The Guardian 2024-02-20 22:31:14


Woolworths CEO to retire; sharehouse demand soars amid rental crisis

The Woolworths chief executive, Brad Banducci, will retire in September this year.

The group made the announcement today, with Banducci advising Woolworths Group of his intention to retire after 13 years with the group, and eight as CEO.

Amanda Bardwell will start as managing director and group CEO on 1 September.

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

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 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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Fuel savingsMore efficient cars could almost halve 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 the 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 did not increase substantially between 2003 and 2021.

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

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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Jayne HrdlickaVirgin Australia CEO steps down after nearly four years in top role

Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka steps down after nearly four years in top role

Hrdlicka’s abrupt departure comes as airline’s owners plan to push ahead with relisting on stock exchange

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Virgin Australia’s chief executive, Jayne Hrdlicka, has abruptly stepped down after almost four years in charge, raising questions about the timing of the airline’s much-hyped relisting on the stock exchange.

On Tuesday, the airline announced that Hrdlicka had the support of the Virgin Australia board in deciding to “the time was right” to move on. She will stay on as chief executive while a global search for her replacement begins.

Her departure comes at a critical time for Virgin Australia. The airline’s owners will push ahead with a much-anticipated initial public offering to relist on the Australian stock exchange, but a timeframe is unclear. Before Tuesday’s announcement, investors had been expecting an initial public offering by May, after earlier plans to do it in 2023 were aborted.

The American-born boss guided the airline through a challenging period, taking on the role in 2020 after the airline was acquired by private equity firm Bain Capital out of administration during the pandemic after the Morrison government refused to bail it out.

In October, the airline posted a $129m net profit for the 2022-23 financial year, the airline’s first in 11 years.

Virgin’s pandemic-induced restructure saw the carrier pivot away from the full service premium end of the market to become a self-described “value carrier” and ditch its budget carrier, Tigerair.

Virgin Australia also significantly wound back its international operations, now flying to just a handful of short-haul foreign destinations as its current fleet of Boeing 737 family aircraft was incapable of competing with Qantas on long haul routes.

Hrdlicka helmed Virgin through a tumultuous period for Australian aviation, when airlines’ on-time performance, staffing levels and baggage handling operations struggled to keep up with a spike in travel demand after the reopening of domestic borders.

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While Virgin Australia remains a key part of the aviation duopoly that is blamed for stubbornly high air fares, Hrdlicka lobbied the Albanese government to grant extra flight permissions to Qatar Airways – a partner of Virgin’s – so it could better compete with Qantas’ domination, as questions about the latter’s influence dominated the political landscape in 2023.

Hrdlicka, who was formerly an executive at Qantas Group and is also the chair of Tennis Australia, notably took a short period of leave in 2023 after her husband’s death from cancer.

Virgin’s 7,500 staff were informed of Hrdlicka’s departure on Tuesday.

“I have decided the time is right for me to signal CEO transition for this great airline and ultimately to pass the baton on,” Hrdlicka said. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, but the last four years have been heavy lifting across the organisation during the toughest of times.”

“We are in the midst of the next phase of our transformation program and there is a lot to do and an IPO to deliver. The next phase of this journey is another 3-5 years, making now the perfect juncture to begin the process of leadership transition to deliver the next few chapters of what I’m sure will be a significant long-term success story,” she said.

Hrdlicka said she was “very proud of what the Virgin Australia team have accomplished together since the depths of administration”.

“I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to guide the team to this point on its journey, and I very much look forward to seeing the continued success of Virgin Australia,” she said.

Virgin Australia chairman, Ryan Cotton, said Hrdlicka had led the airline “through the most turbulent times of its 20-plus-year history” and laid “a strong foundation for continued growth”.

“To do this required a lot of heavy lifting and the rebuild of many parts of our organisation. A big part of this was resetting our talent pipeline for the long term, which serves us very well now,” Cotton said.

“The board and I respect Jayne’s decision,” Cotton said.

The Transport Workers Union, whose members include cabin crew, ground handlers and pilots at Virgin, called for commitments made under Hrdlicka’s term to be respected by her successor.

