The Guardian 2024-03-04 10:31:13


ACT government considers response after court rules calls with journalist gave rise to impression of bias

ACT government considers response after court rules Sofronoff’s calls with journalist gave rise to impression of bias

Judge overturns one finding against former ACT director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold

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Shane Drumgold, the former ACT director of public prosecutions, is “looking forward to moving on with his life” after a supreme court ruled Walter Sofronoff’s extensive communications with a columnist at The Australian newspaper gave rise to an impression of bias against him during an inquiry into the Bruce Lehrmann trial.

Drumgold’s partial win on Monday afternoon marks the end of the battle between the territory’s former top prosecutor and Sofronoff after the latter made “serious findings of misconduct” against him in his inquiry, leading to Drumgold’s resignation.

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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 the columnist, Janet Albrechtsen, gave the impression he “might have been influenced by the views held and publicly expressed” by her.

Sofronoff had been tasked with examining whether the investigation and trial were subject to political influence. His final report – which was leaked to select media before being handed to the ACT government – made adverse findings against Drumgold, including that he “at times … lost objectivity and did not act with fairness and detachment”.

The ACT government says is still considering how it will respond to the court’s ruling but released a holding statement saying it observed “the report’s findings in relation to other persons and the recommendations in relation to the criminal justice system remain undisturbed”.

Ian Meagher, Drumgold’s solicitor, said his client is “delighted” with the court’s decision and is “now looking forward to moving on with his life”. Guardian Australia has contacted Sofronoff’s legal team.

Drumgold had alleged last August 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 attempted to overturn eight of Sofronoff’s “serious findings of misconduct”, but was only successful in striking off one.

Sofronoff’s finding that Drumgold had acted with “grossly unethical conduct” during his cross-examination of retiring Liberal senator Linda Reynolds was found “legally unreasonable” by Kaye.

The judge also determined Drumgold had not been afforded natural justice in another of Sofronoff’s findings, which alleged the former ACT director of public prosecutions had given a false statement about his understanding of a freedom of information request for a letter he had written.

In late 2022, Guardian Australia published parts of the letter – which had been released under freedom of information – sent by Drumgold to the Australian federal police accusing Reynolds of “disturbing conduct” during the Lehrmann trial.

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

The judge ordered the ACT government pay for the proceedings. The exact figure will be determined at a later date.

Drumgold argued that a series of “private and secret” text messages between Sofronoff and Albrechtsen demonstrated “preferential treatment” and a “closeness” that could lead to an impression of bias.

The two had 273 interactions over the inquiry’s seven months, including 51 phone calls, text messages, emails and a private lunch meeting in Brisbane. The former judge also spent seven-and-a-half hours on the phone to The Australian newspaper during the probe, many of which were with Albrechtsen.

Dan O’Gorman, Drumgold’s lawyer, argued in February’s hearings that Albrechtsen was an “advocate” for Lehrmann who may have “infected” Sofronoff with bias against his client, leading the inquiry head to “deal with matters other than on their legal and factual merits”.

“What Mr Drumgold alleges is that Mr Sofronoff’s association with Ms Albrechtsen in particular might be thought by the fair-minded observer to have possibly diverted Mr Sofronoff from deciding the issues in his terms of reference on their merit,” O’Gorman said.

Kate Eastman, a lawyer representing the ACT government, a party to the proceedings, said it was not clear the pair’s extensive communications had any effect on Sofronoff’s conduct.

Brendan Lim, who represents Sofronoff and the board of inquiry, said the former Queensland judge discussed practical matters about the inquiry with Albrechtsen, including when documents would become available.

“[Sofronoff] engaged with any journalist who approached him with legitimate requests for information and explains that Ms Albrechtsen was the most persistent of the journalists, but that did not reflect preferential treatment on his part,” Lim said last month.

“The fact that Ms Albrechtsen asked more questions than other journalists is really beside the point.”

Lehrmann has denied raping his then colleague, Brittany Higgins, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. His criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and a second trial did not proceed due to prosecutors’ fears for Higgins’ mental health.

