as group found 25km away on Friday

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More than 40 asylum seekers have been taken to Nauru after they were found in a remote part of Western Australia.

Guardian Australia has confirmed a second group of 13 asylum seekers was found at an Indigenous campsite at Pender Bay, about an hour after a group of 30 men were found at Beagle Bay on Friday.

Authorities believe both groups arrived on the same boat, although Pender Bay is about 25km north of where the first group was found. According to the Australian and the Sun Herald, the group includes 12 Bangladeshis and one Indian man.

On Sunday the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, told reporters in Nowra that Operation Sovereign Borders was being implemented.

The asylum seekers have been taken to offshore detention on Nauru for processing.

Albanese noted the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders had warned against politicising national security.

“Peter Dutton is someone who is showing, with his overblown rhetoric and with his overreach on this issue, showing that he’s not interested in outcomes or in the Australian national interest,” Albanese said.

The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, said the government’s commitment to Operation Sovereign Borders “is absolute”.

“Every person who has attempted to reach Australia by boat since I have been minister is back in their home country, or in Nauru, having wasted thousands of dollars and having risked their lives.”

“Comments such as those made by the opposition leader this weekend run directly counter to Australia’s national security. This conduct undermines Operation Sovereign Borders and gives people smugglers the disinformation they need to get people on boats.”

The Australian Border Force said on Friday that it was “undertaking an operation in the north-west of Western Australia” but would not provide any more information while the operation was continuing.

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Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, said the “mission … remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013: protect Australia’s borders, combat people smuggling in our region, and importantly, prevent people from risking their lives at sea”.

“Any alternate narrative will be exploited by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat,” he said.

Labor has maintained the core planks of Operation Sovereign Borders, including offshore detention and turning boats back where safe to do so.

Despite Albanese warning Dutton to heed the “very clear, strong and unequivocal message” sent by Sonter, on Saturday the opposition leader continued to attack the government’s handling of asylum seekers. He claimed there was “no question” it did not support Operation Sovereign Borders.

“I know exactly how these people smugglers work,” Dutto said. “They will react to a weak prime minister and to a weak minister.

“If they see vulnerabilities, they will exploit them, and that’s exactly what has happened here.”

The shadow defence minister, Andrew Hastie, said there had now been 303 people and “12 separate boats” that have arrived since Labor’s election in May 2022.

In October Guardian Australia revealed a group of 11 asylum seekers had been sent to Nauru after reaching Australia, just months after the last people were removed from immigration detention on the Pacific nation. It was the first transfer to Nauru in nine years.

In November a group of 12 people who arrived on the Western Australian coast were taken into ABF custody.

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Paul KarpAlbanese’s asylum policy is almost identical to the Coalition’s – Dutton’s attacks are manifesting a crisis

Albanese’s asylum policy is almost identical to the Coalition’s – Dutton’s attacks are manifesting a crisis

Paul Karp

The opposition leader seems more than happy to will Operation Sovereign Borders to failure if it gets him closer to the Lodge

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After a week of the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, being pummelled for Labor’s handling of releases from immigration detention the arrival of a boat of asylum seekers was obviously bad news.

But the job of journalists is not to tally whether events are good or bad for the government and the opposition leader, Peter Dutton.

It is to make sense of these events and their causes as best we can.

In this case, we have a duty to explain that despite an uptick in asylum seeker boat journeys since Labor was elected, as best we can tell these are not rationally connected to any change in policy and certainly have nothing to do with releases from immigration detention required by a high court ruling.

First, Labor’s policy on asylum seeker arrivals is almost identical to the Coalition’s.

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There is bipartisan support for Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). That includes: turning back boats where safe to do so, offshore detention of asylum seekers on Nauru, and a guarantee that nobody who came to Australia by boat after 2013 would settle here.

There is one difference: Labor abolished temporary protection visas, but these and their replacement were not given to unauthorised maritime arrivals who arrived after the 2013 deadline.

So it is a difference, but not a relevant one for assessing whether policies are a “pull” factor for people departing on boats almost a decade later.

The Albanese government unsuccessfully tried to clear the regional processing centre in Nauru but there was never any suggestion it would be shut down.

In fact, asylum seekers were taken there just months later from people smuggling ventures in October and November. Offshore detention is fully operational, and there were 15 of Australia’s asylum seekers in Nauru as of 12 February.

Second, there is no connection between asylum seeker boats and the high court’s ruling in the NZYQ case that indefinite detention is unlawful where there is “no real prospect” of it becoming practical to deport the non-citizen “in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

The uptick in boats predates the court’s 8 November decision. Seven boats were turned back or the asylum seekers onboard them returned in the first nine months since Labor’s election from May 2022 to March 2023. That compared with two to three vessels a year from 2016-17 to 2019-20.

As Giles noted in November, none of the people released as a result of the NZYQ decision had arrived in Australia since the election of the Albanese government.

According to home affairs department documents tendered in court, all but a handful had been in detention for less than a decade, an indication that it was visa cancellations during the Coalition years that took them in.

The majority are owed protection by Australia, indicating they are just a small fraction of the tens of thousands of people who flew to Australia legally on other visas before claiming asylum onshore – an issue that plagued the Coalition and has continued under Labor.

Boat arrivals a few weeks after the high court decision and again after a fractious fortnight of parliament is just bad timing.

Dutton is doing his best to argue that people smugglers sense “weakness” and that detecting this quality gives them a product to sell. But the differences between Labor and the Coalition are more a matter of perception than substance.

Could the optics, the presentation of nearly identical policies as if they were relevantly different, itself be the pull factor?

On Friday Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, the commander of OSB, seemed to be saying yes.

He warned that “any alternate narrative” to the fact that the OSB mission remains the same “will be exploited by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat”.

Dutton is so far undeterred, and ran the same lines on Saturday and Sunday notwithstanding that warning.

As political scientists investigating the cause of an uptick of boats under Labor, we shouldn’t confine ourselves to weighing the marginal differences between policy.

It is fair to observe that the biggest difference when Labor is in government is that the opposition leader holds a megaphone and says the prime minister and his (substantially identical) policies are weak.

Sections of the media are doing a good job holding Dutton to account for this political strategy; others are happy, as ever, to be the megaphone.

Re-energised from his opposition to the defeated Indigenous voice referendum, Dutton seems more than happy to will Operation Sovereign Borders to failure.

More boats, more votes. We are witnessing the opposition leader manifesting a crisis as another stepping stone to the Lodge.

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ExplainerWestern Australia boat arrivals: what are the current laws and policies on asylum seekers?

Explainer

Western Australia boat arrivals: What are the current laws and policies on asylum seekers?

Both Labor and the Coalition support boat turnbacks, offshore detention, and third-country resettlement. Are there any policy differences between the two major parties?

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The arrival of an asylum seeker boat in Western Australia has reanimated political debate around asylum policy and the treatment of people who arrive by boat seeking protection.

At least 40 men, believed to be from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, arrived by boat on the northern Kimberley coast in recent days. Border Force has not confirmed details, only that it was “undertaking an operation in the north-west of Western Australia”.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said Australia’s asylum policies are unchanged: “Our position on Operation Sovereign Borders is very clear, and people who attempt to arrive here by boat will not settle here.”

But the opposition leader, and former home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said the Labor government had “lost control” of the country’s borders.

“I know exactly how these people smugglers work,” Dutton said. “They will react to a weak prime minister and to a weak minister. If they see vulnerabilities, they will exploit them, and that’s exactly what has happened here.”

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What is Operation Sovereign Borders?

Operation Sovereign Borders refers to a military-led response to asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia by boat, proposed by the Tony Abbott-led opposition in mid-2013 and then enacted by the Coalition once in government.

