The Guardian 2024-03-27 01:01:48


Greens senator David Shoebridge is being brutal in his description of this bill:

This is a pure political play that is unraveling as we watch.

This is about Labor, trying to outflank the Coalition and move to the right of the Coalition in a bill that they seem to have just made up in some long late night drinking session and then brought to the parliament.

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

This was meant to be a government that’s now run by adults. But this was like some sort of kiddies crayon drawing being brought into parliament and then defended by embarrassed officials and half briefed ministers. That’s what we got last night.

He says he would like to see the bill binned – “the recycling bin, we are Greens” – but at the very least wants the bill referred to the legal affairs committee immediately with a reporting date of June 2024.

Michaelia Cash rises to say she supports the motion, but Labor’s Tim Ayres gets precedent to speak on the motion first, and he is not happy.

What we’re seeing is the most right wing extremist Liberal Party in Australia’s history and his [Greens] outfit down here … [getting] together in their usual student politics exercise of putting their own partisan interest over the national interest.

But Labor doesn’t have the numbers here to stop this.

Julian Assange wins temporary reprieve in case against extradition to US

Judges grant WikiLeaks founder permission to appeal against removal from UK but only if US does not provide suitable assurances

Julian Assange has been handed a reprieve in his fight against extradition to the US after two judges ruled the WikiLeaks founder could take his case to an appeal hearing – but only if the Biden administration is unable to provide the court with suitable assurances.

The president of the king’s bench division, Victoria Sharp, and Mr Justice Johnson said Assange had real prospects of success on three of the nine grounds argued, but adjourned the leave to appeal application to give the US government three weeks to allay their concerns on the relevant matters.

If Assange had been denied permission to appeal he could have been extradited within days to face espionage charges. While the judges’ decision means he avoids that fate it leaves him facing a further wait, with his future still unresolved.

In a written judgment handed down on Tuesday, Sharp said the concerns that could be likely to succeed at appeal but which “may be capable of being addressed by assurances” were “that the applicant [Assange] is permitted to rely on the first amendment, that the applicant is not prejudiced at trial, including sentence, by reason of his nationality, that he is afforded the same first amendment protections as a United States citizen, and that the death penalty is not imposed”.

At a two-day hearing last month, which Assange was too unwell to attend, his lawyers argued that he faced a “flagrant denial of justice” if prosecuted in the US on charges relating to the publication of thousands of classified and diplomatic documents they said had exposed torture, rendition, extrajudicial killings and war crimes.

His wife, Stella Assange, expressed dismay at the judges’ decision. “What the courts have done has been to invite a political intervention from the United States … send a letter saying ‘its all OK’,” she said. “I find this astounding.

“This case is a retribution. It is a signal to all of you that if you expose the interests that are driving war they will come after you, they will put you in prison and will try to kill you.

“The Biden administration should not issue assurances. They should drop this shameful case that should never have been brought.”

Ahead of the decision there had been reports that the US government was considering a plea deal offer to Assange, allowing him to admit to a misdemeanour, which would enable him to walk free from prison in the UK but his lawyers said they were unaware of any change in approach.

Sharp stated in Tuesday’s 66-page judgment that the UK home secretary’s lawyer had accepted that there was nothing in place to prevent Assange being charged in the US with an offence that carried the death penalty and it then being imposed.

She cited as evidence of such a risk “the calls for the imposition of the death penalty by leading politicians and other public figures; the fact that the [UK-US extradition] treaty does not preclude extradition for death penalty charges, and the fact that the existing assurance does not explicitly cover the death penalty”.

On free speech protections under the first amendment in the US, Sharp said: “He [Assange] contends that if he is given first amendment rights, the prosecution will be stopped. The first amendment is therefore of central importance to his defence to the extradition charge. Further, if he is convicted, he may wish to invoke the first amendment on the question of sentence. If he is not permitted to rely on the first amendment because of his status as a foreign national, he will thereby be prejudiced – potentially very greatly prejudiced – by reason of his nationality.”

The US has been given until 16 April to file assurances. If it does not do so, leave to appeal will be granted. If it does,, they will be considered at another hearing provisionally listed for 20 May.

Nick Vamos, a partner at Peters & Peters solicitors in London and a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said they were “pretty straightforward assurances for the US to provide”.

Amnesty International and the National Union of Journalists urged the US to drop the extradition case. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Dr Alice Edwards, also said she still had concerns about Assange’s “precarious mental health”.

“It is regrettable that the court did not comprehensively address the possibility of a disproportionate penalty for Mr Assange in the US, of up to 175 years and likely no less than 30 years,” she said. “Or the potential that he would likely be held in ongoing solitary confinement. Either of these could amount to inhuman treatment.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Julian Assange
  • WikiLeaks
  • Extradition
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

British judges were right to allow Julian Assange’s appeal. The next three weeks will show who cares about justice

Duncan Campbell

It is hypocritical of the US to seek to lock up Assange while boasting about its commitment to press freedom

For Julian Assange, the wait continues. The pause can be counted as a small victory in the long battle to fight his extradition to the United States. But it is one of the many shameful issues in this most shameful of sagas that his waiting room is a cell in a high security prison where he has been held for the past five years, despite having been convicted of nothing.

The high court decision issued by Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Johnson means that the US has been given a short time to offer “assurances” as to how his trial would be conducted and that the death penalty would not be imposed. Astonishingly it has previously been unable to provide them. Assange’s defence team will then be allowed to challenge those “assurances” issued by a country with a long record of ignoring many of the basic rights of anyone deemed to be threatening the security of the state in any way.

It is almost exactly a year since the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia on espionage charges. He will face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. There have been negotiations between the two governments over the possibility of a prisoner swap. Both of his parents attended Joe Biden’s State of the Union address this month, at which the president said that the administration was “working around the clock to bring home Evan”. His father, Mikhail Gershkovich, said the address was a sign that “everybody in the US government – the Senate and Congress and the White House – are taking the freedom of the press seriously, and that’s important”.

It is important, but it is also hypocritical of the US to plead for Gershkovich’s release after he has spent a year in jail, while seeking to extradite and lock up Assange and simultaneously boast about a commitment to freedom of the press.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was considering a plea deal offer that would allow Assange to admit to a misdemeanour rather than the more serious charges he now faces under the Espionage Act. Supposedly, if he pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of mishandling classified documents, he would be allowed to enter a plea remotely from London and would be freed shortly afterwards on the basis that he had already served five years in custody. But Assange’s lawyers have not yet heard anything of such a deal.

The next three weeks will show us whether real discussions are taking place in Washington about freedom of the press, or whether they still imagine that hoisting Assange to jail is worth the ridicule of the world. When it emerged earlier this year that the US had been trying to persuade British and American journalists who had had differences of opinion with Assange to give evidence against him, it became clear just how weak and grotesque its case was against him.

“This legally unprecedented prosecution seeks to criminalise the application of ordinary journalistic practices of obtaining and publishing true classified information of the most obvious and important public interest,” was how Edward Fitzgerald KC put the case for Assange at last month’s hearing. The battle against that prosecution continues, and only the unconditional release of Assange will demonstrate that both the UK and the US regard “freedom of the press” as something to be honoured – rather than merely a phrase of sanctimonious waffle.

  • Duncan Campbell is a freelance writer who worked for the Guardian as crime correspondent and Los Angeles correspondent

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

Explore more on these topics

  • Julian Assange
  • Opinion
  • Press freedom
  • Biden administration
  • Newspapers & magazines
  • comment
Share

Reuse this content

Julian Assange’s temporary reprieve means Australia must now work aggressively to ensure his release

Greg Barns

There is only political upside for Albanese in picking up the phone to Biden, not waiting for an appeal to wend its way through the UK courts

The decision by the UK high court to allow the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leave to appeal against his extradition if the US does not provide assurances about his right to the first amendment, no death penalty and equal treatment under US law, is yet another milestone in this long-running case. Meanwhile Assange languishes in the notoriously harsh Belmarsh prison in London.

