The Guardian 2024-03-21 01:01:22


The defence minister, Richard Marles, and UK secretary of state for defence, Grant Shapps, are now holding the press conference after the signing of the new strategic pact between Australia and the UK.

Marles:

Grant and I were talking about this and we were surprised that such a treaty-level agreement has not existed before. It says a bit about our history; the United Kingdom is of course our oldest relationship and maybe those who have gone before us have just thought this to be assumed, but Grant and I observed it falls to us as the honour of being able to sign this agreement between our two countries.

But what it does reflect is this: whilst the UK is our oldest relationship where the people-to-people links have always been incredibly strong, where there is a deep affection, and where our reflexes and instincts are very similar, what we are experiencing right now is a strategic dimension to the contemporary relationship which in many respects is unprecedented, but certainly has not been in place for decades.

It means that the agreement that we have signed today is very practical, but it is also very timely. It does reflect a relationship which has become much more strategic, a relationship which has a much bigger national security dimension.

NSW failed to monitor offsets while endangered ecosystems were cleared for western Sydney homes

Environment department spokesperson says offset program for the area has continued despite failure to file reports for three years

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The New South Wales environment department stopped monitoring and reporting on a $530m conservation program meant to compensate for swathes of land-clearing at the same time as its management of biodiversity offset schemes was under investigation, Guardian Australia can reveal.

Conservationists and the NSW Greens say the government must investigate the “startling failure” by the department to report on progress towards meeting the conservation offset requirements for new suburb developments in western Sydney.

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The environment minister, Penny Sharpe, has sought urgent advice from her department about the missing data related to clearing of critically endangered ecosystems for housing in areas including Shanes Park, Riverstone and Schofields.

The data has not been filed by the department for three years. It is an apparent breach of the state’s annual reporting obligations agreed to when the federal government approved the Sydney growth centres, a multi-decade urban development program for western Sydney.

Sharpe, who was in opposition when the department stopped filing the reports, became aware of the issue after Guardian Australia requested to see the documents last week.

“I have asked for urgent advice on what other data and reports might have been delayed under the previous government,” Sharpe said.

The reports track progress towards offset targets for threatened species and ecosystems affected by clearing for new housing and infrastructure in western Sydney. The affected areas include the critically endangered Cumberland plain woodland. The reports also document annual spending on offset credits and conservation areas under the $530m program. Individual transactions under the program can be worth millions of dollars.

The NSW government has not submitted a completed report to the federal environment department or published one since 2019-20, despite being required to do both under its federal obligations.

The NSW Greens environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said it was a “shocking omission” and called on the government to investigate.

“These reports are required as part of the state’s obligations under the federal legal framework,” she said. “Considering the parlous state of biodiversity in NSW and the extent of the known failures of the biodiversity offsets system, it’s completely unacceptable.”

The environment department stopped filing the reports during a period in which multiple inquiries, including an auditor general’s review, a parliamentary inquiry and departmental investigations, were under way into the management of the state’s biodiversity offset schemes. The inquiries were triggered in 2021 after Guardian Australia revealed serious failures in the offsets scheme meant to compensate for the clearing of bushland in western Sydney.

Sharpe said she was concerned, and that it was “yet another example of the previous government’s don’t care attitude to the environment”.

The missing conservation reports are for a planning scheme that was designed to guide more than 30 years of housing development in Sydney’s west.

The scheme was approved by the federal government in 2011 under a policy that removed the need for developers to seek individual environmental approval for projects. Instead, it allowed environmental approval to be granted upfront for multiple projects across a mapped region and conservation conditions to be set for the life of the development.

The state government is responsible for meeting the conservation requirements by acquiring conservation lands and buying offsets. Developers contribute to some of the cost by paying a levy.

A NSW environment department spokesperson said the offset program for the growth centres had continued despite its failure to file regular reports. They said the government had acquired 10.7ha for conservation in 2020-21 and 98.7ha in 2021-22. They said no offsets had been bought under the program in 2022-23 but the government expected to acquire a further 45.67ha this financial year.

Lisa Harrold, the president of the Mulgoa Valley Landcare group, said when the Sydney growth centres were approved the community had hoped it would lead to new nature reserves and corridors to stop the region’s unique ecosystems collapsing. She said transparent reporting on the use of conservation funds was important because it allowed the community to scrutinise whether commitments were being met and where money had been spent.

“Millions of dollars should be invested annually in acquiring land for conservation, but exactly how much funding has been spent and where these offsets are located is a mystery,” she said.

James Trezise, the director of the Biodiversity Council, said the case was a “startling failure” that highlighted the pitfalls of “set and forget” environmental and planning approaches that had been adopted by the federal government over the years.

He said proper environmental oversight was critical in western Sydney, the home of the last remaining patches of Cumberland plain woodland, which provides habitat for species such as koalas, gliders and threatened plants.

The NSW environment department spokesperson said reporting was not a condition of the federal approval for the growth centres but was an obligation under a “procedural agreement” between the two governments. They said the department was working to bring the reporting up to date and publish the missing reports.

A spokesperson for the federal environment department said it had ensured the state government was fully aware of its obligations.

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Southern Australian households to face gas shortages from 2026 as most production set for export

Aemo reports that Victoria’s total available gas supply will drop by 48% from 2024 to 2028

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Southern Australia could face gas shortages during “extreme peak demand days” from 2025 as Bass Strait supplies dwindle, the Australian Energy Market Operator has said.

In its annual gas statement of opportunities report, the Aemo said “small seasonal supply gaps” may emerge from 2026 with the shortages becoming annual ones from 2028 unless additional supplies are developed. Regions affected include New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

The predicted supply gaps have been delayed a couple of years from last year’s report, however, as more households ditch the fossil fuel.

A year ago, the Aemo warned of gas shortage risks “from winter 2023”. Shortfalls, though, were avoided as a “record mild winter” resulted in “significantly lower” gas demand. High prices and “early signs of increased electrification” also cut consumption.

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Still, with two-thirds of east coast gas production earmarked for exports, mostly from Queensland, domestic demand will have to decline at a faster rate to avoid gaps in later years. Alternatively, more supplies will be needed or more gas piped southwards.

Southern fields produced about 1,500 petajoules of gas in 2022, a tally that will drop to about 1,200Pj this year and roughly 700Pj by 2028. For Victoria, the total available gas supply will drop by 48% over the outlook period, from 297Pj in 2024 to 154Pj in 2028, according to a separate Aemo report on the state also released on Thursday.

The chief executive of the Aemo, Daniel Westerman, said gas-fired power plants could get “temporary relief” by burning liquid fuels such as diesel.

“From 2028, supply gaps will increase in size as Bass Strait production falls significantly,” he said, noting the offshore fields had historically supplied two-thirds of southern Australia’s gas.

Gas shortage forecasts have been a feature of the annual Aemo reports for the past decade, with the market operator seeking to identify gaps that then get addressed.

Their emphasis has also typically been on supply issues rather than how demand might change both factors, in response to higher energy prices. Efforts to quicken the switch off gas – such as Victoria’s ban on new residential gas connections from the start of 2024 – may also drive down consumption faster than Aemo is presently predicting.

The federal energy minister, Chris Bowen, said changes to the gas security mechanism and the implementation of the mandatory code of conduct for gas producers will help ensure supplies.

Bowen, though, is familiar with the risks facing energy supplies. An early winter cold snap combined with gas shortages and a period of low wind and solar power to create a short-lived energy crisis soon after his government took office.

The latest Aemo report also noted that it was “critical” that all southern gas storage was full prior to winter and their depletion rates monitored to reduce shortfall risks: “In extreme cases where depletion is taking place at an accelerated rate, northern supply should be sourced to ensure depletion is minimised.”

