Nationals’ billion dollar pork barrel

An audit of a $1.15bn regional grants scheme run by the Nationals found the majority of money went to projects that did not have the most merit, and Coalition seats disproportionately benefited.

What we know:

  • The Australian National Audit Office on Thursday handed down a scathing assessment of the Building Better Regions program (ANAO); 
  • The audit found two thirds of funded infrastructure projects were “not those assessed as being the most meritorious” (Nine); 
  • Liberal-held seats received twice as many grants as Labor electorates, while Nationals seats also got $104m more funding under the Building Better Regions fund than a merit-based process would have allocated (The Guardian); 
  • Money was allocated to pickleball courts, a speedway track and beach boardwalk upgrades by a panel of ministers headed by former deputy prime ministers Barnaby Joyce and Michael McCormack (The Age); 
  • Former Nationals minister Fiona Nash, who oversaw the program’s first round, said, “One of the intentions of the ministerial panel was to bring local community knowledge to the decision-making process.”
  • “Former Coalition ministers made decisions on the basis of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ criteria that weren’t fully explained to those applying for grants,” said new Infrastructure minister Catherine King;
  • King is reviewing how grants are allocated, while the auditor-general wants the grants guidelines strengthened and to make sure rules around providing value for money apply when politicians are heavily involved in decisions;
  • The findings are in line with a litany of scandals involving former Coalition ministers overruling official advice to fund their preferred projects (The Saturday Paper). 
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Stars align to farewell Ramsay St

Australia’s longest-running television soap opera has come to an end, with fans tuning in across the nation to watch a host of former stars return for the 90-minute Neighbours finale.

What we know:

  • The show concludes after 37 years, nearly 9000 episodes, 68 deaths and 63 births (ABC);
  • There were on-set cameos from former stars including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce and Annie Jones;
  • Natalie Imbruglia and Holly Valance filmed a scene remotely from where they are both based in London (news.com.au); 
  • Other former cast members unable to attend in person who beamed in via video included Margot Robbie, Delta Goodrem, Kym Valentine, Carla Bonner, Jesse Spencer, Jonathan Dutton and Blair McDonough (SMH); 
  • Those video cameos were mostly presented as “wedding telegrams” for one of the main events of the episode, the wedding of Toadie and Mel, played by Ryan Moloney and Lucinda Cowden;
  • Hundreds of fans gathered to watch the finale on a big screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square (The Age); 
  • In the UK, where Neighbours has long enjoyed success, the finale will be broadcast on Friday evening on Channel 5 (BBC); 
  • The soapie ends after a period of dwindling ratings, with Neighbours only attracting 100,000 daily viewers in Australia and roughly a million in the UK — down from 20 million in its heyday.
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Labor drops Aboriginal deportation case

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has abandoned a High Court case pursued by the Coalition that sought to restore the Commonwealth’s power to deport Aboriginal non-citizens.

The decision guarantees that a dozen Aboriginal non-citizens at risk of deportation will be able to stay in Australia (The Guardian). 

In 2020, the High Court ruled that Aboriginal people cannot be aliens, but the former Coalition government had appealed that decision.

On Thursday, the Commonwealth appellants, including the immigration minister, filed a notice of discontinuance with the High Court.

A delegate for the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, revoked the cancellation of the visa of Shayne Montgomery, a New Zealand citizen culturally adopted as Aboriginal — a key test case for the law.

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Visas extended for Ukrainians

Ukrainian refugees in Australia have been offered new visa options to ensure pathways stay open to those fleeing the Russian invasion.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles announced the decision days before a temporary humanitarian visa scheme introduced by the Morrison government ends on 31 July (SBS). 

Ukrainians unable to return home or access any other visa will now be able to apply for bridging or protection visas.

The protection visa option will allow Ukrainians to live in Australia permanently, while the bridging visa will grant them full work rights for 12 months.

Since February 2022, the Australian government has granted more than 8600 mostly temporary visas to Ukrainians in Ukraine and hundreds more to Ukrainians elsewhere.

So far nearly 3800 of these visa holders have arrived in Australia.

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AI catalogues world of proteins

An artificial-intelligence network has predicted the structure of almost every protein so far catalogued by science, with the work already leading to advances in combating malaria, antibiotic resistance and plastic waste.

DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, has predicted the structures of 200m proteins from a million species, covering nearly every known protein on the planet (New Scientist). 

These have been released on a free database, with the public able to search for the protein structure they have in mind (The Verge). 

The development offers a vast array of possibilities, with researchers already having designed new proteins they hope could serve as an effective malarial vaccine.

Researchers have also used AlphaFold to engineer new enzymes to break down plastic waste and to learn more about the proteins that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

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There will be a difficult period ahead for many Australians as we try and deal together with these pretty extreme cost of living pressures.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers warns that many Australians face some tough choices ahead due to rising inflation. Chalmers of course is doing what he can to help — such as sticking with the Coalition’s generous Stage 3 tax cuts, which should ensure wealthy Australians don’t so much as notice the cost-of-living crisis (7News).

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Postscript: Yo-Yo Ma performs a work for cello in the woods, accompanied by a birdsong chorus

Perhaps the only piece of music written “for cello and birdsong”, the performance sees Ma alone with his instrument in a wooded landscape, performing the poignant work alongside a chorus of some of nature’s most gifted singers (Aeon).

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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