According to the Coalition’s policy document, the main measures were to:

  • Reintroduce temporary protection visas for people found to be refugees

  • Hold asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island and Nauru while processing their refugee claims

  • Instruct the Australian defence force to turn back boats “where it is safe to do so”

Did Labor always support this?

No. In 2007 Labor was elected promising to end the “Pacific solution” of offshore processing, and instead hold asylum seekers at Christmas Island while processing their refugee applications.

After the number of asylum seeker boats arriving began to increase again, Labor reintroduced offshore processing on both Nauru and Manus Island, PNG. This element of the policy has had bipartisan support since before the 2013 election.

In 2016, Australia’s offshore processing regime on Manus Island was found to be unconstitutional by the PNG supreme court, and the next year, the Australian government was forced to pay more than $70m in compensation to those who had been illegally detained there. Australia and Nauru retain an agreement for an ‘enduring’ form of offshore processing on the Pacific island state.

TPVs?

The difference that remains between Labor and Coalition concerns temporary protection visas. Labor abolished temporary protection visas (and the temporary ‘safe haven enterprise visas’ for more than 19,000 people in February 2023, fulfilment of an election pledge.

But these only applied for asylum seekers who arrived by boat before 19 July 2013, and so belong to a different cohort, who were not sent offshore. Since 19 July 2013, both Labor and Coalition agree that asylum seekers who arrive by boat to claim protection will never resettle in Australia.

(Asylum seekers who arrive by plane are able to apply for permanent protection visas.)

Boat arrivals

The number of people arriving by boat has waxed and waned since the 1970s. There was an uptick in arrivals over 1999-2001 (peaking in 2001 at 5516), followed by an even larger increase in 2012-2013 (20,587 people, on 300 boats arrived in 2013).

The numbers in recent years have been substantially lower. Zero in 2021, 199 people on seven boats in 2022 and 74 people on four boats in 2023.

Plane arrivals

And the context is important also. The number of people arriving in Australia by plane who then make an asylum claim (known as an “onshore claim”) consistently dwarfs the number of those arriving by boat.

Last year, according to home affairs statistics, 22,916 people made an onshore asylum claim (boat arrivals cannot make an onshore claim). In October, 2,322 people made an onshore claim, a rate of 74 a day.

What about third-country resettlement?

Both Labor and the Coalition support the resettlement of refugees sent to offshore processing in so-called ‘third countries’. These are most commonly the US, Canada, and New Zealand, though resettlement to all three is slow (exacerbated by Covid restrictions for a number of years). There remain more than 50 refugees still held in PNG, having been sent there more than a decade ago by Australia to the now-shuttered Manus Island offshore processing centre.

New Zealand has a standing offer to resettle 150 people a year from Australia’s offshore program. This was rejected for years by the Coalition government, which argued it could provide a “back door” for entry to Australia. The Coalition reversed its position just before the 2022 election and resettlement to NZ is continuing.

Verdict

Since 2013, Labor and the Coalition have been in agreement that nobody who arrives by boat seeking protection will be resettled in Australia. There is bipartisan support for boat turnbacks, offshore detention, and third-country resettlement.

The only remaining disagreement is TPVs, a policy plank that is sometimes argued by the Coalition to be part of Operation Sovereign Borders. It is however, not practically connected to Sovereign Borders – and its promoted deterrent effect – because under current policies, no one who arrives by boat will be resettled in Australia.

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Behrouz Boochani‘I was not a victim. I was a fighter’

Writer and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani has made a home in Wellington. ‘After a while,’ he says, ‘the city dominates you: you must love me, because I’m lovely.’ Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

In a bohemian corner of Wellington, the former Manus Island detainee has found his way through writing and walking – despite, he insists, being properly lazy

by Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

During the years Behrouz Boochani spent in Australia’s prison on Manus Island, his dream was always the same. “Walking on the streets. Just that,” he says, as we start down Wellington’s lively Cuba Street on a bright, muggy summer evening, Boochani balancing a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “It’s something that is a part of my identity. The best description of myself is ‘a man who always walks’.”

After his writing about conditions for refugees in Australia’s offshore jails started to appear in the world’s newspapers, Boochani became the recognisable face of those detained. But in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, where he has found a home in the alternative arts scene, Boochani is not the man from Manus prison.

That particular horror is still the theme of his journalism and activism, but it was never him. As a Kurdish investigative reporter in Iran and during the years on Manus, he was a writer. So when he arrived in New Zealand four years ago from Papua New Guinea, he returned to his one constant.

“I found my way through my writing again,” says Boochani. “Writing not as a place where you escape to or rely on, but writing as a life.” He adds: “Also through writing, I met people.”

For Boochani, writing and going out are inextricably linked. As an act of discipline, he no longer allows himself to consider walking as work.

“I believe it is working, because I think,” says Boochani. “But it makes me lazy at writing.”

Boochani does not drive and looks horrified when asked about the bus. If his destination is hours away, he walks. During Wellington’s notorious winters of gale-force winds, he walks.

Often he sings. Once, another Kurdish man heard Boochani singing and pulled over in his car. It was the only time he had met another Kurdish person in Wellington.

“I think I know many people in Wellington city centre who don’t know me, but I know them,” he says. “In my mind, I create stories about them.”

We meet in Glover Park, a small green square where drinkers sprawl on bean bags in the sun. Wellington is heaving: in other places, a 23C day might not seem like much, but here – where the elements are often hostile – it generates a carnival atmosphere.

“After a while, the city dominates you: you must love me, because I’m lovely,” Boochani says with a smile. After two years, he is a Wellingtonian down to his daily “three or four” cups of the city’s famously strong coffees and his sense of humour about the weather.

Four years ago, Boochani made world headlines when he left Australia’s offshore detention regime to speak at a writers festival in New Zealand, where he later received refugee status. After years of tirelessly revealing layers of pain and torment for refugees in Australia’s island jails – his reporting painstakingly filed by WhatsApp message – he had become a celebrated writer and documentary-maker.

But when he arrived in Christchurch, a free man, Boochani was profiled with a single mythology: he was lonely and sad.

“When people approach you as a person from a refugee background, no matter if you are a writer or not, they approach you with an image that they have about you,” he says. “That image is victimisation.

“I was not a victim. I was a fighter. I was fighting. I wrote two books about that system. I wrote many articles about that system.”

When interviewed, he presents himself “in a way that won’t fit” the image he thinks readers have of him. Reporters miss, Boochani says, that he is funny. It’s true: No Friend But the Mountainshis aching and lyrical memoir written from Manus prison – is in parts laugh-out-loud silly. As we walk, his conversation is peppered with whimsy and mischief.

Boochani is 40 but doesn’t feel it. One Christmas, his partner – a publisher, who joins us on the stroll – edited his age on Wikipedia to record him as six years younger, winding back the stolen time in jail (the change was reversed in 12 minutes).

In his prison writings, Boochani yearned for community and in Wellington he found it: an underground literary and arts scene, youthful and anarchist. Being part of it “helps me to understand this society better”, he says.

His Wellington flat hosts live music and speakers; living there is a rite of passage for a certain kind of artistic, political young Wellingtonian. There, Boochani – who is studying cinema theory – holds movie nights, inviting “five, 10, 20” people around each week to watch his assigned films.

“As a writer, cinema always helps,” he says. “It makes your writing more visual and simple.”

The previous night, Boochani and his friends had watched the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries, which he enjoyed. The week before had featured the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, which he did not.

Boochani’s head is overflowing with writing projects, on which he prefers to collaborate because otherwise, he says, “I find myself being lazy”. He insists he is properly lazy: sometimes his partner comes home at lunchtime and finds him still in bed.

After six years of relentless work in prison, should he not cut himself some slack?

“I did that. It was enough,” he says. “It was four years ago.”