One swing factor could be the timing of the closure of the 2,880-megawatt Eraring coal-fired power plant. Should it extend beyond the scheduled date of August 2025, gas-fired power consumption could be 30% to 60% lower.

Gas demand is forecast to continue to decline, just not at the pace of falling output in the south. Residential gas consumption is expected drop more than two-thirds, or about 125Pj a year, 50Pj in 2043, the Aemo said.

Burning gas for electricity generation has also been on the skids since 2019, with the downward trend continuing until the early 2030s. At that point, demand should stabilise as gas-fired plants get called upon more to support variable renewable energy plants.

Liquefied natural gas producers control about 70% of known reserves in central and eastern Australia. Volumes of gas exported internationally via Curtis Island in Queensland represent about 70% of annual consumption in the east coast gas market, the Aemo said.

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NSW could be forced to pay up to $4.3bn compensation if Newcastle becomes container port, modelling shows

Modelling conducted for Treasury finds state’s liability to competing terminals could be $600m in 2024 and $4.3bn by 2063

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The New South Wales government could be forced to pay up to $4.3bn in compensation if Newcastle becomes a container port, after it was privatised a decade ago along with two other major ports.

The government will on Thursday reveal the contracts used in the sales of Port Botany and Port Kembla in 2013 and the sale of the Port of Newcastle the following year, as well as modelling commissioned on the northern port’s plan to develop container abilities.

The treasurer, Daniel Mookhey, planned to table in parliament the contracts that underpinned the privatisation of the three ports which netted $6.82bn for the state.

It comes after he wrote to the owners of the ports last year requesting consent for the contacts to be published as part of the Labor government’s promise to “end the secrecy” around major privatisation deals.

“After more than a decade, the people of NSW are finally seeing what the impact of selling off their assets looks like,” he said.

“They shouldn’t have had to wait this long to see these contracts. All this government had to do was ask.”

Under the agreements, Port Botany and Port Kembla owner NSW Ports would be eligible for compensation from the government if the Port of Newcastle was to develop a competing container terminal, as it intends to do.

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In 2022, legislation was passed to eliminate the Port of Newcastle’s liability for developing a container port, if it agreed to compensate the state an amount to be determined by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (Ipart).

The amount is separate from the state’s liability to the owner of Port Botany and Port Kembla, which modelling conducted by Deloitte Access Economics on behalf of NSW Treasury found could be between $600m in 2024 and up to $4.3bn in 2063.

The figure will be offset, at least in part, by the amount to be determined by Ipart.

Privatisation was a key issue in the 2023 state election.

Opposing privatisation was one Labor’s signature policies while the Coalition preached the benefits of its “asset recycling” scheme. The Coalition eventually committed to no further privatisation if it was re-elected.

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Australia’s unemployment rate unexpectedly drops from 4.1% to 3.7% in February despite slowing economy

Latest ABS figures show the labour market added 116,000 jobs defying signs of weakness since September

Australia’s jobless rate dived to 3.7% in February as employers shrugged off signs of an economic slowdown to boost staff numbers by triple the level expected.

The unemployment rate last month fell from 4.1% in January, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed on Thursday. Economists had expected the jobless rate to come in at 4.0%.

The economy added 116,600 – two-thirds of them full-time roles – in February compared with economists’ forecast for a net gain of 40,000 positions.

The unexpected surge in employment lowered the jobless rate to where it was half a year ago, said Bjorn Jarvis, ABS head of labour statistics. A shift in the way people were entering the market affected the February result.

“In 2022 and 2023, around 4.3% of employed people in February had not been employed in January,” Jarvis said. “In 2024 this was higher, at 4.7%, and well above the pre-pandemic average for 2015 to 2020 of around 3.9%.”

The participation rate was 66.7%, an increase from the revised 66.6% rate in January. Hours worked rose 2.8%, or 53m, reversing a similar slide in the first month of 2024.

Australia’s economy slowed to a crawl in the final three months of 2023, growing just 0.2%, as 13 interest rate rises by the Reserve Bank to quash inflation took their toll.

The labour market had been weakening since September, when the jobless rate was 3.6%, although that level was close to half-century lows. The RBA’s February forecasts has the unemployment rate creeping higher to 4.2% by June and 4.3% by the year’s end.

Earlier this week, RBA governor Michele Bullock indicated a rapid increase in unemployment could prompt the central bank to start cutting its key interest rate provided inflation continued on its slowing path towards a 2%-3% target range.

“The judgement at the moment is that the labour market is still slightly on the tight side, and that’s on the basis that the unemployment rate is still much lower than it was pre-pandemic,” Bullock said on Tuesday after the RBA left rates steady for a third meeting in a row.

“We’re keeping a keen eye also on employment numbers, because as I’ve said before, we want to hold on to as many gains in the labour market as we can,” she said.

Tuesday’s figures were interpreted by investors to imply the RBA will be less likely to cut interest rates soon. The dollar rose to 66.06 US cents from about 65.95 US cents prior to the release. Stocks also pared their gains for the day from about 0.6% to slightly more than 0.4%.

Welfare groups in particular were worried the RBA might wait too long for signs of a weaker labour market before taking an axe to interest rates.

“Unemployment is the last domino to fall,” Peter Davidson, an economist with the Australian Council of Social Service, said prior to today’s data release. “Once the number of vacancies is reduced, and employers have reduced working hours for part time workers, then they start to lay people off or not take people on as quickly.”

“That means a much larger number of people who were having to live on unemployment payments of $55 a day, which of course is impossible to live on,” Davidson said.

More to come …

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Analysis

‘Man-made famine’ charge against Israel is backed by mounting body of evidence

Peter Beaumont

Prospect of Israel facing war crimes charges has moved closer after UN condemnation of Gaza aid restrictions

The accusation by the UN and other humanitarians that Israel may be committing a war crime by deliberately starving Gaza’s population is likely to significantly increase the prospect of legal culpability for the country, including at the international court of justice.

Amid reports that the Israel Defense Forces are hiring dozens of lawyers to defend against anticipated cases and legal challenges, the charge that Israel has triggered a “man-made famine” by deliberately obstructing the entry of aid into Gaza is backed by an increasing body of evidence.

Already facing a complaint of genocide from South Africa at the ICJ, the UN’s top court – including an allegation that senior Israeli political officials have incited genocide in public statements – Israel is also the subject of a provisional emergency ruling by the court ordering it to admit life-saving aid to Gaza.

On Wednesday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, underlined the growing sense of crisis as he warned that all of Gaza’s 2 million people were experiencing “severe levels of acute food insecurity” – the first time an entire population of Gaza has been so classified.

Unlike other issues related to Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas in Gaza, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives and displaced more than 85% of the population amid widespread destruction, the human-made famine occurring in the Palestinian territory appears more straightforward.

While the question of civilian casualties from specific attacks and from the wider policy of bombing will need to be tested against highly contested notions in international humanitarian law such as proportionality and necessity in conflict, the war crime of starvation is simply and clearly defined.

Though Israel denies the allegation, the Rome statute of the international criminal court defines it as the crime of intentionally starving civilians by “depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival” including “wilfully impeding relief supplies”.

Underpinning the allegations is the fact that as a belligerent occupying power in Gaza, Israel is legally responsible under article 55 of the fourth Geneva convention for “ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population”, which requires the occupier to “bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate”.

A central plank of any case that Israel has provoked a famine is the data generated by the UN’s Gaza famine review committee, staffed by international experts on food security, whose findings this week fall under the auspices of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) – regarded as the international gold standard in assessing food crises.

Highly technical, often cautious and designed to be neutral in its analysis, the committee – which had already warned of the risk of famine not least in the worst affected region of northern Gaza – has relied on World Food Programme surveys that concludedPalestinians were already facing IPC phase 4 and 5 levels of malnutrition – “emergency” and “catastrophe”.

