Freedom Foods accounting scandal worsens, as ASIC begins its investigation


Cereal and snack-maker Freedom Foods is being investigated by the corporate regulator ASIC for a series of “significant” accounting problems.

The beleaguered company has also revealed that its earnings would be hurt by $590 million in write-downs.

In a series of announcements made after the market had closed on Monday, the company said a profit of $11.6 million in the 2018-19 financial year had become a $145.8 million loss.

It said the loss widened in the past financial year to $174.5 million.

Also, two of Freedom’s board members — chairman Perry Gunner and non-executive director Trevor Allen — will retire in late January, close to its next annual general meeting.

Their departure will come just five months after former chief executive Rory Macleod, and then-chief financial officer Campbell Nicholas, were forced to quit.

In the wake of their removal, Michael Perich was appointed interim CEO; the Perich family are Australia’s largest dairy farming family, and own 54 per cent of Freedom Foods.

Freedom shares have been suspended from trading since June.

The company’s shares last traded at about $3, having peaked at $7 in September 2018.

Michael Perich and his family are the majority owners of Freedom Foods.(ABC News: Sarina Locke)

Shareholders find news hard to chew

Freedom’s board received a frosty reception from shareholders at a hastily convened webcast on Monday evening, following the news.

Callers questioned company oversight and the scope of the $590 million write-down, of which $372.8 million is linked to asset values being slashed.

It was explained that Freedom has incurred enormous costs building machinery to handle its new product lines, but did not put it down as an “expense” in its books.

The company also wrote down its goodwill and brands by $75.9 million.

It also had to write down $60.1 million due to “out-of-date, unsaleable and obsolete inventory”.

“These accounting treatments contributed to decisions on new products and expansions that were based on unrealistic assessments of market opportunities and margin assumptions that were not realised,” Freedom said in a statement.

“As a result, too many group products were sold at prices that did not fully recover their costs.”

Freedom Foods logo over a red background
Shareholders are unhappy about spending an extra $280m to fix Freedom Foods’ mismanagement.(Supplied: Freedom Foods)

‘Good money after bad’

Mr Perich said it was a deeply disappointing set of results for Freedom Food Group, its people and its shareholders.

“The results reflect the significant costs of past accounting and operational matters — matters we have identified with the assistance of independent experts and are taking steps to remedy,” he said.

To fix its balance sheet, the company is asking shareholders to stump up $280 million through a capital raising.

The request didn’t go down well during Monday’s webcast.

“Why should I throw good money after bad?” asked one frustrated shareholder.

Mr Gunner said Freedom’s problems were due to its “fast” pace of growth, and the board was keen to address those issues by simplifying the business.

Curiously, the company also decided to publish its updated “Securities Trading Policy” to the public on Monday.

The policy contained a section that bans insider trading, which is already illegal under Australian law.

Under its policy, “Restricted persons” (defined as employees) cannot deal in shares of the company if they have “inside information”.

Nor can they buy or sell shares of Freedom during “closed trading periods”.

Basically, they have to wait for at least one day after the company’s results are announced to the ASX.

Further investigations

Alarm bells rang in March when it was discovered that some of Freedom’s executives had been giving themselves extra payments, over several years, without authorisation from the board.

Mr Gunner said the company did not find out until after this had occurred.

“During the year ended 30 June 2020, the board identified matters regarding the operation and administration of the group’s equity incentive plan (EIP),” the company’s external auditor Deloitte wrote in its report.

“The matters included the granting of previously undisclosed employee share options and/or extension of the expiry date of share options by management between September 2014 and September 2019.”

An audit by Deloitte and a forensic accounting investigation by PwC have discovered some “significant” accounting problems for the company, dating back a few years.

In addition to the internal probe, Freedom now has to contend with an external regulator in ASIC, which can wield its power in punitive ways.

Freedom said that ASIC had formally requested documents from the company as part of its investigation, and that it was cooperating with the regulator.



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Boxing news: Mark Hunt v Paul Gallen, fight, steroids, Cronulla Sharks peptides scandal, text to ask if on drugs


Mark Hunt has revealed he texted Paul Gallen to ask if he was taking performance-enhancing drugs prior to their heavyweight clash at Bankwest Stadium next month.

Hunt, 46, will face Gallen on December 16 as part of the card for Tim Tszyu’s bout with Bowyn Morgan.

The Auckland-born ex-MMA and kickboxing star will face former Cronulla and NSW captain and admitted he had concerns over Gallen’s past.

