Policeman in the firing line

It was, Simon Overland said, a showstopper. That’s how he described Operation Briars to a hand-picked group of police at the beginning of 2007. The aim of the top-secret investigation was to charge a serving police officer with helping a gunman kill a male prostitute. ”It is not an issue I thought I would ever have to deal with,” Overland would say later.Three years on, and Overland is now Victoria’s Chief Commissioner, but finds himself dealing with another issue he probably never imagined. He is at the centre of the show and at war with Australia’s national broadsheet, which accuses him not only of breaking the law but single-handedly destroying Operation Briars, a crucially important investigation involving potentially corrupt police.Overland’s reputation is under attack from two powerful forces. One is former police union boss Paul Mullett, whose career was destroyed by Operation Briars and the related police corruption probe Operation Diana. Since the case against him failed last year, Mullett has waged a document-based guerilla war against Overland, whom he hates. The former assistant commissioner Noel Ashby, who equally loathes Overland and was his rival for the top job, is helping from the wings.The other force is The Australian. It says its explosive series of articles about Overland and Victoria’s police corruption watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity (OPI), depicted as bungling, secretive and unaccountable, were born of a genuine journalistic desire to assess Operation Briars and the OPI’s work after the spectacular collapse of its cases against Mullett and Ashby.Overland argues the newspaper is using facts selectively and ignoring the context of what was happening in Victoria at the time.At play also is a toxic feud between the newspaper and Overland, who accused it of endangering his officers by exposing terrorism raids last August. Similarly, the OPI says The Australian has it in its crosshairs because it criticised the paper’s conduct.Overland and the OPI director, Michael Strong, believe this ”disgraceful” and ”concerted” campaign is a nasty exercise in payback, and last Friday there was some evidence of that. Fairfax newspapers revealed over the weekend two incidents in which senior executives of News Ltd, publishers of The Australian, appeared to threaten law enforcement agencies in Victoria and NSW.Amid the murk of these agendas is an allegation: did Victoria’s chief policeman break the law? Was he let off too lightly by the police corruption watchdog? Does he have a case to answer?Overland and the OPI insist he does not, but on the evidence available, it appears his actions did have an inadvertent impact on the investigation. As The Sunday Age first reported last September, senior legal experts believed his use of information from a phone tap was a breach of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. The OPI says it has assessed the incident and believes he did not breach the law, but it refuses to release its legal advice and barely mentioned the incident in its final report on the events of 2007.This one conversation, as Overland himself admits, set off a chain of events. The chain ended, as the evidence shows, in the key suspects of Operation Briars being warned their phones were ”off”. In hindsight, this was a blow to the investigation. But did it derail Briars? Probably not, because the investigation was already severely compromised.Operation Briars officially began on March 26, 2007. Months earlier, a known criminal had come forward to admit he was the gunman who shot dead male prostitute Shane Chartres-Abbott in June 2003. He was willing, also, to point the finger at one serving policeman, Peter Lalor, a close mate of Mullett’s, and one former policeman, David ”Docket” Waters. He claimed Waters was present at a meeting when plans were discussed and that Lalor provided prior assistance in his murder of Chartres-Abbott by handing over his address. Both Lalor and Waters denied the allegations.Police had consistently said throughout the horrific gangland wars that there was no link between gangland killings and corrupt cops, despite suspicions. Overland, who had led the police’s successful taskforce into the gangland war, would later admit in an affidavit that the case was ”the smoking gun the media had been looking for”, the link between the underworld and police that would reawaken calls for a royal commission.A board of management, including Overland and the OPI’s Graham Ashton, was set up to oversee the Briars taskforce, and on April 13 police began monitoring six phone taps. It has always been something of a mystery why Operation Diana was set up on May 30 to investigate Noel Ashby, but according to a report by the special investigations monitor – the OPI’s oversight body – the board began to suspect senior officers of Victoria Police were leaking confidential taskforce information.The two covert operations made a spectacular public debut in a series of high-drama OPI hearings in November 2007. The results have been less spectacular. Mullett left the force but his case failed for lack of evidence. Ashby resigned but his case was thrown out because the OPI failed to delegate its powers properly to the retired judge overseeing the hearings. Former police media director Stephen Linnell, caught leaking to his mate Ashby, pleaded guilty to charges arising from the same flawed hearings and is now appealing. Lalor has denied any involvement and was never charged. Somehow the OPI has pitched this as a success.There’s no doubt that in August 2007 Overland was working in a poisonous environment. As Michael Strong pointed out on Friday, Overland was dealing with treachery: he was ”not only being undermined from without, but betrayed from within”. Mullett, using the power of the police association, and Ashby, using his power and access as a senior policeman, colluded against Overland and police commissioner Christine Nixon. Overland and Nixon were determined to rid the Victoria Police of its links to the underworld, but Mullett and the police association appeared to resist. The union funded police accused of being corrupt and campaigned against the establishment of the OPI. (The police union secretary, Greg Davies, denies that union officials ”have or ever will support corruption or criminal conduct”.)On August 14, Overland received a phone call from the manager of the Briars taskforce, Rod Wilson. Mullett and Lalor, he told Overland, had been heard on a phone tap talking about a $120,000 executive management course that had been offered to the then deputy commissioner in Fontainebleau, France. The two men were talking about leaking it to radio station 3AW’s Rumour File. Overland went to Linnell and said: ”Look, you just need to be aware I’ve got a call from Rod.” Linnell was on the high-level advisory group for Briars and knew Wilson was heading the taskforce.”I understand Mullett and Lalor are talking about this. I understand they’re going to run it through 3AW … You need to watch it.”The law covering phone taps is necessarily strict on how officers use material. It must be a ”permitted use” that is ”a purpose connected with an investigation of, or an inquiry into, alleged misbehaviour or alleged improper conduct of an officer of that state”. Experts in this law told The Sunday Age last year that managing the media was clearly not a permitted use.Overland says it was a permitted use because he was trying to protect the investigation from what he calls ”collateral attack” – the campaign being waged by Mullett to undermine him and the investigation. Strong, in a statement on Friday, agreed with him.But in many ways Overland’s explanation does not make sense. Even if the Fontainebleau rumour did undermine him, which is debatable, how could this have an impact on a top-secret investigation no one knows about?At this point in the investigation, Mullett, who talked regularly with his ”comrade” Lalor, was not supposed to know about the taskforce.Possibly breaking the law is one thing. But The Australian last week went much further. This ”critical error of judgment”, the paper said, ”led to a series of indiscretions by others – and the collapse of the covert police probe Operations Briars”.Overland himself admitted to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell last week that his actions did spark a chain of events.During the OPI’s public hearings, media reports focused on a key event – Linnell showing Ashby the Briars terms of reference on his desk computer. But the transcripts, affidavits, OPI case logs and reports show that this event happened because of what had happened the day before: the Overland admission to Linnell about the Fontainebleau trip.In his report, retired judge Murray Wilcox, QC, who presided over the private and public hearings, said: ”It is clear that Mr Linnell knew the Mullett-Lalor call of 14 August had been intercepted; Mr Overland told him so. It is clear that he made Mr Ashby aware of his concern that Mr Mullett’s phone might be ‘off’.”In less than 48 hours of Overland’s direction to Linnell, the two main suspects of Briars had been warned about their phones being ”off”. Overland was not scrutinised for sparking this chain of events in the OPI’s final report on operations Diana and Briars, tabled in Parliament. The chronology at the beginning of the report has five entries on August 14. Not one of them mentions Overland’s conversation with Linnell.The question is, did this kill Operation Briars? According to the evidence, the investigation was probably already fatally wounded. Several months earlier, on June 