The Guardian 2024-02-24 16:31:38


NSW EPA ‘following up’ on whether second mulch supplier is involved

Sydney asbestos crisis: EPA ‘following up’ on whether second mulch supplier is involved

Agency says an unnamed supplier may have provided contaminated mulch at Cranebrook and Bardia

  • Full list and map of sites in Sydney where asbestos has been found

A possible second supplier of asbestos-contaminated mulch is being investigated by the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, as the number of contaminated sites rises to 61.

The environment watchdog said on Saturday it was “following up on a possible second supplier” that may have provided asbestos-contaminated mulch to at least two sites where the substance has been detected. The sites, both in western Sydney, were Cranebrook High School and Mont Saint Quentin Oval in Bardia.

Only one company, Greenlife Resource Recovery, has been identified as being directly implicated by the EPA in the contamination crisis, which has involved bonded asbestos and friable asbestos being found in mulch. Greenlife has said it is confident mulch leaving its facility was free from asbestos and it was not responsible for the contamination.

Bonded asbestos is mixed with cement or other hard materials and considered of lower risk than friable asbestos, which can be crumbled and become airborne, posing a significant risk to human health if the fibres are inhaled.

The EPA has been overseeing tests based on contact and supply tracing of Greenlife’s product.

The possibility of a second supplier providing contaminated mulch emerged after landowners at the two sites – which were not connected to that contact tracing – independently conducted due-diligence testing and informed the EPA of positive results.

A spokesperson for the EPA said on Saturday that it followed up on all positive notifications.

“Our investigators are working to gain more information about this possible second supplier and we will provide more updates when we have confirmed details and have assessed the risks related to this supplier,” the spokesperson said.

Asbestos-contaminated mulch has been found in schools, hospitals, parks and several transport projects in Sydney, as well as along a bridge on the south coast.

Greenlife has launched a legal challenge against the environment watchdog. The EPA issued a prevention notice earlier this month banning Greenlife from selling mulch after sites it had supplied tested positive for asbestos.

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.

In a statement on Saturday, the EPA said it will “continue to keep the community informed of any cases or situations that pose a public risk”.

The EPA has been overseeing the testing, clean-up and disposal of contaminated mulch across the hundreds of sites around NSW.

The investigation has been the agency’s biggest, with more than 130 investigators trying to determine how the asbestos got into the mulch and trace it through the supply chain.

The growing public health emergency has forced the cancellation of a major Mardi Gras party and the closure of popular parks and schools.

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Lowering cost of higher education critical to meeting Australia’s skills shortage, report warns

Lowering cost of higher education critical to meeting Australia’s skills shortage, report warns

Universities accord also urges government to dramatically scale up access to higher education for disadvantaged groups

Access to higher education among disadvantaged Australians must be dramatically scaled up and the financial burden of studying eased if the country is to meet acute skills shortages, a major report has found.

The highly anticipated universities accord final report, being released by the education minister, Jason Clare, on Sunday, was expected to lay out the blueprint for the tertiary sector over the coming decades.

The report contains 47 recommendations, including compensating students for hundreds of hours of mandatory placements and tweaking Help loans to reduce ballooning student debt.

“Help is an indispensable part of the higher education funding system, but it requires reform to retain its social licence,” the report said. “Australians should not be deterred from higher education because of the increased burden of student loans.

“It is time to listen to what students are saying and to respond genuinely to their calls for change.”

Under the proposed reforms, the indexation rate would be set to either the consumer price index or the wage price index – whichever is lower – as some MPs have urged. Student contributions would also be reduced for low-income earners and the timing of indexation would change to deduct compulsory repayments first.

With the number of students accessing income support payments trending downwards, the review recommended expanded access to Youth Allowance for students whose parents earn up to $68,857 and those studying part-time.

The changes were required to reach ambitious targets laid out in the report, anticipating at least 80% of the workforce would need a vocational (VET) or university qualification by 2050. It requires a 20% increase in attainments, particularly among Australians from underrepresented backgrounds.

For Australians aged between 25 and 34, it recommended university attainments grow by 10% to 55% by 2050, and for tertiary or technical qualifications to jump to 40%.

To meet the targets, the system will need to more than double the number of commonwealth-supported university students, from 860,000 to 1.8 million.

“Australia is not meeting our current skills needs and will not meet them in the future unless we produce far greater numbers of higher education and VET graduates,” the report said.

“Australia’s current higher education system has neither the capacity nor capability to deliver what the nation needs.”

The latest data shows Australians from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds make up 25% of the population, but only 17% of undergraduate enrolments. Educational attainment also declines further away from capital cities.

Projections suggest that to achieve parity by the designated timeline, students from target cohorts would need to make up 62.9% of enrolment growth.

It recommended a needs-based funding model that acknowledges the cost of providing additional supports to ensure priority cohorts, including low SES students, with bonuses for high completion rates – described as a “gamechanger” for regional providers who disproportionately enrol equity groups.

It also calls for better integration between vocational and higher education in order to create a more “seamless” tertiary system, including flexible pathways between the two and the continued development of a National Skills Passport to recognise prior learning.

“VET and higher education remain largely separate and siloed systems. Various cross-sectoral barriers continue, and there is a lack of shared purpose and direction,” the report said.

“Increasing the numbers of students in tertiary education to the required levels … would require new institutions, more diverse operating models and more cross-provision between VET and higher education providers, including opportunities to expand the role of Tafes.”

The accord was commissioned by the commonwealth and led by an expert review panel chaired by Prof Mary O’Kane. The report was informed by more than 800 submissions and 180 meetings with stakeholders.

The reportalso proposed the establishment of an Australian tertiary education commission to help develop future policies.

Clare said the plan would be for the “next decade and beyond”.

“Under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the number of Australians finishing high school jumped from around 40% to almost 80%,” he said. “That was nation changing.

“The accord says that in the years ahead, we will need 80% of the workforce to not just finish high school, we will need them to finish Tafe or university as well.”

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Cutting debt and paid internshipsKey reforms in the Australian universities blueprint

Explainer

Cutting debt and paid internships: key reforms in the Australian universities blueprint

The highly anticipated report has made 47 recommendations, addressing disadvantage and cost of living

The blueprint for the future of tertiary education in Australia has been finalised, after 12 months of negotiations and input from hundreds of stakeholders.

