The Guardian 2024-02-29 16:31:16


Secretive firm behind voice no campaign billed taxpayers almost $135,000 via Coalition MPs, documents show

Secretive firm behind voice no campaign billed taxpayers almost $135,000 via Coalition MPs, documents show

Whitestone Strategic, which has close ties to rightwing lobby group Advance, was paid to craft messaging on topics such as vaccine mandates and renewable energy

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The secretive firm behind the no campaign in the voice referendum has claimed almost $135,000 in taxpayer funding, including almost $70,000 from the Coalition senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, as part of its work to help conservative politicians sharpen their messaging to voters.

Whitestone Strategic, a political consultancy group that claims to provide “up-to-the-minute technology and campaign clout in the fight for Australian values”, was contracted to the official campaign opposing the Indigenous voice to parliament in 2023.

A Guardian Australia investigation in October revealed its close ties to Advance – a rightwing lobby group founded in 2018 – and social media work during the referendum for Fair Australia.

Fresh documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information show Whitestone’s work has extended beyond the referendum campaign, as it crafts messaging for politicians to share on social media and in emails covering topics such as vaccine mandates and the cost of living.

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The strategy firm has invoiced at least $134,750 from elected representatives over two years, including Coalition senators Price, Claire Chandler and Alex Antic, former senator Amanda Stoker and shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie.

Guardian Australia contacted the offices of each politician and Stoker for further details. None of them responded to questions about the services provided or their reasons for using the consultancy firm.

Parliamentarians have an annual budget for office expenses, which can be used for activities such as printing and social media advertising.

Price, who was the face of the no campaign, has been billed at least $68,805 for Whitestone’s services, which included a single invoice from the group for $50,000 in June 2023 as the referendum vote approached.

Chandler submitted 17 invoices to the finance department for Whitestone’s services between January 2022 and June 2023, totalling almost $35,000.

The nature of the work is redacted. Chandler’s office previously told Guardian Australia the work undertaken by Whitestone was not related to the voice referendum.

Whitestone is led by Stephen Doyle, who was previously chief of staff to the former Coalition senator Zed Seselja. Many of the firm’s other staff who were identified by Guardian Australia – both past and present – don’t list the company on their public profiles.

Antic has used Whitestone’s services for social media content, as well as “copywriting and design” related to a “vaccine mandate” campaign. In 2021, the senator voted for a One Nation anti-Covid vaccination mandate bill, contrary to the Coalition government’s own aged care vaccine mandate, and has a freedom pledge opposed to mandatory vaccination on his website. His invoices totalled $27,639, while Stoker submitted one for $3,300 in April 2022.

Hastie submitted one Whitestone invoice for $330 in December 2022. Attached to the invoice is a pamphlet produced for Hastie’s constituents, warning them against Labor’s renewables target and cost-of-living strategies.

“Everywhere you look, Labor refuses to put you first,” the pamphlet’s messaging reads. “You and your family are way down the list.”

A Whitestone spokesperson said it provides services to a range of clients, including not-for-profits and MPs. “As is the case with any professional services consultancy, arrangements with clients are kept strictly commercial-in-confidence,” the spokesperson said.

The documents also show Seselja, who previously represented the ACT, was invoiced $3,284.52 in late 2021 by Dunham+Company, a Texas-based marketing and fundraising company that often works with Christian organisations, and which was at one time tasked with running Advance’s Facebook page.

Seselja and Dunham+Company were approached for comment.

Advance – led by executive director Matthew Sheahan – and Whitestone emerged as powerful operatives during the voice referendum debate, working alongside former Advance spokesperson, Price. The no campaign included a deluge of social media content via multiple Facebook accounts targeting different demographics and sharing seemingly contradictory messages, as well as on TikTok.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, personally thanked the leaders of both Advance and Whitestone on the referendum night for their work during the campaign.

“The no campaign was led by Fair Australia’s Matt Sheahan and Steve Doyle and our volunteers, and I want to thank them sincerely,” Dutton said.

Advance captured headlines again in February after running a series of political attack ads against the Albanese government ahead of this Saturday’s Dunkley byelection.

The firebrand group received $5.2m in donations and other receipts over the 2022-23 financial year, according to Australian Electoral Commission data released in February. The figure marked a significant increase on the $2.5m it received in 2021-22.

Do you know more? Email abogle@protonmail.com or sbasfordcanales@protonmail.com

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‘Extremist’ Trump economist plots rightwing overhaul of US treasury

Revealed: ‘extremist’ Trump economist plots rightwing overhaul of US treasury

Stephen Moore, who withdrew from Fed consideration after sexist remarks were uncovered, is co-author of radical Project 2025 effort

Stephen Moore, a conservative economist whose controversial remarks about women cost him a seat on the Federal Reserve board in 2019, is now co-author of a plan to radically reform the US treasury as part of Project 2025, a vast rightwing effort to advance radical policy proposals for Donald Trump’s possible White House return.

“Project 2025 is all about forcing a far-right agenda on to everyday Americans,” said Tony Carrk, the executive director of the progressive watchdog Accountable.US, which produced an extensive report on Moore’s views and positions.

“So it’s no wonder they tapped a notorious social security opponent like Stephen Moore to help write their policy schemes.”

Moore, Carrk said, had “dedicated his career to slashing social security benefits and taxes for billionaires”.

Like other welfare programmes such as Medicare, social security is a longstanding target of the US right but also something of a third rail for politicians of either party, given public support. Recognising such support, Trump has pledged to “always protect social security” should he return to power. His last opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, says she wants to reform it.

Joe Biden has said he “will not cut a single social security or Medicare benefit”.

Moore remains loyal to Trump but in the past has advocated for privatising social security, which he has called a “Ponzi scheme”, and told students they should march on the Capitol and burn their social security cards.

Responding to Carrk, Moore said by email: “Actually I favor higher social security benefits with personal accounts. That would give seniors benefits that would net three to five times higher.”

Moore advocates mandatory 401k accounts, in place of social security.

He added: “Yes, I am strongly in favor of cutting tax rates to make [the] American economy No 1.”

By its own description, Project 2025 is the work of “a broad coalition of over 70 conservative organisations”, brought together by the Heritage Foundation and aiming to shape the presidential transition should a Republican win election this year.

In the words of Paul Dans, its director, Project 2025 aims to prepare “a new army, aligned, trained, and essentially weaponised conservatives ready to do battle against the deep state”.

According to a conspiracy theory championed by Trump’s ally and adviser Steve Bannon – though Bannon reportedly said the “deep-state conspiracy theory is for nutcases” – the deep state consists of bureaucrats, government functionaries and intelligence operatives, all working to thwart Trump’s agenda.

Legal sources and sources close to the presidential transition have said extreme actions proposed under Project 2025 are unlikely to happen swiftly, should Trump or another Republican take office, given existing guardrails in and around the federal bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, as other chapters recommend rolling back LGBTQ+ rights or dismantling climate policy, so the chapter co-authored by Moore says a Trump treasury should eliminate policies attributed to Biden including the “racist ‘equity’ agenda” and the “economically destructive and ineffective climate-related financial-risk agenda”.

Moore’s co-authors are William L Walton, a private equity investor, and David R Burton, an economic policy expert. The three authors identify social security as a program relevant to treasury reform, including it in “issues of concern” that “cut across multiple parts of treasury or other governmental agencies”.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Berry, who was chief counsel to the Trump transition in 2016-17 and led the regulatory section of the Department of Labor in the Trump administration, notes the potential for privatisation of social security, writing: “Existing statutory language in the Social Security Act does not prohibit non-public organisations from administering the programme.”