Assange faces criminal charges carrying a possible sentence of 170 years’ imprisonment for publishing materials in 2010 which exposed war crimes by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The decision overnight, particularly given its lack of certainty, does not provide any excuse for the Albanese government to take its foot off the pedal. It must now work aggressively to ensure that the US president, Joe Biden, and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, end this dangerous attack on freedom of the press, which threatens journalists and publishers around the world.

And the Assange case is also about keeping an Australian citizen safe. Anthony Albanese also knows that in 2021 Yahoo News reported that senior CIA officials discussed having Assange assassinated. If he were forced to go to the US now his life would be at real risk.

It is important to remember there is a human being involved in this case and the longer this case goes on the more the mental and physical health of Assange suffers. He has been fighting off the US legal pursuit of him for 12 years now. He spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London before being detained in Belmarsh in 2019 – five years ago. And of course he has a family – his wife, Stella, and two young children.

There is no public interest in this attempt by the US to prosecute Assange. This is for a number of reasons. One is the fact that that, as Gabriel Shipton, Julian’s brother, says, this case “has gone on long enough” and “there are no benefits served in Julian’s continual incarceration”. He is reflecting a widely held view in the community.

But more broadly this case should be stopped because it represents an unprecedented attempt by the US to prosecute an individual who is not one of its citizens, and who was not in the US when the WikiLeaks material was published. This is called extraterritorial reach and generally the law frowns on it. Allied to this dangerous undermining of the rule of law is that if the US is successful in locking Assange away for the remainder of his life then the chilling impact of that on journalists and publishers will be immense.

To reward the US in the Assange case is to say that any person, anywhere in the world, who publishes materials which the US government doesn’t want the world to know about could find themselves on the end of an extradition request from the Department of Justice.

Australia, along with the US and the UK, last year criticised China for the extraterritorial application of its Hong Kong security law. It is, according to a state department spokesperson “a dangerous precedent that threatens the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people all over the world”. Unless the US and Australia release Assange now they can’t claim any moral high ground on this issue.

There is only political upside for Albanese in picking up the phone to Biden, and not waiting for an appeal to wend its way through the UK courts. Assange has support from a political rainbow coalition in Canberra. Albanese can point to Australia’s commitment to Aukus, to the US-China containment strategy and the submarine deal and indicate that Australians across the ideological spectrum want Assange to come home.

Explore more on these topics

  • Julian Assange
  • Opinion
  • WikiLeaks
  • Freedom of speech
  • Press freedom
  • Anthony Albanese
  • comment
Share

Reuse this content

Energy giant wrongly received thousands from welfare payments of former customers under Centrelink scheme

Exclusive: Calls to overhaul controversial Centrepay debit system that diverted $700,000 to AGL and helped prop up Perth-based gay conversion centre

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

A controversial government payment system wrongly diverted $700,000 in welfare money from vulnerable Australians to energy company AGL and helped prop up a Christian rehabilitation centre using gay conversion practices and exorcisms, Guardian Australia can reveal.

An investigation into Centrepay, which allows businesses access to a person’s welfare payments before they are deposited into their bank accounts, has found disturbing examples of misuse of a system that consumer advocates claim has become “a vehicle for financial abuse” and one Labor senator describes as “rife with exploitation”.

At least four rent-to-buy appliance companies that have been investigated and penalised recently for questionable conduct have also been allowed to continue to use the system to access the welfare payments of customers, many of whom are Aboriginal people living in remote areas.

Another 21 businesses remain on the Centrepay system while being investigated for potential breaches of consumer protection laws and policies by the corporate regulator.

Claims money ‘knowingly received’ from former customers

More than 15,000 businesses are approved to access Centrepay. It is used by an estimated 600,000 customers a month, who made 23.7m transactions last year. Each transaction incurs a 99c fee, paid by businesses registered with Centrepay to Services Australia, the federal government department that administers the system.

Consumer advocates, charities and financial rights groups say they have been warning governments for almost a decade that Centrepay was causing significant financial harm.

In a case currently before the federal court, AGL is being sued by the industry regulator for continuing to receive money from the welfare payments of hundreds of vulnerable Australians who it allegedly knew were no longer AGL customers.

Court documents obtained by the Guardian reveal the staggering scale of AGL’s receipt of welfare money from former customers.

The documents show AGL received a total of $700,000 from the welfare payments of about 575 vulnerable Australians after they ceased being AGL customers, an average of $1,233 from each individual’s welfare payments.

In most cases, the regulator alleges the company knew the welfare recipients were no longer AGL customers but took money from their Centrelink payments regardless.

In one case, the regulator claims AGL became aware that a Centrepay user had ceased being a customer on 12 January 2017. Despite this, AGL is said to have made 100 subsequent deductions worth $4,111 from the person’s welfare over almost four years using the Centrepay system. It only stopped the deductions in December 2020.

In another, it’s alleged AGL received $3,227 from a person’s welfare payments after learning they were no longer a customer. The person ceased being an AGL customer on 12 September 2018. The regulator claims AGL became aware of this four months later, but continued receiving money from the account for at least another year.

The largest amount claimed to be knowingly received by AGL from any single welfare recipient was $6,800. The company allegedly became aware the welfare recipient had ceased being an AGL customer on 23 February 2018 but received a further 74 payments via Centrepay until 11 December 2020, according to court documents.

The documents also show Services Australia wrote to AGL years earlier, on 14 June 2013, warning it of “serious non-compliance” with Centrepay’s terms and conditions, including “a failure to cancel a Deduction after a Customer ceased to be an ongoing customer” and “a failure to notify Services Australia on becoming aware of overpayments”.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

AGL is defending the case and denies it had authority to control deductions via Centrepay.

The company says it took immediate steps to “remediate the issue” once it became aware “of overpayments made by some former customers through the Centrepay payment service administered by Services Australia”.

“AGL received no benefit from these overpayments and all those impacted have been refunded,” a spokesperson said.

“AGL promptly reached out to Services Australia, the administrator of this payment service, to ask them to cancel the deductions and facilitate refunds to those impacted.”

Exorcisms and gay conversion

The Guardian can also reveal that the Centrepay system helped to prop up a disgraced Christian drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre run by the Esther Foundation in Western Australia.

A WA parliamentary inquiry previously heard that Esther House, which has since closed, engaged in severe emotional and psychological abuse, “coercive and extreme” religious practices and LGBTQ+ suppression.

That included performing exorcisms and gay conversion practices on residents.

About 281 residents paid lodging fees to Esther House using the Centrepay system between 2006 and 2022.

Four survivors who spoke to the Guardian said they had been put under pressure to sign up to Centrepay, a supposedly voluntary system, to give Esther House early and guaranteed access to survivors’ welfare payments.

“We weren’t given an option, the papers were already filled out with our details and the details of the Esther Foundation and we were just told to sign them,” survivor Gabriel Osborne said.

Lucy Lorenti was sent to Esther Foundation to “treat” an eating disorder. While there, she says she was subjected to regular exorcisms, psychological and emotional abuse and complete financial control.

She says she was made by staff to attend Centrelink with other women to sign up to Centrepay.

“We weren’t allowed to speak, we just had to sit there and they signed over our payments to Esther,” she said. “It was at the South Perth Centrelink. I remember it so clearly … I wasn’t allowed to say, ‘what are you doing with my money, where is it going?’.”

Lorenti said she always thought it “strange” the Centrelink staff didn’t question what was happening.

“If we’re in a residential facility because we’re not well enough to live on our own, how are we well enough to be signing over our benefits?” she said. “How is that OK?”

Esther’s control of her finances trapped Lorenti at the facility. She says her purse and bank cards were taken from her and she was left in the dark about how much was being taken from her welfare payment.

“The government had a duty of care and they really failed us. Esther had a duty of care and they failed us,” she said. “As some of the most vulnerable people in Perth, we were just failed time and time again.”

Another former resident, Sarah*, said she only realised upon leaving Esther that it had been taking almost half of their $800 fortnightly welfare payment.

“They’d sit you down and pull out a big ass pamphlet on why Centrepay is so good for the place,” she said.

“There were consequences [for not signing up] and I’ve seen them … you’d lose the right to see family, for a month to three months. You’d lose rights to any privileges, to phone calls, going out, privacy.”

