The Guardian 2024-04-01 16:01:27


‘Poison portal’: US and UK could send nuclear waste to Australia under Aukus, inquiry told

Labor describes claims as ‘fear-mongering’ and says government would not accept waste from other nations

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Australia could become a “poison portal” for international radioactive waste under the Aukus deal, a parliamentary inquiry into nuclear safety legislation has heard.

New laws to establish a safety framework for Australia’s planned nuclear-powered submarines could also allow the US and UK to send waste here, while both of those countries are struggling to deal with their own waste, as no long-term, high-level waste facilities have been created.

The government introduced the Australian naval nuclear power safety bill in November last year. If passed, it will establish a nuclear safety watchdog, allow for naval nuclear propulsion facilities to be created, including for storing or disposing of radioactive waste from Aukus submarines. A second bill to enable the regulator to issue licenses was introduced at the same time.

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Both have been referred to a Senate inquiry, which is due to report on 26 April.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Nuclear Free campaigner, Dave Sweeney, said the issue of waste disposal was “highly disturbing” and that the Aukus partners could see Australia as a “a little bit of a radioactive terra nullius”.

“Especially when it’s viewed in the context of the contested and still unresolved issue of domestic intermediate-level waste management, the clear failure of our Aukus partners to manage their own naval waste, the potential for this bill to be a poison portal to international waste and the failure of defence to effectively address existing waste streams, most noticeably PFAS,” he said.

The defence minister, Richard Marles, has previously accused the Greens of “fear mongering” when they raised similar concerns, saying the government would not accept waste from the other nations.

However, the legislation allows for the creation of facilities for “managing, storing or disposing of radioactive waste from an Aukus submarine”, and defines an Aukus submarine as either an Australian or a UK/US submarine, and “includes such a submarine that is not complete (for example, because it is being constructed or disposed of)”.

The Greens defence spokesperson, senator David Shoebridge said HMS Dreadnought, one of the UK’s first nuclear submarines had been “rusting away” since being decommissioned in 1980.

“You can go on Google Maps and look at them rusting away in real time, can’t you?” Shoebridge asked Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (Arpansa) chief regulatory officer, James Scott.

“Yes. There is no disposal pathway yet,” Scott said, adding he was “aware of the UK plans to establish a deep geological repository somewhere in the 2050s to 2060s”.

“There’s no exact date,” he said.

“The UK is pursuing a disposal pathway, and Australia will need to do the same. We are fully aware of this; we are engaging with our own radioactive waste agency, ARWA, on this, and it’s something that needs to be dealt with now, not later.”

The Dreadnought’s nuclear fuel has been removed to be stored safely. This has happened with some but not all of the submarines, but there is still no permanent disposal facility. The US also removes nuclear fuel for temporary storage.

Engineer Robin Townsend, a fellow at the UK-based Royal Institution of Naval Architects, told the inquiry that there was “a very big mountain to climb” to safely store nuclear waste, with the technology “still in its infancy”.

“All countries are struggling to not just decommission the submarines, but also … to deal with the waste. Planning is critical. People who say that you need to plan to store the waste for 100,000 years aren’t wide of the mark,” he said.

“There’s very little progress I think it’s fair to say …. I would strongly advise that you do take it into account as early as possible.”

Other concerns raised at the hearings include a lack of transparency with the Aukus deal and the independence of the watchdog. There is another public hearing on Thursday.

The defence department said the bill would provide “a regulatory framework able to accommodate any future government decisions regarding the management of radioactive waste”.

“It would not determine those future government decisions, nor does it presuppose them,” it said in a statement.

Under questioning from Shoebridge, the defence department’s domestic nuclear policy branch assistant director general, Kim Moy, said nuclear facilities, including high-level waste facilities, could be established but that they would be established under regulations, which can be disallowed by parliaments.

Asked if such facilities could take waste from Australian, US, or UK nuclear-powered submarines, Moy said: “Yes. The bill enables the management of radioactive waste. It is a separate question about what policy or plans are associated with those aspects.”

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Australian house prices hit record high for fifth consecutive month

CoreLogic data shows prices rose 0.6% in March while separate index from PropTrack produces similar results

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National home values set a record high for a fifth consecutive month in March as a resilient economy and the swelling population pointed to further increases to come.

The home value index compiled by data group CoreLogic showed prices rose 0.6% last month, matching February’s increase. Median home prices were $772,730, rebounding just over one-tenth since its recent nadir in January 2023.

A separate index run by PropTrack produced similar results. National home prices were 0.34% higher in March to be up 6.79% from a year earlier, also a fresh peak.

“Demand has been quite resilient in the face of very high interest rates, high cost-of-living pressures, affordability challenges and very low [consumer] sentiment,” said Tim Lawless, CoreLogic’s research director.

With population growing by some measures at the fastest pace since the 1950s and new housing approvals sinking, “there’s an imbalance here between demand and supply that doesn’t look like it’s going to be fixed anytime soon”, he said

Among the state capitals, home values rose in all cities in the March quarter except for Melbourne, Core Logic said. Sydney remained the most expensive city while Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane are all at record levels after steep rises in the past year.

The Reserve Bank’s 13 interest rate rises since May 2022 have sent mortgage payments soaring, particularly for households who took out loans when the cash rate hit a record low of 0.1% during the pandemic.

So far, though, mortgage arrears have only ticked up modestly and remain below pre-Covid levels. Should unemployment remain near half-century lows and interest rates start to retreat later this year, home price increases look like increasing at least as fast as the current pace.

Sales volumes, for instance, were 9.5% from subdued levels of the March quarter of 2023. Turnover was about 3.7% higher than the past decade’s average for this time of year, CoreLogic said.

One sign of strains on affordability, though, was a shift in demand towards the cheaper end of the market. Prices for the lowest quartile of home rose 3.1% in the January-March period, compared with a 0.7% increase for the most expensive 25% of the market.

Pricier homes tend to rise in value first, coming out of dip. Since the September quarter, though, the lower quartile has been rising faster than the upper end of the sector, Lawless said.

“Serviceability assessments [of loans] are becoming harder given high cost of living pressures and higher interest rates as well,” he said. “If you’re on a median household income, it’s pretty hard to buy the medium price dwelling in this sort of market.”

That tilt towards rising prices for lower-cost home may also reflect the desperation of some renters to shield themselves from an “unrelenting level of rental growth” and a low level of vacancies in many parts of the country, Lawless said.

“We have seen first homebuyers over-represented in the market,” he said. “They’re about 28% of owner-occupier demand compared to a long-run average of about 24%.”

CoreLogic’s national rental index was up 2.8% in the March quarter, the fastest pace in almost two years.

