The Guardian 2024-02-20 16:31:07


Wikileaks founder risks ‘flagrant denial of justice’ if tried in US, London court told

Julian Assange risks ‘flagrant denial of justice’ if tried in US, London court told

Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder are seeking permission to appeal against his extradition at high court hearing

Julian Assange faces the risk of a “flagrant denial of justice” if tried in the US, his lawyers have told a permission to appeal hearing in London, which could result in the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder within days if unsuccessful.

Assange, who published thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, could be jailed for up to 175 years – “a grossly disproportionate punishment” – if convicted in the US, the high court heard on Tuesday.

His lawyers are seeking a full appeal hearing. However, if the two judges deny permission, all challenges in the UK courts will have been exhausted, leaving an intervention by the European court of human rights (ECHR) as Assange’s only hope to avoid extradition to the US.

Outside the court, scores of his supporters held placards and chanted demanding his release. The WikiLeaks founder was granted permission to attend the two-day hearing but one of his lawyers, Edward Fitzgerald KC, said Assange was unwell.

Fitzgerald told the court that if Assange was extradited there was “a real risk that he’ll suffer a flagrant denial of justice”. In written arguments, Fitzgerald said: “This legally unprecedented prosecution seeks to criminalise the application of ordinary journalistic practices of obtaining and publishing true classified information of the most obvious and important public interest.”

He said Assange and WikiLeaks “were responsible for the exposure of criminality on the part of the US government on an unprecedented scale”, including torture, rendition, extrajudicial killings and war crimes. One of the most infamous disclosures was video footage of a helicopter attack by US forces that killed 11 people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.

Among the grounds on which Assange is seeking permission to appeal is the claim that his extradition is in breach of the extradition treaty between the UK and US, which prohibits doing so for political offences.

Assange faces 17 charges of espionage, which Fitzgerald said was manifestly a political offence and politically motivated, as well as one of computer misuse.

“The prohibition on extradition for political offences, reflected in article 4 [of the extradition treaty], has venerable historic and juristic importance,” Fitzgerald told the court. “It is one of the most fundamental protections recognised in international and extradition law … Other western countries and governments stand firm against US extradition requests for ‘political offences’.”

Mark Summers KC, also for Assange, raised the issue of an “extraordinary plan” for rendition or murder of the WikiLeaks founder while he was sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy, which was reported by Yahoo News.

Organisations backing Assange include Reporters Without Borders, PEN International, the National Union of Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Outside the court, his wife, Stella Assange, told the crowd: “We have two big days ahead, we don’t know what to expect, but you’re here because the world is watching. They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.”

She told reporters her husband’s case was analogous to that of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist who died in prison on Friday. “Julian is a political prisoner and his life is at risk. What happened to Navalny can happen to Julian,” she said.

If Assange is refused permission to appeal, he will have to apply to the ECHR to order the UK not to extradite him while it considers his case. If the application is refused he could be removed from the country by US marshals within days.

The US will have the opportunity to make oral arguments on Wednesday but, in written arguments, it accused Assange’s lawyers of having “consistently and repeatedly misrepresented” the case.

James Lewis KC said the WikiLeaks founder was not being prosecuted for “mere publication” but for “aiding and abetting” or “conspiring with” the whistleblower Chelsea Manning to unlawfully obtain the documents in question, “undoubtedly committing serious criminal offences in so doing and then disclosing the unredacted names of sources (thus putting those individuals at grave risk of harm)”.

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Julian AssangeSupporters gather outside court as extradition hearing starts

Julian Assange supporters gather outside court as extradition hearing starts

Two-day hearing will weigh up whether WikiLeaks founder can be granted leave to appeal against 2022 decision

Protesters have gathered outside court in support of Julian Assange as the WikiLeaks founder launches his latest attempt to fight his extradition to the US.

A two-day hearing in the high court in London will consider whether Australian-born Assange, who has been held in Belmarsh prison for almost five years, can be granted leave to appeal against an extradition decision made in 2022 by the then home secretary, Priti Patel.

However, at the start of Tuesday’s hearing lawyers for Assange told the court he would not be attending proceedings as he is unwell.

Speaking at a press conference last week, his wife, Stella Assange, said that if the appeal was unsuccessful, Assange would apply to the European court of human rights for a rule 39 order to stop extradition while it considers his case.

Assange has requested to appear in court in person but is expected to appear via video link from Belmarsh.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds of golden ribbons with the words “Free Julian Assange now!” were tied to the main fence outside the Royal Courts of Justice as well as the surrounding gates and trees.

Protesters were waving Australian flags, holding placards with the words “Free Julian Assange” and “drop the charges”, and chanting: “There is only one decision – no extradition,” and: “US, UK, hands off Assange.”

On a stage outside the courts, Stella Assange thanked protesters and said: “Please keep on showing up, be there for Julian and for us, until Julian is free.”

The crowd chanted: “Free Julian Assange,” in response.

She said: “We have two big days ahead, We don’t know what to expect, but you’re here because the world is watching. They just cannot get away with this. Julian needs his freedom and we all need the truth.”

Earlier, Tim Dawson, the deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, took to the stage. He said: “Be under no illusions, if this prosecution is successful, other vital cases will never come to light.”

“Free Julian Assange, support journalism and safeguard free speech,” he finished, to claps and cheers from the audience.

Under US proceedings revived during Donald Trump’s presidency, Assange faces 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse for his alleged role in obtaining and disclosing classified material.

Assange’s lawyers will argue that his extradition would amount to punishment for political opinions. They are also expected to claim that the decision would violate the European convention on human rights, including his right to free speech.

Disclosures by WikiLeaks exposed details of US activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and included video footage of a helicopter attack by US forces that killed 11 people including two Reuters journalists.

His lawyers say that if convicted of the US charges Assange could receive a prison term of up to 175 years. Earlier this month, in a separate case, Joshua Schulte, a former CIA officer, was imprisoned for 40 years for passing classified material to WikiLeaks.

Assange is accused of conspiring with the US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and of releasing secret diplomatic cables and military files.

Manning had her sentence commuted by Barack Obama and was released after seven years in prison.

In 2012, Assange was granted political asylum by Ecuador after the courts ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation that was later dropped.

He was arrested in 2019 when Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status. He was then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

He has been held in Belmarsh while the extradition battle with the US continues.

A judge in London initially blocked Assange’s transfer to the US on the grounds that he was likely to kill himself if held in harsh American prison conditions. A subsequent court cleared the way for the move after the US authorities provided assurances over his treatment.

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ExplainerKey dates in the WikiLeaks founder’s case

Timeline

Julian Assange: key dates in the WikiLeaks founder’s case

How Assange went from being questioned in Sweden to living for years in Ecuador’s embassy in London

  • Julian Assange supporters gather outside court as extradition hearing starts

Julian Assange is to make his final bid for an appeal against a UK judge’s ruling over his extradition to the US.

The WikiLeaks founder is wanted in the US over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information after the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Here is a timeline of the key dates in the WikiLeaks founder’s legal cases over the past 14 years:

2010

31 August: Swedish police question Assange about two separate allegations – one of rape and one of molestation – which he denies.

18 November: An international arrest warrant is issued so Assange can be questioned on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.