$6,500 for a TV worth $1,400

Governments have been repeatedly warned of weaknesses in the Centrepay system. In 2013, a review recommended urgent reforms to protect vulnerable users. As recently as last month, Services Australia said it had “commenced a reform program for Centrepay” to address the concerns of consumer advocates.

Despite this, a series of rent-to-buy home appliance vendors that have previously been sanctioned by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) remain approved for Centrepay use.

That includes Local Appliance Rentals, a franchise network of rent-to-buy operators working in areas with high Indigenous populations, which was fined in 2018 for irresponsible lending over an alleged failure to verify consumers’ financial situations, the inadvertent receipt of excess payments, the charging of excessive late fees and a failure to properly supervise franchisees.

Guardian Australia spoke to a single mother of five who in 2020 signed up to buy a television through a different rent-to-buy scheme in Queensland.

Denise* said she was living with family when a salesperson from the company knocked on the door.

She said she was encouraged to sign a contract to pay $86 a fortnight for the TV using Centrepay. She said she did not receive a copy of the contract but commenced paying each fortnight. When those automated payments were interrupted in 2022, Denise said the company “started putting threats on me”.

She said she was not given any records of the progress of her repayments, but was sent a statement in 2022 of the amount she still owed.

She did not know why the payments had stopped but agreed to resume paying them after the company told her they’d “take her to court” if she didn’t complete the contract. Denise said she was “confused” by the arrangement and sought advice from Indigenous consumer advocates, Mob Strong Debt Help.

Mob Strong said the contract Denise signed was a word document created by the company, not a government form. On it, Denise had inadvertently ticked the box that gave the company permission to “indefinitely” deduct this payment from her account using Centrepay.

Denise said she didn’t complain about the company to the government. She didn’t know how. She was frightened and felt like the company was “bullying” her.

“I didn’t do any complaint with Centrepay. I just continued to pay it because of the threats they kept giving me over the phone. And at the time I was in [a remote area]. There’s no court, there’s no government place that I could go to, or a lawyer and stuff like that. So I just kept paying back,” she said.

Mob Strong said that Denise had paid close to $6,500 for a TV with a retail value of $1,400.

The Consumer Household Equipment Rental Providers Association Inc (Cherpa), the industry peak body, says it is subject to regular government audits and strict regulations, including a 10% cap limiting the use of a person’s income for consumer leasing, introduced last year.

The president of Cherpa, Steven King, said the industry also had its own code of conduct stipulating that anyone in financial distress could return goods and free themselves of debt, stopping them from entering into a debt spiral.

He said the industry had low numbers of complaints to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority and its use of Centrepay was widely supported by customers.

King also rejected the suggestion that rent-to-buy operators should be removed from Centrepay due to isolated instances of Asic enforcement, which was itself often due to the actions of a single franchisee.

Asic told the Senate late last year it was investigating 21 businesses registered with Centrepay.

In February it issued an interim stop order for Urban Rampage, a clothing and homeware company that has stores in 10 remote Aboriginal communities, over concerns about how the financial capacity of its customers was determined.

Asic said it was also concerned that deductions from Centrepay could lead vulnerable customers into significant debt, leaving them unable to make ends meet.

The company has strongly disputed these allegations, saying it is a “lifeline retail network” for remote communities and that Asic’s indefinite suspension is having a “disastrous impact” on its Indigenous customers.

Urban Rampage says it has been audited 19 times by Services Australia since 2016, and never failed an audit.

“Many of our customers do not have access to traditional credit like people in cities – they don’t have Visa, Mastercard nor can they easily sign up for buy now pay later services like Afterpay and Zip Pay. So a primary benefit is a levelling of the playing field as it were to access to credit compared to non-First Nations people,” a spokesperson for Urban Rampage said.

“Also, it’s a system backstopped by the commonwealth government. There is a maximum amount that can be deducted in any given benefits payment cycle which is $200,” they said.

They rejected the claim that Centrepay was a vehicle for financial abuse.

“This claim is entirely false and without substance in relation to Urban Rampage. With any provision of credit, there will always be a small number of people who may experience hardship with repayments and we help our customers through these rough times,” they said.

‘Fix this system’

Consumer advocates like Mob Strong Debt Help say they are pleased to see regulators looking closely at businesses targeting Indigenous customers, but they want the government to address the ongoing misuse of Centrepay by exploitative businesses.

“We suspect that some businesses are financially motivated to take advantage of Centrepay to deduct as much Centrelink as possible as there are no limitations and they get the money before the consumer,” Mob Strong lawyer Mark Holden said.

“Mob Strong and other consumer advocates have been fighting for Centrepay reforms to fix this system and stop exploitation by businesses but these reforms need to be faster,” he said.

Labor senator Louise Pratt, a longtime critic of Centrepay, said the system remains “rife with exploitation”.

“We need to clean up Centrepay ensuring it can enforce consumer protection, corporations law including credit laws to protect the interests of customers,” Pratt said.

“We need to ensure that Centrepay is not being used to exploit customers in markets where there is not enough access to consumer goods. We need to look at the supply of goods to these markets.

“I know that the government is working hard with regulators to fix these problems.

“I think however that there is a long way to go before they are fixed,” she said.

The general manager of Services Australia, Hank Jongen, said the department treats customer exploitation very seriously and “priority reform work” on Centrepay was currently under way.

“It includes significant government, industry and customer consultation with a focus on safeguards and protections for customers to reduce financial harm,” Jongen said.

“All instances of potential non-compliance are investigated. Potential non-compliance can be escalated to the agency directly through customer complaints or through escalation to the relevant regulatory bodies,” Jongen said in a statement.

“We don’t charge people to use Centrepay, nor can businesses charge their customers to use it.”

* Names have been changed.

Explore more on these topics

  • Centrelink
  • Welfare
  • Indigenous Australians
  • AGL
  • features
Share

Reuse this content

Baltimore bridge collapse: six missing people now presumed dead, police say

Authorities say accident sent vehicles and workers into river as Biden promises to fund rebuilding of crucial structure

Maryland state police say the six people who were missing after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, have been presumed dead.

Authorities said the accident sent vehicles and eight construction workers into the Patapsco River. Two people were rescued on Tuesday, but Jeffrey Pritzker, a senior executive at Brawner Builders, the employer of the construction workers, said the other six were presumed dead, given the water’s depth and the length of time since the crash.

Maryland officials are in agreement and say that the recovery effort will continue tomorrow morning with a team of divers.

Pritzker said the crew had been working in the middle of the bridge when it came apart. No bodies have been recovered.

“This was so completely unforeseen,” Pritzker said. “We don’t know what else to say. We take such great pride in safety, and we have cones and signs and lights and barriers and flaggers. But we never foresaw that the bridge would collapse.”

All 22 crewmembers onboard the Dali, the ship that struck the bridge, were reported safe.

The White House said Joe Biden had spoken to federal, state and local officials as part of the continuing response to the collapse of the bridge.

Those officials included Pete Buttigieg, the US secretary of transportation; Wes Moore, the Democratic governor of Maryland; the two Democratic US senators from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin; and the mayor of Baltimore, Brandon Scott.

Moore told reporters the bridge, which was built in 1977, was “fully up to code” before being struck by the ship.

Calls to 911 had come in at about 1.30am, reporting a vessel travelling outbound from Baltimore that had struck a column on the bridge, causing it to collapse, said Kevin Cartwright, the director of communications for the Baltimore fire department. Several vehicles were on the bridge at the time, including one the size of a tractor-trailer.

Officials said the ship issued a mayday as it went off course and seemed to lose power, which Baltimore officials said allowed them to prevent more vehicles from coming on to the bridge. The ship then appeared to catch fire as part of the bridge collapsed over it, sending plumes of thick, black smoke into the air.

An inspection of the Dali last year at a port in Chile reported that the vessel had a deficiency related to “propulsion and auxiliary machinery”, the New York Times reported. The inspection, conducted on 27 June at the port of San Antonio, specified that the deficiency concerned gauges and thermometers. A spokesperson for the Dali’s owners declined to comment on the report.