The IPC committee also examined access for food trucks to the worst affected area, concluding that a “very limited number of trucks carrying food aid is authorised to enter north Gaza and Gaza governates and since 5 February there has been no report of food trucks being able to discharge in Gaza City”.

The IPC’s report is backed up by analysis prepared independently and sent this week to the Biden administration by Oxfam America and Human Rights Watch to highlight Israel’s failure to comply with a new requirement from Washington that recipients of US arms supplies need to comply with international law.

That analysis accused Israel of “systematically prevent[ing] aid” from reaching “the roughly 300,000 Palestinians who remain in northern Gaza, where the threat of starvation is most acute”.

The two organisations added that in the first six weeks of this year, “over half of the planned humanitarian aid missions to northern Gaza were obstructed by Israeli authorities”. Charging Israel with a deliberate policy of starvation, the documents adds: “International humanitarian law prohibits parties to a conflict from deliberately causing ‘the population to suffer hunger, particularly by depriving it of its sources of food or of supplies’.”

Exacerbating Israel’s legal exposure over the issue of starvation are public comments made early in the war by the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, advocating a “complete siege of Gaza” and making clear that he meant: “No electricity, no food, no water.”

“We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” he said.

While Israel has allowed a minimum of aid to enter under pressure from the US and wider international community, it has faced repeated complaints, including from Joe Biden, that the quality is insufficient, prompting air drops and attempts to open a sea bridge by other countries.

The claims about using starvation as a weapon of war come amid a growing and palpable sense of anxiety in the Israeli military over the mounting legal risks from its offensive on Gaza.

Speaking to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, an unamed IDF official said: “The international legal pressure on Israel began gradually before the war, when the international criminal court supported an investigation against Israel in 2019, and in 2021 declared that they have the authority to do that.

“Now the pressure by many countries to prioritise legal action against the IDF and the state has only increased, and not only from South Africa’s direction. Just this month the international criminal court issued arrest warrants against two Russian generals for allegedly attacking a Ukrainian power plant and for causing noncombatant casualties without justification.”

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World Bank report finds imminent risk of catastrophic famine in Gaza Strip

Findings come as UN secretary general calls on Israel to give unconditional access to Gaza for aid relief

Half the population of the Gaza Strip is at imminent risk of famine as food shortages approach catastrophic levels for more than a million people, the World Bank has warned.

Almost six months after the war between Israel and Hamas began, the Washington-based Bank said urgent action was needed to prevent widespread deaths from starvation within the next two months.

The new data from the Bank came as the UN secretary general, António Guterres, called on Israel to give immediate and unconditional access to Gaza for aid via land.

“I call on the Israeli authorities to ensure complete and unfettered access for humanitarian routes throughout Gaza,” he said before a meeting with the European Commission’s president in Brussels.

The Bank’s regular update found that of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, there were 1.1 million in the highest risk category – people in catastrophe – which meant risk of acute malnutrition or death. A further 854,000 (38%) were in the next category down – people in emergency – where immediate action was needed to save lives. The remaining 12% were in the third category: people in crisis. Nobody in Gaza was placed in the bottom two categories – people stressed or people in food security.

“Household surveys reveal alarming trends, with virtually all households skipping meals daily and a significant portion of children under two suffering from acute malnutrition,” the report said.

The World Bank said the projected famine could happen at any time between now and late May and conditions were being exacerbated by a number of factors including relentless hostilities, widespread damage to infrastructure and restricted humanitarian access, hindering the delivery of essential supplies and services.

Citing the sheer number of people facing catastrophic hunger, Guterres said leaders needed to “act now before it was too late”. He also renewed calls for Hamas to release all the Israeli hostages unconditionally.

Guterres will address EU leaders at a summit on Thursday where they will be asked to adopt conclusions calling for Israel to avert famine. In hardened language, the latest draft declaration now says “full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” to Gaza must be given “to provide the civilian population with life-saving assistance and basic services at scale”.

Médecins Sans Frontières, which was given access two days ago to Rafah to set up a makeshift care centre, said it was seeing diarrhoea due to poor sanitation and respiratory infections in children caused by sleeping in tents during winter.

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Netanyahu addresses Senate Republicans days after Schumer calls for his ouster

Israeli PM speaks via video link and answers questions after his request to talk to Democrats was turned down

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, virtually addressed Republican senators in Washington on Wednesday, days after the chamber’s majority leader, the Democrat Chuck Schumer, called him an impediment to peace in an unsparing floor speech.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, told reporters, shortly after leaving the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch, that Netanyahu joined the gathering via video link, delivered a presentation, and answered questions.

“We asked him for an update and we got it on the war, on the release of the hostages and in the efforts to defeat Hamas,” the senator John Barrasso, a Republican of Wyoming who invited Netanyahu to speak at the party’s closed-door lunch, told reporters after the meeting. “We told him Israel has every right to defend themselves and he said that’s exactly what they continue to do.”

McConnell said Netanyahu called him last week and asked for an opportunity to address the members of his conference and he accepted. Netanyahu asked to address Senate Democrats at their caucus lunch on Wednesday as well, but Schumer indicated that he had declined.

“When you make these issues partisan, you hurt the cause of Israel,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The dueling responses underscores the increasingly partisan divide over the US’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians and pushed the population to the brink of famine.

Mike Johnson, the Republican House speaker, said in a press conference on Wednesday that he was considering a request to invite Netanyahu to address Congress.

“I think it’s very important for us to show solidarity and support for Israel right now in their time of great struggle, and we certainly stand for that position and we’ll try to advance that in every way that we can,” he said. He added that he and Netanyahu held a “lengthy” conversation on Wednesday morning in which he told the prime minister that Schumer’s speech last week was “foolhardy” and “dangerous”.

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in American history, has faced intense blowback from Republicans and Israeli political leaders in recent days over his Senate floor speech, in which he said that Netanyahu had “lost his way” five months into a war that began when Hamas led a cross-border attack, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostage.

Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, McConnell said Democrats “don’t have an anti-Bibi problem. They have an anti-Israel problem.

“It’s absurd enough for American senators to masquerade as duly elected members of the Knesset – as if their views should have any bearing on how Israel conducts its domestic politics,” McConnell said in a Wednesday floor speech.

Schumer dismissed Republicans’ critique that his remarks amounted to “foreign interference” and was an attempt to “strong-arm” an ally for domestic political gain.

“I gave this speech out of a real love for Israel,” the Democrat said. He has expressed concern that the conduct of Netanyahu and his far-right governing partners risk turning Israel into an international “pariah”.

Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. But in recent years, Democrats have become increasingly critical of Netanyahu, who has, over the course of several US presidencies, aligned himself closely with Republicans.

Tensions between Netanyahu and Joe Biden over Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza have burst into public view, with Biden endorsing Schumer’s speech and warning against a full-scale invasion of the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s surviving population is sheltering. Yet Netanyahu has pledged to move ahead with the offensive, in defiance of Biden’s “red line”.

The two leaders spoke by phone on Monday for the first time in more than a month.

The US is pushing for a temporary ceasefire in exchange for the release of the Israeli hostages and time to allow aid groups to rush badly needed food and medicine into the besieged territory.

Several top Democratic lawmakers and their supporters are urging the president to use more leverage to pressure Israel to change course.

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Israeli diplomats pre-emptively attack findings of Unrwa inquiries

UN refugee agency criticised by Israel, which claims Unrwa staff were implicated in 7 October Hamas attacks

Israeli diplomats have pre-emptively attacked the findings of two inquires into the role of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, Unrwa, in Gaza, on the day that one of the inquiries submitted its interim finding to the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres.