7 December: Assange presents himself to police in London and is remanded in custody after a hearing.

16 December: He is later granted conditional bail at the high court, bankrolled by his supporters who pay £240,000.

2011

2 November: Assange loses an appeal to extradite him to Sweden; a judge denies it would violate his human rights.

2012

19 June: Assange enters the Ecuadorian embassy in London, requesting political asylum. Scotland Yard confirms he is subject to arrest for breaching his bail conditions.

16 August: He is granted political asylum by Ecuador.

19 August: Assange emerges on the Ecuadorian embassy’s balcony and calls for the US government to “renounce its witch hunt” against WikiLeaks.

20 December: He again appears to say “the door is open” for talks to avoid extradition to Sweden.

2013

18 June: Assange tells journalists he will not leave the embassy even if sex charges against him are dropped, due to fears he will be extradited to the US.

2014

16 July: A judge in Stockholm upholds the arrest warrant against him for alleged sexual offences against two women. He later loses an appeal.

2015

13 March: Swedish prosecutors ask to question him at the embassy.

13 August: Investigations into the molestation allegation are dropped due to time restrictions. The investigation into suspected rape remains active.

16 August: The UK Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire says Ecuador’s decision to harbour Assange in its embassy has prevented the proper course of justice. He restates the UK’s legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden.

12 October: The Metropolitan police end their three-year long, 24-hour guard outside the embassy. It is estimated to have cost more than £12m.

2016

5 February: The UN working group on arbitrary detention says Assange is being “arbitrarily detained”, and calls on authorities to end his “deprivation of liberty”. The following month, the UK government asks for a review, saying the opinion was “deeply flawed” – this is later rejected.

20 June: Ecuador reveals the Swedish authorities have officially requested to interview Assange.

9 August: Assange files an appeal to a Swedish court, arguing the country must comply with the UN working group’s findings.

14 November: Assange is questioned over the remaining sex allegation at the Ecuadorian embassy by Swedish authorities in a two-day interview.

2017

17 January: Barack Obama’s decision to free the whistleblower Chelsea Manning prompts speculation Assange will end his self-imposed exile.

19 January: Assange tells a press conference that he stands by his offer to go to the US, provided his rights are respected.

9 March: The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is spotted leaving the embassy.

21 April: The then US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, says Assange’s arrest is a priority for the US.

19 May: Swedish authorities suddenly drop the investigation into an allegation of rape.

2018

11 January: The UK Foreign Office turns down a request from the Ecuadorian government to grant Assange diplomatic status. Ecuador confirms it granted citizenship to Assange in December at his request.

13 February: Westminster magistrates court upholds Assange’s arrest warrant for skipping bail. A judge urges him to show the “courage” to appear in court.

28 March: The Ecuadorian embassy suspends Assange’s internet access, complaining he interfered with other states’ affairs.

9 August
: The US Senate committee asks to interview Assange as part of its investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

19 October: Assange accuses Ecuador of violating his “fundamental rights and freedoms”.

16 November: The US Department of Justice inadvertently names Assange in a court document, suggesting he may have been charged in secret.

2019

23 January: Lawyers for Assange say they are taking action aimed at making President Donald Trump’s administration reveal “secretly filed” charges.

5 April: There are conflicting reports over whether Assange is to be expelled from the embassy.

11 April: Assange is arrested at the embassy in London after his diplomatic status is revoked.

1 May: Assange is sentenced to 50 weeks’ imprisonment by Southwark crown court. He continues to be held on remand in Belmarsh from September after serving the custodial sentence.

19 May: Swedish authorities resume their investigation into the alleged rape.

19 November: The alleged rape investigation is discontinued.

2020

24 February: Assange faces an extradition hearing at Woolwich crown court, where his representatives argue he cannot legally be handed to the US for “political offences” because of a 2003 extradition treaty.

25 March: Assange appears via video link at Westminster magistrates court, where he is refused bail amid the coronavirus crisis.

24 June: The US Department of Justice issues an updated 18-count indictment over Assange’s alleged role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

7 September: Assange’s extradition hearing resumes at the Old Bailey.

2021

4 January: A judge at the Old Bailey rules that Assange cannot be extradited to the US.

6 January: Assange is refused bail at Westminster magistrates court as the US government appeals against the decision to block his extradition.

11 August: The US government is allowed by the high court to expand the basis of its appeal against the judge’s decision not to extradite Assange.

10 December: The US government wins its high court appeal to overturn the judge’s decision not to extradite Assange.

23 December: Assange’s lawyers start the process towards a supreme court appeal over his extradition to the US.

2022

24 January: Assange wins the first stage of his supreme court appeal bid against a decision to allow his extradition to the US.

14 March: Assange is denied permission to appeal against the high court’s decision in December 2021 to extradite him to the US, the supreme court confirms.

23 March: Assange marries Stella Moris at Belmarsh Prison in a private ceremony lasting around three hours, with six guests including the couple’s two young sons and Assange’s father, John Shipton.

20 April: Westminster magistrates court formally issues an extradition order, meaning then home secretary, Priti Patel, is responsible for deciding whether to approve the extradition, with two months to make her decision.

17 June: Patel signs the extradition order.

1 July: Assange lodges an appeal against the extradition in the high court.

22 August: Assange’s legal team lodge a “perfected grounds of appeal” before the high court, challenging district judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision of 4 January 2021 with new evidence.

2023

6 June: Assange’s application to appeal is refused with Mr Justice Swift stating that “none of the four grounds of appeal raises any properly arguable point.” In a separate ruling, the high court judge also denies Assange permission to appeal a ruling by district judge Vanessa Baraitser in January 2021.

13 June: Assange’s team lodge a renewed appeal with the high court.

19 December: Assange’s team confirm next appeal hearing will take place in February 2024.

2024

15 February: Stella Assange tells reporters if Assange loses latest bid he will apply to the European court of human rights for a rule 39 order to stop an extradition, as well as a full application.

20 February: Assange’s appeal hearing begins at the Royal Courts of Justice.

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Margaret SullivanThe US justice department must drop spy charges against Julian Assange

The US justice department must drop spy charges against Julian Assange

Margaret Sullivan

As the UK considers extraditing the WikiLeaks founder, American press freedom hangs in the balance

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Does Merrick Garland, the Biden-appointed attorney general, really want his legacy to include a heavy blow to long-established press rights in the United States?

If not, Garland must drop the 17 charges under the Espionage Act against Julian Assange. This should have happened years ago but now is a key moment. The high court in London is considering this week whether to extradite Assange to the US to face those charges.

What the UK court does is important to Assange himself, who is in poor health after years of imprisonment and asylum-seeking. A decision to extradite, according to his wife, would be tantamount to a death sentence.

But the real answer to this troubling debacle lies across the Atlantic in Washington.

First, let’s deal with the argument so often heard about Assange – that he’s not really a journalist, rather a data-dumping publisher, at best, and therefore what happens to him won’t harm American press rights.

“The question of whether Assange is a journalist is a red herring,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told me in an interview this week.

The charges alone, Jaffer said, seek to criminalize the process of journalism – getting government secrets from informed sources and, eventually, revealing them to the public. In this era, when far too much information is classified in the United States, we rely on reporters to pry it out and let citizens know what their government is doing in secret.

With the protection of the first amendment, American journalists have been doing just that for decades.

Consider the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the lies and misdeeds of the Vietnam war. Or the Washington Post’s and the Guardian’s reporting that exposed the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs. Or, earlier, the New York Times’s reporting about how the US government was secretly monitoring the calls and emails of citizens without court-approved warrants.

