The Guardian 2024-03-04 04:31:19


Judge rules Walter Sofronoff gave rise to impression of bias against Shane Drumgold in Lehrmann trial inquiry

Walter Sofronoff’s extensive communications with a columnist at The Australian gave an impression of bias against former ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, during his inquiry into the Lehrmann trial, a court has found.

Justice Stephen Kaye handed down his judgment in Drumgold’s case against Sofronoff and the ACT government on Monday afternoon, finding the inquiry head’s 273 interactions with columnist, Janet Albrechtsen, gave the impression he “might have been influenced by the views held and publicly expressed” by Albrechtsen.

Drumgold had alleged Sofronoff’s inquiry failed to give him a fair hearing, denied him natural justice, breached the law and “gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias”.

Drumgold’s legal team had also attempted to overturn eight of Sofronoff’s “serious findings of misconduct”, but was ultimately only successful in overturning one.

That overturned finding related to his conclusion that Drumgold had acted with “grossly unethical conduct” during his cross-examination of retiring Liberal senator Linda Reynolds.

Justice Kaye also determined Drumgold had not been afforded natural justice on one count because he did not properly understand the rules around freedom of information.

The parties are discussing the judge’s proposal for relief and costs, which is expected to be unveiled later this afternoon.

Guardian Australia published parts of a letter sent by Drumgold to the Australian federal police accusing Reynolds of “disturbing conduct” during the Bruce Lehrmann trial.

Reynolds sued Drumgold and the ACT government for defamation, which was settled on Monday morning for $90,000.

Peter Dutton flew to Perth for one hour at lavish birthday party then back to cost-of-living campaign in Dunkley

Peter Dutton flew to Perth for one hour at lavish Gina Rinehart birthday party then back to cost-of-living campaign in Dunkley

Opposition leader’s latest trip west to celebrate with the billionaire raises questions among Labor MPs and his usual media supporters

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The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, reportedly flew to Perth for just an hour to attend the 70th birthday party of the mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, flying an overnight round-trip cross-country before returning to Melbourne to campaign on cost-of-living issues ahead of the Dunkley byelection.

The lavish celebration for Australia’s richest woman, according to her company’s websites, included “a horse show backed by the fantastic Aussie music, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, with riders … carrying large Australian and company flags”, with photos from the event showing multiple large cakes and on-stage pyrotechnics.

Dutton’s latest trip west to pay homage to the Hancock Prospecting billionaire has raised questions among Labor MPs and usual media supporters of the Liberal leader, with the 2GB host Ben Fordham asking why he had not chosen to instead spend more time campaigning in Dunkley.

The Australian Financial Review reported on Monday that Dutton attended Rinehart’s party on Thursday night at the end of the parliamentary sitting week. Dutton was back in Dunkley on Friday morning, with the AFR reporting there was a set of Qantas flights which could have taken him from Canberra to Perth then back to Melbourne.

The newspaper reported Dutton’s office said he “travelled commercially at his own expense”. Guardian Australia contacted Dutton’s office for comment.

The Perth lord mayor, Basil Zempilas, told 6PR radio he attended the event, calling the horseback show “an incredible sight”, and saying the pop star Guy Sebastian had sung the national anthem.

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Last year Dutton was flown to a party at Hancock’s Pilbara mine by another billionaire rich-lister, where he praised Rinehart and her family as “pioneers” who had “given so much to this country”.

Anthony Albanese recently came under scrutiny for attending a private event at the Melbourne mansion of the recycling billionaire Anthony Pratt, where the pop star Katy Perry performed, the day after he attended Taylor Swift’s Sydney concert. Albanese tried to shrug off questions about the lavish event, saying it was “an annual event and it’s an opportunity to talk to manufacturers”.

The opposition has consistently criticised Albanese for his overseas travel and attending entertainment events such as sporting fixtures and concerts.