16, police became aware that Age investigative journalist Nick McKenzie knew about Briars, the criminal witness and that police were involved.But even more seriously, a week later on June 26, Rod Wilson became aware that Waters and another Briars person of interest, Peter Alexander, knew about the taskforce. In a sworn statement, Wilson said the pair knew about the identity of the star witness and the circumstances of his alibi.What is crucial is whether Lalor knew his phone was tapped before August 16. Given what Waters knew in June, it is likely that he told Lalor and he would have at least suspected his phone was tapped. In an interview with the OPI in October 2007, Luke Cornelius, the then head of ethical standards, complained about the early breaches of security. ”The thing that sticks in my craw is that it looks like the breach – if that can be established – the breach of confidentiality occurred very early on in the piece.”OPI investigator Sharon Kerrison, who gave evidence that she had listened to more than 5000 of Ashby’s phone calls, more than 2000 of Mullett’s, and ”numerous” conversations of Lalor’s, replied: ”Yeah, it did.”On one reading of events, Overland, with a bit of ego and in the midst of a brutal campaign waged against him personally and against his and others’ efforts to clean up the force, tried to manage yet another attempt to undermine him and his investigation. This is a far cry from Mullett’s and Ashby’s behaviour, which the Ombudsman, George Brouwer, said displayed ”betrayal, collusion, deceit and abuse of authority”. On another reading, Overland acted out of self-interest and, trying to protect his reputation, The Australian argues, broke the law and breached the security of one of the police’s most important murder investigations.If Ashby’s case had gone to trial, his legal team was intending to pursue these issues with ”some degree of force”. But Ashby walked free without a trial and, without an independent anti-corruption commission, the issue continues to fester. This is probably why, almost three years after Overland had that conversation with Stephen Linnell, it is still being talked about.After November’s state election, regardless of which party wins, Victoria will get an anti-corruption commission. Mullett, no doubt, will bide his time until then. The problem for him, however, is that if the OPI is transferred into the new structure with no change of personnel, the police watchdog is likely to remain reluctant to reopen the wounds of 2007.
Nanjing Night Net

Pigs in space: pregnant sows’ days of confinement numbered

CONDITIONS are set to improve for Australian pigs on the farm and get tougher for intensive pig farmers.In a surprise move, the Tasmanian government late last week banned the use of sow stalls on pig farms by 2017.By 2014 sows must spend no more than six weeks confined in the stalls.The metal stalls are used in intensive pig farming during the sows’ first stage of gestation, about 16 weeks.Producers say they stop pigs attacking each other, and the stalls also allow for pregnancy scans and medication, but animal welfare groups have long claimed the use of stalls is a cruel practice and any aggression comes from overcrowding.Andrew Spencer, who is chief executive of Australian Pork Limited (APL), the producer-owned marketing and regulating body, condemned the Tasmanian decision as being taken in “total isolation with no consultation with the industry”.”This government has completely deserted Tasmania’s pork farmers with no thought to the impact and ramifications on their livelihoods.”Responsible government does not make decisions like this without first mapping out with industry how it will assist producers [to] make these costly changes.”The pork organisation was already revising its industry code of practice. The new code will be discussed at a two-day conference, the Pan Pacific Pork Expo, which begins on the Gold Coast tomorrow.The revised code aims to decrease the length of time for which pregnant sows can be confined in stalls from 16 to six weeks and increase the size of the stalls, enabling the animals to stand, move and lie down comfortably. The new measures would be implemented by 2017.It is rumoured that the APL board had also planned to put forward a proposal at the conference that the sow stalls be banned altogether. Any change would need the approval of the members, 95 per cent of whom are intensive pig farmers.The total value of pork produced in Australia in 2007-08 was estimated by Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics to be $880 million, down about 10 per cent from previous years because of the impact of drought and increased feed costs.Removing sow stalls will put more pressure on intensive pig farmers who are already having difficulty in regional areas finding enough workers.