In his statement, Carrk also accused Moore of “belittling women and people of color”.

In May 2019, Moore withdrew from consideration for a seat at the Fed. Amid intense media scrutiny, the Guardian reported tax and legal issues affecting Moore including underpaying alimony to his ex-wife. Columns written by Moore also came under scrutiny, unearthed sexist remarks including complaints about women in sports and asking whether there was anywhere in life “men can take a vacation from women”. Moore also wrote that Black families were replacing men with “a welfare check” and that increased earnings for Black women would make Black men “financially expendable”.

Withdrawing from consideration for the Fed, Moore said that the “unrelenting attacks on my character have become untenable for me and my family” but told Trump he would “continue to be a loud economic voice advocating your policies” and would “always [be] at your disposal”.

Moore went on to advise Trump during the Covid pandemic. Now, as well as writing books and providing analysis for Fox News, he is attached to a range of rightwing groups – he is a Heritage Foundation fellow; the senior economist at FreedomWorks; and chair of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity (CUP).

Moore co-founded CUP in 2015 with the billionaire Steve Forbes, the economist Larry Kudlow (later Trump’s chief economic adviser) and Arthur Laffer, an economist and pundit who advised Ronald Reagan and Trump and to whom Trump gave the presidential medal of freedom.

The Accountable.US report details donations of at least $1.77m to CUP from DonorsTrust, a rightwing group not required to reveal the names of its donors.

“A principled philanthropic partner for conservative and libertarian donors” in its own words, but “the right’s dark-money ATM” in the words of Mother Jones magazine, DonorsTrust has links to the Koch network and Leonard Leo, two dominant figures in rightwing political funding.

Carrk said: “With extremists like Moore calling the shots, Project 2025 may not have any credibility, but unfortunately they have limitless resources from the dark-money Leonard Leo network to undermine the health and retirement security of millions of Americans.”

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New Zealand online seller vows to ignore Australia’s new import ban

‘No intention of stopping’: New Zealand online vape seller vows to ignore Australia’s new import ban

Health department rejects seller’s taunt ‘new rules don’t apply to us’ and points to ‘escalated enforcement action as appropriate’

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A New Zealand online vape seller is taunting the Albanese government over its vaping reforms, telling customers “we have no intention of stopping” vape shipments because of “one twat in Canberra”, presumably in reference to the federal health minister, Mark Butler.

From Friday, importation of vapes to Australia is banned unless an importer has a licence and permit. Prescription vape importers and manufacturers also need to notify the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of their product’s compliance with standards.

A notice to Australian customers posted on the website www.vapoureyes.co.nz, which does not have a permit, states: “If you don’t get your order in before the deadline, understand this: we have no intention of stopping just because [of] one twat in Canberra”.

“Even once the March 1 deadline passes, we will continue shipping orders world-wide, including to Australia.”

The seller claims that “after getting solid legal advice, it’s clear that Australia’s new rules don’t apply to us here in New Zealand”.

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“If the Australian Border Force (ABF) want to waste their time attempting to stop you from staying off the darts instead of trying to catch heroin, cocaine, ice, and the dozens of other hard drugs pouring through the Australian border … Good luck to them.”

But a Department of Health spokesperson said the importation prohibition applies regardless of the country of origin.

“This includes New Zealand,” they said.

“The ABF and TGA are working closely together to stop illegal vapes from entering the country and are taking escalated enforcement action as appropriate, such as issuing infringement notices or taking court action.

“The TGA is also taking action against websites based overseas that are advertising to Australians.”

The health minister, Mark Butler, told Guardian Australia that while some vaping and tobacco companies would try “every trick in the book to get around our world leading vaping reforms,” the TGA had since 1 January seized more than 360,000 vapes, worth almost $11m. This is about three times as many than were seized in 2023, he said.

“I’ve wanted to be really honest with people that we’re not going to be able to stop every single vape coming into the country, in the same way we’re not stopping every bit of cocaine or other illicit drug,” Butler said.

“But what we’re dealing with here is a situation where these things have been flooding in and being sold to kids through vape stores – nine out of 10 which have been established within walking distance of schools. That’s no accident, they’re doing that because that is their target market. So, what we’ve really got to do is just choke off that supply.”

The government will introduce legislation in coming weeks to prevent domestic manufacture, advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic and disposable single-use vapes. If passed, this would see bricks and mortar vape stores shut down.

Prof Becky Freeman, a tobacco control expert at the University of Sydney, said Australia should be prepared for similar responses from other sellers.

She added that vape sellers seemed to change their messaging to suit their agenda.

“They on one hand like to continuously remind us how they follow the letter of the law, that they’re responsible, that they intend to do the right thing and on the side of good helping people to quit – and then they don’t respect the laws of the countries that they want to sell their products in.”

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Doctor dilemmaGPs could face surge of people seeking vaping prescriptions

Questions raised about whether GPs will be ready for influx of people seeking vaping prescriptions

Doctors admit helping patients quit vaping is a ‘new experience’ ahead of a near-total ban coming into force on 1 July

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GPs are preparing for a rush of patients seeking prescriptions for vapes or help to give up smoking, with a peak doctor’s lobby admitting it is a “new experience” for some medical experts ahead of new government vaping crackdowns and a near-total ban on electronic cigarettes from July.

The health minister, Mark Butler, says there is a need to “upskill” some GPs to help Australians off vapes. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) says doctors are well-equipped to handle the looming changes, which will outlaw vapes without a prescription, but the head of the Australian Medical Association says it may be a difficult task.

“We are very good at helping people get off cigarettes … But where people have attempted to stop smoking by taking up vaping, there’s almost no data at all about then getting off vaping,” the AMA president, Prof Steve Robson, said.

“It’s a new experience for many doctors.”

“The experience of dealing with cigarettes should translate, but it makes it all the more important that we do it right.”

The first tranche of the government’s vaping crackdown, especially targeted at discouraging young people and children from taking up the habit, came into effect on 1 January to ban importation of single-use products. Further legislation from 1 March will ban the personal importation of non-therapeutic vapes.

The final stage of legislation, which Butler said on Wednesday would come to parliament in mid-March, is intended to prevent the advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic vapes. These laws were intended to essentially ban smoke shops from selling vapes, and limit vaping to therapeutic products, prescribed by doctors and only available at pharmacies, as a tool to quit smoking.

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Butler plans these laws to come into effect from 1 July, and challenged the Coalition to back them. Guardian Australia understands some opposition members have concerns about the changes fostering a black market of illegal vapes that children would still be able to access.

The Coalition and Greens were approached for comment on their stance. The shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, said “no one wants to see Australian children having access to vaping products” but called on the government to focus greater resources on policing vape sale and importation.

The independent MP Dr Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist before entering parliament, applauded the vape ban and called the products a “scourge” on children. But she raised concerns about whether GPs were supported enough to deal with a possible influx of patients seeking help to quit vapes or asking for prescriptions once the bans came into force.

“I’ve raised the issue with Mark Butler that there may not be enough GPs to provide support to individuals to help them get off cigarettes. It shouldn’t be just an issue of providing vapes to them, they should get more support from GPs,” Ryan told Guardian Australia.

“I’ve got real concerns people will go back to cigarettes … people who are addicted will seek it out in any way they can, if they’re not supported in the right way.”

Butler said on Wednesday all GPs nationwide were, thanks to recent regulatory changes, able to prescribe vapes as a therapeutic good for smoking cessation, and the RACGP had been commissioned to give support to members.

“We tried to broaden that pathway from the only several hundred GPs that previously had been approved to do that. But we recognise that we need to upskill GPs in this. This is a new therapeutic product,” he said of medically approved vapes.

