The Guardian 2024-02-21 16:31:19


US government lawyers deny charges against Australian are politically motivated

US government lawyers deny charges against Julian Assange politically motivated

WikiLeaks founder named sources and encouraged theft and hacking, say lawyers at extradition hearing in London

Criminal charges were brought against Julian Assange because he named sources and encouraged theft and hacking, not because of politics, lawyers for the US government have claimed at a critical extradition hearing.

The WikiLeaks founder could be extradited to the US within days to face prosecution on espionage charges relating to the publication of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents concerning the Afghanistan and Iraq wars if the high court in London refuses him permission to appeal against his removal from the UK.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the US government sought to rebut the arguments made by the WikiLeaks founder’s counsel the day before, when they claimed the US was seeking politically motivated retaliation for his exposure of state criminality, including torture, rendition and extrajudicial killings.

Assange is being supported by organisations including Reporters Without Borders and the National Union of Journalists, and his lawyers described his prosecution as “unprecedented”. However, Clair Dobbin KC said the charges against him were not political but were brought because he went “far beyond the acts of a journalist who was merely gathering information”.

She told the court: “His prosecution is based upon the rule of law and evidence. The appellant’s prosecution might be unprecedented but what he did was unprecedented.”

Dobbin said Assange had not merely published material but had conspired with and aided and abetted Chelsea Manning in stealing and disclosing classified information. He is also alleged to have sought to recruit other hackers and leakers of classified information.

She said Assange also “knowingly and indiscriminately published to the world the names of individuals who acted as sources of information to the United States”.

The lawyer added: “It is these core facts which distinguish the position of the appellant from the New York Times and other media outlets.

“It is this which forms the objective basis for his prosecution. It is these facts which distinguish him, not his political opinions.”

On Tuesday, Mark Summers KC argued that the publication of unredacted cables was inadvertent but that, even if it were deliberate, the public interest could have outweighed the naming of individuals. He also said that that no harm to any of the named individuals had been proven.

But Dobbin told the court there were people “who had to leave their homes, flee their homelands, because they had been identified in the state diplomatic cables”. She said others lost jobs, had assets frozen or “disappeared”, although their disappearance could not be proved to be as a result of having been named. Dobbin said those affected included individuals in Ethiopia, China, Iran and Syria. “The material that [Assange] published unredacted attracts no public interest whatsoever,” she said. “That’s the weakness at the centre of the appellant’s case.”

Assange is hoping the two judges hearing his case will grant his request for a full appeal hearing. If they do not, he will have exhausted all legal challenges in the UK and his only remaining legal avenue will be to apply to the European court of human rights to order the UK not to extradite him while it considers his case. However, if that application is refused he could be removed from the country by US marshals within days.

Assange had been granted permission to attend the two-day hearing but he was said to be too ill to go to the Royal Courts of Justice or to follow the proceedings online.

The hearing continues.

Explore more on these topics

  • Julian Assange
  • WikiLeaks
  • Extradition
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

New environment laws would not stop practice spreading, organisations say

New Australian environment laws would not stop widespread deforestation, organisations say

Three groups familiar with draft conservation laws say they do not go far enough and may allow political influence on development decisions

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

New national environment laws being developed by the Albanese government fail to address systemic flaws in the existing system and would continue to allow widespread deforestation, according to three organisations familiar with the plans.

Officials representing the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, have been sharing sections of draft conservation laws to be introduced this year in consultation meetings with conservation, business and other groups.

Three organisations involved in the meetings said the draft legislation did not go far enough to stop large-scale deforestation for agriculture and mining developments, or explicitly reference the need to halt the decline in threatened species, which has accelerated.

In a statement ahead of the latest consultation meeting on Thursday, Environmental Justice Australia, the Wilderness Society and Environment Centre Northern Territory called for the introduction of a “land-clearing trigger” so developments that planned to bulldoze significant pieces of land had to be assessed by federal authorities, and not left to the states and territories.

The organisations welcomed the government’s commitment to establish Environment Protection Australia – a national EPA – but said they were concerned after seeing the drafts that the environment minister of the day had discretion to “call in” decisions that should be left to independent experts at the EPA.

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

Danya Jacobs, a lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said the proposed legislation risked continuing a decades-long practice of environment being “undermined by political interference from the mining, logging, and agricultural sectors”.

“One of our primary concerns is around the potential for important decisions to be influenced by political agendas rather than scientific evidence,” she said.

Jacobs said the draft laws were silent on land-clearing. “It’s just not good enough. We’re in an extinction crisis and Australia is a deforestation hotspot,” she said.

The executive director of the Environment Centre NT, Kristy Howey, said a lack of federal oversight over land-clearing had resulted in NT’s savannah being bulldozed for cotton farming, other agriculture and mining. “The Albanese government has talked a big game when it comes to fixing the nature crisis, but as they currently stand the new laws won’t fix the rampant land clearing happening across Australia.”

A spokesperson for Plibersek said the government was undertaking a thorough consultation on what would be “strong new environment laws”, and that feedback from environment and business groups would be considered.

The three organisations’ concerns are consistent with some of those raised by nine environment groups in a letter to Plibersek in September. Community groups including Lock the Gate have previously called for the inclusion of a “climate lever” – wording that would allow the minister to consider a development’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions – and criticised a proposal that could allow projects to go ahead in return for proponents making “restoration payments”. The groups described this as a “pay to destroy” scheme.

The new laws are intended to replace the 25-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Plibersek promised sweeping law reform shortly after taking on the environment ministry in 2022. She released a five-yearly national state of the environment report that found Australia’s environment was in poor and deteriorating health, with at least 19 ecosystems showing signs of collapse or near collapse.