The temperature in the river was about 47F (8C) in the early hours of Tuesday, according to a buoy that collects data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From a vantage point near the entrance to the bridge, jagged remnants of its steel frame were visible protruding from the water, with the on-ramp ending abruptly where the span once began.

“All lanes closed both directions for incident on I-695 Key Bridge. Traffic is being detoured,” the Maryland transportation authority posted on X. “I-695 Key Bridge collapse due to ship strike. Active scene,” it later added.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Biden said on Tuesday afternoon: “Everything so far indicates that this was a terrible accident. At this time, we have no other indication. No other reason to believe there’s any intentional act here.”

Biden pledged that the US federal government would pay the full cost of rebuilding the bridge in Baltimore, which has also halted a major port for the country.

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge and I expect the Congress to support my effort,” the US president said.

A reporter from the Baltimore Banner said that the half-dozen who had been presumed missing were construction workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who were in their 30s and 40s, with spouses and children.

“All of them came to the city for a better life … – not necessarily for themselves, but for the loved ones they left behind in their home countries,” the Banner’s reporter wrote.

“They are all hard-working, humble men,” said Jesús Campos, who described himself as a co-worker of the victims.

Biden , meanwhile, pledged to travel to Baltimore soon. “We’re not leaving until this job is done,” he said.

Asked why the government should pay and not Grace Ocean, the owners of the Singapore-registered ship, Biden said: “That could be, but we’re not going to wait for that to happen. We’re going to pay for it to get the bridge rebuilt and opened.”

The president then left Washington for a campaign event in Raleigh, North Carolina. Buttigieg was due to travel to Baltimore promptly.

Explore more on these topics

  • Baltimore bridge collapse
  • Joe Biden
  • Baltimore
  • US politics
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Most viewed

  • Moment bridge collapses in Baltimore after cargo ship collision – video
  • LiveAustralia politics live: Greens and Coalition team up to send Labor’s deportation bill to inquiry until May
  • How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapsed – a visual guide
  • Energy giant wrongly received thousands from welfare payments of former customers under Centrelink scheme
  • Baltimore Key Bridge collapse: the Dali ship’s movements in the lead up to the hit – video analysis

Analysis

Baltimore bridge was ‘up to code’ – but rules predate age of supersized ships

Oliver Milman

The National Transportation Safety Board is dispatching investigators, but governor said Francis Scott Key Bridge was sound

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore has revived scrutiny not just of this specific structure but also the overall health of bridges across the US, many of which are considered to be in poor condition.

It’s so far unclear whether the downfall of the bridge, which was hit by a large container ship and crumpled into the Patapsco River early on Tuesday morning, was down to any fault in the structure itself.

Officials have said the ship issued a mayday as it went off course and seemed to lose power.

The National Transportation Safety Board is dispatching a team to investigate the disastrous collapse, which has left six people still unaccounted for. Wes Moore, Maryland’s governor, has said the bridge was “fully up to code”, while some experts have pointed out that the span, completed in 1977, was conceived before an age of supersized container ships.

Andrew Barr, an expert in civil and structural engineering at the University of Sheffield, said that “the video doesn’t show any obvious structural deficiencies with the bridge, but it will not have been designed to survive a head-on collision with such a large vessel”.

Barr added that the Francis Scott Key Bridge did not appear to have additional protective infrastructure to buffer it from ship strikes, which have become more risky as the size and design of cargo vessels has changed over the years. In the last decade alone, the average capacity of container ships has increased by about 50%.

But the spectacular collapse has again highlighted concerns about the overall state of US bridges, with more than a third of them in need of repair, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. The state of US bridges has slowly improved in recent years, the association said, but more than 43,000 are still considered to be in poor condition and classed as “structurally deficient”, risking potential collapse in the future.

“This disaster reveals how exposed America’s critical infrastructure is to sudden and devastating accidents as well as intentional destruction,” said Rick Geddes, infrastructure policy expert and director of the Cornell University infrastructure policy program.

“Improved resilience should be on everyone’s mind as aging infrastructure is rebuilt. Enhanced protection against ship-bridge collisions will certainly become more salient.”

Geddes said the Baltimore disaster should be viewed as an “opportunity to rebuild American infrastructure in a smart way, which includes new materials and designs to reduce the risk of future accidents, including sensors embedded in the bridge that communicate in real time with approaching ships”.

The parlous state of American bridges was singled out by the Biden administration as a motivator for the $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure law signed by the US president in 2021. The bill includes $110bn to upgrade roads and bridges, with Biden recently visiting a deteriorating bridge in Wisconsin to tout its repair via the funding.

“For decades, people talked about replacing this bridge, but it never got done. Until today,” Biden said at January event. “This bridge is important, but the story we’re writing is much bigger than that.”

A certain amount of risk will remain for the foreseeable future, however – each day around 167m trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges in the US.

As for Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, Biden said on Tuesday that it is his intention that the federal government should pay the full cost of replacing it, and called on Congress for its support.

Explore more on these topics

  • Baltimore bridge collapse
  • Shipping industry
  • Infrastructure
  • Baltimore
  • Maryland
  • analysis
Share

Reuse this content

Baltimore bridge collapse: who are the victims?

A crew of construction workers from Mexico and Central America were on Francis Scott Key Bridge when it was struck by cargo ship

Since Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key bridge collapsed after being struck by a cargo ship that lost power early on Tuesday morning, new details are emerging surrounding the people who died in the incident.

Approximately six people – all members of a construction crew filling potholes on the major bridge – remain unaccounted for and are presumed to be dead, government and medical officials familiar with the situation have said.

Dr David T Efron of the R Adams Cowley shock trauma center at the University of Maryland’s medical system spoke in a press conference on Tuesday about the various factors that almost certainly indicate these people have died, including the sheer height of the bridge and the temperature of the water into which they probably fell.

“[It] doesn’t take very long for someone to feel the effects of [the water’s] temperature.”

Few details have emerged so far about both survivors and victims.

Here’s what we know so far:

One man, Jesús Campos, who also works in construction and claims to know the missing crew members told the Baltimore Banner that they are all men from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Baltimore city council member Phylicia Porter announced on CNN that she was told one body had been found, but this has not yet been confirmed by the US Coast Guard, which has been leading search efforts.

Two other individuals were rescued, one of whom was hospitalized at the Cowley shock trauma center. The hospital announced that patient had been discharged.

Following the bridge’s collapse, Maryland remains in a state of emergency, as declared by Governor Wes Moore. Moore said he was also in close communication with US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is assisting with the investigation into the incident.

Explore more on these topics

  • Baltimore bridge collapse
  • Baltimore
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Most viewed

  • Moment bridge collapses in Baltimore after cargo ship collision – video
  • LiveAustralia politics live: Greens and Coalition team up to send Labor’s deportation bill to inquiry until May
  • How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapsed – a visual guide
  • Energy giant wrongly received thousands from welfare payments of former customers under Centrelink scheme
  • Baltimore Key Bridge collapse: the Dali ship’s movements in the lead up to the hit – video analysis

‘It seems impossible’: Baltimore residents grapple with bridge collapse

Locals gather at convenience store near entrance of bridge – closest they could get – as search under way for missing

Across Baltimore residents were struggling to make sense of what had happened after waking up to news of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. “It seems impossible,” said Reginald Jones, a 67-year-old Baltimore resident.

The bridge crumpled into the Patapsco River like a house of cards at 1.30am on Tuesday after it was struck by a giant cargo ship leaving the city’s port.

The Maryland governor, Wes Moore, declared a state of emergency shortly afterward, and the Maryland Port Administration announced on the suspension of vessel traffic into and out of Baltimore’s port until further notice.

Jones lives in Cherry Hill, just five miles from the disaster. He grew up playing sports beside the bridge at Fort Armistead Park.

An amateur photographer, Jones has in recent years often driven to the bridge to take long-exposure photographs of it and the view below. “My wife woke me up this morning to tell me the news,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Jones and other residents gathered at a convenience store near the entrance of the bridge on Tuesday morning – the closest they could get to the scene.

