The Guardian 2024-03-03 22:31:51


BoM chief indicates cost of IT overhaul to staff after refusing to disclose to senators

‘Nearly a billion dollars’: BoM chief indicates cost of IT overhaul to staff after refusing to disclose to senators

Exclusive: January 2023 video shows Andrew Johnson detailing Robust project’s initial and ongoing costs, despite telling senators such details were bound by cabinet secrecy

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The CEO and director of the Bureau of Meteorology, Andrew Johnson, revealed to staff the cost of its delayed IT overhaul – one of Australia’s most expensive ever – despite repeatedly telling senators such details must be kept under wraps for cabinet secrecy reasons.

Johnson declined senators’ requests in October to disclose the cost of the bureau’s computer upgrade, labelled Robust. He again rejected such calls during Senate estimates on Tuesday, telling the South Australian Greens senator Barbara Pocock: “I wish I could tell you, but as a cabinet decision … I’m not at liberty to disclose those to you.”

However, in January 2023, Johnson detailed to staff the project’s initial and ongoing costs, according to a video of his speech at an Australia Day awards event seen by Guardian Australia.

“The initial program we got up – I think we can probably almost talk about it now – [was] nearly a billion dollars in funds, a billion dollars over four-ish years. It’s a huge amount of money especially for a little agency like us.

“So to even get to the starting blocks to get this quantum of investment required an enormous effort,” Johnson said. “In my experience, [it was] one of the largest, most comprehensive, multidisciplinary, whole of agency, whole of government efforts.”

Johnson then told staffers that “some of you will be aware” the bureau had secured “another billion in new funding over the decade ahead”. At the time of his speech, spending was already two years into the 10-year period, and was “starting off slow [but then] the serious money really kicks in”.

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A bureau spokesperson said the Robust funding, provided in the 2017–18, 2018–19 and 2020–21 federal budgets “was listed as not-for-publication due to commercial sensitivities”.

“Dr Andrew Johnson’s comments to staff during the 2023 Australia Day Awards event were consistent with questioning from Senator Barbara Pocock during Senate estimates in October 2023,” the spokesperson said. “Dr Johnson did not disclose the exact cost of the funding in either of those discussions.”

The bureau’s answers are unlikely to satisfy senators who have been pressing the government and the bureau to state details of the Robust program. They have been particularly concerned about the secrecy involving the cost of outside consultants, as well as how spending overruns will compromise other services – such as providing extreme weather or bushfire warnings – if funds are reallocated.

Pocock told Guardian Australia that it was “extremely worrying” the cost of Robust was being kept secret even though the government could reveal the price of the Aukus nuclear submarines or even the F-35 strike fighter program.

“We’ve heard unconfirmed reports that the amount is around the $1bn mark, which is said to be three times the original budget for this project,” Pocock said. “Why on earth can’t we find out how much an IT project at the weather bureau will cost?

“We have plenty of evidence of the large consulting firms basically ripping off the public purse, overcharging for poor quality work by underqualified staff with huge delays on delivery,” she said.

Pocock said it seemed “absurd that the total amount can be shared widely within the BoM but not with those who foot the bill, the taxpayers and those they elect, the parliament”, adding the bureau should make the video available to the public.

The Tasmanian Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam said that if Johnson had “failed to be completely upfront with the Senate, then that is in defiance of the scrutiny and accountability that is incumbent on all public officials”.

“There are very serious questions to be answered about the Robust program, its costs and its consequences – and any evasion of those answers is nowhere near good enough,” he said. “All government agencies, including the BoM, have a responsibility to provide full and truthful answers to the parliament.”

Guardian Australia approached the office of Tanya Plibersek, the minister responsible for the bureau, for comment.

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Minns says Mardi Gras pro-Palestine protest ‘wasn’t too much of a big deal’; Asean summit to begin

Chris Minns, said it is “a bit strange” that he was the first NSW premier to march in the Mardi Gras parade at the weekend, “given that it [has been] a fixture on the calendar for decades”.

Speaking to ABC News Breakfast, Minns said a pro-Palestine protest that took place during the march on Saturday “wasn’t too much of a big deal on the night”.

He said:

Look, a lot has been made of it, but to be honest, it wasn’t too much of a big deal on the night. I mean, there was some coloured flares that went off, and I said yesterday, I thought that that was actually part of Mardi Gras. So I don’t think that it disrupted me or the march too much. A little bit of protest at Mardi Gras is probably pretty standard, so not the end of the world.

Former president confuses Obama for Biden again at Virginia rally

Trump confuses Obama for Biden again at Virginia rally speech

Richmond crowd reportedly went silent as 77-year-old mixed up the president and ex-president for third time in past six months

Donald Trump confused Barack Obama for Joe Biden at a rally in Virginia on Saturday, triggering further questions about the age of the likely Republican presidential nominee who has made a string of such gaffes.

It also comes at a time of similar concerns about the Biden. At 77 and 81 respectively, Trump and Biden are the oldest people to run for the presidency in US history.

“Putin has so little respect for Obama that he’s starting to throw around the nuclear word. You heard that. Nuclear. He’s starting to talk nuclear weapons today,” said Trump, on Saturday night in Richmond.

The crowd reportedly went silent as the Trump referenced Obama, who left office more than seven years ago. It’s the third time Trump has made the blunder in the past six months.