Environment department officials told a public webinar in November that the new laws would be “outcomes focused” and guided by new environmental standards. The introduction of standards against which developments can be benchmarked was recommended in a highly critical official review of the EPBC Act by Graeme Samuel, a former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The officials told the webinar the national EPA would be responsible for decisions on whether a development could proceed and for enforcing the law, and that the environment minister would be able to issue a statement of expectations but could not specifically direct the agency.

Appearing on 10 News on Wednesday, Plibersek was asked about the arrest of the former Greens leader Bob Brown for trespass in a logging areas near the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area this week. She said federal environment laws could protect native forests, and confirmed the new laws be applied to regional forestry agreements between the federal and state governments – a change from the EPBC Act.

Plibersek said about 90% of Australian timber came from plantations, but the government was “not talking about banning native forest logging altogether”. “We’re talking about making sure that we are careful and thoughtful about the timber industry that we have in Australia,” she said.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • Australian politics
  • Labor party
  • Tanya Plibersek
  • Deforestation
  • Law (Australia)
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Australia lost hundreds of fully subsidised GP clinics in the past year – how does your area rank?

Australia lost hundreds of fully subsidised GP clinics in the past year – how does your area rank?

Guardian data analysis finds the number of dedicated bulk billing practices has fallen dramatically, with a 28% drop in one electorate

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

Australia has lost more than 400 dedicated bulk billing GP clinics in the past year, with some electorates experiencing an almost 30% decline, according to an analysis of a government health services register.

Guardian Australia analysed clinics listed as “bulk billing only” on the Healthdirect service finder GP database between 2023 and 2024.

Patients who are bulk billed do not pay anything for their consultation, with GPs billing the government directly through Medicare instead. Mixed billing clinics bulk bill some services, often just to concession card holders, while other patients pay an out-of-pocket fee.

The analysis found 455 GP clinics switched from fully bulk billing to a mix of bulk billing and out-of-pocket fees in the year to February. Meanwhile, 114 bulk billing clinics are no longer on the register, having either closed or been removed for other reasons.

However, 124 clinics switched from mixed billing to fully bulk billing, while 35 new dedicated bulk billing clinics were added to the register.

In the same time period there was a net increase of 301 GP clinics listed as charging out-of-pocket fees.

Changes mapped by area

Guardian Australia’s analysis also shows the change in billing practices aggregated to electorates. Each clinic is responsible for updating their register entry and some clinics may not have updated their billing information. While many GP clinics are listed in the service finder, it is also not an exhaustive list.

For example, in the Queensland electorate of Fisher, the Caloundra health services minor injury clinic does continue to bulk bill despite not being listed in the directory.

Nonetheless, the data does give a general overview of where dedicated bulk billing services are most scarce.

Pearce, in Western Australia, had 36% of GP clinics listed as bulk billing only in 2023, which dropped to 8% in 2024. Dickson, in Queensland, experienced a similar drop, from 29% to 8.2%.

At least one region in Tasmania, the electorate of Franklin – covering the towns of Dover and Cygnet – has no bulk billing-only GP clinics listed in 2024. Franklin still has at least 11 GP clinics listed that offer discretionary bulk billing.

Tasmania is historically the jurisdiction with the second-lowest proportion of visits to the GP that are bulk billed, behind the ACT. Both had the lowest percentage of bulk billing-only GP clinics in 2024, when the service finder data was aggregated by state.

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

The electorate of Adelaide has lost the most dedicated bulk billing clinics overall, with 13 fewer over the year. Among those, two clinics closed and one general practitioner died after more than 60 years working as a doctor in the area, but the remaining 10 transitioned to a mix of charging fees and bulk billing.

A difficult adjustment

Dr Stephanie Ng is a general practitioner at City Medical Centre in Adelaide, which in December 2023 switched from a bulk billing-only practice to mixed billing. Ng said the practice still bulk bills about half of its patients who are under 16 and concession card holders but other patients have found it difficult to adjust.

“In the first two months we have aggressive patients all the time, yelling and screaming at our front desk staff,” Ng said.

Their patients are largely vulnerable groups, including retirees, pensioners and migrants, she said. However, the choice to have to move away from universal bulk billing was needed due to the cost of rent; the wages of front desk staff, a practice manager and nurses; the software needed to run the practice; equipment like needles, gloves and disinfectant; and utilities – which Ng said is “the killer”.

“In the past few years, the inflation rate has gone crazy. All the staff’s wages have gone up at least 15%, and all the consumables have gone up pretty much 15-30%, so we can’t actually afford that.”

In November the government increased the rebate paid to GPs for bulk billing concession card holders and children under 16 for most standard consultations.

The federal health minister, Mark Butler, said the government’s increased incentives had resulted in a rise in bulk billing numbers.

“The boost to bulk billing backs up the reports that we’ve been getting from doctors everywhere, with more GPs offering bulk billing to the patients that need it most, even in clinics that aren’t exclusively bulk billing,” he said.

“In Queensland’s Magnetic Island, near Townsville, Dr Michael Clements told us his clinic has ‘actually returned from private billing children and pensioners to bulk billing them, because it is a significant difference.’”

Bulk billing rates trail pre-Covid levels

Newly released government data shows an increase nationally in the percentage of services bulk billed by GPs from October (before the incentive increase was introduced) to December. However, the rate of bulk billed services is still below the pre-pandemic level.

The October-December increase is greater in some areas. In Franklin, where there are no dedicated bulk billing clinics listed in 2024, 61.3% of trips to the GP were bulk billed in December after the incentive increase, up from 53.7% in October.

Other areas have also had large increases in bulk billing rates, such as Clark in Tasmania (up 9.3 percentage points), Mayo in South Australia (8.9 percentage points) and Bendigo in Victoria (eight percentage points).

Medicare ‘undermined’

Sue is a 72-year-old pensioner from Sippy Downs in the electorate of Fisher. Her local general practice switched back to bulk billing after the government tripled the incentive, only for her GP to leave the practice and the new doctor she was allocated to charge her a $20 out-of-pocket fee once more.

