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What we know today, Tuesday May 25


Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. Australia will close its embassy in Afghanistan within days as international troops prepare to leave the country.

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Australia to close embassy in Kabul in days

Australia will close its embassy in Afghanistan within days as international troops prepare to leave the country.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials will instead visit Afghanistan from other residential posts in the region.

“It is Australia’s expectation that this measure will be temporary and that we will resume a permanent presence in Kabul once circumstances permit,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday.

“This form of diplomatic representation is common practice around the world. It does not alter our commitment to Afghanistan or its people.”

Morrison said the departure of Australian and allied forces over the next few months brought with it an increasingly uncertain security environment.

“The government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence,” he said.

The embassy in Kabul will close on Friday, May 28.

The final 80 remaining Australian troops will pull out of Afghanistan by September, in line with America’s timeline to end its “forever war” before the 20-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Sex crime reports rise in federal politics

Federal police have in the last three months received 40 reports about 19 allegations of sexual misconduct linked to federal politicians and staff.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw wrote to MPs and senators in February about the need to report crimes after former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins went public with rape allegations.

At a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday, Mr Kershaw said the letter resulted in 40 reports about sexual misconduct linked to politics.

A dozen of the reports have been marked as sensitive investigations, while a further 10 have been referred to state or territory police.

The AFP has finalised its investigation into one matter, while another is the subject of ongoing inquiries.

Kershaw said seven did not relate to electorate officers, ministerial staff or official establishments.

Officers were unable to say how many were about incidents that happened within Parliament House.

Higgins says she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office while employed as a staffer in March 2019.

After investigating the allegations, ACT police are expected to refer a brief of evidence to prosecutors within weeks.

Calls grow for early spit hood ban in SA

The family of a man who died during an altercation with prison guards in Adelaide has renewed calls for an immediate ban on the use of spit hoods.

Relatives of Wayne “Fella” Morrison said a move to phase out the restraint devices in South Australian prisons over the next six months should be replaced with an immediate prohibition.

They gathered outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday where an inquest into Morrison’s death is continuing.

They also plan to deliver a 20,000 signature petition to state parliament calling for immediate action.

“This partial step of an operational ban on this torture device is welcomed by us all,” Morrison’s sister Latoya Aroha Rule said.

“Legislating the ban on spit hoods is the critical move we require to ensure the weight of their use, linked to many injuries and deaths, is fully recognised and those who utilise these archaic devices are held accountable.”

Spit hoods are used in custody situations to prevent people from being bitten or spit on.

But they have also been criticised for breaching human rights guidelines with opponents describing them as primitive, cruel and degrading.

Mr Morrison died in 2016 after being restrained with handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a spit hood and put facedown in a prison van at Yatala Prison in Adelaide’s north.

The inquest into his death previously heard he was in custody on assault charges and was being taken for a court appearance by video link when he became involved in a scuffle with officers.

The 29-year-old was lifted into the prison van but was blue and unresponsive when he was pulled out a few minutes later.

Despite resuscitation attempts, he did not regain consciousness and died in hospital several days later.

Dutton’s office told about alleged Higgins assault in 2019

Peter Dutton’s office was told in October 2019 about an alleged sexual assault in Parliament House, more than a year before the minister says he learned about the incident.

Federal police have revealed new details of what the former home affairs minister’s staff knew about the alleged sexual assault of Brittany Higgins in March 2019.

In response to a question on notice from Labor senator Kristina Keneally, the Australian Federal Police provided new details about the timeline.

“In October 2019 AFP Media notified the then minister’s office in relation to a media enquiry received by ACT Policing, about an alleged sexual assault at Parliament House,” they said.

The AFP confirmed direct contact with Mr Dutton was not made until February 11 this year, backing up the senior cabinet minister’s account.

“The AFP Commissioner had a discussion with the then minister about the matter,” the police’s media unit said.

“In accordance with routine practices, AFP Media has informed the minister’s office about media inquiries received in relation to this matter during 2021.”

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw and senior officers are due to face a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday.

While top brass are expected to remain tight-lipped about the details of an ongoing investigation, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens is facing questions in a separate hearing.

Gaetjens, who is investigating who in Scott Morrison’s office knew about the allegation and when, paused his inquiry after speaking with Kershaw about the potential for overlap with police work.

The top public servant has now resumed his probe and expects to complete his work within weeks.

“I’ll finish as soon as possible,” Gaetjens told parliament.

He said the AFP gave him the green light to restart his inquiry after telling him there were no longer concerns about crossover.

The prime minister will have the final say on whether Mr Gaetjens’ report will be made public.

Labor Senate leader Penny Wong accused the government of a cover up.

SA imposes new restrictions on Vic travellers

South Australia has imposed new travel restrictions overnight on people who have visited exposure sites in Melbourne linked to the city’s new COVID-19 cases.

Victoria on Monday recorded four new COVID-19 cases across two households in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, with local authorities still unsure of the source of the infection.

Victoria Health this morning reported one more case, a man in his 60s, who is a household contact of one of the four new cases.

Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino confirmed genomic sequencing showed the Whittlesea outbreak was “closely related” to a man in nearby Wollert who tested positive earlier this month after returning from hotel quarantine in South Australia.