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Linda ReynoldsFormer 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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Spill or no spill, Victoria’s Liberal party can agree on one thing: no more messiahs

Analysis

Spill or no spill, Victoria’s Liberal party can agree on one thing: no more messiahs

Benita Kolovos

As discontent with leader John Pesutto rises, the fractured party is casting around for a replacement that will unite them

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By all accounts, the Victorian Liberals are heading for another leadership spill. But true to form, the party room is divided over the details.

Following a month of discipline during the federal byelection in the seat of Dunkley, the disunity returned on Sunday as the state opposition leader, John Pesutto, announced two of his most senior staff had left his office.

Several Liberal MPs were quick to describe the departure of communications director Nick Johnston and chief of staff Rodrigo Pintos Lopez as akin to “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic” or “rats jumping off a sinking ship”.

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They said Pesutto had been issued an ultimatum by both Liberals and Nationals MPs unhappy with the pair’s performance: either they go or you do.

Other sources close to the pair said they chose to resign having become “fed up” with division in the Liberal party room and “constant criticism” levelled against them. They said the announcement was delayed to avoid any impact on the result in Dunkley.

On Monday, Pesutto sought to play down the saga.

“People come and go in political roles,” he said. “I’m sorry to see them go and they go with my best wishes.”

But Pesutto’s relaxed front belies his private efforts to shore up his leadership. Guardian Australia understands he has meetings planned with several MPs this week, ostensibly to “talk about priorities”.

Deeming saga a setback

Pesutto was elected leader of the Victorian Liberals in December 2022 – winning the party room ballot by one vote against Berwick MP Brad Battin.

At the time, he promised to bring the party room back together, after years of factional infighting between socially progressive and conservative members.

“People have different views. Those views need to be respected and they need to be heard and acted upon,” Pesutto said.

“I expect and embrace the idea that there are going to be different views about how we go forward.”

Three months later, his push to expel first-term MP Moira Deeming from the party room further deepened the divide.

Conservatives, as well as some moderate MPs unhappy with the handling of the expulsion, rallied around Deeming.

Several MPs told Guardian Australia on Monday the months-long saga was the “beginning of the end” for Pesutto.

“He staked everything on Deeming’s expulsion and in the end completely misread his level of authority over the party room,” said an MP who supports Pesutto.

Other issues raised by MPs included Pesutto’s lack of consultation, poor communication and bungled handling of major policy decisions, such as the party’s decision to walk back its support for a treaty with the state’s Indigenous people.

When questioned about the issues at a press conference on Monday, Pesutto said his party had “robust debates”.

“That’s the best way to arrive at common positions, and I have a party room that’s locked in behind some serious decisions that we’ve already announced this year and we’ll continue to do so.”

‘We’ve had enough messiahs’

Working in Pesutto’s favour, however, is the lack of a frontrunner to replace him.

While Battin remains the preferred candidate of the conservatives, Sandringham MP Brad Rowswell and Nepean’s Sam Groth have also been named as potential contenders.

Rowswell, currently the opposition’s shadow Treasury spokesperson, ran unsuccessfully in December 2022 for the deputy leader role, losing out to the incumbent David Southwick. Some MPs suggest he has more of a “broad appeal” in the party room than Battin.

Groth, meanwhile, is a former professional tennis player and one of two Liberals to win a seat from Labor at the election. Part of the “new guard” of MPs elected in 2022, he has previously urged the party to remain “modern and moderate”.

“He’s got the profile, he’s got the media experience and he’s got no baggage,” one MP said.

Another described Groth as “affable, articulate and driven – without a messiah complex”.

“We’ve had enough messiahs thinking they alone can turn the party’s fortunes around,” they said.

All three – Battin, Rowswell and Groth – denied they were planning to spill Pesutto when they arrived at a shadow cabinet meeting on Monday.

The timing of any potential spill remains contested among MPs, with some advocating for immediate action to avoid months of speculation and negative headlines while others suggested waiting until Pesutto had “no choice but to resign himself”.

One thing all MPs can agree on is that unlike the 2022 contest, when Pesutto scraped through, the result must be decisive.

Pesutto, however, remains resolute, stating on Monday: “I’m a fighter, I’m not going to be pushed around like this.”

Only time will tell.