After major abdominal surgery in November for a giant hernia that ripped open her abdominal wall, Sue has had to manage the sack that drains her stomach’s fluids herself because she says she cannot afford to pay the out-of-pocket fee. “Over a year, that is hundreds of dollars out of my pension.”

Dr Lesley Russell, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Menzies Centre for Health Policy and Economics said “the way Medicare is currently operating and what this data highlights perfectly is how the universality of Medicare has been undermined”.

While the cost of operating a general practice has gone up, there is no publicly available data to show by how much, Russell said.

“But it’s pretty clear that the doctors themselves now feel dramatically less constrained about what they charge now than they used to,” she said.

“It seems that clinics reflect what other clinics in the area are doing … and that’s perhaps why you see that area around Newcastle and Adelaide with decreasing bulk billing [clinics].”

Russell said there was a possibility that more corporations moving into the ownership of private practices could be part of why there are decreasing rates of universal bulk billing.

She also noted that the government data that measures the proportion of bulk billed services “only measures the out-of-pocket costs for people who actually get care. They don’t measure the fact that a lot of people don’t even get to care because they can’t afford it in the first place.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Medicare Australia
  • Bulk billing
  • Health
  • Australian politics
  • features
Email link

Reuse this content

Could Victoria become home to an airship renaissance?

‘It’s a net zero cargo solution’: could Victoria become home to an airship renaissance?

French startup hoping to develop Ballarat manufacturing hub says its dirigibles will transport freight too cumbersome for road

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

They’re huge, can float through the air, and are synonymous with one of history’s most notorious transport disasters – but airships could be set for a cargo-oriented, green renaissance.

French startup Flying Whales has a vision to begin manufacturing its airships – which instead of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, will rely on 180,000 cubic metres of helium – by 2025, with an eye to gaining regulatory certification to begin operating in skies by the end of 2027.

The chief executive of Flying Whales, Sébastien Bougon, says his company’s airships would have a very specific purpose – transporting pre-built objects such as components of wind turbines or field hospitals, as well as cargo that is so large it must be disassembled or is too cumbersome to be delivered by road.

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

They also wouldn’t need to land to load or drop off deliveries, or have to rely on roads which can be either dangerous, indirect or nonexistent.

The airships would be able to float above cargo ships to pick up specific containers or other large objects up to 60,000kg, and fly them directly to their destination in one piece, at a maximum speed of about 100km/h.

From a regulatory perspective, airships, while uncommon, can fly through most airspace, however the implications of carrying suspended cargo are unclear.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority was approached for comment.

Amid a global race to develop a new-age dirigible, Flying Whales is looking to Australia – and specifically the Victorian town of Ballarat – to be one of its global manufacturing hubs, alongside operations in France and Canada, to build its cargo airships.

Bougon is in Australia this week hoping to progress government and private investment deals to base his company’s Asia-Pacific production in Ballarat.

Flying Whales, which is backed by the French government, is also hoping to establish an operator in Australia which would take responsibility for the broader region.

Drawing a parallel with the aeroplane industry, Bougon likens the task ahead of him to “having to build up a company like Airbus but also an airline to fly them”.

“The proposal of Ballarat is making a lot of sense, in particular because it’s close to Melbourne and the coast, there is connection with roads and trains, and it’s an industrial place,” he said. “The government of the state of Victoria is very enthusiastic”.

He says delivering aid and energy equipment to hard-to-reach places and islands would be likely applications in the Asia-Pacific, as well as delivering specific cargo for customers willing to pay a premium to avoid delays.

Bougon acknowledges that using Flying Whales airships will be costly, but says they can ultimately save money through the time and financial efficiencies of transporting cumbersome cargo to remote locations.

“If you can transport your containers or your high-voltage towers on an existing truck on an existing road, nothing is cheaper than that, [but] we don’t compete with that.

“Where we are useful is geographical difficulties, where you don’t have roads, or … if you need to change from road to boat and then to road, then we become cheaper,” he said.

Costs aside, another benefit Bougon trumpets is the relative greenness of the technology.

“It is fully decarbonised, it will be electrical, it can load cargo from hovering so it has no impact at ground when loading … it’s a net zero cargo solution,” he said.

Guardian Australia understands talks between Flying Whales and the Victorian government are ongoing. Late last year, the chief executive of the city of Ballarat said the council was “delighted” to be discussing an investment opportunity with the company.

Flying Whales believes it has a slight head start in the race to bring a cargo airship to realisation, with Lighter Than Air Research, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, its key rival.

Other companies are also developing airships to carry passengers, with UK company Hybrid Air Vehicles working to develop 100-passenger, environmentally friendly models.

Dr Sonya Brown, a senior lecturer in aerospace design at the University of New South Wales’ school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, said Flying Whales’ airship plans appear technically feasible.

“It’s about 200 metres long, so having these really large vehicles in the air as a common thing, especially moving a lot slower through a city where airspace is a big thing, it can be an issue,” she said.

For economic reasons, she said the technology would probably only appeal to a specific niche.

“It doesn’t to me seem like it’s particularly advantageous … I wouldn’t expect airships to be a common sight in our skies,” Brown said.

Explore more on these topics

  • Transport
  • Airline industry
  • Manufacturing sector
  • Airline emissions
  • Green economy
  • Victoria
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Could Victoria become home to an airship renaissance?

‘It’s a net zero cargo solution’: could Victoria become home to an airship renaissance?

French startup hoping to develop Ballarat manufacturing hub says its dirigibles will transport freight too cumbersome for road

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

They’re huge, can float through the air, and are synonymous with one of history’s most notorious transport disasters – but airships could be set for a cargo-oriented, green renaissance.

French startup Flying Whales has a vision to begin manufacturing its airships – which instead of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, will rely on 180,000 cubic metres of helium – by 2025, with an eye to gaining regulatory certification to begin operating in skies by the end of 2027.