This kind of reporting would be threatened – already is threatened – because of the charges against Assange.

You don’t have to like him or the way his WikiLeaks published reams of classified information to recognize what Jaffer calls the “profound damage” these charges create.

Imagine what a future Trump administration, armed with an Assange conviction, could do to the traditional press. Reporting would be treated as a crime, which is why newsroom lawyers have followed Assange’s prospects so closely and with so much concern.

Years ago, President Obama considered bringing charges under the Espionage Act against Assange for his receiving and publishing huge amounts of classified data about US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely obtained from the US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

One infamous revelation: video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Iraq that killed 11 civilians, including two Reuters journalists.

Although Obama and his justice department – no great friends of the press – strongly objected to what Manning and Assange had done, they grasped something crucial.

Charging him under the Espionage Act (an old law never intended for this purpose) would seek to criminalize the normal functions of journalism. That would especially be true for national security reporting, which relies so heavily on confidential sourcing: getting information from informed sources, verifying it, vetting it and publishing it to inform the public.

The Obama-era justice department decided against moving forward because of the “New York Times problem”. In other words, prosecuting Assange would punish and inhibit the traditional press. Great national security reporters like Charlie Savage at the Times or Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post would bear the brunt.

Donald Trump’s justice department, unsurprisingly, saw this as an opportunity. If it had the potential to hurt the legacy news media, full speed ahead.

The “love” that Trump expressed for WikiLeaks, because it published revelations that hurt his rival, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 presidential campaign, didn’t protect the Australian-born publisher. Assange was indicted in 2019; all but one of the 18 charges against him came under the Espionage Act.

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen before and it crosses a bright red line for journalists,” James Risen, the longtime investigative reporter for the New York Times and later with the Intercept, told me at that time.

Far beyond the effect on individual reporters and their news organizations, it’s the public that suffers when journalists are punished or censor themselves in fear.

Joe Biden’s justice department could have dropped these charges years ago but so far has let them stand.

It’s high time now to right that wrong.

  • Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture

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Mulch at centre of NSW asbestos crisis also contained ‘construction and demolition waste’

Mulch at centre of NSW asbestos crisis also contained ‘construction and demolition waste’

Exclusive: Environment Protection Authority says building debris discovered in a sample of recycled mulch ‘which is not permitted’

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The environment watchdog says recycled mulch at the centre of New South Wales’ contamination crisis has been found to contain “construction and demolition waste” in contravention of state rules – as well as asbestos.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) found the waste alongside asbestos when testing mulch it said was produced by Greenlife Resource Recovery and used at the Prospect Highway upgrade in Blacktown, Guardian Australia can reveal.

Separately, the watchdog said “foreign materials” along with asbestos were found in mulch used at the Rozelle parklands where the scandal started in January.

The findings were included in a cleanup notice issued to Greenlife at the start of February. Until now, the crisis has focused on asbestos contamination.

Mulch in NSW is regulated under the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014. It must not contain asbestos or other contaminants such as metal, plastics, polystyrene and glass.

An EPA spokesperson, referring to its mulch order issed in 2016, said “construction and demolition waste is not permitted in recycled mulch”. Such waste includes bricks, concrete, metal, timber, paper, plastics and glass from building and infrastructure works.

The cleanup notice did not detail what kind of “construction and demolition waste” was found at the Blacktown site.

The environment minister, Penny Sharpe, said the government was “concerned if products do not meet the regulatory guidelines under the mulch order” but she would not comment on the specifics of the cleanup notice while the EPA’s criminal investigation continued.

Greenlife said it did not use construction and demolition waste in its recycled mulch which was made from “separated waste timber products” including wooden pallets.

Its lawyer Ross Fox has previously said the mulch was “made from timber pallets primarily”.

A Greenlife spokesperson said the supply chain after mulch left its facility was “complex” and could include “transport companies, construction companies, landscapers, landscape yards and subcontractors”.

“Each time the material is handled or stored there is potential for contamination. Many sites have pre-existing contamination with asbestos and other contaminants.”

The Greenlife spokesperson said several suppliers and contractors were involved in supplying mulch to a number of the sites tested. Greenlife has previously said independent testing in 2023 and 2024 showed all “mulch leaving GRRF’s facility has tested negative for asbestos”.

Asbestos has been found in mulch made by Greenlife at more than 45 sites across NSW since the start of January. The state government has formed a taskforce to oversee remediation and contact tracing.

The EPA chief executive officer, Tony Chappel, said on Tuesday the authority needed its investigation “to come to a rigorous conclusion to help inform any advice to government and ensure we can properly address the ultimate source of this contamination”.

Friable asbestos was among six positive results for asbestos announced on Tuesday. It was found on a piece of vinyl tile in mulch at Bicentennial Park in Glebe.

On Monday, the ACT government announced it had also set up a taskforce after the NSW EPA advised mulch made by Greenlife – operated by Vitocco Enterprises – was sold to a landscaping supply company in Pialligo in Canberra last year.

Guardian Australia in recent weeks has revealed shortcomings in the state’s waste regulation system, including claims by a former EPA officer that the contamination crisis was “destined to happen” after a decade of regulatory failure.

A 2013 EPA investigation into facilities producing a type of soil fill known as “recovered fines” found 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.

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.

A follow-up investigation in 2019 found 57% of facilities had asbestos in their recovered fines.

The cleanup notice issued to Greenlife on 2 February said the EPA “reasonably suspects” that Greenlife had contributed to a pollution incident at Blacktown and Rozelle.

It revealed testing of mulch at Blacktown had “confirmed the recycled mulch contains construction and demolition waste and some samples include asbestos”.

It stated testing of mulch taken from Rozelle showed it contained “fragments of foreign materials some of which have tested positive for bonded asbestos”.

“The EPA understands the recycled mulch used at these sites was produced at the premises occupied by VE [Vitocco Enterprises] Resource Recovery”. VE Resource Recovery holds the environmental licence to operate the Greenlife facility.

Since early February, dozens more samples of mulch have tested positive for asbestos. When asked by Guardian Australia if any of those samples also contained construction and demolition waste or foreign materials, the EPA said it could not comment.

The February cleanup notice ordered Greenlife to contact everyone they had supplied mulch to between March and December 2023 and provide that list to the agency. The business has complied with that notice, according to the EPA.

“The EPA is still investigating all lines of inquiry and we have not ruled in or out any one cause for the contamination of mulch,” an EPA spokesperson said this week.

The EPA has ordered Greenlife to stop selling mulch while it investigates. Greenlife has launched a legal challenge against that prevention notice.

Chappel said on Sunday the probe was assessing “all lines of inquiry” and it was “unhelpful at this point for anyone to attribute blame”.

Greenlife Resource Recovery was set up by Domenic Vitocco and Adrian Runko in 2022 after they bought a facility in Bringelly in Sydney’s south-west from Hi-Quality Waste Management.

Greenlife’s website says Vitocco and Runko “have a joint 37 years of experience in landscape supply and waste management” and Greenlife was “paving the way to produce environmentally sustainable landscape materials”.

Greenlife produces dozens of different landscaping materials including gravel, soils, turf underlay and mulch.

Greenlife Resource Recovery is operated by two companies owned separately by Vitocco and Runko.