In a Sky News interview on Friday morning from Dunkley, Dutton criticised Albanese’s travel at the end of 2023, claiming “you’ve been spending half your life overseas”.

In a subsequent press conference, Dutton went on to claim: “[Albanese] spent months and months overseas, people are angry with him because they thought that he probably should have got the house in order before he jumped on the plane.”

The Liberal campaign for Dunkley focused heavily on cost-of-living pressures. Dutton expressed concern for “a lot of families here in Dunkley, but across the country, who are struggling at the moment”.

In the press conference, Dutton noted he had visited Dunkley five times during the campaign. Labor had criticised Dutton for not visiting the seat on the night of the byelection.

On 2GB on Monday, Fordham called Dutton’s decision “a bad call” and suggested he should have “brushed” the party to campaign more in Dunkley.

“People often make up their minds in the final 48 hours. You need to be there. You don’t need to be going to WA for a birthday party. Peter Dutton spent more time on the aeroplane than he did at the party, which sounds like a waste of time to me,” Fordham said.

Dutton’s office did not give any media alert that he would attend Rinehart’s event, nor distribute any transcript of remarks he made, nor was any post made on the leader’s social media pages.

The Labor MP Julian Hill tweeted: “Why all the secrecy? Why not just tell Australians what he’s up to?”

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Nikki Haley secures first victory of primaries with Washington DC win

Nikki Haley secures first victory of Republican primaries with Washington DC win

Haley is the first woman to win a Republican primary, her campaign has said, but faces steep odds with Donald Trump expected to secure the nomination

Nikki Haley has notched up her first victory of the 2024 Republican primaries, after winning the vote in the District of Columbia.

Haley, the only remaining challenger to Donald Trump, won 62.9% of the vote, versus 33.2% captured by the former president. Haley will pick up 19 delegates from her win, a small portion of the 1,215 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

The win in Washington makes Haley the first woman to win a Republican primary in US history, her campaign has said.

“It’s not surprising that Republicans closest to Washington dysfunction are rejecting Donald Trump and all his chaos,” Haley campaign spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement.

Haley still faces near-impossible odds in her quest to win the Republican nomination to take on Joe Biden in November. Trump won the first eight nominating contests by significant margins.

Opinion polls show that the former president is also expected to win almost all upcoming contests.

On Saturday, Trump picked up all 39 delegates at the Michigan Republican party convention. Fifteen states will hold primaries on Tuesday in which Trump’s status as Republican candidate is expected to be cemented.

Despite her continued losses, Haley has said she would remain in the race at least through those contests, although she has declined to name any primary she felt confident she would win. After last week’s loss in her home state of South Carolina, Haley remained adamant that voters in the places that followed deserved an alternative to Trump despite his dominance thus far in the campaign.

Haley held a rally in the nation’s capital on Friday before heading back to North Carolina and a series of states holding Super Tuesday primaries.

As she gave her standard campaign speech, criticising Trump for running up the federal deficit, one attendee yelled out, “He cannot win a general election. It’s madness.” That prompted agreement from Haley, who argues that she can deny Biden a second term but Trump won’t be able to.

Washington is one of the most heavily Democratic jurisdictions in the nation, with only about 23,000 registered Republicans in the city. The city also is home to a significant number of federal workers who Trump allies have pledged to fire en masse and replace with loyalists if he wins in November.

“While Nikki has been soundly rejected throughout the rest of America, she was just crowned Queen of the Swamp by the lobbyists and DC insiders that want to protect the failed status quo,” Karoline Leavitt, the Trump campaign press secretary said in a release.

This is not the first time Republicans in the capital have rejected Trump. During the last competitive Republican nominating contest in the District of Columbia, in 2016, Trump received less than 14% of the vote and no delegates, even as he went on to win the nomination nationally.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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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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Donald TrumpFormer 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 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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Australia building air traffic control system for drones ahead of influx of ‘flying taxis’

Australia building air traffic control system for drones ahead of influx of ‘flying taxis’

Exclusive: Airservices Australia says ‘Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games will be catalysing event for air taxis’, with 60m drone flights of all types expected by 2043

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Australia is building an air traffic control system for drones as authorities prepare for a surge in uncrewed aircraft flights and flying taxis over the next decade.