The chief executive of Flying Whales, Sébastien Bougon, says his company’s airships would have a very specific purpose – transporting pre-built objects such as components of wind turbines or field hospitals, as well as cargo that is so large it must be disassembled or is too cumbersome to be delivered by road.

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

They also wouldn’t need to land to load or drop off deliveries, or have to rely on roads which can be either dangerous, indirect or nonexistent.

The airships would be able to float above cargo ships to pick up specific containers or other large objects up to 60,000kg, and fly them directly to their destination in one piece, at a maximum speed of about 100km/h.

From a regulatory perspective, airships, while uncommon, can fly through most airspace, however the implications of carrying suspended cargo are unclear.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority was approached for comment.

Amid a global race to develop a new-age dirigible, Flying Whales is looking to Australia – and specifically the Victorian town of Ballarat – to be one of its global manufacturing hubs, alongside operations in France and Canada, to build its cargo airships.

Bougon is in Australia this week hoping to progress government and private investment deals to base his company’s Asia-Pacific production in Ballarat.

Flying Whales, which is backed by the French government, is also hoping to establish an operator in Australia which would take responsibility for the broader region.

Drawing a parallel with the aeroplane industry, Bougon likens the task ahead of him to “having to build up a company like Airbus but also an airline to fly them”.

“The proposal of Ballarat is making a lot of sense, in particular because it’s close to Melbourne and the coast, there is connection with roads and trains, and it’s an industrial place,” he said. “The government of the state of Victoria is very enthusiastic”.

He says delivering aid and energy equipment to hard-to-reach places and islands would be likely applications in the Asia-Pacific, as well as delivering specific cargo for customers willing to pay a premium to avoid delays.

Bougon acknowledges that using Flying Whales airships will be costly, but says they can ultimately save money through the time and financial efficiencies of transporting cumbersome cargo to remote locations.

“If you can transport your containers or your high-voltage towers on an existing truck on an existing road, nothing is cheaper than that, [but] we don’t compete with that.

“Where we are useful is geographical difficulties, where you don’t have roads, or … if you need to change from road to boat and then to road, then we become cheaper,” he said.

Costs aside, another benefit Bougon trumpets is the relative greenness of the technology.

“It is fully decarbonised, it will be electrical, it can load cargo from hovering so it has no impact at ground when loading … it’s a net zero cargo solution,” he said.

Guardian Australia understands talks between Flying Whales and the Victorian government are ongoing. Late last year, the chief executive of the city of Ballarat said the council was “delighted” to be discussing an investment opportunity with the company.

Flying Whales believes it has a slight head start in the race to bring a cargo airship to realisation, with Lighter Than Air Research, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, its key rival.

Other companies are also developing airships to carry passengers, with UK company Hybrid Air Vehicles working to develop 100-passenger, environmentally friendly models.

Dr Sonya Brown, a senior lecturer in aerospace design at the University of New South Wales’ school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, said Flying Whales’ airship plans appear technically feasible.

“It’s about 200 metres long, so having these really large vehicles in the air as a common thing, especially moving a lot slower through a city where airspace is a big thing, it can be an issue,” she said.

For economic reasons, she said the technology would probably only appeal to a specific niche.

“It doesn’t to me seem like it’s particularly advantageous … I wouldn’t expect airships to be a common sight in our skies,” Brown said.

Explore more on these topics

  • Transport
  • Airline industry
  • Manufacturing sector
  • Airline emissions
  • Green economy
  • Victoria
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Staff must do more to manage conflicts of interest, APS commissioner tells top bureaucrats

Public servants must do more to manage conflicts of interest, APS commissioner tells top bureaucrats

Exclusive: Letter to department heads does not cite specific incidents but comes after scandals involving government grants and consulting firms

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

The public service must do more to eliminate conflicts of interest and ensure personal relationships in the workforce are not leading to power imbalances, the sector’s chief has told senior bureaucrats.

The Australian Public Service commissioner, Gordon de Brouwer, outlined his concerns in a letter to the leaders of all government departments, and sought their assistance to identify, disclose and manage all conflicts.

The letter was not prompted by one specific incident, but reflects intense scrutiny on the public service’s conduct after a number of scandals including the provision of government grants and outsourcing to consultancy firms.

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

“There is a need to strengthen our approach to the declaration and management of conflicts of interest by senior leaders,” said de Brouwer’s letter, sent in December.

The commissioner, who is responsible for ensuring the public service meets its ethical and integrity standards, highlighted the letter in a submission to an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the ethics and accountability of the consulting industry.

Sections of the letter seen by Guardian Australia reveal the commissioner asked secretaries to “ensure you and your senior executive service employees have up-to-date declarations in place, as well as strategies in your agency to mitigate or manage conflicts that are identified”.

“I ask, too, that you ensure similar arrangements are in place for all relevant agency functions and processes, such that conflict of interest declarations are triggered for those participating in activities such as recruitment, procurement, awarding grants, or performing regulatory roles,” De Brouwer said.

He told senior executives that “conflicts of interest can also arise from personal relationships, including relationships with colleagues”. It is not known what incident, if any, prompted the commissioner to issue the warning.

“It is essential that these relationships be declared and properly managed in order to mitigate any real or apparent conflict with employees’ official duties,” the letter said.

“The risks associated with such relationships are heightened where there is a supervisory relationship or a power imbalance between the individuals.

“I ask that you ensure that you and your senior staff understand the obligations to take reasonable steps to avoid conflicts of interest and to declare and manage those conflicts that cannot be avoided.”

While the letter did not cite any specific examples, several department leaders have faced scrutiny for conflict of interest controversies in recent months.

In March, a review by former senior public servant Ian Watt found taxpayers forked out $374m for contracts deemed to be poor value for money and have perceived conflicts of interest.

Earlier this month, the secretary of the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, David Fredericks, criticised EY Oceania’s conflict of interest disclosures. He signalled his team would be taking a tougher approach in future.