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Big Trout’s pink makeover leaves NSW town seeing red

Big Trout’s ‘hideous’ pink makeover leaves NSW town seeing red

Adaminaby residents decry Snowy Mountains landmark’s colour scheme, with new design set to go to community consultation

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From the banana to the pineapple to the sheep: pick your “thing” and Australia will have a big version of it. But Adaminaby’s Big Trout is causing controversy in the 301-person town, north-west of Cooma in southern New South Wales, due to its “hideous, theme park” colouring.

The Big Trout underwent a makeover in December to address the landmark’s structural integrity. But its colour scheme has drawn criticism from the community, fishers and stakeholders.

The structure will now be repainted, using funds left over from last year’s restoration.

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On the Facebook group Trout Trollers Australia, one unimpressed fisher described the paint as “hideous”.

“The all-pink lower fins makes it look like a theme park paint job,” they said.

The former Adaminaby fishing guide and tackle shop owner Colin Sinclair said the Snowy Mountains rainbow trout – on which the Big Trout is modelled – is a lighter green than painted, with a beautiful pearly white belly.

He said the crimson on the fish’s side faded from a light pink to a pink-red, rather than being one solid colour.

Doug Rogan, the manager of the Canberra office of International Conservation Services, which was contracted to paint the Big Trout in December, said the decision not to blend the paint was due to the strength of the wind and time constraints.

Sinclair said he hoped the new design would reflect the variants of rainbow trout that live in the Eucumbene Dam, 40 minutes from Adaminaby.

“Hopefully, things will go in the right direction, but I dare say it will be scrutinised quite solidly.”

The Snowy Monaro council mayor, Chris Hanna, recognised the Big Trout’s significance to Adaminaby and the wider community, and its place as an important regional symbol.

He said the Big Trout’s future as a famous and beloved landmark is something the council is “committing to get right”.

“We want the new finish to be something our residents can be proud of and [so] our very large fishing community, both local and visiting, have something to take pride in,” Hanna said.

The idea of a Big Trout was first dreamed up by Adaminaby Lions Club member Leigh Stewart, who envisioned the sculpture as the centrepiece of a picnic park.

It was built over three months in 1973 by Hungarian immigrant Andy Lomnici, who “loved fishing and held a fondness for the area”, according to his daughter Helen Miller.

Today, Miller said the Big Trout is a reminder of her late father’s legacy, being one of more than 230 Australian Big Things.

“Dad wanted to give back to the community, putting his hand up to do the sculpture at no charge,” she said.

New designs created in consultation with expert conservators and a widely respected marine artist were currently in the works, with community consultation opening this month. The final design will be selected by the end of April, with painting expected to be complete before winter.

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Shock as great white shark washes up on NSW beach

‘Haven’t seen anything like it’: shock as great white shark washes up on NSW beach

Four-metre shark euthanised after becoming beached on shore at Kingscliff on Tweed Coast

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A great white shark washed up on to a beach on the New South Wales north coast, shocking locals and attracting a crowd of beachgoers.

The 4m shark was seen swimming close to shore near Kingscliff beach on the Tweed Coast on Monday morning, with lifeguards tracking its progress until it was beached.

The female shark had been thrashing along the shore before washing up on the beach, with authorities attending soon after.

A veterinary team from Sea World on the Gold Coast went to the scene and found the shark struggling.

The shark was euthanised on the beach, and a bulldozer was brought in to safely move it off the sand.

“Sadly, the shark was in a poor condition after beaching and the Sea World veterinary team administered medications to make the shark comfortable while it was humanely euthanised,” a Sea World spokesperson said.

“The shark appeared to have underlying health issues, with the thrashing behaviour seen in the shallows prior to the beaching not typical for the species.”

There were “no unusual marks on the shark”, but the NSW Department of Fisheries would conduct a necropsy to try to identify a cause for the beaching, the spokesperson said.

While sharks have been spotted in the waters around Kingscliff beach, it was highly unusual to see one on the beach.

The general manager at Cudgen Headland surf life saving club, Greg Swift, said he had never seen anything like it in his life.

“I noticed the shark, which was quite large, rolling around the surf directly in front of the club. It brought a great deal of commotion as it was in shallow water and you could see its fins sticking up,” he said.