Vitocco is the son of major property developer Arnold Vitocco and the business development manager at the family company Vitocco Enterprises.

The private investment firm is behind several significant developments in south-western Sydney, including the planned Lowes Creek Maryland residential community and the Central Hills business park.

Vitocco Enterprises manages more than 1,800 acres of farmland and owns the Australian arm of the chocolate cafe chain Max Brenner along with a “portfolio of premium commercial property assets”, according to the company’s website. The firm also owns VE Resource Recovery.

The environmental licence for Greenlife allows the facility to accept building and demolition waste. The business said it accepted gypsum board – excess product used in new builds – which was “ground down for gardeners to use as a clay breaker”.

Greenlife said it was allowed to accept soils separated from general solid waste but did “not allow any mixed demolition waste on its site”.

Domenic Vitocco was issued a separate prevention notice by the EPA in July 2021 for operating a nearby waste and composting facility in an “environmentally unsatisfactory manner”.

The EPA “reasonably suspected” Vitocco was running a landscape materials business under the name Greenlife Fertilisers without a licence and ordered him to reduce the amount of waste at the premises to less than 1,000 tonnes by January 2022. He complied with that order.

Greenlife Resource Recovery and another business called Greenlife Landscape Supplies were registered at the same address later in 2022.

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Expert says agriculture has overshadowed science in the Murray-Darling Basin

‘The river has been destroyed’: expert says agriculture has overshadowed science in the Murray-Darling Basin

An ecologist who spent 36 years with NSW Fisheries says scientists working for the government are ‘aghast’ at the state of the Darling River but can’t speak publicly

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One of Australia’s most respected native fish experts says scientists working within the New South Wales government are discouraged from speaking to the media, resulting in “a loss of honesty and accuracy” in reporting by departments.

Dr Stuart Rowland, a retired principal research scientist who worked for NSW Fisheries for 36 years and remains a mentor to scientists in the agency, says there is a conflict within the Department of Primary Industries between fisheries and agricultural interests which makes it difficult for the former to speak openly about the health of the Murray-Darling River system and causes of ecological disasters including the 2023 Menindee fish kills.

Even though there are “very good scientists and managers in Fisheries, their voice is often not heard”, Rowland says.

“Even if there are internal scientists and managers who are aghast at what’s happened with the river, they can’t really express it to the media,” he says. “It is up to retired scientists like me, who don’t have an affiliation directly with the government, to speak their minds.”

Guardian Australia has spoken to a number of current and former NSW Fisheries staff who say they are frustrated at the degradation of major river systems, the conflict within the department and limits on speaking to the media, but none were willing to speak publicly.

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Rowland says there are “conflicts between fisheries and agriculture” that have had “significant ramifications” for the Darling-Baaka River and are leading to the “extinction of the river’s unique aquatic ecosystem”.

Rowland says research by NSW Fisheries staff has for decades warned of the cumulative impact of agriculture on the Darling-Baaka, including a 2003 report of the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee which declared the lowland catchment an “endangered ecological community”. Rowland was a member of that committee.

“Environmental degradation has continued, species have been lost, there have been massive fish kills [and] the river has been destroyed,” Rowland says.

“If the state government truly valued our fish and rivers, NSW Fisheries should be an independent agency. This would reduce intradepartmental conflict between fisheries and agriculture and enable fisheries managers and scientists to provide independent and frank advice to the minister and government.”

His comments come as Menindee residents reported another fish kill involving dozens more dead native fish, including golden perch, as well as small numbers of dead or struggling carp and bony herring in Lake Wetherell. The NSW government says DPI is investigating the cause.

Dissolved oxygen levels have been critically low in the lower Darling-Baaka since November. WaterNSW this month announced an oxygenation trial in the Darling River at Menindee, which it hopes will reduce the risk of large-scale fish deaths.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries says fisheries is located in the same department as agriculture in five Australian jurisdictions, and that work undertaken by NSW Fisheries is guided by the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and the Marine Estate Management Act 2014.

“The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) provides factual information and advice based on the best available science to Government,” they said.

“DPI strive to achieve the best outcomes for the health of fish and fish habitats, and our advice is guided by our engagement with stakeholders and the best available science.”

Fish kills with ‘PR narratives’

Dr Matt Landos, the director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Service and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, worked for NSW Fisheries between 2000 and 2005 as the veterinary officer for aquatic animal health.

He recalls an incident in 2001 when he “naively” spoke to a local journalist to provide information about a fish kill in the Richmond River in the northern rivers region in which millions of fish died.

After his interview went to air, Landos said he was “swiftly reprimanded” and “subsequent media releases talked down the size and impact of the kills”.

Instead it was called a “natural event”.

“Only much later did research show the role of drainage and flood-gating for agriculture as a clear cause, which to this day remain largely uncorrected,” he says.

Landos says he has observed “non-scientific issue managers take control” after major environmental issues such as fish kills “and use PR narratives to shape the message into something they believe is palatable”.

“Scientific knowledge and accuracy are victims of this process,” he says. “The public gets to hear the messages the department wants to tell them.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries says that when media requests are received, “DPI identifies the most appropriate spokesperson to ensure factual and coordinated information is provided. This is outlined in the Department of Regional NSW media guidelines.”

Dr Don Driscoll, a professor of terrestrial ecology at Deakin University and chair of the Ecological Society of Australia’s academic freedom working group, says he is aware of pressure to not speak publicly about certain research topics, “particularly research that might paint the current government in a poor light”.

“Even though scientists are supposed to be independent, there’s often pressure to stay silent on some research results – and those pressures are much higher for scientists working within government or within industry,” he says.

The ESA documents science suppression in Australia. A survey of 220 ecologists between October 2018 and February 2019 found that approximately half of the respondents who worked for a government agency had been prohibited from public communication about their research.

Driscoll says the survey showed that some suppression resulted from self-censorship, where individuals chose not to speak out because they are afraid of the consequences, to a more direct edict.

“There’s still a really strong culture of suppressing science and limited sharing of information within the public service,” he says.

He says there should be changes in the legislation and codes of practice governing how the public service operates to allow scientists to share research and findings.

“The environment would be much better off and our democracy would be stronger if we were able to share information about the state of our environment freely. Then people can vote after being fully informed about how government is managing the environment,” he says.

A spokesperson for the NSW agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, says the government “was elected to bring better decision-making and transparency to government in this state and that is what we are delivering across primary industries and regional development”.

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Melbourne player Joel Smith accused of cocaine trafficking

Melbourne AFL player Joel Smith accused of cocaine trafficking

The utility has been charged with three anti-doping violations by Sports Integrity Australia

Suspended Melbourne AFL utility Joel Smith has been accused of trafficking or attempted trafficking of cocaine by Sports Integrity Australia.

Smith has been provisionally suspended since October, when he was notified of a positive cocaine test following the Demons’ round-20 win over Hawthorn on 20 August.

But in a dramatic escalation on Tuesday, the AFL confirmed Sports Integrity Australia, a government executive agency, had charged Smith with three anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) of the Australian Football Anti-Doping Code over alleged “trafficking or attempted trafficking” of cocaine to third parties.

Under the code, trafficking is defined as “selling, giving, transporting, sending, delivering or distributing a prohibited substance by an athlete … to any third party”.

Smith has also been notified of another ADRV for possession of cocaine on 9 September 2022.

Smith already faced a maximum four-year ban under the AFL’s anti-doping code for his positive cocaine test.