A search is under way for at least six construction workers who remained unaccounted for on Tuesday afternoon. According to the Maryland Transportation Authority, they were working to repair potholes.

Jesús Campos, a construction worker for the company Brawner Builders, said the workers were low-income immigrants from Central America and Mexico. Their labor helps them support family members here and abroad, he said.

He himself worked the overnight shift on the bridge until one month ago when he was transferred to daytime hours. “It’s a difficult situation,” he said from the convenience store parking lot, speaking through a translator. “My friends were working on that bridge.”

The Francis Scott Key Bridge was one of just three ways to cross the Baltimore Harbor, and connected those driving between Washington DC and New York.

“There’s going to be a real bad effect on our traffic,” said Jones.

An estimated 11.5m vehicles crossed the bridge every year, with an average daily traffic of 31,500 vehicles.

“If it had been during the day that it collapsed, I’m telling you, there would have been hundreds of cars on that thing,” said Christopher Romey, a 62-year-old resident of Baltimore’s Brooklyn Park neighborhood, four miles from the bridge.

Romey said he went fishing off the bridge until 6pm on Monday, just hours before it collapsed.

“I’m glad I got to see the bridge one more time,” he said.

Romey watched crews build the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the 1970s. He was carrying a photograph of himself in a car beside the bridge from the 1980s.

“I grew up on that bridge, with that bridge,” he said. “I just can’t believe it’s gone.”

Members of Arundel Christian church, four and a half miles from the bridge, congregated in the convenience store parking lot on Tuesday hoping to provide support for families in need.

Baltimore’s is among the nation’s top ports for importing and exporting automobiles, handling 847,158 cars and light trucks in 2023, according to data from the port. Its closure could have harsh effects on the national economy.

John Chenery, the church’s overseer, said he and other church leaders will work to take care of families in need in the wake of the disaster.

“We’ll provide prayers, and we’ll also provide food and what’s needed,” he said.

Joe Biden said on Tuesday afternoon the federal government will pay for the cost to rebuild the destroyed bridge, and called on Congress to support those efforts. In addition to focusing on search and rescue, he said, officials would work to reopen the city’s port “as soon as humanly possible”, noting that 15,000 jobs depend on the port.

John Currence, a member of Arundel Christian church and former merchant marine officer at the church, said he expected the closed port will have cascading effects for the Baltimore economy.

“It’s going to impact economically a lot of [local] businesses,” he said.

John Lucia, a 37-year-old resident of Glen Burnie, Maryland, four miles from the bridge, has also photographed the bridge for years. He often spent late nights at Fort Armistead Park with friends having bonfires until 1 or 2am, the bridge in the background. It was his “home away from home”, he said.

“Aside from the actual tragedy of it all with six people still missing of course, there’s the icon itself being gone,” he said. “It’s jarring, and it’s going to be really weird to look at that vista and just not see the bridge any more.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Baltimore bridge collapse
  • Baltimore
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Most viewed

  • Moment bridge collapses in Baltimore after cargo ship collision – video
  • LiveAustralia politics live: Greens and Coalition team up to send Labor’s deportation bill to inquiry until May
  • How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapsed – a visual guide
  • Energy giant wrongly received thousands from welfare payments of former customers under Centrelink scheme
  • Baltimore Key Bridge collapse: the Dali ship’s movements in the lead up to the hit – video analysis

Jen didn’t fit the profile for a heart attack – then she had three of them

New Australian centre will research how sex and gender affect the detection and treatment of many health conditions

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

At just 36, Jen O’Neill was not considered an emergency department priority for treatment for a suspected heart attack.

O’Neill, who had given birth 11 months previously, had none of the traditional precursors for a heart attack – no family history, no high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol levels – but her troponin levels confirmed the problem was in her heart.

When she was finally taken for a scan, she received a diagnosis of spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which occurs when there is a tear in the artery that supplies blood to the heart. More than nine out of 10 Scad cases are women, often soon after they have a baby.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

But with no research into the best course of medication for the condition, O’Neill was given the same course of blood thinners and beta blockers used for more traditional heart attack patients.

The blood thinners made her periods extremely heavy and gave her awful fatigue. They were also meant to prevent further heart attacks. But O’Neill went on to suffer another two.

“We don’t have kind of a gold standard treatment of Scad … because my understanding is a lot of the research is based on males, because they are the traditional heart attack patients,” O’Neill said.

Now, a new national research centre will be dedicated to improving the lack of knowledge about how sex and gender affects the risk, detection and treatment of many health conditions – and translating that research into policies and practice.

The Centre for Sex and Gender Equity in Health and Medicine will launch on Wednesday at the University of New South Wales, an initiative of the George Institute for Global Health, the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales, and Deakin University, with support from the Victorian Department of Health and the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

Prof Robyn Norton, the founding director of the George Institute, said: “Our knowledge about health has overwhelmingly come from studies done with male cells, male animals, male humans used as standard in the laboratory, and that’s got to change.”

Norton said she and her colleagues had realised Australia was “really quite behind” other countries such as Canada, US, Japan, Korea and many European countries who had established centres focused on trying to understand the role of sex and gender on health equity.

The evidence base underpinning healthcare was one of the five domains identified to describe gender bias in healthcare in a report released this month by the National Women’s Health Advisory Council, formed in late 2022 to address medical misogyny and chaired by the assistant minister for health, Ged Kearney.

Through research and advocacy, the new centre will address gender bias in health and medicine that leads to poorer health outcomes, evidence gaps and inefficient health spending for women, intersex people, trans and gender-diverse people, and in some cases also men.

For example, the data for osteoporosis – which is viewed predominately as a disease of older women – shows that men are rarely treated for the condition and have a higher mortality rate than women from its complications.

“There’s an opportunity we hope with the centre to really look at improving health outcomes and health equity, frankly, for all Australians,” Norton said.

The centre will have two hubs – one based at UNSW and another at Deakin. Researchers at both universities will be engaged in studies addressing inequities in health but the centre will also serve as a resource for outside organisations and individuals around the country.

Norton said the centre would also focus on the translation of research findings into policy and practice, through working with governments, healthcare providers and the business community.

Explore more on these topics

  • Health
  • Women’s health
  • New South Wales
  • Heart attack
  • Heart disease
  • features
Share

Reuse this content

Jen didn’t fit the profile for a heart attack – then she had three of them

New Australian centre will research how sex and gender affect the detection and treatment of many health conditions

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

At just 36, Jen O’Neill was not considered an emergency department priority for treatment for a suspected heart attack.

O’Neill, who had given birth 11 months previously, had none of the traditional precursors for a heart attack – no family history, no high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol levels – but her troponin levels confirmed the problem was in her heart.

When she was finally taken for a scan, she received a diagnosis of spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which occurs when there is a tear in the artery that supplies blood to the heart. More than nine out of 10 Scad cases are women, often soon after they have a baby.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

But with no research into the best course of medication for the condition, O’Neill was given the same course of blood thinners and beta blockers used for more traditional heart attack patients.

The blood thinners made her periods extremely heavy and gave her awful fatigue. They were also meant to prevent further heart attacks. But O’Neill went on to suffer another two.

“We don’t have kind of a gold standard treatment of Scad … because my understanding is a lot of the research is based on males, because they are the traditional heart attack patients,” O’Neill said.

Now, a new national research centre will be dedicated to improving the lack of knowledge about how sex and gender affects the risk, detection and treatment of many health conditions – and translating that research into policies and practice.

The Centre for Sex and Gender Equity in Health and Medicine will launch on Wednesday at the University of New South Wales, an initiative of the George Institute for Global Health, the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales, and Deakin University, with support from the Victorian Department of Health and the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

Prof Robyn Norton, the founding director of the George Institute, said: “Our knowledge about health has overwhelmingly come from studies done with male cells, male animals, male humans used as standard in the laboratory, and that’s got to change.”

Norton said she and her colleagues had realised Australia was “really quite behind” other countries such as Canada, US, Japan, Korea and many European countries who had established centres focused on trying to understand the role of sex and gender on health equity.