“I haven’t seen anything like it in my 35 years at the club, and certainly nothing like this has happened in living memory. It was a shock.”

Swift said between 60 and 70 people surrounded the shark as it was beached, with many people stopping on their morning walks.

“It was in the middle of the beach, so lots of people stopped to watch and help if they could,” he said.

“It’s a majestic creature, it was very sad to see it that way.”

Local mortgage broker Suzy Martin saw the shark as she was having her morning coffee with her husband, and could barely believe her eyes.

“We thought it was dolphins at first, but as it got closer, we saw it was a shark. Our first reaction was honestly fear, but it became clear it wasn’t doing too well. It was thrashing about quite aggressively,” she said.

“It was a bit surreal to be honest. It was massive, and it was shocking to see it that way.”

The shark’s remains were taken to Coffs Harbour for the necropsy.

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Shock as great white shark washes up on NSW beach

‘Haven’t seen anything like it’: shock as great white shark washes up on NSW beach

Four-metre shark euthanised after becoming beached on shore at Kingscliff on Tweed Coast

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A great white shark washed up on to a beach on the New South Wales north coast, shocking locals and attracting a crowd of beachgoers.

The 4m shark was seen swimming close to shore near Kingscliff beach on the Tweed Coast on Monday morning, with lifeguards tracking its progress until it was beached.

The female shark had been thrashing along the shore before washing up on the beach, with authorities attending soon after.

A veterinary team from Sea World on the Gold Coast went to the scene and found the shark struggling.

The shark was euthanised on the beach, and a bulldozer was brought in to safely move it off the sand.

“Sadly, the shark was in a poor condition after beaching and the Sea World veterinary team administered medications to make the shark comfortable while it was humanely euthanised,” a Sea World spokesperson said.

“The shark appeared to have underlying health issues, with the thrashing behaviour seen in the shallows prior to the beaching not typical for the species.”

There were “no unusual marks on the shark”, but the NSW Department of Fisheries would conduct a necropsy to try to identify a cause for the beaching, the spokesperson said.

While sharks have been spotted in the waters around Kingscliff beach, it was highly unusual to see one on the beach.

The general manager at Cudgen Headland surf life saving club, Greg Swift, said he had never seen anything like it in his life.

“I noticed the shark, which was quite large, rolling around the surf directly in front of the club. It brought a great deal of commotion as it was in shallow water and you could see its fins sticking up,” he said.

“I haven’t seen anything like it in my 35 years at the club, and certainly nothing like this has happened in living memory. It was a shock.”

Swift said between 60 and 70 people surrounded the shark as it was beached, with many people stopping on their morning walks.

“It was in the middle of the beach, so lots of people stopped to watch and help if they could,” he said.

“It’s a majestic creature, it was very sad to see it that way.”

Local mortgage broker Suzy Martin saw the shark as she was having her morning coffee with her husband, and could barely believe her eyes.

“We thought it was dolphins at first, but as it got closer, we saw it was a shark. Our first reaction was honestly fear, but it became clear it wasn’t doing too well. It was thrashing about quite aggressively,” she said.

“It was a bit surreal to be honest. It was massive, and it was shocking to see it that way.”

The shark’s remains were taken to Coffs Harbour for the necropsy.

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Middle East crisis live: Kamala Harris to meet with Israel war cabinet member after calling for Gaza ceasefire

Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s continuing coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.

US vice-president Kamala Harris will meet with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz, after calling for a ceasefire on Monday.

An official from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said Gantz did not have approval from the prime minister for his meetings in Washington, underscoring the widening crack within Israel’s wartime leadership nearly six months into the Gaza war.

More on that in a moment, first here’s a summary of the day’s other main events:

  • A Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Sunday for talks on efforts to broker a ceasefire in the war in Gaza after indications that Israel had provisionally accepted a six-week phased hostage and truce deal before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Qatari and US mediators also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, according to the state-linked Al Qahera News.

  • US vice-president Kamala Harris called out Israel on Sunday for not doing enough to ease a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza. Harris called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and urged Hamas to accept a deal to release hostages in return for a six-week cessation of hostilities.

