The Guardian 2024-04-05 16:09:08


Bruce Lehrmann discussed $200,000 payment for controversial Spotlight interview, defamation trial told

Justice Michael Lee adjourned the court after former Seven Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach spent two days on the stand

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Bruce Lehrmann discussed payment of about $200,000 for his participation in an exclusive interview with Seven’s Spotlight program and was reimbursed by the network for money spent on cocaine and sex workers, which were euphemistically invoiced as “pre-production expenses”, a court has heard.

Former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach also told the federal court how he built a rapport with Lehrmann over several months in order to secure an exclusive interview, claiming that Lehrmann “appreciated the fact that I wasn’t sitting with the rest of the feminazis in the press pack”.

The dramatic evidence from Auerbach, some of which Justice Michael Lee described as “sordid”, came after the reopening of the defamation trial brought by Lehrmann against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Brittany Higgins broadcast on The Project in 2021.

Channel Seven has denied all allegations.

The case had closed and a ruling was due to be handed down on Thursday, before Auerbach’s 11th-hour allegations prompted it to be reopened.

Auerbach was asked about an invoice, produced to the court on Friday by the Seven Network, from 14 January 2023 from Lehrmann for a hire car and a George Street bar. Another item was a $750 charge for “pre-production expenses”.

Auerbach alleged that line item referred to “Mr Lehrmann’s expenditure on cocaine and prostitutes”.

“He indicated to me he needed to replenish his bank account after the bender,” Auerbach claimed.

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Matthew Richardson SC, for Lehrmann, argued in closing submissions that it was implausible “that the two nights of prostitutes and illicit drugs were covered by a $750 entry for pre-production expenses”.

“That was two nights with him and Mr Auerbach with the drugs and the prostitutes – even the least worldly person in this room, which regrettably is probably me, Your Honour, [would know] that that is a stretch.”

Although Lee clarified that this was the only expense that Seven had been able to find and submit to the court.

This expense was separate to the $10,000 charge to the Seven credit card made by Auerbach in November 2022 for a Thai massage parlour.

“Mr Auerbach did spend in excess of $10,000 on Mr Lehrmann on Seven’s corporate credit card to pay for prostitutes and drugs. And Mr Lehrmann benefited from those purchases,” Matt Collins KC , for Ten, said in his closing statement.

Collins said Auerbach was to be believed when he said the credit card charge was for Lehrmann’s benefit and was all part of an attempt to get him to sign on the dotted line for an interview.

“And somehow, in the perverse universe in which this program was apparently operating, Mr Auerbach was not terminated for spending more than $10,000 on the company credit card on illicit activities in connection with getting the story of the year,” Collins said.

Lee, who appeared frustrated at several points by the relevance of the fresh evidence, quizzed Collins about why Seven allegedly paying for sex workers and drugs was relevant to his findings in the defamation case.

“I’m just concerned how far we’re going down into what is increasingly looking like a rabbit hole,” he said.

Lee said that Auerbach’s aim in giving evidence to the court was “to do as much damage to his former employer as possible”, commenting that it was “rare to see as much animus” as was displayed in the video of Auerbach destroying his former colleague Steve Jackson’s golf clubs, which was played to the court on Thursday.

Lee said that just because Auerbach was motivated by animus did not mean he wasn’t telling the truth, but cautioned counsel: “Don’t put him up as some noble, public-interested individual.”

Auerbach also alleged on Friday that he had discussions with Lehrmann’s media adviser John Macgowan about how much the former Liberal staffer might expect to be paid for an interview.

Macgowan knew someone who had been paid $150,000 for an interview with Seven and raised this figure with Auerbach, the court heard. The text messages released by the court revealed the person to be Vikki Campion, who is now married to Barnaby Joyce.

“So he said, ‘I know what she got, so we’ll start from there’, and we sort of talked about vaguely $200,000,” Auerbach said.

The former Spotlight producer claimed the two men discussed how they might pay Lehrmann indirectly through a trust, rather than giving Lehrmann the funds directly.

While it was not illegal, Seven has always insisted Lehrmann was not paid and it only helped with accommodation during filming, and Lehrmann only declared the $104,000 in rental accommodation he was paid.

Ten alleges that Lehrmann and Seven have not been honest about the financial benefits received by the interviewee.

Key to the evidence put forward by Auerbach was his claim that Lehrmann shared confidential documents with Seven ahead of his Spotlight interview, including airdropping documents to Auerbach’s phone during a golf trip to Tasmania, paid for by Seven.

In Ten’s submission they allege that Lehrmann breached his Harman undertaking by airdropping documents and providing messages from the criminal trial.

The alleged supply of any documents to Seven is relevant to the defamation case because Seven, Lehrmann and Lehrmann’s counsel have all denied such material passed between them.

If proven, the evidence could go both to Lehrmann’s credibility and raise questions as to whether he abused the court process, which may affect what damages he is awarded should his claim be successful.

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‘Sordid’ evidence, a ‘perverse universe’: five key takeaways from the final day of the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

Former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach concludes evidence on Friday after the trial was dramatically reopened this week

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The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case has concluded after dramatic testimony from the former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach.

Here are the key takeaways from the final day of evidence.

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Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson reopened on Thursday, with former Channel Seven producer Taylor Auerbach giving new evidence.

Guardian Australia media correspondent Amanda Meade tells Gabrielle Jackson what the fresh evidence could mean for one of Australia’s highest-profile defamation cases.



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With all the excitement of the Auerbach hearing, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on

Richard Ackland

The implied Harman undertaking is on everybody’s lips. What does it mean for Lehrmann’s defamation action against Lisa Wilkinson and Channel Ten?

Citizens around the nation have been spellbound as they watch claims in court about how the sausage of tabloid television is manufactured. So far we’ve found lots of unhealthy fat and sawdust in the ingredients.

According to the evidence from the man of the hour – the former Seven Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach – if Bruce Lehrmann needs golf, big steaks, massages, hookers, mind-altering powders and free accommodation, then that’s what Bruce gets so that Seven can have a show. The allegations about paying for drugs, sex workers and massages have been firmly rejected by Seven.

With all the excitement, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on. The Lehrmann defamation trial was reopened at the 11th hour in order for the people he is suing (Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson, the star of The Project) to bring new evidence about what they allege amounts to an abuse of process – an “outrageous contempt of court” and alleged intimidation of Brittany Higgins as a witness, and if true, for the court to consider what it says about Lehrmann’s credibility.

Auerbach contends it was Lehrmann who provided material to the Spotlight producers that had been assembled by the police in Canberra as part of the preparation for his criminal trial on a charge of rape – all of which dissipated after a juror conducted extramural research. Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence and denies any sexual activity took place between the pair at all.

The material allegedly included audio recordings and rough cuts of footage from Higgins’ interview with The Project; extracts from a book she was in the process of writing; and thousands of pages of intimate and personal text messages with her former boyfriend. Some of this material also mysteriously turned up in the Murdoch press although the source of this remains unknown.

Lehrmann has denied providing Seven with any such material. Taylor Auerbach alleges in his evidence to the court that Lerhmann’s claims that all he provided to Seven was “an interview” is a lie.

To say Lehrmann leaked things that were out of bounds is such a terrible accusation that when it was first raised by Ten’s lawyers last year, Lehrmann’s people flagged that they would seek aggravated damages from the judge.

For lawyers, the rule is that documents produced under subpoena or otherwise compelled by court orders cannot be used for collateral, ulterior or unrelated purposes. This is referred to as the implied Harman undertaking, which in recent days has been on many lips.

For journalists, the requirements are different. The Spotlight people say that the previously unknown material associated with Brittany Higgins came from a confidential source whose identity is – nobly and in the best tradition – being protected by Channel Seven’s finest.

After all, journalists rely on sources who provide access to documents, images, audio, and other clandestine material that was not destined for public exposure. This is how, frequently, the public is informed of important news that otherwise might be kept under wraps.

But the courts want to protect their patch and the Harman undertaking is partly designed to encourage parties to produce all material relevant to a criminal or civil process.