As revealed by Guardian Australia, the firm was supporting the oil and gas industry’s lobbying efforts while being paid by for independent advice on the government’s signature climate policy and gas emissions. The firm has denied any conflict of interest, but did not inform the department of its separate engagements.

Fredericks told a Senate estimates hearing it was also important for firms to address the “perception” of a conflict of interest, and that “it’s very clear in this instance that EY fell short” of that.

“It is something … that we all need to keep a very sharp eye on going forward as well,” he said.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has also faced criticism after it revealed four consultancy firms disclosed more than 520 real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest while being paid more than $40m to audit the safety and quality of aged care homes over two years.

The commission said no work was assigned to consultants who disclosed a conflict, but many senators, unions and transparency watchdogs have questioned whether they should have been employed at all.

In August, Guardian Australia revealed PwC Australia did not disclose any real or perceived conflicts of interest to the federal government before it was awarded a $2.3m aged care contract that has been suspended since June amid a continuing investigation.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • Public services policy
  • Consulting (Australia)
  • EY
  • Australian politics
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Job agencies suspending payments at an alarming rate, data reveals

Job agencies suspending Centrelink payments at an alarming rate, data reveals

Exclusive: Smaller Workforce Australia providers, including those catering to Indigenous jobseekers, have effectively suspended more than 90% of their caseloads

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

Some of Australia’s outsourced employment service providers have effectively suspended the Centrelink payments of more than 90% of the jobseekers on their books, new data reveals.

Jobseekers have their payments suspended as part of the mutual obligations regime, which is meant to ensure jobseekers are actively looking and preparing for work. If they do not fulfil activities such as job applications, training courses, interviews and meetings with job providers, their Centrelink payments are suspended.

As the Albanese government mulls the future of the $9.5bn system after a damning parliamentary review, figures provided to Senate estimates show job agencies in the federal government’s flagship Workforce Australia program applied 282,830 payment suspensions in the final three months of 2023 across a total cohort of 622,315 jobseekers.

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

While average rate of suspensions per jobseeker for all providers was 45%, the data shows some smaller providers, particularly those catering for Indigenous jobseekers, are applying payment suspensions at an alarming rate.

Yilabara Solutions and Training Alliance Group, which are smaller providers with fewer than 1,000 jobseekers, and On-Q Human Resources, which has about 7,000 on its caseload, have applied enough payment suspensions to effectively cover 90% of their caseload in the three months to December 2023, according to data from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

Among the five job agencies with the highest per capita rate of payment suspensions, three are specialist providers for Indigenous jobseekers.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (Dewr) acknowledged clients whowere homeless, ex-offenders or from First Nations communities were more likely to be affected by payment suspensions.

*Specialist provider for Indigenous jobseekers

Francis Markham, a research fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at Australia’s National University, said the rates of suspensions among Indigenous Australians showed “the current system just isn’t working”.

“Some providers might say, well, look, this is just our way of getting jobseekers to come back and have their appointment,” he said. “Those suspensions have real-world consequences for people’s ability to pay the bills and put food on the table. Even though it’s just a suspension and people still get the payment, it’s incredibly disruptive.”

He said it showed the “urgent need” to tweak the system so that it actually helped people find jobs.

“We know from the past, what things have worked better. Those have been things which looked less like mutual obligations … and more like supportive community controlled indigenous run agencies which can give unemployed First Nations peoples jobs.”

Of the suspensions between October and December, only 38.1% of them resulted in the jobseeker receiving a “demerit point”. After jobseekers receive five demerits, they enter the penalty zone, where they may have their payment completely cancelled.

This means that in all other cases where demerits were not applied, the jobseeker who had their payment suspended was later found to have a valid reason for not meeting their obligations.

Jobseekers who miss a mutual obligation requirement have 48 hours to discuss the matter with their provider before their payment is suspended and potentially delayed. It is not restored until the jobseeker meets their obligations to the satisfaction of the job agency.

The main reasons for the payment suspensions were not attending a provider appointment (168,010 suspensions) followed by failing to meet a job search target (109,850 suspensions).

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union’s Jeremy Poxon said the system was full of errors.

“Suspensions happen for all sorts of random reasons – because of tech glitches, admin error because participants simply can’t get their providers on the phone,” Poxon said.

He said the AUWU had recently helped a single mother whose payment was suspended right before a job interview, which meant she couldn’t afford new interview clothes.

“When you’re suspended, you also often have to spend hours of your life trying to get your provider, or Centrelink on the phone – it’s a constant cycle of punishment and trauma for a lot of people.”

A DEWR spokesperson said the department recognised there was “concern” over the rate of payment suspensions.

The spokesperson said having mutual obligations and a compliance mechanism to check jobseekers are meeting them was an important part of people finding work.

They said the department was working with specialist providers to make sure those at risk were placed in employment.

Guardian Australia approached the job agencies named in this story for comment.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • Inequality reporting
  • Australian politics
  • Welfare
  • Centrelink
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Green dream a step closer thanks to breakthrough by Melbourne researchers

Greener ‘water batteries’ a step closer thanks to breakthrough by Melbourne researchers

RMIT team develops method that could replace common lead-acid batteries, offering a safer and more recyclable alternative

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

An RMIT-led research team has come up with an innovative way to make greener, safer, recyclable “water batteries” that could replace common lead-acid batteries.

There are three key components that make up a battery: a cathode, an anode and an electrolyte. In common lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries, the electrolyte is a liquid chemical solution that, once inserted, cannot be easily recovered.

The lead researcher, Prof Tianyi Ma, said his team’s water battery – known as an “aqueous metal-ion battery” – addresses the issue by swapping out the hazardous chemical electrolyte for water.

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

“It’s pure water. It’s the daily water we drink, but we do add additives to the water like inorganic salts,” Ma said.

