Canberra school boys caught driving dangerously on endangered grasslands identified as possible sacred site


Four teenagers caught drifting and doing circlework on a possible sacred Aboriginal site near the Australian War Memorial in Canberra have been fined and had their cars impounded.

The boys, three from Daramalan College and another from Dickson College, were caught by police on Friday as they attempted to leave the site.

Locals said they had called police at least a dozen times in the past year warning that P-platers were using the grasslands near the for dangerous driving, damaging an endangered habitat and risking their own safety.

The land is under assessment by the federal Environment Department for its significance as a sacred Ngambri site.

On Friday, a resident told the ABC that he saw several boys were once again at the site, drinking and swapping cars as they took turns skidding across the wet grass.

He said he became concerned when a car scraped a tree.

A blue sedan skids along wet grass and pavement, as several cockatoos take flight
One witness reported a Subaru lost control while drifting and hit a tree.(Supplied)

“It came out off Quick Street … it spun around on there and went onto the footpath,” he said.

Police officers caught the cars as they were leaving, and fined four of the boys for driving on a nature strip, not displaying P-plates, failing to stop at a stop sign, and improper control of a vehicle.

“Police interviewed all the occupants of the vehicles, and after receiving assistance from the occupants, four of the drivers were issued with Traffic Infringement Notices,” a spokesman for ACT Policing said.

“Further investigations into similar activity identified another driver who has been responsible for similar behaviour in the same area between November 2019 to August 2020.”

Two boys in school uniforms run towards a car drifting on grassland.
The high school boys were seen running between cars as they drifted, reportedly taking turns to drive.(Supplied)

Police said none of the identified drivers returned positive alcohol breath tests.

The resident, who had made multiple complaints to police in the past 12 months — including the previous Friday when a separate car was seen drifting — said government inaction had led to more teenagers abusing the site.

“When one of them, the white four-wheel drive, starts to show it off, the others say ‘well okay, that’s where you can do this kind of thing’, because the ACT Government does nothing, basically.”

A red sedan drives along grasslands.
A red Audi was reported a week before the four teenagers were caught at the site, seen driving dangerously on the grasslands.(Supplied)

ACT Policing said it was investigating other reports into similar behaviour at the site.

“The area is identified as an area of significance to the traditional owners,” the spokesman said.

“Police are urging members of the public with any information regarding dangerous driving of vehicles in this area to contact Crime Stoppers.”

‘Deep-seated frustration’ at destruction of claimed Aboriginal site

The site has been identified by the ACT Government as an important habitat for several endangered flora and fauna, but the grasslands have been significantly damaged by vandalism.

Earlier this year, the ABC reported that claims the land was also a sacred Ngambri site, used for men’s business, had been ignored.

Ngambri man Shane Mortimer, who raised the claim to the site’s Aboriginal significance, said he felt the land had been disregarded.

“It’s a deep-seated frustration, it’s an intergenerational frustration. The land really does need to be cared for,” Mr Mortimer said.

A man wearing stands in a clearing surrounded by rocky outcrops, with Parliament House visible in the distance.
Ngambri man Shane Mortimer said the grasslands had been ‘obliterated’ by P-platers vandalising the site.(ABC News: Jake Evans)

Daramalan College said it could not comment on issues concerning individual students.

However Mr Mortimer said the school had agreed to organise for its Year 12 students to visit the site and learn about its significance.

“We really have to look now for that opportunity out of adversity,” Mr Mortimer said.

The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC that because the incident was outside of school hours and off school grounds, it had not been involved.

Minister agrees to investigate installing bollards

Residents said they had been calling for the ACT Government to do more to protect the site for some time.

A white ute drives along dust and paths.
The same white ute recently photographed at the site has been spotted drifting there before, including here in 2019.(Supplied)

In June, ACT Greens leader and Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury wrote to the City Services Minister Chris Steel asking for them to be installed urgently.

“Last week, I became aware that there has been regular illegal driving on a piece of ACT land adjacent to the CSIRO site in Campbell,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“The area is natural temperate grassland with significant geological features onsite. It is an important ecosystem incorporating significant Aboriginal heritage [and] susceptible species such as the Canberra spider orchid, sunray daisy, golden sun moth and button wrinklewort.

“I write to request that you consider asking City Services to erect a series of bollards on Quick St in Ainslie, where vehicles are gaining access to this site in order to protect the significant ecology and cultural significance as a matter of urgency.”

A spokesman for the ACT Government said it would undertake an assessment of vehicle access through the section, and work with the owners of the adjacent land, now Doma Group, on options to limit access for vehicles.

Mr Rattenbury said it was disappointing to hear the site had been damaged again since he first raised the issue.