Certainly, judges want to discourage material compelled to be produced for trials – even if it is not used – turning up as entertainment in the media. Network Ten contends that only a tiny proportion of the compellable material was used in Lehrmann’s rape trial, so the rest should be entirely off limits.

Most of the celebrated cases dealing with the “implied undertaking” concern the flow of protected information finding its way into the media.

Harriet Harman KC, for whom the undertaking is named, has been a Labour member of the House of Commons since 1982 – the year before the House of Lords dismissed her appeal against a finding of contempt of court.

At the time she was pinged she was a lawyer working for the National Council of Civil Liberties and acting for a client called Mr Williams, who had been banged up in one of her majesty’s prisons, where he spent six months in a harsh “control unit”, allegedly because he was disruptive.

He sued the Home Office for false imprisonment and prior to the hearing he was granted discovery of a massive pile of Home Office documents. Harman, as his lawyer, agreed that they “should not be used for any other purpose than the case in hand”. However, in a nice twist, at the trial 800 pages of the government’s documents were read in open court, with the judge declaring most of it inadmissible.

Subsequently, Harriet allowed David Leigh from the Guardian to inspect the files with a view to writing a story about the prison’s control unit. She thought that was all above board because the material had been read aloud in open court.

The cruel machinery of the Home Office proved otherwise and prosecuted her for contempt. The finding of guilty stretched all the way to the House of Lords, which showed no mercy.

Here was a woman not prepared to take lying down what a group of men sitting on a woolsack thought. She went to the European Commission of Human Rights, complaining that the decisions of the English courts interfered with her freedom of expression and freedom to provide information. Further, she said she had been found guilty of an offence that did not exist at the relevant time.

The hardheads at the Home Office started to back off and proposed a compromise – a new law that would provide there would be no contempt of court for documents disclosed that were read in open court and then provided to someone else. The government paid Harriet’s costs of £36,320.

In Australia, the high court cranked up the language, insisting that the “implied undertaking” is a substantial legal obligation. This was the Luna Park case, known as Hearne v Street, where neighbours complained of noise from music, loudspeaker announcements and “the screams and shrieks of patrons using the rides offered”.

The Luna Park people had given affidavits from some of the complaining residents to the Daily Telegraph, described in the judgment as “a mass circulation newspaper” – as though no one had ever heard of it. The material was duly sent up in an article about disrupted violin lessons and trapped Chinese herbal medicine fumes.

The high court was unhappy about this and upheld orders for contempt.

In another case, a solicitor called Mr Smith allowed Nine’s A Current Affair to film him viewing CCTV footage that had been supplied by the Carnival cruise company as part of a case brought by a gentleman who had been wrongly accused of exposing himself to young girls on the Carnival Spirit.

Smith said that Harman slipped his mind. Nonetheless, he was slapped with a fine and costs and, even more despairingly, A Current Affair ended up not running the footage.

Judge Judith Gibson, in a NSW district court case, suggested that it might be inappropriate for a litigant to sue in defamation where a Harman breach has occurred.

One friendly observer suggested that Auerbach and Lehrmann bring to mind the Highwayman’s case, from the first half of the 18th century. Two robbers disagreed over how to split the loot and asked a court to resolve the dispute. The order from the judge was that they both be hanged.

  • Richard Ackland writes at 500Words.com.au

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Top Israeli spy chief exposes his true identity in online security lapse

Exclusive: Yossi Sariel unmasked as head of Unit 8200 and architect of AI strategy after book written under pen name reveals his Google account

The identity of the commander of Israel’s Unit 8200 is a closely guarded secret. He occupies one of the most sensitive roles in the military, leading one of the world’s most powerful surveillance agencies, comparable to the US National Security Agency.

Yet after spending more than two decades operating in the shadows, the Guardian can reveal how the controversial spy chief – whose name is Yossi Sariel – has left his identity exposed online.

The embarrassing security lapse is linked to a book he published on Amazon, which left a digital trail to a private Google account created in his name, along with his unique ID and links to the account’s maps and calendar profiles.

The Guardian has confirmed with multiple sources that Sariel is the secret author of The Human Machine Team, a book in which he offers a radical vision for how artificial intelligence can transform the relationship between military personnel and machines.

Published in 2021 using a pen name composed of his initials, Brigadier General YS, it provides a blueprint for the advanced AI-powered systems that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been pioneering during the six-month war in Gaza.

An electronic version of the book included an anonymous email address that can easily be traced to Sariel’s name and Google account. Contacted by the Guardian, an IDF spokesperson said the email address was not Sariel’s personal one, but “dedicated specifically for issues to do with the book itself”.

The security blunder is likely to place further pressure on Sariel, who is said to “live and breathe” intelligence but whose tenure running the IDF’s elite cyber intelligence division has become mired in controversy.

Unit 8200, once revered within Israel and beyond for intelligence capabilities that rivalled those of the UK’s GCHQ, is thought to have built a vast surveillance apparatus to closely monitor the Palestinian territories.

However, it has been criticised over its failure to foresee and prevent Hamas’s deadly 7 October assault last year on southern Israel, in which Palestinian militants killed nearly 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped about 240 people.

Since the Hamas-led attacks, there have been accusations that Unit 8200’s “technological hubris” came at the expense of more conventional intelligence-gathering techniques.

In its war in Gaza, the IDF appears to have fully embraced Sariel’s vision of the future, in which military technology represents a new frontier where AI is being used to fulfil increasingly complex tasks on the battlefield.

Sariel argued in the published book three years ago that his ideas about using machine learning to transform modern warfare should become mainstream. “We just need to take them from the periphery and deliver them to the centre of the stage,” he wrote.

One section of the book heralds the concept of an AI-powered “targets machine”, descriptions of which closely resemble the target recommendation systems the IDF is now known have been relying upon in its bombardment of Gaza.

Over the last six months, the IDF has deployed multiple AI-powered decision support systems that have been rapidly developed and refined by Unit 8200 under Sariel’s leadership.

They include the Gospel and Lavender, two target recommendation systems that have been revealed in reports by the Israeli-Palestinian publication +972 magazine, its Hebrew-language outlet Local Call and the Guardian.

The IDF says its AI systems are intended to assist human intelligence officers, who are required to verify that military suspects are legitimate targets under international law. A spokesperson said the military used “various types of tools and methods”, adding: “Evidently, there are tools that exist in order to benefit intelligence researchers that are based on artificial intelligence.”

Targets machine

On Wednesday, +972 and Local Call placed the spotlight on the link between Unit 8200 and the book authored by a mysteriously named Brigadier General YS.

Sariel is understood to have written the book with the IDF’s permission after a year as a visiting researcher at the US National Defense University in Washington DC, where he made the case for using AI to transform modern warfare.

Aimed at high-ranking military commanders and security officials, the book articulates a “human-machine teaming” concept that seeks to achieve synergy between humans and AI, rather than constructing fully autonomous systems.

It reflects Sariel’s ambition to become a “thought leader”, according to one former intelligence official. In the 2000s, he was a leading member of a group of academically minded spies known as “the Choir”, which agitated for an overhaul of Israeli intelligence practices.

An Israeli press report suggests that by 2017 he was head of intelligence for the IDF’s central command. His subsequent elevation to commander of Unit 8200 amounted to an endorsement by the military establishment of his technological vision for the future.

Sariel refers in the book to “a revolution” in recent years within the IDF, which has “developed a new concept of intelligence centric warfare to connect intelligence to the fighters in the field”. He advocates going further still, fully merging intelligence and warfare, in particular when conducting lethal targeting operations.

In one chapter of the book, he provides a template for how to construct an effective targets machine drawing on “big data” that a human brain could not process. “The machine needs enough data regarding the battlefield, the population, visual information, cellular data, social media connections, pictures, cellphone contacts,” he writes. “The more data and the more varied it is, the better.”

Such a targets machine, he said, would draw on complex models that make predictions built “on lots of small, diverse features”, listing examples such as “people who are with a Hezbollah member in a WhatsApp group, people who get new cellphones every few months, those who change their addresses frequently”.