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Cancer odyssey for son costs country mother a fortune

JO PORTER, of Guyra in the New England Tablelands, was told more than three years ago that her son Will had been diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare but aggressive form of soft-tissue cancer.It was the beginning of an odyssey for the mother of two. Obliged to take leave without pay from her job at Liverpool Plains Council for five months, she struggled to pay the bills.The state government’s isolated patients transport and assistance scheme (ITAAS) reimbursed part of up to 10 $1000 return flights to Sydney but the mother was out-of-pocket by $250 each time.She and Will got accommodation in a hostel and at Ronald McDonald House. But when there were space problems, the two had to get accommodation in a private hotel at a cost of about $100 a night, of which the state aid scheme paid $45.When they no longer qualified for airfares, Ms Porter had to drive, at a reimbursement fee of 15 cents a kilometre, even though her petrol was costing $1.30 or $1.35 a litre.In the recent state budget, country politicians were only given a modest rise in their Sydney allowance – from $240 to $246 a night.But isolated patients got not a cent more: $33 a night allowance for a single person staying in Sydney and petrol reimbursement at 15 cents a litre.Anita Tang, the manager of policy and advocacy of the Cancer Council of NSW, said: “In Sydney, that is around the cost of a camp site or kennelling for your pet . . . Those who drive can expect a measly 15 cents for a litre of fuel – an amount more fitting of the 1970s.”Ms Porter, whose son has been cancer-free for three years, has been set her back thousands of dollars. Others in the same predicament have had to go to even more desperate measures to make ends meet.She said there was considerable paperwork to be completed and it took up to four months before she received reimbursement for each claim. “I would have got $750 back for a plane trip in three or four months,” she said.”But I might have made three more trips in that time.”Alison Peters, the director of the NSW Council of Social Service, said that now that treatment for chronic illnesses was more and more centralised, requiring more travel, some people in need of such treatment did not bother making the trip.
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Pensioners pay more after pleas ignored

THE Keneally government will take more than a quarter of the $30 increase given to single aged pensioners who live in public housing, despite a federal rebuke and pleas from seniors groups.From September, public housing tenants in NSW will be forced to dip into the welfare boost granted by the federal government last year to help pensioners cope with the increased cost of food, medicines and electricity.The clawback was revealed indirectly in last week’s state budget which failed to protect the full pension increase.The Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmanian governments have agreed that the $30 increase will never be included in public housing rent calculations, which are usually pegged at 25 per cent of the pension base rate.But NSW has refused to follow suit and permanently quarantine the pension increase. This means single aged pensioners will pay an extra $7.50 a week in rent after a one-year moratorium on rent rises ends in 3½⁄ months. Couple aged pensioners will not be affected because their extra $10.14 is paid as a supplement, rather than an increase to the base rate.Last year the federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, warned the states against eroding the pensioners’ hard-won increase by increasing levies and charges.”There is simply no way the Commonwealth will tolerate a clawback of that one-off pension increase by the states for pensioners in public housing,” he said.Yesterday the federal government confirmed its position had not changed. ”Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have all committed not to increase their public housing rents and we would expect other states, including NSW, to do the same,” a spokeswoman for the Minister for Families, Housing and Community Services, Jenny Macklin, said.But the NSW government says it needs the increased rent to pay for the maintenance and refurbishment of public housing properties and council costs.A spokesman for the NSW Housing Minister, Frank Terenzini, said the government ”has a great amount of sympathy for those people struggling to make ends meet … however the costs to maintain, refurbish and build more public housing are always increasing”.The Council on the Aging (NSW) urged the state government to permanently quarantine the increase. It said single aged pensioners were especially vulnerable to increased costs.”That $7 a week pays for milk and bread,” the council’s policy and communications manager, Anne-Marie Elias, said. ”We know older people will pay their electricity bills and their phone bills before they eat.”If not a quarantine, Ms Elias said Housing NSW should adopt a two-step formula to calculate the rent of single pensioners to preserve a greater percentage of the recent increases.Lyn, 71, who has lived in public housing in Glebe for 28 years, said she only has $125 a week from her $350 pension after she has paid for rent ($75.70), groceries ($80), electricity ($17), contents insurance ($6), telephone ($20) and medicines ($25).”It’s hard enough to survive on your own as it is, and now they want to take one-quarter of what little we get,” she said.Lyn, who did not want her surname published, said the state’s most disadvantaged people should not be slugged to pay for basic government services.The Westpac-Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia Retirement Standard indicates the requirements for a modest lifestyle is $373 per week for a single person and $521 a week for a couple.
