Australia news live: Wong urges China to do ‘all it can’ to end Ukraine war, Plibersek announces supermarket soft plastic recycling

LIVE – Updated at 22:40

© Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
Ukrainians and supporters gather in Martin Place in Sydney last night for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Russian invasion.

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Australian Education Union backs yes to voice

22:40 Josh Butler

The Australian Education Union is the latest organisation to back the Yes campaign in the voice to parliament referendum, saying its membership of school teachers overwhelmingly back the change and will work to support the movement.

It comes just a day after Coalition education spokesperson Sarah Henderson complained of “indoctrination” in classrooms around the voice and called on education groups to not take a stance on the referendum.

The union movement is mobilising to support the voice, with Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus telling Guardian Australia last week that the ACTU executive was “unanimous in our support for the Yes campaign.” Unions will mobilise in a large grassroots campaign effort including door knocking and public events – McManus said they’d had an “overwhelming response from union members wanting to be involved in the campaign”.

Today, the AEU lent its support. Federal president Correna Haythorpe said the union and its Indigenous advisory committee would work to “educate members and the broader community on the significance of the Voice to Parliament.”

Our union, which consists of public school, preschool and TAFE teachers, principals and support workers, overwhelmingly backs in First Nations Australians and their call for self-determination through constitutional reform. That’s why the AEU endorsed the Uluru Statement five years ago and that is why we extend our unstinting support to the Yes campaign today. And, that is why we will back this in with resources including a Voice Campaign Lead officer and project officers. We cannot allow this critical opportunity to move forward towards reconciliation slip away from us. It is time to right the wrongs of the past and unite all Australians.

On Thursday, Henderson told a universities conference that there was “no room for activism, campaigning or personal agendas in Australian educational institutions.” My colleague Caitlin Cassidy brought you that story yesterday:

Related: Coalition likens support for voice to parliament in schools to ‘indoctrination’

But speaking later at the same conference as keynote speaker, Prof Megan Davis – co-chair of the Uluru statement, an expert adviser to the government on the referendum and pro vice-chancellor Indigenous at UNSW – said that it was the “role of universities” to support the voice campaign.

I don’t really stomach that we are mere facilitators of the debate … universities say they don’t want to be political, but the decision not to take a stance for Uluru and the referendum for a voice to parliament is a political decision.

Victoria records 33 Covid deaths and 101 people in hospital

There were 3,052 new cases in the weekly reporting period, and five people are in intensive care.

After last week’s figures showed a slight increase, they are now trending downwards again from 3,344 cases and 56 deaths reported seven days ago.

NSW records 47 Covid deaths and 818 people in hospital

There were 6,545 new cases in the weekly reporting period, and 18 people are in intensive care.

Cases are up by 500 on last week’s 6,033 while deaths are slightly lower than 51 recorded seven days ago.


NSW Labor to ban dangerous benchtops if it wins poll

Dangerous engineered stone benchtops will be banned under a NSW Labor election pledge to address rising rates of asbestos-like lung disease.

Labor said it would aim for a national uniform ban by 2024 to outlaw manufactured stone with silica concentrations above 40%.

The dust of silica, a common substance naturally found in sand, quartz and other stones, can cause pulmonary fibrosis years down the track, much like asbestos dust can.

Labor pointed to a Queensland study suggesting up to one in four stonemasons could have silicosis.

Leader Chris Minns said:

Every day that goes by without reform is another day NSW workers lives are put at risk.

If elected at the NSW election on March 25, the party would create a licencing scheme, more health screening and get Safework NSW to inspect more workplaces including quarrying and tunnelling projects.

There must be a complete ban on manufactured stone, coupled with urgent reform of Safework NSW now, which Labor will deliver.

The construction union CFMEU said all governments must fast-track a national ban on manufactured stone with silica. Incoming CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith said:

Otherwise, politicians will have to explain to victims and their families why they’re allowing the asbestos of our generation to kill more workers.



22:16 Michael McGowan

NSW Greens pledge push to raise age of criminal responsibility

The New South Wales Greens will use the next term of parliament to push for the age of criminal responsibility in the state to be raised to 14, in line with changes recommended in a report commissioned by all the attorneys general.

On Friday the crossbench party – which could hold significant sway in the event of a hung parliament at the state election next month – will announce its intention to move for the age of criminal responsibility in NSW to be lifted from 10 to 14 in the next term of parliament.