He argues that using AI to create potential military targets can be more efficient and avoid “bottlenecks” created by intelligence officials or soldiers. “There is a human bottleneck for both locating the new targets and decision-making to approve the targets. There is also the bottleneck of how to process a great amount of data. Then there is the bottleneck of connecting the intelligence to the fire.” He adds: “A team consisting of machines and investigators can blast the bottleneck wide open.”

Intelligence divide

Disclosure of Sariel’s security lapse comes at a difficult time for the intelligence boss. In February, he came under public scrutiny in Israel when the Israeli newspaper Maariv published an account of recriminations within Unit 8200 after the 7 October attacks.

Sariel was not named in the article, which referred to Unit 8200’s commander only as “Y”. However, the rare public criticism brought into focus a divide within Israel’s intelligence community over its biggest failure in a generation.

Sariel’s critics, the report said, believe Unit 8200’s prioritisation of “addictive and exciting” technology over more old-fashioned intelligence methods had led to the disaster. One veteran official told the newspaper the unit under Sariel had “followed the new intelligence bubble”.

For his part, Sariel is quoted as telling colleagues that 7 October will “haunt him” until his last day. “I accept responsibility for what happened in the most profound sense of the word,” he said. “We were defeated. I was defeated.”

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Israeli inquiry findings on aid worker killings lack credibility, charity says

WCK renews call for independent investigation as former general blames incident on ‘grave errors’

World Central Kitchen has rejected as lacking credibility the findings of an Israeli investigation led by a former general into a coordinated series of Israeli drone strikes on the charity’s vehicles in Gaza this week that killed seven aid workers.

As the Israel Defense Forces blamed a series of “grave errors” by officers for the deadly attack that killed three Britons, three other foreign nationals and a Palestinian colleague while delivering food, WCK renewed its calls for a full and independent investigation.

The hurriedly completed Israeli inquiry, which led to two middle-ranking officers being dismissed and a general reprimanded, outlined a catalogue of failings by Israeli forces in an incident that has reinforced global criticism of Israel’s conduct of a war in which 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in six months.

WCK’s founder, José Andrés, said: “The IDF cannot credibly investigate its own failure in Gaza. It’s not enough to simply try to avoid further humanitarian deaths, which have now approached close to 200. All civilians need to be protected, and all innocent people in Gaza need to be fed and safe. And all hostages must be released.”

The charity’s chief executive, Erin Gore, said: “Their apologies for the outrageous killing of our colleagues represent cold comfort. It’s cold comfort for the victims’ families and WCK’s global family. Israel needs to take concrete steps to assure the safety of humanitarian aid workers. Our operations remain suspended.”

WCK’s remarks were echoed by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who said fixing failings in Israel’s military procedures required “independent investigations” and meaningful and measurable changes on the ground.

Noting that 196 humanitarian workers had been killed during Israel’s campaign, Guterres said: “We want to know why.”

The announcement of punishments and the apology have not calmed the international outcry over the WCK workers’ deaths or reassured international aid groups that it is safe to resume operations in Gaza, where nearly a third of the population is on the brink of starvation.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the US was reviewing the findingsand would be looking very carefully at what concrete measures Israel was taking to reduce civilian harm.

“It’s very important that Israel is taking full responsibility for this incident. It’s also important that it appears to be taking steps to hold those responsible accountable,” he said in Brussels. “Even more important is that steps are being taken going forward to ensure that something like this can never happen again.”

The Israeli military commission of inquiry blamed a series of “grave errors” by military personnel, including lack of coordination and misidentification. The IDF said it had dismissed a brigade chief of staff with the rank of colonel and a brigade fire support officer with the rank of major, and issued formal reprimands to senior officers including the general at the head of the southern command.

The rapidly completed investigation failed to resolve key questions including why soldiers from the Nahal brigade responsible were unaware that humanitarian vehicles were operating in the area with IDF permission, and why commanders launched an attack that the IDF said was in flagrant breach of its operational rules.

The findings are likely to renew scepticism over the military’s decision-making. Palestinians, aid groups and human rights organisations have repeatedly accused Israeli forces of firing recklessly at civilians throughout the conflict – a charge Israel denies.

Among those questioning whether the report was sufficiently thorough was Charlie Herbert, a retired British general who has been a trenchant critic of Israel’s operations during the current conflict.

“Two quite junior officers dismissed,” Herbert tweeted . “Presumably for very bad judgment, with tragic consequences. But the real issue here is an institutional one with IDF rules of engagement and disregard for ‘collateral damage’. This is the reason for huge civilian casualties since October.”

Scott Paul, of Oxfam, said in a briefing with other relief organisations on Thursday before the results of Israel’s investigation were released: “Let’s be very clear. This is tragic but it is not an anomaly. The killing of aid workers in Gaza has been systemic.”

The Israeli military said the investigation found that the officers mishandled critical information and violated the army’s rules of engagement.

“The strike on the aid vehicles is a grave mistake stemming from a serious failure due to a mistaken identification, errors in decision-making, and an attack contrary to the standard operating procedures,” it said.

The investigation determined that a colonel had authorised the series of drone strikes on the convoy based on one major’s observation – from grainy drone-camera footage – that someone in the convoy was armed. The observation turned out to be untrue.

It criticised officers for failing to read messages alerting troops that cars, not aid trucks, would carry workers from the charity away from the warehouse where aid was distributed. As a result, the targeted cars were misidentified as transporting militants.

The army also faulted a major who identified the strike target and a colonel who approved the strike for acting with insufficient information.

The army said it initially hit one car. As people scrambled away into a second car, it hit that vehicle as well. A third strike was launched as survivors scrambled into a third car.

The IDF was unable to say exactly where communication had broken down about the convoy’s plans and declined to answer questions about whether similar violations of rules of engagement had taken place during the war.

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Gaza killings: Australia plans to appoint independent adviser to scrutinise Israeli inquiry

Penny Wong demands Israel preserve evidence because of unsatisfactory initial inquiry as Israel dismisses two officers over death of seven aid staff

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Australia has demanded that Israel preserve all evidence surrounding the killing of seven aid workers in Gaza and it also plans to appoint an independent adviser to scrutinise the official investigation.

The Australian government said on Friday that the information provided by Israel on its investigation into the killing of Australian citizen Zomi Frankcom and her World Central Kitchen colleagues “hasn’t yet satisfied our expectations”.

The comments come after Australia received a briefing on the initial findings of Israel’s investigation on Friday morning. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said later on Friday that it had dismissed two officers and reprimanded three others for their roles in drone strikes in Gaza that killed seven aid workers on a food-delivery mission, saying they had mishandled critical information and violated the army’s rules of engagement.

The findings of a retired general’s investigation into the Monday killings marked an embarrassing admission by Israel, which faces growing accusations from key allies, including the US, of not doing enough to protect Gaza’s civilians from its war with Hamas, AP reports.

The findings are likely to renew scepticism over the Israeli military’s decision-making. Palestinians, aid groups and human rights organisations have repeatedly accused Israeli forces of firing recklessly at civilians throughout the conflict — a charge Israel denies.

The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, said official responses to the incident “suggest the gravity of the death of seven humanitarian workers is yet to be appreciated by the Israeli government”.

“Australia is concerned by initial advice from the [Israeli] ministry for foreign affairs that those responsible for commissioning and implementing the operation that killed Ms Frankcom and her colleagues have not been stood down while the investigation is undertaken,” Wong said in a statement on Friday, prior to the IDF announcement.

Wong and the defence minister, Richard Marles, were expected to write to their Israeli counterparts to outline Australia’s demands for the remainder of the investigation and its push for accountability of those found to be responsible.

These demands include that all evidence is preserved. This comes after the charity WCK said it had “asked the Israeli government to immediately preserve all documents, communications, video and/or audio recordings, and any other materials potentially relevant to the 1 April strikes”.

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Three WCK vehicles were struck by Israeli drones on Monday when they travelled along a route south of Deir al-Balah pre-approved and coordinated with the IDF.