Our walk takes us to the waterfront, where we raise our voices over the blustery wind. Sunbathers on Oriental Bay beach are packed shoulder to shoulder, the water full of swimmers. The teeming footpath requires careful navigation. We are yelled at by a cyclist.

At the quiet end of the bay, we sit on a low sea wall, looking back at the city where it nestles into the hills. Boochani lights another cigarette.

With his long, black hair, he cuts a distinctive figure but nobody stares. It is different from Australia, where Boochani is approached often.

“When people come and say, ‘we are sorry’, I find that hard,” he says. “Always I change the conversation. I ask them questions.”

No one could blame Boochani if he did not want to visit Australia, the country responsible for his detention, and where Peter Dutton famously said he would never set foot. But he says that would be ignoring the “hundreds and thousands of stories of people damaged” and forgo the chance to empower minority communities.

“I am not working just as a witness,” Boochani says. “To make colonisers angry, that is my job. It is not about sending a message.” Messages, he insists, are “white, comfortable” things to want.

Boochani spent last year travelling: to Australia, where he urged the establishment of a royal commission into the asylum system; to Brussels, where he addressed the European parliament. His relentless advocacy for Kurds in Iran – for which he was persecuted when he lived there, forcing him to flee in 2013 – occupied much of his time. It also drove him, for the most part, from social media, where he is barraged by abuse.

“I think it is a fucked-up world, not because of all the war but in terms of media and social media,” he says.

He does not have hope for a better public conversation. “When the internet is dead,” Boochani says, “then we will go back to normal.”

For him, writing now is different from before, in Iran and on Manus. “In that time, it was an act of survival. It was fighting,” he says. But he is driven by the same questions.

“This year, I’m going to write more about refugees and their lives,” he says. He will also learn to drive.

Boochani has become enough of a Wellingtonian to convince himself on a sunny day that the freezing sea looks inviting. As we walk the curve of the sparkling harbour back towards Cuba Street, he peers into the water and sighs. “I really want to swim here,” he says. “Not now, because I don’t have clothes.” He will fetch some and come back, he decides.

When Boochani returned to Wellington in December, “I felt like I came back to home”, he says. “I look at that as an achievement.”

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Rightwing mega-donors drift back as election rematch looms

Rightwing mega-donors drift back to Trump as election rematch looms

Former president is enjoying some success in courting sceptical funders but some, such as Peter Thiel, have spurned his advances

Donald Trump’s efforts to court and cajole rightwing billionaires into financing his presidential campaign are bearing fruit as even sceptical conservative mega-donors face up to the prospect he will again be the Republican candidate.

Trump is winning back some donors who supported him four years ago but then gave their money to the former US president’s primary rivals this year, fearing he will again lose to Joe Biden in November or the chaos that will ensue if he wins. But some other former ultra-wealthy supporters, including the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, have spurned Trump’s advances.

Trump’s campaign is pushing the inevitability of his victory over the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the last remaining challenger in the Republican primaries, in order to shift the focus to the general election as he pursues Wall Street and Silicon Valley money.

Trump successfully wooed the biggest donor to the Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s failed presidential campaign during a visit to Las Vegas last month, the billionaire developer Robert Bigelow. After meeting Trump and then joining his motorcade through Las Vegas to a political rally, Bigelow pledged $20m to the former president’s campaign – the same amount he gave to DeSantis – along with another $1m toward the mounting costs of his myriad legal problems.

Trump also won commitments from other well-heeled donors on the Las Vegas trip while the billionaire investor John Paulson held a dinner for the former president and major Republican party contributors earlier this month, according to Politico.

Two years ago, some mega-donors were backing away from Trump after the Republicans fell short of expectations in the midterm congressional elections and candidates backed by the former president did badly. The hedge fund magnate Kenneth Griffin publicly threw his support behind DeSantis, calling Trump a “three-time loser”.

In October, Trump’s representatives were pointedly excluded from a meeting of the American Opportunity Alliance, a conservative donor network founded by Griffin and another Wall Street billionaire, Paul Singer, while aides from rival Republican primary campaigns were present. In 2016, Singer was the biggest donor to a super political action committee (Super Pac) focused on stopping Trump winning the Republican nomination.

But, in a sign that at least some donors have shifted their focus to November, Trump’s aides were invited to an AOA meeting in Florida last month. The New York Times reported that a majority of those donors still backed Haley, including Griffin after he lost confidence in DeSantis’s inept campaign. But the presence of the former president’s representatives was taken as evidence that they were going to have to support him if they wanted to lever Biden out of the presidency.

Donor concerns about the chaos Trump brings will not have been allayed by recent comments that appeared to abandon some members of Nato to the Russians and the writer E Jean Carroll’s $88m award for defamation by the former president. Neither will donors have been encouraged by Trump’s threat on his social media platform, Truth Social, to blacklist those who give money to Haley’s campaign.

But, for some donors at least, whatever dangers Trump poses to democracy are subordinate to their opposition to taxes funding welfare, laws to protect the environment, worker rights and anti-monopoly laws.

The Wall Street financier Omeed Malik, who previously backed DeSantis and the independent candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr, told told NBC news on Wednesday that he plans to raise millions of dollars for Trump because of what he regarded as government overreach during the Covid pandemic that prompted him to move to Florida.

“It’s starting to become prime time here between Biden and Trump, and this is when I can be much more effective,” he said.

Brendan Glavin, deputy research director of the transparency group Open Secrets, which tracks the influence of money on politics, said that while Trump is highly effective at raising money online from grassroots supporters to keep campaign offices and other parts of the election machine running, as well as pay his mounting legal bills, he is in need of the billionaire donors to cover a huge surge in spending on advertising blitzes as the general election nears.

“When you’re dealing with these mega-donors, they can come in and drop tens of millions of dollars. Then that money can be allocated very quickly to wherever they need to spend it, where they want to spend on ads,” he said.

“In 2020, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam gave $90m to the Super Pac Preserve America to support Trump. They didn’t do that until the last three months of the election but it paid for ads supporting Trump at the last minute when it had an impact.”

Glavin said that the news that a Biden-supporting group was planning to spend $250m in what the New York Times described as “the largest single purchase of political advertising by a Super Pac in the nation’s history” will have added to “pressure on Trump to ramp up his mega-donors”.

The Adelsons were Trump’s single largest donor at the last election and the former president has held regular meetings with Miriam Adelson to ensure that continued support since her casino magnate husband, Sheldon, died three three years ago. It’s highly likely that Miriam, who is estimated to be worth more than $30bn, will support Trump again principally because of his position on Israel.

Miriam, who is Israel’s richest woman, has praised Trump for his policies as president such as recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv as well as cancelling the Iran nuclear deal which had been strongly opposed by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, Trump awarded Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Trump will also be looking to the billionaire industrialists Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. The couple have been among the most enthusiastic financial backers of political groups and elected officials pushing conspiracy theories that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. They were the largest conservative donors in the 2022 midterm elections, giving about $90m according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Once he has formally secured the Republican nomination, Trump is unlikely to want for financial supporters. Forbes found that 133 billionaires or their supporters donated to his 2020 campaign.

But some mega-donors appear to have turned away from the former president for good.

The chief executive of Blackstone, Stephen Schwarzman, who was one of Wall Street’s biggest donors to Trump’s previous campaigns, declared he would not back him again, saying that the Republican party needed a new generation of leaders.

The tech billionaire Peter Thiel gave $1.25m to support Trump in 2016. But the co-founder of PayPal and the data analytics firm Palantir told the Atlantic in November that he turned down an appeal from the former president for $10m because Trump’s first term was so chaotic.

“It was crazier than I thought. It was more dangerous than I thought. They couldn’t get the most basic pieces of the government to work,” he said.

Thiel said that Trump told him “he was very sad, very sad” at the refusal to contribute, and that he later heard the former president had called him a “fucking scumbag”.