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Israeli held in Poland over Dubai killing

BERLIN: An alleged Israeli agent wanted over the killing of a Hamas agent in Dubai has been arrested in Poland.The man, using the name Uri Brodsky, is suspected of working for Mossad in Germany and helping to issue a fake German passport to a member of the Mossad team that killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, a spokesman for the German federal prosecutor’s office said.Mr Brodsky was arrested 10 days ago upon arriving in Poland because of a European arrest warrant issued by Germany, which now seeks his extradition, the spokesman said on Saturday.Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat last month because forged Australian passports were used in killing Mr Mabhouh.In Warsaw, Monika Lewandowska, a spokeswoman for Polish prosecutors, confirmed that the suspect, identified only as Uri B, was arrested at the city’s international airport. She said the arrest warrant was made ”in connection with the murder of a Hamas member in Dubai” and that he had appeared before a Polish court last Sunday week, but she had no information on his possible extradition.In Israel, the Foreign Ministry said without elaborating that it was aware of the man’s fate. ”At the moment, we’re looking into that like any other Israeli who has been arrested, and he’s getting consular treatment.”The elaborate hit squad linked to the murder of Mabhouh is believed to have had about 25 members, most of them carrying fake European or Australian passports and posing as tourists. They were caught on security camera.The German news weekly Der Spiegel reports that the arrest in Poland has led to diplomatic friction, with the Israeli embassy in Warsaw urging Polish authorities not to extradite Mr Brodsky.Associated Press
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Atlantic a sea of rubbish

PARIS: The North Atlantic looks like a rubbish tip, with plastic and polystyrene flotsam spreading far and wide, four French explorers just back from eight months at sea report.Once out of the Breton port of Trinite-sur-Mer in October, they typically spotted at least four to five pieces of rubbish a day – only to sail into a veritable floating dump in April in the Sargasso Sea around Bermuda.”In 15 minutes we saw more garbage than at any time during our journey,” the naval engineer, Yann Geffriaud, 27, said on Saturday a few hours after their return.”It was truly a shock, when in the middle of nowhere we came across 10 to 20 pieces of garbage every five minutes.”The Sargasso Sea, where currents between Florida and Bermuda converge, is named for a brown seaweed – sargassum – that proliferates on its surface, trapping any floating rubbish.”Ninety-five per cent of the stuff is plastics, from toothpaste tubes to aerosol containers and water bottles,” said Mr Geffriaud, the founder of Watch the Waste, a group that asks mariners to monitor rubbish.”Frankly speaking, we did not see a compact area of plastic, but a scattering.”The findings echoed those of the US seafarer and researcher Charles Moore who, two years ago, sailed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an estimated 100 million tonnes of rubbish sprawled between Hawaii and Japan.Last February, the US-based Sea Education Association revealed the existence of another virtual island of plastic in the North Atlantic, spread over an area as big as France.Outside the Sargasso Sea, Mr Geffriaud said, the French expedition regularly saw garbage, much of which had been swept from dry land into the ocean by streams and rainfall.”But we saw five times more on the way back, between Bermuda and the Azores, than on the way out along a more southerly track from Cape Verde to Tobago.”Given that we can never clean up the sea, the most simple thing to do is to raise public awareness,” Mr Geffriaud and his team said.Agence France-Presse
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Sifting terrorist chips from Israel policy push

AMMAN: Pallet loads of potato chips are hardly an answer to the plight of Palestinians, now in the fourth year of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Likewise, a continued ban on shipments of coriander to the impoverished enclave cannot be seen as a serious plank in Israel’s national security blueprint.Since the blockade began in 2007, world opinion has chosen to ignore its impact on daily life in Gaza. But Israel’s gross over-reaction in killing nine protesters as its forces commandeered a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla two weeks ago has finally focused attention on the cruelty of a blockade justified by Israel as essential to preventing the smuggling of weapons to Hamas.Under