Wong and Marles were also expected to tell their counterparts that any findings that IDF targeting policies and practices contributed to the fatal incident should trigger urgent adjustments and announced openly.

The Australian government also plans to appoint a “special adviser” to help scrutinise the Israeli investigation.

This person, who has yet to be named, would likely be an Australian figure with expertise in military matters and international humanitarian law.

The adviser’s role would be to ensure the investigation has been conducted in a manner consistent with the Australian government’s expectations.

Marles said the deaths “were utterly inexcusable and clear practical action is needed to ensure such a tragedy is never repeated”.

The IDF has described the strikes as “a grave mistake” that “followed a misidentification”.

It said on Friday that the findings of its investigation had been presented to the ambassadors of countries whose citizens were killed.

WCK said on Thursday it had asked the governments of Australia, Canada, the US, Poland and the UK “to join us in demanding an independent, third-party investigation into these attacks”.

The charity said such an investigation should examine whether the attacks were carried out intentionally or otherwise violated international law.

The deputy leader of the Australian Greens, Mehreen Faruqi, called for “an independent war crimes investigation into the deaths of Zomi and other aid workers, by an agency like the international criminal court”.

Israel is facing mounting international pressure over the incident, with Joe Biden telling Benjamin Netanyahu that future US support for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza would depend on it taking concrete action to protect civilians and aid workers.

The US president also called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza “to stabilise and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians”, the White House said.

Soon after the call, Netanyahu’s office announced that Israel would open the Erez crossing in northern Gaza, arguing that increased aid was “necessary to ensure the continuation of the fighting and to achieve the goals of the war”.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jamie McGoldrick, said the WCK deaths were “not an isolated incident” as “at least 196 humanitarians had been killed in the OPT since October 2023”.

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Guardian Australia’s chief political correspondent Karen Middleton speaks to foreign minister Penny Wong after Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom was killed – alongside six of her colleagues – in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike on Monday. Wong speaks about Israel prime minister Benjamin Neyanyahu’s response to the attack and how the Australian government is calling for greater accountability



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Penny Wong says Netanyahu trying to ‘brush aside’ death of Zomi Frankcom ‘deeply insensitive’

Foreign minister’s condemnation of Israeli PM comes as IDF says it has completed its investigation into drone strike that killed seven aid workers

  • Zomi Frankcom’s family say Australian aid worker killed in Israeli airstrike was ‘doing the work she loves’
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The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, has rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu for trying to “brush aside” the deaths of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and six of her colleagues in an Israeli missile attack in Gaza, labelling his remark that these things happen in war as “deeply insensitive”.

Wong’s direct personal condemnation of Netanyahu comes as the Israeli military reveals it has completed its investigation into the incident and briefed ambassadors from the countries whose citizens died in the attack.

“I find that statement … frankly, for the family in particular, a pretty insensitive – deeply insensitive – thing to say,” Wong said of the Israeli prime minister’s initial response.

“And what I’d say as the Australian foreign minister is we do not accept that explanation. We do not accept any suggestion that this is just something that can be brushed aside as just something that happens in war.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, also stepped up his criticism on Thursday, calling Netanyahu’s initial explanation “not good enough”.

Israel is facing mounting international pressure over the incident, with Joe Biden telling Netanyahu in a phone call that future US support for the war in Gaza will depend on it taking concrete action to protect civilians and aid workers.

Three vehicles, marked as belonging to the charity World Central Kitchen, were struck by Israeli drones on Monday when they travelled along a route south of Deir al-Balah pre-approved and coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces.

In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast to be released on Saturday, Wong suggested the remarks amounted to an attempt to justify an action that was outside the rules of war. The podcast was recorded on Thursday.

“Even in war, there are rules and they include the principles of distinction between a military target and a civilian target,” Wong said.

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She also condemned the suggestion from an Israeli government spokesperson that darkness and confusion were also reasons for what Israel has called “a grave mistake”.

“We do not accept that these events – this attack on an aid convoy – can be dismissed or lessened or diminished in any way at all,” Wong said.

The foreign minister said both Israeli commanders and individual military personnel in the field had obligations under international and humanitarian law.

Wong emphasised that this was not the first Israeli attack on aid convoys, citing UN figures that 196 aid workers had been killed prior to the WCK incident.

Wong did not specifically endorse the Frankcom family’s calls for a war crimes investigation, but also did not rule it out. She would not be drawn on possible future sanctions against Israel, but said consequences would be considered once the full facts were known.

“I think ‘accountability’ means we find out what happened and that whatever steps are necessary as a consequence are taken,” Wong said.

The IDF said the findings of its investigation had been presented to the ambassadors of countries whose citizens were killed, and would be released to the public within 24 hours.

Guardian Australia understands Australia has been briefed on Israel’s investigation into the killing of WCK workers, but is still awaiting “a full and transparent report”.

The Australian government plans to engage with other affected countries to ensure they could all have confidence in the process and its outcomes.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesperson, told ABC Radio National on Friday that the IDF liaison officer who had worked closely with WCK was “devastated from this because he was part of that coordination process”.

Pressed to justify the claim that the investigation was independent, Lerner said this was because it was carried out by “former military professionals” who were “independent of the chain of command”.

“They are not under the control of the IDF … they are not dependent on promotion or anything like that, they are completely independent of the system,” Lerner said.

Asked whether individual members of the IDF would be named and have action taken against them if they were found to be responsible for the attack, Lerner said: “I don’t know the outcome but if that is the situation I would expect nothing less.”

Lerner echoed Netanyahu’s initial remarks. “The nature of warfare is that it is always full of tragedies,” Lerner said. “Since the dawn of war, civilians have been caught up in warfare. We have to be better than that, we have to do better.”

Lerner pushed back at a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this week that there was poor discipline among IDF field commanders.

The newspaper quoted an Israeli intelligence source as saying that in Gaza “everyone does as he pleases” and interprets the rules of engagement individually.

Lerner said “generally” that “we would expect that the rules are upheld to the highest standards”.

“If there is a breach of them, then they need to be dealt with by disciplinary and command level capabilities and perhaps even criminal [charges] if there’s been a very dire mistake,” Lerner said.

“As a very broad observation I don’t accept Haaretz’s report, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be mistakes or individual initiatives.”

  • Hear the full interview with Penny Wong on Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast on Saturday

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Will the killings of Gaza aid workers be a turning point in Australia’s policy towards Israel?

Karen Middleton

The anger of Labor ministers over Netanyahu’s ‘it happens’ response suggests an inflection point is close over support for his government

Two gut punches have changed the tone of Australia’s public engagement with Israel.

The first came on Tuesday morning when a terrible image featuring a bloodied Australian passport appeared on social media and made its way rapidly into the offices of prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong.

The second landed on Tuesday night as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to explain away the triple Israeli missile strike that had killed Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and six of her colleagues in Gaza, saying: “This happens in wartime.”

Albanese described that response as “not good enough”. How he worded it in Wednesday morning’s lengthy phone call with Netanyahu has not been disclosed.

By Friday, education minister Jason Clare was wilfully misquoting Netanyahu on breakfast television to reflect how his comments had been received: “It’s not good enough just to say ‘shit happens’.”

Senior Australian ministers were – and are – appalled at Netanyahu’s language, tone and judgment in thinking that was an adequate response, even preliminarily, to his own defence force targeting the citizens of nations which have defended Israel in launching a brutal war in Gaza to avenge last year’s 7 October Hamas terrorist attack.

Their view only hardened as an Israeli spokesperson rolled out a series of purported explanations and mitigations, including that it was dark, there was confusion, “war is hell, war is foggy” and the strikes were “a grave mistake”.

They were certainly a grave miscalculation.

Frankcom and six other international aid workers died when an Israeli drone fired three missiles at their convoy, one for each vehicle. The strikes were not in rapid succession but separated by time and distance as the Israeli Defence Force picked off the moving vehicles bearing aid agency World Central Kitchen’s logo, one by one.

Netanyahu called it “a tragic case” of “unintentionally hitting innocent people” and that Israel would “do everything so that this thing does not happen again”.