The evidence base underpinning healthcare was one of the five domains identified to describe gender bias in healthcare in a report released this month by the National Women’s Health Advisory Council, formed in late 2022 to address medical misogyny and chaired by the assistant minister for health, Ged Kearney.

Through research and advocacy, the new centre will address gender bias in health and medicine that leads to poorer health outcomes, evidence gaps and inefficient health spending for women, intersex people, trans and gender-diverse people, and in some cases also men.

For example, the data for osteoporosis – which is viewed predominately as a disease of older women – shows that men are rarely treated for the condition and have a higher mortality rate than women from its complications.

“There’s an opportunity we hope with the centre to really look at improving health outcomes and health equity, frankly, for all Australians,” Norton said.

The centre will have two hubs – one based at UNSW and another at Deakin. Researchers at both universities will be engaged in studies addressing inequities in health but the centre will also serve as a resource for outside organisations and individuals around the country.

Norton said the centre would also focus on the translation of research findings into policy and practice, through working with governments, healthcare providers and the business community.

Explore more on these topics

  • Health
  • Women’s health
  • New South Wales
  • Heart attack
  • Heart disease
  • features
Share

Reuse this content

Bill Shorten to introduce NDIS reform bill as fight looms with states

Legislation aims to cut ballooning costs and return the scheme to its original intent of supporting people with a permanent disability

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The Albanese government is forging ahead with planned changes to the NDIS, including plans to curb the amount participants can claim in budget top-ups, amid a looming fight with state and territory leaders over who should pay for disability services.

The NDIS minister, Bill Shorten, will introduce a new bill on Wednesday morning as part of the government’s first tranche of reforms to return the scheme to its original intent of supporting Australians with permanent disability and tackle issues with its ballooning costs.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The changes will allow the government to tweak NDIS rules to target plan inflation – where participants request more funds for supports than originally budgeted for – along with clarifying the two pathways for entry to the scheme, and what items and supports can be funded by participants.

It will also strengthen the NDIS watchdog’s powers to crack down on dodgy auditors.

The bill marks the federal government’s initial legislative response to the NDIS review, which recommended the scheme shift its focus to providing supports for those with a functional impairment, rather than a focus on those with a diagnosis.

Shorten said the changes were “evolution, not revolution” and would ensure the crucial support service would be maintained.

“This is not a fait accompli, we think this reflects honestly what needs to be done,” he said. “If people have got real issues to raise, we will listen to them and will reflect it in the bill in the coming weeks and months.”

Interplan inflation, where a participant outspends an improved budget and requests further funding, will be addressed by changing the way a plan is budgeted. The new framework will remove itemised budgets, replacing it with flexible supports and stated supports.

Rules outlining what can be funded under the scheme will also be clarified. The bill’s explanatory memorandum will outline NDIS budgets cannot be used, for example, on holidays, groceries, online gambling, cosmetics, perfume or bills.

The transition for some participants is expected to occur over the next 12 to 18 months.

It comes as the latest projections show the annual cost will grow from $35.2bn in 2022-23 to more than $50bn in 2025-26. It is expected the NDIS could push past $90bn a year within a decade.

The NDIS review, released in December, was tasked with looking at the fast-rising dollar figure, and how to restore trust and confidence in the scheme among the community.

It recommended those with less severe disabilities, based on comprehensive needs-based assessments, transition from the NDIS scheme to state and territory disability services, referred to as foundational supports.

But state and territory leaders are concerned they will be left with the bill, and have warned there hasn’t been enough consultation on the changes to who can access the scheme and who will be transitioned to rely on foundational supports.

On Monday the premiers and chief ministers wrote to the federal government to delay any legislation until further consultation be done.

The NSW premier, Chris Minns, said on Tuesday the concerns over access, changes to service delivery and the fiscal implications were “unanimous” among the leaders.

“If at the end of the day, the commonwealth charges full steam ahead, a lot of people will be off the NDIS programs and they will be tumbled into state services,” Minns said. “I want to make sure that we catch them, and we can only do that if we can quantify how much this will ultimately cost.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said on Tuesday: “The changes that are now being proposed go further than what was agreed by national cabinet and we believe will have a damaging impact on the NDIS and those who rely on it.”

Wednesday’s bill is not expected to outline any changes to foundational supports provided outside the NDIS.

In December Anthony Albanese struck a $10.5bn deal with the states and territories to split the cost of disability services outside the NDIS in return for granting them a further three years of GST funding.

The three-year extension of the GST “no worse off” guarantee, which compensates states and territories for GST shortfalls, from 2027-28 would cost $3.5bn each year.

The deal was struck in return for agreement with the states and territories to finance additional disability services outside the NDIS program on a 50-50 funding model in order to meet an agreed growth rate cap of 8% from 2026.

Explore more on these topics

  • National disability insurance scheme
  • Disability
  • Australian politics
  • Bill Shorten
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Australia’s inflation rate comes in lower than expectations in February at 3.4%

Consumer price index shows inflation moderating, which will feed into next RBA decision on interest rates in May

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Inflation has held steady for the second month in a row, as cheaper meat and seafood helped offset increases in rents and automotive fuel.

The monthly index of consumer prices rose only 3.4% in the year to February, stabilising near the pace of the increases in January and December rate, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday. Economists had predicted February CPI would come in at 3.5%.

Excluding volatile items such as fresh produce and fuel, inflation fell from 4.1% in January to 3.9% last month.

Another category to drop was holiday and accommodation prices, which declined 1.3% from the year before, but at a smaller pace than the two previous months. February included concerts in Melbourne in Sydney by Taylor Swift.

“Although Taylor Swift performances saw hotel prices rise in Sydney and Melbourne, elsewhere accommodation and airfare prices fell in February due to the end of the peak travel during the January school holiday period,” ABS head of prices statistics Michelle Marquard said.

The monthly inflation figures are less comprehensive than the quarterly numbers but still off an indication of how much 12-year high interest rates are squeezing demand in the economy.

Reserve Bank governor Michele Bullock last week said the central bank needed “greater confidence that inflation will return to the target band in a reasonable timeframe and will stay there” before it began to cut its cash rate.

Ahead of today’s CPI data, investors were fully pricing in a 25 basis point cut in the cash rate to 4.1% by October, according to the ASX rates tracker. After the ABS announcement, the ASX 200 bumped 0.25% higher and the Australian dollar fell slightly, as investors factored in potential for RBA rate cut a little sooner than before.

More to come …

Explore more on these topics

  • Australian economy
  • Cost of living crisis
  • Reserve Bank of Australia
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

NSW coroner calls for overhaul of alerts, risk and firefighting systems after Black Summer bushfires

Teresa O’Sullivan says 2019-20 fire season ‘unprecedented in scale and intensity’ when delivering findings regarding 25 deaths

New rules for the use of firefighting aircraft, better alert systems and remodelling risk classifications are among the recommendations from a coronial inquiry into the Black Summer bushfires in New South Wales.

The inquiry examined 25 deaths across 46 fires across the state, with a 700-page report delivered on Wednesday more than two years in the making.

State coroner Teresa O’Sullivan said the 2019-20 bushfire season, which came to be known as Black Summer, was without doubt one of the most catastrophic on record.

“It was unprecedented in scale and intensity,” she told the coroner’s court in Lidcombe on Wednesday.

“The sheer scale and ferocity of the fires burning simultaneously meant resources were stretched across the state … it is remarkable the loss of life was not even higher,” she said.

She made 28 recommendations, directed towards the commissioners of the NSW rural fire service and police, and the chief executive of state-owned infrastructure company Essential Energy.

Hearings were held across NSW including in Queanbeyan, Lismore, Armidale, Taree, Cooma and Katoomba.

O’Sullivan reiterated the purpose of the inquiry was not to assign blame as she delivered her findings.

There were a range of causes for the bushfires including power lines, lightning strikes and out-of-control backburning.

One fire, which ultimately destroyed 10 homes, was started by a farmhand using a welder to fix a metal fence post on a drought-ravaged farm in central western NSW, the inquiry was told.

That fire went on to burn for 58 days across more than 17,000 hectares.