The highly anticipated universities accord final report makes 47 recommendations – including dramatically expanding access to higher education among disadvantaged Australians and addressing cost-of-living concerns.

With the federal government considering the key reforms, here’s what’s on the table.

A fund for disadvantaged students

In order to meet future and current skills shortages, the report says a dramatic take-up in higher education among equity cohorts is needed. But providing support and services is expensive.

The report makes a bid for needs-based funding to ensure people from underrepresented groups succeed. This model includes bonuses for providers with high student completions.

First Nations students, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds (SES) and people with disabilities would be targeted under the proposal, with additional funding for regional areas that cater to high numbers of priority cohorts.

This could cover the costs of providing courses, with significant increases to fee-free places, including at Tafes.

“This could be similar to the equity-based schooling resourcing standard (SRS),” the report said.

“Under such a scheme, regionally headquartered universities, which tend to have higher proportions of low SES students (23.6% of enrolments on average compared to 9.8% for metropolitan universities) would gain the most.”

Scrapping the job ready graduates scheme

Industry bodies are adamant that the former Coalition government’s Job ready graduate scheme, which doubled the price of some humanities degrees and lowered fees on some other courses, has failed.

The review acknowledges this, finding only 1.5% of students applied to enrol in courses that they would not have under the prior contribution arrangements.

“The job ready graduates package needs urgent remediation,” the report said.

“It has left some students facing extremely high student contributions and large Help debts that do not reflect their future earning potential, and it has tilted the overall cost burden of higher education further on to students and away from the Australian government.

“Higher student contribution amounts … have significantly and unfairly increased what students repay.”

In its place, the review recommends a student contribution system based on potential lifetime earnings. Rather than attempting to incentivise students to courses based on their price point, the amount paid would depend on their field of study – the higher the future wages, the greater the student contribution.

Care disciplines, including teaching and nursing, would be in the lowest band, due to lower lifetime wages and their “significant public contributions”.

Tackling the burden of student debt

Ballooning Help loans have been the subject of debate, with millions of graduates faced with increases in excess of their repayments due to inflation.

The review backed the system, but acknowledged it could be modernised to respond to changing circumstances with “fairer and simpler” indexation and repayment arrangements.

It wants to ensure loans don’t outpace wage growth by setting the indexation rate to whatever is lower out of the consumer price index and wage price index, as some MPs, including Zoe Daniel, have called for.

“Australians should not be deterred from higher education because of the increased burden of student loans,” the report reads.

The tweaks would reduce student contribution amounts for low-income earners and change the timing of indexation to deduct compulsory repayments first.

Amid concern over the impact of Help debt on borrowing capacity for other loans, the review recommended bank lending practices were interrogated to ensure student debt had no impact on applications.

The review also recommends the parental income threshold for Youth Allowance be increased from $58,108 to $68,857.

A survey on racism

First Nations people comprise 3.7% of the Australian population, but account for just 2.1% of higher education enrolments. Just 1.5% complete degrees.

The review contends First Nations people should be “at the heart of the tertiary education system”, with better systems in place for self-determination.

It calls for a First Nations council to advise ministers on relevant policies, stronger obligations on universities to demonstrate self-determination in their operations, a First Nations-led review of tertiary education and better representation of qualified First Nations people in governance and leadership positions.

In addition, it recommends a survey into the prevalence and impact of racism across tertiary education – a historically underresearched area.

The final pillar is a national centre to expand the pipeline of early career researchers and ensure more funding is directed to First Nations knowledges.

Payment for compulsory placements

The review has backed calls among academics for students to be compensated for compulsory internships to stem high dropout rates.

“Providing financial support for placements is essential to ensure that enough students can meet their … requirements without falling into poverty,” the report said.

“Mandatory placements can involve onerous hours and can financially disadvantage students who are unable to participate in paid work.”

It recommends employers make “reasonable contributions” to the costs of providing placements, with the government to provide support for key industries including nursing, care and teaching.

To reduce the burden of mandatory placements, it also suggests course designs are restructured to recognise prior experience, which could accelerate completion rates.

A free “jobs broker” would also be established to help students find relevant part-time work and placements in their fields of study.

Investment in the regions

Regional universities have been a significant focus of the accord, in large part due to the heavy lifting of the sector in enrolling disadvantaged Australians.

The final report proposes “significantly increasing” the number of commonwealth-supported medical places allocated to regional schools and expanding the pre-existing Regional University Study Hubs program.

Under the program, providers, including Tafes, host hubs across regional and remote parts of Australia so students don’t have to leave their communities to study.

It also floats the idea of a national regional university – akin to the Australian National University but delivered outside a capital city – and exploring the case for new public universities in “underserviced areas”.

A $10bn infrastructure fund

Australia’s investment in research has lagged behind the OECD average for years. The report acknowledges the current funding system is “overly complex, fragmented and difficult to comprehend”.

International students were expected to bear the brunt of providing revenue for the sector, with the interim report floating an export tax that would be directed towards research and infrastructure.

Instead, the report proposes two funds: a research fund, dubbed Solving Australian Challenges, and an infrastructure fund, the Higher Education Future Fund. They would be cofunded by universities and the commonwealth, with the aim of reaching $10bn in assets.

Contributions would be based on the broader levels of revenue at universities instead of a direct tax on international students, with all funding matched by the commonwealth.

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Australia launch late triple-strike to sink Uzbekistan in Paris Olympics qualifier

Matildas launch late triple-strike to sink Uzbekistan in Paris Olympics qualifier

  • Uzbekistan 0-3 Australia
  • Veteran Michelle Heyman header sparks late flurry for Matildas

The Matildas are 90 minutes away from Paris 2024, with a three-nil rout away to Uzbekistan leaving the Australians on the verge of Olympic qualification. After struggling to break the deadlock for much of the encounter, veteran striker Michelle Heyman opened the scoring in her international comeback before Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord pressed home the Matildas’ advantage with late goals.

In the end it was a comfortable victory, but it had been an increasingly frustrating afternoon in frigid Tashkent as chances went begging. The second-half introduction of 35-year-old Heyman, who had previously retired from international football, would prove the difference – a fairytale return for the Canberra United top goal-scorer.