Unrwa has come under heavy criticism since Israel accused 12 of its Gaza staff of 13,000 of being implicated in the 7 October Hamas attack on southern Israel. The agency denies the charge and says no solid evidence has been presented to support it.

The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) launched an investigation on 29 January after the Israeli allegations. Parallel to the OIOS inquiry, a broader review of Unrwa’s activities and neutrality is under way, led by a former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, and supported by three Nordic research organisations.

The Colonna review was commissioned by Guterres in January, before the Israeli allegations were made. The review group, which presented its interim findings on Tuesday, found that “Unrwa has in place a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principle of neutrality.”

But the UN spokesperson Florencia Soto Nino said investigators had “also identified critical areas that still need to be addressed”.

She did not specify which issues had been identified, but said: “The review group will now develop concrete and realistic recommendations on how to address these critical areas to strengthen and improve Unrwa.” The final report on Unrwa will be made public on 20 April.

Israeli diplomats in London hit out at both investigations on Wednesday, vowing that Israel would never let the agency back into Gaza regardless of the outcomes. One Israeli diplomatic source said: “A double game has been played by Hamas and Unrwa, so much so that Unrwa is a Hamas strategic asset.”

The diplomats said Unrwa could not be reformed and claimed that international donors that have suspended funding for the agency might be misled into restoring it by the inquiries. Both inquiries had been given overly narrow terms of reference and the OIOS inquiry is not taking fresh evidence that Israel was compiling in the field about the alleged depth of Hamas infiltration, the diplomats said.

Israel also released new figures claiming its intelligence showed that 2,135 Unrwa staff were members of Hamas, representing 17% of the total workforce in Gaza, of whom at least 400 were active fighters.

A senior Israeli diplomat said: “Unrwa is so penetrated in Gaza, it cannot be repaired. This is the policy of the state of Israel. We want to see an end to Unrwa activity in Gaza. This is not a case of a few bad apples. It is systemic, consistent and cannot be ignored. It is not possible that Unrwa did not know 17% of its staff were Hamas operatives.

“There are a number of alternative organisations that are already active on the ground that have played major roles in conflicts and know how to operate in Gaza.”

The claims of Hamas infiltration could not be independently verified, and Israel’s critics say insufficient evidence has been presented publicly.

The US has said the agency has an “absolutely indispensable role” to play in distributing aid in Gaza, where the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said the “entire population” is suffering “severe levels of acute food insecurity”.

On Wednesday, the World Bank warned that half the population of the Gaza Strip was at imminent risk of famine, one day after the UN said Israel’s severe restrictions on aid into Gaza coupled with its military offensive could amount to using starvation as a “weapon of war”, which would be a war crime.

The Israeli officials admitted that they faced a challenge in phasing out Unrwa’s food distribution role at a time when even its allies were demanding a big increase in aid flows into Gaza but made the point that alternative agencies could take up the task.

“We have to figure out how to increase a humanitarian effort inside Gaza without providing aid through an organisation that’s essentially very closely intertwined with the enemy that we’re trying to defeat,” the source said.

The initial Israeli allegations led 16 donors to suspend contributions to Unrwa, and though some countries have begun to restore funding, partly worried by reports of an imminent famine, the big donors – US, Germany and the UK – have yet to make a decision.

In the past, UK ministers have said they cannot foresee an organisation being able to replicate Unrwa’s work, but a decision to restore funding is made more complicated if Israel, the de facto post-war authority in Gaza, demands that its operations be wound up.

A total of 13,000 Unrwa staff work in Gaza and 30,000 in refugee camps in the region, including Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank.

Unrwa was given a mandate in 1949 by the UN general assembly to carry out “direct relief and works programmes” for Palestine refugees.

On Tuesday the Guardian revealed that according to internal UN documents, Unrwa staff working with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have been subjected to a systematic campaign of obstruction and harassment by the Israeli military and authorities since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza five months ago. A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said in response they had “no issues with Unrwa in the West Bank”, adding: “We are not trying to harass them.”

Israeli officials have long criticised Unrwa, but ramped up pressure after the allegations were made against Unrwa employees over the Hamas attacks. In recent weeks, a stream of anti-Unrwa rhetoric from senior officials has inflamed public sentiment.

On Tuesday, Israel’s main ally, the US, defended the need for the Unrwa commissioner Philippe Lazzarini and his staff to visit Gaza, a day after Lazzarini publicly complained that Israel had blocked him.

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M Emmet Walsh, Blade Runner, Blood Simple and Knives Out actor, dies aged 88

Character actor, who appeared in more than 220 roles across seven decades, died in Vermont on Tuesday

M Emmet Walsh, the character actor who appeared in more than 220 film and television roles including Blade Runner, Knives Out and the Coen brothers’ films Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, has died aged 88.

Walsh’s manager, Sandy Joseph, confirmed to the industry publication Variety that he had died Tuesday in Vermont.

Born in New York in 1935 and raised in Vermont, Walsh landed his first uncredited film role – an extra in Midnight Cowboy – and his first credited film role in Alice’s Restaurant, both in 1969.

He played a sportswriter in the Paul Newman sports comedy Slap Shot (1977), Dustin Hoffman’s parole officer in Straight Time (1978), the sniper hunting down Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979), and the LAPD boss who brings Harrison Ford out of retirement in Blade Runner (1982).

Walsh told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that Blade Runner was the film he was asked about the most, saying that after he saw the finished product: “We didn’t know what to say or to think or do! We didn’t know what in the hell we had done! The only one who seemed to get it was Ridley.”

With his dry delivery and hangdog face, he was known for his ability to take on both menacing and comedic roles – and sometimes both at the same time, such as Loren Visser, the double-crossing private detective in the Coen brothers’ 1984 feature debut, Blood Simple.

The famed film critic Roger Ebert praised Walsh as a “poet of sleaze” for his performance and came up with the “Stanton-Walsh Rule”: “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad”.

“Every time, you try to figure something individual that works for the character. If you’re playing a villain, you don’t play villain,” Walsh told the Guardian about Blood Simple in 2017, adding: “Visser doesn’t think of himself as particularly bad or evil. He’s on the edge of what’s legal, but he’s having a lot of fun with all that.”

He also played small roles in Fletch (1985) and the horror flick Critters (1986), as well as Nicolas Cage’s chatty co-worker in Raising Arizona (1987), John Lithgow’s father in Harry and the Hendersons (1987), and Michael Keaton’s sponsor in Clean and Sober (1988). He also appeared in Romeo + Juliet (1996), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), The Iron Giant (1999), Calvary (2014) and Knives Out (2019).

“I have more fun playing 10 different people than I do playing the same person 10 different times,” he once told the Houston Chronicle. “One time it’s a garbage collector, and the next time it’s the president of Princeton.”

His final role was in the 2024 western Outlaw Posse alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Cedric the Entertainer.

Over seven decades of television, Walsh appeared in shows including Starsky and Hutch, Frasier, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Home Improvement and Adventure Time. One of his last roles was as Grandaddy Roy in The Righteous Gemstones.

“It’s a good life being a character actor,” he once told the Orange County Register. “I’ve been around stardom. I’ve been around Redford and Hoffman, and it’s scary. That drive for stardom is like the greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. By the time he catches him, he’s too tired to run anymore, and you’ve got to shoot him.”

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M Emmet Walsh, Blade Runner, Blood Simple and Knives Out actor, dies aged 88

Character actor, who appeared in more than 220 roles across seven decades, died in Vermont on Tuesday

M Emmet Walsh, the character actor who appeared in more than 220 film and television roles including Blade Runner, Knives Out and the Coen brothers’ films Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, has died aged 88.

Walsh’s manager, Sandy Joseph, confirmed to the industry publication Variety that he had died Tuesday in Vermont.