The former US president’s other gaffes include confusing his Republican rival Nikki Haley with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Haley, 52, who has defied Trump and several primary defeats to continue in the race for the Republican nomination, has tried to frame herself as the younger, healthier option – referring to Trump and Biden as Grumpy Old Men in her campaign ads.

Trump’s mistake came the day after Biden, twice confused Ukraine and Gaza as he announced that the US would airdrop humanitarian supplies to Palestinians in Gaza who are dying of starvation due to the Israeli bombardment and blockades.

“In the coming days, we’re going to join with our friends in Jordan and others who are providing airdrops of additional food and supplies into Ukraine,” Biden said on Friday. The US will “seek to open up other avenues into Ukraine, including possibly a marine corridor”, he added.

A White House official later clarified that Biden meant Gaza – not Ukraine. The gaffe had been changed in the transcript of his remarks.

Questions about Biden’s age have intensified in recent months.

The latest lapse came days after was declared “fit for duty” at his annual health check. White House physician Dr Kevin O’Connor said Biden “fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations”.

A new New York Times/Siena College poll found that 73% of registered voters polled believe Biden is too old to be an effective president, including 61% of those who voted for him in 2020. Voters seem less bothered about Trump, who is just four years younger, with 42% of those polled saying he “just too old” to be an effective president.

While criticisms of the age issue on both sides are laced with political spin, age-related cognitive decline is real.

As a person gets older, changes occur in all parts of the body including the brain. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA) certain parts of the brain shrink, including those important to learning and other complex mental activities; communication between neurons may be less effective; and blood flow in the brain may decrease.

Healthy older adults can however learn new skills, form new memories, improve vocabulary and language skills. The NIA is conducting research on so-called cognitive super-agers, the minority of octogenarians and nonagenarians whose memories are comparable to people 20 to 30 years younger.

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US electionsMajority of voters think Biden is too old to be effective president, new poll says

Majority of voters think Biden is too old to be effective president, new poll says

Results are latest blow to Biden’s election campaign which has faced a barrage of criticism over his age

A majority of voters in the US believe Joe Biden is just too old to be an effective president, according to a new poll by the New York Times and Siena College.

According to the poll’s results, 73% of all registered voters believe Biden is too old to be effective, in turn revealing spreading concerns about the 81-year-old president’s mental competency.

Among those who voted for Biden in 2020, 61% believe Biden’s age will make him an ineffective president for a second term, with 26% indicating that they strongly agree and 35% indicating that they somewhat agree.

The results of the wide-ranging poll, which were first released Friday, are the latest blow to Biden’s election campaign which has faced a barrage of criticism centered around Biden’s age and widespread voters’ fears about his ability to be president.

At 81, Biden is the oldest president ever to seek re-election, though his likely challenger, Donald Trump, is only four years younger. However, in much recent polling Biden is usually trailing to Trump and he also faces high disapproval ratings.

In response to whether Biden’s age is such a problem that he is not capable of handling the job of president, 45% of total registered voters agreed in the latest New York Times/Siena study. Among those that voted for Biden four years ago, 19% said they agreed with the statement.

Meanwhile, across all registered voters, 26% expressed that while Biden’s age makes him ineffective, he is still able to handle the job of president well enough. Among those that voted for him in 2020, 41% agreed with the statement.

In comparison to Biden, 42% of all registered voters believe Trump is just too old to be an effective president. Among those that voted for Trump in 2020, 5% indicated that they strongly agree while 9% said they somewhat agree.

Across all registered voters, 21% believe that the 77-year-old former president’s age makes him ineffective but he is still able to handle the job well enough while only 19% said they believe Trump’s age is such a problem that he is not capable of handling the job.

In response to the latest poll, Biden’s campaign communication manager Michael Tyler said that polling “consistently overestimates” Donald Trump while underestimating Biden, Politico reported.

“Polling continues to be at odds with how Americans vote, and consistently overestimates Donald Trump while underestimating President Biden,” Tyler told the outlet.

Tyler added: “Whether it’s in special elections or in the presidential primaries, actual voter behavior tells us a lot more than any poll does and it tells a very clear story: Joe Biden and Democrats continue to outperform while Donald Trump and the party he leads are weak, cash-strapped, and deeply divided. Our campaign is ignoring the noise and running a strong campaign to win – just like we did in 2020.”

The new poll comes on the heels of a Bloomberg News and Morning Consult study released last month which found Biden lagging behind Trump in key swing states.

According to that poll, 82% of voters in key swing states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin believe that Biden is too old.

The poll also found a majority of voters, including 28% of those who plan to vote for him in November, expressing the belief that Trump is dangerous, particularly as Trump ramps up his extremist attacks amid his growing legal battles and attempts to secure the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

In a chilling speech delivered at CPAC last weekend, Trump vowed his “ultimate and absolute revenge” and declared himself a “proud political dissident”, promising “judgment day” for his political opponents.

Despite the rise in Trump’s extremism, concerns appear to still largely surround Biden’s age and efficacy. A separate poll conducted by Gallup last month found that Biden’s approval rating was at 38%, marking a three-percentage point drop from January, while 59% of surveyed adults indicated disapproval towards the president.