It also wants the state to make it impossible for anyone younger than 16 to serve a custodial sentence. The party’s justice spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said such a change would bring NSW into line with other nations such as Germany and Spain, while also breaking the impasse on reform in Australia. She said:

Medical and legal experts are in fierce agreement that children are developmentally incapable of criminal responsibility and the age should be raised. Primary school aged children should not be in prison.

Other states and territories around the country are raising the age and it’s time that we join them. It’s disappointing that in spite of the evidence, we saw no progress on this issue in the last term of parliament.”

The announcement comes after the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, last week indicated he was willing to abandon a long-running national process to raise the age of criminal responsibility and instead go it alone by introducing legislation into that state’s parliament. The Northern Territory last year raised the age to 12, while the ACT has committed to raising the age to 14 in a two-step process beginning this year.

Late last year the standing council of attorneys general, chaired by the federal attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, released a previously secret report dated from 2020, which was commissioned to consider the issue. It made raising the age of responsibility to 14 its key recommendation.

But progress had seemingly stalled until December last year when the council agreed to release the report, and committed to reexamining the issue by focusing on “the need for adequate supports and services for children who exhibit offending behaviour”.


22:13 Paul Karp

We’ve got to be the smart country, says Albanese

Anthony Albanese is visiting Wollongong, Kiama and Nowra today. He phoned in to i98FM to speak about investment in renewable energy and skills.

Albanese said:

When I was infrastructure minister, we funded the smart infrastructure centre today, [providing] the energy futures skill centre with a $10m grant to the University of Wollongong. And we’re also putting $2.5m into upgrading equipment and material at the renewable energy training facility there in Wollongong …

It’s a great region and you’ve been at the heart of manufacturing and skills and innovations and the University of Wollongong, of course, has such a fantastic history of scientific breakthroughs in areas like wave energy, was really pioneered in the University of Wollongong internationally, not just in Australia, so it’s great to be able to be investing once again in that magnificent facility with its world-class researchers.

Asked if it is surreal being PM, he said:

Absolutely. I grew up with a single mum in council housing in Camperdown. When I was growing up my prospects were … I hoped to get a job … I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My mum, encouraged me to get an education and to go to university, which was pretty good of her because she, you know, was really struggling that she saw that as the key to opportunity, which I do as well, whether it’s Tafe and a career in a trade or whether it is a going university, I think that education and skills are the key to not just individuals, improving their lot in life, but they’re the key to Australia, doing better, too. We’ve got to be the smart country. I don’t want to compete on the basis of our wages going down. I want to compete on the basis of how smart and innovative we are, and we can be a renewable energy superpower and part of this fits together, the energy future skills center with 180,000 fee-free Tafe places, and 10,000 energy apprenticeships where we will give people $10,000 to go into the new energy jobs of the future. So that as our economy changes, we have the skills based to maintain and build and look after new energy infrastructure.


From our economics correspondent, Peter Hannam:


21:48 Peter Hannam

Energy ministers to turn congestion busters at first gathering of the year

The federal, state and territory energy and climate ministers have gathered in the Hunter Valley region near Newcastle this morning to tick off a range of agreements.

With the market operator this week warning of the need for “urgent” action to address looming “reliability gaps” in the grid as coal plants drop out and new renewables and batteries (and other storage) may not keep up.

It looks like dealing with resolving congestion on the grid is at the top of the to-do list today. As we note this article this morning, one solar farm in NSW is unable to get almost half of its electrons to the market because of grid access:

Related: Australian renewable energy struggles to hit grid with one solar farm wasting half its yearly output

And as Dylan McConnell at the University of NSW notes, at times as much as 6 gigawatts of power is being “curtailed” because of those access issues.

During December, for instance, solar farms in South Australia were in effect spilling about 20% of their output because they couldn’t get it to customers.

It’s a complex issue and the first thing is not to make things more complicated, and so we understand the ministers will be nixing plans to introduce a pricing system based on location.

Improving information and establishing a way to prioritise those solar and wind farms already generating power over newcomers look like being other matters agreed today.

Queensland’s Mick De Brenni, meanwhile, will be pressing for a nationally coordinated hydrogen plan. (He may be the world’s first hydrogen minister.)

Anyway, ministers will break up around 2.30pm AEDT, so we’ll learn more then.


Australia would be ‘very concerned’ if China sent weapons to Russia, says trade minister

Moving onto China, Farrell says Australia “would be very concerned” if Beijing was to provide ammunition to Moscow after Washington expressed concerns about this.