  • Benny Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff who is part of Israel’s war cabinet was in Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, sparking a rebuke from Benjamin Netanyahu, according to an Israeli official. An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party said Gantz’s visit was without authorisation from the Israeli leader, the Associated Press reported. The official said Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, had a “tough talk” with Gantz about the trip and told him the country has “just one prime minister”.

  • Yemen’s Houthis have vowed to continue targeting British ships in the Gulf of Aden after the sinking of Belize-flagged UK-owned vessel Rubymar. An Italian warship participating in the EU naval protection force in the Red Sea shot 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.

  • Israel’s military has completed a preliminary review of the killing of over 100 Palestinian people near aid trucks last week, which claimed that Israeli forces did not strike the convoy and that most Palestinians died in a stampede, a military spokesperson said. Palestinian authorities say, however, that Israeli forces carried out a massacre, opening fire on a crowd of people who had gathered in the hope that food would be distributed.

It is Martin Belam with you today for the next few hours. You can contact me at martin.belam@theguardian.com.

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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Russia-Ukraine war live: newly enlarged Nato begins large-scale military drills in northern Europe

Nato will begin large-scale military drills on Monday – which will last nearly two weeks – to defend its newly expanded Nordic territory.

More than 20,000 soldiers from 14 countries will take part in the Norweigan-led Nordic Response 24 exercises in the northern regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden, with the participation of Finland as a Nato member for the first time.

The other participating nations in the exercise that runs through to 15 March reportedly include: Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the US.

“The exercise will demonstrate Nato’s operating capability, cohesion, and will to defend all of the Alliance’s area,” the Finnish military said in a statement.

“As Steadfast Defender 24 will be the most substantial training exercise of Nato in decades, its preparations and those of Nordic Response 24 have been underway now for a number of years already.”

Relations between Moscow and Helsinki deteriorated after Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting Finland to drop decades of military non-alignment and join the western military alliance Nato in April 2023.

Russia, with which Finland shares an 830-mile (1,340km) border, swiftly warned of “countermeasures”.

With its bid now ratified by all Nato members, neighbouring Sweden is now finalising formalities to enter the military alliance as its 32nd member – most likely in March.

Russia-Ukraine war live: newly enlarged Nato begins large-scale military drills in northern Europe

Nato will begin large-scale military drills on Monday – which will last nearly two weeks – to defend its newly expanded Nordic territory.

More than 20,000 soldiers from 14 countries will take part in the Norweigan-led Nordic Response 24 exercises in the northern regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden, with the participation of Finland as a Nato member for the first time.

The other participating nations in the exercise that runs through to 15 March reportedly include: Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the US.

“The exercise will demonstrate Nato’s operating capability, cohesion, and will to defend all of the Alliance’s area,” the Finnish military said in a statement.

“As Steadfast Defender 24 will be the most substantial training exercise of Nato in decades, its preparations and those of Nordic Response 24 have been underway now for a number of years already.”

Relations between Moscow and Helsinki deteriorated after Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting Finland to drop decades of military non-alignment and join the western military alliance Nato in April 2023.

Russia, with which Finland shares an 830-mile (1,340km) border, swiftly warned of “countermeasures”.

With its bid now ratified by all Nato members, neighbouring Sweden is now finalising formalities to enter the military alliance as its 32nd member – most likely in March.

Nine sued by consulting firm over ‘false’ reports former Liberal MP gave them secret government advice

Nine sued by consulting firm over ‘false’ reports former Liberal MP Stuart Robert gave them secret government advice

Synergy 360 is seeking damages after claiming news articles were defamatory, while Nine says it will ‘vigorously defend’ the claim

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Consulting firm Synergy 360 says it needs to be vindicated with significant damages over four news reports claiming secret advice from then-federal Liberal MP Stuart Robert benefited its clients.

After a parliamentary inquiry, Robert was referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nacc) in September over claims Synergy channelled money to a company linked to the former frontbencher to win lucrative government work.

Nine-owned masthead the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the allegations from November 2022 to March 2023 in four articles.

Synergy and its chief executive, David Milo, claim the reports were defamatory in a NSW supreme court lawsuit against Nine and journalists Nick McKenzie and David Crowe.

The news broadcaster has denied this allegation and defended the actions of its journalists.

“Nick McKenzie and David Crowe are exemplary journalists and Nine will vigorously defend their reporting,” a spokesperson said.