The RACGP president, Dr Nicole Higgins, said the college strongly backed the vaping reforms, calling for more to be done to discourage young smokers. She said GPs were equipped to handle the changes, with the college developing new education materials and updating guidance.

“The College is working hard to make sure GPs have the right information, education, resources, and tools at their disposal to prescribe nicotine vapes as a secondary smoking-cessation measure and help patients quit nicotine for good,” she said.

“The job is ahead of us as the vaping reforms ramp up; however, I am confident that GPs are equipped to prescribe these products and help patients quit.”

Higgins said GPs had “many years” of helping people quit smoking, including how to manage withdrawal and cravings, and use of nicotine replacement therapies.

Robson said the AMA also strongly backed the “world-leading” bans, calling vaping a “public health catastrophe”. He said the crackdown would take time, and that quitting nicotine could be difficult.

“Cigarette and nicotine use have been falling, but in the last few years, there’s been this extraordinary explosion. It’s new territory. I am so keen, absolutely frothing at the mouth, to get vaping to stop,” Robson said.

“We need to make sure it’s doable. We’re dealing with a new generation of Australians addicted to something. It’s not their fault, they were preyed upon.”

Robson said he expected longstanding smoking therapies would be effective to quit vaping, but doctors must be properly resourced.

“The vast majority of people who vape, it’s not voluntary. They’re addicted. We need to look through a paradigm of helping people deal with addiction. We can’t reasonably expect to see changes without that,” he said.

Kids are the victims in this. We need to make sure if young people are addicted to nicotine, they have the opportunity to work with doctors and providers to get off this.”

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Inquest into Marion Barter’s disappearance gives daughter hope for answers

‘We’re not finished yet’: inquest into Marion Barter’s disappearance gives daughter hope for answers

For Sally Leydon the NSW coroner’s findings are a step closer to learning what happened to her mother, who’s been missing for 27 years

For 27 years – more than half of her life – Sally Leydon has been searching for her mother. On Thursday, a live clock counted down the minutes on Leydon’s website as the New South Wales state coroner, Teresa O’Sullivan, prepared to deliver her findings in the inquest into the disappearance of Marion Barter.

Thousands of people from around the world tuned in to hear the coroner speak. Barter, a primary school teacher, had become a cause célèbre, an enduring mystery, world-famous in her unexplained disappearance. Twenty million people have downloaded the podcast The Lady Vanishes since its debut in 2019.

But for Leydon, her mother’s absence has been an ache, an anguish, that for 22 years she carried alone; bewildered and struggling to find anyone to listen, to act, to help her. “I’ve had doors constantly closed in my face. No one was hearing my screams for help,” she told the Guardian last year.

On Thursday the coroner agreed, criticising NSW police for their failures in the case that had “led to the unavailability of crucial evidence surrounding Marion’s disappearance” and, ultimately, “resulted in Marion’s disappearance remaining unsolved”.

The coroner found that Barter is likely deceased, but she could not provide the family with further answers. “I am unable to determine the place of Marion’s death. I am unable to determine the cause of Marion’s death. I’m unable to determine the manner of Marion’s death,” O’Sullivan said.

She could not rule out foul play. In fact, O’Sullivan urged the NSW police commissioner to ensure the case remains with the state crime command’s “unsolved homicide team” for ongoing investigation.

The coroner was particularly dubious of Barter’s former lover, the convicted conman Ric Blum, who she said had “exploited Marion” and lied while giving evidence.

O’Sullivan said she was “convinced” that Blum “does indeed know more” and “that there is a sufficient basis for a finding that he was and is deliberately unwilling to devote this further knowledge to the court”.

However, she declined to recommend any charges be laid against him.

An abrupt life change

When I first met Leydon in 2010, she told me her mother was an educated woman. “She didn’t drink or smoke. She was a very dainty cultured person. She was a schoolteacher. That’s all she did. She loved her job. If she wasn’t at school, she was at one of the parents’ houses having afternoon tea.”

After three failed marriages – the first to the football player Johnny Warren – she was disheartened and lonely. “She didn’t have much success with the men in her life,” Leydon said. Nor was she street smart. “She was totally naive, innocent, very trusting.”

In March 1997 Barter made an abrupt life change. She announced that she was going on a sabbatical to Europe, quit her job and sold her house.

And she became uncharacteristically secretive. When Leydon and her fiance ran into her at a petrol station at a local McDonald’s, there was a tall man sitting in her car. Seeing her daughter, Barter sped off the wrong way.

On Thursday, the coroner found that, “Marion and Mr Blum travelled together in England as a couple in a relationship”. But Marion’s hopes for true love were a mirage. The coroner found Blum “clearly did not intend to pursue the relationship because he was married with children”.

Blum had told the inquest that he had only seen Barter four times and had not seen her again after she left the country.

Meanwhile, Barter withdrew money in August 1997 and transferred $80,000 to an unknown account two months later “on the encouragement of Mr Blum and in circumstances where Marion believed that she was in a relationship with him”.

When the coroner’s inquest began in February 2022, two women came forward to identify Blum as the man with whom they had also had a relationship, although he had used different names with each. Both were vulnerable and recently divorced. Both were encouraged to sell their property and start a new life in France with Blum.

In June 2023, two more European women came forward to the inquest. Ghislaine Dubois-Danlois, widowed at the age of 50, had placed a small ad in a local paper in 2006. Believing “Frederick de Hedervary was going to marry her in Bali and they would emigrate to Australia”, she sold her car and house and liquidated her bank accounts. Within weeks he had walked out of her house with her life savings of €70,000 and her most valuable possessions.

In 2012 Marie Christine Landrieu, a Belgian widow, had received a visit from a man who was her dead husband’s cousin. He wanted them to buy a house in Bali, splitting the purchase price of €200,000. She would be left penniless in Bali when he walked out with €100,000 in cash.

The coroner stated that “the evidence of these women demonstrates a tendency on the part of Mr Blum to misrepresent himself to single vulnerable women for financial gain”.

“I find that Mr Blum exploited Marion in 1997 in the manner in which he later exploited other women who have given evidence in these proceedings. I make this finding despite Mr Blum’s denials in this regard and notwithstanding that the women involved in his (later) relationships remained alive and well.”

It was revealed that the man now known as Ric Blum, a Belgian national, had been convicted of larcenies, embezzlement, fraud, breach of trust and false impersonation between 1965 and 1973. The coroner said “Mr Blum’s dishonesty and manipulation of women for financial gain is consistent with the nature of the offences he committed in Europe for which he served time in prison”.

Her passport was never used again

Blum was presenting himself as Fernand Remakel, the coroner said, when he suggested to Barter that they start a new life in Luxembourg.

Unbeknown to her family, Barter changed her name to Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel in 1997, two months before she left Australia.

Barter insisted that no one go to the airport to see her off on 22 June 1997.

On 1 August Barter phoned Leydon, reportedly from Tunbridge Wells in the UK. They spoke until she ran out of coins in the phone box. There was no indication that anything was wrong or that she was returning to Australia. “She said I was the best daughter,” says Leydon, “and that was the last time I spoke to my mum.”

The coroner found that Barter “took steps to ensure that no one was aware of her return to the country”, but she did come back to Australia in August. Her passport was never used again.

On 18 October, when Barter did not contact her son Owen for his 23rd birthday, Leydon realised she did not know where in the world her mother was. She contacted Barter’s bank. She discovered that over a three-week period in August and September, $5,000 a day had been withdrawn in Byron Bay and Burleigh Heads in northern NSW.