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The 39-year-old was heavily-implicated in the Sharks’ peptides scandal, although he has consistently denied any wrongdoing.



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Another Drug Lab Scandal — One That Took Kids From Their Parents — Ends In Prison Time


from the behold-the-motherfuckery-of-your-tax-dollars-at-work dept

Another horror story involving the government and a drug-testing lab is finally coming to a close. And the owner of the drug lab is going to jail.

Unlike others we’ve covered, this drug lab didn’t contain employees who falsified drug tests that landed people in jail. But the outcome for the innocent was nearly as miserable. Faked drug tests performed by Brandy Murrah, the owner of A & J Lab Collections, resulted in parents losing their children.

As Ozark police continue to investigate reports of falsified drug and paternity cases involving a company contracted by the Department of Human Resources, families are coming forward with claims forged documents impacted their homes.

Jennifer Seavers is one of them.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry, and I just want to bring my babies home as any parent would want to do,” Seavers said.

Seavers says she used the Department of Human Resource’s Pike County drug testing vendor, Brandy Murrah of A & J Lab Collections, as part of her custody battle for her youngest girls, Madilyn and Jennifer Grace.

Seavers said Murrah provided false positive drug tests, which prompted a judge to order restrictions on her access to her children – further complicating the custody battle.

This victim dug into the lab work supposedly performed by Murrah and found her test had been faked. The doctor that supposedly signed off on it had never seen the paperwork or reports generated by Murrah, who forged the doctor’s signature on the documents.

The county also began digging into Murrah’s drug testing and found more of the same.

Murrah had an agreement with the Dale County Department of Human Resources to perform drugs test on individuals involved in dependency, or custody, cases. She was not involved in any criminal cases.

Investigators said they launched their probe May 2 after evidence of drug screening reports that were provided to the Dale County Department of Human Resources by Murrah were found to be falsified. Ozark police Sgt. Cody Evans said multiple other drug screening reports provided to DHR are also believed to have been forged by Murrah.

It’s unclear whether Murrah’s actions were prompted by animosity towards her victims or just plain laziness. It really doesn’t matter. Her actions ripped families apart and destroyed people’s futures. But in the end, at least some justice was served.

Judge William Filmore decided Murrah, the former owner of an Ozark lab test collection company, will spend 15 years in prison after hearing testimony from those who said she falsified lab reports that led to their children being taken away.

Murrah pleaded guilty in September, agreeing to 15 years on a felony charge of perjury and 12 months on each of 16 misdemeanor counts of forgery to run concurrently.

This will give victims some closure. But it will only provide limited comfort. Their lives went through serious upheaval. Seavers isn’t the only victim. Grace Newton went through the same nightmare. She fought through her drug problems to get her kids back only to have the state take away her three-month-old infant after a drug test handled by Murrah came back positive. This was reversed after a negative drug test, but for three weeks, the state became her baby’s new parent, thanks to Murrah.

But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t take citizens wronged by a government contractor to suss out malfeasance and wrongdoing. The system residents are paying for with their tax dollars needs to be more proactive with its oversight. Rigorous oversight is difficult. But, ultimately, it’s worth the time and effort. It’s better to be perceived as skeptical than as a group of public servants willing to throw the public to the subcontracted wolves.

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

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Filed Under: brandy murrah, drug testing lab, forged results, law enforcement
Companies: a&j lab collections



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Ex-PM Abe’s Office Investigated Over Cherry Blossom Party Scandal – The Diplomat


Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

A scandal from 2018 continues to dog the former Japanese prime minister.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged Tuesday his office is being investigated for questionable expenses linked to a dinner party his office hosted for his supporters ahead of an annual cherry blossom viewing party — a scandal that has been on the backburner for months.

Abe made the comment in response to reports Monday that the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors’ Office has been interviewing his aides over the scandal. None of his aides or supporters have been arrested so far.

Abe, who was in power for nearly eight years as Japan’s longest-serving leader, stepped down in mid-September, citing ill health, but some critics have said the scandal might have been a reason. His successor as prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who served as chief Cabinet secretary in Abe’s government, scrapped the cherry blossom viewing party the day he took office.

The scandal involves a 2018 annual dinner party for which Abe’s guests paid a 5,000 yen ($48) fee. Opposition lawmakers have said that the fee was too low for a party at an upscale Tokyo hotel, and that Abe’s office allegedly covered the difference without reporting it properly.