Amid growing concerns surrounding Biden’s age and mental competency, special counsel Robert Hur called the president an “elderly man with a poor memory” in a 388-page report released last month on Biden’s retention of classified material.

In response, Biden defended his memory in a fiery speech in which he adamantly said, “My memory is fine.”

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ColoradoUS supreme court to issue ruling as Trump ballot case looms

US supreme court to issue ruling as Trump Colorado ballot case looms

Court did not specify what ruling, planned for Monday, will be issued, but decision to come a day before state’s primary election

The US supreme court plans to issue at least one ruling on Monday, the day before Colorado holds a presidential primary election in which a lower court kicked Republican frontrunner Donald Trump off the ballot for taking part in an insurrection during the 6 January 2021 US Capitol attack.

The supreme court, in an unusual Sunday update to its schedule, did not specify what ruling it would issue. But the justices on 8 February heard arguments in Trump’s appeal of the Colorado ruling and are due to issue their own decision.

Colorado is one of 15 states and a US territory holding primary elections on “Super Tuesday”. Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 5 November election.

The Republican party of Colorado has asked the supreme court, whose 6-3 conservative majority include three justices appointed by Trump, to rule before Tuesday in the ballot eligibility case.

During arguments, supreme court justices signaled sympathy toward Trump’s appeal of a 19 December ruling by Colorado’s top court to disqualify him from the state’s ballot under the US constitution’s 14th amendment.

Section 3 of the 14th amendment bars from holding public office any “officer of the United States” who took an oath “to support the Constitution of the United States” and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof”.

Trump supporters attacked police and swarmed the Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory. Trump gave an incendiary speech to supporters beforehand, telling them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell”. He then for hours rebuffed requests that he urge the mob to stop.

Anti-Trump forces have sought to disqualify him in more than two dozen other states – a mostly unsuccessful effort – over his actions relating to the January 6 attack. Maine and Illinois also have barred Trump from their ballot, though both those decisions are on hold pending the supreme court’s Colorado ruling.

During arguments in the Colorado case, supreme court justices – conservatives and liberals alike – expressed concern about states taking sweeping actions that could impact a presidential election nationwide.

They pondered how states can properly enforce the section 3 disqualification language against candidates, with several wondering whether Congress must first pass legislation do enable that.

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Israel asks candidate to change controversial lyrics

Israel asks Eurovision candidate to change controversial lyrics

National broadcaster says it agreed to make changes after request from country’s president

Israel has agreed to revise the lyrics of its potential submission to the Eurovision song contest after organisers took issue with verses that appeared to reference Hamas’s 7 October attack.

The contest, which will take place from 7 to 11 May in the Swedish city of Malmö, can disqualify contestants deemed to have breached its rules on political neutrality. Kan, Israel’s national broadcaster, is tasked with choosing the country’s entry.

The leading Israeli submission is October Rain, a ballad sung by the solo artist Eden Golan.

According to lyrics leaked to the media and later confirmed by Kan, it includes lines such as “There’s no air left to breathe” and “They were all good children, each one of them” – apparent allusions to people who holed up in shelters as Hamas gunmen killed and kidnapped people at an outdoor music festival and other sites, which sparked the war in Gaza.

Kan said it had asked the writers of October Rain and the second-place finalist, Dance Forever, to revise their lyrics while also preserving their artistic freedom. It will then officially choose a song to send the Eurovision committee.

The European Broadcasting Union, which organises Eurovision and had previously said it was in the process of scrutinising the lyrics, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kan’s decision.

The Israeli broadcaster said it had agreed to make the changes after a request from the country’s president, Isaac Herzog.

“The president emphasised that at this time in particular, when those who hate us seek to push aside and boycott the state of Israel from every stage, Israel must sound its voice with pride and its head high and raise its flag in every world forum, especially this year,” Kan said.

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Israel asks candidate to change controversial lyrics

Israel asks Eurovision candidate to change controversial lyrics

National broadcaster says it agreed to make changes after request from country’s president

Israel has agreed to revise the lyrics of its potential submission to the Eurovision song contest after organisers took issue with verses that appeared to reference Hamas’s 7 October attack.

The contest, which will take place from 7 to 11 May in the Swedish city of Malmö, can disqualify contestants deemed to have breached its rules on political neutrality. Kan, Israel’s national broadcaster, is tasked with choosing the country’s entry.

The leading Israeli submission is October Rain, a ballad sung by the solo artist Eden Golan.

According to lyrics leaked to the media and later confirmed by Kan, it includes lines such as “There’s no air left to breathe” and “They were all good children, each one of them” – apparent allusions to people who holed up in shelters as Hamas gunmen killed and kidnapped people at an outdoor music festival and other sites, which sparked the war in Gaza.

Kan said it had asked the writers of October Rain and the second-place finalist, Dance Forever, to revise their lyrics while also preserving their artistic freedom. It will then officially choose a song to send the Eurovision committee.

The European Broadcasting Union, which organises Eurovision and had previously said it was in the process of scrutinising the lyrics, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kan’s decision.

The Israeli broadcaster said it had agreed to make the changes after a request from the country’s president, Isaac Herzog.

“The president emphasised that at this time in particular, when those who hate us seek to push aside and boycott the state of Israel from every stage, Israel must sound its voice with pride and its head high and raise its flag in every world forum, especially this year,” Kan said.