TWU national secretary, Michael Kaine, praised Virgin’s approach to employing workers directly “in stark contrast” to Qantas’s recent history of outsourcing certain roles.

“The decision to answer workers’ call with more insourced airport jobs in stark contrast to Qantas’ destructive model of fragmentation was, in our view, one of the best leadership decisions made by Hrdlicka and her team. It showed that listening to workers’ ideas on the best way forward for the airline is a valuable attribute for the CEO of Virgin Australia,” Kaine said.

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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’

  • Testing regime meant to stop toxic chemicals going into NSW landscape products gamed by suppliers
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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 rules of 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 associated with Greenlife at more than 45 sites across NSW since the start of January. When asked by Guardian Australia if any of those other samples also contained construction and demolition waste or foreign materials, the EPA said it could not comment.

The state government has formed a taskforce to oversee remediation and contact tracing.

The EPA chief executive, 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.

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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Asbestos mulch locationsFull list and map of sites in Sydney where asbestos has been found

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

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

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Asbestos-contaminated mulch has potentially been used at hundreds of locations across Sydney and regional New South Wales.

The premier, Chris Minns, has said the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) 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, primary and secondary schools, supermarkets and hospitals.

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All but two samples have 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 in 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 in Millers Point

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

  • Penrith Christian school in Orchard Hills

  • St Luke’s Catholic college in Marsden Park

  • Three sites that the EPA said were “not being identified for privacy reasons”

  • Domremy College in Five Dock

  • Aldi Supermarket in Cobbitty

  • Riverstone Sports Centre in Riverstone

  • Bicentennial Park 1 in Glebe (friable asbestos)

  • North Rosebery Park in Rosebery

  • A private aged care facility in St Ives

  • An industrial area in Rouse Hill

  • A private property

  • Mary Mackillop Catholic parish in Oran Park

Schools being tested for asbestos-contaminated mulch

Schools have been 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:

  • Mount Annan Christian college in Currans Hill

  • Trinity Catholic primary school in Kemps Creek

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US vetoes Arab-backed UN resolution demanding ceasefire

US vetoes Arab-backed UN resolution demanding ceasefire in Gaza

Vote in 15-member security council was 13-1 with UK abstaining, making it the US’s third veto of such a resolution

The US has vetoed a UN security council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the third time, arguing that it would undermine negotiations over a hostage deal.

The US was the lone vote against a ceasefire resolution put forward on Tuesday by Algeria. The UK was the sole abstention, with 13 votes in support, including those of close allies of Washington who insisted the humanitarian needs of Palestinians outweighed any reservations over the Algerian text.

Washington was widely lambasted for using its veto again at a time when nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2 million people are under threat of famine.

“A vote in favour of this draft resolution is a support for the Palestinians right to life,” the Algerian envoy to the UN, Amar Bendjama, told the council. “Conversely, voting against it implies an endorsement of the brutal violence and collective punishment inflicted upon them.”

The Algerian resolution also called for the implementation of provisional measures ordered in January by the international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which instructed Israel to mitigate its offensive to protect civilians, lift impediments on the flow of aid into Gaza, and take action against Israeli politicians using genocidal language.

“Almost one month after the ICJ [ruling] signs of hope are still absent for improvement of the situation in Gaza,” Bendjama said. “Silence … is not a viable option. Now is the time for action and the time for truth.”

Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador, said: “The continued passive avoidance of an immediate ceasefire is no different from giving a green light to the continued slaughter.”

The US has drafted an alternative resolution, which calls for a temporary ceasefire “as soon as practicable”, and calls on Israel not to proceed with a planned offensive on Rafah, the southernmost Gazan city where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge.

However, the US resolution is not likely to go to a vote for several days at least, and the timing of its third ceasefire veto is embarrassing for the US as Washington seeks to build international solidarity in condemnation of Russia on the second anniversary later this week of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Explaining the veto, the US envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that Joe Biden was in the midst of negotiations with Israel, Egypt and Qatar aimed at clinching a comprehensive hostage deal.

“Any action this council takes right now should help, not hinder these sensitive and ongoing negotiations, and we believe that the resolution on the table right now would in fact negatively impact those negotiations,” Thomas-Greenfield argued.