But that is little assurance because “this thing” has happened before. Wong came to Guardian Australia’s podcast interview on Thursday armed with facts about the incident being “not an isolated one”. She noted that 196 aid workers had already been killed in Gaza, that those workers were protected under international law, and that Israel had “an obligation” to ensure they were safe.

As a result of the strikes which killed one Palestinian, one Pole, three Britons, and a Canadian-American dual national, along with Zomi Frankcom, some things that used to be said only privately to Israel about how it’s waging this war are now being said in public.

The deaths may not have increased these countries’ already-extreme concern about the humanitarian toll in Gaza, but Israel’s undeniable failure to uphold its legal obligations has given them leverage to be much more direct about it.

US president Joe Biden told Netanyahu that future US support was contingent on Israel taking “specific, concrete and measurable steps” to address not only the safety of aid workers but the harm to civilians in Gaza and the humanitarian suffering the conflict is inflicting overall. He said there must be an “immediate ceasefire”.

Wong has also dispensed with the usual nuance, telling Guardian Australia that the airstrikes were not “something that can be brushed aside” and calling Netanyahu’s comments “deeply insensitive”. On Friday night, she issued a further short, blunt statement.

“The information Israel has provided on its investigation hasn’t yet satisfied our expectations,” she said, affirming that the Australian government was “alarmed” by Netanyahu’s initial remarks and Israel’s responses since.

“These responses suggest the gravity of the death of seven humanitarian workers is yet to be appreciated by the Israeli government.”

In other words, they don’t get it.

There are some disturbing contradictions in Israel’s responses to date.

While calling the missile strikes a mistake, it is also saying that sometimes there are terrorists in the convoys. That implies that sometimes, regardless of what aid organisations say about who is travelling and why, and regardless of the guarantees Israel gives of safe passage in return, someone, somewhere inside the Israeli system decides to strike anyway.

If the details of these agreements struck between aid organisations and the IDF’s liaison officers – which are life-and-death for those who will be travelling – are not communicated and upheld, they are worthless.

On Friday, ABC Radio National’s Sally Sara asked IDF spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner whether launching three separate strikes on clearly marked aid vehicles conformed with the IDF’s rules of engagement.

At first, Lerner said “hypothesising” would be irresponsible. But then he added: “Each target has a specific identification, a specific individual, a specific component of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad infrastructure that can be taken out. So they are lawful targets whether they are three vehicles, one vehicle or walking in the street.”

That sounds like very careful consideration and planning. It doesn’t sound like an approach that leaves much room for mistakes. And yet mistakes keep being made.

So, either Israel cannot control its own forces, or it disbelieves and disregards the information aid organisations are giving about who is travelling in these convoys and what they are doing.

Either way, as Wong says, failing to protect aid workers breaches international law. Senior figures in the Australian government believe this could be an inflection point in the conflict, depending on what Israel does next. And if its investigation and response are inadequate, what the Albanese government does about that could make it an inflection point domestically too.

Hamas is still holding 134 hostages captive. While it refuses to relinquish them and Israel fails to rescue them – but instead mistakenly kills international humanitarian workers it has vowed, and is legally bound, to protect – aid convoys are interrupted because of the risk and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians remain trapped and starving in Gaza as their homes and lives are obliterated.

“Not good enough” seems the very least that can be said about it.

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Will the killings of Gaza aid workers be a turning point in Australia’s policy towards Israel?

Karen Middleton

The anger of Labor ministers over Netanyahu’s ‘it happens’ response suggests an inflection point is close over support for his government

Two gut punches have changed the tone of Australia’s public engagement with Israel.

The first came on Tuesday morning when a terrible image featuring a bloodied Australian passport appeared on social media and made its way rapidly into the offices of prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong.

The second landed on Tuesday night as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to explain away the triple Israeli missile strike that had killed Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and six of her colleagues in Gaza, saying: “This happens in wartime.”

Albanese described that response as “not good enough”. How he worded it in Wednesday morning’s lengthy phone call with Netanyahu has not been disclosed.

By Friday, education minister Jason Clare was wilfully misquoting Netanyahu on breakfast television to reflect how his comments had been received: “It’s not good enough just to say ‘shit happens’.”

Senior Australian ministers were – and are – appalled at Netanyahu’s language, tone and judgment in thinking that was an adequate response, even preliminarily, to his own defence force targeting the citizens of nations which have defended Israel in launching a brutal war in Gaza to avenge last year’s 7 October Hamas terrorist attack.

Their view only hardened as an Israeli spokesperson rolled out a series of purported explanations and mitigations, including that it was dark, there was confusion, “war is hell, war is foggy” and the strikes were “a grave mistake”.

They were certainly a grave miscalculation.

Frankcom and six other international aid workers died when an Israeli drone fired three missiles at their convoy, one for each vehicle. The strikes were not in rapid succession but separated by time and distance as the Israeli Defence Force picked off the moving vehicles bearing aid agency World Central Kitchen’s logo, one by one.

Netanyahu called it “a tragic case” of “unintentionally hitting innocent people” and that Israel would “do everything so that this thing does not happen again”.

But that is little assurance because “this thing” has happened before. Wong came to Guardian Australia’s podcast interview on Thursday armed with facts about the incident being “not an isolated one”. She noted that 196 aid workers had already been killed in Gaza, that those workers were protected under international law, and that Israel had “an obligation” to ensure they were safe.

As a result of the strikes which killed one Palestinian, one Pole, three Britons, and a Canadian-American dual national, along with Zomi Frankcom, some things that used to be said only privately to Israel about how it’s waging this war are now being said in public.

The deaths may not have increased these countries’ already-extreme concern about the humanitarian toll in Gaza, but Israel’s undeniable failure to uphold its legal obligations has given them leverage to be much more direct about it.

US president Joe Biden told Netanyahu that future US support was contingent on Israel taking “specific, concrete and measurable steps” to address not only the safety of aid workers but the harm to civilians in Gaza and the humanitarian suffering the conflict is inflicting overall. He said there must be an “immediate ceasefire”.

Wong has also dispensed with the usual nuance, telling Guardian Australia that the airstrikes were not “something that can be brushed aside” and calling Netanyahu’s comments “deeply insensitive”. On Friday night, she issued a further short, blunt statement.

“The information Israel has provided on its investigation hasn’t yet satisfied our expectations,” she said, affirming that the Australian government was “alarmed” by Netanyahu’s initial remarks and Israel’s responses since.

“These responses suggest the gravity of the death of seven humanitarian workers is yet to be appreciated by the Israeli government.”

In other words, they don’t get it.

There are some disturbing contradictions in Israel’s responses to date.

While calling the missile strikes a mistake, it is also saying that sometimes there are terrorists in the convoys. That implies that sometimes, regardless of what aid organisations say about who is travelling and why, and regardless of the guarantees Israel gives of safe passage in return, someone, somewhere inside the Israeli system decides to strike anyway.

If the details of these agreements struck between aid organisations and the IDF’s liaison officers – which are life-and-death for those who will be travelling – are not communicated and upheld, they are worthless.

On Friday, ABC Radio National’s Sally Sara asked IDF spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner whether launching three separate strikes on clearly marked aid vehicles conformed with the IDF’s rules of engagement.

At first, Lerner said “hypothesising” would be irresponsible. But then he added: “Each target has a specific identification, a specific individual, a specific component of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad infrastructure that can be taken out. So they are lawful targets whether they are three vehicles, one vehicle or walking in the street.”

That sounds like very careful consideration and planning. It doesn’t sound like an approach that leaves much room for mistakes. And yet mistakes keep being made.

So, either Israel cannot control its own forces, or it disbelieves and disregards the information aid organisations are giving about who is travelling in these convoys and what they are doing.

Either way, as Wong says, failing to protect aid workers breaches international law. Senior figures in the Australian government believe this could be an inflection point in the conflict, depending on what Israel does next. And if its investigation and response are inadequate, what the Albanese government does about that could make it an inflection point domestically too.