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Brain tumour patient had payments suspended while in hospital recovering from surgery

Brain tumour patient had Centrelink payments suspended while in hospital recovering from surgery

Australian Council of Social Service says ‘unconscionable’ case shows why mutual obligations system must be ‘replaced with a fair system’ for jobseekers

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A jobseeker is calling for an overhaul to the way suspensions are handled after his Centrelink payments were suspended while he was in hospital recovering from brain surgery.

The Albanese government is mulling an overhaul of the employment services system following a damning parliamentary review that criticised the mutual obligations system, which can suspend jobseekers’ welfare payments if they do not fulfil tasks such as attending meetings and submitting job applications.

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Under the current regime, hundreds of thousands of people have their payments suspended each year due to what the Australian Council of Social Service (Acoss) has described as an “oppressive automated systems” that advocates argue cause stress, exacerbate poverty and can make it harder for people to find work.

Mark*, a Victoria-based welfare recipient, had his payments suspended by his job agency in April last year. At the time he was also homeless.

A letter from Services Australia, seen by Guardian Australia, says Mark’s jobseeker payment was “stopped from 14 April 2023 because you did not go to, or were late for an appointment arranged by your provider on 13 April 2023”. There is no regulation requiring employment agencies to speak to people before suspending their payments.

The payments were suspended despite Mark lodging a medical certificate with Services Australia, saying he had been unable to fulfil his obligations due to surgery to remove a brain tumour at a Melbourne hospital on 10 April.

“I ended up in hospital after the operation and then got a text message from [the job provider] saying they’ve cancelled my payments, which was really frustrating,” Mark said.

He says because the medical certificate took several weeks to process, he was cut off before it could be approved. It took him six weeks to get his payment reinstated, as he was recovering from brain surgery and experiencing a high degree of confusion, he said.

“Technically, I was in hospital, but I was homeless. I was staying in short-term accommodation,” Mark said.

“So I thought, ‘Jeez, that’s all I need to have that cut off. How am I going to pay rent anywhere? Buy food?’ It was just a kick in the guts I didn’t really need at the time.

“I had to try then, to call them back, then call the manager and it just became a drawn-out process.”

After hospital, Mark went to stay with his sister in regional Victoria while he recovered. She helped him contact Services Australia and apply for a medical exemption, but he said he should not have been cut off in the first place.

“I think it’s overreach,” he said. “[Services Australia] have been given too much authority to cancel people’s payments without proper due diligence.”

He says he is grateful for the medical exemption now, but when he needed support at the start “it just wasn’t there”.

“You’re not thinking clearly, you’re on a lot of medication,” he said. “You just think I just need this to restart again. And it was a real battle because I couldn’t really concentrate and communicate that well.”

The Acoss chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the number of suspensions is “unconscionable” given the findings of the robodebt royal commission.

“Each month more than 80,000 people are threatened with loss of the income support that barely keeps them fed and housed, often due to oppressive automated systems that can make it impossible for people to meet their compliance obligations,” she said.

Payment suspensions cause immense mental distress and place people already facing severe financial deprivation in an even more precarious situation, Goldie said.

“It is long past time to end this harmful practice. Mutual obligations should be suspended until the deeply flawed and harmful compliance and penalty regime is replaced with a fair system,” she said.

The parliamentary review into the government’s flagship employment services program, Workforce Australia, last year recommended that automated payment suspensions should cease and that only officials at Centrelink should have the power to suspend income support payments.

Guardian Australia approached the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (Dewr), the minister, Tony Burke, and Mark’s job agency for comment.

Burke’s office and the job agency did not respond and the department did not respond to questions about his specific case.

Last week a Department of Employment and Workplace Relations spokesperson told Guardian Australia less than 10%, or 28,283 of the suspensions, resulted in income actually being paused. The median suspension duration is four business days.

When asked this week what is being done to ensure all suspensions are valid, a spokesperson said: “The department works closely with all providers to ensure that client requirements are appropriate to their individual circumstances.

“We monitor [providers’] application of the Targeted Compliance Framework and continually engage with providers on how they are applying payment suspensions and demerits and take action where it is identified that compliance has been incorrectly applied.”

*Name has been changed for privacy

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Boss defends undercover police operation targeting autistic boy

Asio boss defends undercover police operation targeting boy with autism

Mike Burgess says security agencies ‘don’t radicalise people’ and stands by actions of police in case of 13-year-old with Islamic State ‘fixation’

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The Asio chief has insisted security agencies “don’t radicalise people” but admitted “dealing with minors is incredibly difficult” after court findings criticising an undercover operation targeting a 13-year-old child with autism.

Guardian Australia revealed last month that the boy, known by the pseudonym Thomas Carrick, was granted a permanent stay on terror-related charges last October, after a magistrate found police “fed his fixation” with Islamic State during the operation and “doomed” his efforts at rehabilitation.

The Australian federal police deputy commissioner, Ian McCartney, told a parliamentary committee that a “decision was made jointly between the AFP, Asio and Victoria police that the threat – the real threat – had escalated to such a level that we had to take action”.

McCartney authorised a major controlled operation into the boy, which eventually resulted in his arrest soon after his 14th birthday, in October 2021 – six months after his parents had approached Victoria police for help dealing with his fixation.