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Rightwing mega-donors drift back as election rematch looms

Rightwing mega-donors drift back to Trump as election rematch looms

Former president is enjoying some success in courting sceptical funders but some, such as Peter Thiel, have spurned his advances

Donald Trump’s efforts to court and cajole rightwing billionaires into financing his presidential campaign are bearing fruit as even sceptical conservative mega-donors face up to the prospect he will again be the Republican candidate.

Trump is winning back some donors who supported him four years ago but then gave their money to the former US president’s primary rivals this year, fearing he will again lose to Joe Biden in November or the chaos that will ensue if he wins. But some other former ultra-wealthy supporters, including the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, have spurned Trump’s advances.

Trump’s campaign is pushing the inevitability of his victory over the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the last remaining challenger in the Republican primaries, in order to shift the focus to the general election as he pursues Wall Street and Silicon Valley money.

Trump successfully wooed the biggest donor to the Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s failed presidential campaign during a visit to Las Vegas last month, the billionaire developer Robert Bigelow. After meeting Trump and then joining his motorcade through Las Vegas to a political rally, Bigelow pledged $20m to the former president’s campaign – the same amount he gave to DeSantis – along with another $1m toward the mounting costs of his myriad legal problems.

Trump also won commitments from other well-heeled donors on the Las Vegas trip while the billionaire investor John Paulson held a dinner for the former president and major Republican party contributors earlier this month, according to Politico.

Two years ago, some mega-donors were backing away from Trump after the Republicans fell short of expectations in the midterm congressional elections and candidates backed by the former president did badly. The hedge fund magnate Kenneth Griffin publicly threw his support behind DeSantis, calling Trump a “three-time loser”.

In October, Trump’s representatives were pointedly excluded from a meeting of the American Opportunity Alliance, a conservative donor network founded by Griffin and another Wall Street billionaire, Paul Singer, while aides from rival Republican primary campaigns were present. In 2016, Singer was the biggest donor to a super political action committee (Super Pac) focused on stopping Trump winning the Republican nomination.

But, in a sign that at least some donors have shifted their focus to November, Trump’s aides were invited to an AOA meeting in Florida last month. The New York Times reported that a majority of those donors still backed Haley, including Griffin after he lost confidence in DeSantis’s inept campaign. But the presence of the former president’s representatives was taken as evidence that they were going to have to support him if they wanted to lever Biden out of the presidency.

Donor concerns about the chaos Trump brings will not have been allayed by recent comments that appeared to abandon some members of Nato to the Russians and the writer E Jean Carroll’s $88m award for defamation by the former president. Neither will donors have been encouraged by Trump’s threat on his social media platform, Truth Social, to blacklist those who give money to Haley’s campaign.

But, for some donors at least, whatever dangers Trump poses to democracy are subordinate to their opposition to taxes funding welfare, laws to protect the environment, worker rights and anti-monopoly laws.

The Wall Street financier Omeed Malik, who previously backed DeSantis and the independent candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr, told told NBC news on Wednesday that he plans to raise millions of dollars for Trump because of what he regarded as government overreach during the Covid pandemic that prompted him to move to Florida.

“It’s starting to become prime time here between Biden and Trump, and this is when I can be much more effective,” he said.

Brendan Glavin, deputy research director of the transparency group Open Secrets, which tracks the influence of money on politics, said that while Trump is highly effective at raising money online from grassroots supporters to keep campaign offices and other parts of the election machine running, as well as pay his mounting legal bills, he is in need of the billionaire donors to cover a huge surge in spending on advertising blitzes as the general election nears.

“When you’re dealing with these mega-donors, they can come in and drop tens of millions of dollars. Then that money can be allocated very quickly to wherever they need to spend it, where they want to spend on ads,” he said.

“In 2020, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam gave $90m to the Super Pac Preserve America to support Trump. They didn’t do that until the last three months of the election but it paid for ads supporting Trump at the last minute when it had an impact.”

Glavin said that the news that a Biden-supporting group was planning to spend $250m in what the New York Times described as “the largest single purchase of political advertising by a Super Pac in the nation’s history” will have added to “pressure on Trump to ramp up his mega-donors”.

The Adelsons were Trump’s single largest donor at the last election and the former president has held regular meetings with Miriam Adelson to ensure that continued support since her casino magnate husband, Sheldon, died three three years ago. It’s highly likely that Miriam, who is estimated to be worth more than $30bn, will support Trump again principally because of his position on Israel.

Miriam, who is Israel’s richest woman, has praised Trump for his policies as president such as recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv as well as cancelling the Iran nuclear deal which had been strongly opposed by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, Trump awarded Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Trump will also be looking to the billionaire industrialists Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. The couple have been among the most enthusiastic financial backers of political groups and elected officials pushing conspiracy theories that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. They were the largest conservative donors in the 2022 midterm elections, giving about $90m according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Once he has formally secured the Republican nomination, Trump is unlikely to want for financial supporters. Forbes found that 133 billionaires or their supporters donated to his 2020 campaign.

But some mega-donors appear to have turned away from the former president for good.

The chief executive of Blackstone, Stephen Schwarzman, who was one of Wall Street’s biggest donors to Trump’s previous campaigns, declared he would not back him again, saying that the Republican party needed a new generation of leaders.

The tech billionaire Peter Thiel gave $1.25m to support Trump in 2016. But the co-founder of PayPal and the data analytics firm Palantir told the Atlantic in November that he turned down an appeal from the former president for $10m because Trump’s first term was so chaotic.

“It was crazier than I thought. It was more dangerous than I thought. They couldn’t get the most basic pieces of the government to work,” he said.

Thiel said that Trump told him “he was very sad, very sad” at the refusal to contribute, and that he later heard the former president had called him a “fucking scumbag”.

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Donald TrumpEx-president launches gold high-top sneaker

Trump launches gold high top sneaker line a day after $350m court ruling

‘Never Surrender High-Tops’ cost $399 and arrive on the market just after judge hands former US president huge penalty

Donald Trump has launched his own sneaker brand, a day after a New York judge ordered him to pay $354.9m in penalties for fraudulently overstating his net worth to dupe lenders.

“I’ve wanted to do this a long time,” the former US president said, as he unveiled what he called the first official Trump footwear at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia, a gathering that bills itself as the “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth.”

He was met with loud boos as well as cheers, Associated Press reported, adding that as he spoke, the smell of weed occasionally wafted through the room. Attendees skewed younger and more diverse than Trump’s usual rally crowds, the news wire wrote.

The shoes, shiny, gold high tops with an American flag detail on the back, are being sold as Never Surrender High-Tops for $399 on a new website that also sells Trump-branded Victory47 cologne and perfume for $99 a bottle. Trump would be the 47th president if elected again.

The website says it has no connection to Trump’s campaign, though Trump campaign officials promoted the appearance in online posts.

Trump later lashed out at Justice Arthur Engoron, who on Friday ordered him as well as his eldest sons and associates to pay over $354.9m plus pre-judgment interest after finding them guilty of intentionally committing financial fraud over the course of a decade.

Addressing supporters for the first time since the ruling, the frontrunner for the Republican White House nomination told thousands of supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan the decision was an “election interference ploy”.

He made the unsubstantiated claim that the judge was part of a “left wing” conspiracy aimed at stopping him from becoming president again, adding that “these repulsive abuses of power are not just an attack on me, they are an attack on all Americans”.

Trump also repeated his lie that his 2020 election defeat to Democratic US President Joe Biden was due to election fraud.

Engoron also banned Trump from serving as an officer or director of any New York corporation for three years. The judge said of Trump and his co-defendants: “Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological.”

New York attorney general Letitia James had accused Trump and his family businesses of overstating his net worth by as much $3.6bn a year over a decade to fool bankers into giving him better loan terms.