“Demanding an immediate unconditional ceasefire without an agreement requiring Hamas to release the hostages will not bring about durable peace. Instead, it could extend the fighting between Hamas and Israel,” she added, later denouncing the 13 to one vote for the Algerian resolution as “wishful and irresponsible”.

Thomas-Greenfield looked on stony-faced as a series of Washington allies including France, Slovenia and Switzerland explained their reasons for voting for the resolution, despite sharing the US’s reservation that it did not include any condemnation of Hamas, something the security council has so far failed to do. They all argued the humanitarian disaster in Gaza was so dire that stopping the fighting took precedence over such concerns.

Nicolas de Rivière, the French envoy, said Paris regretted that “the resolution was not adopted given the disastrous situation on the ground”.

The only vote sparing the US from total isolation was the British abstention. The ambassador, Barbara Woodward, said the UK position was to call for an “immediate suspension in fighting to get aid in and hostages out leading to a permanent sustainable ceasefire”.

But Woodward echoed Thomas-Greenfield’s arguments in adding: “Simply calling for a ceasefire, as this resolution does, will not make it happen. Indeed, it could endanger the hostage negotiations. It could actually make a ceasefire less likely.”

The US showed its alternative draft to other council members before Tuesday’s vote. This unusual step was intended, one western diplomat suggested, to avoid giving the impression that the US veto implied a green light for the Israeli attack on Rafah.

The inclusion in the US text of a clause specifically calling on Israel not to mount such an attack, rather than to limit such an appeal to bilateral channels, is widely seen in the UN as a signal of Biden’s growing impatience with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and frustration at the US president’s failure to rein in the relentless Gaza offensive, now in its fifth month. No date has yet been set for the start of formal deliberations on the US draft resolution, however.

“It is awfully embarrassing for the Americans,” Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group, said. “They’ve had to use a veto just days before the security council meeting commemorating Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine. That will simply fuel talk about US double standards.”

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AnalysisKey allies seek to rein in Israel without letting Hamas off the hook

Analysis

Key allies seek to rein in Israel without letting Hamas off the hook

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

Diplomatic search for ceasefire in Gaza gathers pace as threatened ground offensive in Rafah draws near

In New York at the UN, in Brussels at the EU, in The Hague, in Cairo, in Rio and even at Westminster, a set of subtle and interrelated diplomatic dances are under way.

Israel’s foremost supporters are attempting to apply the squeeze on their ally while avoiding making undiluted calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza they fear would leave a battered Hamas in charge, its leadership at large.

The leading Arab state on the UN security council, Algeria, is seeking a vote on Tuesday in New York on its resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire and supporting the provisional orders issued against Israel by the international court of justice three weeks ago. The US has declared that it will veto the resolution – having already come to Israel’s defence twice in this manner since 7 October.

In a lengthy statement on Monday, the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, explained the thinking of Joe Biden’s administration: “The US is working on a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas, which would bring an immediate and sustained period of calm to Gaza for at least six weeks, and from which we could then take the time and the steps to build a more enduring peace.”

The US has its own draft, aimed at protecting itself reputationally, asserting pressure on Israel not to mount its threatened ground offensive in Rafah.

The wording created waves on Monday night because it called for an immediate ceasefire, language the US has not previously used, although with the critical rider: “as soon as practicable”. By opposing an Israeli buffer zone, mass displacement and a ground offensive in Rafah in the current circumstances, the US resolution is trying to limit Israel’s options and advance the negotiations in Cairo about a possible ceasefire deal.

In Brussels the story is simpler. On Monday, attenders at a meeting of the EU foreign affairs council agreed on the necessity of an immediate humanitarian pause in Gaza that would lead to a sustainable ceasefire, the unconditional release of hostages held by Hamas, and the provision of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians.

The wording is similar to the semi-stated policy of the UK government: an extended pause to get hostages out and Palestinian prisoners released, and to negotiate a sustainable ceasefire.

First coined jointly by the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron and the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, “sustainable ceasefire” is a critical phrase in the diplomatic debate. As defined by Cameron, it means Hamas no longer posing a security threat to Israel, which logically entails the removal of the current Hamas leadership from Gaza.