The Matildas began the first-leg of the decisive qualifier in frigid conditions. Light snow drifted down on Milliy Stadium, threatening to make history – the Matildas, according to Football Australia’s official statistician, have never before played in snow. The flurries cleared before kick-off, although the temperature remained at zero and gloves proved a popular accessory for both teams.

With Sam Kerr recovering from her ACL injury and Foord starting on the bench, as a load-management precaution, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson opted to give Kaitlyn Torpey her debut. Though usually a full-back, the recent San Diego Wave signing was deployed further forward to supplement the Kerr and Foord-less attack.

The unorthodox move forewarned a major theme of the first-half: the Matildas were all glitter but no gold, dominant but toothless. Time and again chances went begging, with the absence of a traditional striker painfully felt.

Fowler began strongly, forcing a diving save from Uzbek custodian Maftuna Jonimqulova after a dozen minutes. But that strike would prove the exception rather than the rule. Despite controlling possession and dictating tempo, their exciting build-up play was let down by the Matildas’ profligacy with the final touch. Too many half-chances were squandered.

At the break, Gustavsson removed Torpey and reverted Foord to her usual spot in the Matildas’ XI. The Arsenal star’s attacking impetus was immediately evident, Foord offering up a dangerous shot within minutes of her arrival.

And yet still the Matildas struggled to break the deadlock. Whoever the chances fell for – Emily van Egmond, Foord, Fowler, Hayley Raso – the ability to convert eluded the Australian attacking line-up. Nor did Uzbekistan allow any complacency, with striker Diyorakhon Khabibullaeva causing trouble for Mackenzie Arnold just after the 60th minute.

Again Gustavsson turned to his bench for creative spark, opting for veteran forward Heyman – taking to the pitch for the Matildas for the first time in six years. And again the substitution came with impact: Heyman winning a corner with a near-post run, before meeting the subsequent ball in with a header that glanced over the cross-bar.

At last, it came. It was not pretty, but it broke the deadlock. And who else but Heyman – eight years after her last goal for the Matildas, her international return coming with a crucial strike. Heyman rose to meet a Steph Catley corner, connecting after a parry from Jonimqulova to find the back netting.

From then on it was all Matildas in Tashkent. Less than 10 minutes later it was Fowler’s turn, the Manchester City star marauding through the Uzbek midfield before a low strike evaded a diving Jonimqulova. Moments later, Foord made it three goals, meeting a lofty cross from Catley and heading home.

The final score-line accurately reflected Australia’s dominance over Uzbekistan on Saturday, but did not tell the full story – a team increasingly frustrated at being unable to capitalise, before a late goal rush rewarded the toil. Despite the difficulties, the Matildas got it done when it counted – showing resolve that will please Gustavsson ahead of a highly-anticipated Olympic campaign.

The Australians will waste no time returning home for the second leg – they were due to travel directly from the stadium to the airport. The World Cup heroes will be cheered on by a sell-out crowd in Melbourne on Wednesday, with a ticket to Paris all-but assured.

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Agency suspends aid to northern Gaza amid ‘collapse of civil order’

UNRWA suspends aid to northern Gaza amid ‘collapse of civil order’

Desperation of people searching for food in southern areas is making journeys north unsafe, says UN

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

The UN agency in charge of Palestinian affairs said it has been forced to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza – where it is not “possible to conduct proper humanitarian operations” – amid increasing reports of famine among people in the area.

The UN began warning of “pockets of famine” in Gaza last month, with needs particularly acute in the north. Conditions have steadily worsened since, causing a rise in the number of hungry people making fraught attempts to claim aid from passing trucks.

“The desperate behaviour of hungry and exhausted people is preventing the safe and regular passage of our trucks,” said Tamara Alrifai, director of external relations for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). She added that she was “very wary of how to explain this so as not to make it sound like we are blaming people or describing these things as criminal acts”.

“But we want to say that their stopping our trucks to help themselves is no longer making it possible to conduct proper humanitarian operations,” she added.

UNRWA has not been granted permits by the Israeli authorities to deliver aid to northern Gaza for more than a month, while humanitarian organisations have increasingly despaired at the tiny trickle of aid permitted into Gaza.

The agency has also warned that it could be forced to cease operations across the Middle East in the coming weeks amid a funding crisis, while Israeli politicians including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have demanded that UNRWA cease operations and that other UN agencies assume the same work.

Before the 7 October last year, when Hamas militants stormed towns and kibbutzim around the Gaza Strip, killing an estimated 1,139 people and taking about 250 people hostage, an average of 500 trucks of aid were permitted by the Israeli authorities to enter the territory each day. But amid a fierce campaign of Israeli bombardment, the supply of aid permitted into Gaza has dwindled, with sometimes as little as a few dozen trucks allowed in.

The UN has warned that famine risks taking hold across Gaza, particularly in the north. Aid convoys that enter Gaza from the southernmost city of Rafah pass areas where an estimated 1.5 million people are seeking shelter after being forced south by Israeli forces, and have grown increasingly desperate due to the lack of food.

“We are stuck in a vicious cycle, where the security of our convoys are at risk, meaning we can no longer send aid, which contributes to hunger and despair,” said Alrifai.

Since Israeli ground forces encircled Gaza City last November and demanded that civilians flee south, aid deliveries to the north have become increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups.

Earlier this week, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it had been forced to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza due to “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”, after an initial suspension three weeks earlier when a strike hit a UNRWA truck carrying aid.

When the WFP attempted to resume deliveries, it said its convoys were fired upon, that crowds of people attempted to take goods from the trucks, and that one of its drivers was beaten.

“People are already dying from hunger-related causes,” they warned.

UNRWA said earlier this month that a strike on its food convoy came from Israeli naval forces as it waited to move into northern Gaza. The organisation shared pictures of a truck with a gaping hole in its side.

WFP officials warned in the same statement that only four of its convoys – 35 trucks – had managed to reach northern Gaza last month, enough food for about 130,000 people.

Matthew Hollingworth, head of the WFP in Gaza, said this amount of aid was “not enough to prevent a famine and we know levels of hunger in Gaza are getting at that level now”.