The head of domestic intelligence agency Asio, Mike Burgess, said he would not “go into great details on this case” during an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast.

But when asked to explain Asio’s role in signing off on the joint operation and whether it had done any soul-searching over the matter, Burgess said the AFP was conducting a review.

“We are a member of the joint counterterrorism teams in states and territories and therefore we are a member of the joint counterterrorism team in Victoria – and when a member of that group takes action, we’re backing that and we’re part of that process,” Burgess said.

“Of course, the police do their job, we do our job. But I stand with them on the work that they’ve done.”

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In the decision, magistrate Lesley Fleming said the prospect of diverting and rehabilitating Thomas was destined to fail once the operative started communicating with him online and “fed his fixation, providing him with a new terminology, new boundaries and an outlet for him to express, what was in part, his fantasy world”.

“The community would not expect law enforcement officers to encourage a 13-14-year-old child towards racial hatred, distrust of police and violent extremism, encouraging the child’s fixation on Isis,” Fleming said in granting the permanent stay.

Burgess said he was not making “a comment on the judiciary” but indicated that “the information I have before me” may be different.

Speaking generally about the radicalisation of children, Burgess said: “When Asio and the Australian federal police come along, we’re at the wrong end of the scale.

“I’d stress that if we’re coming up to someone who is suspected of being radicalised or we know is radicalised, we’re at the wrong end of the scale – the radicalisation of minors is a broader society problem that we must address.

“Occasionally, sadly, there are minors that have actually planned acts of terrorism – and that has to be dealt with by us and the police.”

Burgess said dealing with minors was “incredibly difficult” and in such investigations “we have a whole range of extra policies, procedures and approval processes we must go through to consider the rights of the child”.

“We do not radicalise people. We investigate threats to security,” he said.

“And we will use more intrusive powers if we see and have the ability to justify those more intrusive powers to understand the nature of the threat, to either help it be mitigated or reduced or dealt with under law.”

The boy’s lawyers have previously said “the entire saga” has had an enormous impact on the child and his family. Thomas was charged with two offences in October 2021 but was granted a permanent stay two years later.

McCartney, of the AFP, told the parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement he did not take the decision to approve the controlled operation “lightly”. He cited “a set of exceptional circumstances” but acknowledged it was “a very challenging and complex matter”.

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Italian warship forced to shoot down Houthi missile

Italian warship forced to shoot down Houthi missile in Red Sea

Destroyer Caio Duilio, part of the EU shipping protection force, took out weapon when it came within four miles of the vessel

An Italian warship participating in the EU naval protection force in the Red Sea was forced to shoot down a Houthi missile on Saturday in a rare engagement by the country’s navy, which has largely avoided direct action since the second world war.

The incident came as Houthi officials vowed to continue to attack British ships after the UK-owned Rubymar sank on Saturday having taken on water for a fortnight after being hit by one of the group’s missiles.

The Italian intervention came as politicians from the UN-recognised Yemeni government based in Aden travelled to London to lobby the Foreign Office to recognise that the months of Houthi attacks must end the possibility of any peace agreement in which the group plays a part in a future coalition government.

The destroyer Caio Duilio waited until the missile was within four miles (6km) before firing on it.

Italy is part of Operation Aspides, launched on 19 February, which seeks to ensure freedom of navigation. It has a defensive mandate and is separate from the US-UK Operation Prosperity Guardian, which has attacked Yemeni targets and missile launchers on land.

Houthi officials said: “Italy jeopardises the safety of its military and commercial ships. We will strike the ships that attack our country or that hinder the decision to prevent Israeli ships from crossing the Red Sea.”

Houthi drones have also attacked the German frigate Hessen and last week the French frigate Languedoc, making it increasingly hard for western powers to know whether any of their shipping or protection forces are safe.

About a third of Italy’s seaborne exports go through the Suez Canal, so Rome has a direct commercial interest in securing freedom of navigation. Italian politicians have not yet fully sanctioned the the country’s role in the Red Sea, but are expected to start to do so next week.

Italy has been fully active in Nato and UN peace keeping missions, but its postwar constitution has restrictions on the deployment of armed forces.

The Houthis claim they are acting in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and that the attacks will stop as soon as Hamas accepts Israel’s ceasefire terms.

Celebrating the sinking of the Rubymar, the first since the Houthis launched their campaign, Hussein al-Ezzi, the deputy foreign minister in the Houthi-led government in Sana’a, said: “Yemen will continue to sink more British ships, and any repercussions or other damage will be added to Britain’s bill.”

He said Britain “is a rogue state attacking Yemen and collaborating with America in sponsoring ongoing crimes against civilians in Gaza”.

The Rubymar sank after being hit by an anti-ship ballistic missile launched on 18 February.

Mohammed Albasha, a Middle East analyst at the Navanti Group, a geo-security organisation, said the release of large quantities of fertilisers into the Red Sea could cause eutrophication, depleting the water of oxygen and creating “dead zones”.

Marine life, including fish populations, coral reefs and other aquatic organisms, are likely to suffer as a result of the toxic chemicals and reduced oxygen levels, he said. Fishing communities along Yemen’s Red Sea coast in Hodeidah and Taiz would see reduced catches and damaged livelihoods, he added.