“This area should be protected, and the solution here isn’t complicated. Bollards along the border of the site could have prevented this unnecessary damage from taking place,” he said.



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Artificial intelligence themes explored in Canberra duo B(if)tek’s album titled 2020 have ‘come to pass’


Two decades ago this week, Canberra electronica duo B(if)tek released their second album, 2020.

The album hinted at the possibilities of the future and the role of machines and artificial intelligence in our lives and, much to the surprise of creators Kate Crawford and Nicole Skeltys, some of it “has come to pass”.

“We were thinking about what the future would look like, and I was already interested in questions around artificial intelligence and the way humans and machines could collaborate,” Crawford said.

Crawford, who now lives in Greenwich Village in the centre of New York City, has witnessed the ups and downs of 2020 just outside her front door “both in terms of COVID-19 and the pandemic, but also the extraordinary protests in response to the killing of George Floyd”.

“It has been an optimistic time, a time of change, but also a time of creeping encroachment of artificial intelligence and surveillance in response,” she said.

Can machines do the work?

Two women with 20th century synthesisers
Canberra electronica duo B(if)tek — Kate Crawford and Nicole Skeltys — with twin Korg keyboards.(Supplied: Nicole Skeltys)

The opening track on B(if)tek’s 2020 album, Machines Work, was inspired by an advertisement made by The Muppets creator Jim Henson, featuring the sounds of electronic instruments inventor Raymond Scott.

In 1967, multinational technology company IBM asked Henson to make an ad about their new word processor and how its technology could help people control paperwork in the office.

The resulting ad, with its montage of images and words to an electronic soundtrack by Scott, provided the sample for Machines Work.

“Machines can do the work so that people have time to think,” the sample intoned, but ended with a warning that, actually, “people can do the work so that machines have time to think”.

“It’s a fantastic little film, made to promote the idea that humans and machines would cooperate and deal with all the messy paperwork of the office,” Crawford said.

“Assuming that machines can do the work and artificial intelligence will save the day is, in some ways, quite a trap.”

Skeltys said this 1960s view that robots would “always be our friend” had since blurred into a more dystopian outlook, and the fear that robots were “coming to invade our space” was present with each new innovation.

She said a lot of the artificial intelligence robotic revolution had been outsourced to “very cheap female labour” who made its essential electronic components.

“This is the result of capital, and decisions that have been made about where it’s invested, and what kind of technology is made,” Skeltys said.

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Life after B(if)tek posed ‘enormous sociological and political questions’

After eight busy years, touring with US hip hop group the Beastie Boys, selling out the Sydney Opera House, and being shortlisted for an ARIA award, B(if)tek disbanded.

Crawford went on to help set up New York University’s AI Now Institute, which considers the social and political implications of artificial intelligence, and joined another duo, Metric Systems.

She has never lost her love of analogue synthesisers in the 25 years she has been composing with them.

“So many of the machines that Nicole and I used in B(if)tek were 20 to 30 years old,” Crawford said.

“So they have personalities, which is something I find endlessly fascinating and a source of great curiosity when writing music.”

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Crawford’s work through the AI Now Institute “is focused on how these tools that are part of everyday life are starting to produce, in some cases, serious forms of inequity, of bias and discrimination, in the systems we rely on”.

From health care to education to criminal justice, artificial intelligence was “a profoundly concentrated industry [with] social, economic and political power,” she said.

Crawford said there were “enormous sociological and political questions” that needed to be asked about using AI in our everyday life.

“It gets much more concerning when we look to the way in which artificial intelligence is used to decide who might get a job, or be seen as a more dangerous defendant in the criminal justice system; or what student is seen to have the greatest potential in how they are responding in a classroom,” she said.

“All of these systems I am describing already exist and we have an entire industry set up to try to extract data and to apply meanings to that data.

“The more I work in the field and really study those systems, a lot of those meanings are very suspect, and I think we have to be much more critical in the way we might expect artificial intelligence systems to interpret the world.”

Red-haired woman gazing out of frame
Kate Crawford is now a leading researcher and professor of the social implications of data systems and machine learning.(Supplied: Kate Crawford)

From electronic music to folk rock

Unlike Crawford, Skeltys moved “180 degrees away from electronic music” towards folk rock, as a touring artist.

“People still crave the live performance experience, that intimacy and joy of being with other people,” she said.

“We long to be together and have that sense of community in the real world.”

She said much of her music was peppered with political and social commentary.

“There’s always people who say ‘nothing to worry about’, and philosophers and analysts who say we need to be worried because there’s going to be surplus populations and so many of us are not going to be needed,” Skeltys said.

