The Guardian 2024-04-08 10:01:18


NSW police paid redundancies to three top media advisers in two years totalling $687,000

Exclusive: since Karen Webb became commissioner the force has dumped and paid out three employees in senior media and public affairs roles

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Almost $700,000 in taxpayer funds has been paid out between three dumped New South Wales police media executives over the past two years, and commissioner Karen Webb sacked a fourth controversial pick mid-appointment last month.

The $687,000 was shared between three public servants who worked as media and public affairs advisers to the commissioner since her appointment in February 2022.

The highly-paid roles includes advising the commissioner on her public appearances and the force’s public engagement strategies.

Among those paid out was Grant Williams, who was made redundant in his role as executive director of NSW police’s public affairs branch soon after Webb became commissioner in early 2022. Williams had been close to Webb’s predecessor, Mick Fuller, whom he had served as executive media adviser and executive director of public affairs.

Former television producer Alexandra Hodgkinson also received a payout, after serving as executive media adviser to Webb from February to December 2022.

The executive director of public affairs position was filled by former News Corp editor Liz Deegan in April 2023.

Deegan was dismissed earlier this year following criticism of the media strategy in the aftermath of the alleged murders of Sydney couple Jesse Baird and Luke Davies.

The Guardian does not know how much of the $687,000 went to each of the three senior figures.

The termination payouts were made in line with the Police Act. It states that senior police executives are to be paid out 38 weeks or for the training period on the contract – whichever is lesser. If employment is terminated because of unsatisfactory performance, they must be paid out 13 weeks.

Deegan was set to be replaced by the former Network Seven producer Steve Jackson before Webb backflipped when questions about the appointment were raised when images of Jackson began circulating in the media industry in Sydney.

Jackson produced Seven’s Spotlight interview with Bruce Lehrmann. Seven paid more than $100,000 in rent for the former Liberal staffer in return for the exclusive interview which was last week discussed at length as part of Lehrmann’s defamation case.

NSW police said at the time it had “ceased the temporary appointment for the role” because it needed to be fulfilled “free from external distractions”.

It is understood Jackson may be in line for a further payout from NSW police after his appointment was terminated.

The Police Act outlines that executives terminated during or at the end of probation should be paid out four weeks.

Last week the federal court heard evidence in the Lehrmann defamation case that Taylor Auerbach, a former Spotlight producer and colleague of Jackson, had been “in part” backgrounding journalists about his time at Seven and that he “hated” Jackson.

The $687,613.40 figure was released in answers to questions from the NSW MP Rod Roberts through the parliamentary estimates process.

A NSW police spokesperson said: “Termination payments are set by legislation. No further comment will be provided.”

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New Zealand tightens visa rules after migration hits ‘unsustainable’ levels

Net migration to New Zealand hit a near record high in 2023 after a new temporary work visa was introduced after the pandemic

New Zealand will tighten its visa rules for some migrants as the coalition government moves to overhaul the immigration system it says has led to “unsustainable” levels of migration.

Last year, annual net migration to New Zealand hit a near record high of more than 173,000 non-New Zealand citizens in the year to December, Stats NZ reported.

Immigration minister Erica Stanford announced on Sunday changes to the accredited employer worker visa (AEWV), the main temporary work visa, which was introduced in mid-2022 to help fill workforce shortages after the pandemic.

The government’s changes to the scheme would include introducing English-language requirements for low-skilled jobs and setting a minimum skills and work experience threshold for most employer work visas. The maximum continuous stay for most low-skilled roles will also be reduced to three years from five years.

The changes would be immediate, she said.

“The government is focused on attracting and retaining the highly skilled migrants such as secondary teachers, where there is a skill shortage,” Stanford said in a statement. “At the same time we need to ensure that New Zealanders are put to the front of the line for jobs where there are no skills shortages.”

New Zealand, which has a population of about 5.1 million, has seen a rapid growth in migrant numbers since the end of the pandemic, raising concerns last year that it was fanning inflation. A Reserve Bank-commissioned report released last month into the possible links between migration levels and inflation was inconclusive.

Stanford said the changes would also reduce the vulnerability of migrants to exploitation.

In February, the Public Service Commission released its review of the AEWV scheme, which former immigration minister Andrew Little ordered after complaints of exploitation. The commission found that a small number of “unscrupulous employers” targeted the scheme and took payments from people wanting to move to New Zealand.

“By having an English-language requirement migrants will be better able to understand their rights or raise concerns about an employer early,” Stanford said.

The government had scrapped plans to add 11 new roles to the Green List – a list of highly skilled roles that New Zealand is struggling to fill – including welders, and fitters and turners.