It is unclear how much the additional charges could add to any suspension, or when that would be determined.

Smith will remain provisionally suspended and unable to train or play with his teammates, and the AFL confirmed under the code the new asserted ADRVs will be further investigated by SIA.

The 27-year-old’s matter could be heard at the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal in the coming months.

This adds to a nightmare off-season for Melbourne, who have had their culture repeatedly questioned.

The Demons released a statement late on Tuesday night confirming they had been informed by the AFL of Smith’s new alleged violations.

Melbourne stressed they were not able to make public comments on the violations levelled at Smith while the investigation was ongoing.

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Melbourne player Joel Smith accused of cocaine trafficking

Melbourne AFL player Joel Smith accused of cocaine trafficking

The utility has been charged with three anti-doping violations by Sports Integrity Australia

Suspended Melbourne AFL utility Joel Smith has been accused of trafficking or attempted trafficking of cocaine by Sports Integrity Australia.

Smith has been provisionally suspended since October, when he was notified of a positive cocaine test following the Demons’ round-20 win over Hawthorn on 20 August.

But in a dramatic escalation on Tuesday, the AFL confirmed Sports Integrity Australia, a government executive agency, had charged Smith with three anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) of the Australian Football Anti-Doping Code over alleged “trafficking or attempted trafficking” of cocaine to third parties.

Under the code, trafficking is defined as “selling, giving, transporting, sending, delivering or distributing a prohibited substance by an athlete … to any third party”.

Smith has also been notified of another ADRV for possession of cocaine on 9 September 2022.

Smith already faced a maximum four-year ban under the AFL’s anti-doping code for his positive cocaine test.

It is unclear how much the additional charges could add to any suspension, or when that would be determined.

Smith will remain provisionally suspended and unable to train or play with his teammates, and the AFL confirmed under the code the new asserted ADRVs will be further investigated by SIA.

The 27-year-old’s matter could be heard at the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal in the coming months.

This adds to a nightmare off-season for Melbourne, who have had their culture repeatedly questioned.

The Demons released a statement late on Tuesday night confirming they had been informed by the AFL of Smith’s new alleged violations.

Melbourne stressed they were not able to make public comments on the violations levelled at Smith while the investigation was ongoing.

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GWS GiantsClub under fire over ‘deeply disappointing’ Tabcorp sponsorship

Greater Western Sydney Giants under fire over ‘deeply disappointing’ Tabcorp sponsorship

Exclusive: ACT attorney general says while Victorian clubs have taken a ‘responsible approach’ the Giants are ‘going in the opposite direction’

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The ACT government has rebuked the GWS Giants for signing a sponsorship deal with gambling giant Tabcorp, describing the deal as “deeply disappointing” given mounting evidence of gambling-related harm.

The sponsorship arrangement has resulted in star players promoting the bookmaker in social media videos shared with the club’s more than 120,000 followers on Instagram.

The ACT attorney general, Shane Rattenbury, who has previously described the gambling industry’s targeting of young men as “insidious”, said the club’s partnership with Tabcorp was irresponsible and an outlier in the AFL.

“I am really disappointed to see the Giants strike this deal with the TAB as we need to see a reduction in the link between sport and sports gambling,” Rattenbury said.

“There is simply too much advertising during sport and young people, in particular, are significantly overexposed and are in fact facing saturation levels of gambling advertising. It’s not a healthy connection.”

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Rattenbury’s criticism comes one year after the ACT government struck a deal with the Giants, reportedly worth $28.5m, to secure games at Canberra’s Manuka stadium until at least 2032. The club has more than 6,000 members in the territory.

“The Giants are really going against the tide here and that is disappointing to see because the Victorian clubs have taken a very responsible approach,” Rattenbury said. “The Giants are going in the opposite direction.”

All Victorian AFL clubs have partnered with the state’s responsible gambling foundation and turned their backs on sports betting sponsorships. This is despite the AFL having a lucrative partnership with its official wagering partner, Sportsbet, and getting a cut of gambling turnover on its games.

The GWS Giants declined to comment.

A Tabcorp spokesperson said it was partnering with high-profile teams to create content but would not be putting its logo on their guernseys. The company has also signed deals with the Brisbane Broncos, Parramatta Eels and the Brisbane Lions.

“We believe there is too much gambling advertising on TV and have voluntarily stopped free to air advertising between 6am and 8.30pm,” a spokesperson said. “We know the community is over it and it’s the right thing to do.”

Almost two-thirds of Sydney’s gambling losses come from western Sydney. Academics at Western Sydney University recently described gambling-related harm in the community as a “silent epidemic”.

ACT Labor MLA Dr Marisa Paterson, who is a former director of the Centre for Gambling Research at the Australian National University, also said the sponsorship was “incredibly disappointing”.

“What this demonstrates is it doesn’t matter what harm is caused or what community expectations are – gambling will proliferate through our sport until there are laws to stop it,” Paterson said.

“That is why it is so critically important that the federal government move on recommendations from the parliamentary inquiry to stop gambling advertising in Australian sport.”

Rattenbury also called on the federal government to ban gambling advertising. He said the ACT government recently received legal advice stating it could adopt South Australia’s total ban on advertising between 4pm and 7.30pm. But those restrictions would not ban digital content shared on social media.

The attorney general said Tabcorp was “ruthless” in its pursuit of new customers and had deliberately targeted the GWS Giants’ digital team to expand its reach.

Tabcorp has described its sponsorship as “a great opportunity to grow the brand of clubs and their athletes, as well as providing innovative content for our customers”.

Paterson said independent research had shown advertising by gambling companies had increased the awareness and popularity of gambling among young sports fans.

“We will continue to see more harm caused by online gambling in our community unless something is urgently done about it, and it has to happen at a national level,” Paterson said.

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More efficient cars could almost halve Australians’ yearly petrol costs, analysis shows

More efficient cars could almost halve Australians’ yearly petrol costs, new analysis shows

Australians spending much more at bowser than most overseas drivers but government’s proposed fuel efficiency standards could change that

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Australians could save, on average, almost half of their yearly petrol costs if proposed rules forcing carmakers to make more fuel efficient vehicles are adopted, new analysis shows.

Fresh figures from the Climate Council, released on Wednesday, show Australians are spending more at the bowser to drive the same distance as their American and European counterparts, in countries where fuel efficiency standards have been in place for years.

A new car sold in Australia uses, on average, 6.9 litres of fuel per 100km compared with new cars in Europe and the US that use 3.5 litres and 4.2 litres, respectively.

The difference means Australians are spending, on average, almost $1,500 a year on fuel compared with $886 in the US and $738 in Europe.

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When it comes to utes and SUVs, Australians are also hit with less fuel efficient vehicles. On average, Australia’s light commercial vehicles use 9.9 litres per 100km, costing about $2,878 a year, while in the US, the average figure drops to 6.1 litres per 100km or $1,773 a year.

Light commercial vehicles in Europe and China are the most fuel efficient, both averaging 5.6 litres per 100km or $1,628.

Meanwhile, the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has continued the Coalition’s scare campaign against the new standards, labelling the move a “car and ute tax”.

The Albanese government released its proposal for a national vehicle efficiency standard in early February, with plans to introduce legislation before July that will take effect from January 2025.

The standards would place a yearly cap on the emissions output for new cars sold in Australia to encourage carmakers to supply low and zero-emissions vehicles and penalise companies that do not.