Ma said his battery operates comparably to current lead-acid batteries but can be easily recycled without the risk of chemical pollution or the need for specialist equipment and disposal facilities.

“There are several advantages of using water as an electrolyte, the first being that we can assemble and dissemble it on the bench,” Ma said. “We can recycle it right here – we can do it in open air, we don’t need to avoid water, avoid moisture in the atmosphere as with lithium-ion batteries.”

Another advantage is that water batteries eliminate the risk of fires commonly associated with lithium-ion batteries. According to the Australian Council of Recycling, lithium-ion batteries cause at least three fires in recycling streams every day.

Water batteries are also cheaper. Because they do not require complex manufacturing processes and the materials cost less, they can be produced for a third of the price of lithium-ion batteries, Ma said.

So far the team has prototyped water batteries in coin-cell-type devices commonly found in small clocks, battery packs once used in old Nokia-style mobile phones and AA-style cylinder batteries.

These have achieved 500 or more charge cycles but maintain 80% of their capacity after 700 cycles.

Ma said if commercialised, the technology offers a “greener, safer” replacement for lead-acid batteries in household appliances or could be used in larger applications such as rooftop solar power storage or on a solar farm.

But as the technology improves over the next decade or longer, he believes they could eventually challenge lithium-ion batteries.

The RMIT-led team’s breakthrough is published in Advanced Materials, outlining a process by which zinc anode is coated with a nano material composed of bismuth metal, which is allowed to oxidise.

This rust creates a protective layer that stops dendrites from forming. Dendrites are tiny spurs that form on the metal anode over the course of a charging cycle, a common problem in battery development.

This layer also provides protection from corrosion caused by the water electrolyte.

The managing director of Deakin University’s Battery Research and Innovation Hub, Dr Timothy Khoo, who was not involved in the research, said he was sceptical about any claims water batteries may one day replace lithium-ion, but said the protective layer developed by the RMIT-led team represents a “novel and quite unique” approach that solves “a key stability issue” with battery technology.

“You could describe it as they’ve ‘grown it’,” he said. “They’ve been able to put this bismuth oxide layer on the zinc anode that stops all the side reactions occurring and it helps the zinc, when it plates back on, to plate back on quite favourably,” Khoo said.

“Their solution solves a number of issues within aqueous batteries. How stable it cycles, whether it forms dendrites on the surface – it looks like it inhibits a lot of the site reactions that you don’t want.

“It’s very comprehensive work.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Energy
  • Battery life
  • Recycling
  • Research and development
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Green dream a step closer thanks to breakthrough by Melbourne researchers

Greener ‘water batteries’ a step closer thanks to breakthrough by Melbourne researchers

RMIT team develops method that could replace common lead-acid batteries, offering a safer and more recyclable alternative

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

An RMIT-led research team has come up with an innovative way to make greener, safer, recyclable “water batteries” that could replace common lead-acid batteries.

There are three key components that make up a battery: a cathode, an anode and an electrolyte. In common lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries, the electrolyte is a liquid chemical solution that, once inserted, cannot be easily recovered.

The lead researcher, Prof Tianyi Ma, said his team’s water battery – known as an “aqueous metal-ion battery” – addresses the issue by swapping out the hazardous chemical electrolyte for water.

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

“It’s pure water. It’s the daily water we drink, but we do add additives to the water like inorganic salts,” Ma said.

Ma said his battery operates comparably to current lead-acid batteries but can be easily recycled without the risk of chemical pollution or the need for specialist equipment and disposal facilities.

“There are several advantages of using water as an electrolyte, the first being that we can assemble and dissemble it on the bench,” Ma said. “We can recycle it right here – we can do it in open air, we don’t need to avoid water, avoid moisture in the atmosphere as with lithium-ion batteries.”

Another advantage is that water batteries eliminate the risk of fires commonly associated with lithium-ion batteries. According to the Australian Council of Recycling, lithium-ion batteries cause at least three fires in recycling streams every day.

Water batteries are also cheaper. Because they do not require complex manufacturing processes and the materials cost less, they can be produced for a third of the price of lithium-ion batteries, Ma said.

So far the team has prototyped water batteries in coin-cell-type devices commonly found in small clocks, battery packs once used in old Nokia-style mobile phones and AA-style cylinder batteries.

These have achieved 500 or more charge cycles but maintain 80% of their capacity after 700 cycles.

Ma said if commercialised, the technology offers a “greener, safer” replacement for lead-acid batteries in household appliances or could be used in larger applications such as rooftop solar power storage or on a solar farm.

But as the technology improves over the next decade or longer, he believes they could eventually challenge lithium-ion batteries.

The RMIT-led team’s breakthrough is published in Advanced Materials, outlining a process by which zinc anode is coated with a nano material composed of bismuth metal, which is allowed to oxidise.

This rust creates a protective layer that stops dendrites from forming. Dendrites are tiny spurs that form on the metal anode over the course of a charging cycle, a common problem in battery development.

This layer also provides protection from corrosion caused by the water electrolyte.

The managing director of Deakin University’s Battery Research and Innovation Hub, Dr Timothy Khoo, who was not involved in the research, said he was sceptical about any claims water batteries may one day replace lithium-ion, but said the protective layer developed by the RMIT-led team represents a “novel and quite unique” approach that solves “a key stability issue” with battery technology.

“You could describe it as they’ve ‘grown it’,” he said. “They’ve been able to put this bismuth oxide layer on the zinc anode that stops all the side reactions occurring and it helps the zinc, when it plates back on, to plate back on quite favourably,” Khoo said.

“Their solution solves a number of issues within aqueous batteries. How stable it cycles, whether it forms dendrites on the surface – it looks like it inhibits a lot of the site reactions that you don’t want.