Some EU members would prefer to have backed an unconditional immediate ceasefire, but that would have lost the support of Germany.

In Westminster, the dispute is as much between two opposition parties: the Scottish Nationalists, who have tabled a simple call for an immediate ceasefire to be debated on Wednesday; and Labour, which has sought to remain close to the UK government’s position and for more than a month has used the language of a sustainable ceasefire, implicitly requiring Hamas to surrender or be defeated by Israel.

At the weekend, as the pressure mounted within the Labour party, the language and arguably the position shifted. A motion passed unanimously at the Scottish Labour conference on Saturday faced many directions, starkly asserting that that there was no justification for the loss of innocent life but also affirming it was not tenable for Hamas to remain in Gaza.

In Munich speaking to key diplomats over the weekend, Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, would have received one message from Arab states who want an immediate ceasefire and possibly another from the US secretary of state.

Starmer would also have been told that Hamas may be persuaded in the context of a ceasefire to resume discussing the formation of a technocratic government whose source of authority would be the Palestine Liberation Organization. This would entail a recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

In his speech to Scottish Labour, Starmer avoided a decision. The shadow cabinet will decide on Tuesday whether to cross the Rubicon and support an immediate ceasefire.

But the story does not end there. On Wednesday and Thursday, Brazil – its leadership has openly accused Israel of genocide – will host the G20 foreign ministers meeting in Rio. A global clash on Gaza is likely. Meanwhile in Geneva, the parties to the arms trade treaty will meet to discuss weapons transfers to the Israel and Palestine conflict.

And by 26 February, Israel will have issued its required report to the international court of justice on how it is complying with the orders issued by the court to supply aid to Gaza and end incitement of genocide.

It is against this multi-faceted backdrop that Israel will decide whether to still pursue a ground offensive in Rafah. On Monday, a member of Israel’s war cabinet said the offensive would start by the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in just under three weeks unless Hamas released its remaining Israeli hostages.

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UK LabourStarmer calls for ‘immediate humanitarian ceasefire’

Labour calls for ‘immediate humanitarian ceasefire’ in Gaza

Party attempts to head off rebellion by its MPs with strongly worded amendment to SNP’s Gaza motion

Labour has called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza for the first time in an attempt to head off what threatens to be the biggest rebellion against Keir Starmer since he became party leader.

Opposition whips published a 237-word amendment to a Scottish National party motion on Tuesday setting out the party’s stance on the Middle East crisis, which they hope Labour MPs will back instead of a separate amendment from the SNP calling more bluntly for an immediate ceasefire.

The Labour wording goes further than the party has in the past in calling for a ceasefire. Last weekend, Starmer said he wanted the fighting to “stop now”, but he has been reluctant to back an immediate and permanent ceasefire given that Hamas has threatened to carry out further attacks like the one on 7 October.

While the amendment backs a “humanitarian ceasefire”, it clarifies that it does not want Israel to stop fighting as long as Hamas continues to threaten violence.

The amendment calls for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, which means an immediate stop to the fighting and a ceasefire that lasts and is observed by all sides, noting that Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence and that Israelis have the right to the assurance that the horror of 7th October cannot happen again”.

It also calls on the Israelis not to enter Rafah, where 1.5 million people are sheltering; for aid to be allowed to enter Gaza; for Israeli settler violence to end, and for a diplomatic effort towards a two-state solution.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “This is a comprehensive motion and one that I hope the whole house can get behind.”

Labour’s amendment, which will be put to a vote on Wednesday, is designed to head off the type of rebellion the party suffered in November, when 56 Labour MPs, including eight frontbenchers, defied Starmer’s orders not to vote for a similar SNP motion.

Labour MPs have said in recent days that there could be an even bigger rebellion this week if Labour whips try again to prevent them voting for a ceasefire.

Initial reactions suggested the party’s shift in policy would be enough to persuade some of those who rebelled last year not to do so again. But it remained unclear what Labour would do if the amendment failed to pass.