Airservices Australia – the federal government agency responsible for managing airspace across the country – has appointed air traffic management company Frequentis Australasia to develop a “digital air traffic management to safely integrate millions of uncrewed aircraft flights into Australia’s busy airspace”.

Analysis commissioned by Airservices Australia predicts that drone flights in the country will surge to 60m by 2043 including delivery drones, air taxis and other pilotless operations. At present, there are about 1.5m drone flights a year.

“The way we do air traffic control today won’t work for the number of drones we expect to see in our skies,” Airservices Australia’s Luke Gumley said on Monday.

“There will be many aircraft in urban environments with high populations … drone delivery will operate in populous areas.

Gumley, the head of transformation uncrewed services, said the future drone management system would incorporate a significant amount of automation. Current air traffic control systems relied on verbal communication between controllers and pilots.

Authorities were expecting unmanned aircraft to be highly automated, possibly with one pilot on the ground controlling multiple aircraft at once, he said.

“Humans will still be in the loop, but perhaps more on the loop than within the loop.”

Ultimately, the drone management system would have to integrate with the broader control of air traffic in Australia, to ensure drones didn’t interfere with commercial flights and to stop them from crashing into each other, Gumley said.

“Currently, drones generally don’t operate where crewed aircraft do, but in time we know we’ll have to integrate the two, with airspace being finite, and congestion around urban environments,” he said.

“We will have to have strong coordination … with systems talking to each other.”

Australia would examine US and European Union drone management so local systems were interoperable with international standards, Gumley said.

New rules would focus on commercial operations such as drones and air taxis as opposed to smaller consumer and photography drones, but Gumley predicted that in particularly busy urban areas “we might need recreational [drone] pilots to take some additional steps to fly”.

While an “influx of drones” was expected first, flying taxis would soon become prominent in Australian skies, Airservices Australia’s recent analysis found.

“We see that the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games will be a catalysing event for air taxis,” Gumley said. “We know that from speaking to air taxi manufacturers – they’re hoping to deliver some services at the Brisbane Olympics and we see air taxis operating more at scale by then.”

Airservices Australia believes the first wave of air taxis will have pilots onboard but said it was aware of some companies hoping to launch with uncrewed operations – so the agency was planning a management system that could handle both.

“We’re preparing our technology to cater for both types of air taxis,” Gumley said.

Given the robust nature of aviation safety standards, Gumley said, artificial intelligence would not feature as part of the initial drone airspace management system.

Martin Rampl, managing director at Frequentis Australasia, said the new partnership with Airservices Australia marked a milestone in supporting the “Australian airspace ecosystem with safe, efficient and compliant integration of drones while fostering innovation and economic growth”.

“We are looking forward to working with Airservices to jointly develop the system, pushing technological innovation in the uncrewed aviation domain, including the ability to integrate new services in the future.”

Jason Harfield, chief executive of Airservices Australia, said: “Drones are the biggest growth area in aviation.

“Our partnership with Frequentis to develop a Fims [flight information management system] will enable us to integrate traditional and new airspace users into increasingly busy airspace.”

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Australia building air traffic control system for drones ahead of influx of ‘flying taxis’

Australia building air traffic control system for drones ahead of influx of ‘flying taxis’

Exclusive: Airservices Australia says ‘Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games will be catalysing event for air taxis’, with 60m drone flights of all types expected by 2043

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Australia is building an air traffic control system for drones as authorities prepare for a surge in uncrewed aircraft flights and flying taxis over the next decade.

Airservices Australia – the federal government agency responsible for managing airspace across the country – has appointed air traffic management company Frequentis Australasia to develop a “digital air traffic management to safely integrate millions of uncrewed aircraft flights into Australia’s busy airspace”.