Trump also faces four state and federal criminal trials, including one scheduled to start in New York on 25 March, over alleged hush money payments to a porn star. That means Trump will become the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges.

Trump spoke shortly after Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination, who held an event in South Carolina.

On Saturday morning, Haley wasted no time in going after Trump after Friday’s ruling.

Haley frequently says “chaos” follows Trump, and that he can’t be an effective president or candidate because of his myriad legal problems.

“He’s going to be in court March and April. He’s going to be in court May and June. He said himself that he’s going to be spending more time in a courtroom than he is on the campaign trail,” Haley told Fox News.

Trump is close to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, and the prospect of a likely general election rematch with Biden, after recent nominating contest wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Haley, who has no clear path to the Republican nomination, has refused to quit. She is making a potential last stand in her home state of South Carolina, which holds its primary on 24 February, where she trails badly in opinion polls behind Trump.

At her rally on Saturday evening, Haley also attacked Trump for his failure to comment on the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. At his Michigan rally, Trump again failed to mention Navalny.

Russia’s prison service said that Navalny, 47, died on Friday at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony. The west, including Biden, blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for the death. Western leaders did not cite evidence.

Haley, addressing a crowd in Irmo, South Carolina, accused Trump of cozying up to Putin in the past. She also referred to a speech Trump made on 10 February, when he said he would “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any Nato member who didn’t spend enough on defense.

“Trump is siding with a thug who kills his own political opponents,” Haley said.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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60% of parents and carers surveyed say social media is their biggest concern for kids

‘Out of control’: 60% of parents and carers surveyed say social media is their biggest concern for kids

Experts say algorithm-based social media is damaging young people’s interpersonal skills and contributing to anxiety and depression

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Jane’s* 14-year-old daughter, Grace*, used to be able to sit through a movie with her, but her addiction to social media and online games has meant her daughter no longer has the focus.

“We were watching Romeo and Juliet, the Baz Lurhmann one, and she really wanted to sit and watch that with me, but she couldn’t watch it to the end,” Jane said.

Less than twenty minutes into the movie, Jane looked over to see Grace playing solitaire on her phone.

Jane said her daughter’s addiction to technological devices “got out of control” during the Covid lockdowns when her devices were her only means to connect with friends. “Now, I just couldn’t take the device away. She would actually get very aggressive with me, like very aggressive.”

It has also begun to affect her schoolwork. “She used to do really well. She can still do maths because that’s usually a quick fix, but things like English and grammar that she needs to really focus on … she can’t do any more.”

Almost 60% of parents and carers are worried about how social media affects their teens’ mental health and wellbeing, according to a new report.

Answering open-ended questions about their concerns for their children’s wellbeing, parents and carers chose social media as a top issue of concern more frequently than any other issue (35%) in a survey by mental health service ReachOut.

In a nationally representative survey of 631 parents and carers living in Australia and caring for 921 young people aged 12–18, which was carried out in April 2023, 59% said that their teens’ social media use was of concern.

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Of those who expressed concerned, more than one in two (55%) said it had a significant impact on the wellbeing of the teenagers they care for.

The findings from the report Parenting in the Digital Age released Monday are contrasted with a previous ReachOut study, which showed young people were less likely to be concerned about social media use than their parents.

The study, released last year, asked young people about their concerns and showed 34% of young people thought social media was an issue of concern.

Interim CEO at ReachOut, Jackie Hallan, said parents had four key concerns in the area: the amount of time young people were spending on social media, the safety of platforms, the limited parental controls and the type of content that the young people were accessing.

“Parents and carers were concerned that the young people they care for are developing unhealthy self-images or body-image concerns, or are missing out on opportunities to develop the social skills they would need in the ‘real world’. They saw these things as contributing to young people’s social isolation or loneliness, which, in turn, contribute to anxiety and depression,” the report said.

Dr Rachael Sharman, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the survey’s findings have been reflected in research “time and time again but it is interesting to hear that even the parents now are noticing this at the coalface.”

Sharman said there has been a the rise of what researchers are now referring to as “autism-like symptoms … poor emotion recognition and poor interest in humans, full stop.”

A study which tracked 80,000 mother and child pairs in Japan across several years found a very clear link between screen time and diminished social skill development, Sharman said. “If we fast forward to adolescence, what we’re definitely seeing is the rise and rise to teenagers with absolutely poorer emotion recognition,” she said.

Young people’s interpersonal skills are being further damaged by social media algorithms, which deliberately feed their own opinions back to them and prevent them from encountering views different to their own.

“This is where we’re seeing people fall apart. We’re seeing teenagers in particular respond with anxiety when they see information or a viewpoint that is not their own,” Sharman said.

Hallan recommended that parents and carers should check in with their teenagers about their social media use. She said choosing an environment like going for a walk or a drive for that conversation can be less challenging than sitting down face to face.

Katherine, a year 10 student, has never had any social media accounts, but she said her mother, Rachel, never banned it.

Katherine really wanted to get into social media at the tail end of primary school, as all her friends were getting phones and starting to use social platforms. However, as a teacher, Rachel saw the negative impacts of social media regularly – including antisocial behaviours, online bullying and the platform’s addictive nature taking up too much of children’s time.

“She never said ‘you just can’t have social media’ and walked away without explanation. She was like, Katherine, I get this is something you want but can we talk about it, can I understand your point of view, and you’ll understand mine?’” Katherine said.

Rachel said, “I knew it was much better to put in place boundaries and conversations early, rather than do something and then feel the need to wind it back.”

Katherine and Rachel will have another conversation about her social media use when she turns 16 at the end of the year.

*Names have been changed

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Kremlin claims full control of Avdiivka after Ukrainian retreat

Russia claims full control of Avdiivka after Ukrainian retreat

Kremlin says pullout was rushed and chaotic as it congratulates its soldiers on biggest gain since last May

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Russia has said it has taken full control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, its biggest gain since capturing Bakhmut last May, after a retreat by Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city in the industrial Donbas region to avoid encirclement, the army chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Saturday, adding that he had acted to “preserve the lives and health of servicemen”, stabilise the situation and move troops to more favourable defence lines.

Some Ukrainian troops were still holed up in a vast Soviet-era coke plant, one of Europe’s biggest, Russia said, describing the retreat as rushed and chaotic.

Ukraine’s military said there had been casualties in the retreat but that the situation had stabilised.

The capture of Avdiivka gives Russia full control of the area surrounding Donetsk, a large Ukrainian city that was seized by Russian proxy forces in 2014, and comes as the two-year anniversary of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nears.

The Ukrainian army had struggled on the frontline around Avdiivka in recent months during one of the most intense battles of the war, which left the city almost destroyed and caused nearly all of the more than 30,000 prewar population to leave. The US president, Joe Biden, had warned that the city might fall to Russia due to weapons’ shortages exacerbated by months of Republican congressional opposition to a new US funding package for the Ukrainian military.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, congratulated Russian soldiers on “the important victory”, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website on Sunday.

Russia’s defence ministry spokesperson, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said measures were being taken to “completely clear the town of militants” and “to block Ukrainian units that have left the town and are entrenched at the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant.”

Russian state television showed blue and yellow Ukrainian flags being taken down in Avdiivka and Russia’s white, blue and red tricolour raised, including over the coke plant.

After the failure of Ukraine to pierce Russian lines last year, Moscow has been trying to grind down Ukrainian forces just as Kyiv weighs up a major new mobilisation and Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appointed a new commander to run the war.

At a security conference in Munich on Saturday, the Ukrainian president urged western allies to help his country defeat “the monster”, referring to Putin.

Separately, Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian offensive on the southern front in the area of Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday.

Avdiivka has endured a decade of conflict. It holds particular symbolism for Russia as it was briefly taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but was recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built extensive fortifications.