Unit rents were rising at 2.9% in the March quarter, slightly higher than the 2.7% pace for house rentals.

Gross rental yields are on the rise too, a prospect that may lure more investors back into property. Melbourne, for instance, saw its average rental yield – the annualised rent on a on a property divided by its value – reach 3.57% in March, or the city’s highest since March 2015, according to CoreLogic.

The property sector, though, is not without its headwinds. Affordability issues remain a drag that may get heavier should unemployment pick up faster than economists currently expect, Lawless said.

The RBA will be also less inclined to cut interest rates if its see a re-ignition of consumption because homeowners feel wealthier as their assets rise in value.

“The last thing regulators would want to see is another house price boom,” Lawless said. “It’ll be interesting to see what the policy response could be if housing prices start to take off more substantially because there are only a few levers that can be pulled.”

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Just before Congress left town last month, rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene formally proposed removing Mike Johnson as speaker over frustrations that he didn’t secure more conservative policy wins in a bill to keep the government open.

It’s a sore subject for House Republicans, who last year saw Kevin McCarthy booted from the leadership post by a small groups of disaffected Republicans assisted by all Democrats. We don’t know yet if Greene’s motion has enough support to pass, but in his interview with Fox News, Johnson described it as a “distraction”:

I think all of my other Republican colleagues recognize this as a distraction from our mission. Again, the mission is to save the republic. And the only way we can do that is if we grow the House majority, win the Senate and win the White House. So, we don’t need any dissension right now. Look, Marjorie Taylor Greene filed the motion. It’s not a privileged motion, so it doesn’t move automatically. It’s just hanging there. And she’s frustrated.

Johnson noted that “she and I exchanged text messages”, and the pair plan to talk early next week.

Mike Johnson hints vote on Ukraine aid is up next despite threat to speakership

Republican touts ‘important innovations’ to Ukraine package and suggests vote on bill could be imminent in Congress after recess

The US House speaker, Mike Johnson, has raised expectations that a vote on funding for Ukraine could be imminent in the chamber, even at the risk of the Republican losing his leadership position.

Johnson touted “important innovations” to a possible Ukraine package during an interview on Fox News’s Sunday Night in America with Trey Gowdy, and he suggested a vote on a standalone bill could come soon after Congress returns from Easter recess on 9 April.

But the Louisiana Republican acknowledged forces in his party were trying to unseat him over his efforts to find a bipartisan solution to stalled US funding for Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russia’s military invasion, which began in February 2022. The far-right extremist Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene filed a motion to remove Johnson in March, but she stopped short of calling it for a floor vote.

The White House, meanwhile, has warned that delays are costing Ukraine lives and territory because Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, “gains every day” Congress does not pass a funding measure.

“What we have to do in an era of divided government, historically, as we are, you got to build consensus. If we want to move a partisan measure, I got to have every single member, literally. And some things need to be bipartisan,” Johnson said, acknowledging the shrinking Republican majority in the House.

“We’ve been talking to all the members especially now over the district work period. When we return after this work period, we’ll be moving a product, but it’s going to, I think, have some important innovations.”

Those innovations include efforts to placate Republican hardliners, who have cooled on continuing to support Ukraine financially with the war there now in its third year. They include a loan instead of a grant, or harnessing Russian assets confiscated in the US under the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity (Repo) for Ukrainians Act.

“If we can use the seized assets of Russian oligarchs to allow the Ukrainians to fight them, that’s just pure poetry,” Johnson said. “Even [former president Donald] Trump has talked about the loan concept, where we’re not just giving foreign aid, we’re setting it up in a relationship where they can provide it back to us when the time is right.”

The specter of Trump, the prospective Republican nominee for November’s presidential election, has loomed large over the wrangling for a Ukraine deal. He was instrumental in Johnson’s refusal to call a House vote on a $95bn wartime funding bill that passed the Democratic-led Senate in February, which also included aid for Israel in its war in Gaza.

Trump has also demanded Republicans reject any Ukraine funding measure that ties in money for US border security in order to deny the Joe Biden White House a “win” on immigration ahead of November’s election, hence Johnson’s pursuit of a standalone solution.

The friction has led to rightwingers, such as Greene, threatening Johnson’s position. Other Republican colleagues, however, have leapt to the speaker’s defense. The New York congressman Mike Lawler blasted Greene’s motion to vacate as “idiotic” on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “It’s not actually going to help advance the cause she believes in, and in fact it undermines our House Republican majority,” he said.

Some Democrats have indicated they would support Johnson if a vote to remove him were called, though other Republicans have acknowledged his precarious position.

“I’m not going to deny it. It’s a very narrow majority, and one or two people can make us a minority,” the Nebraska congressman Don Bacon told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

Without identifying Greene by name, he added: “We have one or two people that are not team players. They’d rather enjoy the limelight, the social media.”

Bacon is one of several Republicans who have worked across the aisle to craft a Ukraine aid proposal. “We put a bill together that focuses on military aid, a $66bn bill that provides military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. There’s enough support in the House to get this done,” he said.

Of Johnson’s plans to bring a House vote next week, Bacon added: “He’s doing the right thing.”

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Senator Raphael Warnock: ‘The Bible doesn’t need Trump’s endorsement’

Ex-president’s decision to sell Bibles branded with his name is ‘risky business’, says Warnock, pastor of historic Atlanta church

Donald Trump’s decision to sell Bibles branded under his name is “risky business”, the Democratic US senator Raphael Warnock said on Sunday, as the former president stands accused of having few moral scruples in four separate criminal indictments pending against him.

“The Bible does not need Donald Trump’s endorsement,” Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist church, said to CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. Speaking on Easter, one of Christianity’s holiest celebrations, Warnock added: “It’s a risky bet because the folks who buy those Bibles might actually open them up, where it says things like thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not bear false witness, where it warns about wolves dressed up in sheep’s clothing.

“I think you ought to be careful. This is risky business for somebody like Donald Trump.”

Warnock’s comments to CNN came days after the Republican who is running against Joe Biden for a second presidency in November presented an offer for the public to buy Trump-endorsed Bibles for $59.99. “Let’s Make America Pray Again”, Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform, a clear reference to the “Make America Great Again” slogan that he rode to the White House in 2016.

But indeed more than 80 criminal charges filed against Trump over the previous 12 months – including in Warnock’s home state of Georgia – charge the former president with behaving in ways that many true Bible devotees would frown upon.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to allegations that he tried to unduly overturn the outcome of the 2020 election that he lost to his Democratic rival Biden, improperly retained classified government materials after his presidency, and illicitly covered up hush-money payments to an adult film actor who has claimed to have engaged in extramarital sex with him.

He is also facing multimillion-dollar civil penalties for business practices deemed fraudulent and an allegation that he raped a woman – a claim that a judge has determined to be substantially true.