Neighbouring Australia, which has also seen a big increase in migration, has said it would halve its migrant intake over the next two years.

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‘Tone deaf’: Melbourne council criticised over plans to restore ‘heritage’ concrete roads

Historian supports preserving some of the interwar period roads, but Yimby activist criticises Boroondara council plan

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A Melbourne council has developed a plan to restore several concrete roads it deems to be of “heritage significance”, despite admitting it costs up to three times as much as asphalt and is less safe for drivers.

Community consultation closes this week on a plan by the City of Boroondara to restore about 15% of the council’s 22km of concrete roads, which were constructed during the early 20th century across suburbs such as Balwyn, Camberwell, Glen Iris, Hawthorn and Surrey Hills.

Daniel Freer, the council’s director of places and spaces, told Guardian Australia that 3km of road had been earmarked for restoration within its heritage precincts, including Boroondara’s oldest concrete road.

“Boroondara’s first concrete road, Compton Street, Canterbury, was constructed in 1925, and roads in the Hassett and Golf Links Estates suburbs were constructed circa 1927,” he said.

“These roads comprise just over 3km of council concrete roads and fall under Boroondara’s heritage precincts as providing a ‘predominantly intact interwar landscape containing concrete roads’.”

According to the draft plan, concrete roads were installed in several subdivisions during the period between the first and second world wars and “contribute to the municipality’s interwar heritage character”.

But it noted many of the roads were “extensively cracked”, “ageing” and “patching”.

Under the policy, the council would undertake “repair and restoration works” to small sections of the heritage-listed roads using concrete “rather than a full road reconstruction”. It would also aim to match the colour of the concrete to the original “as much as practical”.

If repairs are not possible, it would reconstruct the full road using concrete.

The remaining 19km of concrete roads in the area, which are not under heritage overlay, would be reconstructed with asphalt. The plan said this was the council’s “preferred surface”.

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The council’s website said concrete roads were “up to three times the cost of replacing with asphalt” and were harder to maintain and repair, as well as less smooth for drivers.

“Concrete roads need to be textured to create enough grip. This can lead to the road surface being more uneven, bumpy and noisy when compared to asphalt roads,” it said.

The new policy also includes a plan to maintain the area’s bluestone kerbs, which it said were “considered by some to contribute to the heritage character of our neighbourhoods”.

Freer said community feedback would be considered by the council before the guidelines were introduced.

The historian Dr James Lesh of conservation consultancy Heritage Workshop said it was important the council maintain some of its concrete roads to preserve its history and uniqueness.

“This is something that contributes to the neighbourhood, like trees, gardens, statues and cast iron fences and other things that are heritage listed,” he said.

“There’s no reason why they can’t be incorporated into conservation protections and it means we don’t end up with every single neighbourhood and every single area of the city just looking exactly the same.”

Lesh said it was not uncommon for roads to be heritage listed, citing the Great Ocean Road, which was built as a memorial to Victoria’s first world war servicemen and women, and St Kilda Road, one of Melbourne’s grandest major thoroughfares.

But Jonathan O’Brien from Yimby Melbourne said it was another example of “overreach” by councils when it comes to heritage protections.

“No one actually thinks concrete roads are a valuable part of society, do they?” he said.

“We don’t live in 1950s America. We live in 2024 Australia in the midst of both a housing and climate crisis and at a time when councils are under a rate cap that means they don’t have any money to fund infrastructure and services.

“But they still insist on allocating their funds towards things like this. It feels tone deaf.”

O’Brien said 32% of developable land in Boroondara was heritage protected. His group has called on the state government to abolish heritage overlays in cases where negative social impacts are greater than the benefits.

“In the case of these roads … the council have made it clear these roads are less safe and more expensive. They know this, yet they’re still doing it.”

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Explainer

Qantas frequent flyer changes: how does the revamped system work and who benefits?

The airline is adding more than 20m rewards seats on international and domestic flights

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Qantas has unveiled long-awaited changes to its frequent flyer program, boosting the number of reward seats available and changing the way those seats are priced. What does Monday’s announcement mean for its 15.2 million frequent flyer members and who stands to benefit the most?

What are the changes?

The carrier has created more than 20m additional rewards seats on international and domestic routes across economy, business and first class fares, the pricing of which will vary in line with flight demand. Under the new Classic Plus Flight Rewards system, peak air fares mean higher points costs and vice versa.

The change, which the Qantas chief executive, Vanessa Hudson, said was one of the biggest expansions the carrier has made to the program in its 35-year history, gives customers more price transparency, with one frequent flyer point effectively carrying a fixed value of 1¢ for economy flights and 1.5¢ for business class flights.