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Agency suspends aid to northern Gaza amid ‘collapse of civil order’

UNRWA suspends aid to northern Gaza amid ‘collapse of civil order’

Desperation of people searching for food in southern areas is making journeys north unsafe, says UN

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

The UN agency in charge of Palestinian affairs said it has been forced to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza – where it is not “possible to conduct proper humanitarian operations” – amid increasing reports of famine among people in the area.

The UN began warning of “pockets of famine” in Gaza last month, with needs particularly acute in the north. Conditions have steadily worsened since, causing a rise in the number of hungry people making fraught attempts to claim aid from passing trucks.

“The desperate behaviour of hungry and exhausted people is preventing the safe and regular passage of our trucks,” said Tamara Alrifai, director of external relations for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). She added that she was “very wary of how to explain this so as not to make it sound like we are blaming people or describing these things as criminal acts”.

“But we want to say that their stopping our trucks to help themselves is no longer making it possible to conduct proper humanitarian operations,” she added.

UNRWA has not been granted permits by the Israeli authorities to deliver aid to northern Gaza for more than a month, while humanitarian organisations have increasingly despaired at the tiny trickle of aid permitted into Gaza.

The agency has also warned that it could be forced to cease operations across the Middle East in the coming weeks amid a funding crisis, while Israeli politicians including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have demanded that UNRWA cease operations and that other UN agencies assume the same work.

Before the 7 October last year, when Hamas militants stormed towns and kibbutzim around the Gaza Strip, killing an estimated 1,139 people and taking about 250 people hostage, an average of 500 trucks of aid were permitted by the Israeli authorities to enter the territory each day. But amid a fierce campaign of Israeli bombardment, the supply of aid permitted into Gaza has dwindled, with sometimes as little as a few dozen trucks allowed in.

The UN has warned that famine risks taking hold across Gaza, particularly in the north. Aid convoys that enter Gaza from the southernmost city of Rafah pass areas where an estimated 1.5 million people are seeking shelter after being forced south by Israeli forces, and have grown increasingly desperate due to the lack of food.

“We are stuck in a vicious cycle, where the security of our convoys are at risk, meaning we can no longer send aid, which contributes to hunger and despair,” said Alrifai.

Since Israeli ground forces encircled Gaza City last November and demanded that civilians flee south, aid deliveries to the north have become increasingly difficult for humanitarian groups.

Earlier this week, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it had been forced to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza due to “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”, after an initial suspension three weeks earlier when a strike hit a UNRWA truck carrying aid.

When the WFP attempted to resume deliveries, it said its convoys were fired upon, that crowds of people attempted to take goods from the trucks, and that one of its drivers was beaten.

“People are already dying from hunger-related causes,” they warned.

UNRWA said earlier this month that a strike on its food convoy came from Israeli naval forces as it waited to move into northern Gaza. The organisation shared pictures of a truck with a gaping hole in its side.

WFP officials warned in the same statement that only four of its convoys – 35 trucks – had managed to reach northern Gaza last month, enough food for about 130,000 people.

Matthew Hollingworth, head of the WFP in Gaza, said this amount of aid was “not enough to prevent a famine and we know levels of hunger in Gaza are getting at that level now”.

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Lee Anderson stripped of Tory whip over Sadiq Khan comments

Lee Anderson stripped of Tory whip over Sadiq Khan comments

Claim by Ashfield MP that London mayor had ‘given our capital away’ to Islamists prompted widespread outrage

Lee Anderson has been stripped of the Conservative whip after claiming Sadiq Khan had “given our capital away” to Islamists.

His comments to GB News on Friday night caused widespread outrage from his Tory colleagues and Labour MPs, with Khan, the London mayor, calling them “Islamophobic, anti-Muslim and racist”.

Former Conservative cabinet ministers joined opposition MPs and the Muslim Council of Britain in lambasting the remarks, with calls for Rishi Sunak to kick him out of the party.

On Saturday afternoon, the chief whip, Simon Hart, made the decision to remove the whip from Anderson, who will now sit as an independent.

A spokesperson for Hart said: “Following his refusal to apologise for comments made yesterday, the chief whip has suspended the Conservative whip from Lee Anderson MP.”

Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, had been deputy chair of the Conservative party until last month, when he resigned after rebelling against Sunak’s Rwanda bill.

More details soon …

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The case of two missing men that horrified Sydney

A grim find led to a worse end: the case of two missing men that horrified Sydney

Police officer Beau Lamarre has been charged with two counts of murder, but the bodies of Jesse Baird and Luke Davies are yet to be found

It began when some blood-covered clothes, a phone, watch and wallet were discovered in a skip in the beachside suburb of Cronulla in Sydney’s south on Wednesday morning.

A day after announcing that the find had raised “grave concerns” for two missing men in a relationship, New South Wales police charged one of their own constables – a former partner of one of the men – with two counts of murder.

Ballistic tests showed he had used a force-issued handgun, police alleged. They believe he then hired a white van to dispose of their bodies.

Beau Lamarre, 28, turned himself in to colleagues at a local police station and was charged with the murder of Jesse Baird – his ex-boyfriend and a former Channel Ten presenter – and Baird’s new partner, 29-year-old Qantas flight attendant Luke Davies.

But police said Lamarre had not assisted them as they sought more information.

The bodies of Baird and Davies had not been found by Friday evening, as Lamarre appeared in court for the first time.

The selfie-enthused former celebrity blogger turned member of a specialist police force spoke only once during the five-minute hearing – to clarify the date of his next court appearance.

He did not apply for bail and will remain behind bars for the next eight weeks while police prepare a brief of evidence and search for the bodies of his alleged victims.

‘Grave concerns’

Baird, a 26-year-old AFL goal umpire, had previously presented on the morning program Studio 10, but finished up at Channel Ten in January.

He had only recently entered into a relationship with Davies – police believe Baird and Lamarre had broken up only a couple of months ago. Baird’s former workplace, Channel Ten, reported Lamarre had struggled with Baird’s decision to end their relationship.

Photos from the social media accounts of Baird and Davies show them enjoying life together in Sydney, including at a Pink concert in February.