Speaking at the Chatham House thinktank, Gen Tareq Saleh, the vice-chair of the presidential leadership council (PLC), the executive of the Aden-based government, insisted that the Houthi attacks had been prepared for years, evidenced by the quantity of missiles, as part of Iran’s longstanding desire to control the Red Sea.

He claimed the Palestinian cause has been Yemen’s since the 1962 revolution. “The Iranians and Houthis are trying to hijack this file from the Arabs,” he said. The crisis in the Red Sea would not end with peace in Gaza, he predicted.

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Italian warship forced to shoot down Houthi missile

Italian warship forced to shoot down Houthi missile in Red Sea

Destroyer Caio Duilio, part of the EU shipping protection force, took out weapon when it came within four miles of the vessel

An Italian warship participating in the EU naval protection force in the Red Sea was forced to shoot down a Houthi missile on Saturday in a rare engagement by the country’s navy, which has largely avoided direct action since the second world war.

The incident came as Houthi officials vowed to continue to attack British ships after the UK-owned Rubymar sank on Saturday having taken on water for a fortnight after being hit by one of the group’s missiles.

The Italian intervention came as politicians from the UN-recognised Yemeni government based in Aden travelled to London to lobby the Foreign Office to recognise that the months of Houthi attacks must end the possibility of any peace agreement in which the group plays a part in a future coalition government.

The destroyer Caio Duilio waited until the missile was within four miles (6km) before firing on it.

Italy is part of Operation Aspides, launched on 19 February, which seeks to ensure freedom of navigation. It has a defensive mandate and is separate from the US-UK Operation Prosperity Guardian, which has attacked Yemeni targets and missile launchers on land.

Houthi officials said: “Italy jeopardises the safety of its military and commercial ships. We will strike the ships that attack our country or that hinder the decision to prevent Israeli ships from crossing the Red Sea.”

Houthi drones have also attacked the German frigate Hessen and last week the French frigate Languedoc, making it increasingly hard for western powers to know whether any of their shipping or protection forces are safe.

About a third of Italy’s seaborne exports go through the Suez Canal, so Rome has a direct commercial interest in securing freedom of navigation. Italian politicians have not yet fully sanctioned the the country’s role in the Red Sea, but are expected to start to do so next week.

Italy has been fully active in Nato and UN peace keeping missions, but its postwar constitution has restrictions on the deployment of armed forces.

The Houthis claim they are acting in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and that the attacks will stop as soon as Hamas accepts Israel’s ceasefire terms.

Celebrating the sinking of the Rubymar, the first since the Houthis launched their campaign, Hussein al-Ezzi, the deputy foreign minister in the Houthi-led government in Sana’a, said: “Yemen will continue to sink more British ships, and any repercussions or other damage will be added to Britain’s bill.”

He said Britain “is a rogue state attacking Yemen and collaborating with America in sponsoring ongoing crimes against civilians in Gaza”.

The Rubymar sank after being hit by an anti-ship ballistic missile launched on 18 February.

Mohammed Albasha, a Middle East analyst at the Navanti Group, a geo-security organisation, said the release of large quantities of fertilisers into the Red Sea could cause eutrophication, depleting the water of oxygen and creating “dead zones”.

Marine life, including fish populations, coral reefs and other aquatic organisms, are likely to suffer as a result of the toxic chemicals and reduced oxygen levels, he said. Fishing communities along Yemen’s Red Sea coast in Hodeidah and Taiz would see reduced catches and damaged livelihoods, he added.

Speaking at the Chatham House thinktank, Gen Tareq Saleh, the vice-chair of the presidential leadership council (PLC), the executive of the Aden-based government, insisted that the Houthi attacks had been prepared for years, evidenced by the quantity of missiles, as part of Iran’s longstanding desire to control the Red Sea.

He claimed the Palestinian cause has been Yemen’s since the 1962 revolution. “The Iranians and Houthis are trying to hijack this file from the Arabs,” he said. The crisis in the Red Sea would not end with peace in Gaza, he predicted.

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PM says Liberal party lost because it ran ‘fear campaign’

Albanese says Liberal party lost Dunkley byelection because it ran a ‘fear campaign’ and is ‘dominated by blokes’

Prime minister says voters rejected opposition’s ‘negativity’ as Labor’s Jodie Belyea wins Victorian seat

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The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, says the Liberal party lost in the Dunkley byelection because it ran a “very negative campaign” and is “dominated by blokes”.

Speaking alongside Labor’s successful candidate, Jodie Belyea, in Frankston on Sunday, Albanese lashed the negative tone of the opposition’s campaign in the byelection, as well as the huge advertising spend of rightwing political group Advance.

“It’s pretty obvious that a very negative campaign was run by them and their partners in the Advance team … [who] spent upwards of $300,000 on negative, divisive messages,” the prime minister told reporters.

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“Australians want to be brought together. We have challenges as a nation, but we have incredible opportunities as well and we need to be positive. Jodie Belyea ran a very positive campaign.”

With about 75% of the vote counted at 3pm on Sunday, there was a 3.6% two-party preferred swing away from Labor in the outer suburban Melbourne electorate – well short of the 6.3% the Liberal party needed to win.

The deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, on Saturday night described the result as a “strong swing” and “an endorsement” for Dutton’s leadership.