a barrage of international criticism, Israel is easing some of the restrictions – but in identifying the products that seemingly no longer constitute a security risk the Netanyahu government has exposed the blockade as an exercise in collective punishment of a civilian population.Along with chips, Israeli authorities have decreed that the likes of jam, halva and razor blades have ceased to be a security risk and will be allowed into Gaza. Coriander and cardamom, and possibly even cookies, might soon be cleared for shipment too.The gesture prompted a withering response from Gisha, an Israeli non-governmental organisation that monitors the detailed management of the blockade. “Gisha is pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security,” its website says.In anticipation of permission for cookies to go to Gaza, however, Gisha lights on the blockade as economic warfare, saying: “It is not enough to permit Gaza residents to purchase Israeli-made cookies. Israel should stop banning raw materials such as industrial margarine and glucose, so that Gaza residents can produce their own cookies and restart the economy that has been paralysed for three years.”The list of prohibited goods still includes building materials – which Israel says will be hijacked by Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation. But it also lists the essentials for two industries by which a people dependent on food donations might work to feed themselves – fishing and market gardening.Gisha says they are still denied fishing rods and nets; nets for greenhouses and tractor spare parts; irrigation pipes and planters for saplings; and heaters for chicken farms.If only in this humanitarian dimension, there is something grotesque about Israel’s insistence on a policy that has demonstrably failed – Hamas survives and is getting stronger in Gaza. And that the world has acquiesced amid so much civilian suffering and privation in Gaza is equally disturbing.The global outcry in the aftermath of the botched Israeli attack on the Free Gaza Flotilla signals a move for change. But just what can be achieved remains to be seen.As with every crisis point in the 62 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an international consensus that ”something” has to be done to ease Palestinian suffering can bog down in endless negotiation, winning just minimal change as world attention shifts to other issues.Such an outcome was evident in the reported remarks late last week of unnamed Israeli officials who told the Associated Press that the easing of the blockade was more about defusing pressure for an international investigation into the attack on the flotilla than on relieving Palestinian suffering.There was further muddying of the issues with an Israeli claim that the blockade would not be lifted unless Hamas agreed to Red Cross visits to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 – an issue that is already the subject of Egyptian-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas.George Mitchell, Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, told reporters in the aftermath of the attack that Washington was working ”aggressively” to make sure that Gazans received adequate supplies.Writing in the International Herald Tribune on Friday, the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain condemned Israel’s “unbending determination to force compliance with the blockade … [and] a logic that must now be abandoned”. They used the word du jour for describing the blockade – “unsustainable”.Just as there is a new argument in the US that Israel’s national security and settling the country’s conflict with the Palestinians are separate issues of American national security, there is a new global embrace of the separateness of Israel’s strategic need to deny Hamas weapons and the economic and humanitarian needs of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.Moves are afoot to have European Union monitors – instead of Israeli troops – examine the freight depots that serve Gaza. The ministerial trio also proposes that the Gaza port be reopened to cargo ships that would come under international inspection – to intercept smuggled weapons.Whatever the fate of the blockade, there is an expectant sense in the region that the emergence of non-Arab Turkey as a new and powerful champion of the Palestinian people has set the scene for dramatic changes in the management of the crisis.Likening Arab governments to lemons squeezed of their juice, because of their lost credibility for failing to extract concessions for the Palestinians, a former adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan observed to the Herald: “It’s going to be a hot summer.”He was not discussing the weather.