She reported Barter missing on 22 October and walked around Byron and Burleigh with photos asking if anyone had seen her. A week earlier, $80,000 had been electronically transferred to an unknown account, according to the coroner’s findings. O’Sullivan stated: “I am satisfied that the person seeking to withdraw or transfer the $80,000 was in fact Marion using photographic identification to the satisfaction of the bank teller.” It was the last time Barter was seen alive.

‘Very little was done’

The coroner found that the “nature and adequacy of the police investigation into the disappearance of Marion by NSW police between 1997 up until 2019 was not adequate. Very little was done.”

Barter was officially listed as a missing person for the first time in 2007.

In 2009 Det Sen Const Gary Sheehan took over the case. Told by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Barter had changed her name, Sheehan believed Barter had staged her own disappearance and took her off the missing persons list, marking her as “located”. She was not reinstated until 2022. The coroner found that “Sheehan should not have reclassified Marion as located in 2011”.

When the The Lady Vanishes podcast launched in 2019, it attracted the attention of Joni Condos, a cookbook writer, former social worker and, it turned out, a formidable investigator who has been working full-time on the case ever since.

She was struck by the name Remakel. She ran the name “through all these active online databases. If you just put ‘Remakel’ in, you would never have got it.” She tried putting spaces between the letters in different combinations. And then she found it. A 1994 lonely hearts ad in Le Courrier Australien, a French-English bilingual newspaper. Fernand Remakel was “searching for a lady with a free heart. Looking or a permanent relationship and or marriage.”

Twenty-two years after Leydon first reported her mother missing, the unsolved homicide unit established Strike Force Jurunga to investigate Barter’s disappearance. Police would find a lapsed Queensland driver’s licence in the name of Fernand Remakel that linked to the man now known as Ric Blum.

“On 24 August 1988,” the coroner stated, “Mr Blum dishonestly applied for and was issued with a Queensland driver’s licence in the name of Fernand Nicola Remakel. I accept this submission and find that Mr Blum’s motivation was to dishonestly misrepresent himself… and that Mr Blum’s weak explanation and denials in this regard should be wholly rejected.”

The coroner further stated that Blum “has further knowledge of Marion’s travel overseas, he has further knowledge of his relationship with her in the months prior to her disappearance, that he has further knowledge of her circumstances following her return from overseas. This evidence, along with his lies and deceptions throughout the inquest, has convinced me that he does indeed know more than he is saying. There is sufficient basis for me to make a finding that Mr Blum was in communication with Marion and played some role in her life following her return to Australia.”

The coroner said any decision to prosecute Blum should be left to police, particularly considering their investigation has not concluded.

She praised Leydon “on her unwavering commitment and participation in the coronial investigation and inquest to find out what happened to her mother. She has shown fortitude, dignity, resilience and grace throughout these proceedings.”

As far as Leydon and Condos are concerned, their own investigation will continue unabated. They will not stop until Leydon finds her mum.

Speaking to the Seven Network after the findings were handed down, Leydon said it was a “bittersweet” day, but she was glad she hadn’t given up.

“It’s a very long arduous journey. It’s not easy. We’re not finished yet. I would like to see justice served. Someone knows something.”

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Inquest into Marion Barter’s disappearance gives daughter hope for answers

‘We’re not finished yet’: inquest into Marion Barter’s disappearance gives daughter hope for answers

For Sally Leydon the NSW coroner’s findings are a step closer to learning what happened to her mother, who’s been missing for 27 years

For 27 years – more than half of her life – Sally Leydon has been searching for her mother. On Thursday, a live clock counted down the minutes on Leydon’s website as the New South Wales state coroner, Teresa O’Sullivan, prepared to deliver her findings in the inquest into the disappearance of Marion Barter.

Thousands of people from around the world tuned in to hear the coroner speak. Barter, a primary school teacher, had become a cause célèbre, an enduring mystery, world-famous in her unexplained disappearance. Twenty million people have downloaded the podcast The Lady Vanishes since its debut in 2019.

But for Leydon, her mother’s absence has been an ache, an anguish, that for 22 years she carried alone; bewildered and struggling to find anyone to listen, to act, to help her. “I’ve had doors constantly closed in my face. No one was hearing my screams for help,” she told the Guardian last year.

On Thursday the coroner agreed, criticising NSW police for their failures in the case that had “led to the unavailability of crucial evidence surrounding Marion’s disappearance” and, ultimately, “resulted in Marion’s disappearance remaining unsolved”.

The coroner found that Barter is likely deceased, but she could not provide the family with further answers. “I am unable to determine the place of Marion’s death. I am unable to determine the cause of Marion’s death. I’m unable to determine the manner of Marion’s death,” O’Sullivan said.

She could not rule out foul play. In fact, O’Sullivan urged the NSW police commissioner to ensure the case remains with the state crime command’s “unsolved homicide team” for ongoing investigation.

The coroner was particularly dubious of Barter’s former lover, the convicted conman Ric Blum, who she said had “exploited Marion” and lied while giving evidence.

O’Sullivan said she was “convinced” that Blum “does indeed know more” and “that there is a sufficient basis for a finding that he was and is deliberately unwilling to devote this further knowledge to the court”.

However, she declined to recommend any charges be laid against him.

An abrupt life change

When I first met Leydon in 2010, she told me her mother was an educated woman. “She didn’t drink or smoke. She was a very dainty cultured person. She was a schoolteacher. That’s all she did. She loved her job. If she wasn’t at school, she was at one of the parents’ houses having afternoon tea.”

After three failed marriages – the first to the football player Johnny Warren – she was disheartened and lonely. “She didn’t have much success with the men in her life,” Leydon said. Nor was she street smart. “She was totally naive, innocent, very trusting.”

In March 1997 Barter made an abrupt life change. She announced that she was going on a sabbatical to Europe, quit her job and sold her house.

And she became uncharacteristically secretive. When Leydon and her fiance ran into her at a petrol station at a local McDonald’s, there was a tall man sitting in her car. Seeing her daughter, Barter sped off the wrong way.

On Thursday, the coroner found that, “Marion and Mr Blum travelled together in England as a couple in a relationship”. But Marion’s hopes for true love were a mirage. The coroner found Blum “clearly did not intend to pursue the relationship because he was married with children”.

Blum had told the inquest that he had only seen Barter four times and had not seen her again after she left the country.

Meanwhile, Barter withdrew money in August 1997 and transferred $80,000 to an unknown account two months later “on the encouragement of Mr Blum and in circumstances where Marion believed that she was in a relationship with him”.

When the coroner’s inquest began in February 2022, two women came forward to identify Blum as the man with whom they had also had a relationship, although he had used different names with each. Both were vulnerable and recently divorced. Both were encouraged to sell their property and start a new life in France with Blum.

In June 2023, two more European women came forward to the inquest. Ghislaine Dubois-Danlois, widowed at the age of 50, had placed a small ad in a local paper in 2006. Believing “Frederick de Hedervary was going to marry her in Bali and they would emigrate to Australia”, she sold her car and house and liquidated her bank accounts. Within weeks he had walked out of her house with her life savings of €70,000 and her most valuable possessions.

In 2012 Marie Christine Landrieu, a Belgian widow, had received a visit from a man who was her dead husband’s cousin. He wanted them to buy a house in Bali, splitting the purchase price of €200,000. She would be left penniless in Bali when he walked out with €100,000 in cash.

The coroner stated that “the evidence of these women demonstrates a tendency on the part of Mr Blum to misrepresent himself to single vulnerable women for financial gain”.