“That’s another reason why I gravitated to [folk]. Some of the themes I’ve been writing and singing about … have unfortunately become more acute, rather than less so.”

Woman in glasses and hat at microphone with electric guitar
Nicole Skeltys is an Australian composer, writer and presenter, and former member of Canberra electronica duo B(if)tek.(Supplied: Nicole Skeltys)

It was after B(if)tek’s third album that Skeltys decided she “wanted to work less with machines and more with people”.

She lent her vintage collection of synthesisers to the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio, “an artist-run, living museum where anyone who’s curious and interested in this technology and aesthetic can go in, touch them, and learn how to use them”.

“One of the great inventors and pioneers of synthesisers, Bob Moog, called the experience [of using them] ‘a feeling you’re channelling some kind of spiritual, transcendental, universal energy’ — the opposite of artificial intelligence,” she said.

“I thought and felt that as well.”

Skeltys said the themes dealt with in her latest album, Deal With Your Disenchantment, had become “more and more real for people as we all deal with our disenchantment of being in lockdown”.

But Crawford thinks the disenchantment goes deeper.



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Canberra man sentenced to jail for using stolen government car to ram raid Harvey Norman store



A ram raid which left a seven-metre hole in the side of the Harvey Norman store in Canberra last year has landed a man in jail for five years.

In July last year, Lee Bennett, 39, and his co-accused Dean Simonds, 38, walked out with a haul of electronic gear including laptops after breaking through the wall of the Fyshwick shop in a stolen government car.

The ACT Supreme Court heard the pair had earlier raided a Kambah depot, stealing the car, iPads and other items from the onsite office.

Later they broke into a car park at Lyons damaging and stealing items from cars, including nappies, perfume, phone chargers and sunglasses.

The court heard the men were partly undone because police were able to trace their movements through a tracking device in the government car they had stolen.

Phone tower data was also used, as well as DNA swabs which placed them at key places.

Court documents revealed that Bennett photographed many of the stolen items including laptops, a wireless keyboard, a gaming monitor and an iPod.

Messages on his phone also revealed he was trying to sell the items, telling one contact:

“Bruv ya missed out I went and got Harvey’s last night g got like six lappys gaming screen virtual reality gaming projector screen things fucking the new Ipod touch,, we got a decent chunk probably sell and get about 3keach.”

To another person, he unsuccessfully tried to sell a signal jammer.

“It’s a Wolvesfleet 1 … blocks out all cell phone wifi and any spy cam or listening devices,” Bennett sent in a message.

Police swooped on Simonds later in the morning after tracking the car to Weston, approaching him as he was returning to drive away.

Co-offender found hiding under bed ‘wanted to spend more time with the family’

Court documents show Simonds ran to the car and tried to get away but an officer broke the window with his baton.

When Simonds reached into his pocket, the officer pulled out his gun and warned him: “Don’t do it Dean. I’ll f***ing shoot you.”

But police later discovered Simonds was only reaching for the key to the car.

Simonds managed to escape from the car, leading police on a chase until he was cornered in a courtyard, where he was tasered and handcuffed.

His co-offender, Bennett was later found hiding under a mattress in his house, where he told officers he had been waiting for them.

“I was going to leave, but I wanted to spend more time with the family,” Bennett told police.

He also told police that he had gone with Simonds to steal the items because he wanted money to provide for his family.

On Wednesday Bennett was sentenced to five years in jail, with a non-parole period of two and a half years.

Simonds will be assessed by the ACT’s drug and alcohol court before being sentenced.

His lawyer Jason Moffet welcomed the plan, saying Simonds had been making every effort to overcome his addictions, which had fuelled his offending.

“He only commits offences when he’s on drugs,” Mr Moffet said.

Chief Justice Helen Murrell warned that if the court was not convinced Simonds was eligible for a drug and alcohol order, he would likely serve three and a half years in jail.

Both men have been ordered to pay reparations of $122 each.



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ACT residents stuck in Victoria given four-day window to return home through NSW



From tomorrow, Canberra drivers stranded in Victoria will have a four-day window to make it home from the New South Wales border.

About 100 Canberrans have been stranded at the NSW-Victorian border since Friday after strict coronavirus restrictions stopped them driving home through NSW.

The sudden change in border rules caught many travellers off-guard, and some have since been forced to sleep in their cars.

After six days of talks with the ACT Government, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard announced the resolution this morning.

He said arrangements had been made with NSW Police to allow for the special exemption.

“Those residents will have four days to come on back from Victoria by direct route,” Mr Hazzard said.

“They will expected to travel only between the hours of 9:00am and 3:00pm.”