Analysis commissioned by Airservices Australia predicts that drone flights in the country will surge to 60m by 2043 including delivery drones, air taxis and other pilotless operations. At present, there are about 1.5m drone flights a year.

“The way we do air traffic control today won’t work for the number of drones we expect to see in our skies,” Airservices Australia’s Luke Gumley said on Monday.

“There will be many aircraft in urban environments with high populations … drone delivery will operate in populous areas.

Gumley, the head of transformation uncrewed services, said the future drone management system would incorporate a significant amount of automation. Current air traffic control systems relied on verbal communication between controllers and pilots.

Authorities were expecting unmanned aircraft to be highly automated, possibly with one pilot on the ground controlling multiple aircraft at once, he said.

“Humans will still be in the loop, but perhaps more on the loop than within the loop.”

Ultimately, the drone management system would have to integrate with the broader control of air traffic in Australia, to ensure drones didn’t interfere with commercial flights and to stop them from crashing into each other, Gumley said.

“Currently, drones generally don’t operate where crewed aircraft do, but in time we know we’ll have to integrate the two, with airspace being finite, and congestion around urban environments,” he said.

“We will have to have strong coordination … with systems talking to each other.”

Australia would examine US and European Union drone management so local systems were interoperable with international standards, Gumley said.

New rules would focus on commercial operations such as drones and air taxis as opposed to smaller consumer and photography drones, but Gumley predicted that in particularly busy urban areas “we might need recreational [drone] pilots to take some additional steps to fly”.

While an “influx of drones” was expected first, flying taxis would soon become prominent in Australian skies, Airservices Australia’s recent analysis found.

“We see that the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games will be a catalysing event for air taxis,” Gumley said. “We know that from speaking to air taxi manufacturers – they’re hoping to deliver some services at the Brisbane Olympics and we see air taxis operating more at scale by then.”

Airservices Australia believes the first wave of air taxis will have pilots onboard but said it was aware of some companies hoping to launch with uncrewed operations – so the agency was planning a management system that could handle both.

“We’re preparing our technology to cater for both types of air taxis,” Gumley said.

Given the robust nature of aviation safety standards, Gumley said, artificial intelligence would not feature as part of the initial drone airspace management system.

Martin Rampl, managing director at Frequentis Australasia, said the new partnership with Airservices Australia marked a milestone in supporting the “Australian airspace ecosystem with safe, efficient and compliant integration of drones while fostering innovation and economic growth”.

“We are looking forward to working with Airservices to jointly develop the system, pushing technological innovation in the uncrewed aviation domain, including the ability to integrate new services in the future.”

Jason Harfield, chief executive of Airservices Australia, said: “Drones are the biggest growth area in aviation.

“Our partnership with Frequentis to develop a Fims [flight information management system] will enable us to integrate traditional and new airspace users into increasingly busy airspace.”

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Second greyhound death in a fortnight at Sydney racetrack increases calls for its closure

Second greyhound death in a fortnight at Sydney racetrack increases calls for its closure

Pressure mounts on government not to extend Wentworth Park’s lease as petition to shut venue gathers more than 3,000 signatures

Two greyhounds have died within a fortnight at Sydney’s Wentworth Park, intensifying calls for the inner-city racetrack to close immediately.

Two-year-old Oceanside was euthanised after suffering fractures to its foreleg and hindleg during the first lap of the race on Saturday 2 March, the Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission stewards’ report has revealed.

On 17 February, two-year-old Omega Texas was killed after sustaining similar injuries to Oceanside during a race at the Ultimo racetrack.

“Wentworth Park is supposed to be the safest track in New South Wales at the moment [and it] has had two dogs die,” Kylie Field, the NSW director of the Coalition for the Protection of Greyhounds, said.

“Clearly something is going terribly wrong at this track that sits in the middle of a major capital city.”

During Saturday’s race, six other dogs were injured. A total of 19 greyhounds were injured that day at NSW racetracks.