Clive Betts, one of dozens of Labour backbenchers who voted for the SNP motion last time, told the BBC’s World at One: “It is a revised and good position. I don’t think anyone can see the horrors of what is happening now in Gaza and not want the fighting to stop, and stop immediately. That is what the Labour motion says.”

Another Labour source said: “The amendment looks good, but we’ll have to see how they handle the vote on Wednesday.”

The shift in Labour’s position comes amid a similar change in international opinion towards events in Gaza.

The US on Monday proposed a UN security council resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire and urging Israel not to go ahead with a planned offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza. The draft resolution marks the first time Washington has explicitly backed a ceasefire in the region, though it also says it should begin “as soon as practicable”, rather than immediately.

Meanwhile the Prince of Wales called for the fighting to end “as soon as possible” and for more humanitarian support for Gaza.

Prince William issued a statement before carrying out visits to recognise the human suffering caused by conflict in the Middle East and the global rise in antisemitism.

“I remain deeply concerned about the terrible human cost of the conflict in the Middle East since the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7. Too many have been killed,” he said.

“I, like so many others, want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible. There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. It’s critical that aid gets in and the hostages are released.

“Sometimes it is only when faced with the sheer scale of human suffering that the importance of permanent peace is brought home.

“Even in the darkest hour, we must not succumb to the counsel of despair. I continue to cling to the hope that a brighter future can be found and I refuse to give up on that.”

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The Guardian view on the Israel-Gaza warPoliticians must be clear that a ceasefire is needed

The Guardian view on the Israel-Gaza war: politicians must be clear that a ceasefire is needed

Editorial

US presidents once spoke softly and carried a big stick. By contrast, in Gaza Joe Biden speaks loudly and carries a little stick

As western leaders wake up to the need for a ceasefire in Gaza, nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military campaign. More than two-thirds of the dead in the coastal enclave are thought to be women and children. Thousands more are believed to be buried under the rubble. The reputation of the west as a champion of universal values and upholding a rules-based order is unlikely to recover anytime soon from the bloody events in Gaza.

International politics is not a morality play. Probably several Arab countries were not averse to the idea that Israel could deliver a coup de grâce to Hamas. But the state of the fighting in Gaza suggested that this was a remote possibility. In January, it was estimated that Israel has killed or captured only around one-third of Hamas’s fighting force. To finish the job would only be achievable at an indefensibly high cost to Palestinian – and hostage – lives.

What is needed is an end to the war in Gaza, the release of the remaining hostages and a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two states. But none of this seems possible with the current Israeli government. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, last week withdrew his delegation from talks in Cairo about a potential deal for a truce and prisoner release, infuriating the families of hostages at home and troubling Israel’s allies abroad. Mr Netanyahu had caved to threats by extremists in his cabinet to topple him if he reached a “reckless” deal with Hamas. This is the consequence of the ultranationalist tail wagging the rightwing dog. Once seen as marginal politicians, ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – religious fanatics who both live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank – speak their minds with impunity. Whether it is their plans to resettle Gaza, their rebuke of the US for sanctioning violent settlers, or their claim that Donald Trump would be better for Israel than Joe Biden, the pair fear no repercussions, knowing that they remain popular with their voting base while Mr Netanyahu does not.

US presidential diplomacy was once to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” By contrast, in Gaza, Mr Biden speaks loudly and carries a little stick. The US wants a temporary ceasefire linked to the release of all hostages and increasing the flow of aid. If the use of the word “temporary” is an attempt to assuage Mr Smotrich and Mr Ben-Gvir, then it is likely to fail. Israel’s government this weekend rejected “international dictates”.

At the UN, the US vetoed an Israel-Hamas immediate ceasefire resolution, which had been backed by Arab nations, offering a “side by side” alternative to disarm opposition. This tactic is also being used by Sir Keir Starmer ahead of Wednesday’s parliamentary vote, with a ceasefire in which Israel stops fighting if Hamas discontinues its violence. Domestic politics is as important as the foreign arena to both leaders. Mr Biden faces a presidential primary in Michigan, which is home to a large Arab-American community, next week. Later this month, Sir Keir faces a byelection in Rochdale where a third of voters are Muslim.