Australia, along with Russia, remains one of the few countries in the OECD without a standard.

The policy aims to reduce emissions produced by the transport sector, which account for about 10% of Australia’s total emissions, by 60% by 2030.

Nicki Hutley, an economist at the Climate Council, said the policy, if passed, would save Australians more money on fuel and provide greater choice in car yards.

“When you use less petrol you pay less for petrol. It’s pretty simple,” she said.

“In managing their emissions of the fleet, [car manufacturers] will actually need to provide greater choice to the market rather than less and that’s really good for consumers.”

The introduction of a fuel efficiency standard has been a key point of attack for the opposition in the Dunkley byelection.

Dutton and Liberal candidate for Dunkley, Nathan Conroy, have warned voters about the changes, saying it will place a “big burden on the local tradies”.

“Albo’s ute tax is going to drive up the cost of buying a ute, but it’s also going to drive down the choice that consumers have, because some of the dealers, some of the manufacturers, are likely to withdraw some of those heavy emission vehicles from the market,” Dutton said earlier this month.

Hutley described the claims as “fear-mongering”, pointing to a 2023 study in the US that found vehicle prices didn’t increase substantially between 2003 and 2021.

“There is no evidence to suggest that that is the case. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite will happen – that there will be no price impact across the market,” she said.

The statistical analysis by Consumer Reports found no increase in costs over the two-decade period after adjusting for inflation, while the average fuel economy improved by 30%.

The study found consumers paid about US$6,200 (A$9 500) less on fuel for utes and almost $11,600 less on fuel for SUVs than they would have if fuel economy had remained at 2003 levels.

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Trump rock bottom in poll of experts, with Biden 14th

Donald Trump ranked as worst US president in history, with Joe Biden 14th

Survey of 154 scholars places 45th president behind even ‘historically calamitous chief executives’ linked to civil war

Donald Trump finished 45th and rock bottom of a list ranking US presidents by greatness, trailing even “historically calamitous chief executives” who failed to stop the civil war or botched its aftermath.

Worse for the likely Republican nominee this year, his probable opponent, Joe Biden, debuted at No 14.

“Biden’s most important achievements may be that he rescued the presidency from Trump, resumed a more traditional style of presidential leadership and is gearing up to keep the office out of his predecessor’s hands this fall,” Justin Vaughn and Brandon Rottinghaus, the political scientists behind the survey, wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Rottinghaus, of the University of Houston, and Vaughn, from Coastal Carolina University, considered responses from 154 scholars, most connected to the American Political Science Association.

The aim, the authors said, “was to create a ranking of presidential greatness that covered all presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden”, in succession to such lists compiled in 2015 and 2018.

“To do this, we asked respondents to rate each president on a scale of 0-100 for their overall greatness, with 0=failure, 50=average, and 100=great. We then averaged the ratings for each president and ranked them from highest average to lowest.”

At the top of the chart, there was little change from previous surveys – the latter of which also saw Trump, then in office, placed last.

Abraham Lincoln, who won the civil war and ended slavery, was ranked first, ahead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saw the US through the Great Depression and the second world war. Next came George Washington, the first president, who won independence from Britain, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.

Barack Obama, the first Black president, to whom Biden was vice-president between 2009 and 2017, was seventh, up nine places.

Considering drops for Andrew Jackson (ninth in 2015 to 21st now) and Woodrow Wilson (10th to 15th), Rottinghaus and Vaughn noted the impact of campaigns for racial justice.

“Their reputations have consistently suffered in recent years as modern politics lead scholars to assess their early 19th and 20th century presidencies ever more harshly, especially their unacceptable treatment of marginalised people,” the authors wrote.

Jackson owned enslaved people and presided over the genocidal displacement of Native Americans. Wilson oversaw victory in the first world war and helped set up the League of Nations, but was an avowed racist who segregated the federal workforce.

Other major movers included Ulysses S Grant (17th, up from 26th in 2015), whose administration generated significant corruption but whose attempts to enforce post-civil war Reconstruction in southern states, including fighting the Ku Klux Klan, have helped fuel reconsideration.

Grant succeeded Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and the first president to be impeached. Like Johnson, Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, who failed to stop the slide to civil war, also sits higher than Trump on Rottinghaus and Vaughn’s list.

Trump is a uniquely divisive figure, his legislative record slim, his refusal to accept defeat by Biden leading to a deadly attack on Congress, and his post-presidential career dogged by 91 criminal charges arising from actions in office or on the campaign trail.

In the presidential survey, Trump is also ranked behind “such lowlights as Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding and William Henry Harrison, who died a mere 31 days after taking office,” Rottinghaus and Vaughn wrote.

“Trump’s impact goes well beyond his own ranking and Biden’s. Every contemporary Democratic president has moved up in the ranks – Barack Obama (No 7), Bill Clinton (No 12) and even Jimmy Carter (No 22).

“Yes, these presidents had great accomplishments such as expanding healthcare access and working to end conflict in the Middle East, and they have two Nobel prizes among them. But given their shortcomings and failures, their rise seems to be less about reassessments of their administrations than it is a bonus for being neither Trump nor a member of his party.

“Indeed, every modern Republican president has dropped … including the transformational Ronald Reagan (No 16) and George HW Bush (No 19), who led the nation’s last decisive military victory”, the Gulf war of 1991.

Accounting for Democratic climbs and Republican drops, the authors acknowledged that academics tend to lean left but also said, with a nod to Trump: “What these results suggest is not just an added emphasis on a president’s political affiliation, but also the emergence of a president’s fealty to political and institutional norms as a criterion for what makes a president ‘great’.

“… As for the Americans casting a ballot for the next president [in November], they are in the historically rare position of knowing how both candidates have performed in the job.”

Trump has not yet secured the Republican nomination but Biden trails in most polls, prey to public concern that at 81 he is too old for a second term, even though Trump is 77 and equally vulnerable to public gaffes – never mind his insurrectionist past.

Rottinghaus and Vaughn said: “Whether [voters] will consider each president’s commitment to the norms of presidential leadership, and come to rate them as differently as our experts, remains to be seen.”

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Any fishing of NSW’s beloved fish could lead to jail

Any fishing of NSW’s beloved blue groper could lead to jail under new ban

Yearlong trial of ban, including potential prison time, follows two high-profile recent incidents of spearing of protected fish

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Fishing of the blue groper by any method will be prohibited in New South Wales under changes to be trialled by the state government, with penalties of up to six months in jail.

The blue groper, the NSW state fish, has been protected from spearfishing since 1969 and commercial fishing since 1980, but the changes announced on Wednesday will prohibit other forms of fishing, including line fishing.

The changes do not apply to Aboriginal cultural fishing.

“We have heard the community concerns and these new rules will make it clear to all water users that these fish should be admired but not targeted,” the agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, said.

“With their bright blue colour, alongside their placid and curious nature, there is little wonder why these beautiful big fish are so well loved by our coastal communities.”

The changes follow two high-profile incidents of spearfishing of blue groper.

In late December a 26-year-old man was fined $800 after spearing a large male blue groper at Oak Park in Cronulla, in Sydney’s south.

The incident was highly publicised amid speculation the fish may have been the well-known “Gus the Groper”.

On 5 January, a man was alleged to have speared three blue gropers at Plantation Point near Jervis Bay.