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A petition to close down the Wentworth Park racetrack has received more than 3,000 signatures. The petition, led by the Animal Justice party, was started after the death of Omega Texas.

“There is no possible justification for keeping this deadly and dangerous track open – except to appease the racing and gambling lobby groups,” the party’s NSW upper house MP Emma Hurst said.

Wentworth Park and the Greyhound Breeders Owners and Trainers Association (GBOTA) have been contacted for comment.

GBOTA holds Wentworth Park’s lease. The association, with the support of Greyhound Racing NSW, wants a new agreement with the state government to continue racing at the venue.

But the previous government committed to converting the venue into an open public space once the lease ends.

Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, said it would be “bitterly disappointing if the government backed down”, as it would send a message that the “greyhound industry is more important to them than the community of Pyrmont/Ultimo”.

“We are not going to solve the housing crisis without more housing and we can’t expect people to live well in higher density without improved public amenity – including access to parkland and recreational space” Moore said.

The city of Sydney’s masterplan for Wentworth Park still needs a commitment from the state government and the minister for lands and property, Steve Kamper.

Hurst said it is “absolutely reprehensible that the Minns government is considering backflipping on the decision to close this racetrack” and that instead, the local community should be consulted on how they would like to use the land.

“I know that city of Sydney council has … the aim of dedicating the … racetrack for community use and we will continue to work with the lord mayor, Clover Moore, to make this a reality,” Hurst said.

The NSW government has been contacted for comment.

Field said community sentiment has been “for quite a while now that this industry has no place in Australia”, particularly at Wentworth Park, which is being “propped up by taxpayers’ money”. She wants an investigation into the two recent deaths.

For greyhound racing to end at Wentworth Park, Field said it’s going to take “a strong politician or political group” to stand up to the racing industry.

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Former minister receives $90,000 defamation settlement over former ACT DPP’s Lehrmann trial comments

Linda Reynolds receives $90,000 defamation settlement over former ACT DPP’s Lehrmann trial comments

Former minister launched legal action after the then DPP accused her of ‘disturbing conduct’ during the Bruce Lehrmann trial

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The retiring Liberal senator Linda Reynolds has been awarded a $90,000 settlement and an apology from the Australian Capital Territory government after its former director of public prosecutions made defamatory allegations against her.

The compromise settlement, which was finalised on Friday, included $70,000 in damages and $20,000 in legal costs. The agreement means the matter is considered finalised and will not continue to court.

“We accept that allegations about senator Reynolds made by the former Director of Public Prosecutions were found by the Board of Inquiry to be defamatory,” a spokesperson for the Justice and Community Safety Directorate said.

“The settlement includes a formal apology from the ACT and retraction of the allegations contained in the letter from the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC.

“We also agreed to an undertaking from the acting Director of Public Prosecutions that he will direct his staff not to further publish the allegations made against senator Reynolds.”

Reynolds launched the action against the ACT government and former chief prosecutor Shane Drumgold in December over allegations Drumgold made in a letter to the Australian federal police accusing the senator of “disturbing conduct” during the Bruce Lehrmann trial. Parts of the letter were first published by Guardian Australia in late 2022.

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Lehrmann consistently denied Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation and pleaded not guilty. His trial was aborted after juror misconduct and no findings were made against Lehrmann. Prosecutors decided not to pursue further action, citing concerns about the impact it may have on Higgins’ mental health.

In a statement published on her facebook page, Reynolds said the settlement was the “fifth defamation claim I have resolved to my satisfation”.

“Since the conclusion of the criminal trial R v Lehrmann and Ms Brittany Higgins’ compensation claim against the Commonwealth, I have set about vindicating my reputation, which I consider has been wrongly damaged,” the senator said.

Reynolds also published the official apology she had received.