Officials from Beijing and Australia met yesterday. Farrell said they discussed when he might visit China:

One of the things I discussed was when I might head up to to China and so we’re continuing to have discussions about that. As you know, a couple of weeks ago, I met with my Chinese equivalent, Minister Wang. He very kindly invited me … to China to discuss all of the mutual issues between us.

One of the things he said at that meeting was that the freeze is over and we are moving to a warm spring. I took that as a very positive sign. And so when I go to China, I want to make sure that we’ve got as much work done to make that a successful visit to to ensure that we get things back to a stable relationship.

On whether the sanctions could be lifted, Farrell says “there’s a whole lot of positive signs in the whole range of products.”

The day after we had our meeting, which was a virtual meeting, not a face to face meeting, for the first time, coal had been imported into into China. And since then, there’s been one or two other coal shipments that have arrived in China.

I was at the Geraldton lobster factory earlier this week. And they told me that for the first time, in number of years when they submitted an application for an import permit, that that permit was not rejected.

The Bulla dairy company have started to re-exporting some of their terrific dairy products into into China.

The minister himself told me that the ban on timber products had been had been lifted.

So right across a range of industries, I think there’s a there’s a positive sign there. We’ve got to go further. We want all of these impediments removed, and we want to get back to that normalised trading relationship that we had prior to the implementation of these impediments.


ACTU calls out ‘shocking’ greed price spiral

The national secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, has spoken to ABC News this morning following that finding from the Australia Institute that company profits, not wages, are driving soaring inflation.


I reckon it’s shocking. I mean, I think your average Aussie already knows that companies are putting up prices more than they need to. And what that’s doing is driving profits and, of course, driving cost-of-living pressures.

One of the most shocking stats that those economists showed was that the average inflation since the pandemic has been 5.2%. If it were not for those excessive profits, it would be 2.7%. Now, that’s within the RBA’s, you know, target, and they wouldn’t have needed to put up interest rates as they have.

So, we’re just calling on companies to moderate their profit expectations, to cut their prices, and also calling on the RBA to stop their interest rate rises.

… The whole wage price spiral thing was always a fantasy from the 1970s, it was never going to happen and it hasn’t happened. The RBA keeps getting this wrong all the time.

Instead, what we’re seeing actually is a greed price spiral – that’s what’s happening. This inflation is driven not just by overseas supply issues, it’s been driven by excess profits. It’s about time that got called out. Why isn’t the RBA, you know, calling out companies and asking them to stop putting up prices way more than they need to?

Spy hive uncovered by Asio reportedly linked to Russia

A hive of foreign spies busted by Australia’s intelligence agency in the past year was reportedly linked to Russia.

Nine newspapers on Friday cited unnamed sources as saying the spies posed as diplomats and had been operating for more than 18 months in multiple locations, including the Russian embassy in Canberra.

They were reportedly trying to recruit Australians with access to classified information and steal data.

In his annual threat assessment delivered earlier this week, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief said intelligence officers uncovered a group of spies and had them removed from the country.

Director-General Mike Burgess said the “hive” was working undercover, and some of the spies had been put in place years earlier.

Proxies and agents were recruited as part of a wider network. Burgess said on Tuesday:

Among other malicious activities, they wanted to steal sensitive information. We watched them. We mapped their activities. We mounted an intense and sustained campaign of operational activity. We confronted them. And, working with our partners, we removed them from this country, privately and professionally. The hive is history.

Comment is being sought from the federal government.



Coles and Woolworths take responsibility for soft plastic

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, has provided an update on soft plastics after the sole soft plastic recycler, RedCycle, collapsed last year, saying supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths have agreed to take on responsibility for the soft plastic they sell.

What I did at the time was get the big supermarket giants around the table. I said to them, you’ve got to take responsibility for the soft plastics that your businesses are generating.

I’m very pleased today to tell you that the taskforce set up with the supermarkets has come to a conclusion and Coles and Woolies will take on responsibility for the tonnes of soft plastic that has been piling up in warehouses.

The government we’re doing our share we’ve got about $60m specifically set aside for upgrading recycling of plastic, soft plastics and other hard to recycle plastics as part of a quarter of a billion dollar investment in upgrading our recycling facilities around Australia.

I’m really hopeful that the supermarkets will soon be able to announce when we’re likely to see a restarting of the collection of soft plastics. We’ve got to keep this stuff out there environment, we’ve got to produce less of it in the first place. And make sure that we’re moving to a circular economy where we get use after use out of the materials that we produce.