Warnock on Sunday said he wasn’t surprised Trump had turned to selling Bibles to help raise funds for his soaring legal bills as well as his presidential campaign. The senator alluded to Trump’s history of hawking – among other things – Trump-branded steaks, non-accredited business school degrees and, more recently, $399 gold sneakers.

“Now he’s trying to sell the scriptures,” said Warnock, who was first elected to the US Senate in 2020. “At the end of the day, I think he’s trying to sell the American people a bill of goods.”

Warnock went out of his way to mention that Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but recognized that his tact allowed him to triumph in the electoral college. But Warnock remarked: “It did not work in 2020,” when Trump lost both the popular and electoral college votes.

“And,” the senator said,” I don’t think it’s going to work in 2024.”

During his interview on CNN, Warnock also addressed criticism from Trump and his Republican allies that Biden recognized Transgender Day of Visibility – which falls annually on 31 March – as scheduled on Sunday, even though this year it coincided with Easter.

The Republican US House speaker, Mike Johnson, notably asserted that Biden had “betrayed the central tenet of Easter”, something that he called “outrageous and abhorrent”.

Warnock, who is part of a succession of Ebenezer Baptist church pastors that includes the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, said the fabricated controversy was another instance of people “who do not know how to lead us trying to divide us”.

“Apparently, the speaker finds trans people abhorrent, and I think he ought to think about that,” Warnock said. “The fact of the matter is … March 31 has been a day to lift up transgender people who endure violence and bigotry.

“But this is just one more instance of folks … who do not know how to lead us trying to divide us. And this is the opposite of the Christian faith. Jesus centered the marginalized. He centered the poor. And in a moment like this, we need voices, particularly voices of faith, who would use our faith not as a weapon to beat other people down, but as a bridge to bring all of us together.”

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Rank-and-file union members back campaign to ditch Biden over Gaza

Wisconsin coalition of low-wage workers and immigrants push back in anger against president’s handling of Gaza war

In Wisconsin, a campaign by anti-war voters to abandon Joe Biden during the Democratic primary has found an ally in the labor movement – but not from its traditional leaders.

Instead, the Listen to Wisconsin campaign, an effort inspired by the Michigan campaign to reject Biden during the primary over his military support for Israel, has earned the support of rank-and-file trade unionists and a statewide coalition of low-wage workers and immigrants angry about the president’s handling of the war.

“Individuals in labor have been very active,” said Janan Najeeb, a Wisconsin organizer spearheading the Listen to Wisconsin campaign.

Israel’s war on Gaza has laid bare a divide within the labor movement – which has played out largely between union leaders in the AFL-CIO, the largest US labor federation, and the movement’s rank and file, many of whom have vocally opposed the war and turned to their unions as an avenue for political action.

In the wake of Hamas’s bloody incursion into Israel and Israel’s military response, which has so far killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, union members have drafted resolutions calling for a ceasefire and action by the Biden administration to pressure Israel to end the war and lift its siege on Gaza.

In Wisconsin, they’re using the 2 April primary as a tool to increase the pressure on Biden. Workers affiliated with the grassroots group Wisconsin Labor for Palestine have allied with the Uninstructed campaign, helping organize a 30 March rally at the capitol and phone-banking to get out the vote. At a small Biden campaign event on 26 March at Madison Labor Temple – a meeting space for local unions – union members handed out leaflets encouraging workers to vote “uninstructed” in the primary.

“We’ve gotten changes in wording – now they’re willing to say ‘ceasefire,’” said Barret Elward, a member of the union representing faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin, of the Biden administration. “But I mean, it’s just pablum, it’s just messaging, it’s just a PR thing. Nothing has changed on the ground.”

The Uninstructed campaign has also picked up the support of a powerful network of immigrant and low-wage workers in Wisconsin.

“We should not be giving all of this money to this genocidal war,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces de la Frontera, whose advocacy arm has come out in support of the Listen to Wisconsin campaign.

For members of the Latino voter network, Neumann-Ortiz said, voting “uninstructed” is also a way to voice their disapproval of Biden’s rightward shift on immigration. This year, Biden has touted legislation to crack down on the southern border and limit the number of asylum seekers accepted on a daily basis there, and even used the pejorative “illegal” in his State of the Union address.

Instead of adopting an increasingly rightwing rhetoric and policy toward immigration, Neumann-Ortiz said, Biden should use his executive authority to expand protections for undocumented immigrants and campaign on protections for immigrants that his administration has implemented – like a 2023 measure the Department of Homeland Security quietly passed to protect non-citizen workers whose workplace rights have been violated from deportation.

“You’re not going to win those Trump supporters, but you are definitely eroding and alienating your own base,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

During the 2022 midterms, Voces de la Frontera Action poured its resources into mobilizing support for Democrats at the ballot box, with volunteer members directly contacting nearly 30,000 voters in their network and reaching 30,000 more through phone-banking and door-knocking, according to the organization. In 2020, Voces supported Biden’s presidential run.

Now, the group has turned its efforts toward promoting the Uninstructed campaign with mailers, door-knocking and social media promotion.

“It’s so important that in the months ahead, that he respond to the demands that are being made on Gaza, and for Latinos and immigrants, who he needs to reaffirm his commitment to,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

Meanwhile, nearly every major US union has refrained from endorsing the protest vote, and Wisconsin’s affiliated unions have largely followed suit – underscoring the split within the labor movement over Israel-Palestine.

On 11 October, the AFL-CIO released a statement condemning the massacre of civilians on 7 October and voicing concerns about “the emerging humanitarian crisis that is affecting Palestinians in Gaza”.

The union called for a “swift resolution” to the conflict, but refrained from calling for a “ceasefire” and made clear that labor councils within the federation were not to issue their own resolutions on the subject. When a council in Washington state passed a resolution on 18 October calling for a ceasefire and opposing “union involvement in the production or transportation of weapons destined for Israel”, the federation stepped in to overrule the resolution.

The United Auto Workers union in December called for a ceasefire and announced it would explore divesting from military manufacturing jobs, prompting other US unions to adopt stronger demands.

In Wisconsin, members of the South Central Federation of Labor – a federation of unions within the AFL-CIO – introduced a ceasefire resolution in October that passed in late January, calling on the AFL-CIO to “use its influence to get the US to suspend further military aid to Israel that prolongs this conflict”. On 8 February, the AFL-CIO issued its own statement urging a ceasefire, stopping short of calling for reduced military assistance to Israel.

With few exceptions (the union representing graduate student workers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has endorsed the Uninstructed campaign), traditional unions in Wisconsin, which have formed a bastion of support for Democrats, have largely stayed out of the fray.