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Value wise, Classic Plus delivers an option halfway between Classic and Points Plus Pay seats, according to Daniel Sciberras, the editor-in-chief of Point Hacks.

“This new category is going to be fluctuating, depending on the price of the fare, but at a fixed rate of value – and it’s there to bridge the huge gap,” he said.

When do the changes come into effect?

Classic Plus bookings for international flights from 1 July are available from today. Domestic flights will follow later in the year.

Is this an improvement?

Five times more rewards seats are now available, which goes some way towards addressing longstanding criticism that the airline has too few Classic rewards seats. But that availability comes at a cost – Classic Plus seats will usually be more expensive, points-wise, to book than the popular but hard-to-find Classic seats.

Matt Graham, the editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, said: “Qantas had to do something because there have been a lot of complaints that people have a lot of points that they can’t use.” He added that he found the change underwhelming.

For those who have been accumulating points more successfully than they have been able to secure Classic bookings, the new offering gives them a way to spend points beyond the poor value and inflexible Points Plus Pay ($0.6c a point) and Qantas shop (about $0.5c a point) options. In some cases, Classic Plus offers similar or better value than Classic seats, such as for on-sale flights.

For Sciberras, the move is “definitely a plus, because they’re not taking anything away. It’s complementary to what already existed.”

Both he and Graham said they would look for Classic deals before turning to Classic Plus.

How does Classic Plus compare with Classic rewards?

Qantas has been open about Classic Plus generally being costlier than Classic. In many cases, that difference is large, particularly for premium long-haul flights, according to Graham.

“For those aspirational redemptions that most members save their points for, the cost is going to be substantially higher,” he said.

Take the example of a return flight from Sydney to Dallas, Texas. Graham found a Classic business class off-peak seat costing 253,000 points plus $675 taxes and fees. The same flight for Classic Plus customers cost 1,165,800 points plus $1,302 taxes and fees.

Points Plus Pay delivered the least value and flexibility, costing 3,131,167 points.

Both Classic and Classic Plus offer good flexibility. Unlike Classic, Classic Plus flights can be upgraded to first class.

The system has its quirks – Graham said he had found dates on which premium economy Classic flights cost fewer points than Classic Plus economy flights, as well as return flights that were cheaper than one-way options.

How does this affect Classic rewards?

It doesn’t. The existing 5m Classic seats remain unchanged.

Who stands to gain most from the changes?

Those who have a surplus of points and miss out on the small number of Classic seats. And almost half a million Qantas Business Rewards members.

“If you’re a business owner and you’ve got a large credit card spend, you can be earning millions of points every year,” Graham said. “They just want to be able to take their family on holiday once a year and this is a way they’ll be able to find availability much more easily.”

How does Qantas frequent flyer now stack up against other reward programs?

“Qantas is one of the world leaders [in loyalty programs], they know how to engage their members so well,” Sciberras said.

Graham said he had hoped Qantas would release more Classic seats and introduce a Singapore Airlines-style second tier option, which is priced about 50% higher than its usual points rate but offers more availability.

“It’s very hard to get outsized value from the program when the points are fixed at a certain rate,” he said. “It removes some of the gaming element of trying to get more value out of your points.”

How important is the airline’s loyalty program?

Very, and increasingly so. Qantas’ Loyalty division is one of the company’s most lucrative areas year-on-year, especially at the height of the Covid epidemic The key is for the company to keep its members engaged, according to Sciberras, who believes the change “is probably going to be an overall good thing for Qantas”.

Will this help the brand after a bad year?

“Anything they can do which is good news of course is welcome … they want to show they are listening to customers,” Graham said.

The changes to the loyalty program follow a tumultuous period for the company but would have been in the making for many months, if not years, Sciberras said.

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Explainer

Qantas frequent flyer changes: how does the revamped system work and who benefits?

The airline is adding more than 20m rewards seats on international and domestic flights

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

Qantas has unveiled long-awaited changes to its frequent flyer program, boosting the number of reward seats available and changing the way those seats are priced. What does Monday’s announcement mean for its 15.2 million frequent flyer members and who stands to benefit the most?

What are the changes?

The carrier has created more than 20m additional rewards seats on international and domestic routes across economy, business and first class fares, the pricing of which will vary in line with flight demand. Under the new Classic Plus Flight Rewards system, peak air fares mean higher points costs and vice versa.

The change, which the Qantas chief executive, Vanessa Hudson, said was one of the biggest expansions the carrier has made to the program in its 35-year history, gives customers more price transparency, with one frequent flyer point effectively carrying a fixed value of 1¢ for economy flights and 1.5¢ for business class flights.