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UN calls for urgent relocation of 61 asylum seekers stranded on of Diego Garcia island

UN calls for urgent relocation of 61 asylum seekers stranded on Indian Ocean island

Damning report says group has experienced violence, abuse and arbitrary detention under ‘effective control’ of UK government

A group of 61 asylum seekers who have been stranded on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia for more than two years should be urgently relocated after experiencing violence, abuse and arbitrary detention, according to a UN report.

The inspection report from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, marked “confidential” and disclosed to the Guardian and the BBC by the supreme court of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), is the first to be carried out since a group of asylum seekers, mainly Tamils from Sri Lanka, arrived on the island in October 2021. They were rescued and taken to Diego Garcia after a boat they were travelling in, hoping to reach Canada to claim asylum, got into difficulty.

The report is damning. It found that the group, mainly asylum seekers with a small number granted refugee status, fall under the effective control of the UK government, have been subjected to conditions of arbitrary detention and should be urgently relocated.

The UN inspectors heard allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against women and children by other asylum seekers, and identified high levels of mental distress and significant risk of suicide and attempted suicide. They found the detention of 16 children among the 61 “particularly troubling” and said at least some of those found to be in need of international protection should be transferred to the UK.

The asylum seekers are held in a fenced-in area the size of a football pitch, guarded by G4S staff. They are not allowed to cook for themselves and have been bitten by rats, which are “ubiquitous” on the island and have gnawed holes in their tents.

One mother told the inspectors that “living here is like living in hell”, while children said they dreamed of doing normal things like going on picnics and eating ice-cream. One child said they were sad to see that a guard dog could be outside the fence while they could not.

The UK asserts that the island is part of the BIOT. It is administered from London but is constitutionally separate from the UK. The UN general assembly says the island is part of Mauritius.

The UNHCR report was disclosed during a case brought in the territory’s supreme court by a group of the asylum seekers that their treatment on the island constitutes unlawful detention.

Simon Robinson of Duncan Lewis solicitors, which is representing some of the group, said: “The UNHCR, who have unrivalled experience in refugee law, emphatically found the conditions in which our clients have been held in amount to arbitrary detention.”

Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day solicitors, which is representing others in the group, described the conditions on Diego Garcia as appalling and said that lawyers had been denied access to visit their clients.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “BIOT is not a suitable location for migrants, which is why we have been working tirelessly to process the migrants’ claims for protection and to find a suitable third country for those whose claims are upheld. At all times, the welfare and safety of migrants on BIOT has been our top priority.”

Foreign Office sources said they did not accept that the conditions there amounted to arbitrary detention.

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UN calls for urgent relocation of 61 asylum seekers stranded on of Diego Garcia island

UN calls for urgent relocation of 61 asylum seekers stranded on Indian Ocean island

Damning report says group has experienced violence, abuse and arbitrary detention under ‘effective control’ of UK government

A group of 61 asylum seekers who have been stranded on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia for more than two years should be urgently relocated after experiencing violence, abuse and arbitrary detention, according to a UN report.

The inspection report from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, marked “confidential” and disclosed to the Guardian and the BBC by the supreme court of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), is the first to be carried out since a group of asylum seekers, mainly Tamils from Sri Lanka, arrived on the island in October 2021. They were rescued and taken to Diego Garcia after a boat they were travelling in, hoping to reach Canada to claim asylum, got into difficulty.

The report is damning. It found that the group, mainly asylum seekers with a small number granted refugee status, fall under the effective control of the UK government, have been subjected to conditions of arbitrary detention and should be urgently relocated.

The UN inspectors heard allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against women and children by other asylum seekers, and identified high levels of mental distress and significant risk of suicide and attempted suicide. They found the detention of 16 children among the 61 “particularly troubling” and said at least some of those found to be in need of international protection should be transferred to the UK.

The asylum seekers are held in a fenced-in area the size of a football pitch, guarded by G4S staff. They are not allowed to cook for themselves and have been bitten by rats, which are “ubiquitous” on the island and have gnawed holes in their tents.

One mother told the inspectors that “living here is like living in hell”, while children said they dreamed of doing normal things like going on picnics and eating ice-cream. One child said they were sad to see that a guard dog could be outside the fence while they could not.

The UK asserts that the island is part of the BIOT. It is administered from London but is constitutionally separate from the UK. The UN general assembly says the island is part of Mauritius.

The UNHCR report was disclosed during a case brought in the territory’s supreme court by a group of the asylum seekers that their treatment on the island constitutes unlawful detention.

Simon Robinson of Duncan Lewis solicitors, which is representing some of the group, said: “The UNHCR, who have unrivalled experience in refugee law, emphatically found the conditions in which our clients have been held in amount to arbitrary detention.”

Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day solicitors, which is representing others in the group, described the conditions on Diego Garcia as appalling and said that lawyers had been denied access to visit their clients.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “BIOT is not a suitable location for migrants, which is why we have been working tirelessly to process the migrants’ claims for protection and to find a suitable third country for those whose claims are upheld. At all times, the welfare and safety of migrants on BIOT has been our top priority.”

Foreign Office sources said they did not accept that the conditions there amounted to arbitrary detention.

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Albanese signals Labor won’t negotiate with Greens on help-to-buy legislation

Albanese signals Labor won’t negotiate with Greens on housing help-to-buy legislation

PM says government will put scheme to parliament without guaranteed support, as Greens housing spokesperson says scheme will make housing crisis ‘worse for 99.8% of renters’

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Anthony Albanese has challenged the Greens to vote against Labor’s shared equity scheme for housing, rebuffing the minor party’s demands to horse-trade in return for cutting housing tax concessions.

On Sunday the prime minister said the government would put its help-to-buy legislation to parliament, where “the Greens can vote for it, or they can vote against it”.

“It’s as simple as that,” Albanese told reporters in Nowra after the New South Wales Country Labor conference.

The comments signal Labor may seek to call the Greens’ bluff and avoid a second round of fractious negotiations over housing by putting the bill to a vote without having secured a guarantee of support.

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In 2023 the Greens voted with the Coalition to delay the Housing Australia Future Fund (Haff) prompting threats from Albanese of a double dissolution election.

The Haff bill passed in September after the government agreed to invest $3bn more in social and affordable housing, which the Greens claim proves withholding their 11 Senate votes can help win demands which now include a nationally coordinated rent freeze and cuts to negative gearing and the capital gains tax concession.

Labor’s help-to-buy scheme would help 10,000 prospective buyers a year by the government taking equity of 30% (for an existing build) or 40% (of a new build) in their homes, meaning smaller deposits and loans for the owner’s share.

On Sunday Albanese claimed that “people are seeing through the Greens, where they offer nothing positive”.

“On this issue, on help-to-buy, we’ll literally help Australians into home ownership by having a shared equity scheme that works successfully, in WA, in Victoria, here in New South Wales, our … scheme will allow for up to 40% of shared equity being taken by the commonwealth,” he said.

Albanese claimed the Greens “won’t talk about this particular legislation” because they want to “talk about something else”.

“Well, just like they held up support for increased investment in social homes, in public housing, and affordable housing, now they’re saying they’re going to hold up increased home ownership.”

“We have a comprehensive plan for housing, they just have slogans.”

On Saturday the Greens housing spokesperson, Max Chandler-Mather, told Guardian’s Australian Politics podcast the help-to-buy scheme “will actually make the housing crisis worse for 99.8% of renters”.

“That’s because every year, only 0.2% of renters would be able to access the government scheme,” he said. “And for every other renter trying to buy a home, this will push up the price of housing, even marginally.”

“The reality is you’re just not going to fix the housing affordability crisis while the government is dishing out something like $39bn a year in tax handouts for property investors that allow them to beat up the price of housing and lock out so many first home buyers.”