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said common sense had prevailed and the outcome was “manageable, if a few days late”.

“We look forward to bringing them home,” he said.

Mr Barr said the special four-day addition to NSW’s public health directions would be “very closely monitored”.

He said only people with valid permits could travel through NSW, and the permits must be displayed on the dashboard.

Mr Barr said all vehicles must also have a full tank of fuel.

“I’m fairly certain that most will want to travel tomorrow, given how long they’ve been waiting, but we’ll be able to confirm those numbers,” he said.

“People could leave Wodonga at 9:01am and arrive in Canberra by lunchtime tomorrow.

Returned ACT residents will then be required to self-quarantine for 14 days in their own homes.



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Australian National University researchers discover swelling of part of the brain in people with both depression and anxiety


Our understanding of the relationship between the brain and mental illness has grown, with a new study into those who suffer from both depression and anxiety.

The research, conducted at the Australian National University, looked at more than 10,000 people with both disorders and discovered that part of their brain, the amygdala, swells in size.

Now published in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, the findings could offer hope for sufferers by shedding light on their combined impact on the brain.

A step forward in understanding the brain

A young woman is silhouetted by a window, wearing a cap and hugging herself.
Lead researcher Daniela Espinoza Oyarce says people with depression often experience anxiety too.(ABC News: Alice Roberts)

Scientists had already established that those with depression often experienced a shrinking of the part of their brain linked to memory and learning, the hippocampus.

By choosing to look at those with anxiety as well, this study has cornered a new area of research by seeing how it impacted the area of the brain linked with emotion, lead researcher Daniela Espinoza Oyarce said.

“Many studies looking at the effect of depression on the brain do not account for the fact that people who have depression often experience anxiety too,” Ms Espinoza Oyarce said.

“We found people who have depression alone have lower brain volumes in many areas of the brain, and in particular the hippocampus. 

But those with both mental illnesses did not experience that shrinkage, she said, with anxiety lowering the effects on brain volume size by three per cent.

She said this indicated that the true effect of depression had been underestimated, while also revealing the brain’s reaction to anxiety.

“That is why it ends up being larger — that is what we think the process is.”

What does this mean for sufferers?

For many people living with mental illness, the process of finding a medication or therapy that offers relief can be long.

A woman lies on a bed with her hands over her face.
The study sheds further light on the relationship between our moods and our brain.(Supplied: Anthony Tran)

Ms Espinoza Oyarce said the evidence that those with both conditions did not experience changes to their hippocampus was not necessarily good news.

“What depression does to the brain, is that many areas are affected — but when depression is together with anxiety, anxiety masks the effects,” she said.

“We don’t know why that is happening, or exactly how.”

She said the hope was that with this new information, clinicians would be able to land on the appropriate medication for an individual more quickly, knowing how differently their brain might be reacting if they had just one condition or both.

She said the findings further highlighted how much of a role our brains played in our moods.

“We tend to think that when we are feeling a bit down or when we are anxious, everything is in our heads, but it can be traced back to certain areas of the brain.”

‘An overdue focus’ in mental health research

A woman holds a model of a brain up to the light.
Ms Espinoza Oyarce conducted her study based on roughly 10,000 participants.(Supplied: Australian National University)

Up to 50 per cent of people who have depression also have anxiety, Dr Genevieve Rayner, a research fellow in Clinical Neuropsychology at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, said.

She said research had often excluded anxiety from studies into depression because it was considered “a complicating factor”.

“When actually that’s the reality for a lot of people with depression is that they also suffer from anxiety at the same time,” she said.

The new findings on the effects of both conditions were “an overdue focus”, she said.

“To understand what the influence of that anxiety is on the structures of the brain is really important,” she said.

While science still knows relatively little about the brain, what is understood is that anxiety often worsens the outcomes for people with depression.

Dr Rayner said the focus of Ms Espinoza Oyarce’s research offered hope to the many millions of people living with both.

“I think this provides hope that by better understanding what’s going on in the brain, that we can tailor our treatments to your individual symptom profile,” she said.

“And I think that it shows that researchers are moving towards looking for how to best design research and looking for future treatments that can be targeted towards symptoms, or mental illnesses that co-occur.”



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Concerns raised over coronavirus risk at Liberal fundraisers when Parliament sits


Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing calls to intervene and stop a series of Liberal fundraisers planned for Parliament House later this month, amid concerns from crossbenchers that they pose a coronavirus risk.

The fundraising events, first reported by The Guardian, reportedly cost $2,500 a head and are a money-spinner for the WA branch of the Liberal Party.

The Prime Minister’s own assistant minister, Ben Morton, is one of the key guests, and Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher are also slated to attend.