“My office is fully cooperating with the investigation launched in response to a criminal complaint,” Abe told reporters Tuesday. He declined to give details of the investigation and said he had already provided an explanation during parliamentary sessions earlier this year when questioned by opposition lawmakers.

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The investigation comes in response to criminal complaints filed earlier this year by a group of hundreds of lawyers and scholars asking Tokyo prosecutors to investigate whether Abe and executives from his political support group had subsidized party fees for Abe’s supporters in 2018 in alleged violation of campaign and election funds laws.

Japanese law prohibits politicians from giving gifts to constituents.

Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

By Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press in Tokyo, Japan.



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Danish Prime Minister selects new minister following mink culling scandal


Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has appointed a new agriculture minister after Mogens Jensen resigned for illegally ordering the culling of all minks in Denmark.

Development Cooperation Minister Rasmus Prehn has been selected to take over from Jensen.

The mass cull was ordered after a mutated form of coronavirus was found in the mink population.

Authorities were concerned that the vaccines due to enter European markets in a matter of months might not be effective against the new variant of coronavirus.

Earlier this month 11 people caught the mutated variant of the virus, sparking concerns of a new outbreak.

But the Danish Health Ministry said on Thursday that the coronavirus variant is very likely extinct and that “no further cases of mink variant with cluster 5 have been detected since 15 September”.

Jensen’s initial order lacked a legal basis for killing healthy animals. The oversight sparked a scramble to build political consensus for a new law that now has support from a majority of the Danish parliament.

The order caused a sharp political backlash in Denmark. The left-leaning parties that support the Social Democratic one-party, minority government said they had lost confidence in the former minister, prompting his resignation. The centre-right opposition also expressed reservations.

Despite the backlash, farmers have continued to cull the mink population.

Concerns spread to Ireland

Ireland’s chief medical officer Tony Holohan gave the order to the Department of Agriculture to instruct mink farmers to cull their livestock.

The Department of Agriculture said it was working closely with the owners of Ireland’s mink farms.

“”Mink farmers continue to operate in full compliance with all legislative and animal welfare requirements and have co-operated fully with these efforts,” the department said in a statement.

Ireland has relatively lower numbers of minks compared to Denmark – there are only three farms and about 120,000 animals in total.

But authorities were concerned that all it would take is one mink to pass this new mutation on to humans.



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NRL clears North Queensland Cowboys officials over sex scandal allegations


The man, a truck driver, claims he found a message from the player which was sent to his wife, also a Cowboys employee, about the sexual act, which is alleged to have occurred while returning from an NRL game.

The man later tested positive for benzodiazepine in a workplace drug test. Dr Ball issued a medical certificate for the man’s employer claiming he had personally consulted with the man.

The claims led to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency issuing a provisional caution against Dr Ball, to which he was allowed to respond.

It was the lowest level of sanction from the medical watchdog. It was unclear whether the caution was for providing the drugs without a written prescription, the medical certificate or both.

The NRL said it wrote to the Cowboys’ chief medical officer concerning a regulatory matter outside the scope of the NRL rules, of which it said none were broken.

“The integrity unit conducted a thorough investigation of each and every allegation made, including interviewing all relevant parties and reviewing all available evidence,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said.

The NRL has not identified any breaches of the NRL rules arising from the allegations

Andrew Abdo

“A significant issue was whether certain matters engaged the NRL rules or were of a private nature. The NRL has not identified any breaches of the NRL rules arising from the allegations.”

The NRL integrity unit spoke to Parr last month on the eve of the State of Origin series, in which Parr was NSW’s team manager. He finished his commitments with the Blues after Queensland’s stunning series-sealing win at Suncorp Stadium on Wednesday night.

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In a statement, the Cowboys said they would “like to express how disappointed we are that several highly regarded and greatly valued members of our club have had to endure widespread and embellished reporting of numerous allegations”.

“Each one, referenced by name or position in media coverage, has provided multiple years of exemplary service and has always carried out their duties to the highest of standards,” Cowboys chairman Lewis Ramsay said.

“The club is pleased that through this investigation the NRL found that there are no grounds for adverse findings against the club, nor its employees or contractors.

“This matter stems from allegations considered personal in nature, as confirmed by the NRL [on Thursday] and contained in separate advice sought by club management some two years ago.