Another snap of the pair, taken at the lighthouse at Palm Beach earlier this month, reads: “Perfect start to a long weekend.”

Police did not get wind of the couples’ disappearance until Wednesday morning, but they believe the alleged murders took place on Monday in Baird’s Paddington terrace share house in the city’s east.

At about 9.30pm that night, Lamarre is alleged to have hired a white van from the southern suburb of Mascot to move their bodies.

“From the evidence we’ve gleaned today we believe that the fate of both Luke and Jesse was at the house in Paddington and at some stage the white van was [allegedly] used to transport their bodies to another location,” Det Supt Daniel Doherty, of the New South Wales homicide squad, told reporters on Friday.

Lamarre did not report for duty on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Police have now located the van – a white Toyota HiAce – but are still seeking CCTV footage or other information about where it was between Monday evening and when it was found at Grays Point, not far from Cronulla, on Friday.

“It’s important we get the movements in relation to that van, as hopefully we can find the bodies, and this is important for the family,” Doherty said.

Exactly what happened between Monday evening and Friday is still the subject of investigation.

Officers arrived at Baird’s Paddington home – a 30km drive from Cronulla – shortly after the bloodied possessions were found.

There police found “a large amount of blood” as well as the casing of one bullet, and by 1pm had established a crime scene.

Police alleged ballistic tests later showed the firearm that had allegedly been discharged was owned by police, and had been returned to a storage locker at a station after Monday’s alleged murder.

Locals interviewed on Wednesday reported having heard shouting from the vicinity of the house on Monday morning, police alleged.

That afternoon, investigators searched Davies’ home in nearby Waterloo, but found no trace of him or Baird.

Neither had used their bank accounts in recent days. Baird’s WhatsApp account had shown as active on Tuesday night, which led police on Wednesday to issue a plea for him to come forward.

It would prove fruitless.

By Thursday, police said they were looking for a third person in connection with the couple’s disappearance. They suspected it was someone known to the couple, announcing investigators would “continue to look at all past relationships and associations” of the pair.

That evening, reports emerged that a police officer was involved.

Detectives executed a search warrant at a home in Balmain, which property records suggest was Lamarre’s family home.

Officers seized a number of items during the raid just before midnight.

On Friday, waking up to a 36C and humid Sydney with his face all over the newspapers as a suspect, Lamarre turned himself in.

Timeline of the disappearance of Jesse Baird and Luke Davies. Graphic Mike Hohnen

He reported to Bondi police station at 10.30am wearing a black T-shirt and cap, footage later released by police shows.

Hours later, police charged Lamarre with two counts of murder, announcing they believed they had sufficient evidence.

Unorthodox route

The path of Beaumont Lamarre-Condon, as he is formally known, to the NSW police force was unorthodox.

He ran a now defunct celebrity website called That’s The Tea and another called the Australian Reporter, which was deregistered in 2016.

In videos posted online he can be seen interviewing celebrities, including Russell Crowe, at red carpet events.

Social media photographs depict Lamarre with a range of show business personalities including Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus.

On one occasion in 2013, he attended a media call for a Qantas gala dinner, interviewing celebrities such as Miranda Kerr about her love for the airline and career plans.

“What is it that you love about Qantas airways?” he asked John Travolta at the event. “Well, uh, everything,” Travolta told Lamarre.

His first notable brush with fame came in 2014, when he was a teenager.

Lamarre was at a Lady Gaga concert in Sydney when he reportedly threw a note on the stage in which he came out as gay. He was later invited backstage by the singer, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

“Through your music, you have helped and will continue to set free many people. If possible, I would love to come and personally give you a hug and thank you backstage for finally setting me free. My life will then be forever complete,” Lamarre wrote to the pop star. “Gaga, you’re not just my idol but LITERALLY my saviour,” he said.

Lamarre did not shy away from his identity as a gay man or a police officer. He was pictured in the police contingent marching in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade in 2020.

Lamarre appeared before Waverley local court for an initial hearing on Friday afternoon, accompanied by two police officers.

He was expressionless, blinking slowly, as he sat in the dock.

Meanwhile, the families of Baird and Davies are “devastated”, police said.

“His talent was undeniable and energy infection,” one of Baird’s former colleagues, Channel Ten reporter Lachlan Kennedy, said on Friday. “For years we chatted footy, utes and country music,” he said of Baird who “had the brightest of futures stolen from him”.

Qantas said it was providing support to Davies’ colleagues.

A friend of Baird’s, Jermaine, paid tribute to the couple on X.

“Jesse … You would’ve fit in so well as a friend of the household,” he wrote. “Rest, darling.”

The case will next be heard on 23 April.

  • This article was amended on 24 February 2024 to clarify that a tribute to the couple on X was posted by a friend of Jesse Baird’s, not Luke Davies’ brother.

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The forest where the feral fox once roamed is thriving – but why will no one call him ‘dead’?

Rambo part II: wildlife in the forest where the feral fox once roamed is thriving – but is a comeback tour likely?

Hunted for years in NSW’s Pilliga, Rambo has now disappeared. In his place is an explosion of native species. But why will no one call Rambo ‘dead’?

There is a baby boom of critically endangered native species happening in north-west New South Wales. For the first time in more than a century, the Pilliga scrub – the largest native forest west of the Great Dividing Range – is crawling with multiple generations of greater bilbies, bridled nailtail wallabies, brush-tailed bettong, plains mice and Shark Bay bandicoots.

“All the animals are thriving and most of the females are breeding,” says the Australian Wildlife Conservancy ecologist Vicki Stokes, who monitors the colony’s progress via camera traps and transmitters attached to their tails. “And because the bandicoots have a gestation of just 18 days and the plains mice around 30, it’s happening fast. Some of them are on their third or fourth litters already.”

The population explosion is all the more remarkable for the adversities it has overcome. Chief among them was Rambo the fox. When the 5,800-hectare conservation area was cleared and fenced in 2016, feral cats and foxes within it were killed or captured inside a month. All but Rambo, who eluded a legion of hunters, trappers, scientists and rangers for five years.

“We threw the kitchen sink at eradicating Rambo and it cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Dave Kelly, who manages the threatened species program for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. “Every technique we deployed – aerial surveillance, traps, poison baits, thermal imaging – all failed. The fox was always one step ahead and the harder we tried, the smarter he seemed to get.”