It is a matter of shame that politicians and officials in the west lifted the constraints and endorsed Israel’s disproportionate actions as self-defence and an inevitable consequence of Hamas’s horrific 7 October massacre. Israel had every right to seek retribution against those who had murdered its citizens, but not to slaughter innocent civilians on an unimaginable scale.

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Defiant Nikki Haley vows to stay in race against Trump

‘I refuse to quit’: defiant Nikki Haley vows to stay in race against Trump

‘I feel no need to kiss the ring,’ says Republican candidate as she turns up rhetorical heat ahead of South Carolina primary

A defiant Nikki Haley on Tuesday declared no fear of retribution from Donald Trump as she persists in her efforts to compete against the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, saying: “I feel no need to kiss the ring.”

Haley approaches the South Carolina primary on Saturday, her home state where she was previously governor, a long way behind Trump but turning up the rhetorical heat.

“We’ve all heard the calls for me to drop out,” she said in a speech in Greenville, South Carolina, on Tuesday. But she also said: “I refuse to quit.”

And in an interview with the Associated Press, she vowed to stay in the fight at least until after Super Tuesday’s slate of more than a dozen contests on 5 March.

“Ten days after South Carolina, another 20 states vote. I mean, this isn’t Russia. We don’t want someone to go in and just get 99% of the vote,” Haley said, adding: “What is the rush? Why is everybody so panicked about me having to get out of this race?”

In a cutting remark on X, formerly Twitter, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung posted in a riposte to Haley’s kissing the ring statement: “She’s going to drop down to kiss ass when she quits, like she always does.”

Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, responded with sarcastic humor on the same platform.

“What a move. @TheStevenCheung is the key to winning back suburban women!” she posted.

In Greenville, Haley taunted that maybe some people, especially reporters, turned out to hear if she was going to drop out of the race after Trump won the first three contests of the primary race, in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“Well, I’m not. Far from it, and I’m here to tell you why,” she said. “I’m running for president because we have a country to save,” she said, listing domestic issues such as crime, gun violence, illegal drugs, children struggling with their studies, migration at the US-Mexico border and the high cost of many things from groceries to buying a house.

And on foreign policy, she said: “I’m talking about the American weakness that led to wars in Europe, and the Middle East, and the urgent need to restore strength before war spreads and draws America further in. These are the challenges I’m here to tackle.”

Trump has been scathing about Haley’s performance and has been leading pressure from several directions for her to drop out, after she became the last opponent left standing following the end of the campaign trail for rivals including the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Haley said on Tuesday: “Many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump, privately dread him. They know what a disaster he’s been and will continue to be for our party. They’re just too afraid to say it out loud. Well, I’m not afraid … I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I’m not looking for anything from him.”

Some Republicans are encouraging Haley to stay in the campaign even if she continues to lose – potentially all the way to the Republican national convention in July, as Trump faces numerous court cases.

Haley said: “He’s going to be in a courtroom all of March, April, May and June. How in the world do you win a general election when these cases keep going and the judgments keep coming?”

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was asked whether he preferred to compete against Haley or Trump this fall.

“Oh, I don’t care,” the US president said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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Defiant Nikki Haley vows to stay in race against Trump

‘I refuse to quit’: defiant Nikki Haley vows to stay in race against Trump

‘I feel no need to kiss the ring,’ says Republican candidate as she turns up rhetorical heat ahead of South Carolina primary

A defiant Nikki Haley on Tuesday declared no fear of retribution from Donald Trump as she persists in her efforts to compete against the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, saying: “I feel no need to kiss the ring.”

Haley approaches the South Carolina primary on Saturday, her home state where she was previously governor, a long way behind Trump but turning up the rhetorical heat.

“We’ve all heard the calls for me to drop out,” she said in a speech in Greenville, South Carolina, on Tuesday. But she also said: “I refuse to quit.”

And in an interview with the Associated Press, she vowed to stay in the fight at least until after Super Tuesday’s slate of more than a dozen contests on 5 March.

“Ten days after South Carolina, another 20 states vote. I mean, this isn’t Russia. We don’t want someone to go in and just get 99% of the vote,” Haley said, adding: “What is the rush? Why is everybody so panicked about me having to get out of this race?”