Under the changes, a person taking blue groper in NSW by any method could face a $500 penalty, with potential court fines of $22,000 or six months in prison for the first offence and $44,000 or 12 months in prison for the second offence.

The trial will run for 12 months, during which time the Department of Primary Industries will consult about potential long-term fishing rules for blue groper, and there will also be an education campaign for fishers.

People alleged to have committed fishing offences rarely end up in court. In NSW, 1,459 people were fined for unlawfully fishing in the past 12 months, with 60 of those for spearfishing. In the past three years, only 204 fishers who broke the rules were taken to court, with eight of those spearfishers.

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Any fishing of NSW’s beloved fish could lead to jail

Any fishing of NSW’s beloved blue groper could lead to jail under new ban

Yearlong trial of ban, including potential prison time, follows two high-profile recent incidents of spearing of protected fish

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Fishing of the blue groper by any method will be prohibited in New South Wales under changes to be trialled by the state government, with penalties of up to six months in jail.

The blue groper, the NSW state fish, has been protected from spearfishing since 1969 and commercial fishing since 1980, but the changes announced on Wednesday will prohibit other forms of fishing, including line fishing.

The changes do not apply to Aboriginal cultural fishing.

“We have heard the community concerns and these new rules will make it clear to all water users that these fish should be admired but not targeted,” the agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, said.

“With their bright blue colour, alongside their placid and curious nature, there is little wonder why these beautiful big fish are so well loved by our coastal communities.”

The changes follow two high-profile incidents of spearfishing of blue groper.

In late December a 26-year-old man was fined $800 after spearing a large male blue groper at Oak Park in Cronulla, in Sydney’s south.

The incident was highly publicised amid speculation the fish may have been the well-known “Gus the Groper”.

On 5 January, a man was alleged to have speared three blue gropers at Plantation Point near Jervis Bay.

Under the changes, a person taking blue groper in NSW by any method could face a $500 penalty, with potential court fines of $22,000 or six months in prison for the first offence and $44,000 or 12 months in prison for the second offence.

The trial will run for 12 months, during which time the Department of Primary Industries will consult about potential long-term fishing rules for blue groper, and there will also be an education campaign for fishers.

People alleged to have committed fishing offences rarely end up in court. In NSW, 1,459 people were fined for unlawfully fishing in the past 12 months, with 60 of those for spearfishing. In the past three years, only 204 fishers who broke the rules were taken to court, with eight of those spearfishers.

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ATO justification for expansion plan revealed by internal documents

ATO justification for robotax expansion plan revealed by internal documents

Taxation office reasoned those caught up in controversial scheme could ‘directly seek a waiver from the minister of finance’, a process described as ‘discretionary’

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The Australian Taxation Office justified a decision to capture older Australians and those on lower incomes in a controversial scheme that resurrects decades-old debts by arguing that people could always apply to have their debt waived by the finance minister.

However, the debt waiver process – which is carried out by finance officials – is described by the department as “generally an avenue of last resort”, with debts “rarely waived solely on the basis of financial hardship”.

Guardian Australia revealed on Tuesday that internal ATO documents released under freedom of information laws show the agency has been preparing to expand an initiative to clawback historic debts this year. It aims to clawback more than $15bn from 1.8m entities, largely consisting of individuals.

Dubbed robotax, the initiative has drawn comparison to the flawed robodebt compliance program that shifted the onus of proof on people to disprove they owe debts they were often unaware had accrued. The tax office has said it is now reviewing the program and assessing its next steps.

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The old tax debts are deemed on-hold, marked to be scraped from tax refunds. Recipients so far caught up in the scheme have complained they do not know how the debts were incurred and no longer have documents required to challenge them.

In correspondence with government officials late last year, the ATO acknowledged concerns had been raised regarding the age of the debts and ability for taxpayers to verify or challenge the amounts.

It considered seeking a reprieve for some affected taxpayers, before deciding against it. Part of its reasoning included an “ability for clients to directly seek a waiver from the minister of finance”.

According to the finance department’s website, the “waiver of debt mechanism is generally an avenue of last resort” and is described as “discretionary”.

The website notes that “your personal circumstances” including financial details may be relevant, but it notes “the waiver of debt provision is not used to address financial hardship”.

Those caught by the campaign told Guardian Australia the initiative was unfair, lacked transparency, was almost impossible to challenge and failed to provide guidance on how to seek a waiver.

One Sydney worker said on Tuesday he was notified of a 12-year-old debt for several hundred dollars with no accompanying information.

“To say to someone 12 years later, ‘hey, you’ve got a debt’, and by the way, we can’t tell you what it is for is plainly unfair,” said the worker, who asked for his name to be withheld.

“This type of debt will be almost impossible to defend against as most people will have destroyed their paper records.”

Many of the debts far exceed the five-year retention period most taxpayers are required to keep records.

One taxpayer, who works in bank compliance, said: “If we chased customers for debts in this manner we would be rightly hauled in front of a royal commission and publicly shamed.”

The person said that chasing these debts would put a bank in breach of numerous “unconscionable conduct” consumer protection laws, including a requirement to act “efficiently, honestly and fairly”.

The ATO campaign suspended its communication campaign alerting people of the historical debts in November after acknowledging it had caused “unnecessary distress”.

But the debts remain and the program has been marked for expansion.

The ATO has been removing exemptions that had previously filtered out debts if they were very old, small, or the taxpayer was aged over 70 years or earning a taxable income of less than $50,000.

An ATO spokesperson said the agency was legally obliged to remove the exclusions.

“Decisions on the process of removing the exclusion criteria have entirely been a decision of the ATO,” the spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The internal documents show that ATO officials warned the government it should be prepared for public criticism.

Tax officials said in a briefing note sent to the office of the assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones, late last year that taxpayers may approach ministers directly with their concerns.

“While every effort is being made to mitigate the client experience, we do expect criticism and complaints from clients who are impacted,” an ATO official told Jones’ office in December.

A spokesperson for Jones said the government welcomed the decision by the ATO to review its approach.

The debts are often linked to old business activity statements, GST payments, PAYG instalments and non-lodgment fines applied to those living overseas, with many of the debts unknowingly accrued and invisible to taxpayers for years.

The ATO also shared “media briefing lines” with government officials last year as the initiative ramped up.

One of those lines reads: “As some time may have passed since these debts were put ‘on hold’, some taxpayers may not remember they have a debt and it may come as a surprise if a refund they were expecting is retained by the ATO to offset a debt on hold.”

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NSW contemplates mandatory coronial reporting of homelessness deaths

NSW contemplates mandatory coronial reporting of homelessness deaths as part of policy rethink

Exclusive: NSW housing minister Rose Jackson indicates potential shift following Guardian Australia’s investigation of homelessness deaths

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The New South Wales government will consider reforms to begin monitoring homelessness deaths after a major Guardian investigation earlier this month.

In a potentially nation-leading shift, the NSW housing minister, Rose Jackson, will consider mandating the coronial reporting of homelessness deaths as part of a broader push to strengthen reporting and monitoring in its upcoming homelessness strategy.

Mandatory coronial reporting would give the state visibility over most – but not all – cases where someone experiencing homelessness has died.

Homelessness groups, including Victoria’s Council to Homeless Persons, are urging other states to adopt the same measure to better understand the drivers of premature and preventable death, formulate appropriate policy responses and improve accountability.