At the 2022 election the Coalition opposed Labor’s help-to-buy scheme, arguing that homeowners will be “forced to sell” if a pay rise pushes their income above the eligibility threshold of $90,000 for a single or above $120,000 for a couple.

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Murder victim repeatedly visited police in fear. They said she was ‘cop shopping’

Murder victim Kelly Wilkinson repeatedly visited police in fear. They said she was ‘cop shopping’

Exclusive: Family calls for inquest, saying Wilkinson visited police ‘almost every day’ before she was murdered by her husband in 2021

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In the final frantic days before she was murdered, Kelly Wilkinson visited multiple police stations, warning she was in danger. Official police notes say she was “cop shopping”.

On Wednesday, Wilkinson’s estranged husband, Brian Earl Johnston, a former US Marine, pleaded guilty to her murder. A court has previously heard that Johnston tied Wilkinson to a clothesline and set her on fire on 20 April 2021.

While he awaits sentencing, Johnston’s guilty plea brings his two-year murder case to an end. Now, Wilkinson’s family is pursuing an inquest to examine how the system was unable to protect her, despite clear evidence that Johnston posed a lethal risk. Police have already conceded the case represents a “failure”.

At the beginning of April 2021, police charged Johnston with four serious domestic violence offences against Wilkinson. He was given watch house bail.

In the weeks that followed, Wilkinson attempted to speak to police “almost every day” about her concerns in relation to Johnston, her sister, Natalie Wilkinson told the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2021, including allegations he had breached the conditions of his domestic violence order.

Another sister, Danielle Carroll, said at that time that Kelly had told police, “I am scared for my life, I am scared for my children’s life. We are not safe”.

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One day that month, Wilkinson was turned away from the Southport police station on the Gold Coast. Her family says she was told at the station counter there was no one available who could help with a domestic violence matter.

Frustrated at the response, she drove to another police station, about 15 minutes away, at Runaway Bay.

Guardian Australia can reveal that a police “occurrence” report from the time described Wilkinson’s actions – visiting separate police stations – as “cop shopping”. Police said internal investigations have identified “no allegations” in relation to the term.

‘Ultimately it’s a failure. A woman has died’

Two days after Wilkinson was murdered, the Queensland police assistant commissioner in charge of domestic violence responses, Brian Codd, was asked if her death had been preventable.

“Wouldn’t you love to turn back time,” he said.

“It’s important that we examine to what extent it is a systemic failure.

“Ultimately it’s a failure. A woman has died. Somewhere along the line, she had engaged with the system, with us.”

Another domestic violence death a few weeks earlier – the killing of Doreen Langham by her estranged partner – had raised similar concerns.

An inquest into Langham’s death found that the police response to her had been beset by “so many inadequacies” and that her complaints were simply “not properly investigated”.

The two incidents brought about a reckoning – of sorts – for the way police respond to domestic violence reports, helping pave the way for the state’s subsequent commission of inquiry in 2022. They were also remarkably similar.

Langham separated from her “controlling and abusive” partner, Gary Hely, 15 days before she was killed. In that time she had “made more than 20 calls and spoken to at least 16 separate officers” reporting threats and concerns about Hely.

“She reported breaches to the police five times in the week before she was murdered and all but one officer told her to basically go away and don’t come back and just come into the station once a week because you’re coming in too often to report breaches,” criminologist Kerry Carrington told the inquest.

The murder charges against Johnston, who suffered severe burns and was “barely” able to talk for months after the incident, mean the coroner’s court has yet to investigate the response to Wilkinson’s pleas for help. It is unclear yet whether an inquest will be held.

Johnston’s barrister told the court on Wednesday there were “some factual matters that remain contested in relation to the background of the relationship” and it is understood Johnston denied offences for which he was charged in early April 2021, and made subject to a domestic violence order.

Warning signs

Days after Wilkinson was killed, Johnston’s lawyer told reporters that “obviously, no one expected this to happen”.

There were several signs that Johnston posed a potential lethal risk, in addition to Wilkinson’s reports.

Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board has identified separation as a risk factor for domestic and family violence homicides. Separation – or the intent to separate – was identified in more than half of intimate partner killings since 2006.

In 58% of cases, researchers found an underlying history of domestic or family violence prior to a murder – though they say this figure is likely much higher “due to the well-established understanding that victims of domestic and family violence under-report their experiences to formal services”.

Johnston’s history as a military veteran is another clear factor that would heighten the risk to Wilkins. It has been documented that he was suffering from mental health concerns and had disclosed suicidal thoughts to counsellors.

Angela Lynch, a sexual and domestic violence protection advocate, says the simple fact Wilkinson was presenting to police with “high levels of fear” was also relevant to assessing risk.

“The level of risk was high and should have been recognised,” Lynch said.

“The charges against him should have been easily accessible to police to undertake a history check very quickly.”

Lynch said an inquest was needed to highlight “a range of systemic concerns” highlighted by the case, including the decision to grant Johnston bail.

The Queensland Police Service said in a statement that the ethical standards command had conducted an investigation “as a result of a targeted inquiry from the coroner” and that it had identified “no allegations relating to the term ‘cop shopping’.”

The statement said police were implementing recommendations from the Queensland Women’s Safety and Justice taskforce, and the commission of inquiry into the QPS, in relation to domestic and family violence.

“Understanding the dynamics of domestic and family violence and seeking protection or providing safe and effective support to a victim-survivor will ensure victims no longer live in fear of their abuser, and children can grow in healthy family relationships free from abuse and violence,” the statement said.

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Kremlin plays for time after Navalny’s death

‘They’re doing everything to avoid handing over his body’: Kremlin plays for time after Navalny’s death

In Russia, the battle to eradicate the opposition leader and his legacy will continue long after his death

In Russia, it is not enough to kill an opposition leader. His ageing mother must travel to the Arctic Circle to search a prison colony and a morgue for his body. Russians with the temerity to lay carnations in his memory must be detained.

Even a preliminary cause of death, “sudden death syndrome”, was misleading, as though his death behind bars was not years in the making.

All this happened the day after Alexei Navalny died, as the bureaucratic machinery of the vast Russian state swung into gear, brushing over the Kremlin critic’s death with a veneer of official disdain and petty cruelty.

“It’s obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body,” said Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, as 69-year-old Lyudmila, his mother, and a lawyer battled to retrieve his body in the city of Salekhard.

Maybe next week, investigators told them, saying the cause of death had not been established and there were still tests to run.

“Putin killed Alexei Navalny,” said Georgy Alburov, a Navalny ally and researcher for his Anti-Corruption Foundation. “How exactly he did it will certainly be exposed, but right now we will observe an endless marathon of lies and playing for time. Putin will do everything to make it impossible to establish what actually happened to Alexei.”

For now, Russia tries to stymie Navalny’s family and supporters, with no act of interference too small to disrupt memorials to a defiant critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The task is shared among thousands of state employees, from the Kremlin officials to investigators, prosecutors and judges, riot police, prison guards, television anchors and writers, and many more, each contributing a small bit to an irresistible force that has crushed whatever Russia had of a pro-democracy movement.

Nothing personal. That’s the job. Just as Vladimir Putin never mentioned Navalny by name, so the Russian politician barely merited a mention on state television, the better for the public to forget about him.

Instead, in the short segments referencing his death, he was referred to with a new title coined by the penitentiary service: “The convict.” But generally, state media ignored his passing.

At protests outside Russian embassies around the world, as well as inside Russia, his supporters sought to memorialise his name.

“Hello, this is Navalny!” some chanted, a reference to the intro for his investigative YouTube films, which helped build him a wide public following based on his anti-corruption agenda and acerbic wit.

He had placed a bet on imagining a happier Russia, where people were encouraged to act morally. “We have everything – but we are an unhappy country … Russia should not only be free, but also happy. Russia will be happy,” he said at a final courtroom appearance in 2021.

