Morning mail: Coalition washes hands of robodebt, cruise ship evacuation, solar 'skin'

Helen Sullivan
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Good morning, this is Helen Sullivan bringing you the main stories and must-reads on Tuesday 18 February.

Top stories

The Australian government has claimed it does not owe welfare recipients a duty of care over the robodebt scandal and has denied alleged debtors were placed under “duress”, despite admitting in court documents that some debts were based on “false” assumptions. Documents filed in the federal court reveal the government has conceded that debts issued using tax office income summaries could “not be validly established” under the law. But the government argues it should not be required to pay compensation for damages because social security law makes no mention of a need to exercise “due or reasonable care”.

Another 99 people have tested positive for coronavirus onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 454. More than 200 Australians stranded on the Diamond Princess will be flown to the Northern Territory, where they must remain in quarantine for a further 14 days. Meanwhile concern is growing over possible infections among passengers from another cruise liner that docked in Cambodia last week. On Sunday a traveller from the MS Westerdam was confirmed to have the virus in Malaysia, days after disembarking along with hundreds of other passengers. The UK is trying to contact Britons who left the ship. The new coronavirus causes only mild disease in four out of five people who get it, the World Health Organisation has said.

Australia’s bushfire crisis has caused a spike in concern about the environment, a slump in the popularity of the Coalition and Scott Morrison, and a drop in support for new coalmines, even among Coalition voters. A poll conducted by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods found a “significant and substantial decline” in the Coalition’s vote from 40% in October 2019 to 35% in January.

Australia

A flexible solar “skin” that could be used to generate power is a step closer to development after the technology was used to break a world record for electricity conversion, researchers say.

Australia risks becoming “a magnet for dirty money” from abusers and kleptocrats across the globe, says the man who spearheaded the United States’ Magnitsky Act – which targets sanctions against human rights violators around the world – unless it brings in similar legislation.

Labor is pursuing the Liberals over the deleted record of a $165,000 donation from a key Scott Morrison ally. The opposition will ask the joint standing committee on electoral matters to examine the circumstances of the donation, which was initially disclosed by the Liberals, then removed entirely after questions from the Guardian.

Liberal Katie Allen says Australia needs to join the emissions technology revolution, saying the world is approaching an “iPhone moment” when it comes to new technology lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and Australia needs to be part of the revolution, rather than being a technology “taker”.

The world

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald speaks to the media as the newest members of the Sinn Féin parliamentary party meet for the first time at Leinster House in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has rejected suggestions of a pact between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, centrist rivals that have dominated Irish politics for a century. Nine days after Sinn Féin won the popular vote in Ireland’s general election, party leaders have inched towards talks to see whether anybody can cobble together a coalition in the hung parliament. If not, another election looms.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman has refused to say whether Johnson thinks black people have lower IQs, or agrees with eugenics, after No 10 hired an adviser with highly controversial views.

Donald Trump attended the wedding this weekend of controversial White House aide Stephen Miller, who has been condemned for his links to white nationalism and his hardline stance on immigration.

Greece has halted plans to construct new detention centres on outlying islands facing Turkey amid mounting opposition from resident communities who fear they will become permanent.

A second nest of 16 snakes has been found dumped outside a fire station in the UK, days after 13 royal pythons were found in the same spot.

Recommended reads

Mallacoota resident and photographer Rachel Mounsey documented the bushfires that destroyed some 150 houses in her town and its surrounds. “When the New Year’s fire bore down on my town of Mallacoota I began to imagine the fire as a type of medieval dragon – heavy-footed and angry – coming towards us to destroy everything in its way,” she says. Weeks after the catastrophe, Mounsey sits with neighbours who lost their homes, and asks: how do you move on mentally when all you own has turned to ash?

The Australian housing market is being driven by owner-occupiers, writes Greg Jericho. “And as long as that is the case housing affordability should remain relatively steady. And with that stability the RBA will be more comfortable with cutting rates again should it believe the economy needs a boost.”

Listen

On Today in Focus: Tom Phillips, the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, is back in Venezuela a year after the start of a dramatic, but so far unsuccessful, attempt to topple Nicolás Maduro. While conditions in Caracas appear slightly improved, outside the capital conditions in schools and hospitals are appalling – and getting worse. Also today: Jess Cartner-Morley on pockets.

Sport

The phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history” is often misinterpreted. Nonetheless the parallels with the burgeoning AFLW competition – built on the back of decades of quiet, unrewarded work at grassroots level, almost exclusively by women – are obvious, writes Erin Delahunty.

Rugby Australia is pitching a “whole of game” package to broadcasters, including Optus, in an attempt to achieve a significant uplift on its current $57m-a-year deal with Fox Sports. Brett Harris asks whether the package will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Media roundup

There are growing calls for a second safe injecting room in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald reports, “as data on overdose deaths show the opioid crisis has spread to the outer suburbs”. The Australian reveals that Scott Morrison “is expected to adopt a technology target to avoid Australia signing up to an internationally imposed requirement for net zero emissions by 2050” and that Anthony Albanese has been warned not to be hostile to coal. Australian tech giant Atlassian plans to build a concrete-and-timber tower next to Sydney’s Central Station costing over $1bn, the Australian Financial Review reveals.

Coming up

A NSW parliamentary committee will hear more evidence on the impact of the bushfires on koala populations.

Perth Glory begin their Asian Champions League campaign in Tokyo, while Melbourne Victory take on FC Seoul.

And if you’ve read this far …

A “ghost ship” has washed ashore in Ireland after more than a year at sea. Abandoned by its crew, the cargo vessel made a lonely odyssey across the Atlantic, seemingly destined never to make port. The 77-metre MV Alta drifted for over a year, skirting the Americas, Africa and Europe.

Sign up

If you would like to receive the Guardian Australia morning mail to your email inbox every weekday, sign up here.