Jacob Flom, the president of the union representing workers at the Milwaukee Public Museum, who sits on the board of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and is a vocal opponent of Israel’s war in Gaza, said the Wisconsin Labor for Palestine coalition aims to push Wisconsin’s unions to take a stronger stand in defense of Palestinian workers.

“As trade unionists, we feel like it is our obligation to stand in solidarity with them and to pressure our electeds and our unions to do more and to do better to stop the US support for the genocide in Gaza,” said Flom.

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Lara Ristic with ‘Pretzel’, a centralian carpet python, at the Easter show’s Sydney Royal Frog and Reptile Show. She entered 10 of her 14 reptiles in this year’s competition. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/The Guardian

Judges at the Easter show’s frog and reptile competition look for peak physical health, mental health and body condition – and the all important ‘wow’ factor

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by Sharlotte Thou

Sixteen-year-old Lara Ristic is one of Australia’s best reptile owners – and she has the ribbons to prove it.

Three of her snakes won first place at the Sydney Royal Easter Show on Monday, besting a seemingly impossible judging standard. Winning animals must be both “typical” of their species, while also “really standing out”, vet and former judge Robert Johnson says.

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Ristic began keeping reptiles as pets five years ago and has been showing them at the Easter show for three. This year she entered 10 of her 14 reptiles in the frog and reptile competition, which features frogs, geckos, snakes and lizards.

“They’re my babies,” she says. “I love them so much.”

Ristic, who was named overall runner-up champion, says the judging standards are “intense”, but necessary, because they promote proper animal maintenance. It’s especially important because “reptiles don’t show when they’re in pain or sick”, she says.

The reptilian and amphibian competitors are judged on their health and must be cleared by a vet to compete.

While the indicators of health vary from animal to animal, the judges look for a healthy BMI, good posture, signs of worms and bumps in the spine.

Judges also assess an animal’s mental health, marking down animals that show signs of stress.

“We want our animals to be in immaculate health,” show organiser Anthony Stimson says. Animals merely in “normal health” aren’t winners, he adds.

“The ones in perfect health are looked after a lot better … we need to talk to their owners and find out what they’re doing.”

The judging process is slow and calculated. It takes more than half an hour to assess the first 10 snakes. Judges crowd in front of individual enclosures marking scoresheets, their expressions serious, sometimes taking the animals out to examine them.

On seeing a yellow-and-white striped snake wrapped around a branch, one observer quips, “you get everything on a stick at the Easter show”.

Judges are looking for a “wow animal”: one that scores highest on a range of qualities and characteristics.

“It can take 20-to-30 years for a breeder to choose something that’s absolutely a perfect score in quality, pattern, colour and variation,” judge Brad Walker says.

“We’re looking for a pattern to be nice and clean, colourful, that stands out and isn’t washed out.”

Other factors can also be at play: being a difficult animal to maintain, being a new species or a species that will generate interest in the hobby can also score highly.

One such example is the green-and-gold bell frog, which breeds extremely well in captivity but is endangered in the wild. None were entered this year.

Walker, who is the longest-serving reptile judge in Australia, says that for competitors who score lower scores, the show presents an opportunity to “help them understand why they scored that way”.

“More often than not the reason is that they don’t know any different and haven’t been trained, or somebody hasn’t given them any advice.”

The show has an encouragement award, aimed at motivating those less-experienced competitors.

“We have 12-year-old competitors going up against a big breeder in New South Wales, who has been doing it for 30 years and got the absolute best of the best,” Walker says.

For younger competitors, Walker says, reptile showing can lead to a career in conservation or animal care – provided they receive the right support and encouragement.

Amicable amphibians

For some competitors, the show is an opportunity to shine light on an under-appreciated group of animals.

Snakes, for example, are often thought of as being dangerous or as pests. “But they’ll actually take care of pests like rodents for you,” says Cindy Jackson who entered a gecko in the competition.

She and Marie Callin, who entered the first-prize winning magnificent tree frog, describe their pets as “very curious”, saying they’re “very amicable to handling and interaction”. They say they didn’t do anything special to prep for this year’s show, apart from keeping their pets in good condition throughout the year.

“I prefer to interact with my animals over humans, or some of them anyway,” Jackson says, laughing.

Children, at least, are keen on the idea of pet frogs and reptiles. Jackson says kids have told her, “we don’t want a dog, we want a snake”.

Despite the cold-blooded nature of the contestants, Johnson says the atmosphere of the show is warm and fuzzy.

“There’s a real family feeling,” he says. “A lot of people come every year so it’s a great reunion.”

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Lara Ristic with ‘Pretzel’, a centralian carpet python, at the Easter show’s Sydney Royal Frog and Reptile Show. She entered 10 of her 14 reptiles in this year’s competition. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/The Guardian

Judges at the Easter show’s frog and reptile competition look for peak physical health, mental health and body condition – and the all important ‘wow’ factor

  • Sign up for the Rural Network email newsletter
  • Join the Rural Network group on Facebook to be part of the community
by Sharlotte Thou

Sixteen-year-old Lara Ristic is one of Australia’s best reptile owners – and she has the ribbons to prove it.

Three of her snakes won first place at the Sydney Royal Easter Show on Monday, besting a seemingly impossible judging standard. Winning animals must be both “typical” of their species, while also “really standing out”, vet and former judge Robert Johnson says.

  • Sign up to receive Guardian Australia’s fortnightly Rural Network email newsletter

Ristic began keeping reptiles as pets five years ago and has been showing them at the Easter show for three. This year she entered 10 of her 14 reptiles in the frog and reptile competition, which features frogs, geckos, snakes and lizards.

“They’re my babies,” she says. “I love them so much.”

Ristic, who was named overall runner-up champion, says the judging standards are “intense”, but necessary, because they promote proper animal maintenance. It’s especially important because “reptiles don’t show when they’re in pain or sick”, she says.

The reptilian and amphibian competitors are judged on their health and must be cleared by a vet to compete.

While the indicators of health vary from animal to animal, the judges look for a healthy BMI, good posture, signs of worms and bumps in the spine.

Judges also assess an animal’s mental health, marking down animals that show signs of stress.

“We want our animals to be in immaculate health,” show organiser Anthony Stimson says. Animals merely in “normal health” aren’t winners, he adds.

“The ones in perfect health are looked after a lot better … we need to talk to their owners and find out what they’re doing.”

The judging process is slow and calculated. It takes more than half an hour to assess the first 10 snakes. Judges crowd in front of individual enclosures marking scoresheets, their expressions serious, sometimes taking the animals out to examine them.

On seeing a yellow-and-white striped snake wrapped around a branch, one observer quips, “you get everything on a stick at the Easter show”.