The Black Summer fires burned through more than 5.5m hectares in NSW alone.

The inquest also heard only 10 out of 130 fire investigators were available at any one time during the 2019-20 season.

The coronial inquiry followed separate inquiries, including one commissioned by the Berejiklian state government, which recommended landowners be obliged to conduct more hazard-reduction burns on their properties and take an active role in bushfire preparation.

Explore more on these topics

  • Bushfires
  • New South Wales
  • Firefighters
  • Australian police and policing
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Tuvalu accepts security and climate pact, says Australia’s Pacific minister

Deal had been thrown into doubt during election campaign in Tuvalu over sovereignty concerns

Australia and Tuvalu will go ahead with a security and climate migration pact, after the latter’s new government agreed not to change the deal, Australia’s Pacific minister, Pat Conroy, has told parliament.

The two countries had announced the deal in November, but it was thrown into doubt during an election campaign in the remote Pacific atoll of 11,000 people that is threatened by rising sea levels.

Feleti Teo became prime minister in February after a general election closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the south Pacific. Tuvalu is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan after Nauru cut ties in February and switched to Beijing.

“The new government of Tuvalu has confirmed its desire to proceed with the Falepili Union,” Conroy said in parliament on Tuesday, as he tabled the deal for ratification. Australia would work closely with Tuvalu to ensure its sovereignty was respected, he added.

“Australia commits to assist Tuvalu in responding to a major natural disaster, a health pandemic, or military aggression. This is predicated on Tuvalu requesting such assistance.”

Tuvalu would mutually agree any third-party security or defence arrangements with Australia, he said.

The treaty allows for the migration of 280 people from Tuvalu to Australia each year, while also recognising Tuvalu’s statehood will continue even if its land is inundated by climate-related sea level rises.

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said it was “the most significant agreement between Australia and one of its Pacific partners since the agreements for Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975”.

Tuvalu’s government could not be immediately reached for comment.

Explore more on these topics

  • Tuvalu
  • Climate crisis
  • Asia Pacific
  • Pacific islands
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Tuvalu accepts security and climate pact, says Australia’s Pacific minister

Deal had been thrown into doubt during election campaign in Tuvalu over sovereignty concerns

Australia and Tuvalu will go ahead with a security and climate migration pact, after the latter’s new government agreed not to change the deal, Australia’s Pacific minister, Pat Conroy, has told parliament.

The two countries had announced the deal in November, but it was thrown into doubt during an election campaign in the remote Pacific atoll of 11,000 people that is threatened by rising sea levels.

Feleti Teo became prime minister in February after a general election closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the south Pacific. Tuvalu is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan after Nauru cut ties in February and switched to Beijing.

“The new government of Tuvalu has confirmed its desire to proceed with the Falepili Union,” Conroy said in parliament on Tuesday, as he tabled the deal for ratification. Australia would work closely with Tuvalu to ensure its sovereignty was respected, he added.

“Australia commits to assist Tuvalu in responding to a major natural disaster, a health pandemic, or military aggression. This is predicated on Tuvalu requesting such assistance.”

Tuvalu would mutually agree any third-party security or defence arrangements with Australia, he said.

The treaty allows for the migration of 280 people from Tuvalu to Australia each year, while also recognising Tuvalu’s statehood will continue even if its land is inundated by climate-related sea level rises.

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said it was “the most significant agreement between Australia and one of its Pacific partners since the agreements for Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975”.

Tuvalu’s government could not be immediately reached for comment.

Explore more on these topics

  • Tuvalu
  • Climate crisis
  • Asia Pacific
  • Pacific islands
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Australia’s carbon credits system a failure on global scale, study finds

Researchers find carbon offsets approach, which is supposed to regenerate scrubby outback forests, was not reducing emissions as promised

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Australia’s main carbon offsets method is a failure on a global scale and doing little if anything to help address the climate crisis, according to a major new study.

Research by 11 academics found the most popular technique used to create offsets in Australia, known as “human-induced regeneration” and pledged to regenerate scrubby outback forests, had mostly not improved tree cover as promised between about 2015 and 2022.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, analysed 182 projects in arid and semi-desert areas and found forest cover had either barely grown or gone backwards in nearly 80%.

The academics said it meant these projects were therefore not reducing emissions as promised, and polluting companies that bought offsets created through these projects were often not reducing their impact on the climate as they claimed.

They said this was a globally significant problem as Australia’s forest regeneration method is the world’s fifth biggest nature-based offsets program, with projects covering nearly 42m hectares, an area larger than Japan.

More than 37m carbon credits – each meant to be worth a tonne of CO2 drawn from the atmosphere and worth between $750m and $1bn – had been issued for these projects by June last year.

The authors of the study include Andrew Macintosh, an environmental law professor at the Australian National University (ANU), a former head of a carbon credit integrity assurance body and more recently a sharp critic of the management of the scheme. Two years ago he described it as a “sham” and a fraud on taxpayers and the environment.

The researchers said the findings add to growing scientific literature that highlighted “the practical limitations of offsets and the potential for offset schemes to credit abatement that is non-existent, non-additional and potentially impermanent”.

Megan Evans, a senior lecturer in environmental policy at the University of New South Wales in Canberra and a co-author of the new study, said the researchers found there was “nowhere near the forest cover that you should see” given the number of carbon credits issued.

“What this means is that the projects are not actually sequestering the amount of carbon claimed, and we’ve got a whole bunch of carbon credits in the system that don’t represent one tonne of CO2,” she said.

“Most of these credits are being used to offset heavy emitters under the safeguard mechanism, so we’re not actually reducing carbon emissions at all. The overall outcome is we’re increasing the amount of carbon pollution.

“We’re ultimately getting worse outcomes for the climate than if we didn’t have these [forest regeneration] projects.”

The researchers called on the Australian government to stop issuing carbon credits to regeneration projects in uncleared areas “for the sake of the integrity of Australia’s carbon market and the country’s decarbonisation efforts”.

The Clean Energy Regulator, which manages the scheme, said it had confidence in the integrity of the carbon credit scheme and the human-induced regeneration method. “A number of reviews have confirmed the integrity of the HIR method,” a spokesperson said.

The climate change minister, Chris Bowen told the ABC’s RN Breakfast on Wednesday that a review of the carbon credit scheme that he commissioned from Ian Chubb, a former Australian chief scientist, had backed the integrity of the system.

Bowen said Chubb found the scheme was “basically sound”, but needed some reforms that were being implemented. The Chubb review was not asked to examine individual projects.

Bowen said the regulator had also asked Cris Brack, an honorary ANU associate professor and forest researcher, to review the performance of five-year-old projects and found they were “demonstrating regeneration, and proponents are implementing the project activities”.

“There’s been other checks in relation to the significant increase in vegetation that we’re looking for and it has found that increasing vegetation exists,” Bowen said.

The carbon credits generated through forest regeneration can be used by companies to meet emissions reductions goals under the safeguard mechanism, a Coalition policy revamped under Labor to require the country’s 215 biggest industrial polluting facilities to reduce their emissions intensity by up to 4.9% a year.

The projects analysed in the new paper are mostly in dry outback areas in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. They do not involve tree planting, but are said to regenerate native forests by reducing the impact of grazing by livestock and feral animals.

Critics, which have included the Australian Conservation Foundation, say research suggests grazing by livestock and feral animals mostly does not affect “woody vegetation cover”. The study said the total amount of woody vegetation cover in the areas analysed increased by less than 1% after grazing was reduced.

The researchers examined 75 projects that they said, based on the number of credits they received, should have had near 100% forest cover, but found the actual coverage in 2022 was only 21%. This was only a 1.8% increase since the projects were registered, they said.

Don Butler, an ANU ecologist who led the statistical analysis, said the changes largely mirrored what happened in nearby areas not included in the projects.

David Eldridge, another co-author and a longtime NSW government scientist now at the University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, said the results of the study were not a surprise. “They align perfectly with what decades of research in Australia’s rangelands suggests would occur,” he said.