Sussan Ley attacks Labor over discussion of superannuation tax changes

21:34 Paul Karp

The Liberal deputy leader, Sussan Ley, and the education minister, Jason Clare, have gone toe to toe on superannuation.

Ley has seized on remarks by assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones, describing billions in super as “a lot of honey to be shared around”.

Ley told Sunrise:

The government said before the election … they had no intention of changing superannuation. They floated the idea this week, now they seem to be making jokes about it, calling it a honeypot to be raided for the things they want to spend it on, instead of showing the fiscal responsibility and managing the economy in a way that actually protects the retirement incomes of Australians that have worked really, really hard …

I’ve met a lot of self-funded retirees who are totally unimpressed with this, because they’ve worked hard, they’ve put their money away and they’re not going to rely on the age pension when they’re older …

This is the problem, talking about it as if it’s honey to be raided and shared around well, it’s not honey, it’s not funny.

We actually need the government to stick to its election promises instead of all of the different views that we’ve heard this week that actually seem to be saying to Australians, we don’t care about your superannuation, we want it ourselves.

Clare responded:

I don’t think this is a major change. We said two things. One, we think that we should make it clear in the legislation was super is for, that it’s for your retirement. It’s not to be ripped away for other reasons. And two, what the treasurer said is it’s worth having a conversation about the fact that for 1% of Aussies who’ve got 3m bucks or more in their superannuation should the tax concessions for them be the same for everybody else. I don’t know about you Nat I don’t have 3m bucks in my super. 99% of Australians don’t.

We said let’s have a conversation about this and every Liberal MP across the country’s head exploded at that thought. I think that says a lot about the Liberal party. They say they’re for the suburbs, but when it counts, they’re really just for the multimillionaires.


One year since Russian invasion of Ukraine

Today, 24 February, marks the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The minister for veterans affairs, Matt Keogh, has made a statement affirming Australia continues “to stand with Ukraine’s brave Armed Forces and support them in their self-defence against Russian aggression”.

He said Australia was proud to be providing training to Ukrainian recruits through the UK-based training program was called Operation Kudu.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, reflected on the contributions of the bushmasters Australia has provided the Ukraine on ABC’s 7.30 program last night:

Each Australian Bushmaster is more than just a hardy and handy protected vehicle, it’s actually the Anzac spirit, it’s Australian mateship. This is what is saving lives, helping Ukraine win.

You can find a series of articles and interactive features marking the first year anniversary of the conflict here.

Related: A year of war: how Russian forces have been pushed back in Ukraine


Trade minister defends presence of Russian ambassador in Canberra

The minister for trade and tourism, Don Farrell, is speaking to ABC Radio. On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, there is talk about what more Australia can do as a nation.

RN Breakfast host Patricia Karvelas asks the minister why the Russian ambassador remains in Canberra.

The Nine Fairfax papers are reporting that Asio dismantled a highly active hive off of Russian spies posing as diplomats in the embassy. The Russian ambassador remains in Canberra. Why shouldn’t he be expelled?


Look, if you expel the Russian ambassador, then you have no mechanism of communicating our displeasure with the with the decisions that the Russian government are taking.

These are operational matters, of course, and they’re not the sort of matters that we discuss publicly. There was a report earlier this week by Asio about these matters. I’m very happy to leave it in the very capable of hands of Mr. Burgess.

Wong urges China to do ‘all it can’ to end Ukraine conflict

21:06 Paul Karp

The foreign minister, Penny Wong, has spoken to ABC News Breakfast on the Ukraine war anniversary and added sanctions on Russia.

Wong said:

Today is the anniversary of the full scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine and we mourn those lost. We continue to condemn Russia’s illegal and immoral war and we stand with Ukraine. The government is demonstrating that by what we are doing in addition to what we have provided so far. We are providing additional defence capability, uncrewed aerial surveillance and I have issued more sanctions against Russia overnight, against 90 people and organisations which take our sanctions to in excess of a thousand. It is a heavy sanctions regime against a government which has chosen to engage in an illegal and immoral war, breaching sovereignty and the UN charter, which is why we have to stand against Russia.

Wong was also asked about the possibility of China supplying arms to Russia, and she replied:

What I would say is that Russia is a permanent member of the UN security council. It has a special responsibility to ensure that international law, including the UN charter which protects everyone’s sovereignty, is protected. This war, waged by Mr Putin, is an attack on sovereignty and an attack on the UN charter. We would urge China to do all it can to not only not escalate this conflict but to end it.