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The allegedly defamatory statements include that the firm engaged in corrupt or improper practices by using confidential information given to it in secret by Robert to benefit its clients in securing multimillion-dollar contracts.

Milo claims these statements also defamed him and that the articles falsely reported that he lied to avoid scrutiny by a journalist over his relationship with Robert.

The alleged defamation from the most recent article included reports that Synergy and Milo benefited from a contract with Services Australia worth over $100,000 simply because of their corrupt relationship with a senior federal official.

Robert has previously denied any impropriety, labelling the Nacc referral a “farce” and an example of political payback.

The lawsuit alleges the articles caused reputational damage to the consulting firm and its chief executive, with Milo also experiencing “hurt, distress and embarrassment”.

“Within weeks of and in consequence upon the articles being published, [Synergy] lost a number of existing and potential clients, resulting in serious financial loss,” the lawsuit reads.

Milo was also unable to find alternative work and had not received a wage since November 2022.

The reports are also alleged to have subjected the firm and its boss to “intense public scrutiny and criticism” through parliamentary and journalistic inquiries.

The lawsuit claims damages are required to vindicate and repair Synergy’s and Milo’s reputations, and provide compensation for the distress caused.

The lawsuit also seeks aggravated damages over articles claimed to contain “grave and highly damaging” statements that Nine should have known were untrue.

The broadcaster did not retract the articles or apologise, the consulting firm said.

The matter will next come before the court on 26 April.

Robert, who represented the Queensland seat of Fadden, resigned from parliament in May.

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Coalition flags expanding policy amid increase in house prices

Coalition flags expanding super for housing policy amid increase in house prices

Michael Sukkar says policy may need to be revised ahead of next federal election but the ‘broad strokes’ would remain the same

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Michael Sukkar has flagged that the Coalition could expand its super for housing policy to increase the amount that first home buyers can withdraw in response to rising prices.

The shadow housing minister said on Monday it was a “good point” that the original proposal for a single person to withdraw $50,000 was conceived before the 2022 election when prices were lower and may need to be revised – although the “broad strokes” would remain the same.

Sukkar’s comments come as the Coalition looks to rebound from its slightly underwhelming performance in the Dunkley byelection, with promises to bolster its policy offering particularly in housing and energy.

Although the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, insisted on Monday that he intends to win back outer and inner metro seats, there are differences emerging particularly on nuclear energy, with the former MP Jason Falinski claiming the party is “not necessarily” advocating it as the preferred option.

Sukkar told ABC Afternoon Briefing the Coalition has recommitted to allowing first home buyers to access $50,000 from their super – which is repaid if they sell the house – to use as a deposit.

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Asked if the Coalition may need to revise up the amount that can be withdrawn, Sukkar replied: “We will have more to say about that policy and the range of other policies.”

“It is a fair point you make but we will consider that in the context of the full suite of policies for the election.”

“Let’s remember, for a couple that is $50,000 each, so for a couple it is $100,000 towards your deposit, in addition to other savings, because we think it is a very compelling policy that we took to the last election. It will be refreshed in the context of what we take to the next election.”

A Liberal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the party must avoid “low-rent culture war issues” and that they did not think the Sussan Ley tweet referring to “foreign criminals” ahead of the Dunkley byelection had “helped”.

Ley, the deputy Liberal leader, refused to delete a tweet claiming “Victorian women being assaulted by foreign criminals”.

The Liberal said nuclear power was set to be a “key piece” of Coalition policy because it would achieve the dual aims of helping to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and promote energy security.

But others are not so sure. Liberal MP James Stevens, who holds the Adelaide metro seat of Sturt by a 0.5% margin, said that “embracing nuclear generation for civilian electricity purposes is not something to be done on a whim”.

The Coalition is expected to announce an energy policy including lifting the ban on nuclear energy and nominating potential sites for power stations, but it is unclear how it hopes to overcome the enormous cost, long lead-in time and lack of private investment to make them a reality.

Stevens told the ABC he supports “continuing to put more detail on specifics out there into the community” but added “it’s a very big decision for us to make as a nation, to embrace nuclear power”.