“I find that Mr Blum exploited Marion in 1997 in the manner in which he later exploited other women who have given evidence in these proceedings. I make this finding despite Mr Blum’s denials in this regard and notwithstanding that the women involved in his (later) relationships remained alive and well.”

It was revealed that the man now known as Ric Blum, a Belgian national, had been convicted of larcenies, embezzlement, fraud, breach of trust and false impersonation between 1965 and 1973. The coroner said “Mr Blum’s dishonesty and manipulation of women for financial gain is consistent with the nature of the offences he committed in Europe for which he served time in prison”.

Her passport was never used again

Blum was presenting himself as Fernand Remakel, the coroner said, when he suggested to Barter that they start a new life in Luxembourg.

Unbeknown to her family, Barter changed her name to Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel in 1997, two months before she left Australia.

Barter insisted that no one go to the airport to see her off on 22 June 1997.

On 1 August Barter phoned Leydon, reportedly from Tunbridge Wells in the UK. They spoke until she ran out of coins in the phone box. There was no indication that anything was wrong or that she was returning to Australia. “She said I was the best daughter,” says Leydon, “and that was the last time I spoke to my mum.”

The coroner found that Barter “took steps to ensure that no one was aware of her return to the country”, but she did come back to Australia in August. Her passport was never used again.

On 18 October, when Barter did not contact her son Owen for his 23rd birthday, Leydon realised she did not know where in the world her mother was. She contacted Barter’s bank. She discovered that over a three-week period in August and September, $5,000 a day had been withdrawn in Byron Bay and Burleigh Heads in northern NSW.

She reported Barter missing on 22 October and walked around Byron and Burleigh with photos asking if anyone had seen her. A week earlier, $80,000 had been electronically transferred to an unknown account, according to the coroner’s findings. O’Sullivan stated: “I am satisfied that the person seeking to withdraw or transfer the $80,000 was in fact Marion using photographic identification to the satisfaction of the bank teller.” It was the last time Barter was seen alive.

‘Very little was done’

The coroner found that the “nature and adequacy of the police investigation into the disappearance of Marion by NSW police between 1997 up until 2019 was not adequate. Very little was done.”

Barter was officially listed as a missing person for the first time in 2007.

In 2009 Det Sen Const Gary Sheehan took over the case. Told by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Barter had changed her name, Sheehan believed Barter had staged her own disappearance and took her off the missing persons list, marking her as “located”. She was not reinstated until 2022. The coroner found that “Sheehan should not have reclassified Marion as located in 2011”.

When the The Lady Vanishes podcast launched in 2019, it attracted the attention of Joni Condos, a cookbook writer, former social worker and, it turned out, a formidable investigator who has been working full-time on the case ever since.

She was struck by the name Remakel. She ran the name “through all these active online databases. If you just put ‘Remakel’ in, you would never have got it.” She tried putting spaces between the letters in different combinations. And then she found it. A 1994 lonely hearts ad in Le Courrier Australien, a French-English bilingual newspaper. Fernand Remakel was “searching for a lady with a free heart. Looking or a permanent relationship and or marriage.”

Twenty-two years after Leydon first reported her mother missing, the unsolved homicide unit established Strike Force Jurunga to investigate Barter’s disappearance. Police would find a lapsed Queensland driver’s licence in the name of Fernand Remakel that linked to the man now known as Ric Blum.

“On 24 August 1988,” the coroner stated, “Mr Blum dishonestly applied for and was issued with a Queensland driver’s licence in the name of Fernand Nicola Remakel. I accept this submission and find that Mr Blum’s motivation was to dishonestly misrepresent himself… and that Mr Blum’s weak explanation and denials in this regard should be wholly rejected.”

The coroner further stated that Blum “has further knowledge of Marion’s travel overseas, he has further knowledge of his relationship with her in the months prior to her disappearance, that he has further knowledge of her circumstances following her return from overseas. This evidence, along with his lies and deceptions throughout the inquest, has convinced me that he does indeed know more than he is saying. There is sufficient basis for me to make a finding that Mr Blum was in communication with Marion and played some role in her life following her return to Australia.”

The coroner said any decision to prosecute Blum should be left to police, particularly considering their investigation has not concluded.

She praised Leydon “on her unwavering commitment and participation in the coronial investigation and inquest to find out what happened to her mother. She has shown fortitude, dignity, resilience and grace throughout these proceedings.”

As far as Leydon and Condos are concerned, their own investigation will continue unabated. They will not stop until Leydon finds her mum.

Speaking to the Seven Network after the findings were handed down, Leydon said it was a “bittersweet” day, but she was glad she hadn’t given up.

“It’s a very long arduous journey. It’s not easy. We’re not finished yet. I would like to see justice served. Someone knows something.”

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Australia’s approach to investigating alleged international crimes ‘not working’, Greens say

The wanted: Australia’s approach to investigating alleged international crimes ‘not working’, Greens say

David Shoebridge’s comments follow Guardian/Four Corners investigation that revealed Rwanda issued indictments for two men living in Australia it accused of participating in genocide

Australia’s current approach to investigating and prosecuting allegations of serious international crimes “is not working”, the Greens defence and justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge has said.

Legal experts and former prosecutors have said Australia needs a specialist investigations unit to look into allegations of international crimes such as genocide, or it risks becoming a “safe haven”.

Reports from the Guardian and Four Corners on Monday that the Rwandan government has issued indictments for two men in Australia it accuses of participating in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 have reanimated debate about Australia’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting international crimes such as genocide.

Shoebridge stressed that Australia should be proud of its history as a multicultural country that welcomed people from all over the world.

But the senator held that “we need to have the systems in place to investigate and prosecute” individuals accused of involvement in alleged international crimes. “We also need to work with other countries to ensure people can’t escape prosecution,” he said.

“Australia should be extremely proud that so many people from around the world come here to build their lives, in some cases fleeing countries where they face violence and persecution.

“We owe every survivor of oppression, torture or genocide an obligation to make our society safe for them and to have systems in place that hold any offenders to account. This, you hope, is a bare minimum we can agree on regardless of politics.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general said the government could not comment on specific cases, but that “the Australian government is committed to tackling serious international crimes and takes allegations of genocide very seriously”.

In 2007, the Labor party’s national policy platform said it recognised the Australian government’s key role in developing the convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide and other international treaties, but said “there are major gaps in Australia’s domestic laws that allow such accused criminals to enter and live here without fear of prosecution”.

“Labor is committed to meeting Australia’s international human rights obligations by closing these loopholes and Labor will review investigatory resources to ensure that any [alleged] perpetrators found in Australia can be brought to justice.”

The commitment has since been dropped from the policy platform.

Legal experts and former prosecutors have argued that Australia – unlike other comparable countries such as the UK, US and European countries – does not have a dedicated unit that specialises in investigating international crimes.

Rawan Arraf, the executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, has said that a lack of a dedicated investigative body in Australia meant it was failing its international obligations.

“Where a generalist unit within the AFP [Australian federal police] has been involved in international crimes investigations, it has proven ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of these investigations and lacks the expertise required,” she said.

A spokesperson for the AFP rejected suggestions it lacked expertise and resources to adequately investigate alleged international crimes.

“The AFP works closely with foreign law enforcement agencies, international bodies and mechanisms” who prosecute alleged international crimes to ensure alleged perpetrators “with a connection to Australia are held to account”, the spokesperson said.

The Guardian/Four Corners investigation revealed Rwanda has issued indictments for two men it believes are in Australia and whom it accuses of participating in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.

Rwanda has requested the men’s arrest and extradition to the country to face fresh trials, or for Australia to prosecute the men domestically.