Born in New York in 1935 and raised in Vermont, Walsh landed his first uncredited film role – an extra in Midnight Cowboy – and his first credited film role in Alice’s Restaurant, both in 1969.

He played a sportswriter in the Paul Newman sports comedy Slap Shot (1977), Dustin Hoffman’s parole officer in Straight Time (1978), the sniper hunting down Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979), and the LAPD boss who brings Harrison Ford out of retirement in Blade Runner (1982).

Walsh told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that Blade Runner was the film he was asked about the most, saying that after he saw the finished product: “We didn’t know what to say or to think or do! We didn’t know what in the hell we had done! The only one who seemed to get it was Ridley.”

With his dry delivery and hangdog face, he was known for his ability to take on both menacing and comedic roles – and sometimes both at the same time, such as Loren Visser, the double-crossing private detective in the Coen brothers’ 1984 feature debut, Blood Simple.

The famed film critic Roger Ebert praised Walsh as a “poet of sleaze” for his performance and came up with the “Stanton-Walsh Rule”: “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad”.

“Every time, you try to figure something individual that works for the character. If you’re playing a villain, you don’t play villain,” Walsh told the Guardian about Blood Simple in 2017, adding: “Visser doesn’t think of himself as particularly bad or evil. He’s on the edge of what’s legal, but he’s having a lot of fun with all that.”

He also played small roles in Fletch (1985) and the horror flick Critters (1986), as well as Nicolas Cage’s chatty co-worker in Raising Arizona (1987), John Lithgow’s father in Harry and the Hendersons (1987), and Michael Keaton’s sponsor in Clean and Sober (1988). He also appeared in Romeo + Juliet (1996), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), The Iron Giant (1999), Calvary (2014) and Knives Out (2019).

“I have more fun playing 10 different people than I do playing the same person 10 different times,” he once told the Houston Chronicle. “One time it’s a garbage collector, and the next time it’s the president of Princeton.”

His final role was in the 2024 western Outlaw Posse alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Cedric the Entertainer.

Over seven decades of television, Walsh appeared in shows including Starsky and Hutch, Frasier, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Home Improvement and Adventure Time. One of his last roles was as Grandaddy Roy in The Righteous Gemstones.

“It’s a good life being a character actor,” he once told the Orange County Register. “I’ve been around stardom. I’ve been around Redford and Hoffman, and it’s scary. That drive for stardom is like the greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. By the time he catches him, he’s too tired to run anymore, and you’ve got to shoot him.”

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Samantha Murphy: tech detector dogs deployed in continuing search for body of allegedly murdered Ballarat woman

Victoria’s police commissioner said the dogs would be deployed at Buninyong as they had not yet found missing woman’s phone or watch

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Victoria police have deployed specialist technology detector dogs in their search for the missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy.

The renewed search for Murphy, 51, zeroed in on bushland at Buninyong, south of Ballarat, on Wednesday. The search focused on the last known position of Murphy’s mobile phone.

But later that day police said it had concluded without finding the alleged murder victim.

Victoria’s chief police commissioner, Shane Patton, said investigators were continuing the search on Thursday.

“We’re up around there again today,” he told ABC radio. “We’ll be going to a different location but we will also use assistance from the Australian federal police today in technical detection dogs. We still haven’t recovered her phone and her watch.”

Patton said the AFP’s dogs were able to sniff out technology such as mobile phones and sim cards.

“We don’t have the capacity – we’re trying to get that capability,” he said.

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The AFP’s tech detector dogs were recently used to sniff out five iPads, a USB and a smartwatch at the home of Erin Patterson, the Victorian woman charged in connection to an alleged mushroom poisoning plot last year.

Murphy’s family reported the mother of three missing when she did not return home from a run on Sunday 4 February. She had told family and friends she planned to go for a 14km run in the Woowookarung regional park, near her home in Ballarat East.

Police said on Wednesday new intelligence from a number of sources had led them to return to comb through bushland in the Buninyong area. The “significant” search focused on the area where Murphy’s mobile phone was last detected on the day she went missing last month.

But police on Wednesday afternoon said they had concluded the search without locating the mother of three.

The renewed search effort came after police charged 22-year-old Patrick Stephenson, from the nearby farming town Scotsburn, with Murphy’s murder, earlier this month.

Wednesday’s search included officers from specialist units including the missing persons squad, search and rescue squad, dog squad and mounted branch.

Acting Det Supt Mark Hatt said on Wednesday investigators remained committed to finding Murphy so she could be returned to her family.

“We will also look at further searches in the Ballarat area as the investigation progresses,” he said.

Police allege Stephenson murdered Murphy, 51, in a deliberate attack on 4 February – the day she vanished last month.

After Stephenson was charged on 6 March, Patton said the accused had not disclosed the location of Murphy’s body.

Patton said on Thursday the renewed search was not based on information provided by Stephenson.

Murphy’s husband, Michael, issued an emotional plea after police charged Stephenson, saying he hoped the 22-year-old had information that would help police find the body.

Police have not disclosed how Murphy was allegedly murdered but Patton alleged it was an “intentional act”. He said Stephenson was not known to Murphy’s family and was believed to have acted alone.

Stephenson remains in custody and is scheduled to reappear in court for a committal mention hearing on 8 August.

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US reportedly considering plea deal offer for Julian Assange

But lawyers for WikiLeaks founder say they have been ‘given no indication’ Washington will change approach in espionage case

The US government is reported to be considering a plea deal offer to Julian Assange, allowing him to admit to a misdemeanor, but his lawyers say they have been “given no indication” Washington intends to change its approach.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the US justice department was looking at ways to cut short the long London court battle of the WikiLeaks founder against extradition to the US on espionage charges for the publication 14 years ago of thousands of classified US documents related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The report said a plan under consideration would be to drop the current 18 charges under the Espionage Act, if Assange pleaded guilty to mishandling classified documents, a misdemeanor offence. Assange would be able to enter the plea remotely from London and would likely be free soon after the deal was agreed to, as he has already spent five years in custody in the UK.

However, Assange’s legal team said they were not aware of any change in the prosecution strategy.

One of Assange’s defence attorneys, Barry Pollack, said in a statement: “It is inappropriate for Mr Assange’s lawyers to comment while his case is before the UK high court other than to say we have been given no indication that the Department of Justice intends to resolve the case and the United States is continuing with as much determination as ever to seek his extradition on all 18 charges, exposing him to 175 years in prison.”

The high court is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to grant Assange a further right to appeal his extradition. Assange, who is being held in the high-security Belmarsh prison, was said to be too ill to go to the Royal Courts of Justice to attend the most recent hearing there last month.

If the two judges rule against him, he will have exhausted all UK options to challenge the extradition, and the sole remaining avenue open to him would be the European court of human rights, which could order the UK not to go ahead with the extradition until the court has heard the case. If that fails, Assange could be taken to the US within a few days.

Assange’s extradition would be politically difficult for the Biden administration, particularly in an election year. The previous Democratic administration, under Barack Obama, ultimately decided not to charge Assange because of fears that doing so would infringe first amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of the press.

In 2019, the Trump administration pressed ahead with charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, seeking to differentiate conventional journalism from Assange’s actions, which provided a platform for the publication of leaked secret documents, and which prosecutors allege he knew would put lives in jeopardy.

In a hearing on Assange’s permission to appeal in February, his defence lawyers argued he could be targeted by US state agencies for “extra-legal attack elimination” if he were extradited, particularly given “the real possibility of a return of a Trump administration”.

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Doctors urge politicians not to be swayed by ‘misleading’ comments on vaping ban from industry-funded lobbyists

Public health experts say reforms will not affect prescription vapes after Greens and Nationals raise concerns of ‘prohibition’ approach

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Doctors and public health groups have urged politicians not to be influenced by “deliberate confusion” about vaping reforms being generated by nicotine- and tobacco industry-funded groups and lobbyists.