“This whole thing just reeks of danger and the Prime Minister needs to show some leadership and put a stop to it,” independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick told the ABC.

Senator Patrick’s concerns were echoed by crossbench MPs Helen Haines and Zali Steggall, who said parliamentarians should be focused on the task of serving the public while in Canberra.

“Politicians have to lead by example, particularly in circumstances where we have people coming from all sorts of jurisdictions, mixing in with each other and risking the potential spread of coronavirus back into their own communities when they return home.”

Paul Fletcher speaks in front of a bank of microphones.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is also expected to attend.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

Sitting weeks scheduled for the start of August were abandoned last month, after advice from Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly about coronavirus risks.

Any politicians travelling from Victoria for the sitting period have been required to strictly quarantine for two weeks ahead of the sitting period.

The WA Liberals said the Capital Hill fundraisers would comply with all coronavirus restrictions, and were not large gatherings.

“Given border restrictions, it is not possible, practical or feasible for any attendee to fly in from interstate for these events,” a spokesman said.

“On that basis, only attendees from the Canberra region will be able to attend.”

In the ACT, a Public Health Emergency has been declared and those organising indoor events have to observe social distancing.

But the Labor ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he presumed the events would be small and conducted in accordance with coronavirus restrictions.

“Political parties will fundraise,” he said.

“It’s appropriate for fundraising activities to occur as long as they’re done safely.”

The events must not exceed one person for every 4 square metres of space and are also capped at 100 participants.

Zali Steggall addresses the media while speaking in a hall with murals
Zali Steggall says the focus at Parliament House should be on constituents and not political fundraisers.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Fears fundraiser could jeopardise Parliament

Ms Steggall, the member for the Sydney-based lower house seat of Warringah, said many people had been frustrated that some parliamentary sittings were cancelled, and were worried about whether the Government was being appropriately scrutinised.

“We have had a limited ability for Parliament to sit, and this should not be jeopardised for party fundraisers.”

But Senator Birmingham defended his attendance, arguing that, as Tourism Minister, he was in favour of events that supported the hospitality industry, as long as they complied with coronavirus restrictions.

“People shouldn’t compound their pain by criticising events that support economic activity and protect local jobs, when they are being conducted entirely within the strict COVID guidelines.”

Independent MP Helen Haines, who is quarantining on her Victorian property for a fortnight before coming to Canberra for the sitting period, said hosting party-political fundraisers at Parliament House during the pandemic was “inappropriate”.

“During the pandemic, access to members of parliament has been difficult for everyday Australians,” she said.

“Allowing people to pay thousands of dollars for a seat at the table will leave a pretty bad taste in the mouth of everyday people and small businesses struggling to get by during this tough economic period.”

Senator Patrick, who was previously diagnosed with coronavirus himself, said politicians were taking unnecessary risks that could impact on their own electorates.

Rex Patrick speaks in the Senate.
Rex Patrick contracted COVID-19 earlier this year.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

“I’m a politician who had COVID-19 without any symptoms,” he said.

“We need to adopt a precautionary principle here. We need to be very cautious about who it is that we meet with, and minimise all activity.”

While he maintained that only essential meetings should be in the political diary, he stopped short of arguing that all social activity should be cancelled, saying dinners with colleagues should still be able to go ahead.

“Politicians need to of course eat,” he said.

“But there is no real reason for people to gather, particularly in circumstances where they are coming from different jurisdictions.”

Last week, a South Australian Liberal fundraiser drew critics, when it catered for 700 people at the same time as the Liberal Government in that state reimposed a 75-person cap on funerals and weddings.

Senator Patrick said the inconsistencies showed a double standard being applied that revealed an “awful culture among politicians”.



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Canberra mum gives birth to healthy baby in hospital carpark on freezing -5C morning


Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t throw any more curveballs, how about adding a baby, born in a carpark, into the mix?

In the early hours of last Thursday morning, when the temperature reached a cool -5 degrees Celsius in Canberra, Samantha Noordhuis gave birth to baby number three in a hospital carpark.

“We were in the Canberra Hospital carpark when bub decided to arrive,” Ms Noordhuis told ABC Radio Canberra’s breakfast program on Tuesday.

“I swung my legs out of the car and dropped to the ground, and then bub decided to arrive.

“He just came out super duper fast.”

A baby in a white jumpsuit sleeping.
Baby Brayden arrived safely on August 6, weighing 3.31 kilograms.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Ms Noordhuis said her contractions began at 3:00am, and at 5:00am, she and partner Ben Haywood were in the car, en route to the hospital from their home in Macgregor, in Canberra’s north.