She said voters in Dunkley had sent a “strong message” to Labor to “do something about the cost of living crisis”.

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The shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, said if replicated nationally Labor stood to lose Aston and McEwen in Victoria and would be forced to govern in minority.

Shadow immigration minister, Dan Tehan, repeated the comments on Insiders on Sunday morning. He said the feeling among Victorian Liberals was “we’re back”.

However, some Liberals believe the party needs to roll out more policies.

The MP for the Victorian seat of Menzies, Keith Wolahan, told the ABC that Dutton and his team had done “amazing job holding this government to account” but the “other side of the equation is making it very clear what we stand for and what solutions we have”.

Wolahan said “of course” the party needed to develop more policies, including on housing.

Albanese on Sunday said Labor was focused on governing “in majority”.

“That’s what we’re working towards each and every day. The Liberal party, apparently from their own commentary, that’s not their position,” he said.

During the campaign, the opposition sought to blame the Albanese government for the release of 149 immigration detainees from indefinite detention and the arrival of 39 asylum seekers in Western Australia.

Dutton also painted Labor’s vehicle fuel efficiency standards as a “ute tax” during one of his several visits to the outer suburban Melbourne electorate, which is highly reliant on cars.

Advance, meanwhile, ran advertising focused on community safety and cost-of-living issues. In one ad, it demanded the government reveal if any of the immigration detainees freed lived in the electorate.

Albanese said voters in Dunkley rejected the “fear campaign”.

“Some of the comments that have been made in the lead-up to the days before this byelection do nothing to advance the culture of politics in this country,” he said.

“People have look at the nature of the campaign that was run by Advance here and just shake their head.”

He also sought to contrast Labor’s “majority female” and “diverse” caucus with Peter Dutton’s Liberals.

“When you look at Peter Dutton’s team, what you see, by and large, is dominated by blokes and they keep having preselections and putting up more blokes,” he said.

He said the Liberals faced a test in Monday’s preselection vote for the New South Wales seat of Cook, vacated by the former prime minister Scott Morrison.

“They have an opportunity in Cook tomorrow … to select a woman,” Albanese said.

“If they do, then that will be a change of the pattern of behaviour that we’re seeing,” he said.

Albanese said Belyea would “carry on and build on the legacy” of Peta Murphy, whose death from cancer in December trigged the byelection. But he refused to commit to a ban on gambling advertising, as the late MP recommended in a landmark report handed down in June last year.

Both Albanese and Belyea identified the cost of living as their key focus ahead of the budget in May.

“I’ve already foreshadowed that we’ll have more measures in the budget,” Albanese said.

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Households under pressure as price of car travel rises at triple the rate of inflation

Australian households under pressure as cost of car travel rises at triple the rate of inflation

Drivers in capital cities faced increases of 12.4% in 2023 while the average driver in regional areas was hit with a 13.7% rise

Australian households are under increasing budget pressure when it comes to car travel as transport costs balloon to three times the inflation rate.

The typical household’s transport costs rose by about 13% in 2023, outpacing the inflation rate of 4.1%.

Drivers in capital cities faced increases of 12.4% while the average driver in regional areas was hit with a 13.7% rise.

High upfront costs for buying new vehicles, higher car loan interest rates and increasing insurance premiums were behind the ballooning transport costs, according to the Australian Automobile Association’s Transport Affordability Index.

Sabrina Mo works as a building designer in Sydney’s inner west and travels around New South Wales for work, including the occasional trip interstate.

She is feeling the cost increases.

Car registration and insurance costs increased by more than $300 in 2023 compared with the previous year while her toll payments almost doubled.

“Everything is just too expensive,” Mo said.

With the uncertain nature of the work taking her to wherever the projects are, she has to keep her transport budget open.

“Sometimes I might have to be out of the office for a whole week and sometimes I’ll be in the office for two or three weeks,” she said. “I have to drive wherever the demand is.”

In 2022 she was paying $1.20 a litre for petrol at the bowser but since 2023 it has been at least $1.60.

So she has had to make changes elsewhere.

“For other things like my groceries [budget] … I can manipulate it because I can be creative and start cooking really cheaply.”

Transport costs rose by a smaller 0.7% in the final quarter of 2023 but that did not offset large increases throughout the year, leading to transport affordability declining substantially.

In December 2022, the average city household spent 15.6% of its income on transport but that rose to 17% a year later.

The transport expenditure for households in the region rose from 14.4% of its income to 15.8%.

The decline in transport affordability is becoming a heavy burden on Australians feeling the cost-of-living pressures as the peak motoring body’s managing director Michael Bradley called on governments to consider these pressures when formulating policy.

“Transport is a significant and unavoidable expense for households and is also one of the key drivers of general inflation,” Bradley said.

In the December quarter, Canberra was the most affordable capital with the average household spending 14.8% of income on transport.

Hobart was the least affordable where 19.3% of an average household’s income went to transport.

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Malaysia in talks over new search 10 years after plane’s disappearance

Malaysia in talks over new search for flight MH370 10 years after disappearance

Families gather in Kuala Lumpur to honour the missing and say answers are needed for sake of flight safety

Malaysia’s government has signalled it plans to renew the search for the lost Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, 10 years after it disappeared.