On Thursday, the federal health minister will introduce vaping legislation to ban the importation, manufacture, supply and commercial possession of disposable single-use and non-therapeutic vapes. Patient access to therapeutic vapes from a pharmacy with a prescription is not being banned.

The Nationals, the only party that receives donations from tobacco companies, and Greens politicians have raised concerns about a “prohibition” approach in vaping legislation.

An associate professor of public health and youth vaping expert with the University of Sydney, Prof Becky Freeman, said: “It’s completely misleading to frame these reforms as prohibition, and it only serves tobacco industry and vaping industry purposes.

“The reforms are not getting rid of prescription vapes.

“They will close a loophole around non-nicotine vapes, which nobody believes are vital for quitting smoking.”

The health minister, Mark Butler, told Guardian Australia: “This policy is not prohibition.

“Once the legislation passes the parliament later this year, anyone from July 1 who is in genuine need of a vape will purchase a regulated vape from a pharmacist,” he said.

“The only groups who want to regulate and sell vaping products are those who profit once kids get hooked on nicotine – big tobacco and tobacco retailers.”

The chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin, said fewer than one in 10 Australians now smoke tobacco daily. Slevin said he had seen vaping lobbyists attribute uptake of vaping as a reason for smoking reduction, using it as an argument to sell vapes alongside tobacco.

“To suggest vaping as the driver of that reduction in tobacco smoking prevalence is farcical when at the same time we’ve seen the tobacco excise tax growth,” he said. “Smoking is injurious to the wallet and to health, and these are also strong and effective motivators for people to quit.”

Meanwhile, a vaping lobby group with links to tobacco companies, Bust the Black Market, has continued to run full-page advertisements in the Australian newspaper saying the “ban won’t work”.

The ads were authorised by Brian Marlow, the executive director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (ATA). Marlow also heads Legalise Vaping Australia (LVA), which made a submission backing tobacco company Philip Morris International’s application to to sell heat-not-burn tobacco products.

Two doctors who hold roles with the pro-vaping group Athra have also sent a letter to senators that claims: “The Australian public does not support the current prohibitive approach to vaping reforms.”

The letter does not disclose that the Athra signatories have flown to and spoken at flagship tobacco and vaping industry conferences.

Their letter urges senators to support a model more in line with New Zealand, where retailers can sell vapes under similar rules to tobacco.

“The vaping rate among New Zealand youth has started to decline since regulation,” the letter said.

But on Wednesday, New Zealand’s associate health minister, Casey Costello, announced disposable vapes would be banned, citing concern about rising youth vaping rates.

Public health physician and epidemiologist Prof Emily Banks said it was frustrating to see lobbyists using New Zealand as an example of success.

“In New Zealand about 10% of 13- to 15-year-olds are vaping every single day and it’s around 20% of Maori 13- to 15-year-olds,” Banks said.

“Now that’s more than triple the prevalence of that kind of use in the same age group in Australia. So they can’t really use the New Zealand model to say ‘what they’re doing is terrific’.”

She also disagreed with Athra’s claim that Australians did not support the government’s approach.

“The latest national drug strategy household survey shows 77%-86% of people surveyed wanted tougher measures against vaping,” she said. “The community has had enough but these groups are very vocal. But groups shouting loud aren’t shouting for everybody.”

Athra took start-up funding from two e-cigarette companies and Knowledge Action Change (KAC). KAC has received funding from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which in turn is funded by Philip Morris International. Australia’s largest vape shop, Vapoureyes, has also fundraised for Athra.

On Wednesday, an investigation by the ABC revealed that testimonials from former smokers turned vapers that were posted by Athra on the social media platform X, purportedly from real people, in fact were stock photos. Athra did not provide the ABC with evidence that the testimonials accompanying the photos are real.

Laura Hunter, co-chief executive from the Australian Council on Smoking & Health, said it was important to call what she described as “deliberate confusion” being generated by pro-vaping campaigns such as Bust the Black Market, Athra and affiliated groups.

“We need politicians to see the vaping epidemic for what it actually is – another casualty of the tobacco industry’s long-standing agenda to increase profits by driving nicotine dependency,” she said.

“We need our elected members to step up and protect our kids, not industry profits.”

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Doctors urge politicians not to be swayed by ‘misleading’ comments on vaping ban from industry-funded lobbyists

Public health experts say reforms will not affect prescription vapes after Greens and Nationals raise concerns of ‘prohibition’ approach

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Doctors and public health groups have urged politicians not to be influenced by “deliberate confusion” about vaping reforms being generated by nicotine- and tobacco industry-funded groups and lobbyists.

On Thursday, the federal health minister will introduce vaping legislation to ban the importation, manufacture, supply and commercial possession of disposable single-use and non-therapeutic vapes. Patient access to therapeutic vapes from a pharmacy with a prescription is not being banned.

The Nationals, the only party that receives donations from tobacco companies, and Greens politicians have raised concerns about a “prohibition” approach in vaping legislation.

An associate professor of public health and youth vaping expert with the University of Sydney, Prof Becky Freeman, said: “It’s completely misleading to frame these reforms as prohibition, and it only serves tobacco industry and vaping industry purposes.

“The reforms are not getting rid of prescription vapes.

“They will close a loophole around non-nicotine vapes, which nobody believes are vital for quitting smoking.”

The health minister, Mark Butler, told Guardian Australia: “This policy is not prohibition.

“Once the legislation passes the parliament later this year, anyone from July 1 who is in genuine need of a vape will purchase a regulated vape from a pharmacist,” he said.

“The only groups who want to regulate and sell vaping products are those who profit once kids get hooked on nicotine – big tobacco and tobacco retailers.”

The chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin, said fewer than one in 10 Australians now smoke tobacco daily. Slevin said he had seen vaping lobbyists attribute uptake of vaping as a reason for smoking reduction, using it as an argument to sell vapes alongside tobacco.

“To suggest vaping as the driver of that reduction in tobacco smoking prevalence is farcical when at the same time we’ve seen the tobacco excise tax growth,” he said. “Smoking is injurious to the wallet and to health, and these are also strong and effective motivators for people to quit.”

Meanwhile, a vaping lobby group with links to tobacco companies, Bust the Black Market, has continued to run full-page advertisements in the Australian newspaper saying the “ban won’t work”.

The ads were authorised by Brian Marlow, the executive director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (ATA). Marlow also heads Legalise Vaping Australia (LVA), which made a submission backing tobacco company Philip Morris International’s application to to sell heat-not-burn tobacco products.

Two doctors who hold roles with the pro-vaping group Athra have also sent a letter to senators that claims: “The Australian public does not support the current prohibitive approach to vaping reforms.”

The letter does not disclose that the Athra signatories have flown to and spoken at flagship tobacco and vaping industry conferences.

Their letter urges senators to support a model more in line with New Zealand, where retailers can sell vapes under similar rules to tobacco.

“The vaping rate among New Zealand youth has started to decline since regulation,” the letter said.

But on Wednesday, New Zealand’s associate health minister, Casey Costello, announced disposable vapes would be banned, citing concern about rising youth vaping rates.

Public health physician and epidemiologist Prof Emily Banks said it was frustrating to see lobbyists using New Zealand as an example of success.

“In New Zealand about 10% of 13- to 15-year-olds are vaping every single day and it’s around 20% of Maori 13- to 15-year-olds,” Banks said.

“Now that’s more than triple the prevalence of that kind of use in the same age group in Australia. So they can’t really use the New Zealand model to say ‘what they’re doing is terrific’.”