Judges are looking for a “wow animal”: one that scores highest on a range of qualities and characteristics.

“It can take 20-to-30 years for a breeder to choose something that’s absolutely a perfect score in quality, pattern, colour and variation,” judge Brad Walker says.

“We’re looking for a pattern to be nice and clean, colourful, that stands out and isn’t washed out.”

Other factors can also be at play: being a difficult animal to maintain, being a new species or a species that will generate interest in the hobby can also score highly.

One such example is the green-and-gold bell frog, which breeds extremely well in captivity but is endangered in the wild. None were entered this year.

Walker, who is the longest-serving reptile judge in Australia, says that for competitors who score lower scores, the show presents an opportunity to “help them understand why they scored that way”.

“More often than not the reason is that they don’t know any different and haven’t been trained, or somebody hasn’t given them any advice.”

The show has an encouragement award, aimed at motivating those less-experienced competitors.

“We have 12-year-old competitors going up against a big breeder in New South Wales, who has been doing it for 30 years and got the absolute best of the best,” Walker says.

For younger competitors, Walker says, reptile showing can lead to a career in conservation or animal care – provided they receive the right support and encouragement.

Amicable amphibians

For some competitors, the show is an opportunity to shine light on an under-appreciated group of animals.

Snakes, for example, are often thought of as being dangerous or as pests. “But they’ll actually take care of pests like rodents for you,” says Cindy Jackson who entered a gecko in the competition.

She and Marie Callin, who entered the first-prize winning magnificent tree frog, describe their pets as “very curious”, saying they’re “very amicable to handling and interaction”. They say they didn’t do anything special to prep for this year’s show, apart from keeping their pets in good condition throughout the year.

“I prefer to interact with my animals over humans, or some of them anyway,” Jackson says, laughing.

Children, at least, are keen on the idea of pet frogs and reptiles. Jackson says kids have told her, “we don’t want a dog, we want a snake”.

Despite the cold-blooded nature of the contestants, Johnson says the atmosphere of the show is warm and fuzzy.

“There’s a real family feeling,” he says. “A lot of people come every year so it’s a great reunion.”

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Qantas and Virgin Australia put on notice over offsets following landmark decision on greenwashing

Dutch court ruling that KLM misled customers ‘wakeup call’ that decarbonisation plans should be credible, climate advocacy group says

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Australian airlines could be found to have misled consumers in the way they present their net zero goals and market offset options during flight bookings, climate advocates have claimed, following a landmark legal decision on aviation “greenwashing”.

The warning from Climate Integrity, a new Australia-based advocacy group, follows a Dutch court late last month ruling that airline KLM misled customers with vague environmental claims, and that its affirmation to the goals of the Paris Agreement was “misleading and therefore unlawful”.

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The Dutch greenwashing decision found 15 of 19 of KLM’s claims about its environmental ambitions were misleading, including that marketing statements about offsetting flights and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) painted “too rosy a picture” of the technologies’ feasibility.

A billboard ad showing a child on a swing with the statement “join us in creating a more sustainable future” was also declared misleading because it failed to explain how it related to any environmental benefit. The impression was reinforced by the background of sky, mountain and water, the court said.

Claire Snyder, the director of Climate Integrity, said “Australian airlines should be paying close attention” to that decision.

“The ruling is a timely wake-up call to airlines with public net zero commitments, that they must put forward concrete and credible decarbonisation plans or face the legal risk of misleading consumers and investors,” Snyder said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recently declared a crack down on “greenwashing”, and Snyder pointed to an analysis her group conducted that found Qantas’s decarbonisation plans featured “a number of low integrity practices”.

While Snyder commended Qantas as being an early mover to pledge support for the Paris Agreement goals, her group’s analysis has concluded the airline “has no comprehensive, full-costed or independently verified plan for reducing their emissions in line with a scientific pathway”.

Snyder was critical of Qantas’ interim emissions target of 25% by 2030, calling it “impossible to assess if they are on track”, and alleged Qantas had “no clear plan or timeline to phase out the use of fossil fuels”.

Heavy reliance on the ongoing use of offsets was also of concern, Snyder said, as the schemes have varying levels of integrity. She noted UN expert groups have urged companies to have plans to actively reduce emissions, and not just rely on future technologies.

Many industries are pushing ahead with decarbonisation plans but aviation has proved more difficult, in large part due to a lack of readily available technology such as electric replacements for modern commercial passenger aircraft.

Qantas and Virgin Australia, like most global airlines, have announced emissions reductions agendas that heavily rely on offsets, including buying credits from projects in Australia and overseas. They also give customers the option to pay for an individual offset when booking their flight.

Snyder compared Qantas’ “fly carbon neutral” option to the marketing strategies used by KLM in its scheme that was found misleading.

“As a consumer flying with Qantas you could be forgiven for thinking that a few dollars for an offset at checkout means your flight makes no contribution to the climate crisis,” Snyder said.

Virgin Australia makes a similar claim when offering passengers an offset option during booking.

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia also have future plans to incorporate SAF when it becomes available.

While airlines struggle with the prohibitive price of SAF – on average 2.5 times more than existing jet fuel – and scarce availability globally, Australia’s aviation industry experiences these barriers more acutely because it is not produced at commercial quantities locally.

Qantas’ target is for 10% of fuel use to come from SAF by 2030 and it has invested in local production startups. Virgin, acknowledging local supply issues, has said it wants to be able to buy greener fuel to power other airlines’ planes overseas but be recognised as if it had used the fuel on its domestic flights.

Critics argue that a carrier cannot fairly claim it has plans to reduce its emissions if it intends to grow its network and operate more flights, producing more emissions, in the long term.

Zoe Bush, a climate lawyer with the Environmental Defenders Office, said Australian airlines “know that consumer decisions are informed by climate considerations, and so they’re trying to inform consumers that they’re taking action”.

“But they’re ultimately relying on the same technologies as KLM,” she said.

Bush said it was “easy to mislead consumers” under Australian law, and so Australian aviation companies would be well advised to make sure their representations on offsets and SAF could be substantiated”.

A Qantas spokesperson said “aviation is a hard-to-abate sector and high integrity offsets are key to us meeting emission reduction targets until sustainable aviation fuel and low and zero-emissions technologies are more readily available”.

Virgin Australia declined to comment. Both Virgin and Qantas’s offset programs are certified under the government’s Climate Active program. The program’s effectiveness was called into question by a 2023 Guardian investigation.

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Labor’s proposed changes to water trigger laws could have ‘centuries-long consequences’, environment groups say

Decisions about coal mining and unconventional gas where water resources are affected could be made by states and territories under proposal

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Environment groups have criticised a proposed change by the Albanese government to national environmental laws, saying it puts “precious water resources at risk” and could have “centuries-long consequences”.