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

Value wise, Classic Plus delivers an option halfway between Classic and Points Plus Pay seats, according to Daniel Sciberras, the editor-in-chief of Point Hacks.

“This new category is going to be fluctuating, depending on the price of the fare, but at a fixed rate of value – and it’s there to bridge the huge gap,” he said.

When do the changes come into effect?

Classic Plus bookings for international flights from 1 July are available from today. Domestic flights will follow later in the year.

Is this an improvement?

Five times more rewards seats are now available, which goes some way towards addressing longstanding criticism that the airline has too few Classic rewards seats. But that availability comes at a cost – Classic Plus seats will usually be more expensive, points-wise, to book than the popular but hard-to-find Classic seats.

Matt Graham, the editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, said: “Qantas had to do something because there have been a lot of complaints that people have a lot of points that they can’t use.” He added that he found the change underwhelming.

For those who have been accumulating points more successfully than they have been able to secure Classic bookings, the new offering gives them a way to spend points beyond the poor value and inflexible Points Plus Pay ($0.6c a point) and Qantas shop (about $0.5c a point) options. In some cases, Classic Plus offers similar or better value than Classic seats, such as for on-sale flights.

For Sciberras, the move is “definitely a plus, because they’re not taking anything away. It’s complementary to what already existed.”

Both he and Graham said they would look for Classic deals before turning to Classic Plus.

How does Classic Plus compare with Classic rewards?

Qantas has been open about Classic Plus generally being costlier than Classic. In many cases, that difference is large, particularly for premium long-haul flights, according to Graham.

“For those aspirational redemptions that most members save their points for, the cost is going to be substantially higher,” he said.

Take the example of a return flight from Sydney to Dallas, Texas. Graham found a Classic business class off-peak seat costing 253,000 points plus $675 taxes and fees. The same flight for Classic Plus customers cost 1,165,800 points plus $1,302 taxes and fees.

Points Plus Pay delivered the least value and flexibility, costing 3,131,167 points.

Both Classic and Classic Plus offer good flexibility. Unlike Classic, Classic Plus flights can be upgraded to first class.

The system has its quirks – Graham said he had found dates on which premium economy Classic flights cost fewer points than Classic Plus economy flights, as well as return flights that were cheaper than one-way options.

How does this affect Classic rewards?

It doesn’t. The existing 5m Classic seats remain unchanged.

Who stands to gain most from the changes?

Those who have a surplus of points and miss out on the small number of Classic seats. And almost half a million Qantas Business Rewards members.

“If you’re a business owner and you’ve got a large credit card spend, you can be earning millions of points every year,” Graham said. “They just want to be able to take their family on holiday once a year and this is a way they’ll be able to find availability much more easily.”

How does Qantas frequent flyer now stack up against other reward programs?

“Qantas is one of the world leaders [in loyalty programs], they know how to engage their members so well,” Sciberras said.

Graham said he had hoped Qantas would release more Classic seats and introduce a Singapore Airlines-style second tier option, which is priced about 50% higher than its usual points rate but offers more availability.

“It’s very hard to get outsized value from the program when the points are fixed at a certain rate,” he said. “It removes some of the gaming element of trying to get more value out of your points.”

How important is the airline’s loyalty program?

Very, and increasingly so. Qantas’ Loyalty division is one of the company’s most lucrative areas year-on-year, especially at the height of the Covid epidemic The key is for the company to keep its members engaged, according to Sciberras, who believes the change “is probably going to be an overall good thing for Qantas”.

Will this help the brand after a bad year?

“Anything they can do which is good news of course is welcome … they want to show they are listening to customers,” Graham said.

The changes to the loyalty program follow a tumultuous period for the company but would have been in the making for many months, if not years, Sciberras said.

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A Hamas official told Reuters on Monday that no progress was made at a new round of Gaza ceasefire talks in Cairo also attended by delegations from Israel, Qatar and the United States.

“There is no progress yet,” he added.

Earlier on Monday, Egypt’s state-affiliated Al-Qahera News TV channel quoted a senior Egyptian source as saying progress had been made in the talks, after a deal was reached among participating delegations on issues under discussion.

Israel and Hamas sent teams to Egypt on Sunday after the arrival on Saturday of CIA Director William Burns, whose presence underlined U.S. pressure for a deal that would free hostages held in Gaza and ease the humanitarian crisis there.

Israel and Hamas, at war in the Gaza Strip since October, have failed so far to resolve disagreements over their main demands.