The new cases prompted SA authorities on Monday night to impose a travel ban on anyone who has been to a “tier one” or “tier two” exposure site in Melbourne, with limited exceptions.

Those sites – listed on the Victorian Government’s website – include a swim school in Bundoora, a Nando’s in Epping, a Woolworths in Epping North and a shopping centre in Maribyrnong.

The restrictions also require anyone who recently visited those sites and who is already in SA to self-isolate for 14 days and also get tested three times.

Less severe measures have been imposed for anyone who has visited the City of Whittlesea since May 6, with those arrivals in SA required to have a COVID test within 24 hours and isolate until they receive a negative result.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier on Monday said she had received a briefing from Victorian officials.

“I’m just working through the implications of that. Victoria’s contact tracing team are obviously doing an excellent job,” Spurrier told reporters.

Premier Steven Marshall said while SA was concerned by the situation in Victoria, local officials had a good working relationship with their interstate counterparts.

“Any new case in the community is a concern to us. We’ve got to do everything we can to keep ourselves protected,” Marshall said.

Also on Monday, SA announced plans to expand the availability of the coronavirus vaccine to anyone over the age of 16 living in regional SA.

Spurrier said a decision to extend the rollout to under-16s in the metropolitan area would depend on the Commonwealth and the “supply of Pfizer into South Australia”.

SA’s second mass vaccination clinic at the former Masters hardware site in Noarlunga is due to open this morning, while a third one in Elizabeth will open next week.

It comes as SA nears 300,000 total vaccinations administered since the rollout began on February 22.

The latest federal government data released on Monday shows South Australia has administered 267,162 vaccines with a dose utilisation rate of 78 per cent – just above the national average.

GPs and primary care centres have still shouldered the bulk of the rollout in the state with 148,723 doses administered, followed by state-run health clinics (92,887) and Commonwealth aged and disability care facilities (25,562).

There is just one active infection in SA – a returned traveller in hotel quarantine.

Search for link between new Vic COVID cases

Victorian health authorities hope genomic sequencing will establish the source of four new COVID-19 cases among a family in Melbourne’s north, with officials still concerned about the prospect of a “missing link”.

The family cluster – involving a man in his 30s, a man in his 70s, a woman in her 70s and a pre-school aged child from three households in the Whittlesea area – emerged on Monday.

With the first Whittlesea man’s infectious period potentially starting on May 18, Foley noted the COVID-infected returned traveller had already re-entered hotel quarantine well before then.

“We do not rule out the prospect that there is a link,” he said.

“The dates do not line up immediately so we cannot rule out if there is a missing link out there.”

Genomic sequencing results may establish if there is a link between the pair, and are expected back as early as today.

More household contacts of the cases have been put into isolation despite testing negative so far.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the first Whittlesea man is carrying a high viral load and warned the community to brace for more possible cases.

“He is likely to be quite infectious,” Sutton said.

“We have to ready ourselves for any other positives, and when there are close contacts who do become positive, that raises the possibility that even a casual contact could become positive as well.”

Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong and a Bundoora swimming school have been listed as initial exposure sites.

Anyone who attended the “tier one” sites at specific times on Thursday and Friday must get tested and isolate.

Foley flagged no immediate changes to COVID-19 restrictions, and all domestic borders remain open despite most states and territories issuing updated travel advice for recent Victorian arrivals.

The latest outbreak snapped Victoria’s 86-day streak without a locally acquired case.

Report reveals pandemic’s toll on Aussie athletes

The mental, physical and financial scars of COVID-19 on Australia’s athletes have been laid bare in a new report and could linger long after the Tokyo Olympics, with more than two-thirds of those polled reporting poorer physical and mental health due to the pandemic.

The Australian Sports Foundation report, released on Tuesday and based on an anonymous survey, found athletes’ ability to perform on the national and international stage has worsened amid the global health crisis.

Of the 521 athletes polled late last year, nearly 61 per cent reported financial losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, about half the national and international athletes said they currently earned less than $23,000 a year from all sources of income, well below the national minimum of $39,000.

“I’m not sure if I can afford to continue participating in sport to the same level as I did pre COVID-19,” a female international bobsledder said.

A female international volleyballer said she had to get a job on top of sport and study commitments to support her family, while an international gymnast lost her casual job altogether during a lockdown.

When Australian athletes turned to the government for support, only 28 per cent qualified for JobKeeper or JobSeeker.

An Australian snowsports athlete stranded in France said he could not muster up the money to fly home.

“I had no job because of this … but I also didn’t get any job keeper/seeker payments,” he wrote.

The pandemic didn’t just burn a hole in athletes’ hip pockets, with most reporting poorer mental (86 per cent) and physical health (73 per cent).

One state swimmer said she developed an eating disorder “due to the challenges and stresses and lack of escape through sport”.

“The drop into oblivion was fast and scary. The road out will be long and hard,” the para-athlete said.

If disruptions continued through 2021, as they have, close to 17 per cent of the international athletes said they would contemplate retirement.