“The context of this matter being personal is particularly important as it relates to the unjust speculation regarding Peter Parr’s motivation in providing assistance. The person whom Peter helped was a long-term friend who, upon his departure from Peter’s personal residence, left a message of thanks for the kindness shown.”

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NRL news: North Queensland Cowboys, integrity unit investigation, scandal, Peter Parr


North Queensland has been cleared by the NRL’s integrity unit of any wrongdoing, and the Cowboys have taken a swipe at the coverage of the incident which was revealed in media reports a few weeks ago.

It was revealed the integrity unit was investigating a claim the Cowboys tried to cover up the complaints of a disgruntled husband whose wife had been involved with a player at the club.

Respected senior clubman Peter Parr was personally implicated in the allegations.

The Cowboys issued a statement on Thursday.

Grand Final

“First and foremost we would like to express how disappointed we are that several highly regarded and greatly valued members of our club have had to endure widespread and embellished reporting of numerous allegations while the NRL’s Integrity Unit conducted their thorough investigation,” the club’s chairman Lewis Ramsay said.



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NRL club doctor cautioned by watchdog over North Queensland Cowboys sex and drug scandal


However, there is a significant disparity in the version of events provided by Mr Parr, Cowboys and Australian Kangaroos national team doctor Chris Ball and the complainant.

Mr Parr has said the tablets were not his and he did not know they were Valium, instead explaining he had visited the home of Dr Ball to get something to calm down the distressed husband, who was at Mr Parr’s house.

New Cowboys board member and NSW State of Origin team manager Peter Parr.Credit:AAP

After the husband, a truck driver, subsequently tested positive for benzodiazepine in a workplace drug test, Dr Ball issued a medical certificate for the man’s employer claiming he had personally consulted with him that night.

The husband, however, denies ever meeting Dr Ball, or that Mr Parr left his house in Townsville to drive to the doctor’s home to retrieve the medication.

Cowboys and Australian team doctor Chris Ball.

Cowboys and Australian team doctor Chris Ball.

The NRL integrity unit interviewed the husband on Monday, having spoken to Mr Parr late last month. According to NRL sources Mr Parr is likely to escape significant sanction despite conceding he should have informed the integrity unit that Dr Ball was under investigation over the episode by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

Sources say the NRL and the Cowboys have been notified that Dr Ball had since been handed a provisional caution by the medical watchdog to which he can respond.

It was not clear whether the caution, the lowest level of sanction dealt out by AHPRA, related to the providing of the drugs without a written prescription, the medical certificate or both.

Contacted on Tuesday, a spokesperson for AHPRA said the agency “can’t disclose information about an individual practitioner unless it is in the public domain, unless that practitioner consents to us releasing information”.

The spokesperson said “a caution is like a written warning and is intended to act as a deterrent so that the practitioner does not repeat the conduct or behaviour. A caution is not usually recorded on the public register”.

Dr Ball did not return a phone call and text message from the Herald on Tuesday and the NRL and the Cowboys declined to comment about the club doctor.

The NRL has defended itself from suggestions it sat on the complaint, which was sent to the integrity unit in October 2019 by his lawyer John Sneddon, for nearly a year.

The governing body claims the integrity unit sent emails to the husband on six occasions between November last year and March seeking his consent for them to contact medical authorities about his case and in an effort to gather further documentation.

According to the NRL he did not respond and provide that consent until recently and the integrity unit’s “long standing practice is not to intervene where investigations are being conducted by external agencies such as police or statutory regulatory bodies”.

Mr Sneddon disputes that the husband’s lack of cooperation was responsible for the delay, saying an investigation was only launched last month following revelations that South Sydney club doctor Andrew McDonald injected a drug-fuelled Sam Burgess with a tranquiliser in 2018 after filling out a prescription in the name of the player’s father in law.

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7-Eleven owners pay more than $173 million to employees five years after wages scandal revealed


Operators of 7-Eleven stores have paid back more than $173 million to staff and made more than $10 million worth of improvements five years after an investigation began into wage theft at the company.

An inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), which launched after media reports revealed the extent of underpayments made by franchisees, found several store owners had deliberately falsified records to disguise wage underpayments.

Between September 2015 and February 2020, 7-Eleven back-paid more than $176.3 million in wages, interest and superannuation to 4,043 current and former franchisee employees.

The FWO said 7-Eleven voluntarily entered into a Compliance Deed in December 2016 to improve compliance across its network.

The deed was a recommendation from the ombudsman’s inquiry into the stores, which found significant underpayments to 7-Eleven staff.