Hamas is still holding 134 hostages captive. While it refuses to relinquish them and Israel fails to rescue them – but instead mistakenly kills international humanitarian workers it has vowed, and is legally bound, to protect – aid convoys are interrupted because of the risk and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians remain trapped and starving in Gaza as their homes and lives are obliterated.

“Not good enough” seems the very least that can be said about it.

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ACT anti-corruption watchdog examining Walter Sofronoff’s contact with media during Lehrmann trial

Integrity commission cites ‘exceptional circumstances’ to make announcement, which involves ‘no adverse findings of any kind’

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The ACT’s anti-corruption watchdog has said it is “assessing corruption allegations” against Walter Sofronoff over his dealings with the media while he led an inquiry into the Bruce Lehrmann trial.

In a rare public acknowledgment, the ACT Integrity Commission confirmed on Friday it was looking at Sofronoff’s extensive communications with the media during the inquiry, which were revealed in a recent supreme court litigation.

“The commission’s general policy is to neither confirm nor deny the referral or investigation of corruption allegations unless the circumstances are exceptional,” the letter said.

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“Here, the issues are especially important, their subject matter has already been widely publicised and the need for the integrity commission to assess and, if necessary, investigate them is apparent.”

Sofronoff, a former Queensland court of appeal judge, was tasked with leading an ACT inquiry examining whether the investigation and Lehrmann’s trial were subject to political influence.

Sofronoff’s July 2023 report made “several serious findings of misconduct” against the then ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold. Drumgold then took legal action against Sofronoff and the ACT government in the supreme court.

The supreme court case revealed that while leading the inquiry, Sofronoff had 273 interactions with one columnist for The Australian newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen, between January and July 2023.

Those interactions included 51 phone calls, text messages, emails and a private lunch meeting in Brisbane. Call logs submitted to court showed the former judge spent seven and a half hours on the phone with journalists from The Australian over the seven-month period, most of them to Albrechtsen.

The ACT integrity commissioner, Michael Adams KC, said in a statement on Friday he had determined “it is in the public interest to disclose that the commission is assessing whether the issues call for investigation”.

“I see no reputational damage arising from this making this announcement, noting that it involves no adverse findings of any kind,” he said.

Guardian Australia has contacted Sofronoff’s lawyers for a response.

The supreme court acting justice Stephen Kaye found in March that Sofronoff’s interactions with Albrechtsen gave the impression he “might have been influenced by the views held and publicly expressed” by her.

Brendan Lim, who represented Sofronoff in the supreme court, argued Sofronoff discussed practical matters about the inquiry with Albrechtsen, including when documents would become available.

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

Sofronoff’s report found Drumgold, in his case against Lehrmann, “at times … lost objectivity and did not act with fairness and detachment”.

Drumgold’s legal team had attempted to overturn eight of Sofronoff’s “serious findings of misconduct” in the supreme court, but was only successful in striking off one.

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

Sofronoff’s decision to hand his final report to Albrechtsen and another journalist before it was given to the ACT government will also be assessed by the watchdog.

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

The ACT integrity commission gave no timeline for the length of the assessment process and said it would offer no further public comment until it has been completed.

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Analysis

‘Financial abuse’: how a debit scheme to help vulnerable Australians led to exploitation instead

Lorena Allam and Christopher Knaus

A Guardian investigation has revealed that Centrepay is exposing scores of welfare recipients to financial harm. Advocates say the government must act now

  • Government ignored warnings more than 100 companies may be misusing Centrepay scheme, Asic says
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In February the Albanese government announced a $97m compensation scheme for thousands of Aboriginal people who lost all that they had paid to the predatory funeral insurer ACBF-Youpla.

When ACBF-Youpla collapsed in 2022, it left more than 13,000 Aboriginal people, some of them elderly and in palliative care, without the means to pay for funerals.

Governments had been warned for decades that ACBF-Youpla was a source of complaint and concern. The financial regulator, Asic, has now launched court proceedings against five former directors, alleging governance failures and director misconduct.

But for 16 years it was allowed to rake in millions using the government’s own Centrepay system. Centrepay is a voluntary bill-paying service for people receiving welfare payments to make automatic deductions for essentials such as rent and utilities. ACBF-Youpla collected from its policyholders via Centrepay a staggering $169m before it was kicked off the scheme in 2015, paving the way for its eventual financial collapse.

According to Services Australia, the department that administers the scheme, Centrepay is supposed to reduce “financial risk”.

But as Guardian Australia revealed last week, Centrepay is exposing some of the country’s most vulnerable people to financial harm.

It has become a “vehicle for financial abuse”, according to consumer advocates. One Labor senator says it is “rife with exploitation”. And Asic says its concerns about unscrupulous operators are going unheeded by the government.

Energy company AGL received hundreds of thousands of dollars from welfare recipients using Centrepay, long after they had ceased being customers. The company is defending a case before the federal court in which it is being sued by the industry regulator and denies it had authority to control deductions via Centrepay.

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In response to questions from the Guardian, Services Australia was forced to admit it is working with a second energy retailer, Queensland’s Ergon Energy Retail, to return overpayments made via Centrepay. It is unclear how much money was wrongly paid to Ergon or over what period.

A disgraced Christian rehab facility in Perth used Centrepay to take control of the welfare payments of hundreds of patients while subjecting them to exorcisms and gay conversion practices.

And rent-to-buy businesses are charging Aboriginal people exorbitant prices for household appliances but remain on the Centrepay register despite having been penalised. The Guardian has also uncovered several other cases where companies are before the courts for potentially breaching consumer protections.

There are no limits on the number of Centrepay deductions an authorised organisation can receive.

Late last year, Asic identified 122 consumer lease providers still listed on the Centrepay register that it told a Senate hearing “should all be very closely reviewed”.

Asic’s spokesperson at the time, Karen Chester, said the regulator had given Services Australia a “detailed list” of providers about which they held concerns. But Chester seemed frustrated. Asic’s advice didn’t seem to be “having any impact in terms of the entities being removed from the register,” she told a Senate hearing in November.

Five months after providing that list to the government, Asic says its concerns remain.

“A number of consumer lease providers remain on the Centrepay register. While we can’t provide the full list, we can confirm that some of these providers are businesses that have previously been the subject of Asic action,” a spokesperson told Guardian Australia.

“We remain concerned some businesses on the register provide consumer leases which may place customers into financial hardship when Centrepay deductions for consumer goods end up prioritised over essentials such as rent and food.”

Services Australia says it takes exploitation seriously. It told the Senate that 51 household goods businesses will be subject to a compliance review this financial year. It removed 12 businesses last financial year for non-compliance.

It is reviewing the Centrepay system with a focus on safeguards and protections for customers to reduce financial harm, department spokesperson Hank Jongen, said.

“We treat customer exploitation very seriously and 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.

But Indigenous consumer advocates say the complaints process is challenging for those living in remote communities who have low digital inclusion and English as a second or third language.

Centrepay was last reviewed in 2013. Concerns were raised about the proliferation of rent-to-buy companies. The review highlighted unconscionable selling practices, including targeting vulnerable Indigenous consumers, and selling door to door. It said consumers were continuing to pay for goods after the contract term had ended, and that Centrepay could do more to enforce compliance.

At the time, Financial Counselling Australia described it as a “good idea that’s lost its way”.

More than 10 years later, Centrepay has grown. It has more than 620,000 customers and 15,000 businesses. It facilitated 23.7m transactions last year, worth $2.7bn.

The Mob Strong senior solicitor Mark Holden was among the advocates who helped secure compensation for the victims of ACBF-Youpla. Holden says reform needs to “move faster”.

“The priority here is to prevent any further financial exploitation and community harm. Getting on to Centrepay is meant to help vulnerable consumers and has a higher standard of care, requirement and monitoring,” Holden said.

“This is because these consumers are being asked to give up their financial safety net for an essential service when it could mean they miss a meal. We need to see much stronger compliance where there is evidence of misconduct.”