Emerson says breaking up supermarkets ‘too heavy handed’ as Dutton derides ‘Mickey Mouse review’

Review chief defends decision not to recommend powers that could break up supermarkets for bad behaviour

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The architect of Australia’s revamped grocery code of conduct, Craig Emerson, has defended his decision not to recommend powers that could force the breakup of big supermarket chains for bad behaviour, describing such a penalty as “too heavy handed” and not a credible threat.

While an interim report into the code, which governs how major chains deal with suppliers and customers, has left the door open for supermarkets to be hit with significant fines, it stops short of calling for the sorts of powers called for by some competition experts.

The government has also come under political pressure from the Nationals since mid 2023 and more recently the Greens to introduce divestiture powers, to allow the competition watchdog to break up big supermarket chains for significant code breaches or for engaging in anti-competitive conduct.

Emerson, a former Labor trade minister, said his views were in keeping with those of the prime minister, who recently likened forced sales to the old Soviet Union’s command and control economy.

“It’s too heavy handed,” Emerson told Guardian Australia. “The whole idea of government regulation in my view is to be efficient and effective, and not just try to regulate everything.”

Emerson and Anthony Albanese have argued that forcing major chains to sell a store to their competitor could lead to increased market concentration.

But the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, on Monday derided the Emerson report as “a Mickey Mouse review that has been conducted by Labor”, arguing that “Emerson’s views line up with the instructions he was given by Mr Chalmers”.

Public discontent with the supermarkets has been growing as the major chains continue to lift grocery prices while recording strong profits. The farming sector has also raised concerns over the prices they are forced to accept in a sector dominated by two large supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths.

The interim recommendations, now open to consultation, would allow the competition regulator to seek penalties for major or systemic breaches of the code of up to 10% of a supermarket’s annual turnover, which runs into the billions of dollars for major chains.

Emerson said such a large fine could be “readily averted by better behaviour”. “This would only be pursued in relation to egregious systemic behaviour, not an isolated incident,” he said.

The groceries code, which is currently voluntary, is poised to become mandatory and apply to all supermarkets with annual revenues exceeding $5bn, which includes Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA owner Metcash.

Coles and Woolworths respond

A Coles spokesperson said the supermarket was committed to the objectives of the code in delivering value to its customers, while maintaining strong relationships with its suppliers.

“We will continue to work constructively as part of this review process,” the spokesperson said.

A Woolworths spokesperson said the code should apply to all major retailers operating locally, including global retail giants Amazon and Costco, as well as Australian retailers Bunnings and Chemist Warehouse, who also compete in grocery categories.

“We support the recommendation to retain fast and cost effective avenues for dispute resolution, for the benefit of suppliers, especially smaller ones,” the spokesperson said.

In its submission to the Emerson-led review made public on Monday, Woolworths said small to medium suppliers should be the primary beneficiaries of a revamped code.

“Large suppliers are often robust cost price negotiators and may, in some cases, withhold the supply of products as part of the negotiation,” said the submission, which attributed the bulk of cost price increases last financial year to large suppliers.

The treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told reporters in Canberra on Monday that the government was “interested in progressing” Emerson’s recommendations “subject to a few weeks of genuine consultation”.

While Dutton has also warned of “market domination” by the grocery duopoly, the Liberals and the Coalition are yet to finalise their policy on forced divestiture.

Dutton told reporters that the government was at odds with the competition watchdog, which believes “the divestiture power will be a handy tool in the toolbox”.

Earlier, the shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, said the Coalition had been very clear it wants to have a “targeted divestment power” with “strong safeguards, but will also deal with this issue of consumers being abused by the market power of the supermarkets”.

Chalmers contrasted the government’s “considered, methodical approach” to the Coalition’s uncertain position, citing comments from shadow finance minister Jane Hume earlier on Monday that there was “always concern with divestiture powers whether they will actually decrease prices”.

Chalmers said there are “much higher priorities” and forced divestiture is “not something that we have been exploring”. The treasurer also confirmed substantial changes to the mergers regime would be announced this week.

The assistant minister for competition, Andrew Leigh, said past reviews didn’t recommend divestiture powers, which are also opposed by the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Leigh accused the Nationals of being “tigers in opposition, but kittens in the cabinet”, because they settled for a voluntary code of conduct in the Coalition’s decade in office.

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The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, has condemned a drone strike on one of six nuclear reactors at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

“This cannot happen,” Grossi wrote on a social media post. Adding, “No one can conceivably benefit or get any military or political advantage from attacks against nuclear facilities. This is a no go.”

Russia has blamed Ukriane for the strike, but Ukrainian intelligence sources have denied any involvement. The Guardian is unable to independently verify either account.