“As part of the settlement the ACT has accepted the findings of the Board of Inquiry, specifically that the allegations made about my conduct during the criminal trial were defamatory, and have provided the following apology and retraction:

“On 7 December 2022, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions provided to Mr Christopher Knaus of the Guardian Australia a letter addressed to the Australian Federal Police dated 1 November 2022 concerning Senator Reynolds and her conduct during the criminal trial of Mr Bruce Lehrmann (Letter).

On behalf of the Australian Capital Territory, the Director-General of the Justice and Community Safety Directorate, accepting that the allegations contained in the Letter have been found by the Board of Inquiry to be defamatory of Senator Reynolds, unreservedly retracts those allegations.

The Director-General of the Justice and Community Safety Directorate sincerely apologises for the damage, distress and embarrassment it has caused to Senator Reynolds.”

A separate case involving her former employee, Higgins, and her partner, David Sharaz, over comments they made on social media was still ongoing, with mediation talks scheduled for this week.

Reynolds announced last month that she intends to stand down from politics at the next election.

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Racism allegation mars lavish Las Vegas showcase

Racism allegation mars NRL’s lavish Las Vegas showcase

  • Broncos’ Ezra Mam complains to referee during game
  • Five-eighth alleges Roosters player made racist comment

Roosters forward Spencer Leniu has been referred straight to the NRL judiciary after he was alleged to have made a racist slur in his side’s victory over the Broncos in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Broncos five-eighth Ezra Mam, a Torres Strait Islander, complained to referee Adam Gee during the second fixture at Allegiant Stadium, won by the Roosters 20-10, alleging opposing forward Spencer Leniu – a Panthers premiership player and Samoa international – made a racist comment.

When placed on report by Gee, Leniu responded, “Why would I say that?”. Leniu was asked about the incident in a radio interview after the match, and said: “It’s just all fun and games on the field.” Leniu has been approached through the Roosters for a response to the allegation.

Broncos players reportedly confronted Leniu inside the team hotel after the match, when words were exchanged but there was no threat of a physical altercation.

Brisbane coach Kevin Walters said Mam was “adamant” about the complaint and the club is backing the five-eighth. “Ezra is pretty upset, we will leave that in the hands of the NRL to police and adjudicate on.”

The NRL confirmed Leniu has been charged with contrary conduct and has been referred directly to the judiciary. Such a course of action is usually assessed for the game’s most serious offences where players are alleged to behave in a way that is contrary to the spirit of the game. A guilty finding typically leads to a multiple week suspension.

“It was really disappointing to be talking about something of this nature,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo told AAP on Sunday. “There is no place for discrimination of any kind. We take it very, very seriously.

“I can’t talk about the specifics of what happened last night. The player involved involved has been charged and then referred directly to the judiciary. We will respect that process and won’t make comments.”

The matter left a sour aftertaste from rugby league’s historic venture in the US and drew a warning from Latrell Mitchell, Souths’ fullback and captain of the Indigenous All Stars. “I stand with you Bala,” he posted on Instagram. “NRL better deal with this shit.”

Brisbane star Reece Walsh underlined how deeply it had affected Mam. “It’s disgusting we still have that stuff in our game, and I really feel for one of my good mates,” he told Channel Nine. “For that stuff to happen, it just takes the shine off us trying to build something over here.”

The competition’s season-opening double-header in Nevada on Sunday had been largely to expand the game’s international broadcast and gambling revenues. The success of that mission will not be obvious until closer to the end of the five-year commitment. But the immediate response was one of praise.

Manly five-eighth Luke Brooks described his match, won 36-24 by the Sea Eagles over the Rabbitohs, as a “pinch yourself moment”. Maroons legend and Fox Sports commentator Gorden Tallis was even more effusive. “I’m just so happy to be rugby league. We’ve been so humble for so long … you come to this stadium and put on this product. How our game has grown.”

Off the field, Las Vegas Police lieutenant Kendall Bell said there were no issues over the weekend from Australian fans or players. “Everyone was respectable,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “They did everything we liked them to do. I hope they had a great time as well. I would like to think they enjoyed themselves and did so responsibly.”