Do you know more? Contact lorena.allam@theguardian.com or christopher.knaus@theguardian.com

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New York City shakes as 4.8 magnitude earthquake hits US north-east

US Geological survey reported the quake centered near Lebanon, New Jersey, and was felt across the eastern seaboard

  • Tell us: did you feel the earthquake in New York City and along the east coast?

An earthquake shook the densely populated New York City metropolitan area on Friday morning, the US Geological Survey said, with residents reporting they felt rumbling across the eastern seaboard.

The agency reported a quake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.8, centered near Lebanon, New Jersey.

People reported feeling the quake in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, with the Weather Channel reporting that it was noticeable in Boston and residents in Philadelphia reporting they felt it, too. Tremors lasting for several seconds were felt more than 200 miles away near the New Hampshire border.

The fire department of New York said on Friday there were no initial reports of damage.

The New York police department’s deputy commissioner of operations, Kaz Daughtry, said in a statement: “While we do not have any reports of major impacts at this time, we’re still assessing the impact.”

The New York governor, Kathy Hochul, posted on social media that the quake was felt throughout the state. “My team is assessing impacts and any damage that may have occurred, and we will update the public throughout the day,” Hochul said.

Later, in a press conference, Hochul noted the quake was felt as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. “This is one of the largest earthquakes on the east coast to occur in the last century,” she said.

“Everyone should continue to take this seriously” in case of aftershocks, she added.

The shaking stirred memories of the 23 August 2011, earthquake that jolted tens of millions of people from Georgia to Canada. Registering magnitude 5.8, it was the strongest quake to hit the east coast since the second world war. The epicenter was in Virginia.

That earthquake left cracks in the Washington Monument, spurred the evacuation of the White House and Capitol and rattled New Yorkers three weeks before the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks.

Meanwhile on Friday, the official social media account of the Empire State Building reassured its fans:

More details soon …

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New York City shakes as 4.8 magnitude earthquake hits US north-east

US Geological survey reported the quake centered near Lebanon, New Jersey, and was felt across the eastern seaboard

  • Tell us: did you feel the earthquake in New York City and along the east coast?

An earthquake shook the densely populated New York City metropolitan area on Friday morning, the US Geological Survey said, with residents reporting they felt rumbling across the eastern seaboard.

The agency reported a quake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.8, centered near Lebanon, New Jersey.

People reported feeling the quake in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, with the Weather Channel reporting that it was noticeable in Boston and residents in Philadelphia reporting they felt it, too. Tremors lasting for several seconds were felt more than 200 miles away near the New Hampshire border.

The fire department of New York said on Friday there were no initial reports of damage.

The New York police department’s deputy commissioner of operations, Kaz Daughtry, said in a statement: “While we do not have any reports of major impacts at this time, we’re still assessing the impact.”

The New York governor, Kathy Hochul, posted on social media that the quake was felt throughout the state. “My team is assessing impacts and any damage that may have occurred, and we will update the public throughout the day,” Hochul said.

Later, in a press conference, Hochul noted the quake was felt as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. “This is one of the largest earthquakes on the east coast to occur in the last century,” she said.

“Everyone should continue to take this seriously” in case of aftershocks, she added.

The shaking stirred memories of the 23 August 2011, earthquake that jolted tens of millions of people from Georgia to Canada. Registering magnitude 5.8, it was the strongest quake to hit the east coast since the second world war. The epicenter was in Virginia.

That earthquake left cracks in the Washington Monument, spurred the evacuation of the White House and Capitol and rattled New Yorkers three weeks before the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks.

Meanwhile on Friday, the official social media account of the Empire State Building reassured its fans:

More details soon …

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Online ads promote ‘simple’ access to super to pay for healthcare, despite strict rules

Peak consumer body and financial services minister warn against private providers encouraging patients to tap into super to fund medical procedures

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Advertisements offering patients “simple” access to their superannuation to pay for medical treatments have been described by the peak consumer health body as a “worrying trend” amid the cost-of-living crisis.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) approved 37,400 individuals to access their superannuation early on compassionate medical grounds in 2022-23, releasing a total of $730m.

That compares with 30,100 individuals and $545m the previous year. Of those approved in 2022-23, 13,540 people used the funds for dental treatment, 2,780 for IVF and 14,410 for weight loss treatments.

The chief executive of the Consumers Health Forum, Dr Elizabeth Deveny, said: “Together with the rising cost of living, we believe that one of the reasons more people are dipping into their super to pay for their healthcare costs is because of the increasing privatisation of Australian healthcare.

“It is a worrying trend.”

She said that as more services were offered privately – rather than through Medicare – people would increasingly need to pay large out-of-pocket amounts to cover their healthcare costs.

There are strict rules about accessing super for medical treatment. Individuals must provide the ATO with a medical report from two registered medical practitioners, one of whom must be a specialist in the field of treatment.

The reports must certify that the treatment is required to treat a life-threatening illness or injury, alleviate acute or chronic pain or alleviate an acute or chronic mental illness and that treatment is not readily available in the public health system.

But numerous online advertisements, especially for dental treatment, describe accessing superannuation for medical purposes as a “quick” and “simple” process and offer services to help patients to do so.

“We are concerned about a business model where private providers are helping people to access their super for this reason, in tandem with promoting clinics who offer a range of services,” Deveny said.

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“While we recognise that it is not illegal for dental practitioners to be advertising in this way, we aren’t exactly thrilled by it either. For us, it is a worrying trend that more and more health professions might soon start encouraging their patients to dig into their super too.”

In February, the financial services minister, Stephen Jones, said in an address to the Sydney Institute: “There are surgeons and medical practitioners who view super as their personal river of gold.

“They are encouraging, and even pressuring, patients to tap into their super for what might be termed life‑enhancing procedures like cosmetic surgery,” he said.

“There are business models set up to game the system. It is greedy.”

A spokesperson for the minister said he stood by the comments, and that the objective of superannuation was “to preserve savings to deliver income for a dignified retirement”.

The spokesperson said ATO data could not be examined at a more granular level to determine the process that led to the release of funds, but said the minister had been approached by “concerned stakeholders” concerned that “individuals are actively encouraged to access their super to pay for medical procedures”.

An ATO spokesperson said staff thoroughly reviewed every application to determine whether they met a lawful ground for release of funds.

But the scheme “appropriately and necessarily relies on the professional ethics of medical professionals to provide accurate reports”, the spokesperson said. “ATO staff are not equipped, or required, to question a patient’s diagnosis or the required treatment strategy.

“It would be deeply inappropriate for the ATO to interfere in the relationship between a patient and their medical professional and double-guess a diagnosis.”

The chief executive of the Australian Dental Association, Damian Mitsch, said if people could not access dental care unless they dipped into superannuation it was “indicative of a healthcare system in which some people are desperate and unable to afford essential care”.

“Our advice to Australians is that accessing superannuation can have long term financial effects … people should properly understand what the long term financial impact is before agreeing to sign off on a superannuation withdrawal.”

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East coast weather: flood warnings for Queensland and NSW as BoM forecasts heavy rainfall

Drivers have been urged to reconsiders their travel plans ahead of a forecast deluge

  • BoM weather radar: track the path of the storms and latest updates and warnings for NSW and Queensland
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Heavy rainfall will drench parts of Queensland and New South Wales this weekend, with motorists urged to stay off roads.

Laura Boekel, senior meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said a trough is affecting both Queensland and New South Wales, producing a significant amount of rainfall across the two states.

“The atmosphere has a lot of moisture in it at the moment and the result of that is we’re seeing these storms producing quite a lot of rainfall,” she said.

Major flooding was affecting parts of Sydney on Friday afternoon, with drivers warned to avoid non-essential travel.

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A severe weather warning is in place along the NSW coast from Morisset, south of Newcastle in the Hunter, to Bega on the South Coast and extending west to the Central and Southern Tablelands past Oberon and Goulburn.

Severe thunderstorms are possible from the Queensland border south to Wollongong and west to Griffith and Cobar.

Sydney faced its highest daily rainfall in two years, recording 111mm of rain in 24 hours and was on track to surpass its average total rainfall for April before the weekend.