“It’s very comprehensive work.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Energy
  • Battery life
  • Recycling
  • Research and development
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

US death toll likely 16% higher than official tally, study says

Covid death toll in US likely 16% higher than official tally, study says

Researchers think undercounting goes beyond overloaded health systems to a lack of awareness of Covid and low levels of testing

The Covid death toll in the US is likely at least 16% higher than the official tally, according to a new study, and researchers believe the cause of the undercounting goes beyond overloaded health systems to a lack of awareness of Covid and low levels of testing.

The second year of the pandemic also had nearly as many uncounted excess deaths as the first, the study found.

More than 1.1 million Americans have died from Covid, according to official records. But the actual number is assuredly higher, given the high rates of excess deaths. Demographers wanted to know how many could be attributed to Covid, and they drilled down to data at the county level to discover patterns in geography and time.

There were 1.2 million excess deaths from natural causes – excluding deaths from accidents, firearms, suicide and overdoses – between March 2020 and August 2022, the researchers estimated, and about 163,000 of those deaths were not attributed to Covid in any way – but most of them should have been, the researchers say.

Once they determined how many more people had died than expected, more questions arose.

“Everyone has wanted to know: why did all these extra deaths happen?” asked Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, associate professor in the department of sociology and the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota and one of the study’s authors.

To get closer to that answer, they first looked at when and where excess deaths occurred.

The researchers thought they might see the deaths happening at the peak of major surges or shortly thereafter, when health systems were overwhelmed and health workers were exhausted and sick themselves.

Instead, the excess deaths began ticking up in the month before, in the lead-up to major surges.

“The mortality that’s not considered Covid starts a little bit before the Covid surges officially start and crests a little bit sooner,” Wrigley-Field said.

That indicates some people didn’t realize their illness was Covid, due to a lack of awareness about its prevalence and low levels of testing. There was also a rise in out-of-hospital deaths – in homes and nursing homes, for instance – which makes ascertaining the cause of death more difficult.

The researchers also thought they would see under-reporting of Covid deaths mainly in the early months of the pandemic, as other research has indicated. It was still a novel virus then, and not everyone knew the symptoms or had access to tests.

“Quite the contrary, we find over the first 30 months of the pandemic that serious gaps remained in surveillance,” said Andrew Stokes, associate professor of global health and sociology at Boston University and one of the study’s authors.

“Even though we got a lot better at testing for Covid, we were still missing a lot of official Covid deaths” in the US, said Jennifer Dowd, professor of demography and population health at University of Oxford, who was not involved in this research.

The phenomenon “underscores how badly the US fared as the pandemic continued”, Wrigley-Field said. “It does profoundly reflect failures in the public health system.”

As for where the deaths occurred, “there was marked regional variation”, Stokes said. The hardest-hit were non-metropolitan counties, especially in the west and the south – areas that don’t have as many resources for investigating deaths, and which have had lower levels of testing for Covid, he said.

These differences are also likely explained by different state-level policies, how jurisdictions count Covid deaths, and the politicization of the crisis down to the local level, where beliefs about Covid may have influenced the cause of death listed on certificates.

“Every jurisdiction is doing this differently, and that’s why this is such a mess,” Stokes said.

The US needs to invest in more complete and timely mortality reporting, the experts agreed.

While Covid deaths have now declined from soaring heights seen earlier in the pandemic, the virus is still deadly. “If we really want to know the impact, yes, that Covid is continuing to have on mortality, we still need to look at this excess over time,” Dowd said.

“We probably will be using these numbers for lots of reasons to try to understand what went right and what went wrong with Covid – and how we can do better for the next pandemic,” she said.

Knowing mortality rates helps authorities allocate resources, including vaccines, treatments, and extra health workers, to the hardest-hit populations and regions, and it can help individuals make more informed decisions about taking precautions.

Understanding Covid’s true death toll – and elucidating the reasons for under-counting – is important for the current responses to infectious diseases as well as preparing for the next pandemic, the researchers said.

“What does it take to be able to respond to a disaster as it’s unfolding?” Wrigley-Field asked. “Where are the places that, when there was a crisis, really were not able to keep people alive?”

Explore more on these topics

  • Coronavirus
  • Infectious diseases
  • Medical research
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Police charge taekwondo instructor after ‘loving family’ murdered

Police charge taekwondo instructor after ‘loving family’ murdered in Sydney

Bodies of woman, 41, and boy, 7, discovered in Lion’s Taekwondo Martial Arts Academy in North Parramatta after 39-year-old man found dead in Baulkham Hills home

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

A young student and his mother walked into a taekwondo studio in Sydney with no warning they’d soon be killed.

After overpowering the pair, their alleged killer got in his victim’s car and allegedly proceeded to kill the boy’s unsuspecting father at the nearby family home.

The alleged events were detailed on Wednesday by homicide detectives who have charged the seven-year-old boy’s taekwondo instructor with the murders of the Korean-Australian family on Monday night.

New South Wales police said the 49-year-old alleged killer, a taekwondo master at a martial arts school in North Parramatta, went to Westmead hospital with stab or slash wounds to his chest, arms and stomach on Monday just before midnight.

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

He was charged with three counts of murder at around 9pm on Wednesday night, detectives said.

NSW police allege he assaulted the woman, 41, and the child with “murderous intent” at Lion’s Taekwondo Martial Arts Academy on Daking Street on Monday night.

Police allege he then drove her white BMW to Baulkham Hills and fatally stabbed the 39-year-old father of the child, before taking the car to hospital.

All three victims were South Korean nationals.

The alleged killer was placed under arrest once the bodies were discovered on Tuesday.

The 49-year-old accused said he sustained his wounds when attacked in the car park of a North Parramatta supermarket on Monday evening, police said.

Homicide commander Det Supt Daniel Doherty said the chain of events and circumstances were “not only tragic … but the consequences were cataclysmic”.

“This was a loving family,” Doherty told reporters.

“It was out of the blue, it was not something that was forewarned or flagged”

The boy is believed to have regularly attended the martial arts school and was at the centre for a lesson on Monday.