One of the men, who lives in Brisbane, has said allegations against him are “false” and “smears”; the family of the second man says he is innocent although they insist he is not in the country.

The Guardian/Four Corners investigation does not suggest the two men are guilty, only that serious allegations deserve further investigation by appropriate authorities.

The cases, however, could prove legally complex. Australia waited decades after ratifying the genocide convention to make genocide a crime under domestic law, not adopting legislation until 2002. The laws, when passed, were not retrospective, so a charge of genocide predating that time could not be prosecuted under the criminal code without legislative change.

Australia does not have an extradition treaty with Rwanda and has never extradited anybody there.

While there are multilateral treaties under which Australia could extradite a person to Rwanda, Australia’s courts, or the government, might be reluctant to return someone to a country with a questionable human rights record and, as some observers argue, a compromised criminal justice system.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Rwandan government manipulates elections by arresting or assassinating critics and obstructing opposition parties, and polls are marred by allegations of voter intimidation and electoral fraud.

Some Rwandan community members in Australia have said the indictments against the two men here are politically motivated or, at least, have been raised by the Rwandan government as a way to silence dissent.

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Police to be granted power to instantly issue year-long domestic violence protection orders

Queensland police to be granted power to instantly issue year-long domestic violence protection orders

Exclusive: New ‘police efficiency’ laws planned amid political pressure to devote more frontline resources to youth crime

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The Queensland government is planning to introduce new “police efficiency” laws that would empower officers to issue on-the-spot year-long domestic violence protection orders, amid ongoing political pressure to devote more frontline resources to youth crime.

Documents leaked to Guardian Australia show the state intends to announce police “modernisation measures” in mid-March, including legislative amendments allowing officers to impose immediate protection orders for up to 12 months without having to make an application to a court.

The proposal will probably prove controversial, after admitted failures to protect women and evidence that victims are routinely “misidentified” as perpetrators by officers. Guardian Australia reported last month that police had labelled murdered Gold Coast woman Kelly Wilkinson’s attempts to seek help as “cop shopping”.

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Domestic and family violence occupies about 40% of police time in Queensland. Data shows breaches of domestic violence protection orders have more than doubled since 2019. An inquiry into police responses to domestic and family violence heard evidence that officers disbelieved female victims and actively avoided attending calls. At the same time, community anxiety about youth crime has placed pressure on police and the state government to devote more resources to the issue.

A letter sent by the outgoing commissioner, Katarina Carroll, last month says the proposals took into account “current community and service delivery challenges” and that police had been “experiencing increasing demand responding to and investigating offences, particularly where members of the community have been victimised”.

A protection order is a civil document that places restrictions on a person alleged to have committed domestic violence. It is a criminal offence to breach those restrictions. Under current laws, police can issue a temporary “protection notice” that lasts until a court hearing. The new “police-issued protection order framework” would allow police to make orders lasting 12 months.

Research by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (Anrows) has previously found that almost half the women murdered by an intimate partner in Queensland had previously been labelled by police as the perpetrator of domestic violence.

A consultation document – which has not been publicly released – says a trial of the new measures would include “safeguards” designed to prevent misidentification of the person most in need of protection. These would include approval and review required by senior officers. “Cross orders” – a process where both parties are made subject to conditions, which has proved problematic in the past – would not be allowed.

“The PIPO will enable police officers to administratively issue a protection order for 12 months,” the document says.

“This will allow police officers to provide immediate, ongoing protection for a victim-survivor at the time of the incident, and ensure the perpetrator is immediately aware of the order and the consequences of breaching.”

“There would also be a significant reduction in the number of proceedings in the magistrates court, providing relief to both judicial system and the administrative requirements for police officers to complete further applications, appear before the court and other ongoing service requirements.”

One source says consultation with experts and others was “rushed” – most were given a week to offer feedback on the plan.

The proposed Police and Other Legislation (Police Efficiencies) Amendment Bill 2024 also includes other plans to streamline the police and court process related to protection orders, and to allow courts to make orders without the consent of the aggrieved party, in certain circumstances.

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Send troops and risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Sending troops to Ukraine would risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Russian president threatens ‘tragic’ consequences for war interventionists during state of the nation speech

  • Ukraine war – live updates

Vladimir Putin has told Nato countries that they risk provoking a nuclear war if they send troops to fight in Ukraine, in an annual state of the nation speech ramping up his threats against Europe and the US.

In a reference to Emmanuel Macron’s comments earlier this week in which he opened the door to sending European ground troops to Ukraine, the Russian president said it would lead to “tragic” consequences for the nations who decided to do that.

“There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine,” Putin said in his combative two-hour address on Thursday.

“[Western nations] must understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that? We remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to the territory of our country. Now the consequences for possible interventionists will be much more tragic.”

Putin described western warnings that Russia might attack Europe as “nonsense” but spoke of a potential nuclear conflict if the west tried an “intervention” in Russia.

“They think this is some kind of game. They are blinded by their own superiority complex,” he said.

The French president’s comments earlier this week in which he refused to rule out sending troops to Ukraine prompted other western countries, including Germany and the UK, to say they had no such plans, though on Thursday the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, appeared to back Macron, saying leaders should discuss all options to help Ukraine.

Russia was ready to hold dialogue with the US on arms control, Putin said, but said the country’s nuclear forces were fully ready for use.

The Russian president, who was speaking just a few weeks before an election in which he is widely expected to win another six-year term in power, gave a rosy assessment of the war that has entered its third year, saying that Russian troops had “the initiative” and were “liberating new territories”.

His comments are backed by recent Russian successes on the battlefield as delays in US and EU military aid to Ukraine have already forced its troops to scale back some military operations, further lifting the mood in Moscow.

After capturing the strategic north-eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka earlier this month, Russian troops have seized three more villages in the past few days, indicating a growing momentum in their advance.

Putin appeared to repeat his hardline stance that demanded Ukraine’s unconditional surrender after Kyiv’s lacklustre counteroffensive this summer and delays in critical US military aid to Ukraine brought on by partisan infighting in Washington DC.

He called for the “denazification of Ukraine”, and said Russia would do “everything to achieve all our aims”.

Putin spent a considerable portion of the address discussing Russia’s population decline and the threat it poses to the country.

Russia suffered two decades of gradual population decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a problem exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, during which tens of thousands of Russian service personnel have been killed on the battlefield.

Putin proposed a series of financial measures to support large families while also criticising “western values” for destroying “family ties”.

This year’s state-of-the-nation speech was shown live in cinemas and public venues across the country, in an effort to boost Putin’s message before the presidential elections.

Allies of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Russian authorities had intervened to stop them from holding his funeral on Thursday, as they worried it would overshadow Putin’s speech.

Putin is yet to comment on the death of his most formidable opponent.

Navalny’s supporters are expected to gather on Friday in Moscow for his funeral amid uncertainty whether police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye.

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Send troops and risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Sending troops to Ukraine would risk provoking nuclear war, Putin tells Nato

Russian president threatens ‘tragic’ consequences for war interventionists during state of the nation speech

  • Ukraine war – live updates

Vladimir Putin has told Nato countries that they risk provoking a nuclear war if they send troops to fight in Ukraine, in an annual state of the nation speech ramping up his threats against Europe and the US.

In a reference to Emmanuel Macron’s comments earlier this week in which he opened the door to sending European ground troops to Ukraine, the Russian president said it would lead to “tragic” consequences for the nations who decided to do that.

“There has been talk about the possibility of sending Nato military contingents to Ukraine,” Putin said in his combative two-hour address on Thursday.