Nanjing Night Net

The forgotten community fighting for pride

It is cold and wet in Wilcannia. Wind is blowing through town as about 20 locals gather around a park bench on the Barrier Highway to sign time sheets proving they have worked the hours to earn a government allowance.The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program manager requested a shed from the federal government seven months ago from which to run the scheme.But work-for-the-dole participants are still meeting in 48-degree summer heat or the biting autumn wind that characterise the weather extremes on NSW’s flat, far-western plains.It is National Sorry Day, 2010, and Wilcannia, with a population of about 700 – two-thirds of which is Aboriginal – is a town broken.At its peak in the late 1800s, it was home to 3000 people and a busy inland port.More than a century later – notwithstanding the recent welcome rains and flowing Darling River – shops are barred and boarded up, the only employers to speak of are government departments, and the town centre is bookended by two poverty-stricken Aboriginal communities, the Mission and the Mallee.About five years ago 28 government houses, designed to be energy-efficient, were built. The residents have complained of being cooked in the sauna of their own crumbling homes ever since.The median income across the vast Central Darling Shire is just $310 a week. In Wilcannia, unemployment is estimated at more than 60 per cent.But immense resources are thrown at the town. The council has counted more than 50 government and non-government agencies that service its barely 15 streets and their residents.Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is cited by the Central Darling Shire Council as a big problem, but alcohol and marijuana dependence, as well as an historical paucity of activities and jobs are others.”They’ve really had no purpose the last 30 years,” the Darling Shire community and economic development manager, Kym Fuller, said.In the first week of June, Wilcannia lost four of its residents to drug and alcohol-related disease and organ failure, he said. They were all aged under 45.”There are cars stolen to get to funerals,” Mr Fuller said. ”People are putting their hands out for petrol so they can squeeze 10 people into the car.”But just before Christmas, something close to a miracle happened. Five members of the Wilcannia CDEP committee entered their council building – some for their first time in their lives – and sat down on the”flash, cushion chairs” to reach agreement on constructing a drive-through art gallery at Reconciliation Park opposite the hospital.”Before, they were told what to do. Now they’re asked what to do,” the CDEP manager, Trevor Johnstone, said. ”We’re supposed to be dumb blacks. They think we’re dumb blacks.”Their victory over a few business owners concerned, among other things, that the view to the golf course would be blocked by the open-air gallery, has given locals a sense of pride and community ownership they haven’t known for decades, Mr Johnstone said. ”There’s been a lot more pride up here because they’ve been treated with respect.”Mr Johnstone sees hope for Wilcannia in spite of years of setbacks. ”You’ve got to treat them like people,” he said.Each week, more than 30 CDEP workers meet in town to help fashion the drive-through gallery. Among them are recognised artists, 10 of whom will paint one wall each to contribute to the rest area, where it is hoped tourists will stop to break the drive to or from Broken Hill, which is 200 kilometres west.The project is a far cry from the not-too-distant past when, it is rumoured, business owners would buy paintings from locals with a case of beer and then sell their works to visitors for $200 apiece.Woddy Harris, who lives on the edge of town in a shed, spends his days carving didgeridoos, clapping sticks and bowls out of mallee, river red gum and leopardwood. He is passionate about returning the younger Aboriginal generation to the ways of old. ”There’s a spirit, whether you believe in it or you don’t believe in it. It’s still there,” he said. ”I learned [to carve] by my vision of the old people. You create life for yourself.”The revival of the town’s rugby league team, the Wilcannia Boomerangs, has also raised the chins of locals. ”Last year, they won every grade in the [Outback] Rugby League, from seniors through to juniors,” Mr Fuller said. ”They bloody did too, the bastards,” Mr Johnstone, who lives on Menindee Yabbies turf 150 kilometres away, said with a grin.There are other plans afoot to boost the town. Nobody quite believes it will happen, but a Sydney couple have bought a huge property on the outskirts of town with 15 kilometre of river frontage and plans to develop a luxury eco-resort there.Jim Sammon, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in Wilcannia for 20 years, owns the mining camp-style accommodation at ”The Shannon” next door to the proposed resort. He said life had been worse in his adopted home town in the past: ”It used to be a pretty rough sort of a place, but it’s good now.”