It is in talks with the US marine robotics company Ocean Infinity to discuss a new search operation. The company says it is willing and able to return to the search, and has submitted a proposal to the Malaysian government.

Families of passengers who were onboard MH370 called for a renewed search operation as they gathered ahead of the 10-year anniversary of its disappearance, saying answers were needed for the future of flight safety.

Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 12 Malaysian crew members and 227 passengers, vanished from air traffic radar on 8 March 2014. Its disappearance sparked the largest ever search operation but the fate of the plane has never been resolved and remains one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.

On Sunday hundreds of relatives and supporters gathered at a shopping centre near Kuala Lumpur to remember the missing. They lit 239 candles, one for each passenger lost on the flight.

Jacquita Gonzales, the wife of Patrick Gomes, an inflight supervisor who was onboard, said: “Every year as we approach 8 March, all that happened on that day, the memories, come back as if it was only yesterday. We relive the agonising call from Malaysian Airlines to say the plane has gone missing.”

She recalled being glued to the television, hoping for good news that was still yet to arrive. “The only way to solve this is to find the plane. That’s why it is important to search on. Don’t let it remain a mystery,” she told an audience on Sunday.

Grace Nathan, a Malaysian lawyer whose mother, Anne Daisy, was on the flight, said: “I have gone on but I haven’t moved on.”

She described experiencing life’s milestones without her mother present. Her father did not smile in her sister’s graduation photos, she said. At her wedding, she carried her mother’s photos on a bouquet of daisies, a reference to her mother’s name. She longed for her mother as she went through two difficult pregnancies.

Passengers’ family members, including Nathan, have campaigned tirelessly for the flight’s disappearance to be resolved, travelling the world to search for debris and raise awareness. Nathan recalled travelling to Madagascar, where relatives trained residents of local fishing villages to search for parts of the plane.

“We are doing this for the future of aviation history. MH370 is not history, it’s the future of all our aviation safety every time we take to the skies,” Nathan said.

Relatives questioned the commitment of the authorities to resolving the mystery. “Is the government interested at all in the truth and finding answers?” asked KS Narendran, whose wife, Chandrika, was onboard. “Sympathy and solidarity from those in power means something only, and only if, accompanied by actions to address the sources of pain in people,” he said in a video address.

“We wish to see action … Taking MH370 as an anomalous event and adopting a business as usual stance is to normalise a safety threat as an acceptable travel and business risk,” Narendran added.

An underwater search for the plane, which was coordinated by Malaysia, China and Australia, ended in January 2017 after Australian authorities had spent almost three years scouring 120,000 sq km in the southern Indian Ocean without success – an operation that cost AU$180m, paid for by Australia and Malaysia.

Ocean Infinity conducted a search for the aircraft in the Indian Ocean in 2018 after it struck a “no find, no fee” arrangement with the Malaysian government. The search was unsuccessful.

The chief executive of Ocean Infinity, Oliver Plunkett, said the company also wanted to resume the search and was hopeful it would happen this year.

“We remain interested in returning to the search for MH370 and are actively engaged in trying to make this happen,” he said in a statement. “We now feel in a position to be able to return to the search for missing aircraft MH370, and have submitted a proposal to the Malaysian government.

“We hope to get back to the search soon.”

Malaysia’s transport minister, Anthony Loke, said that “as far Malaysia is concerned it is committed to finding the plane … cost is not the issue”.

He told relatives at the gathering that he would meet officials from Ocean Infinity to discuss a new operation. “We are now awaiting for them to provide suitable dates and I hope to meet them soon,” he said.

Pieces of debris confirmed or thought to be from the aircraft have washed up on the shorelines of South Africa, Mauritius, Mozambique and elsewhere. None have ultimately led to the discovery of the aircraft.

The flight was carrying 152 Chinese nationals and 50 from Malaysia, as well as passengers from Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine and the US.

Agence France-Presse and Tory Shepherd contributed to this report

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Guinea pig abandoned at tube station with note asking for new owner

Guinea pig abandoned at London tube station with note asking for new owner

RSPCA take in young rodent after Canning Town staff discover cage in alleyway

A guinea pig has been found abandoned outside an east London tube station, with a note reading: “I need a new owner.”

Staff at Canning Town station discovered the animal, which has been named DiscoPig, alone inside a cage with the piece of paper taped to it.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) described the dumping of the pet as “an incredibly cruel thing to do”.

The charity said the rodent, which it said was between six and 12 months old, had been left in a vulnerable situation and needed to be around other guinea pigs. It urged anyone with information about what happened to get in touch.

“A guinea pig can develop abnormal behaviour and may suffer if they are left without company of other guinea pigs,” the RSPCA inspector Shahnaz Ahmad said.

“He seemed healthy and well cared for,” added Ahmad, who collected the animal and took him to an RSPCA centre. “It’s very sad that someone has abandoned their pet in this way.

“We encourage people to reach out to local animal welfare charities for help with pet care, rather than leaving them in a vulnerable situation like this.

“Abandoning pets in such a manner is an incredibly cruel thing to do and never the answer. If anyone has information we would ask them to contact the RSPCA’s appeal line, confidentially on 0300 123 8018.”

Station staff discovered the cage in an alleyway, where there was no CCTV, at about 4.20pm on 18 February. The pet will soon be available to rehome from the RSPCA, along with a mate.

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