And in a country dominated by apathy towards politics, he also encouraged activism and energy: “If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong … we need to utilise this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.”

Many of those clocked in and grabbed their riot shields and batons on Saturday, as small groups of dedicated supporters headed to vigils or individual pickets in 32 cities to protest what they believed was a political assassination of Navalny by Vladimir Putin.

“Navalny was killed because we didn’t care,” one protester wrote on a sign in front of St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral. He was quickly detained, as were 358 others in cities across Russia.

It was hardly the largest protest Russia has seen, but any demonstration now is of note, since authorities have effectively banned public gatherings.

“Why be afraid? You only live once,” said one young woman speaking on camera to Sotavision, an independent Russian media outlet.

“If you don’t come now, then when?… It’s still not [as bad as] Belarus yet, it’s still possible to go out and speak your opinion.”

When they didn’t make arrests, police still engaged in tense back-and-forths with Navalny supporters.

“Go grieve in the subway,” one said, as he dispersed a crowd at the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to the victims of political repression, near the former KGB headquarters in Moscow.

The cycle of death and state obfuscation has played out predictably, as it did with the assassination of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin walls in 2015.

On Friday, the president appeared smiling and joking with factory workers in Chelyabinsk, hours after he had been informed about Navalny’s death, according to press secretary Dmitry Peskov.

By Saturday yesterday evening, Navalny’s mother in Salekhard still could not locate his body. At the prison colony, she was told it was in the morgue. The morgue was closed.

For now, his supporters grapple with his loss.

“It’s very, very difficult,” wrote Maria Pevchikh, a close ally who heads investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. “It’s unbearable … Just remember, we are in this horror together, and we need to get out of it together too.

“Navalny is an impossible loss, irreparable.”

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How a trio of climate drivers is baking Australia’s west and leaving the east soaked

Fearsome threesome: how a trio of climate drivers is baking Australia’s west and leaving the east soaked

A rare confluence of El Niño, the Southern Annular Mode and the Indian Ocean dipole is to blame for the country’s unusually polarised weather

The Australian summer has been a tale of two extremes: the west is baking hot, while the east is awash with devastating downpours. While Western Australia’s maximum temperature so far this summer is 1.5C above the long-term 29.5C average, Perth has melted through three heatwaves and smashed February records for the most days hotter than 40C. Last month, the Pilbara town of Marble Bar sweltered through its second-longest hot spell on record, with 23 consecutive days above 43C.

In stark contrast, storms have ravaged the east coast this summer. Ex-Tropical Cyclone Jasper caused flooding across vast areas of far north Queensland before Christmas, delivering Australia’s wettest December days on record. One weather station recorded 1.9 metres of rain during five days.

And this week storms brought heavy hail and strong winds to Victoria, causing the temperature to plummet 15C and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power.

As the weather intensity has dialled up, so have the insurance claims. The Insurance Council of Australia says more than 46,000 extreme weather-related claims were lodged between 23 December and 3 January.

So, what’s causing this unusual polarisation? Scientists say it’s down to a rare combination of three climate systems hitting at once.

‘A perfect storm’

A shifting belt of westerly winds in the Southern Ocean is turning the heat dial up on WA while also filling rain gauges on the east coast, Hugh McDowell, a senior climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, says.

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean is hotter than normal and El Niño arrived in the Pacific in September.

Climate scientists are calling it “a perfect storm” that is breaking weather records across the country.

“These three things that usually happen in isolation are happening together and they are all reinforcing each other,” the BoM meteorologist Jessica Lingard says.

Australia’s climate is complicated and influenced by many drivers. The three oceans bordering Australia each have their own sets of natural oscillations in currents and wind patterns, all of which affect the nation’s rainfall and temperatures.

‘Little boy’ and his cousin Sam

One of the best-known patterns is El Niño, Spanish for “little boy”, which weakens trade winds in the Pacific.

But the boy has a southern cousin – the Southern Annular Mode (Sam) – and when it is in a positive mode, it disrupts the strong westerly winds that blow continuously around the globe, pushing them further south and away from Australia.

In the summer, this drags moist tropical air over the eastern states, fuelling intense rainfall and flash flooding.

In the west, a positive Sam causes high-pressure systems and their associated anticlockwise winds to set up camp in the Great Australian Bight. This acts like a hairdryer that blows hot desert easterlies from Australia’s interior over WA.

McDowell says while the Sam has a big effect on opposite sides of the continent, it is normally short-lived and dissipates after a couple of weeks.

“It is not normally a long-term climate driver, but this year, we have had it positive for at least two months and it has been due to a stronger-than-average polar vortex,” McDowell says.

He says El Niño conditions, which occur in the Pacific Ocean, are normally associated with a neutral or negative Sam – not positive.

El Niño weakens trade winds and sloshes warm water from the east of Australia towards South America. La Niña has the opposite effect and piles warm water around northern Australia, according to the Australian Research Council.

“The last three La Niña years we saw positive Sam at play, we saw warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures all across the east, but we have those things and we have El Niño this year, which is very unusual,” McDowell says.

“That is probably why we have seen so much rainfall across the east this summer.”

The role of the dipole

The third and final player in the trio is the Indian Ocean dipole, which features fluctuations in sea surface temperatures between the Horn of Africa and Indonesia.

Right now, McDowell says, this dipole is also in positive mode, leading to less rainfall for north-west WA.

“It is unusual that we are seeing those three things together. It is a pretty usual situation, giving a bit extra to the heat and a twist with the wet east,” McDowell says.

“Sam has had an influence on Western Australia with the drier and warmer weather … that coupled with El Niño … [and] the positive Indian Ocean dipole, has given us every single climate driver going in the direction of heat and dryness across Western Australia,” McDowell says.

‘More extremes’ with climate change

The state’s fire and emergency services commissioner, Darren Klemm, says WA has experienced a 38% rise in bushfires compared with this time last year. His personnel attended 2,706 fires so far, many in the metropolitan area.

In late November, a blaze in Wanneroo on Perth’s north-eastern outskirts destroyed 18 homes after a pine forest caught fire.

Earlier this month, BoM released its January drought summary. It found that soil moisture was very much below average for large areas of WA and in parts of the Northern Territory and South Australia.

“The extent of areas with rainfall deficiencies, including those with record-low rainfall, expanded in Western Australia, particularly in the Pilbara and Gascoyne districts, but generally eased in eastern Australia,” the summary said.

In contrast, much of Victoria and large parts of NT experienced rainfall in the highest 10% since 1900. Victoria received double its average rainfall. January records were smashed in the state’s North Central district and the NT’s Gregory district.

The WAFarmers president, John Hassell, says the state’s extreme dry has meant some farmers were not able to plant crops this year.

“That was quite devastating for a major part of the north-eastern wheatbelt … It is reflected in the total tonnages that we are delivering – we are back down to 12m tonnes from 25m last year.” The average is 16m tonnes.

Lingard says the usual climate drivers occurring at once are most likely related to climate change and will happen more as the climate warms.

“With climate change, we expect to see more extremes in weather, both good and bad. We will see more extreme hot days, more extreme dry days, we will see more extreme flooding events and stronger cyclones.”

When will this end?

McDowell says it looks like it will continue to be warm in the west.

“I’m sorry to say it, but there is a very strong signal still of above-minimum and maximum temperatures [for the west coast] all the way out to June.”

The bureau says Sam should return to neutral in the next two weeks. Long-range forecaster Masoud Edraki says the above-average east coast rainfall is not likely to continue.

“There is no clear signal for March and April that rainfall will be above or below average for most of the east coast.

“North-east Queensland and parts of the Northern Territory are likely to be drier than average from March to May,” he says.

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