IAEA officials on site reported in a statement that “outside a laboratory, they saw blood stains next to a damaged military logistics vehicle, indicating at least one casualty.”

“This is a major escalation of the nuclear safety and security dangers,” director general Grossi said. “Such reckless attacks significantly increase the risk of a major nuclear accident and must cease immediately.”

While the team so far has not observed any structural damage to systems, structures, and components important to nuclear safety or security of the plant, Grossi warned of the dangers of such strikes on Sunday, saying, “Although the damage at unit 6 has not compromised nuclear safety, this was a serious incident that had the potential to undermine the integrity of the reactor’s containment system.”

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, has condemned a drone strike on one of six nuclear reactors at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

“This cannot happen,” Grossi wrote on a social media post. Adding, “No one can conceivably benefit or get any military or political advantage from attacks against nuclear facilities. This is a no go.”

Russia has blamed Ukriane for the strike, but Ukrainian intelligence sources have denied any involvement. The Guardian is unable to independently verify either account.

IAEA officials on site reported in a statement that “outside a laboratory, they saw blood stains next to a damaged military logistics vehicle, indicating at least one casualty.”

“This is a major escalation of the nuclear safety and security dangers,” director general Grossi said. “Such reckless attacks significantly increase the risk of a major nuclear accident and must cease immediately.”

While the team so far has not observed any structural damage to systems, structures, and components important to nuclear safety or security of the plant, Grossi warned of the dangers of such strikes on Sunday, saying, “Although the damage at unit 6 has not compromised nuclear safety, this was a serious incident that had the potential to undermine the integrity of the reactor’s containment system.”

EPA issues warning to councils after asbestos found in Melbourne parks

‘They’re all responsible for the quality of the mulch … and they’ll be held accountable’, says EPA regulation chief

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Victoria’s environment watchdog is warning local councils to tighten quality controls on potential asbestos in mulch, as it investigates suspected illegal dumping of the contaminated material, which has been discovered at several parks.

The Victorian Environment Protection Authority on Sunday said it had ordered Hobsons Bay council, in Melbourne’s west, to hand over records of its supply chain for mulch production and conduct wider testing for asbestos, after the material was found in several reserves in the council area.

The EPA on Monday said its inspections uncovered contaminated material at six parks, five in the Hobsons Bay council area and one in Merri-bek council, in Melbourne’s north. The EPA has sent materials containing suspected asbestos from four sites to be tested, with results expected on Tuesday.

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The EPA’s director of regulatory services, Duncan Pendrigh, on Monday said the regulator would write to all councils urging them to examine their quality assurance processes for construction and landscape work.

“They’re all responsible for the quality of the mulch that gets laid and they’ll be held accountable by us,” he said.

He said there was no evidence that mulch producers were introducing contaminated building materials but said it was under investigation.

“We can assure you that the mulch producers appear to have a clean bill of health,” he said.

“It’s really about the widespread use of asbestos in building the last four years or 40 or 50 years up until 1990.

Pendrigh said the EPA was investigating the possibility of illegal dumping and said there had been a recent increase in this activity. He said the EPA was also investigating the supply chain of contaminated mulch and companies that construct and demolish parks, as well as council oversight of this.

Pendirgh said he was confident asbestos discovery in Victoria would not be as widespread as New South Wales, where bonded asbestos has been discovered at more than 75 sites, including parks and schools.

Pendrigh stressed the risk of harm was low and only minor amounts of contamination had been uncovered in Hobsons Bay.

But he said as a precaution the EPA has asked the council to fence off areas where contamination was discovered.

The EPA has discovered potential asbestos at PA Burns Reserve, in Altona, GJ Hosken Reserve, in Altona North, Crofts Reserve, in Altona North, Shore Reserve, in Pascoe Vale South and PJ Lynch Reserve, in Altona North. Asbestos-containing material was initially found in mulch next to a playground in Donald McLean Reserve in Spotswood last week.

The EPA also conducted testing at Kororoit Creek trail, in Altona North, but no suspected asbestos fragments were found.

Last week, Merri-bek council confirmed asbestos contaminated soil at Hosken Reserve, in North Coburg, after an earlier discovery in late January.

The EPA has ordered Hobsons Bay council to commission a hygienist to inspect all council managed parks and gardens that have received mulch in the past 18 months.

Pendrigh said the EPA was not requesting further information from Merri-bek council because the asbestos appeared to have been introduced to the site after the mulch.

Victoria’s chief environmental scientist, Prof Mark Patrick Taylor, said the risk of harm to the public was extremely low.

