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ICAC target Mike Gallacher ‘guest speaker’ at East Maitland branch meeting

Former police minister Mike Gallacher FORMER police minister MikeGallacher was set to offer hisversion of history at a Hunter Liberal Party branch meeting on Monday night.
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Mr Gallacher, the onlytarget of theIndependent Commission Against Corruption’s Operation Spicer investigation still sitting in parliament, was listed as a “guest speaker” at an East Maitland branch meeting on Monday night.

His attendance at the meeting has drawn criticism from Labor’s Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, who said it showed Mr Gallacher was still being given a role in the party.

“It’s clear that he’s still in the Liberal Party fold and not only that he’s being held up as someone to aspire to,” she said.

“And yet, his involvement in everything that came out in ICAC is clearly problematic.

“It just shows the Liberals are still, even in the Hunter, soft on corruption.”

Mr Gallacher did not respond torequests for comment on Monday, but branch president Bob Geoghegandefended his right to attend party meetings.

“It’s an internal matter and I’m not going to comment one way or the other on whether he is attending [but] he’sentitled to come to any meeting,” he said.

Mr Geoghegan said there were“a lot of faults” with the ICAC report, and said“my own opinion about Operation Spicer is that it was a kangaroo court”.

Advertised as“discussing” theinquiry with the branch, the one-time architect of the Liberal Party’s success in the Hunter at the 2011 election was accused in May 2014 of hatching a “corrupt scheme”with Nathan Tinkler’s company Buildev to channel illegal donations to the Liberal Party before the 2011 election.

He vigorously denied the claims and said outside ICAC: “I know in my heart I am not corrupt.”

No corruption findings were made against him, but theinquiry found that hehad engaged in conduct with the intent of evading electoral laws which banned developers making political donations in NSW, and had not always been a truthful witness.

“The commission does not consider Mr Gallacher was always a truthful witness and places no reliance on his evidence unless it is corroborated by other reliable evidence or objective facts,”ICAC says in its report.

After the report was released in August the Premier Mike Baird said Mr Gallacher would not return to cabinet or the parliamentary Liberal Party.

A spokesman for the NSW Liberal Party said it was “common that branches and conferences of the Liberal Party invite guest speakers to address meetings”.

“The NSW Liberal Party has publicly acknowledged and apologised to the people of NSW for matters that occurred six years ago, which were revealed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption during its Operation Spicer investigation,” the spokesman said.

“The Party has since taken detailed steps to prevent such issues reoccurring.”

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US authorities arrest former Novocastrian Kirsten Wallace over $US176 million insurance fraud involving Community Recovery rehabilitation centres in California

CHARGED: A mugshot of former Novocastrian Kirsten Wallace following her arrest in US on significant fraud matters. Picture: California Department of Insurance. UPDATE, 12.30pm:
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FORMER Novocastrian Kirsten Wallace will face a Los Angeles court early Wednesday (ADST) as prosecutors now claim she faces up to 53 years in jail if convicted over one of California’s largest insurance frauds.

Ms Wallace, 43, was the chief financial officer ofCommunity Recovery of Los Angeles, a company which ran about 20 rehabilitation centres in southern California and Colorado.

Along with the company’s owner and operator Chris Bathum, the Australian woman was arrested last Thursday following a long investigation by the California Department of Insurance.

They are each chargedwith 31 counts of money laundering, eight counts of grand theft, six counts of identity theft and five counts of insurance fraud.

Mr Bathum has also been charged with sexually assaulting nine patients.

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office alleges Ms Wallace and Christopher Bathumobtained multiple health care insurance policies for their clients, using their personal identifying information and falsified the clients’ circumstances to obtain the policies. The patients were unaware that policies had been issued in their name, prosecutors added.

The DA’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that Bathum and Wallace were also accused of billing for former clients after their treatment ended while those clients were still working at CRLA and no longer receiving treatment.

“Between June 2012 and December 2015, Bathum and Wallace are accused of fraudulently billing an estimated $175 million [$A233 million]. In most instances, bills were sent for services allegedly never provided,’’ the statement said.

“About $44 million [$A58 million] was paid out by five insurance companies, prosecutors said.

“If convicted as charged in the healthcare fraud case, Bathum and Wallace each face up to 53 years in state prison. He faces up to life in prison if convicted in the sexual assault case.”