Fortunately, he rang ahead “from Hindmarsh Drive” and a midwife met them in the freezing air outside the hospital, armed with blankets.

“I was so focussed on the pain and it was making me so hot and sweaty that it was actually the perfect temperature for me to be out there,” Ms Noordhuis said.

“Even though they were trying to get me in the doors for the poor baby, I was quite happy where we were.

“It was all over within a matter of 10 minutes, I reckon,” added Mr Haywood.

A little boy holds his newborn brother while his mum looks on.
Jackson (pictured) and Liam love their new little brother.(Supplied)

Baby Brayden weighed a healthy 3.31 kilograms — but the happy story does not end there.

“A few hours after the birth, we were still in the hospital and hadn’t been discharged yet, and my partner proposed to me,” Ms Noordhuis said.

“It was the biggest shock of my life.

Sign in front of Canberra Hospital
Samantha Noordhuis gave birth to her third baby in the Canberra Hospital’s carpark.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

As for Brayden, he is “doing excellent” at home with brothers Jackson, 4, and Liam, 2.

“He’s feeding well and he’s sleeping well,” Ms Noordhuis said.

“He loves to sleep during the day so we’re working on that at the moment.



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Unions want working holidaymaker visa axed, say pandemic shows farmers’ over-reliance on backpackers


Australian farmers need to stop hiring international backpackers to harvest their crops and instead employ young people in regional and rural areas, according to several unions.

The Australian Workers’ Union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Transport Workers’ Union have formed an alliance, calling for an urgent end to the working holidaymaker visa.

In a submission to a federal review of the farm workforce, the Retail Supply Chain Alliance claimed the backpacker program was rife with exploitation and called for more Australians to work on farms as well as an expansion of the seasonal worker program.

It comes days after industry body the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) told a parliamentary inquiry that removing working holidaymakers would cost the economy $13 billion and could drive up the price of fresh fruit and vegetables by as much as 60 per cent.

AFPA estimated almost 130,000 people on the working holidaymaker visa were typically employed across the sector.

But backpacker numbers have fallen by 50,000 since Australia introduced restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year.

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the pandemic had shown the horticulture industry’s over-reliance on overseas workers at a time when regional unemployment was “through the roof”.

“Farmers need to attract Australians back into the horticulture workforce,” he said.

Mr Walton said if farmers “started paying people decent wages, there’s a willing workforce already out there in rural and remote Australia”.

The National Farmers’ Federation has argued there are not enough workers in Australia to fulfil the industry’s needs, and COVID-19 bans on inbound travel, and state border closures, are likely to compound the problem

The NFF last month launched a job site to try to connect Australians looking for work with farmers, claiming job seekers “may be surprised about how much they can earn in agriculture and horticulture, in some cases, up to $1,000 per week”.

But the unions claimed “the evidence for systemic and widespread exploitation in Australia’s horticulture sector is empirical”, and referred to several recent legal proceedings involving backpackers employed on farms.

“There are farmers who are doing the right thing by their employees; if they can pay a fair wage and treat their workers with respect, why can’t everyone?” Mr Walton said.

Farm work
Backpackers are relied on for seasonal picking work in regional Australia.(ABC Rural: Charlie McKillop)

Call to expand seasonal worker program

The Retail Supply Chain Alliance also used its submission to endorse broadening the seasonal worker program, which allows workers from Pacific nations to work on Australian farms.

It called for more countries to be involved in the SWP and for it to provide a pathway to citizenship.

The Federal Government recently approved a pilot for workers from Vanuatu, under the SWP, to enter Australia to work on mango farms.

It followed remarks by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud who said Australian workers had a “real aversion” to go and pick fruit,

In April, the Government extended visas so people on the working holidaymaker and seasonal worker programs could remain in Australia.

Australia’s unemployment rate is 7.4 per cent, its highest level in 20 years.

Minister: Working with states to end exploitation

Responding to the unions’ call to put an end to the backpacker visa, Mr Littleproud said it was impractical for farmers to “live in hope that someone would turn up to harvest their crops”.

“We will also continue to work with states to achieve a more harmonised regulatory model to eliminate worker exploitation,” Mr Littleproud said.

Opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the Government had “made a difficult situation worse by not addressing the structural issues and allowing worker exploitation to continue”.



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Canberra Liberals candidate Peter McKay ‘condemned’ Welcome to Country ceremonies in 2018 parliamentary submission


The Canberra Liberals’ newest candidate described Indigenous Welcome to Country ceremonies as “animistic practices … to be condemned” and ACT Policing as a force influenced by a homosexual agenda, according to submissions he made to a federal inquiry in 2018.