The ombudsman’s inquiry found several 7-Eleven franchisees had deliberately falsified records to disguise wage underpayments and that 7-Eleven’s approach to workplace matters did not detect or address deliberate non-compliance.

The FWO brought 11 lawsuits against 7-Eleven franchisees resulting in courts awarding more than $1.8 million in penalties against them.

The penalties included franchisees operating unlawful cash-back schemes, paying unlawful flat rates to workers, and falsifying records.

Improvements to payroll and time-recording systems have cost 7-Eleven operators at least $10 million.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

Improvements owners have put in place include a biometric time recording system across all its Australian stores, requiring employees to clock-in and out with a thumbprint.

That was then cross-checked against employee facial recognition images and store rosters to enable more accurate recording of working hours.

The improved technology cost more than $10 million.

Other measures include 7-Eleven requiring all staff to be paid electronically, new compulsory online training on employment conditions for new employees, an Internal Investigations Unit and a new employment conditions chapter in the Franchisee Systems Manual.

The compliance partnership with the FWO also required 7-Eleven to engage an independent expert to complete three annual audits of its compliance with workplace laws.

The first audit in 2017 led to back-payments of $102,167.

No further underpayments were identified in the second and third annual audits.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the compliance partnership had led to network-wide improvement to protect the workplace rights of current and future employees.

“We urge all head offices to prioritise compliance with workplace laws or risk systemic breaches that impact their brand and workforce,” Ms Parker said.

7-Eleven Australia chief executive Angus McKay said in a statement he welcomed the release of FWO’s compliance partnership report.

“Since 2015, we have continued to undertake independent reviews and audits [and] make improvements to our systems and processes,” Mr McKay said.

“With ongoing support from staff across our network, we are incredibly pleased with the progress we have continued to make.”



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Qatari scandal: some answers at last


These extraordinary events – triggered by the discovery of a newborn concealed in an airport rubbish bin – became known inside the Australian department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [ DFAT] as early as October 4. One of the women caught up in the affair was a staff member of the department in transit, though not on duty at the time. Through her, word of what had happened reached the head of DFAT, Frances Adamson, via an overnight message on October 3.

A surveillance image, obtained by Doah News, shows officials holding an allegedly abandoned baby at Hamad International Airport. Credit:Doha News/AP

Several other women reported their ordeal to the Australian Federal Police once they’d touched down in Sydney, preparing to enter two weeks’ hotel quarantine. Yet nothing reached the ears of the public until last Sunday, when Channel 7 broke the story.

Outrage has since built steadily as more details of the women’s ordeal emerge. One, speaking anonymously to the ABC, told of being ordered to remove her underwear to allow a vaginal examination. Another described her treatment as “incredibly invasive”.

Illustrator Ffranses Ingram, who at 73 was spared the physical exam, was removed from the plane along with the other women.

“We had been travelling from other destinations and we were all tired – we just didn’t know what was happening. In a way it was almost unbelievable,” she told The Age and the Herald. ”I think the fact that they took us off in groups was strategic and designed so that nobody could band together and call the consulate, which is what should have happened.”

DFAT has since confirmed that women on up to nine other flights transiting through Doha at that time were also affected, though numbers and details remain unclear. It’s understood the 18 on the Sydney-bound flight included women from Britain, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

Breaking the government’s silence Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week declared himself appalled, saying that “as the father of two daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone would … be subjected to that”.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne labelled it “grossly disturbing” and “offensive”.

Labor frontbenchers also lined up to proffer outrage with Opposition leader Anthony Albanese calling it an “assault” and an “outrageous violation” of the women’s human rights. The chair and deputy chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, Andrew Hastie and Anthony Byrne, cancelled a scheduled dinner with the Qatari ambassador in protest.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne labelled the incident as ''grossly disturbing'' and ''offensive''.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne labelled the incident as ”grossly disturbing” and ”offensive”. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

A defensively worded statement issued by Qatar’s Government Communications office mid-week focused on the the baby’s abandonment, calling it a “shocking and appalling” attempt to kill the child, which had triggered an “immediate search for the parents, including on flights in the vicinity of where the newborn was found”. The statement offered cursory “regrets” for “any distress or infringement on personal freedoms” but not a full apology.

That had changed by late Friday night, when Doha apparently thought better of its defensiveness. In a move welcomed by Payne, the Qatari Government Communcations office issued an updated statement, in which it offered its “sincerest apology” to the women affected, and said those responsible for violating what should have been standard procedures had been referred to the country’s Public Prosecution Office.