The Roosters don’t play until Sunday 17 March, when they meet Manly at Brookvale Oval. The NRL first round continues on Thursday with the Knights hosting the Raiders in Newcastle.

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Racism allegation mars lavish Las Vegas showcase

Racism allegation mars NRL’s lavish Las Vegas showcase

  • Broncos’ Ezra Mam complains to referee during game
  • Five-eighth alleges Roosters player made racist comment

Roosters forward Spencer Leniu has been referred straight to the NRL judiciary after he was alleged to have made a racist slur in his side’s victory over the Broncos in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Broncos five-eighth Ezra Mam, a Torres Strait Islander, complained to referee Adam Gee during the second fixture at Allegiant Stadium, won by the Roosters 20-10, alleging opposing forward Spencer Leniu – a Panthers premiership player and Samoa international – made a racist comment.

When placed on report by Gee, Leniu responded, “Why would I say that?”. Leniu was asked about the incident in a radio interview after the match, and said: “It’s just all fun and games on the field.” Leniu has been approached through the Roosters for a response to the allegation.

Broncos players reportedly confronted Leniu inside the team hotel after the match, when words were exchanged but there was no threat of a physical altercation.

Brisbane coach Kevin Walters said Mam was “adamant” about the complaint and the club is backing the five-eighth. “Ezra is pretty upset, we will leave that in the hands of the NRL to police and adjudicate on.”

The NRL confirmed Leniu has been charged with contrary conduct and has been referred directly to the judiciary. Such a course of action is usually assessed for the game’s most serious offences where players are alleged to behave in a way that is contrary to the spirit of the game. A guilty finding typically leads to a multiple week suspension.

“It was really disappointing to be talking about something of this nature,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo told AAP on Sunday. “There is no place for discrimination of any kind. We take it very, very seriously.

“I can’t talk about the specifics of what happened last night. The player involved involved has been charged and then referred directly to the judiciary. We will respect that process and won’t make comments.”

The matter left a sour aftertaste from rugby league’s historic venture in the US and drew a warning from Latrell Mitchell, Souths’ fullback and captain of the Indigenous All Stars. “I stand with you Bala,” he posted on Instagram. “NRL better deal with this shit.”

Brisbane star Reece Walsh underlined how deeply it had affected Mam. “It’s disgusting we still have that stuff in our game, and I really feel for one of my good mates,” he told Channel Nine. “For that stuff to happen, it just takes the shine off us trying to build something over here.”

The competition’s season-opening double-header in Nevada on Sunday had been largely to expand the game’s international broadcast and gambling revenues. The success of that mission will not be obvious until closer to the end of the five-year commitment. But the immediate response was one of praise.

Manly five-eighth Luke Brooks described his match, won 36-24 by the Sea Eagles over the Rabbitohs, as a “pinch yourself moment”. Maroons legend and Fox Sports commentator Gorden Tallis was even more effusive. “I’m just so happy to be rugby league. We’ve been so humble for so long … you come to this stadium and put on this product. How our game has grown.”

Off the field, Las Vegas Police lieutenant Kendall Bell said there were no issues over the weekend from Australian fans or players. “Everyone was respectable,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “They did everything we liked them to do. I hope they had a great time as well. I would like to think they enjoyed themselves and did so responsibly.”

The Roosters don’t play until Sunday 17 March, when they meet Manly at Brookvale Oval. The NRL first round continues on Thursday with the Knights hosting the Raiders in Newcastle.

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Boy, 13, charged with sexually assaulting jogger in city’s south-east

Boy, 13, charged with sexually assaulting jogger in Melbourne’s south-east

Police say the alleged attack occurred on the Dandenong Creek trail on 31 January, with the woman fighting off the teen

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A teenage boy has been charged over the false imprisonment and sexual assault of a female jogger in Melbourne’s south-east.