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Wet weather, illness keep blood donors away

A POTENT mix of bad weather and a big start to the cold and flu season has caused a “sudden and unexpected” plunge in blood donations in NSW.Donations fell to 13 per cent below the daily targets last month, after reaching targets in the previous three months.The Australian Red Cross Blood Service’s NSW manager, Garry Wolfe, said May was a particularly bad month for donations.”I think the weather drove a lot of people away from the donation centres because travelling to and from them is more difficult in wet weather,” he said.”On top of that the cold and flu season started well and truly in May, and June so far has not been much better. If this continues it will place us in a precarious position”.Mr Wolfe said even people who had recently had a cold but were over their worst symptoms were able to donate.”When you are over those obvious symptoms of a virus and you don’t have a sore throat and your temperature has dropped to near normal you might be all right to donate.”Rod Smith’s daughter, Ava, 8, has blood transfusions every week to help treat her leukaemia. She would not survive without them. “They help by maintaining her immune system and her energy levels and her blood’s ability to clot,” he said.”[Hearing about the decrease in donations] is pretty disturbing from our point of view”.Mr Smith said Ava, who will need transfusions for the next four months of her treatment, relied on donated blood not just for survival, but to improve her quality of life.”Her mood is really important to how she recovers and without the blood she has got no energy,” he said. “It’s almost like a drug: she gets the blood and half an hour later she is feeling better and … playing with the other kids”.
Nanjing Night Net

Drought edict turns farmers against Thai government

CHIANG MAI Farmers in Thailand’s drought-stricken north have been told by the government they cannot plant any more rice, further fuelling anti-Bangkok sentiment in the Red Shirt-loyal region.Thailand is the world’s largest rice exporter, shipping more than 9 million tonnes offshore each year, but the worst drought in nearly 20 years has forced the government to decree that no rice is to be planted until it rains.Disaster areas have been declared in 53 of Thailand’s 75 provinces, affecting nearly 7 million people, and scores of dams are at critically low levels. Water has been diverted from the Mae Klong, a river in the country’s west, so that Bangkok does not run short of water.The irrigation department has said the far north is the worst-affected region, and no water can be released from dams there for crops, only for drinking.A project director with the department, Maitree Pitinanon, said rain was expected at some time during the current monsoon season, which runs until September, but when, and how much, was not known.Government officials throughout the country have instructed farmers to abandon crops or not to plant new ones. It is likely to be the middle of next month, at the earliest, before any water is available for farming.But beyond the implications for Thailand’s food supply and its export markets, the ban on planting rice is a further political division in the country, driving yet another wedge between the Bangkok elite and the rural poor.The north and north-east are the heartland of the anti-government Red Shirt movement, whose two-month sit-in in the centre of Bangkok was violently put down by government troops last month. At least 88 people were killed during 68 days of protests.Despite being routed, the Red Shirt movement still has a significant presence in the north and north-east, with persistent rumours it will reform, likely in a different guise, to resist, or even violently protest against, the government.Khum Toorasit, a rice farmer who works leased land on the outskirts of the northern city of Chiang Mai, has had to turn over his failing rice crop to cattle because there is no water to keep it going.Mr Khum said the decree for farmers to abandon rice crops and delay planting new ones was robbing people of their only income and fuelling resentment of the government.”If we can’t grow rice, we cannot earn any money, we have no rice to eat. What can we do? We can do nothing,” he said.Mr Khum said the drought had been building for months, and the government should have moved sooner to secure water supplies, help farmers with loans, and begin cloud-seeding programs.”We still have debts, but we cannot pay, so we have even more money to owe,” he said. ”If there is no help for farmers soon there will be an uprising against the government for sure.” The government said this week that it would begin cloud seeding in the north in the next few days.The Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has ordered the Agriculture Ministry to devise drought mitigation strategies for next year.
Nanjing Night Net