“Australians quite rightly will want an answer to a lot of questions about how we will avail ourselves of that opportunity, how we will deal with some challenges, such as the custody of waste, the location of these generation plants.”

On Monday Falinski, who lost the seat of Mackellar to the teal MP Sophie Scamps, and Tim Wilson, who will seek to regain his seat of Goldstein from Zoe Daniel, wrote in the Australian Financial Review that the Liberals need to retake its heartland seats.

Falinski told Sky News that “nuclear energy is not something that we are necessarily advocating for … What we’re saying is that it should be part of the mix, part of the option available for Australian policymakers.”

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Ex-Liberal MP loses court challenge over watchdog’s travel expenses decision

Andrew Laming loses court challenge over watchdog’s travel expenses decision

Attempt by ex-Liberal MP for parliamentary expenses authority’s decision over his travel claims to be reviewed thrown out by federal court

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A court challenge by former federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming against parliament’s expenditure watchdog over travel expenses has been dismissed.

Laming, who is running for mayor of Redland city council in Queensland’s local government elections this month, took the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority to the federal court over its conclusions about his travel.

He was asked to pay back $10,360, which includes a 25% loading fee, after the authority audited expenses he claimed for his wife, two children and himself.

The review found Laming’s dominant purpose of travel from Brisbane to Hobart on 21 June 2019 and return flights between Brisbane and Melbourne in the same month was not parliamentary business.

“Dr Laming … contended that he was denied procedural fairness because certain matters were omitted from the audit, that the audit process was haphazard, and that the conclusion that his travel and expenses were not for the dominant purpose of parliamentary business was legally unreasonable,” Justice Sarah Derrington said in a judgment published on Monday.

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She said Laming was told on 1 April 2021 about an assurance review regarding commonwealth-funded travel and travel-related expenses between Brisbane, Hobart and Melbourne in June 2019 and asked to respond to questions.

He requested an extension, saying “nearly a year of email correspondence is not available in my archive”, with the reason for the loss of data remaining unexplained.

“It seems to be accepted between the parties that Dr Laming has lost access to his entire record of sent correspondence from March 2019 to January 2020 on his parliamentary email account,” Derrington said.

Laming claimed the expenses for travel to Tasmania were for a medical conference.

The authority started proceedings in the magistrates court to recover the money, with Dr Laming agreeing in July 2023 to pay $20,935.25 and paying $5,000 towards that about a month later.

“In my view, the taking of this course of action by Dr Laming is indicative of a decision by him to abandon any course that would seek to challenge the ruling by applying for judicial review,” Derrington said.

Laming’s application for the judicial review of the authority’s March 2022 decision in August 2023 was more than 15 months later than the 28 days allowed.

Derrington ruled against the Laming’s application for an extension of the time to call for the review.

The judge also found his complaint boiled down to one about the weight of evidence and the authority’s conclusion as to the dominant purpose.

“The prospects of Dr Laming establishing that the ruling has not been made within the proper exercise of the power are poor,” Derrington said in her judgment.

Laming was the MP for the south-east Queensland seat of Bowman.

He was fined by the federal court in 2023 over social media posts he published in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and has appealed against that decision.

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Dozens of koalas allegedly killed or injured during plantation logging on Kangaroo Island

Dozens of koalas allegedly killed or injured during plantation logging on Kangaroo Island

Exclusive: Ex-employees of Australian Agribusiness Group allege dozens of injuries occurred as blue gums cleared for agricultural use, claims which the company rejects

WARNING: contains images some viewers may find distressing

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Dozens of koalas have been killed or injured and left for dead during logging of blue gum plantations in South Australia, according to former employees of the harvesting company and a conservation organisation that tried to save the marsupials.

Ex-employees of the company managing the plantation estate Australian Agribusiness Group said they tried to save at least 40 injured koalas and saw about 20 that had been killed as plantations on Kangaroo Island were cleared for agricultural use.

They described injuries including broken skulls, jaws, arms and hips. Guardian Australia has seen photos of seriously injured and dead koalas taken at the site.

Australian Agribusiness Group said it adhered to environmental land management practices, had welfare practices in place and any concerns would be investigated.