The 13-year-old from Rowville was charged over the alleged attack of a woman on the Dandenong Creek trail in January.

On Monday morning, Victoria police said it will be alleged that the 28-year-old female was running along the trail on 31 January when she was sexually assaulted.

She allegedly managed to fight off the teen before he fled the scene on his bike.

The teenager was arrested on Sunday morning.

The boy has since been charged with stalking, assault with intent to sexual assault, false imprisonment and sexual assault.

He appeared before an out of sessions court hearing on the weekend.

He was bailed to appear at a children’s court at a later date.

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Ultra-Orthodox and far-right make gains in local elections

Ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties make gains in Israeli local elections

Turnout was low for first ballot since Hamas’ 7 October attack, with security a high priority for voters

Local elections in Israel, delayed by the war in Gaza, have returned gains for Ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties after low turnout in most areas.

The municipal votes were expected to serve as an indication of public opinion after the 7 October Hamas attack and the ensuing war in the Gaza Strip. Just under 50% of the seven million eligible voters turned up to polling stations, and rightwing and religious parties allied with the Likud, the party of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, were more successful in mobilising their bases.

Although there were no major political upsets, as all large cities except the coastal city of Haifa re-elected incumbent mayors, security was a higher priority than usual for voters, who cast ballots in first-round votes for mayors and councillors on Tuesday.

“I am more scared than I was before. I don’t think we should kick out all the Arab workers, but I think we do need to be more careful. I voted for someone who said they would prioritise that,” said Odeya, a 30-year-old who cast her vote in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, regarded as illegal under international law.

“If this was a national election, I would not be voting for the Likud. I like our mayor and he does a good job,” she said, referring to the incumbent Oded Revivi, a candidate from Netanyahu’s party. “On a national level, I think we need to be doing much more to keep Israel safe.”

Most results had been tallied by Saturday night, after the end of Shabbat, and the 150,000 or so people displaced from their homes by the conflict will vote in November. Last week’s polls, originally scheduled for 31 October last year, were twice delayed by the outbreak of the war. The low turnout was blamed on people’s preoccupation with the war.

Two candidates for council chief in areas on the border with Gaza were killed on 7 October: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.

About 1,200 people were killed and another 250 abducted in the attack, while Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza is thought to have killed more than 30,000 people.

On Jerusalem’s city council – the Palestinian eastern half of which was annexed – preliminary results indicated an “unprecedented majority” of ultra-Orthodox parties, local media reported, in line with the city’s trend towards conservatism over the last two decades. The divided city’s rightwing mayor, Moshe Lion, will remain in office as expected.

In a statement, the Likud spoke of a “great victory” in the municipal contests. “The rightwing bloc throughout the country has strengthened,” it said.

Palestinian residents make up about 40% of the city’s population and are eligible to vote in Israel’s local elections, but often boycott them in protest at the occupation of the Palestinian territories and annexation of Jerusalem.

Israel’s centrist and leftwing parties were not as visible on the campaign trail, appearing to be conserving their energy in the battle to force early national elections that could oust Netanyahu from office.

The rightwing bloc’s success is unlikely to be repeated at a national level; polling shows that Netanyahu’s coalition of far-right and religious parties would incur massive losses if an election was held now. The centrist party of Benny Gantz, a minister without portfolio in the emergency war cabinet, would currently be by far the strongest faction.

Netanyahu has faced significant pressure to step down for nearly a decade over his ongoing trials for corruption charges, which he denies, as well as a controversial judicial overhaul, initiated last year.

The anti-government protest movement has resurged since 7 October over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza. Normally at home on the campaign trail, Netanyahu was noticeably absent from this year’s contests.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a post on X that the local polls showed that holding national elections during the war would pose “no problem”. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is seeking to delay what is likely to be a referendum on his political future as long as possible.

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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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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 was “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,” she said, adding automatic suspension of payments should be stopped until the “deeply flawed” compliance and penalty regime was replaced with a fair system.

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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