Explore more on these topics

  • Climate crisis
  • Australian politics
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
Share

Reuse this content

‘Madness’: Netanyahu’s handling of US relations under scrutiny after UN vote

Tone in parts of Israeli media borders on contempt, as prime minister’s growing friction with Biden linked to US abstention

The Israeli prime minister’s handling of relations with the Biden administration, which led the US on Monday to decline to veto a ceasefire resolution at the UN security council, has been greeted by sharp criticism by Israeli commentators.

After the US abstention, prominent columnists across the Israeli media condemned Benjamin Netanyahu’s growing friction with the US president, Joe Biden.

While Netanyahu, who has faced plummeting public approval ratings since Hamas’s surprise 7 October attack on southern Israel, has long been a target for a large section of Israel’s commentariat, the tone in some quarters after the rare US abstention in the security council bordered on derision and contempt.

Driving the sentiment is the vivid awareness within Israeli society of the huge importance of the US-Israeli relationship in terms of financial aid, arms sales and Washington’s diplomatic support, including its frequently used veto on Israel’s behalf on the security council.

Washington’s decision not to use its veto came after a weekend in which US officials say they spoke non-stop to Israeli counterparts warning them in advance, suggesting that Netanyahu’s decision to cancel a visit by a delegation to the US in the aftermath of the vote was more calculated theatre than the result of surprise.

In the Hebrew-language newspaper Ma’ariv, Ben Caspit described the approach of the Israeli prime minister as “delusional”, “madness” and “terrifying”, adding: “This man is putting us all at risk: our future, our children’s future, the strategic alliance that is the keystone of Israeli national security.”

Equally damning was the lead editorial in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which described Netanyahu as “Israel’s agent of destruction” who “has become a burden for Israel”.

“He is exposing it to strategic risks that could exact a very heavy price. For the sake of his own political survival, he is wilfully harming Israel’s citizens. He must resign and give Israel a chance to rescue itself from the damage he has caused.”

The centre-right Yedioth Ahronoth was no less scathing, featuring a cartoon of a diminutive Netanyahu arm-wrestling a much larger Biden, in which Netanyahu’s fist barely encircles Biden’s finger.

In the same paper, the columnist Nahum Barnea painted an imagined scene where US officials were seen laughing at Netanyahu’s cancellation of a delegation to Washington in protest.

“Netanyahu,” he continued, “has been dealing with America the way a spoiled teenager deals with his parents: with perpetual rebellion, perpetual insults and perpetual scandals.”

Outside the media, the renewed calls for Netanyahu to resign were echoed by others including Gershon Baskin, who was involved in the negotiations to secure the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit over a decade ago.

“Netanyahu is off the rails,” wrote Baskin on X. “He is an existential danger to Israel. He must be gone from our lives.”

Many of those criticising Netanyahu offer the same trenchant analysis. Faced with dismal poll numbers, widespread unpopularity after 7 October – the security failings of which are blamed on him – and a political crisis over ultra-Orthodox conscription, they suggest that Netanyahu has sought to pick a fight with Biden to appear “strong”.

The growing criticism of Netanyahu’s calculations come amid warnings that unanimous passage of the UN security council ceasefire resolution, with the US abstention, presages stronger moves against Israel amid growing calls for further sanctions and restrictions on arms transfers.

While UN resolutions are in theory binding on member states, the reality is that the passage of the resolution is likely to be more important in reinforcing moves beyond the security council.

As the former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer explained on Monday, the Biden administration “is weighing whether Israel is in compliance with National Security Memorandum-20 which … requires recipients of US arms to provide assurances that US arms will be used in accordance with international law and that they will not impede or restrict the delivery of US humanitarian assistance”.

The resolution may also weigh indirectly on legal cases before international bodies, including the international court of justice and international criminal court, as well as on deliberations by individual countries and bodies such as the EU over potential punitive action.

Attempting to explain the thinking behind the US abstention on Monday, Frank Lowenstein, a former state department official who helped lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2014, told the Washington Post he believed three major factors drove the move.

They include deep disagreements between Washington and Israel over a large-scale invasion of Rafah, the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, and Israel’s announcements of new settlements while the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was visiting the country on Friday.

“Biden did everything he could for months to avoid a big public fight. It reflects a very serious shift in the White House’s position towards how to manage the Israelis throughout the rest of this war. The Israelis are either going to pay attention now or we’re likely going to continue down this path.”

In a further sign of Israel’s diplomatic difficulties, Annalena Baerbock, the minister for foreign affairs of Germany, a country historically one of Israel’s strongest supporters, said she would send a delegation to remind Israel of its obligations under international humanitarian law.

Explore more on these topics

  • Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Israel
  • Israel-Gaza war
  • Joe Biden
  • Middle East and north Africa
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Man shot by police in Queensland after allegedly stealing police vehicle

Force says the man is undergoing medical treatment and investigations are continuing

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

A man is undergoing medical treatment after being shot by police in Cairns after allegedly stealing a police vehicle.

Queensland police said they had been called to a Bungalow address just after 5.30am following reports that a woman was in distress. Police allege that the man “interacted with police” and stole a police vehicle before driving it to the neighbouring suburb of Woree, where he was shot.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

“He is currently undergoing medical treatment and investigations are continuing with oversight from the ethical standards command,” police said.

The Queensland Ambulance Service confirmed it had treated a patient but could not provide further details.

More to come

Explore more on these topics

  • Cairns
  • Queensland
  • Australian police and policing
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

‘Biden bump is real’: president gains on Trump in six battleground states

Biden leads Trump in Wisconsin and is tied in Pennsylvania and Michigan, new poll shows

Joe Biden had some good news on Tuesday as polling showed him gaining on Donald Trump in six battleground states, seven months before the presidential election. In response, one leading Democratic strategist said the “Biden bump is real”.

According to Bloomberg News and Morning Consult, Biden now leads Trump by a point in Wisconsin, having trailed by four last month, and is tied in Pennsylvania, where Trump had a six-point lead last month. The two candidates were also tied in Michigan.

In other states likely to decide the presidential election in November, Trump was ahead in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. Only Georgia, however, showed an increased lead for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Biden was due to campaign in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Trailing Biden in fundraising, Trump had no campaign events scheduled.

The former president did appear in public on Monday, in New York in connection with his criminal trial on 34 charges concerning hush-money payments to an adult film star and a civil fraud case in which he must post a $175m bond while appealing a $454m judgment.

Trump also faces 14 criminal charges related to election subversion and 40 arising from his retention of classified information. He posted a $92m bond in a civil defamation suit arising from a rape allegation a judge called “substantially true”.

On Monday, a Biden campaign spokesperson called Trump “weak and desperate – both as a man and a candidate”, adding: “His campaign can’t raise money, he is uninterested in campaigning outside his country club, and every time he opens his mouth, he pushes moderate and suburban voters away with his dangerous agenda.”

The Biden campaign did not comment on the Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll.

Jason Miller, a Trump campaign spokesperson, pointed to Trump’s 47%-43% lead across the seven swing states, telling Bloomberg: “Polling continues to show that voters are sick of Joe Biden’s crushing inflation, porous southern border and his insane EV mandate that will kill the US auto industry.”

For Biden, worrying signs also included a majority of voters with a positive view of Nikki Haley, Trump’s last Republican challenger who has not endorsed him, saying they would vote for Trump in November.

Encouraging signs for the president included emerging positivity on economic conditions and many voters saying they had recently seen more positive news about Biden, particularly after his combative State of the Union address.

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and commentator, said: “[The] election is clearly changing now, moving towards Biden: 10 recent national polls show Biden leading, he’s up one now in [the] Economist poll average, Harris this week finds Biden gaining four, this new Bloomberg/MC polling also finds significant movement towards Biden.

“Biden bump is real.”

In the Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll, around half of Biden voters said they were determined to stop Trump.

Eli Yokley, US politics analyst for Morning Consult, told Bloomberg: “Negative energy motivates people. And the people who are supporting Joe Biden today are much more likely to express that negative energy that energised his 2020 campaign.”

Explore more on these topics

  • US elections 2024
  • Joe Biden
  • Donald Trump
  • US politics
  • news
Share

Reuse this content