Ultimately, Rambo simply disappeared. The last camera-trap footage of the fox with the distinctively torn-up ears (injuries sustained when Rambo vanquished the last feral cat in the enclosure) was in October 2022. Around that time heavy rains hit the Pilliga. When a requisite three-month monitoring period revealed no further traces, Rambo was declared “no more”.

“Even then, I wasn’t 100% convinced,” Stokes says. “If any fox could’ve worked out a way to survive, it was Rambo. In the end, those floods came at a great time. The temporary breeding area of 680 hectares was getting seriously crowded. And with the last remaining threat wiped out, the fences came down and we gave the animals free rein of the full 5,800 hectares.”

Despite not having laid tracks in the Pilliga’s red dirt for so long, the bilbies “moved fast”, says Stokes. “For a species that is over 15m years old, a century isn’t much. We found their burrows and diggings on the far side of the enclosure within a few months and they’ve now got colonies everywhere.” The wallabies, bettong and bandicoots have thrived similarly.

But the plains mice have been a challenge, Stokes admits. “They’ve been so rare for so long, a lot of what we’re discovering is new. When we released them in September we thought they’d disperse and burrow straight away. But they freaked out and sheltered under grassy clumps in the open. These adorable little lumps were snoozing when rats and antechinus attacked.”

Numbers are now recovering, as is the wider ecology. “These animals are soil engineers,” Kelly says. “They churn leaf litter and nutrients so the ground holds moisture better.” Watching how bilbies moved burrows to forage richer areas also informed Kelly’s decision to incorporate traditional fire practices. “We burn small areas regularly in a patchwork cycle as the Kamilaroi did. The animals responded fast, following the burst seeds and grass shoots.”

The Pilliga is a unique environment, dense with cypress pine (it was heavily logged until 2000) and teeming with emu, koala, long-eared bats and owls. “Even without Rambo around, the Pilliga is full of dangers,” Stokes notes. “Our five species might be rare but that doesn’t mean they’re protected from natural predators like pythons, goannas and raptors.”

So much so that Stokes says the carnivorous western quoll will lead a new wave of regionally extinct animals – numbat, red-tailed phascogale, burrowing bettong, Mitchell’s hopping mouse and greater stick-nest rat – to be rewilded in coming months. “There’ll be predation but unlike foxes, quolls are native predators with aeons of co-existence with our mammals.”

Of Rambo’s many enigmas (Kelly believes the fox was actually female), one was that his diet consisted almost entirely of insects. “Rambo never touched any of the meats we’d try to lure him with,” Stokes says. “And when the hunt hit its fifth year, we were having serious discussions about the bilbies and Rambo co-existing. Thankfully, he vanished before it got to that.”

“Vanished”. “Disappeared”. “No more”. Why doesn’t anyone declare Rambo “dead”? Kelly gives a wry chuckle. “We never found a body, did we? And there’s something else that nags at me. During those floods we took down a small section of fence to let the creek through. It was only for a few hours but the chance to escape was there … If anyone could, it was that fox.”

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The forest where the feral fox once roamed is thriving – but why will no one call him ‘dead’?

Rambo part II: wildlife in the forest where the feral fox once roamed is thriving – but is a comeback tour likely?

Hunted for years in NSW’s Pilliga, Rambo has now disappeared. In his place is an explosion of native species. But why will no one call Rambo ‘dead’?

There is a baby boom of critically endangered native species happening in north-west New South Wales. For the first time in more than a century, the Pilliga scrub – the largest native forest west of the Great Dividing Range – is crawling with multiple generations of greater bilbies, bridled nailtail wallabies, brush-tailed bettong, plains mice and Shark Bay bandicoots.

“All the animals are thriving and most of the females are breeding,” says the Australian Wildlife Conservancy ecologist Vicki Stokes, who monitors the colony’s progress via camera traps and transmitters attached to their tails. “And because the bandicoots have a gestation of just 18 days and the plains mice around 30, it’s happening fast. Some of them are on their third or fourth litters already.”

The population explosion is all the more remarkable for the adversities it has overcome. Chief among them was Rambo the fox. When the 5,800-hectare conservation area was cleared and fenced in 2016, feral cats and foxes within it were killed or captured inside a month. All but Rambo, who eluded a legion of hunters, trappers, scientists and rangers for five years.

“We threw the kitchen sink at eradicating Rambo and it cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Dave Kelly, who manages the threatened species program for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. “Every technique we deployed – aerial surveillance, traps, poison baits, thermal imaging – all failed. The fox was always one step ahead and the harder we tried, the smarter he seemed to get.”

Ultimately, Rambo simply disappeared. The last camera-trap footage of the fox with the distinctively torn-up ears (injuries sustained when Rambo vanquished the last feral cat in the enclosure) was in October 2022. Around that time heavy rains hit the Pilliga. When a requisite three-month monitoring period revealed no further traces, Rambo was declared “no more”.

“Even then, I wasn’t 100% convinced,” Stokes says. “If any fox could’ve worked out a way to survive, it was Rambo. In the end, those floods came at a great time. The temporary breeding area of 680 hectares was getting seriously crowded. And with the last remaining threat wiped out, the fences came down and we gave the animals free rein of the full 5,800 hectares.”

Despite not having laid tracks in the Pilliga’s red dirt for so long, the bilbies “moved fast”, says Stokes. “For a species that is over 15m years old, a century isn’t much. We found their burrows and diggings on the far side of the enclosure within a few months and they’ve now got colonies everywhere.” The wallabies, bettong and bandicoots have thrived similarly.

But the plains mice have been a challenge, Stokes admits. “They’ve been so rare for so long, a lot of what we’re discovering is new. When we released them in September we thought they’d disperse and burrow straight away. But they freaked out and sheltered under grassy clumps in the open. These adorable little lumps were snoozing when rats and antechinus attacked.”

Numbers are now recovering, as is the wider ecology. “These animals are soil engineers,” Kelly says. “They churn leaf litter and nutrients so the ground holds moisture better.” Watching how bilbies moved burrows to forage richer areas also informed Kelly’s decision to incorporate traditional fire practices. “We burn small areas regularly in a patchwork cycle as the Kamilaroi did. The animals responded fast, following the burst seeds and grass shoots.”