On Sunday, Peter McKay was announced as the latest Liberal Party candidate for the inner-city seat of Kurrajong in the upcoming ACT election.

In his announcement, ACT Liberal leader Alistair Coe said he was “pleased to have such a passionate advocate on our Kurrajong Liberal team”.

But a 2018 submission by Mr McKay to a federal inquiry into religious freedoms, known as the “Ruddock review”, made several comments that would appear out of step with the Canberra Liberals.

In his submission, Mr McKay wrote that Canberra had in recent years “been subjected to religious terrorism”, noting a 2016 incident where a van exploded outside the Australian Christian Lobby headquarters in Canberra.

“The man that used six gas bottles to bomb a secluded Christian organisation in Canberra had worked as an advocate in the USA yet within 24 hours of the attack the ACT Police influenced by the homosexual Chief Minister and the strong lesbian influence in the ACT Police (yes, I could provide some names) dismissed the attack on religious thought by describing the cause as a mental health issue,” Mr McKay wrote.

“This was ‘false news’ and diminishes trust in our authorities.”

An AFP investigation determined the man was most likely trying to take his own life, and that the act was not religiously motivated.

ACT Chief Minster Andrew Barr hugs his partner Anthony Toms.
Peter McKay wrote Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Australia’s first openly gay leader of a government, had influenced police to dismiss an “attack on religious thought”.(ABC News: Clare Sibthorpe)

Mr McKay also said that debate had been supressed on “the consequences of accepting or rejecting homosexuality regarding demographic effect, economic growth, health, increased government support for old age support, the emotional health of children, [and] premature transgender cutting”.

“What are the ramifications of this poor governance? We don’t know the issues because the debate was closed down.”

Candidate ‘condemned’ use of Welcome to Country ceremonies

Following from his concern around debate, Mr McKay wrote that Indigenous customs were an imposition on the religious freedoms of public servants, who were obligated to “ensure and apply this religious ceremony publicly onto unsuspecting members of the public”.

“The last one I attended included the acknowledgement and worship of Aboriginal ancestors. This is similar to a number of animistic religions around the world. These religions did not result in the benefits of development that emanates from western civilisation,” he wrote.

Mr McKay declined an invitation from the ABC to be interviewed about the submissions, saying he was focused on the future and what he could bring to the Kurrajong electorate.

The Canberra Liberals did not respond to questions from the ABC.

Two Aboriginal women and an Aboriginal girl perform a Welcome to Country to the Prime Minister inside Parliament House
Mr McKay said Welcome to Country practices, like that performed at the opening of the 46th Parliament, should be condemned(Australian Parliament House)

Liberals endorse Mr McKay as ‘high calibre’ candidate

The party announced on Sunday that Mr McKay had been endorsed as their replacement candidate for the seat of Kurrajong for October’s territory election.

The former Army officer and senior public servant replaced Vijay Dubey after he stood down due to a disagreement with the Liberal Party.

In a press release announcing Mr McKay’s endorsement, Canberra Liberals campaign director Josh Manuatu said the party was “fortunate to have a candidate of such high calibre in Peter to join our exemplary Kurrajong Liberal Team”.

The statement also quoted Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe saying Mr McKay brings “a real-life understanding of so many long-term Canberrans who want to make sure that Canberra can be the best place to retire”.

Mr McKay also made submissions into Prostitution Act review

Mr McKay’s submission to the Ruddock review was not his first contribution to a government inquiry.

In 2011, Mr McKay also wrote to the ACT inquiry reviewing the 1992 Prostitution Act.

In it, he warned that Canberra’s sex industry was a “drain on the ACT housing budget” as a breakdown in relationships due to men engaging with sex workers caused separated couples increased financial hardship, and forced couples originally living under the same roof to move into two homes.

“The social consequences of the sex industry on society’s health and housing budget can be measured,” Mr McKay wrote.

He also called for sex work advertisements to be banned.

“Smoking is a health hazard. Casual sex is also a health hazard for committed relationships so if the government is unable to promote the benefits of long term commitments in relationships (for the betterment of their budget) it should at least restrict the promotion of casual sex.”



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Bushfires, COVID-19 take heavy toll on Australian tourism, and things are likely to get worse


Australia’s tourism industry is reeling with the impacts of the summer’s bushfires COVID-19 restrictions, with warnings domestic tourism may not fill the void left by foreign tourists.

New data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Thursday shows the number of jobs in the tourism sector fell by three per cent in the year to March, the largest fall in 16 years.

The fall in jobs was likely driven by the bushfires, which burned almost 16 million hectares of land in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

“Tourism activities tend to be labour intensive and this data shows the impact of the bushfires and the early stages of COVID-19 on the tourism industry,” ABS spokeswoman Amanda Clark said.