She also disagreed with Athra’s claim that Australians did not support the government’s approach.

“The latest national drug strategy household survey shows 77%-86% of people surveyed wanted tougher measures against vaping,” she said. “The community has had enough but these groups are very vocal. But groups shouting loud aren’t shouting for everybody.”

Athra took start-up funding from two e-cigarette companies and Knowledge Action Change (KAC). KAC has received funding from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which in turn is funded by Philip Morris International. Australia’s largest vape shop, Vapoureyes, has also fundraised for Athra.

On Wednesday, an investigation by the ABC revealed that testimonials from former smokers turned vapers that were posted by Athra on the social media platform X, purportedly from real people, in fact were stock photos. Athra did not provide the ABC with evidence that the testimonials accompanying the photos are real.

Laura Hunter, co-chief executive from the Australian Council on Smoking & Health, said it was important to call what she described as “deliberate confusion” being generated by pro-vaping campaigns such as Bust the Black Market, Athra and affiliated groups.

“We need politicians to see the vaping epidemic for what it actually is – another casualty of the tobacco industry’s long-standing agenda to increase profits by driving nicotine dependency,” she said.

“We need our elected members to step up and protect our kids, not industry profits.”

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Clare O’Neil claims she relied on verbal briefings only for prediction of high court immigration detention win

Home affairs refuses access to FOI request for ‘operational advice’ regarding case that overturned legality of indefinite detention

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The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, has claimed she relied only on verbal advice when declaring the government believed it would win the NZYQ high court case or succeed in deporting the plaintiff.

O’Neil’s claim is contained in a freedom of information decision from the home affairs department refusing access to “operational advice” about deporting NZYQ, the stateless Rohingya man who won a case overturning the legality of indefinite detention.

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O’Neil has come under fire for refusing to release the government’s legal advice about the case, despite appearing to waive privilege over it in comments claiming the government believed it would win the case, which has resulted in the release of 152 people from immigration detention. O’Neil denies waiving privilege.

On 19 November O’Neil told Sky News: “We were advised that it was likely that the commonwealth would win the case. We received that advice from the Department of Home Affairs, who tell us what chances we have of success and failure in each legal case.”

But by 22 November, O’Neil claimed to Guardian Australia and ABC Radio National that she was not referring to legal advice but rather “operational advice” about the prospects of deporting the plaintiff, which “would have meant that this case may not have needed to proceed”.

“I do not discuss legal advice received by the commonwealth,” she said.

Despite O’Neil’s claim to have operational advice it was likely NZYQ could be deported, on 31 May the commonwealth conceded that the plaintiff “could not be removed from Australia, [and] there was no real likelihood or prospect of the plaintiff being removed in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

After that concession was made, none of the six countries Australia asked to take NZYQ said yes. NZYQ had pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse with a 10-year old minor.

The commonwealth’s evidence to the high court consisted of departmental emails containing a promise from the US to take a “hard look” at NZYQ’s case. A departmental official also warned that it was “impossible to predict” what the US would ultimately decide.

In November the shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, said O’Neil had “clearly waived legal professional privilege on the government’s legal advice about indefinite detention by talking about it in her Sky News interview”, meaning it could no longer insist it needed to be kept confidential.

On 19 March the home affairs department refused Guardian Australia’s FOI requests for both the legal and operational advice referred to by O’Neil.

Clare Sharp, the department’s general counsel, said in a 14 March decision that “minister O’Neil was not referring to legal advice”.

“Minister O’Neil has confirmed that the operational advice she was referring to in the interview on 22 November 2023 consisted of verbal briefings only,” she said.

“Verbal briefings do not meet the definition of a ‘document’ for the purposes of the FOI Act.”

A timeline of key dates in the NZYQ litigation, tabled by the department in Senate estimates in February, refers to emails to minister O’Neil and immigration minister Giles’ offices including:

  • On 22 August “a litigation update and attached prospects advice from Australian Government Solicitor”.

  • On 13 September an “update on litigation and resettlement efforts, [attaching] Counsel legal advice dated 6 September on resettlement” from the acting first assistant secretary immigration policy.

  • On 19 September an email which included discussion of “resettlement efforts”.

  • On 3 October an “update on lines of effort in relation to NZYQ, attaches AGS advice on options to mitigate implications of a loss”.

  • A 3 November email “attaching operational plan in the event of a loss”.

The timeline also refers to meetings with O’Neil on 29 August, which “included discussion about prospects advice, operational implications and removal efforts”, and two further meetings on 19 and 30 October.

The Morrison government was criticised for failing to produce text messages produced by its drought envoy, Barnaby Joyce, and text messages between Scott Morrison and the prominent QAnon supporter Tim Stewart under FOI law.

Guardian Australia contacted O’Neil for comment.

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Fourth ex-Mississippi ‘Goon Squad’ officer gets 40 years for torture of Black men

Christian Dedmon described by one victim as ‘the sickest’ of six former officers who pleaded guilty to torturing two Black men

A fourth former Mississippi sheriff’s deputy has been sentenced for his part in the racist torture of two Black men by a group of white officers who called themselves “the Goon Squad”. Christian Dedmon was sentenced on Wednesday to 40 years in federal prison, hours after Daniel Opdyke was sentenced to 17.5 years.

Dedmon, 29, did not look at the victims as he apologized and said he would never forgive himself for the pain he caused.

All six of the white former officers charged in the torture pleaded guilty, admitting that they subjected Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker to numerous acts of racist torture in January 2023 after a neighbor complained that the men were staying in a home with a white woman.

Federal prosecutors detailed sexual assaults by Dedmon that made him stand out among the other officers charged.

Jenkins, who still has trouble speaking due to his injuries, said in a statement read by his lawyer that Dedmon’s actions were the most depraved of any of those who attacked him.

“Deputy Dedmon is the worst example of a police officer in the United States,” Jenkins said. “Deputy Dedmon was the most aggressive, sickest and the most wicked.”

Earlier Wednesday, Opdyke, 28, cried profusely as he spoke in court before the judge announced his sentence. Turning to look at the two victims, he said his isolation behind bars has given him time to reflect on “how I transformed into the monster I became that night”.

“The weight of my actions and the harm I’ve caused will haunt me every day,” Opdyke told them. “I wish I could take away your suffering.”

Parker rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes, then stood up and left the courtroom before Opdyke finished speaking. Jenkins said he was “broken” and “ashamed” by the cruel acts visited upon him.

US district judge Tom Lee said Opdyke may not have been fully aware of what being a member of the Goon Squad entailed when Lt Jeffrey Middleton asked him to join, but he did know it involved using excessive force. “You were not a passive observer. You actively participated in that brutal attack,” Lee said.

All six of the former officers pleaded guilty last year to breaking into a home without a warrant and torturing the Black men with a stun gun, a sex toy and other objects. Christian Dedmon, 29, also faced a lengthy prison term at his sentencing, set for Wednesday afternoon before Lee.

On Tuesday, Lee gave a nearly 20-year prison sentence to Hunter Elward, 31, and a 17.5-year sentence to Middleton, 46, calling their actions “egregious and despicable”. They, like Opdyke and Dedmon, worked as Rankin county sheriff’s deputies during the attack.

Another former deputy, Brett McAlpin, 53, and a former Richland police officer, Joshua Hartfield, 32, are scheduled for sentencing on Thursday.

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Leo Varadkar steps down as Irish prime minister in shock move

Varadkar announces decision to resign as taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael party for ‘personal and political’ reasons

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Leo Varadkar has announced he is standing down as Ireland’s prime minister and also giving up his role as leader of the Fine Gael party in the ruling coalition, in a surprise move described by pundits as a “political earthquake” for the country.