“We should all realise that about one-third of our homes in Australia have asbestos in them. It is typically the bonded asbestos, the asbestos that is not easily made into fibres,” he said.

“It only becomes a risk when asbestos is fragmented, broken up and produces fibres and the potential risk of harm would occur when those fibres are inhaled which is unlikely to occur with the bonded asbestos that is involved in the inquiries.”

The mayor of Hobsons Bay, Matt Taylor, told the ABC on Monday 10 parks across the council were being examined for asbestos.

EPA Victoria has conducted precautionary inspections of 59 commercial mulch producers and said on Wednesday no traces of asbestos were found in their products.

The EPA returned to a mulch producer previously visited after asbestos was found at Donald McClean Reserve and discovered no contamination.

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Medieval monks’ night staircase rebuilt at Furness Abbey

Project gives new views of atmospheric monastic ruins in Cumbria visited by likes of JMW Turner and Wordsworth

A staircase used by weary medieval monks when they had to file down from bed to their church services in the middle of the night has been rebuilt in some of the most atmospheric monastic ruins in England.

Exactly 900 years since it was first built and almost 500 years since it was destroyed, the night staircase has been reconstructed at Furness Abbey in Cumbria.

The project will give visitors extra insight into the daily lives of medieval monks, said Michael Carter, English Heritage’s senior properties historian.

Visitors can climb to what was the first-floor level of the monks’ dormitory and enjoy previously unseen views of ruins that have long captivated people, with JMW Turner and William Wordsworth having been two notable fans.

“Furness has some of the finest monastic ruins in England,” Carter said. Reinstating the night staircase recreates “an experience that was central in the lives of the medieval monks” as well as “giving visitors the unique opportunity to look back in time and see these remarkable ruins through the eyes of the monks themselves”, he said.

Furness Abbey, on the outskirts of Barrow, was founded in the first half of the 12th century by monks who had moved there from Preston, and it prospered, becoming the largest and wealthiest monastery in north-west England.

The night staircase was only ever used by the monks, to get from their cold, communal dormitory to the church for the daily matins service, which was usually between 1 and 2am.

They would have passed a statue of St Christopher strategically located to be the first thing they saw each day. “Seeing it provided them with protection from a bad death,” Carter said – as in one with an unconfessed mortal sin that would lead them to hell. It was also protection “against the tiredness brought about by daily toil”, Carter said. “The church would have been a very cold, dark space, so very easy to succumb to tiredness I think.”

The early morning service was one of eight that punctuated the monks’ day. After matins there was lauds at first light and prime at sunrise, all the way through to compline before bedtime, usually around 7pm.

A new timber structure has been put on the site of the original stairs, which were probably destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The structure meets the original stone steps, allowing visitors to get previously unseen views of the ruins.

And it is the views that have drawn so many people over the years, notably Turner who loved scrambling over and drawing northern monastic ruins.

Wordsworth adored the abbey and did much to popularise it as a tourist destination in his Guide to the Lakes.

Other visitors have included Queen Victoria in 1848 – “so beautiful it was, and so extensive”, her lady in waiting recorded – and a young Teddy Roosevelt, the future US president, in 1869.

Carter said there was something special about Furness Abbey. “I remember the first time I ever went there, being blown away by the scale of the place and that beautiful red sandstone … it really is a dramatic site.”

He said so many monastic ruins in northern England were located in places where people had hard lives. They spoke to people in different and wonderful ways, he said. “OK, there have been the Turners and the Wordsworths at Furness loving the place, but equally it has been the docker, the shipbuilder, the miner, the factory worker on a day excursion … it has been somewhere which provides space to live.”

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NRL will not recognise Michael Jennings’ 300-game milestone due to ‘past conduct’

  • Player found to have raped ex-wife in civil case, a claim he denies
  • Centre has also just returned from a three-year drugs ban

White Ribbon has backed the NRL’s decision not to celebrate the 300-game milestone for Sydney Roosters centre Michael Jennings due to his past conduct, which includes a ban for performance enhancing drugs and a finding in a civil case that he abused his ex-wife.

Jennings has returned to the NRL this year following his three-year ban and made his 299th appearance for the Roosters off the bench in their loss to the Bulldogs on Friday.

A spate of injuries and suspensions means Jennings is likely to reach 300 games on Thursday against the Knights, but the milestone will not be formally recognised by the NRL.

“Due to past conduct, Michael Jennings will not receive official NRL recognition on his 300th match,” the NRL’s chief executive, Andrew Abdo, said in a statement on Monday.