The ASF report warned the loss of some of the nation’s best and most experienced athletes could lead to “brain drain”, creating a future dearth of sports mentors, coaches and advocates.

“This has the potential to negatively impact both community engagement and participation and the future success of our national, Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games teams in the longer term,” it said.

“(It is) a particular concern given the likelihood of Australia hosting the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Australia Post watch scandal report delayed

A parliamentary committee report looking at the circumstances surrounding the decision to stand down former Australia Post boss Christine Holgate has been delayed.

The report was due to be released on Tuesday, but will now be tabled in parliament on Wednesday afternoon to allow the committee more time to consider evidence.

A Senate committee has been looking at what led to the ministerial direction to the chair of Australia Post on October 22 last year that Ms Holgate be stood down, pending an investigation into her gifting in 2018 of luxury Cartier watches worth $20,000 to four managers.

The managers were being thanked for securing a $225 million investment into the government-owned business.

The inquiry took evidence on whether the then Australia Post chair knew about the watches, whether the gifts were within the rules, and how they compared with bonuses given within other government-owned corporations.

It also examined issues around the future of Australia Post’s services.

Holgate claims she was bullied and unlawfully stood aside.

Australia Post’s lawyers have conditionally agreed to participate in mediation with Holgate.

The government has consistently argued the acrimonious departure is a matter to be resolved between Ms Holgate and Australia Post.

EU agrees on Belarus sanctions for flight ‘hijacking’

European Union leaders have agreed on a set of sanctions against Belarus, including a ban on the use of the 27-member bloc’s airspace and airports amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet flying between two EU countries in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

In what EU leaders have called a brazen “hijacking” of Irish carrier Ryanair’s plane flying from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday, they demanded the immediate release of Raman Protasevich, a key foe of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU leaders also decided to slap individual sanction on officials linked to the operation and called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to start an investigation into what they see as an unprecedented move and what some have called state terrorism.

The decisions at the summit will now be turned into action as soon as legal proceedings allow.

Earlier in the day, Belarus officials said a false bomb threat from Palestinian militant group Hamas was why the plane was diverted to Minsk.

Belarussian authorities released what they said was a text of the bomb alert as officials sought to defuse a mounting international outcry, but Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his group had any knowledge or connection to the incident.

In Minsk, the foreign ministry’s spokesman said Belarus had acted in line with international regulations and a senior transport official read out what he said was the text of the bomb threat.

“We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war,” the head of the transport ministry’s aviation department said.

“There is a bomb on that plane. If you do not comply with our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on 23 May,” he said.

Hamas spokesman Barhoum said the group “has nothing to do with that completely”.

“We don’t resort to these methods, which could be the doing of some suspicious parties that aim to demonise Hamas and foil the state of world sympathy with our Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance,” the Hamas spokesman said.

Igor Golub, head of the Belarusian air force, said the Ryanair crew took the decision to divert to Minsk itself and that the fighter jet was sent to escort it only after it turned to fly towards the Belarusian capital.

The Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman said Minsk would guarantee full transparency in the case and would also be prepared to allow foreign experts to be involved in an investigation.

Late game Crows-Dees decision wrong: AFL

The AFL says Melbourne should have been awarded a free kick for Nick Murray’s handpass across the boundary line in the frantic final minute of their shock one-point defeat to Adelaide.

The Crows produced the upset of the season at Adelaide Oval on Saturday, ending the Demons’ undefeated start to 2021.

Fifth-gamer Murray was under pressure when he handballed towards the boundary line, with the visitors unsuccessfully appealing for a free kick.

It would have given them a shot at goal from close-range on the boundary line with little time remaining.

But a throw-in was called and the Crows hung on in front of a parochial home crowd.

The decision was reviewed on Monday by the AFL umpiring department, who later said Murray should have been penalised.

“It was the view of the umpire in real-time, that from his angle there was a player in the vicinity and, as such, decided to call a throw-in,” the AFL said in a statement on Monday night.

“Upon video review, it was deemed the player did not display sufficient intent to keep the ball in play.”

The league’s admission comes amid some conjecture over whether Melbourne’s Charlie Spargo got a hand to the ball in an attempt to smother Murray’s handpass.

It follows other late-game umpiring controversies earlier this year which the AFL have later said they got wrong.

In round two, Zac Bailey should have been rewarded with a holding-the-ball free kick at the end of Brisbane’s defeat to Geelong.

In round seven, Jeremy Cameron should have been awarded a mark deep in attack during the final seconds of the Cats’ loss to Sydney.

The team visiting from interstate has been on the wrong end of the decision on all three occasions.

Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks felt his team was lucky it was playing at home on Saturday.

“I had a chat to Nick Murray after the game and asked what was going through his mind, this is a guy who has played less than 10 games, but his actual intention was to handball to grass,” Nicks told 3AW radio.

“There are so many decisions across the game that we could look at, that could go one way or the other … that is footy.

“But I do understand why some people would be reasonably upset at this point in time.

“I think the fact we are playing a home game, thank goodness it wasn’t the week prior at West Coast, that’s why we play home and away, that’s why we value our supporters and members that get there and there is 50,000 cheering for us and not screaming for a deliberate out of bounds.”

-With AAP and Reuters

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