The three victims knew the alleged attacker and homicide detectives were searching for a motive, Doherty said.

“Three people from one family, it’s devastating,” he said.

“It’s been a harrowing experience for the family and friends of the three victims, they’re still dealing with this so I’m not going to speculate on any motive at this stage.”

The 49-year-old suspect had surgery and remained under police guard in hospital.

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

Doherty sought further assistance from the public and encouraged anyone in the vicinity of the taekwondo studio on Monday night who might have seen or heard something to contact investigators.

Anyone with footage of the BMW on Monday night is also asked to contact police.

Explore more on these topics

  • Sydney
  • Crime – Australia
  • New South Wales
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Pro-war blogger who revealed huge Avdiivka losses dies by suicide

Pro-war Russian blogger who revealed huge Avdiivka losses dies by suicide

Andrey Morozov said he had been pressured to delete post detailing number of casualties

  • Ukraine war – live updates

Andrey Morozov, a prominent pro-war Russian blogger, has reportedly died by suicide following outrage over a post in which he claimed that the Russian army lost 16,000 soldiers during the capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka.

Morozov, who went by the pseudonym Murz on Telegram, was an ultra-nationalist commentator who fought alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and participated in Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

On Sunday, Morozov wrote to his 120,000 followers on Telegram that Russia lost 16,000 personnel and 300 pieces of armour during its months-long capture of Avdiivka. The post drew heavy criticism from senior Russian propagandists, who accused the blogger of “slandering the Russian defence ministry”.

In Morozov’s final messages on Tuesday morning, he announced his suicide and said he was pressured by his superiors to delete the post detailing the number of casualties in Avdiivka. Several people close to Morozov on Tuesday confirmed his death, with some saying that he had shot himself.

Triggered in part by the rebellion by then-Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin last year largely cracked down on voices such as Morozov, who once was part of a loud group of ultra-nationalist hawks who criticised Moscow over shortages of weapons and accused the Russian military leadership of hiding the true death toll among its forces.

Russia hides its war losses and the true casualty toll from its invasion of Ukraine remains a secret, though western officials believe the war has cost the country more than 315,000 dead and injured troops.

Avdiivka, which once had a population of 32,000, fell to Russia on Saturday, presenting Vladimir Putin with his biggest battlefield victory since Russian forces captured the city of Bakhmut in May 2023.

The city holds particular symbolism for Russia as it was taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine but then recaptured by Ukrainian troops.

Russia’s manpower and artillery advantage overwhelmed Ukrainian forces in Adviivka, but Moscow appears to have incurred a staggering number of casualties during the offensive.

The UK Ministry of Defence earlier estimated in a military briefing that Russia lost at least “400 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other hardware, as well as likely thousands of personnel” during the campaign to capture Avdiivka.

Ukraine said that more than 17,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the five months-long fight for Avdiivka, a figure that closely matches the estimates made by Morozov.

Ukraine too suffered heavily during the defence of the city.

Citing western officials, the New York Times on Tuesday reported that hundreds of Ukrainian troops may have been captured by Russian units during Ukraine’s retreat from the city.

Ukraine has blamed the fall of Avdiivka on US failure to approve a critical aid package, amid fears in Kyiv that Russia will press on with its offensive with Ukrainian troops short of shells and vulnerable to Russian airstrikes.

“We wouldn’t [have lost] Avdiivka if we had all the artillery ammunition that we needed to defend it. Russia does not intend to pause or withdraw. … Once Avdiivka is under their control, they undoubtedly will choose another city and begin to storm it,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said.

Putin on Tuesday said his troops would push further into Ukraine to build on their success on the battlefield.

“As for the overall situation in Avdiivka, this is an absolute success, I congratulate you. It needs to be built on,” Putin told his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, in the Kremlin.

Explore more on these topics

  • Ukraine
  • Russia
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content

Study shows 10-year low for female representation in film

Study shows ‘catastrophic’ 10-year low for female representation in film

Despite Barbie’s success, study shows that out of 2023’s top 100 films, only 30 were led or co-led by women, down from 44 in 2022

A new study has shown that the number of female leads in Hollywood movies is at a 10-year low.

Despite the $1.4bn success of Barbie, last year’s top 100 films saw just 30 feature a female lead or co-lead, the worst result since 2014 according to a new study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,” Dr Stacy L Smith, research head, said in a statement. “In the last 14 years, we have charted progress in the industry, so to see this reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman’.”

The results follow a record high in 2022 with a 44% result. Despite a number of major female-lead films moving to 2024, such as Luca Guadagnino’s romantic drama Challengers starring Zendaya, the study’s authors do not believe this to be the reason, writing that “we cannot explain the collapse” and calling it “an industry failure”.

The number of films led by women of colour also fell from 18 to 14 which still marks a major leap from 2007, when the study originated, with just one. Only three films in 2023 featured a woman over the age of 45 as a lead or co-lead compared with 32 for men in the same age category.

Those behind the study stressed that the success of Barbie, which became the year’s highest-grossing movie, is not reason enough to be optimistic. “One film does not represent progress across the industry and cannot bear the burden of lifting the industry to inclusion,” they wrote. “The results this year point to an industry grown apathetic about efforts surrounding diversity and inclusion.”

The study comes just weeks after another damning report from the same team which showed that female directors are also on the decrease, with 16% of the top 100 films coming from women compared with 18% the year before. “Over more than a decade and a half, the percentage of women in top directing jobs has not even grown by 10 percentage points,” Smith said at the time.

The biggest US box office hit so far of 2024 is Mean Girls, led by a female-heavy cast. In the next year, major box office hopes spearheaded by women include Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire starring Rebecca Hall, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga starring Anya Taylor-Joy, A Quiet Place: Day One starring Lupita Nyong’o and Wicked starring Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo.

Explore more on these topics

  • Film
  • Film industry
  • Women
  • news
Email link

Reuse this content