Ms Wallace is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday (ADST).

The case remains under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigation and the California Department of Insurance.

EARLIER:

A FORMER Newcastle woman is facing over35 years in a United States jail after being accused of being involved in one of the biggest insurance frauds in Californian history.

Kirsten Wallace was due to face a LosAngeles court early on Tuesdayafter being charged on Thursday with multiple counts relating to the alleged fraud of $US176 million ($233 million) involving drug rehabilitation centres.

The California Department of Insurance alleges Ms Wallace, who was the chief financial officer of the Community Recovery company which ran about 20 rehabcentres, and company owner Chris Bathum were involved in “an elaborate conspiracy’’ to defraud patients and insurers.

Prosecutors will allege Ms Wallace and Mr Bathum, who is also being investigated for sexually assaulting patients, stole patient identities,bought health insurance policies for patients without their knowledge and continuedto bill insurance companies for treatment after the services were completed.

“Bathum and Wallace’s alleged conspiracyvictimized hundreds of people addicted to drugs and alcohol by keeping them in a never-ending cycle of treatment, addiction and fraud –all the while lining their pockets with millions of dollars from allegedly fraudulent insurance claims,’’ California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said.

The charges include: identity theft for submitting fraudulent health insurance applications without patients’ knowledge; five counts of billing fraud for submitting claims for services not provided and duplicate billings; five counts of grand theft by false representation for representing [their company] as a residential treatment facility, which it is not licensed to provide; and five counts of grand theft by false representation to insurers for filing fraudulent health insurance policy applications.

Additional charges include enhancements for losses greater than $US500,000 andgreater than $US3.2 million.

“This is likely the first wave of indictments and charges in an ongoing investigation into one of the largest health insurance fraud cases in California,’’ Mr Jones said.

Ms Wallace, originally from Coffs Harbour, moved back from the US to Newcastle in late 1999to be near her mother.

She lived in Carrington and Mayfield forabout seven years before her and her young daughter moved to the US about 10 years ago.

Ms Wallace wasarrested in California on Thursday, with the Los Angeles Times reporting at least 16 locations were raided.

The newspaper said the company ran six centres in Colorado and 13 drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities in Los Angeles.

The department said if convicted, the pair face “more than 35 years in prison”. Bail was requested at $2 million and both werelikely to be arraigned overnight Monday (ADST).

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After US election, Russia feared influencing French vote, corroding Western values

London: Marine Le Pen, the far-right French leader hopeful of a strong showing in next year’s presidential election, has defended borrowing from a Russian bank to fund her party – and promised closer ties between the Elysee Palace and the Kremlin if she wins next May.
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There are growing fears of Russian interference in the vote, after Donald Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin and Russia’s alleged role in hacking the Democratic party’s email server were hot topics in the US election.

Foreign policy experts told Fairfax that Russia would benefit from “chaos” in Europe and a weakened NATO and EU, and it was not clear how far it would go to exploit the opportunities offered by next year’s presidential elections in France.

Ms Le Pen admitted in 2014 that her party borrowed €9 million  ($12.9 million) from a Russian-owned bank. Russia has also reportedly lent money to Greece’s Golden Dawn, Italy’s Northern League, Hungary’s Jobbik and the Freedom Party of Austria.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Marine Le Pen defended the move.

“I’m sorry, but I borrowed from a Russian bank, but it might as well have been a bank from Guatemala or from Spain,” she said. “French banks won’t lend to the National Front, it’s a way they have found to stifle democracy.”

But she said her presidency would feature a new friendship with Vladimir Putin – and hinted at an end to economic sanctions initiated after Russia took Crimea from Ukraine.

“There is no reason to be scared,” she said. “If we want a powerful Europe we had better negotiate with Russia and cooperate with them, have commercial agreements with them.”

She was in favour of a “multi-polar world” without a wall between Europe and Russia.

“The model defended by Vladimir Putin, which is reasoned protectionism, looking after the interests of his own country, is one that I like,” she said.

Ms Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-immigration party won more than a quarter of the vote in last year’s regional elections, and she is likely to reach the second round presidential run-off in May.

Voters from the two mainstream parties are expected to unite against her. However she is predicting a Brexit, Trump-style upset win.

Mr Trump’s victory was “a new stone in the building of a new world destined to replace the old one”, Ms Le Pen said, drawing parallels with Brexit and the rise of European “patriotic” nationalism.