The city is forecast to experience falls of between 10mm and 50mm on Saturday, according to the BoM, with rain easing on Sunday.

Warragamba Dam – Sydney’s main reservoir – was 96.3% full and likely to spill on Monday, the chief executive of Water NSW, Andrew George, warned.

“We require about 90mm of rain to fill Warragamba Dam … we’re expecting 100mm to 150mm,” he said.

An inland low and coastal trough joining forces over NSW are driving the deluge.

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The ongoing intense downpours would drive “dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding” from Friday evening, the SES warned.

Intense rainfall will continue over the weekend in parts of south and south-east Queensland, Boekel said.

“For parts of the southern and southeastern interior, widespread showers and thunderstorms will continue today and into tomorrow,” she said.

“Localised heavy falls could occur over the weekend and the area where we’re likely to see the most risk is the area south of Brisbane [on] Logan, Gold Coast and the Scenic Rim areas.”

A major flood warning is current for Charleville’s Warrego River in the state’s south west. River levels are expected to rise above moderate levels on Friday evening after several days of heavy thunderstorms.

A flood watch alert is in place for the Macintyre, Weir, Moonie and Balonne rivers.

Rainfall is expected to ease later in the weekend and next week, Boekel said.

Queensland police deputy commissioner, Shane Chelepy, asked motorists to reconsider their need to travel this weekend.

“We’ve seen some significant accidents on our roads today in the wet weather,” Chelepy said. “Please, if it’s flooded, don’t drive in it.”

Chelepy said emergency services were expecting a peak of 6.7 metres at Charleville.

He said levee gates, with a capacity of about 7.9m would be put in place on Friday afternoon.

“[This] will protect the town and we’re not expecting the flood waters to exceed that but … the disaster management groups very active in that area,” he said.

The SES has received 59 calls for assistance across the state, according to acting commissioner at the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service, Brian Cox.

“What we’re asking people to do is to remain vigilant. With the current weather conditions, flash flooding can occur in hours, not days,” Cox said.

“The next 24 or 48 hours is going to be important … There will be short bursts of water in already water affected areas that can impact you, your family and your friends.”

In NSW, the SES undertook seven flood rescues overnight and responded to more than 550 incidents across the state in the past 24 hours.

Nine schools across NSW were shut down and 92 flights were cancelled or delayed at Sydney Airport.

Train services face major delays because of damaged equipment at Redfern station in inner Sydney.

Power was also cut to a major city-centre court complex after the rain affected local electricity infrastructure.

Additional reporting by AAP

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Fears parliamentary behaviour watchdog could be curbed by confidentiality agreements

Greens senator Larissa Waters vows to ensure the new process expected to open in October should be led by the complainant

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The Greens senator Larissa Waters has vowed to push for a powerful complainant-led sanctions body in parliament following reports those coming forward about bad behaviour in Canberra could be forced to sign confidentiality agreements.

After years of Parliament House’s poor workplace culture being in the spotlight, the independent enforcement body, described as the “final” piece of the puzzle this week by finance minister Katy Gallagher, is finally expected to open its doors in October.

If agreed to by a cross-party taskforce, the independent parliamentary standards commission could be granted the power to cut the pay of offending politicians by up to 5% and could recommend extra measures, including being dumped from parliamentary committees and suspended from parliament, as shown in a draft document leaked to the Nine newspapers.

Gallagher, who sits on the taskforce alongside Waters, and others including trade minister Don Farrell, Liberal members Sussan Ley and Jane Hume, and independent MP Zali Steggall, said she remains “very hopeful” the proposal will gain multi-partisan support.

“It is something new. We haven’t done it before. We’re trying to get agreement across the parliament,” she told ABC on Tuesday. “We’re working really well with the opposition and with the crossbench on this, and I’m very hopeful that we will have probably a draft that we would release publicly pretty soon.”

But also included in the leaked proposal’s details are rules around who can speak publicly about ongoing investigations, including who should sign confidentiality agreements.

Waters said the issue of how confidentiality is dealt with in the new body is still being negotiated but the Queensland senator would continue to push for accountability and transparency of misconduct, in a way that “respects the agency and wishes of the person bringing a complaint”.

“MPs who engage in misconduct should be named and shamed, as part of punishing that behaviour, but also deterring others from it,” Waters told Guardian Australia.

“However, as the identity of the MP can’t be revealed without risking identifying the complainant, whether an incident remains confidential should be complainant-led.”

The issue was canvassed in former sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Set the Standard report in November 2021, where it recommended any secrecy arrangements “be narrowly framed” to include only information discussed or exchanged during an investigation while it’s underway.

“Once an investigation is completed, the complainant’s ability to speak should not be restricted. By retaining a person’s right to speak, recovery can be supported and complainants can be empowered to tell their own stories,” the report said.

However, it also acknowledged public leaks about any investigations would undermine confidence in the complaints process.

It suggested introducing offences for serious breaches including contempt of Parliament or making it a criminal offence to prevent the standards body from being used “as a public tool for the purposes of advocacy, threat or intimidation”.

Good faith confidentiality agreements are already in place at Parliament’s newly-established human resources agency, the Parliamentary Workplace Support Service (PWSS).

The agreement prevents complainants, respondents and witnesses from sharing any information to anyone other than for legal, medical or personal support. The secrecy arrangements end after an investigation is complete.

Only one referral to the PWSS has been made public so far with its investigation yet to include.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, referred claims of inappropriate conduct made against then Liberal senator David Van by independent senator, Lidia Thorpe, and former Liberal senator, Amanda Stoker, to the new body.

Van has vehemently denied the claims by Thorpe, describing them as false and “outrageous and reprehensible”, and said he would cooperate with any investigation into them.

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Romeo & Juliet theatre star suffers ‘barrage’ of online racial abuse

Jamie Lloyd Company says abuse came after cast list made public for show with Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers

A theatre company has condemned the “barrage of deplorable racial abuse” that has been directed at a cast member of a new production of Romeo & Juliet.

In a statement on Friday, the Jamie Lloyd Company said the online abuse “must stop” and that further harassment would be reported. It came after the announcement of the full cast of the show, including Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Romeo and Juliet, alongside Freema Agyeman, Michael Balogun, Tomiwa Edun, Mia Jerome, Daniel Quinn-Toye and Ray Sesay.

“Following the announcement of our Romeo & Juliet cast, there has been a barrage of deplorable racial abuse online directed towards a member of our company,” the statement said. “This must stop. We are working with a remarkable group of artists. We insist that they are free to create work without facing online harassment.”

The company, run by the director Jamie Lloyd, said it would “continue to support and protect everyone in our company at all costs. Any abuse will not be tolerated and will be reported. Bullying and harassment have no place online, in our industry or in our wider communities.”

Its rehearsal room for the show was “full of joy, compassion and kindness,” the company said.

It added: “We celebrate the extraordinary talent of our incredible collaborators. The Romeo & Juliet community will continue to rehearse with generosity and love, and focus on the creation of our production.”

The play runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 11 May – 3 August. It will be the Spider-Man star Holland’s first major theatre role since his debut in Billy Elliot: The Musical.

Last summer, he said he was taking a break from acting after starring in the Apple TV+ series The Crowded Room, a psychological thriller that he also produced. The star has become one of Britain’s best-known young screen actors but owes his career to the stage.

Lloyd is known for mounting bold, megastar-led versions of classic plays such as Doctor Faustus with Kit Harington, Betrayal with Tom Hiddleston and The Seagull with Emilia Clarke. His new production of the musical Sunset Boulevard, with Nicole Scherzinger, recently ended a sold-out run at London’s Savoy theatre and is transferring to Broadway in September.

Last year Lloyd directed Taylor Russell and Paapa Essiedu in a revival of Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect at the National Theatre, before opening at the Shed in New York last month.

Romeo & Juliet is billed as “a pulsating new vision of Shakespeare’s immortal tale of wordsmiths, rhymers, lovers and fighters”. It is Lloyd’s first Shakespeare production since he staged Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in 2014, with Martin Freeman in the lead role.

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