The Pilliga is a unique environment, dense with cypress pine (it was heavily logged until 2000) and teeming with emu, koala, long-eared bats and owls. “Even without Rambo around, the Pilliga is full of dangers,” Stokes notes. “Our five species might be rare but that doesn’t mean they’re protected from natural predators like pythons, goannas and raptors.”

So much so that Stokes says the carnivorous western quoll will lead a new wave of regionally extinct animals – numbat, red-tailed phascogale, burrowing bettong, Mitchell’s hopping mouse and greater stick-nest rat – to be rewilded in coming months. “There’ll be predation but unlike foxes, quolls are native predators with aeons of co-existence with our mammals.”

Of Rambo’s many enigmas (Kelly believes the fox was actually female), one was that his diet consisted almost entirely of insects. “Rambo never touched any of the meats we’d try to lure him with,” Stokes says. “And when the hunt hit its fifth year, we were having serious discussions about the bilbies and Rambo co-existing. Thankfully, he vanished before it got to that.”

“Vanished”. “Disappeared”. “No more”. Why doesn’t anyone declare Rambo “dead”? Kelly gives a wry chuckle. “We never found a body, did we? And there’s something else that nags at me. During those floods we took down a small section of fence to let the creek through. It was only for a few hours but the chance to escape was there … If anyone could, it was that fox.”

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  • LiveIreland 31-7 Wales: Six Nations 2024 – live
  • Search parties, intrigue and a piece of Australian bushland hiding a secret: what happened to Samantha Murphy?

Russia-Ukraine war: Navalny’s body released to his mother, says spokesperson

Alexei Navalny’s body has been handed over to his mother, a spokesperson has confirmed.

The spokesperson for the Russian opposition politician, who died while in prison last week, said funeral arrangements are still to be determined.

It is “unclear” whether the authorities will interfere, they added.

Search parties, intrigue and a piece of bushland hiding a secret

Search parties, intrigue and a piece of Australian bushland hiding a secret: what happened to Samantha Murphy?

Nearly three weeks since she was last seen outside her Ballarat home, volunteers are refusing to give up the search for answers

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Veteran Australian bush tracker Jake Cassar surveys the sprawling bushland that appears to glow in the evening light. He inches forward among the dense ferns in the park on the outskirts of the historic Australian gold-mining town, gaze immersed in the earth.

“As a tracker, I can pick up where people have and haven’t been,” he says.

“There’s many areas here that haven’t been searched.”

It is the first time Cassar, involved in several high-profile missing-person cases in Australia, has visited Ballarat, a 90-minute drive north-west of Melbourne. His arrival this week, funded by community members, sparked hope in a town gripped by the disappearance of local woman Samantha Murphy.

Murphy, a mother of three, vanished almost three weeks ago.

She was last seen on Sunday 4 February about 7am, captured on CCTV footage in her family home’s driveway. That morning, while the town was tipped to swelter through a 36C day, Murphy – 51 and a keen runner – had told friends she planned to run in the nearby Woowookarung regional park, known by locals as the Canadian forest. She hasn’t been seen since.

Her case, among almost 40,000 missing person reports each year in Australia, has captivated and troubled the nation.

A week after she disappeared, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said his thoughts were with her family as he acknowledged it was a difficult time.

Amid the groundswell of community support for her family and national fascination, Murphy’s case has also seen psychics, armchair detectives and online sleuths create and fuel theories about how the Ballarat woman vanished.

The search for answers

Just days after Cassar arrived in Ballarat, police announced what was described in frenzied media reporting as a “breakthrough”. They suspect “one or more” parties were involved in her disappearance, and had new information about her movements.

Victoria police say it is “very doubtful” she is still alive, amid a new targeted ground search at a specific location on the outskirts of town, driven by mobile phone data detectives aren’t keen to elaborate on.

They believe Murphy left her house on foot and headed to Woowookarung, where she ran before making her way to the Mount Clear area, about 7km south of her family’s property, where they launched a new search on Friday.

It came nearly a fortnight after their initial ground search was wound back.

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Acting Det Supt Mark Hatt says that while the area had previously been extensively searched, they are looking for small items that may have been missed and “intricate details” of what occurred on 4 February.

“We’re absolutely looking for a phone, we haven’t yet found that,” he says. “We’re looking for a body.”

Police will also investigate the possibility Murphy was removed from the local area.

‘So many question marks’

Until Friday, police released little information since her family sounded the alarm when Murphy did not attend a planned brunch. A still image – showing her in a brown- or maroon-coloured running singlet and black leggings outside her home that morning – was among the few pieces of evidence released.

Yet amid all the speculation, mystery and developments, Ballarat locals have combed through bushland, walking the network of gravel road and walking tracks, in the hopes of finding any clues to help explain what has happened to Murphy.

A group of volunteers have banded together, creating the social media group “Ground Crew” to connect people eager to help search for her. The group is behind a large-scale community search on Saturday that plans to scour through designated bushland areas near the Murphy family’s home.

In the group are friends of the Murphys and locals who remember spotting her on her regular walks through the bushland.

“She said hello to everybody. Everyone in the area knew her,” says Ballarat resident Matthew Kingsley, who has searched for Murphy over several days.

He says Ballarat has maintained a small-town feel, despite being Victoria’s third-largest city. “Everyone seems to know everyone here. People are always trying to help each other. I want to help my community find her.”

Ballarat woman Tori Baxter, organiser of the Ground Crew group, says she is driven to find answers for Murphy’s children, despite not knowing her personally.

Days after the disappearance, Murphy’s eldest daughter, Jess, issued a teary plea, saying: “We need you at home with us.”

“No one wants to see a heartbroken daughter of a missing woman not get answers,” Baxter says.

“The fact that she has just vanished into thin air, there are so many question marks.”

Baxter hopes Saturday’s search will help. “If we just find one thing that helps authorities, that means our efforts were worthwhile.”

Ballarat residents describe Murphy, who runs a local panel-beating business with her husband, as well-known and respected.