Mr Trump had “made possible what was previously thought impossible – the victory of the people against the elite”.

Rene Nyberg, Finland’s former ambassador in Moscow, said Ms Le Pen posed a “formidable populist threat” in the election.

And there was a “very sinister Russian connection” within the National Front, he said.

“They’ve been financing her and that’s unpalatable … Russia today is a country that questions the basic values which are ours, our Western values, human rights, rule of law, the liberal values.

“(Russia) trying to find allies inside the European Union, starting with (Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor) Orban, Marine Le Pen and rejoicing at Brexit etc are things that are very serious.

“Weakening the EU is clearly something they hope to achieve by splitting it. Marine Le Pen’s position of leaving the Union, renouncing the euro is something they support.”

Mr Nyberg said “your guess is my guess” as to whether Russia – or Russian hackers – might try to influence the French election.

E. Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the America Foreign Policy Council, wrote recently that “Moscow considers American outrage about foreign involvement in this election as pure hypocrisy”, given  overt US influence on other countries such as Egypt and Ukraine, and Washington’s pursuit of regime change in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Professor Anand Menon, from King’s College London’s department of international studies, said the Russia-National Front connection was quite simple to explain.

“It’s not because there’s an ideological affinity necessarily, it’s because the Russians want chaos,” he said. “It means division, the West is less likely to stand up to Russia’s behaviour in eastern Europe.”

The alleged role of Russian hackers in the US election showed that “we’re facing a whole range of weird and wonderful simultaneous threats from unexpected angles”, he said.

He would not rule out a similar hack in France.

“I don’t know enough about Russian intentions to know whether it’s a high level of probability but on the basis of the evidence we have it seems to be that it’s entirely plausible that the Russians would try that,” he said.

“It’s a whole new world of politics we’re in at the moment. It’s trans-national, it’s technological, it’s quite scary in that way but I think there will be more and more of it happening.

“People are going to have to be more and more careful what they do on electronic media now.”

But Professor Menon said the French electoral system was created to avoid extremist parties winning elections.

“We can come out with all the usual tropes that ‘you can’t trust the polls and they’ve been wrong before’ but I just think the institutional hurdles in France are significantly higher than they are in the US,” he said.

But he warned that if Nicolas Sarkozy was the candidate of the centre-right Republican party, Ms Le Pen’s chances would “go shooting up”,  because the left would find it very hard to put a cross next to Mr Sarkozy’s name.

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Fighting flares in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine

One village before the attacks. Photo: Human Rights Watch The village after the attacks with buildings and trees burnt and missing. Photo: Human Rights Watch
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Bangkok: Fierce fighting has escalated in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state where satellite imagery shows the destruction of hundreds of Rohingya Muslim homes.

Myanmar’s government said eight people died and 36 were arrested in the latest clashes between the Myanmar army and what the government claimed are Rohingya militants.

Human rights groups accuse the military of killing, raping and burning the homes of Rohingya, a minority of almost one million people in Buddhist majority Myanmar.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had identified a total of 430 destroyed buildings in three districts of Maungdaw from an analysis of high-definition satellite imagery recorded between October 22 and November 10.

Brad Adams, the organisation’s Asia director, said the images show the destruction is far greater than was at first thought and called on Myanmar authorities to promptly establish a UN-assisted investigation as a first step towards ensuring justice and security for the victims.

Myanmar’s Information Ministry said the violence flared last weekend when government troops were ambushed by about 60 attackers armed with guns, knives and spears.

Two soldiers were killed in a subsequent battle involving 500 armed men, the ministry said, adding that two helicopter gunships joined the fight.

The military has imposed a lock-down on most of the region since October 9 when gunmen attacked three police posts near the border with Bangladesh, leaving nine policemen dead.

The government claims the attackers were Rohingya extremists but the actual responsibility remains unclear, human rights groups say.

Aid organisations, the United Nations, independent observers and the media have been prevented from going to the affected areas where tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said children there already suffer from high levels of deprivation and malnutrition.

“Their futures depend on help from doctors, nurses, teachers and others who can provide them with nutrition, health and education services,” UNICEF said.

The violence is the most serious to hit to Rakhine since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in 2012.

More than 100,000 Rohingya are still living in squalid camps after being driven from their homes where they are denied citizenship and other basic rights, despite the fact their families have lived in the country also known as Burma for generations.