Citing “personal and political” reasons, Varadkar, 45, announced his decision at a press conference in Dublin on Wednesday, saying in an at-times emotional speech that he no longer felt he was the “best person” to lead Ireland.

Earlier this month his government suffered damaging defeats in two referendums on references to family and women in the constitution.

Varadkar, who said he was resigning as party leader with immediate effect, is expected to be replaced as taoiseach as soon as his successor as party leader is able to take office.

While his departure will not automatically trigger a snap election, it comes only 10 weeks before European parliamentary and local elections and less than a year before Ireland’s next general election.

Varadkar said: “One part of leadership is knowing when the time has come to pass on the baton, and then having the courage to do it. That time is now.”

In a statement read on the steps of government buildings in the Irish capital, he said: “I believe this government can be re-elected … I believe a new taoiseach will be better placed than me to achieve that – to renew and strengthen the top team, to refocus our message and policies and to drive implementation.”

He added that he had asked for a new leader of the party to be chosen on 6 April, allowing a new prime minister and cabinet to be elected after parliament’s Easter break.

While he was “deeply grateful” for his time in office and “would wholeheartedly recommend a career in politics”, Varadkar said he had reached the end of the road as taoiseach. “Politicians are human beings and we have our limitations,” he said. “We give it everything until we can’t anymore. And then we have to move on.”

Contenders to succeed him as Fine Gael leader and new prime minister include the higher education minister, Simon Harris, who is the bookmakers’ clear favourite; the enterprise minister and former deputy PM, Simon Coveney; the public expenditure minister, Paschal Donohoe, and the justice minister, Helen McEntee.

Varadkar said his reasons for stepping down were “mainly political” but did not elaborate on what they were. Earlier this month, he was widely blamed for a crushing twin defeat at the ballot box, including the biggest ever referendum loss by an Irish government.

The ruling coalition had proposed rewording the 1937 constitution to change outdated references to family and women. Critics said Varadkar had rushed the debate in a “gimmicky” effort to hold double referendums on International Women’s Day, and accused him of presiding over “incoherent messaging”.

Voters rejected the family referendum, with 67% voting no, and buried the other proposal, which related to women’s care-giving role, in an even bigger landslide of 74%. Varadkar later accepted some responsibility, saying: “There are a lot of people who got this wrong and I am certainly one of them.”

Until Wednesday’s resignation, however, the political fallout from the debacle had widely been expected to be limited. Varadkar has also faced increasing discontent within Fine Gael, with 10 of its members of the Dáil Éireann – almost a third of the party’s total – announcing they will not stand again at the next election, which must be called by early 2025.

Fine Gael has lost five recent byelections, prompting some to see Varadkar as an electoral liability. “His legacy will be that of an electoral loser,” Eoin O’Malley, a political scientist at Dublin City University, told Agence France-Presse. “He promised to be a good communicator, but it turned out he was bad at it. He had no clear agenda, and delivered little.”

The main opposition party and former political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin, has held a wide polling lead over Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for the last two years, but polls still suggest the coalition stands a fair chance of re-election.

Defenders of Varadkar say critics like O’Malley are unfair. They point to the widespread praise he earned during his first 2017-2020 mandate for rallying EU support behind the backstop mechanism to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland during Brexit negotiations with the UK.

Liberals also applaud Varadkar for his leading role in a 2018 referendum that legalised abortion – a milestone in Ireland’s transformation from a socially conservative Catholic society to secularism and pluralism.

His government has overseen a sharp economic recovery from the pandemic but struggled to tackle a decade-long housing crisis and, more recently, the pressure on services from record numbers of asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees.

On Wednesday, Varadkar said his tenure as taoiseach had been the “most fulfilling time of my life”, adding that his leadership had “made Ireland a more equal and prosperous country”.

Micheál Martin, the deputy prime minister and Fianna Fáil leader, said Varadkar had informed him of his decision on Tuesday. He described it as “unexpected” but said he fully expected the government to run its full term.

Opposition leaders in parliament called for an immediate election, saying the government had run its course. But Varadkar insisted the office of taoiseach was elected by parliament and there was “nothing unusual” about this happening during a government term.

A spokesperson for the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, wished Varadkar well, saying Ireland was “a vital partner” for the UK and that Sunak had “worked well” with him.

Varadkar, who said he had no firm plans for the future but would remain a backbench MP, has an Irish mother and an Indian father and became the country’s youngest taoiseach when he was first elected at the age of 38. He was also the first gay holder of the office.

He has had two spells as prime minister: between 2017 and 2020, and again since December 2022 under a rotation arrangement struck between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the two largest parties in a three-party coalition with the smaller Green party.

Jennifer Bray, a political correspondent for the Irish Times, said that while the resignation might have appeared “dramatic and unexpected”, Fine Gael had been coming under increasing criticism for being out of touch with voters.

“Varadkar’s decision avoids an unseemly heave which, when it has happened in the past, has proven damaging to the party,” she said.

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Ex-Tropical Cyclone Megan: evacuations in NT ahead of ‘one-in-a-hundred year flood’

McArthur River at community of Borroloola predicted to peak at 18 metres, three metres higher than previous 2001 record

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The remote Northern Territory community of Borroloola was expected to face dangerous record flooding just days after it was lashed by Tropical Cyclone Megan.

The McArthur River at the township was forecast to peak at 18 metres by Thursday afternoon, three metres than the previous 2001 flood record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Defence and local authorities were working to evacuate around 250 residents to Darwin on Wednesday by ferrying them to a local airstrip. Around midday the river at McArthur River Mine was at 17.6 metres, and the weather bureau said this was likely to pass downstream through Borroloola during Thursday afternoon and reach between 17.2 metres and 18 metres.

The NT police commissioner, Michael Murphy, said two residential areas in Borroloola home to 350 people, Garuwa and Yanyawa, would become inundated with water as the flooding progressed.

Garawa residents were being taken across Rocky Creek via boat before being evacuated to Darwin shelters in a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade aircraft on Wednesday.

“[The flooding is] absolutely significant and probably just demonstrates the change in environmental conditions we’re facing with changing conditions and increased flood levels,” Murphy said.

“A one-in-a-hundred-year flood is really serious [and] we’re doing everything we can to make sure the residents of Borroloola are safe.”

The federal emergency management minister, Murray Watt, told the ABC on Thursday that roughly 200 people had been evacuated, with a priority on those most medically vulnerable.

Seventy-eight medically vulnerable people had been identified in the community, Murphy told reporters yesterday.

Watt said emergency officials on the ground would decide whether more evacuations were needed or if people could safely remain at Borroloola.

“We have also approved a request from the Northern Territory government to provide ADF personnel and aircraft to evacuate people from other communities such as Timber Creek, Pigeon Hole, Kalkarindji,” Watt said.

“We expect that will begin later [on Thursday] subject to weather conditions.”

On Wednesday Dfat delivered four tonnes of supplies, primarily food and water, for those residents choosing to stay. A shelter capable of housing 400 people was established at a local school, in addition to another location that can house 100.

Rainfall totals up to 380mm were recorded across the McArthur River catchment between Monday and Wednesday this week.

Tropical Cyclone Megan made landfall along the Gulf of Carpentaria as a category three storm on Monday afternoon, with about 700 residents in Borroloola copping the brunt of the downpour once it moved inland.

At the time, local Rebecca Whitehead said the town was “literally cut in two” with some residents forced to boat across the McArthur River to buy food.

Hopes of evacuating the town before the cyclone arrived were dashed when five Royal Australian Air Force aircraft were unable to land and residents were urged to take shelter in specific buildings capable of withstanding a category three storm.

Watt said as the ex-tropical cyclone weather system moved across the NT it was dumping huge amounts of rain on communities “which have had flooding in the last few months already”.

“So it is a dangerous situation,” he said.

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