The proposal would allow states and territories to make decisions about coal mining and unconventional gas where water resources are affected. Currently the federal government has the final say on such projects under the so-called “water trigger”.

The move has angered conservation groups involved in the government’s consultation about its environmental reforms four months after the water trigger was expanded to include all forms of unconventional gas.

The Albanese government has been consulting select environment and business groups about its planned overhaul of national environmental laws, with the expectation it will introduce legislation to parliament later this year.

The water trigger requires the environment minister to consider the impact of large coal mining and coal seam gas projects on water resources. The trigger was expanded late last year to include all types of unconventional gas, such as the shale gas found in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo basin.

The current laws include an explicit protection that prevents the commonwealth from delegating its decision-making powers under the water trigger to state and territory governments.

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But the draft new laws presented to environment and business groups remove this guarantee and would allow states and territories to be accredited to take on this responsibility.

Under the proposed laws, the government could also divest its decision-making powers over matters of national environmental significance such as world heritage, threatened species and Ramsar wetlands.

“Four months after expanding the water trigger, proposed environmental laws will allow it to be devolved,” said Georgina Woods, head of research and investigations at Lock the Gate.

“It is not in the national interest to allow state and territory governments free rein to put precious water resources at risk from coal mining and unconventional gas. We’re talking about the lifeblood of the continent and decisions with centuries-long consequences.”

Removing the restriction that prevents states and territories from being accredited to make decisions under the water trigger was a recommendation of the 2020 Samuel review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

While the draft reforms adopt this recommendation, the environment and water minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the government would still have “oversight” of any states it accredited.

“I was proud to legislate a water trigger last year so all unconventional gas projects are considered under national environment law for their impacts on water – this was the first phase of our plan to make sensible improvements to Australia’s environment laws,” she said.

“The commonwealth will retain oversight of this under our draft laws.”

But Woods said Labor had specifically told Northern Territory communities during the 2022 federal election campaign that an expanded water trigger would not be delegated to state and territory governments.

“The reality is that state and territory governments tend to become blindly enthusiastic about resource extraction. That is why Bob Hawke initiated the commonwealth’s role in environmental protection in the first place,” she said.

“To protect water resources in the national interest, the commonwealth has to be there with the power to say ‘no’.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s biodiversity policy adviser, Brendan Sydes, said the organisation had campaigned for years against proposals to hand federal environmental approval powers to state and territory governments, including the former Abbott government’s proposed “one-stop shop” process.

“We think the commonwealth needs to retain direct responsibility for protecting threatened species and other matters of national environmental significance like Ramsar wetlands, rather than entrusting that to the states and territories,” he said.

Sydes said the water trigger was introduced under the Gillard government with provisions that prevented it from being transferred because it was seen as “critically important” for the commonwealth to be able to step in and protect water resources and the communities and natural values that relied on them.

“In expanding the water trigger, as the government did late last year, they recognised the importance of that trigger,” he said.

“To now be proposing to create a mechanism to hand it over to the states and territories runs counter to that recognition.”

Plibersek said the government would “keep working closely with environment groups and business as we get our laws ready for introduction”.

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Labor ministers warned over expanded use of AI in immigration and biosecurity decisions

Senate committee queries new regulations that mean decisions normally made by ministers and officials are now automated

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The federal government’s increasing use of computers to make decisions is raising alarm – including from its own ranks – with a bipartisan committee warning automation could jeopardise important safeguards that human discretion provides.

Urging the government to heed the findings of the robodebt royal commission and the commonwealth ombudsman’s artificial intelligence guidelines, a Senate committee has queried moves by the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, and the agriculture minister, Murray Watt, to expand the use of automated decision-making in immigration and biosecurity.

Both ministers have issued new regulations to devolve some decisions normally made by them and their officials to AI computer programs. Also known as delegated legislation, regulations enable ministers to extend the reach of existing laws by decree, bypassing a parliamentary vote.

In its latest monitoring report published last week, the committee for the scrutiny of delegated legislation warned the moves could impede the powers of ministerial discretion designed to guard against one-size-fits-all decision-making.

“The committee considers that the use of an automated decision-making process may operate as a fetter on discretionary power by inflexibly applying predetermined criteria to decisions that should be made on the merits of each individual case,” it said.

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The immigration regulation relates to existing national security restrictions on certain visa-holders undertaking courses of study into critical technology. Currently, the minister has legal discretion in assessing exemption applications. The new regulation allows a computer to adjudicate instead.

Another regulation allows AI to determine when those in charge of – or suspected of having knowledge about – vessels, aircraft or other “conveyances” entering Australian waters, and red-flagged on biosecurity grounds, can be compelled to hand over documents or other information.

A separate Senate committee has also previously raised concerns about the introduction of automated decision-making across government, including the Treasury’s move last year to allow the use of AI in assessing applications for registration as a financial adviser.

Another immigration measure introduced automation into the process for assessing applications under the Pacific visa scheme.

On the new migration regulation, the committee asked O’Neil which aspects of the exemption decisions the computer program would decide, and how and where discretion could still be applied. It wanted more detail on what will inform the program’s decisions, why automation is considered “necessary and appropriate”, what safeguards are in place to ensure the powers of ministerial discretion are still exercised, and how a merits-review process will work.

In response to questions previously raised by the committee about the biosecurity regulation, Watt said government was “considering opportunities for legislative reform” arising from the robodebt royal commission.

He allayed some of the committee’s concerns, but it has asked for more information to be added to the regulation’s explanatory memorandum. It also pointed out some errors in the memorandum. Watt undertook to have them corrected.

The committee pointed to the commonwealth ombudsman’s 2019 guidelines on automated decision-making, which said the existence of discretionary powers does not preclude using automation, but that programs must properly reflect them.

The guidelines said discretionary powers were important because they were “a tool to avoid unfair or unjust outcomes” that ensures legislation “is sufficiently flexible”.

“Agencies should be particularly careful that the system does not constrain the decision-maker in exercising any discretion he or she has been given (under relevant legislation, policy or procedure) or lead to a failure to consider relevant matters which are expressly or impliedly required to by the statute,” it warned.

The acting committee chair, the Liberal senator Paul Scarr, said automation was “becoming a recurring issue”.

“We’re having to repeatedly raise the same scrutiny concerns,” Scarr told Guardian Australia. “The more substantial the decision, the greater impact it has on people’s rights and liberties and the more concerned we are.”

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Labor ministers warned over expanded use of AI in immigration and biosecurity decisions

Senate committee queries new regulations that mean decisions normally made by ministers and officials are now automated

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The federal government’s increasing use of computers to make decisions is raising alarm – including from its own ranks – with a bipartisan committee warning automation could jeopardise important safeguards that human discretion provides.