NSW government accused of ‘double dipping’ on land offsets

Anne Davies and Lisa Cox have brought you exclusive investigations this week as part of the “Sydney’s growing pains” series examining the spread of housing in the greater Sydney area.

Cox’s story today reveals how Dominic Perrottet’s government is being accused of “double dipping” offsets by using land that’s already been put aside for conservation for Sydney’s koala habitat and some of Sydney’s rarest bushland.

Have a read for yourself:

Related: ‘Just a disgrace’: experts condemn NSW use of public land to offset huge housing expansion

Good morning!

Thanks to Martin for kicking things off, Natasha May now on deck with you.

Health ministers are meeting today and the top issue on the agenda is tackling the growing popularity of vaping.

The meeting comes after the Therapeutic Goods Administration finished consulting on ideas for a further restrictions on access to nicotine vapes.

You’ll remember at the end of last year Guardian Australia’s medical editor Melissa Davey published a series of articles investigating how so many young Australians became hooked on vapes.

Related: ‘I’ve lost my children to vaping’: the tragic stories behind the soaring rates of youth addiction

Davey’s reporting showed most vapes contain nicotine, even though the substance is often not included in the ingredient list.

Independent MP Kate Chaney told the ABC she believes the regulator should target vapes claiming to be nicotine-free:

I think we need to end the black market in vapes by banning all importation and supplies of e-cigarette products, regardless of their labelled nicotine content, unless they’re actually going to a pharmacy for smokers with a prescription.

If we just ban the lot, there isn’t really any compelling reason to have them, even if they don’t have nicotine in them.

That means we can actually then have stronger border controls and enforce that, so that border force can actually intercept any e-cigarette products that aren’t bound for the pharmacy.


20:14 Martin Farrer

Push for Pacific unity

The Pacific’s moment for unity has arrived, with Australia and Fiji leading the way towards mending the region’s Micronesian rupture, Australian Associated Press reports.

Leaders from the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum gather in Nadi today with the goal of cementing a deal that brings Kiribati back to the regional body.

Amid heavy influence from China, President Taneti Maamau walked away from the forum last year, furious at other members backtracking from a previous agreement to rotate the grouping’s leadership.

Since then, a heavy diplomatic effort – spearheaded from Canberra and Suva – has patched the rift.

Penny Wong has visited 16 Pacific nations, pledging aid, signing deals and arguing for Pacific unity, which supports Australia’s strategic goal of sheltering the region from outsized Chinese influence.

On her latest trip this week, she had plenty to announce, including an MoU with Kiribati which included the rebuilding of a wharf, a patrol boat and policing support, $10m in new funding for schools damaged in cyclones and $620m to fund healthcare programs in the Pacific and south-east Asia.

Alongside Australia’s reorienting its foreign policy focus, incoming Fiji prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka has been credited with the key act to pacify Kiribati.

Rabuka travelled to Kiribati last month – on an Australian defence plane – to formally apologise.

The deal that followed will result in Micronesian countries all receiving new roles or offices, including a regional forum office in Kiribati, and Nauru picking the next secretary general.

It now needs to be ratified at a meeting, which cannot be taken for granted.


Hello. I’m Martin Farrer, welcoming you to our rolling news coverage. My colleague Natasha May will be taking over soon but in the meantime here are some of the big stories that have made news overnight.

The yes campaign for the voice to parliament referendum was launched yesterday and involved a lively community forum in Perth that was packed out with hundreds of people wanting their say. Our correspondent Narelle Towie was there and she reports that there was some division of opinion among First Nations people but the new Greens spokesperson, Dorinda Cox, summed up well by saying, “We need a seat at the table.” In the same city today, Liberal deputy leader Sussan Ley will accuse Anthony Albanese of using the issue as a “re-election vanity project”.

It is almost exactly a year since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February. In a show of support for the embattled nation, the Albanese government is sending drones to assist the war effort and is stepping up sanctions against prominent supporters of the Putin regime, including the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill.

Penny Wong will be hoping today to cement a deal that brings Kiribati back to the fold of the Pacific Islands Forum when the latest meeting winds up in Fiji. Canberra and the Fijian government have put a lot of work into bringing the small nation back and Wong has made nine visits to the Pacific in as many months. She said in Nadi:

A strong and united Pacific Islands Forum is in all of our interests.

With that, let’s get going …