In a cutting remark on X, formerly Twitter, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung posted in a riposte to Haley’s kissing the ring statement: “She’s going to drop down to kiss ass when she quits, like she always does.”

Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, responded with sarcastic humor on the same platform.

“What a move. @TheStevenCheung is the key to winning back suburban women!” she posted.

In Greenville, Haley taunted that maybe some people, especially reporters, turned out to hear if she was going to drop out of the race after Trump won the first three contests of the primary race, in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“Well, I’m not. Far from it, and I’m here to tell you why,” she said. “I’m running for president because we have a country to save,” she said, listing domestic issues such as crime, gun violence, illegal drugs, children struggling with their studies, migration at the US-Mexico border and the high cost of many things from groceries to buying a house.

And on foreign policy, she said: “I’m talking about the American weakness that led to wars in Europe, and the Middle East, and the urgent need to restore strength before war spreads and draws America further in. These are the challenges I’m here to tackle.”

Trump has been scathing about Haley’s performance and has been leading pressure from several directions for her to drop out, after she became the last opponent left standing following the end of the campaign trail for rivals including the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Haley said on Tuesday: “Many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump, privately dread him. They know what a disaster he’s been and will continue to be for our party. They’re just too afraid to say it out loud. Well, I’m not afraid … I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I’m not looking for anything from him.”

Some Republicans are encouraging Haley to stay in the campaign even if she continues to lose – potentially all the way to the Republican national convention in July, as Trump faces numerous court cases.

Haley said: “He’s going to be in a courtroom all of March, April, May and June. How in the world do you win a general election when these cases keep going and the judgments keep coming?”

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was asked whether he preferred to compete against Haley or Trump this fall.

“Oh, I don’t care,” the US president said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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‘Worst ever president’Trump rock bottom in poll of experts, with Biden 14th

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

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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ATO justification for robotax 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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Three deaths believed to be linked as investigation centres on martial arts studio

Three deaths across Sydney believed to be linked as investigation centres on martial arts studio

The bodies of a young child and a woman in her 40s were found in a taekwondo studio in North Parramatta on Tuesday

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Police are investigating three deaths across Sydney, including a child, that are believed to be linked.

The bodies of a young child and a woman believed to be in her 40s were found in a taekwondo studio in North Parramatta on Tuesday afternoon.

It followed the discovery of a man’s body in nearby Baulkham Hills after a concern for welfare report was made to police.

Homicide detectives are treating the two scenes as linked, with forensic officers combing the two areas on Tuesday.

Soon after the woman and child were found, emergency services draped plastic over the large windows of the martial arts studio to prevent the public peering inside.

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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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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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  • Trump ranked as worst US president in history, with Biden 14th greatest
  • ATO justification for robotax expansion plan revealed by internal documents
  • ‘The river has been destroyed’: expert says agriculture has overshadowed science in the Murray-Darling Basin
  • After my baby was born, I became a target for grifters. I thought I’d be better preparedAriel Bogle
  • Mulch at centre of NSW asbestos crisis also contained ‘construction and demolition waste’

Australian writer will not appeal suspended death sentence in China, family says

Yang Hengjun will not appeal suspended death sentence in China, family says

The Australian writer was found guilty on espionage charges in February after spending five years in prison

Australian writer Yang Hengjun will not appeal against the suspended death sentence imposed by a Chinese court, with his family saying further legal challenges would be detrimental to his welfare.

Yang was found guilty on espionage charges in China in February after spending five years in prison.

He will still face the prospect of life behind bars at the end of a two-year suspended death sentence.

In a letter written by Yang’s family and friends, they said they supported the imprisoned writer’s decision to waive his right to appeal.

“There are no grounds to believe that the system that enabled Yang’s sustained torture and fabricated the charge against him is capable of remedying the injustice of his sentence,” the letter said.

“Commencing an appeal would only delay the possibility of adequate and supervised medical care, after five years of inhumane treatment and abject medical neglect.”

Yang’s family have described the charges levelled against him as being without factual basis, with there being little evidence of the justice system in China containing the rule of law.