Urging the government to heed the findings of the robodebt royal commission and the commonwealth ombudsman’s artificial intelligence guidelines, a Senate committee has queried moves by the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, and the agriculture minister, Murray Watt, to expand the use of automated decision-making in immigration and biosecurity.

Both ministers have issued new regulations to devolve some decisions normally made by them and their officials to AI computer programs. Also known as delegated legislation, regulations enable ministers to extend the reach of existing laws by decree, bypassing a parliamentary vote.

In its latest monitoring report published last week, the committee for the scrutiny of delegated legislation warned the moves could impede the powers of ministerial discretion designed to guard against one-size-fits-all decision-making.

“The committee considers that the use of an automated decision-making process may operate as a fetter on discretionary power by inflexibly applying predetermined criteria to decisions that should be made on the merits of each individual case,” it said.

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

The immigration regulation relates to existing national security restrictions on certain visa-holders undertaking courses of study into critical technology. Currently, the minister has legal discretion in assessing exemption applications. The new regulation allows a computer to adjudicate instead.

Another regulation allows AI to determine when those in charge of – or suspected of having knowledge about – vessels, aircraft or other “conveyances” entering Australian waters, and red-flagged on biosecurity grounds, can be compelled to hand over documents or other information.

A separate Senate committee has also previously raised concerns about the introduction of automated decision-making across government, including the Treasury’s move last year to allow the use of AI in assessing applications for registration as a financial adviser.

Another immigration measure introduced automation into the process for assessing applications under the Pacific visa scheme.

On the new migration regulation, the committee asked O’Neil which aspects of the exemption decisions the computer program would decide, and how and where discretion could still be applied. It wanted more detail on what will inform the program’s decisions, why automation is considered “necessary and appropriate”, what safeguards are in place to ensure the powers of ministerial discretion are still exercised, and how a merits-review process will work.

In response to questions previously raised by the committee about the biosecurity regulation, Watt said government was “considering opportunities for legislative reform” arising from the robodebt royal commission.

He allayed some of the committee’s concerns, but it has asked for more information to be added to the regulation’s explanatory memorandum. It also pointed out some errors in the memorandum. Watt undertook to have them corrected.

The committee pointed to the commonwealth ombudsman’s 2019 guidelines on automated decision-making, which said the existence of discretionary powers does not preclude using automation, but that programs must properly reflect them.

The guidelines said discretionary powers were important because they were “a tool to avoid unfair or unjust outcomes” that ensures legislation “is sufficiently flexible”.

“Agencies should be particularly careful that the system does not constrain the decision-maker in exercising any discretion he or she has been given (under relevant legislation, policy or procedure) or lead to a failure to consider relevant matters which are expressly or impliedly required to by the statute,” it warned.

The acting committee chair, the Liberal senator Paul Scarr, said automation was “becoming a recurring issue”.

“We’re having to repeatedly raise the same scrutiny concerns,” Scarr told Guardian Australia. “The more substantial the decision, the greater impact it has on people’s rights and liberties and the more concerned we are.”

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Australia weather: BoM forecasts heavy rain and storms across south-east Australia

Storms to sweep through Tasmania and Victoria after Melbourne experiences driest March on record, while Sydney to be drenched on Friday

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Melbourne has experienced its driest March on record – recording just 2.8mm of rain over the entire month – ahead of a forecast drenching across Australia’s south-east in the coming days.

The south-east will be hit with more than 100mm of rain this week, after a relatively dry month which delivered rainfall levels at only a third of the region’s March average.

Storms are expected to sweep through Tasmania and Victoria on Monday and inundate the east coast over the week.

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Sydney is forecast to receive up to 70mm of rain on Friday, after getting only 52.4mm last month, less than half its March average.

Tasmania received less than half of its average March rainfall, while NSW had only three-fifths of an average March rainfall.

Northern Australia also experienced its second-wettest March on record, offsetting the dry influence of the El Niño system presently affecting the country.

While March left the south-east parched, northern Australia received more than double its average rainfall over the month, as tropical cyclones and the monsoon season drenched the region with 182mm instead of the typical 88mm.

Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory marked its second-wettest March on record, after ex-Tropical Cyclone Megan pushed rainfall to more than triple its March average.

Weatherzone meteorologist Maryam Al-Ansari said northern Australia faced unusually high rainfall because of the combined impact of tropical cyclones Kirrily, Megan and Neville.

“Kirrily brought a lot of rainfall into Queensland, but then that rainfall ran into the centre of Australia,” she said.

That runoff left moisture in the ground, which trough systems then pulled on as they moved through those areas, producing abnormal weather events such as higher rivers throughout the region.

Minimum daily temperatures, meanwhile, were high across the country, reaching the second-highest average level on record for March at 1.79C above the 1961-90 average.

After this week delivers heavy rain in Australia’s south-east, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has predicted rainfall will return to average seasonal levels for the east coast over the next three months.

For the rest of the country, the BoM has forecast below-average rainfall in the months to June, as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole and neutral El Niño bring drier, less extreme weather.

Maximum temperatures are also expected to be warmer than average for the coming April-June period.

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Smartphone app could help detect early-onset dementia cause, study finds

App-based cognitive tests found to be proficient at detecting frontotemporal dementia in those most at risk

A smartphone app could help detect a leading cause of early-onset dementia in people who are at high risk of developing it, data suggests.

Scientists have demonstrated that cognitive tests done via a smartphone app are at least as sensitive at detecting early signs of frontotemporal dementia in people with a genetic predisposition to the condition as medical evaluations performed in clinics.

Frontotemporal dementia is a neurological disorder that often manifests in midlife, where the part of the brain responsible for skills such as the capacity to plan ahead and prioritise tasks, filter distractions and control impulses, shrinks as the disease progresses.

About a third of such cases have a genetic cause, but research into the condition has been hampered by problems with early diagnosis and difficulty tracking how people are responding to treatments that may only be effective during the early stages of disease.

“Most frontotemporal dementia patients are diagnosed relatively late in the disease, because they are young, and their symptoms are mistaken for psychiatric disorders,” said the study’s senior author, Prof Adam Boxer, at the University of California, San Francisco.

Smartphones are already attracting interest as a tool for diagnosing and assessing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. To investigate their utility in frontotemporal dementia, Boxer and his colleagues collaborated with the US-based software company Datacubed Health to develop an app that could record people’s speech while they engaged with several cognitive tests, including executive functioning assessments.

“We also created tests of walking, balance and slowed movements, as well as different aspects of language,” said Dr Adam Staffaroni, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the study’s first author.

They tested the app in 360 adults at high genetic risk of developing frontotemporal dementia, including some who had not developed any obvious symptoms yet.