On Wednesday evening, Cassar, a bushcraft teacher involved in the 2014 search for missing boy William Tyrell, met with a dozen community members at a Ballarat pub to brainstorm the search strategy for Saturday and share tracking tips.

Missing person flyers are handed around to distribute. Cassar instructs the group to zigzag through the forest, always keeping other volunteers in sight to avoid getting lost.

He tells the group to draw on all of their senses as they walk through the bush, and stresses “anything you can find” that can assist the investigation to shed light on Murphy’s whereabouts.

The Ground Crew group will compile a map to display designated areas for the search to cover.

Wendy Jagger, who lives near the Murphys’ home, attended the meeting on Wednesday and plans to join the search on Saturday.

“I just felt that part of being part of the community is to get in there and do what you can to find her,” she says.

“It feels too close to home for a lot of people.”

Cassar says he has been struck by the number of locals willing to support the search effort.

“It’s a good community of Aussie battlers.”

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  • ‘Fruit bowls are out’: the best ways to store fresh produce, according to experts
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KPMG rejects claims it assessed ‘the wrong company’ before $423m payment to Paladin

‘Incredible failure’: KPMG rejects claims it assessed ‘the wrong company’ before $423m payment to Paladin

Exclusive: Firm’s denial comes after weeks of intense criticism, including accusations that it misled parliament

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Consultancy firm KPMG Australia has rejected claims it conducted due diligence on “the wrong company” before the federal government gave nearly half a billion dollars to a controversial company with no track record.

The firm’s objection to comments by a member of a Senate inquiry examining its conduct come after weeks of intense criticism and accusations it repeatedly misled parliament over its use of so-called power maps, which identify influential decision makers within departments.

KPMG Australia was asked to provide advice to the home affairs department in 2017 before it awarded $423m to security contractor Paladin for work on Manus Island. The closed contract has been the subject of scrutiny ever since, including a recent investigation by former Asio boss Dennis Richardson.

During the final public hearing of the Senate inquiry on Friday, Labor senator Deborah O’Neill accused the firm of an “incredible failure” when advising the government on the outsourcing of security services.

“An EY audit shows that KPMG investigated the wrong Paladin entity,” O’Neill told officials from Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, an oversight body. “I’m watching jaws proverbially hit the floor as you hear me tell you this, because that is an incredible failure.”

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The EY audit of the Paladin procurement, published in 2019, found KPMG Australia provided a financial assessment of Paladin Solutions, a PNG-based company, rather than Paladin Holdings, a Singapore-based company that was awarded the contract. KPMG PNG had a business relationship with the PNG-based company.

“The financial strength assessment report obtained by the department is not relevant to the financial strength of its contracted service provider – Paladin Holdings,” the EY audit said. “The department noted that Paladin Holdings did not have financial statements.”

When asked for a response to senator O’Neill’s criticism, a KPMG spokesperson said: “We did not conduct the assessment on the wrong entity.”

“[The EY review] found KPMG conducted the financial strength assessment on ‘Paladin Solutions’ at the request of the commonwealth, based on the financial statements provided to the department,” the spokesperson said.

During a Senate estimates hearing last week, O’Neill also accused the firm of “a failure” to manage a conflict of interest. But a KPMG spokesperson said the EY report found it “declared the PNG firm’s business relationship with Paladin Solutions to Home Affairs”.

However, the EY audit also found “there was no specific records of the department assessing and agreeing to this conflict declaration”. The report also criticised the veracity of KPMG Australia’s report to government, which warned Paladin Solutions was a “moderate/high risk”.

“The Financial Strength Assessment of Paladin Solutions PNG ltd report by the commercial advisors was based on information extracted from unaudited financial statements, without a statement of cash flows,” the EY report said.

KPMG’s defence comes as the Senate inquiry prepares to make recommendations for tougher regulation of the sector and after criticism from senator O’Neill and Greens senator Barbara Pocock.

The firm was criticised after initially telling the Senate inquiry that it did not produce maps of government departments that identify influential public servants, before being provided with evidence that it did.

Earlier this month, KPMG Australia’s chief executive, Andrew Yates, apologised to the inquiry for taking a “too literal” approach to senator O’Neill’s question about power maps. Senator Pocock was not convinced by the apology.

“You have lied to us,” Pocock told an estimates hearing on 9 February. “That’s my view. You’ve lied to us more than once. You’ve misled us perhaps four times and probably more times that I don’t know about.”

Yates told the inquiry that was not his intention.

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Four people dead after ute rolls over in northern NSW

Four people dead after ute rollover in northern NSW

Police say three men and a woman died after vehicle left the road in Wardell, near Ballina, on Saturday morning

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Four people have died after the ute they were travelling in left the road and rolled in northern New South Wales, in another horror smash amid a disastrous period on the state’s roads.

Police were called to Back Channel road in Wardell, near Ballina, at about 5.45am on Saturday after reports of a crash. Officers found that three men and a woman had died at the scene.

The Mazda ute had been driven by one of the men on board, police said.

“A crime scene was established as specialist police from the Crash Investigation Unit investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident,” NSW police said in a statement.

“A report will be prepared for the information of the coroner.

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“Road closures are in place and drivers are urged to avoid the area.”

According to the most recent road toll figures, which have not been updated by the NSW government since midnight Thursday, there had been 49 deaths on the state’s roads – an almost 50% increase on 33 deaths recorded at the same time last year.

The 2023 road toll of 349 deaths was the worst recorded in 15 years, according to the ABC.

It was reported on Thursday that the state’s roads minister, John Graham, had raised the issue of driver behaviour at a road safety conference in Sydney, where industry experts and ministers gathered to discuss a “crisis” year on the state’s roads.

There has been no allegation that Saturday’s crash was the result of poor driver behaviour.

“A small section of our community became used to questioning the rules during Covid, and in some cases, outright flouting them,” he said.

“It only takes a handful of individuals on our roads ignoring the road rules to make it far more dangerous for every one of us, and could be reflected in our road toll.”

Graham said the department was researching if “cookers” – who think rules do not apply to them – were part of the problem.

“I want to be clear – we will not accept cooker-culture on our roads,” he said.

“If that research shows we need to act on this problem, this government will act.”

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