“[Western nations] must understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that? We remember the fate of those who once sent their contingents to the territory of our country. Now the consequences for possible interventionists will be much more tragic.”

Putin described western warnings that Russia might attack Europe as “nonsense” but spoke of a potential nuclear conflict if the west tried an “intervention” in Russia.

“They think this is some kind of game. They are blinded by their own superiority complex,” he said.

The French president’s comments earlier this week in which he refused to rule out sending troops to Ukraine prompted other western countries, including Germany and the UK, to say they had no such plans, though on Thursday the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, appeared to back Macron, saying leaders should discuss all options to help Ukraine.

Russia was ready to hold dialogue with the US on arms control, Putin said, but said the country’s nuclear forces were fully ready for use.

The Russian president, who was speaking just a few weeks before an election in which he is widely expected to win another six-year term in power, gave a rosy assessment of the war that has entered its third year, saying that Russian troops had “the initiative” and were “liberating new territories”.

His comments are backed by recent Russian successes on the battlefield as delays in US and EU military aid to Ukraine have already forced its troops to scale back some military operations, further lifting the mood in Moscow.

After capturing the strategic north-eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka earlier this month, Russian troops have seized three more villages in the past few days, indicating a growing momentum in their advance.

Putin appeared to repeat his hardline stance that demanded Ukraine’s unconditional surrender after Kyiv’s lacklustre counteroffensive this summer and delays in critical US military aid to Ukraine brought on by partisan infighting in Washington DC.

He called for the “denazification of Ukraine”, and said Russia would do “everything to achieve all our aims”.

Putin spent a considerable portion of the address discussing Russia’s population decline and the threat it poses to the country.

Russia suffered two decades of gradual population decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a problem exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, during which tens of thousands of Russian service personnel have been killed on the battlefield.

Putin proposed a series of financial measures to support large families while also criticising “western values” for destroying “family ties”.

This year’s state-of-the-nation speech was shown live in cinemas and public venues across the country, in an effort to boost Putin’s message before the presidential elections.

Allies of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Russian authorities had intervened to stop them from holding his funeral on Thursday, as they worried it would overshadow Putin’s speech.

Putin is yet to comment on the death of his most formidable opponent.

Navalny’s supporters are expected to gather on Friday in Moscow for his funeral amid uncertainty whether police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye.

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Productivity drops 3.7% as employment surges and investment slows

Australian workers’ productivity drops 3.7% as employment surges and investment slows

Wage growth from higher employment and hours worked without output gains could fan inflation, Productivity Commission warns

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A surge in employment combined with scant investment by firms to improve output triggered a sharp drop in worker productivity, limiting prospects for income growth without fanning inflation, the Productivity Commission said in its annual report.

Across the economy, productivity fell 3.7% in 2022-23, as output growth failed to keep pace with a record 6.9% increase in hours worked, the commission said. A rush by employers to hire new staff was much higher than in previous bursts – the nearest comparison was the 4.3% rise in hours worked in 1988-89.

“Australians’ incomes grew in 2022-23, mostly because they worked more hours,” said the commission’s deputy chair, Alex Robson. “But productivity growth is about working smarter, not working harder or longer.”

With labour market participation hovering near its record 67%, the economy has little scope to generate higher incomes by adding workers or time on the job, he said.

“What’s worse, we know nominal wage growth without productivity growth can fuel inflation,” Robson said. “Sustainable, long-term wage growth can only be realised by securing productivity gains.”

Employers, though, were also not doing their bit. The capital-to-labour ratio, one measure of spending on equipment to improve output, fell by a record 4.9% for the year.

“So while a record number of Australians had jobs, employers didn’t invest in the equipment, tools and resources that are needed to make the most of employees’ skills and talents,” Robson said. “Further capital investment would help turn our strong employment growth into strong productivity growth.”

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The Reserve Bank has been one of the economic institutions to warn wage increases had to be accompanied by increased productivity to avoid adding to inflation pressures and delaying any interest rate cuts.

In its latest statement on monetary policy, released at its first board meeting of 2024, the RBA listed productivity outcomes as among “still highly uncertain” outcomes in its forecast for how fast inflation may fall back to its 2%-3% target range.

“Other things equal, poor productivity outcomes would underpin higher-than-expected costs for businesses and put upward pressure on the prices paid by consumers,” it said.

Wages rose 4.2% last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or slightly faster than the 4.1% inflation rate. That was the first time in about two years that the wage price index had exceeded its consumer price equivalent.

Still, economists have been wary about reading too much into recent poor productivity results. One issue has been the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic disruptions, with many people spending more time working from home.

And, as the Productivity Commission itself notes, the decline in hourly output per worker was partly the result of some of the extra hours worked being taken up by “less experienced or less productive labour”. Many of those jobs were also in “relatively low‑productivity sectors” such as retailing and hospitality, the report said.

With the unemployment rate now creeping up to 4.1% in January from a half-century low of 3.4% in October 2022, output per hour was also beginning to improve.

“The decline in labour productivity appears to have halted in the first quarter of the 2023-24 financial year, although this is largely attributable to a fall in hours worked,” the bulletin said.

By industry, labour productivity grew most in the professional, scientific and technical services sector, with a 3% increase. The wholesale trade industry posted the largest fall, at 11.4%, as hours worked jumped 15.7%.

All up, 11 out of the 16 market sector industries reported a decline.

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Global company Entain to leave Australia’s peak lobbying group

Global gambling company to leave Australia’s peak lobbying group

Entain will withdraw from Responsible Wagering Australia in coming months, as a government crackdown on betting ads looms

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One of the world’s biggest gambling companies has abandoned Australia’s peak lobbying group, just as the federal government prepares to announce tougher restrictions on betting ads.

Policy analysts believe Entain’s withdrawal from the Responsible Wagering Australia (RWA) group highlights how bookmakers would be disproportionately affected if the government restricts betting ads, as recommended by a parliamentary inquiry.

Entain – the parent company for the Ladbrokes and Neds – has confirmed it will withdraw in the coming months. RWA represents Sportbet, Bet365, Pointsbet and Unibet. Tabcorp and several smaller online gambling companies are not members.

Crossbench MPs urging the government to announce a ban – a position also held by some government MPs – have suggested Entain’s move indicated “some gambling companies are starting to realise the writing is on the wall”.

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Entain’s withdrawal has been described as a commercial decision by many sources, but the company has acknowledged entrenched differences with Sportsbet on the issue of gambling advertising.

The company, which is headquartered in the Isle of Man, has rejected claims it urged Sportsbet to rein in gambling ads during football matches.

Sportbet, which is the largest online operator in Australia, has concentrated its advertising and business model on major sporting codes. The company is the AFL’s official wagering partner and its multi-bet options have been promoted by the league, despite poor outcomes and strong criticism.

Entain has announced it would no longer promote its brand on the jerseys of major sporting teams. It has instead prioritised the racing market.

Last year, Entain wrote to racing organisations to share its modelling on the effect of advertising restrictions. Those figures were used by clubs to urge their members to lobby ministers, arguing an ad ban would result in dogs suffering and animal welfare programs closing.

Sportsbet and the RWA were contacted for comment.

Freedom of information documents obtained by independent MP Kate Chaney, who was a member of the inquiry led by the late Labor MP Peta Murphy, show Sportsbet and Entain independently secured meetings with the communication minister’s staff to provide their feedback on advertising, separate to RWA’s engagement.

“Some gambling companies are starting to realise the writing is on the wall,” Chaney said. “The community wants a ban on online gambling ads and the government has the opportunity to show it will listen.”

Charles Livingston, a gambling expert at Monash university, said Entain and Sportsbet were fierce competitors and while they may agreed on many issues, it was obvious they would never agree on an issue like advertising.