The research, published in JAMA Network Open, found that the app could accurately detect dementia in such individuals, and might even be more sensitive to the earliest stages of the condition than gold-standard neuropsychological evaluations that are usually performed in clinics.

Although there are no immediate plans to make the app available to the public, Staffaroni said it could help bolster research into the condition.

More than 30 such clinical trials are under way or in the planning stages, including trials of therapies that might help to slow progression of the disease in some gene carriers. “A major barrier has been a lack of outcome measures that can be easily collected and are sensitive to treatment effects at early stages of the disease.”

Frequent in-person assessments are also burdensome for patients, caregivers and clinicians. “We hope that smartphone assessments will facilitate new trials of promising therapies,” Staffaroni said.

“Eventually, the app may be used to monitor treatment effects, replacing many or most in-person visits to clinical trials’ sites.”

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Cannabis users celebrate relaxation of laws on personal use in Germany

People gather for a ‘smoke-in’ at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate after partial legalisation comes into effect

Cannabis users have been celebrating in Germany after new laws legalising personal possession came into effect.

As of 1 April, adults are allowed to carry up to 25g of dried cannabis on them and cultivate up to three marijuana plants at home.

At midnight, people gathered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate for a “smoke-in” to welcome the new rules, which were introduced after a heated debate about the pros and cons of allowing easier access to the drug.

The government says decriminalisation will have an impact on the hidden market and reduce the spread of contaminated cannabis, thereby protecting young people.

“Cannabis use already existed yesterday; it has been increasing,” the German health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said on Monday.

“Now it’s coming out of the taboo zone. This is better for real addiction help, prevention for children and young people and for combating the black market, for which there will soon be an alternative,” he said in a social media post.

Marco Buschmann, the justice minister, told German media that the partial legalisation would ease the burden on the judiciary and police.

But there has been criticism about the possible impact on young people.

“From our point of view, the law as it is written is a disaster,” Katja Seidel, a therapist at a drug addiction centre in Berlin, the Tannenhof Berlin-Brandenburg, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Access to the product will be easier, its image will change and become more normalised, especially among young people,” Seidel said, adding that she expected to see an increase in cannabis use “at least initially”.

Cannabis consumption by anyone under 18 will continue to be illegal.

The new legislation also has some safeguards to protect young people, including a ban on smoking cannabis within 100 metres (328ft) of a school, kindergarten, playground or sports centre.

Lauterbach has promised a major campaign to educate young people about the health risks and boost prevention programmes.

However, the planned media campaign hasn’t convinced critics. “It doesn’t resonate with them, it will never work,” said Boris Knoblich, a spokesperson for the Tannenhof Berlin-Brandenburg organisation. “What works is someone who goes in, talks to them over a coffee, without a teacher there,” he said.

German law enforcement officials have also raised concerns.

“From 1 April, our colleagues will find themselves in situations of conflict with citizens, as uncertainty reigns on both sides,” said the German police union’s deputy federal chairman, Alexander Poitz, Deutsche Welle reported.

The union has expressed concerns about regulating the consumption of cannabis within the permitted distance to certain facilities and about the lack of instruments police would need.

“The burden of implementing the law lies on the shoulders of the federal states and local authorities. The federal government has ordered, the federal government must pay,” said Poitz.

The federal centre for health education, linked to the health ministry, told AFP it will “assume its responsibility by expanding its prevention offers”.

The southern state of Bavaria meanwhile is testing an online training course for teachers on how to approach the topic in the classroom.

According to official statistics from 2021, 8.8% of adults in Germany aged 18-64 said they had consumed cannabis at least once in the preceding 12 months.

Among people aged 12 to 17, that number rose to nearly 10%.

The government has said previously that many users rely on the drug for medicinal reasons and that the new law will improve the quality of cannabis consumed by growing numbers of young people.

Observers from around the world will be closely watching how the law works in practice in Germany.

The European Green party celebrated the move as a “Green win”, claiming on social media that it would “reduce drug trafficking” and relieve the pain and symptoms of some diseases.

“We hope that the rest of EU countries will follow in Germany’s footsteps!” they said.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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‘Havana syndrome’ linked to Russian unit, media investigation suggests

US diplomats may have been targeted by Russian sonic weaponry, say The Insider, Der Spiegel and CBS’s 60 Minutes

The mysterious so-called Havana syndrome symptoms experienced by US diplomats in recent years have been linked to a Russian intelligence unit, according to a joint media investigation released on Monday.

Havana syndrome was first reported in 2016 when US diplomats in Cuba’s capital reported falling ill and hearing piercing sounds at night, prompting speculation of an attack by a foreign entity using an unspecified sonar weapon.

Other symptoms including bloody noses, headaches and vision problems were later reported by embassy staff in China, Europe and the US capital, Washington DC.

The diplomats may have been targeted by Russian sonic weaponry, according to the joint report by The Insider, Der Spiegel and CBS’s 60 Minutes.

The year-long investigation “uncovered evidence suggesting that unexplained anomalous health incidents, also known as Havana Syndrome, may have their origin in the use of directed energy weapons wielded by members of (the Russian GRU) Unit 29155,” the report said.

Russia’s 29155 unit is responsible for foreign operations and has been blamed for several international incidents, including the attempted poisoning of the defector Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.

Moscow dismissed the allegations as “groundless” on Monday.

“This topic has been talked up in the press for many years already. And from the very beginning most often it’s linked to the Russian side,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told a news conference.

“But nobody has ever published any convincing evidence, so all this is nothing more than a groundless and unfounded accusation,” he said.

Washington closed its Havana immigration office in 2018 under a US policy shift toward Cuba and also in response to fears at the time that the Havana syndrome was a result of a microwave or other electronic attack.

US intelligence also said in 2022 that intense directed energy from an external source could have caused some cases of Havana syndrome, officially known as anomalous health incidents (AHIs).

But intelligence agencies concluded in March 2023 that there was “no credible evidence that a foreign adversary has a weapon or collection device that is causing AHIs”.

Washington announced the reopening of its immigration office in Havana in August 2023.

The joint investigation suggests the first cases of Havana syndrome may have occurred in Germany two years earlier than the cases reported in Havana in 2016 that gave the syndrome its name.

“There were likely attacks two years earlier in Frankfurt, Germany, when a US government employee stationed at the consulate there was knocked unconscious by something akin to a strong energy beam,” the report said.

The New Yorker reported in July 2021 that about two dozen US intelligence officers, diplomats and other government officials in Austria had reported problems similar to Havana syndrome since Joe Biden took office the same year.

The US deployed medical and scientific experts to study the alleged attacks and those affected have been extensively examined to try to understand their afflictions.

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