“It is time to make a change,” Jackson told the Guardian. “We know the current system is not working.

“Our priority is to restore a system with dignity to do everything we can to create better support services for vulnerable people, with a priority to shift from a crisis response to a focus on prevention.”

The Homelessness NSW chief executive, Dominique Rowe, said the lack of data on homelessness deaths was making it “hard to determine who is dying, when and where”.

“Homelessness NSW welcomes the minister’s commitment to strengthen the reporting and monitoring of homelessness,” Rowe said. “We would support mandating the reporting of homelessness deaths to the coroner, while acknowledging this would not be a silver bullet.”

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Guardian Australia earlier this year investigated more than 600 homelessness deaths, finding an average age at death of 44, and identifying widespread failings in the housing, health and justice sector that were contributing to the shocking life expectancy gap. The findings were broadly in line with localised studies by Home2Health in Perth, Macquarie University in Sydney, and St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne.

No government in Australia counts homelessness deaths, unlike the United Kingdom and parts of Canada and the United States.

The Council to Homeless Persons, which has taken a lead role in highlighting homelessness deaths in recent years, has previously warned a lack of reporting and data has left Australia blind to the issue.

In a 2019 report, the CHP said localised studies and international research suggested those experiencing homelessness had extreme health inequalities, elevated mortality ratios, reduced life expectancy, and a “three-to-seven-fold chance of dying prematurely”.

The CHP wrote to the Victorian homelessness minister attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, earlier this month, urging her to adopt mandatory coronial reporting.

The Victorian government is yet to respond but the housing minister, Harriet Shing, was asked about the Guardian’s investigation more broadly in parliament on Tuesday.

“We have here in Victoria supported the largest number of homelessness support services and expenditure in comparison to other jurisdictions,” Shing said. “Does that mean that we have done all we need to do? No. Does that mean that we understand what does work and what can work to alleviate those pressures? Yes.”

Mandating coronial reporting of homelessness deaths would require police, healthcare workers and other emergency services to report a death to the state coroner for examination, where there is evidence of homelessness. Such evidence is sometimes obscured or not evident to police and health professionals, a problem that would limit the measure’s effectiveness to some degree.

CHP’s chief executive, Deborah Di Natale, said her organisation had become aware of up to two more deaths of people experiencing homelessness since it wrote to Symes asking for mandatory reporting.

“How many more people will die while we wait for a response?” she said.

“We simply cannot end up with a situation in which the death of someone experiencing homelessness in NSW is reported to the coroner, while a Victorian death isn’t.”

“Once again, we call on the attorney-general to make a humane decision which will arm us with the information we need to fix these unacceptable deaths.”

In 2021, the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness called on the federal government to commission the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to create a reporting framework for the consistent reporting of homelessness deaths by police, coroners and healthcare workers. It says it was ignored by the former federal government.

The AIHW told the Guardian it is now engaged in a project to better capture deaths among Australians experiencing homelessness.

That project will link national data for all clients of specialist homelessness services to data on deaths in Australia, allowing cause of death and mortality to be measured.

The project will treat the deaths of rough sleepers as a “high priority” and the AIHW expects findings to be available later this year.

“The project will help governments to better understand mortality among a broader group of people experiencing unstable housing, particularly, when people last interacted with agencies prior to their death,” a spokesperson said.

“The project will also join data from Specialist Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services, Medicare and PBS data to understand mortality among specific vulnerable groups and their service use, particularly of primary health care services and prescription use, prior to death.”

Jackson said the NSW government would explore “every option to strengthen reporting and monitoring” as it develops its new homelessness strategy.

“Recommendations from homelessness organisations working on the ground are welcome and encouraged, and we will look at incorporating as much of this work as possible into the strategy,” she said.

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Eight-year-old becomes youngest player to beat grandmaster

Eight-year-old becomes youngest chess player to beat grandmaster

Ashwath Kaushik of Singapore defeats 37-year-old grandmaster, beating record set days before by another eight-year-old

An eight-year-old chess prodigy from Singapore has become the youngest chess player to beat a grandmaster.

After a three-hour game of chess at Switzerland’s Burgdorfer Stadthaus-Open, Ashwath Kaushik – who is eight and six months – beat the 37-year-old Polish grandmaster Jacek Stopa on Sunday, according to the Singapore Star.

Kaushik broke the age record set only days before, when Leonid Ivanovic from Serbia (eight years and 11 months old) beat the Bulgarian Milko Popchev, 59.

“It’s a very exciting feeling and amazing to be able to beat my first grandmaster on the board and it’s in classical [chess] so I feel very proud of myself,” Kaushik, an Indian citizen who moved to Singapore with his family seven years ago, told the Star.

The spate of precocious record-breaking began a week ago on 12 February in Belgrade, when Ivanovic became the first player under the age of nine to defeat a grandmaster in classical chess.

According to Chess.com, the competitive chess world “has recently been witnessing a surge in children scoring extraordinary results at an even earlier age, perhaps propelled by the pandemic and a rating system lagging behind in keeping pace with their rise in strength”.

Ivanovic reportedly scored four points after winning three games, drawing two and suffering just one defeat. That win made the boy the youngest player to defeat a grandmaster in a classical tournament game, according to Chess.com.

But that record stood for barely a week.

On Sunday Ashwath won his first three games with Stopa. But he lost his next game to the British player Harry Grieve, 23, who won the 2022 British chess championship.

Still, Ashwath’s mother Rohini Ramachandran, 37, said she was pleased with the win. “We were all really happy but he had to quickly refocus so I don’t think we had a lot of time to celebrate right after the game, but we’ll definitely do some celebration when we’re back home with the whole family,” she said.

Ashwath was four when his parents introduced him to the game, the family told the Star. Within a couple of months he was beating them and other members of the family. He now plays chess two hours each weekday, and six to seven hours a day on the weekends.

“It’s really fun and it helps your brain get better and smarter because in chess you need a lot of thinking to find the best moves,” he told the paper.

His parents said the biggest challenge was stopping their son from snacking on Juicy Drop candy which led to spikes and falls in energy.

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Neuralink implant patient ‘can move computer mouse by thinking’

Neuralink implant patient can move computer mouse by thinking, Musk says

First human implanted with brain-chip can use thoughts to move mouse, startup’s founder claims but details are scant

The first human patient implanted with a brain-chip from Neuralink appears to have fully recovered and is able to control a computer mouse using their thoughts, the startup’s founder, Elon Musk, said late on Monday.

“Progress is good, and the patient seems to have made a full recovery, with no ill effects that we are aware of. Patient is able to move a mouse around the screen by just thinking,” Musk said in a Spaces event on the social media platform X.

Musk said Neuralink was now trying to get as many mouse button clicks as possible from the patient. Neuralink did not immediately reply to a request for further details.

The firm successfully implanted a chip on its first human patient last month, after receiving approval for human trial recruitment in September.

The study uses a robot to surgically place a brain-computer interface implant in a region of the brain that controls the intention to move, Neuralink has said, adding that the initial goal was to enable people to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts.

Musk has grand ambitions for Neuralink, saying it would facilitate speedy surgical insertions of its chip devices to treat conditions like obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia.

Neuralink, which was valued at about $5bn last year, has faced repeated calls for scrutiny regarding its safety protocols. The firm has been fined for violating US Department of Transportation rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials.

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