There were 702,700 tourism industry jobs at the end of March.

That figure is expected to fall further, when statistics for the June quarter are released next month.

Survey yields grim results

Australia introduced a ban on overseas travellers entering Australia in March, with some states adding restrictions since.

Earlier this week, Queensland announced it was closing its border to NSW and ACT residents once more.

But even if domestic travel was rebooted, it wouldn’t help 35 per cent of businesses surveyed by the Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC).

The survey of 500 tourism operators, provided to the ABC, was conducted in June as some state’s border restrictions began to ease.

Of the businesses surveyed, 44 per cent said they would face closure within six to 12 months without government support.

Seventy-seven per cent of operators that relied on foreign visitors said they would be out of business in the next year unless international tourism was allowed.

“While the domestic tourism market may provide some support to industry businesses, this will in no way significantly supplant the yield derived from international visitor spend,” an ATEC spokesman said.

“Expectations on the travel budget capacity of our domestic market are unrealistic given diminished consumer confidence, perceived economic insecurity, and disrupted leave entitlements experienced by many Australians this year.”

The spokesman said almost 90 per cent of operators were using the Government’s wage subsidy program JobKeeper to keep staff employed.

A man with a beard stands behind a bar.
Dinner Plain brewer Mark Hubbard says bushfires and COVID-19 restrictions have meant he has only opened for 10 weeks this year.(Supplied: Mark Hubbard)

Tourism sectors in states without internal movement restrictions, including South Australia and Western Australia, can at least generate money from their own residents, whereas states with tougher movement restrictions, such as Victoria, cannot.

According to Deloitte, visitors to Victoria – including local, interstate and international – spend about $32 billion a year, with the bulk of that coming from Victorians.

About half of that (47 percent) comes from Victorian’s travelling in their own state, 25 percent from interstate visitors and 28 percent from foreigners.

“That is why it was important for people to be able to travel domestically,” said Adele Labine-Romain, Deloitte’s tourism lead.

“Inter and intra state travel was meant to be the saving grace for tourism in the pandemic, but in Victoria that can’t happen now because of the lockdowns.”

Ms Labine-Romain said it was hoped that people stuck within their state’s borders would spending their travel dollars locally, rather than overseas.

However, she said that is only happening in states that have come out of heavy lockdowns, such as South Australia

“South Australians usually spend quite lot of money travelling interstate and overseas, but in this period of time they have only been able to travel intrastate,” she said.

“So they are re-directing the money they would have spent interstate and overseas to support the local industry right now.”

‘A year to forget’

Tourism in Victoria’s alpine region has been hit hard by the effects of the bushfires and the pandemic.

Mark Hubbard runs a brewery at Dinner Plain, in the state’s east, and estimates the business has had just 10 weeks of normal trading in 2020.

“This is a year to forget,” Mr Hubbard said.

“We have had to close for the bushfires in January, closed for COVID in March, April and May, and now we’re closed for COVID again in August and September.

A 2016 report found Victoria’s alpine region contributed almost $800 million to the state’s GDP, adding 7900 jobs, with more than half of those directly employed in the snow activities.

Mr Hubbard expects his business could be down as much as 40 per cent on last year, but said “it’s too depressing to look”.

“We rely on tourism heavily, so if people are unable or not allowed to be here, we don’t have a customer base,” he said.

“If my brewery was in Melbourne I would still be able to sell takeaway beer, as I am able to do here — but I would have an audience, I would have people I am able to sell to.

NZ travel bubble off until after September: Minister

Many in the tourism industry hoped exemptions for travel between New Zealand and Australia would reinvigorate the tourism sector.

But Australia’s Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said a travel bubble was unlikely before the New Zealand election on September 19.

“We have done much of the preparatory work to be ready to open our borders to New Zealand,” he said.

Mr Birmingham suggested some states with little to no community transmission may be able to resume travel with New Zealand sooner than others.

“It is very important that we don’t let the failings of some states prevent other states from moving ahead if they can,” he said.

Mr Birmingham said that the international travel bans had inspired Australians to holiday locally.

“There’s a lot of reports that the recent school holidays were the busiest in years,” he said.

“That’s wonderful for those regions, and we want to continue to encourage that travel, but there are still huge parts of the tourism industry doing it incredibly tough.”

Adele Labine-Romain, from Deloitte, said Australians from states with less restrictions were spending their money closer to home.

“They are redirecting the money they would have spent interstate and overseas to support the local industry right now,” she said.

Last year domestic and international tourists spent about $150 billion across the country.



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