In addition to his drug suspension, Jennings was found in a civil matter initiated in 2020 to have raped his ex-wife. He denied the allegations and appealed in 2022, but lost the case.

The chief executive of White Ribbon Australia, which campaigns against violence against women by men, Melissa Perry, said although it was important to support men who behave in unacceptable ways to change their behaviour, there must also be consequences.

“NRL players and other high-profile male athletes are role models for our young people and should be held to a higher standard,” she said. “There is simply no excuse for violence and abuse.”

White Ribbon under previous management was a partner of the NRL but the organisations no longer have a formal relationship.

A celebration would have sent “a poor message, to teammates, the rugby league community, women’s NRL, and the growing number of boys and girls with ambitions to play the game at the highest level”, Perry said.

Jennings’ Roosters teammate Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was the most recent player to reach the 300-game mark, and the NRL allowed him to be joined by his family on the field to celebrate his milestone match last month.

The Roosters used a photo of the returning Jennings on social media channels for the background of a post with the score of Friday’s clash, prompting disappointment from some fans. “Jennings is not a good representative of what this club should stand for,” one said.

However, some Roosters players have been supportive of Jennings. Forward Angus Crichton said his teammate “has worked so hard to get back to where he is. I think he should not only be celebrated, but I think he’s deserved it.”

Winger Daniel Tupou said “everyone goes through stuff. We’re all human at the end of the day.”

The chief executive of Our Watch, Patty Kinnersly, said it was crucial that those who use violence and abuse against women are not held up as role models.

“Sport bodies and players are in a powerful position to challenge the attitudes and behaviours that lead to violence against women,” she said.

“They have a powerful opportunity to model good leadership including setting a standard for zero tolerance for violence or discriminatory behaviour.”

The Roosters declined to comment on Monday.

– with AAP

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On the lam: Woody the escaped merino shorn after community-wide chase

Sheep sold through Cowra saleyards three years ago appears to have been living on the run in Woodstock

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A sheep found wandering the streets of a small New South Wales town has undergone a dramatic transformation, shedding just over 10kg of wool after three years on the run.

Woody, a merino sheep, was discovered loitering at the Woodstock commons in the village of about 792 people on the central tablelands late last year. At some point he had escaped the shared community paddock and taken up residence near the local tip, relying on food and water left by residents.

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Prompted by concern about his large fleece, some residents contacted the local newspaper in search of a shearer who could take him on. Then, last week, authorities decided to bring him in.

Volunteers from the Woodstock Rural Fire Service began the chase on Wednesday, and a livestock transporter, Matthew Blazley, made the capture.

The village’s fire captain, Robert “Robbo” Moodie, said a scan of Woody’s ear tag showed his last recorded location was the Cowra saleyards, some 20km away, up to three years ago.

“The sheep was originally from Grenfell,” Moodie said. “I rang the bloke and he said he sold it probably two or three years ago. We found him on the common, with the cattle. He thinks he’s a cow – anywhere the cows go, he goes.”

RSPCA NSW inspectors visited the commons late last year, after residents called to get in touch about the wandering wether, but were unable to return when Moodie called.

“There have been a few people around town here all concerned about it,” Moodie said. “We decided let’s do something and give this sheep a home.”

Woody spent three days drying in Blazley’s shearing shed, alongside another wooly merino in need of a trim. The pair were sheared by a veteran rouser, Mathew “Boycey” Boyce, who estimated that the merino had missed at least three shearing seasons but said he had avoided flystrike, which can lead to deadly bacterial infections.

“It’s good to see him all cleaned up,” he said. “I reckon there’s 10, 10 and a half kilos of wool on him.”

The average fleece weight from a merino shorn annually is 4.5kg.

Boyce was prepared for a fight but found the wether to be a very willing customer.

“He knows he’s being helped,” he said. “I’m happy with my handwork and any challenge, I’ll accept it.”

Woody’s fuzz and fleece were no match for the record set by Chris the merino, a fellow wooly wanderer who spent 15 years traversing Canberra’s trails and paddocks before losing a world-record 41kg of fleece. Chris was captured in 2015 and died in an animal sanctuary in 2019.

Blazley, who shared morning tea with the small crowd watching the shearing on Saturday, said it had been a “satisfying” success. Despite some weight-loss wobbles, Woody was soon happily receiving pats, preparing for his next home.

“It’s a top job from Boycey and an excellent community service, too,” Blazley said. “He’ll be off to a better place with plenty of green grass, and we’ll be back in 12 months to see how he’s progressing. He came up pretty good – everyone should be happy with that.”

Woody will be rehomed to four hectares of grazing land on the outskirts of town, alongside horses and sheep.

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