Injured koalas were taken to Kangaroo Island Wildlife Network, a volunteer organisation that rescues and rehabilitates injured and sick animals. The network’s president, Katie Welz, said 21 had to be euthanised due to the severity of their injuries.

“We have koalas being injured, orphaned, displaced and killed by logging practices on a weekly basis and we are frustrated and astounded at the lack of guidance from government on this issue,” Welz said.

The ex-employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, alleged that some of the company’s workers at times appeared to disregard instructions to leave standing trees that had been marked with tape by trained spotters to indicate they contained koalas.

“The harvesters are supposed to leave eight trees around a tree containing a koala but there were many found suffering to death where taped trees had been felled,” one ex-employee said.

“The authorities should step in to stop this happening. I love animals and it was heartbreaking to see them suffering.”

Another ex-employee claimed that some harvesting operations were conducted without a koala spotter and that workers would spend free time collecting injured koalas from cleared plantation lots. They said the number of koalas killed might have been greater than what they had seen.

“I went in there and collected all the koalas I could get,” they alleged. “There were definitely dead koalas on the ground and the next day they were gone.”

Australian Agribusiness Group, which was contracted by land owners Kiland Ltd to manage the plantation estate, said they cleared the land “in accordance with agreed environmental land management practices”. A company spokesperson said the company was “committed to responsible environmental stewardship” and had “practices in place in relation to the welfare of local wildlife on Kangaroo Island, including koalas”.

“We are managing the complexities and challenges of harvesting fire damaged and degrading plantations on Kangaroo Island, while providing the highest possible level of protection to the local animal population,” the spokesperson said. “If any party raises concerns with us or provides any evidence that our practices aren’t compliant those concerns will be thoroughly investigated.”

Kiland declined to comment.

Koalas are a contentious issue on Kangaroo Island. The marsupial is listed as endangered by extinction in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, but not in South Australia. Some Kangaroo Island locals consider it a pest.

Eighteen koalas were introduced to the island a century ago due to concerns the species could become extinct in the country’s south-east as it was being hunted for its fur. Estimates suggest population grew to more than 50,000 before the catastrophic 2019-20 black summer bushfires four years ago, a level that scientists considered unsustainable for the local environment.

But the fires reduced it to about 15,000, including about 3,000 living in blue gum plantations. Most of the 14,500 hectare Kangaroo Island plantation estate owned by Kiland was damaged during the fires, which burned half the island.

Welz said the wildlife network was not advocating that the plantations be left standing, but they should not be logged until a koala management plan was introduced. She said the images of dead and injured koalas were “so shocking and intolerable that they demand a pause to logging operations”.

“Like the broader community, we want the blue gums gone, but it needs to be a carefully crafted exercise to remove habitat that many species of invertebrates, birds and mammals depend on,” she said.

Welz said she had written to the state Department of Environment and Water and the South Australian deputy premier and environment minister, Susan Close, last year to raise the issue but nothing had changed.

“We feel the department abandoned us when it comes to managing the fallout around animal welfare in the plantations,” she said. “The felling of these forests began in 2022 yet [the department] still does not have a koala management plan for Kangaroo Island.”

In response to questions from Guardian Australia, a department spokeswoman said National Parks and Wildlife Service staff had conducted inspections of plantation sites in response to reports of koala welfare issues, most recently in October 2023, and found no evidence of injuries due to wilful or negligent actions.

The spokeswoman said protocols to protect animals, including retaining trees with koalas and eight surrounding trees, were being followed.

“While the department found protocols being implemented, unfortunately some animals are injured when a plantation is cleared, despite measures to protect them being in place,” the spokeswoman said.

Welz claimed that the government team investigating allegations about koala welfare did not collect evidence from local wildlife rescue organisations or the Kangaroo Island Veterinary Clinic when it visited the island on its October visit.

“No appointments were made,” she said. “We offered to get the evidence to the compliance team after the fact with no response.”

Close said reports of animal welfare issues associated with blue gum plantation clearance were being investigated and work on a koala management plan was under way.

But she said the spread of Tasmanian blue gums following the devastating fires and an “overabundance of koalas” was “posing serious risks to the natural environment on the island”.

The department spokeswoman said it “anticipated” that a koala management plan being developed with the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board would be released in late 2024.

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