“It is in Sportbet’s interest to suppress advertising to a certain extent as they already have the big customer base,” Livingston said. “They don’t need to give a leg up to others that want more advertising.

“Some firms are happy enough with greater restrictions because they’ve already got a solid market and everyone knows who they are. There are others that desperately need advertising to build up a customer base.”

Kate Griffiths, a governance researcher at the Grattan Institute, said Entain’s withdrawal was unlikely to reduce the influence of gambling companies and called for restrictions on political donations.

“The gambling industry punches above its weight in trying to influence Australian politics,” Griffith said. “Now online gambling is in the hot seat, we’re seeing the same playbook: well-timed donations, overblown claims about community benefits and heightened lobbying activity,” Griffiths said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s industry groups or individual companies seeking to influence government. The risk is the same: that the voices of industry are amplified above those of the community – the people being affected by gambling harms.”

The independent MP Rebekha Sharkie, who is co-chair of the parliamentary friends of gambling harm reduction, said she was not surprised to see the split given their profits. She accused the government of sitting on Murphy’s report, saying the delay was “unacceptable”.

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Assault charges to be dropped against released detainee hours after Dutton question time attack

Assault charges to be dropped against man released from indefinite detention hours after Dutton question time attack

Police say CCTV footage indicates another man, not the 44-year-old former detainee, involved in alleged sexual assault in Melbourne

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Victoria police has moved to withdraw assault charges against a man released due to the high court’s ruling on indefinite detention just hours after Peter Dutton used the incident to launch a question time attack on the Albanese government, linking it to the Dunkley byelection.

On Thursday Victoria police revealed a 44-year-old Richmond man who had been released as a result of the politically controversial court ruling had been charged with sexual assault, stalking and two counts of unlawful assault.

The charges were weaponised in question time by the opposition leader, who noted the government was yet to make an application to re-detain any of the 149 people released as a result of the high court’s NZYQ decision.

The arrest and charges followed “two incidents in Richmond on [Tuesday] 27 February 2024, where a woman was allegedly assaulted and another woman allegedly stalked”, Victoria police said in its original statement.

But later on Thursday afternoon, police revealed they had “since notified the Richmond man’s legal representation and the process has commenced to formally withdraw the charges”.

“Detectives today returned to an address in Richmond and identified a man on CCTV who they now believe is the person who was involved in the incidents,” Victoria police said in a new statement.

“That man has not been arrested at this time. The investigation into the two incidents in Richmond remains ongoing.”

On Thursday evening, Victoria police commander Mark Galliott, apologised for the error, and said it was too soon to say whether the man will be compensated.

“I wouldn’t say it was a blunder, the investigators had sufficient information to make the arrest. “There was an error in arresting the person and remanding him and as I said, as soon as we found out about that we’ve rectified it. We apologise sincerely for what’s occurred.

Galliot said that the GPS data from the man’s ankle bracelets, which released detainees have been required to wear indefinitely, and CCTV data when corroborated together had placed the man at the scene. However investigators have found he was not connect with the incident.

“The person identified and the 44-year-old male are very much alike in their appearance,” Galliot said.

“It was race, age, height, clothing at the time and the quality of the CCTV at the time and better CCTV today, and the fact that we’re able to go to a wider area and actually track this person’s movements satisfied the investigators today that another person was involved.”

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Guardian Australia understands that there is nothing to indicate that the second man now believed to be involved in the incidents is a former detainee released by the high court ruling.

Earlier, the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, told the House of Representatives that although he would not “comment on the individual case” he noted media reports that the man – against who charges have been withdrawn – “was subject to both electronic monitoring and curfew, as well as other strict visa conditions”.

Giles said that “because of the strict visa conditions … the location of every individual in this cohort is known”.

Dutton told the house that Giles “is a disaster”, arguing his decisions have “put Australians at risk and women in Victoria are alleged to have been sexually assaulted”.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, countered with a series of quotes from Coalition frontbenchers accepting the decision of the high court, which was that non-citizens cannot be indefinitely detained where it is not practical to deport them.

“I’ll tell you what strength is not,” he said. “Strength is not asking for responses that would endanger judicial processes.”

Asked if Giles enjoyed his full confidence, Albanese replied: “Yes.”

Labor and the Coalition believe the Dunkley byelection, in Melbourne’s south-east, is neck and neck.

In addition to the merits of the Labor candidate, Jodie Belyea, who is up against the Frankston mayor, Nathan Conroy, the government has campaigned on cost-of-living relief, particularly its $359bn tax package delivering bigger tax cuts to low- and middle-income earners on less than $147,000.

Labor has come under attack from rightwing campaign group Advance over cost of living, which is regarded as voters’ number one issue, and the release of people from detention due to the NZYQ decision.

Both major parties are engaged in expectations management, with the prime minister claiming since the Hawke era the average against the government in byelections is 7%, which the Coalition disputes. Labor’s Peta Murphy held the seat on a 6.3% margin.

Dutton said since the second world war “the average swing against the government in a federal byelection is 3.6%, about half of what the prime minister is claiming” while the average swing against a first-term government is 1.5%.

“No first-term government has lost a seat in a byelection since world war two,” he told 2GB radio.

Dutton noted Victoria was “traditionally a tough market for the Liberal party”.

“We would expect a swing of about 3% in a seat like that … 3% would be a big outcome, it would be bad for the government.”

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UK site told to close after complaints about parties and loud sex

Hampshire glamping site told to close after complaints about loud sex and bad singing

Secret Garden Glamping in Lymington caused harmful level of disturbance to neighbours, planning officers rule

It was billed as a peaceful glamping retreat designed to provide visitors to the New Forest with a taste of life’s simple pleasures, perfect for romantic getaways or family breaks.

But Secret Garden Glamping in Lymington, Hampshire, has been ordered to close after neighbours complained about late-night parties, noisy sex and blaring karaoke sessions that featured “delusional” versions of the song Islands in the Stream.

Planning officers ruled that the garden glamping site, which backs on to other properties, caused a harmful level of disturbance to neighbours.

Liz Feay, the owner of Secret Garden Glamping, set up two tents – named Flora and Belle – in the garden of her three-bedroom semi-detached house without planning permission. Visitors who came were impressed, one describing it as a “little gem in the heart of Lymington”.

After four years, she applied for retrospective planning permission to New Forest district council, but neighbours expressed concerns about the site.

Mel Sims, 51, said: “I live directly behind this garden. I bought this house last year, thinking it was in a quiet cul-de-sac. The noise from this garden/field in the summer is too much, often past midnight. There is music, loud chat, sex in the thin tents we all awkwardly hear and swearing.”

Another neighbour, Daniel Wells, said: “Socialising continues through the working week, disturbing sleep for myself, my wife and our son whose bedroom is at the back of the house. Most upsetting perhaps is that on several occasions we have had to close the window to block out the sound of a couple engaging in acts of a sexual nature, which the fabric walls of a tent clearly did not and do not contain.

“There was a karaoke machine there for a time and on one notable sunny afternoon, whilst trying to enjoy our garden with friends, we had to instead listen to a couple blaring out Islands in the Stream over and over, deluded in thinking they were Dolly [Parton] and Kenny [Rogers].”

The council refused Feay’s planning application. The case officer dealing with the complaint, said: “The area where the tents have been located is in a part of the garden close to nearby residential properties. The tents are constructed only of a thin canvas material and therefore lack soundproofing.”

Feay, who has described herself as “a born and bred New Forest girl” with a “genuine love for the area and the people who live here”, declined to comment.

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