“Yang was subjected to hundreds of instances of torture and has never received any semblance of due process,” the letter said.

“The accusations that the Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau has levelled against him are so spurious that they have never been publicly disclosed, let alone properly tested and cross-examined in court.”

The prisoner’s supporters have urged for China to provide him with medical care, saying Yang had been denied proper medical care to treat a serious kidney condition throughout his time in prison.

Australian embassy officials have met with Yang monthly, while the trade minister, Don Farrell, is expected to raise the plight of the writer with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, on the sidelines of a World Trade Organization forum in Abu Dhabi at the end of February.

China has maintained the case was held in accordance with its legal system.

Yang’s family expressed thanks to the Australian government for campaigning on behalf of the imprisoned Australian.

“We urge the Australian government, allied nations and the wider international community to continue to show solidarity with Yang and put pressure on the Chinese government so that Yang can be released from prison at an early date and [be] reunited with his family,” the letter said.

“We strongly appeal to the Chinese authorities to allow Yang Hengjun to be released on medical parole or otherwise transferred to safety in Australia, in accordance with the most basic humanitarian principles.”

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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 after 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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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 seek permission at high court to appeal against WikiLeaks founder’s extradition

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 WikiLeaks founder being extradited 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.

Edward Fitzgerald KC, representing Assange, also argued that his client could be targeted by US state agencies for “extra-legal attack elimination” if he was extradited, particularly given “the real possibility of a return of a [Donald] Trump administration”.

Assange’s lawyers are seeking a full appeal hearing. 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 Fitzgerald 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. Fitzgerald alleged the US prosecution was motivated by “state retaliation” and so was unlawful.

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 the 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 a “breathtaking” plan for rendition or murder of the WikiLeaks founder while he was sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy, which was reported by Yahoo News. Fitzgerald cited those allegations when arguing there was a real risk Assange “could be targeted by US state agencies as a ‘hostile, non-state actor’ meriting the application of clandestine and extra-legal attack or elimination”.

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

Outside the court, Assange’s wife, Stella, 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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Kayakers flock to Death Valley after severe rain creates unusual lake

Kayakers flock to Death Valley after severe rain creates ‘extremely rare’ lake

Temporary lake forms in Badwater Basin thanks to record rainfall – and aquatic enthusiasts have been taking in a rare opportunity

The rains that soaked California in recent weeks have created an unusual opportunity for kayaking in the driest place in the US.

Visitors at Death Valley national park have a rare chance for aquatic recreation in a temporary lake that formed in Badwater Basin, the National Park Service said in a statement.

“You might think with no drain to the sea, that Death Valley would always have a lake,” Abby Wines, a park ranger, said. “But this is an extremely rare event. Normally the amount of water flowing in is much less than the evaporation rate.”

The desert park is famously hot and dry, often exceeding 110F (43.3C) in the summer and averaging only about 2in (5cm) of rain annually. But Death Valley has received an exceptional amount of precipitation in the last six months, 4.9in (12.4cm), thanks in part to a record-breaking tropical storm that brought a year’s worth of rain in just a day.

Further precipitation from an atmospheric river this month helped fill the temporary lake in what is typically a dry salt flat.

Badwater Basin, which is the lowest elevation in North America at 282ft below sea level, was once home to an ancient body of water – Lake Manly – that evaporated tens of thousands of years ago.

The body of water in the basin today, also known as Lake Manly, is now about a foot deep and stretches three miles wide and about six miles long. Posts on social media showed visitors floating on the ephemeral expanse.

The park service said it could only be deep enough for kayaking for a few weeks, but will offer “beautiful reflections” through April.

“The lake was deep enough to kayak for a few weeks after Hurricane Hilary, but unfortunately people couldn’t come enjoy it then,” Wines said. “Every road in the park was damaged by flash floods, and it took two months to open the first road into the park. Now most of the main roads are open, so it’s a great time to come visit!”

The park reopened in October after closing in August after the rains from the storm washed away roadways and caused widespread damage. The park’s hotels and most campgrounds are open as are paved roads to park features such as Lake Manly, but work continues on secondary roads damaged by floods, the park service said.

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