“Specialised task forces are reviewing and identifying any potential gaps in the procedures and protocols followed at Hamad International Airport, in order to address them and ensure that any violations are avoided in future”, the statement said.

“This incident is the first of its kind at HIA, which has served tens of millions of passengers without any issues like this before. What took place is wholly inconsistent with Qatar’s culture and values.”

In her reponse, also issued late on Friday, Payne said she welcomed both the apology and the Qatari government’s acknowledgement of “offensive treatment” of the women passengers. “The preliminary investigation of Qatar into this incident has shown illegal actions occured” she said, adding that it was an “important step that these offences have been referred [ for prosecution]”.

Earlier in the week Payne had come under fire from her opposite number, Labor’s Penny Wong, for not pursuing the issue by way of a personal phone call to her Qatari counterpart, but Friday night’s developments will blunt that criticism.

In Qatar itself there’s been muted mainstream media coverage but active discussion on social media. “People are shocked,” said one young Qatari, who requested anonymity. “In our society, our culture, you don’t even look a woman in the eye because this is disrespectful.”

There is also puzzlement about how such an order could have been given without factoring in the risk of massive reputational damage.

The tiny but hugely wealthy country has grown rich on oil and liquefied natural gas in recent years and hosts the major coalition al-Udeid air base. It has also sought to build itself up as an international travel hub, to rival nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

A giant image of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, adorns a tower in Doha.

A giant image of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, adorns a tower in Doha.Credit:AP

Qatar Airways basked in the “world’s best airline” title at last year’s Skytrax awards, and there’s been a lot of image-polishing in the build-up towards the World Cup, which Qatar is hosting in 2022. Indeed the planned expansion of Doha’s Hamad International Airport has been seen as a vital part of those preparations.

Now, says Dr Rodger Shanahan, a Middle East expert at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, Qatar is facing major embarrassment on the world stage.

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“This [controversy] is very poor timing for them,” Shanahan says. “They have come under criticism for the way in which they won the 2022 World Cup [ the subject of bribery allegations in the US]; they have also come under criticism about labour conditions for expatriate workers building the venues and because it’s such a small population they are very sensitive to external criticism.”

Dr Jessie Moritz, a lecturer at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says “this event is not the image Qatar wants to present to the world”.

Nor is it a good time for Qatar – a state of just 11,600 square kilometres – to be losing friends abroad. Since 2017 it has been sharply at odds with several of its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain over its friendliness with Iran and Turkey, and its alleged tolerance of organisations linked to the funding of terrorism.

Moritz, who has lived in Qatar, describes it as “incredibly diverse” with a “lot of room for cross-cultural communication errors”. Native Qataris comprise only 10 to 15 per cent of a population of less than 3 million; the rest are expatriates and migrant workers from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, among other nations. It’s also, says Moritz, a patriarchal society with “very harsh penalties” for extramarital affairs and sex outside marriage.

Yet it does not restrict women as harshly as Saudi Arabia. More females than males have graduated from higher education, and Qatar’s assistant foreign minister is a young woman, Lolwah al-Khater.

Ruling over the whole is the hereditary Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, whose family has been in power for more than a century, and whose council of ministers is hand-picked.

The Doha incident is a stark reminder – if any was needed – that there are no special protections for international passengers who are only in transit. “A country’s law applies in full throughout its own territory,” says Ben Saul, professor of international law at Sydney University. He also believes there is little hope of legal redress, unless compensation is freely offered by Qatar Airways. Foreign state immunity means it’s “super-hard to proceed against state agents, even if they are acting unlawfully”, Saul adds.

Chair of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, Tom Manwaring, says there’s no reason to avoid Gulf transit points because of the women’s ordeal. “It’s terrible what has happened, but we would hope it would never be repeated. It’s the first time I have ever heard of anything like that happening, anywhere, in my 50 years of travel.”

But Ffranses Ingram says she wishes never to fly via a Middle Eastern country again. She is also unhappy about what she sees as a lack of government action. She says the police have rung her and told her it’s more or less out of their hands. No one from DFAT has made direct contact.

A government source said it was up to the women to initiate contact with the department, not the other way around, yet the only contact point that appears to have been offered (at least to Ingram) is DFAT’s generic consulate assistance number. On Friday, however, Payne said the Australian government would “endeavour to provide any support [ the women involved] may need.

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