The United Nations has called on Myanmar to investigate reports of dozens of sexual assaults in Rakhine and to allow humanitarian assistance to reach the area to provide support for survivors.

Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was swept into office in November 2015 promising to bring peace to the country’s many ethnic minorities who account for up to 40 per cent of the country’s population.

But wars in the north against Kachin, Shan and other ethnic rebel forces are continuing unabated despite peace talks in August.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced in the north as the military advances supported by helicopter gunships, jets and heavy artillery.

Ms Suu Kyi has been criticised for failing to speak up for the Rohingya as she is seen to be playing a delicate balancing act between her supporters and the military which kept her under house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner said a year after dancing in the streets to celebrate Ms Suu Kyi’s victory a bitter reality has set in as she finds it was much easier to be the heroine of democracy than to rule a country torn apart by decades of civil war and ethnic and political strife. .

“And the military remains in the driving seat, despite the country having a civilian government for the first time since the early 1960s,” he said.

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Newcastle harness racing boss backs club to end seven-year losing streak

CHIEF executive Tony Drew is hopeful of a “break-square” result this financial year forNewcastle Harness Racing Club (NHRC) despite it posting a seventh consecutive year of substantial loss.
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Newcastle Harness Racing Club CEO Tony Drew.

NHRC announced a$116,910 deficit for2015-16, which was down from $171,631 (2014-15) and about $207,000 (2013-14) –the club’s worst results. Those followedlosses of about $103,000, $122,000, $120,000 and $97,000 in the years since theclublost regular Saturday night TAB dates.

However, Drew was optimistic about the future given the improvement of 2015-16, an increase in Saturday night meetings and new concessions from Harness Racing NSW.

“It was a pleasing result,” Drew said.“We were able to secure for this financial year the Saturday meetings, and we’ve got to thank Harness Racing NSW. Halfway through last financial year they gave us quite a few Saturdays.We went from 12 to 25 and now we’ve got 41.

“The last financial year, the majority were twilight meetings, but it gave us a stepping stone to this year.We’ve got 41 Saturday nights and four Friday nights as well –it’s almost back in line with about seven years ago.

“We’re looking forward to this financial year with great anticipation and we would hope it would be a break-square.”

Drew said an HRNSW initiative to coverthe costs of photo-finish and ambulance services for each club would also help NHRC. It is believed the change will equate to about $75,000 in savingsfor Newcastle.

“For a club that runs 61 meetings, it certainly helps our bottom line,” Drew said.

He said the other significant cost-saving came from the expansion to 12-horse field with fewer meetings but more races on each program.

“Our fields since we’ve gone to 12 runners have held up remarkably well,” he said.

“All you can do is thank the local participants, they’ve been marvellous.

“They have embraced the 12-horse fields and we are having nine and 10-race meetings on a regular basis. We are down only about seven races from last year.”

He hoped the increase in Saturday night meetings would increase attendances and profits.

“We’re trading pretty well and heading in the right decision,” he said.

“Hopefully in the future people will realise we are racing on Saturdays. It’s been seven or eight years since we did regularly and people havefound other things to do. Hopefully with our promotions, we’ll start to get them back.”

To help the turnaround, NHRC has recently employed a marketing and business development manager, Jane Hextell.

“Give us 18 months, we’ll achieve our goals,” Drew said.

“It’s been a four-year plan and we’re getting there.”

Meanwhile, NHRC will on Tuesday farewell club accountant Steven Norris, who died last Wednesday.

Norris, 44, was with the club for about 18 months. His funeral service will be held at Lake Macquarie Memorial Park from 10am.

In other news, lone Hunter hope UltimateArt has arrived safe and well in Perth ahead of the Inter Dominion Series.

Ellalong trainer-driver Michael Formosa said Ultimate Art, which missed last year’s series in Perth but was a heat winner in the 2015 Menangle edition, had a good nature, which served him well for the long trip.

Mick Radley from GPTV interviews Michael Formosa about Ultimate Art’s arrival in Perth for the Inter Dominion.Ultimate Art is ranked 14thfor the series which starts on November 25.

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New Zealand earthquake: Hundreds of aftershocks pepper North and South islands

A map from GeoNet showing the distribution of aftershocks. Photo: GeoNet​The deadly earthquake that struck 90 kilometres north of Christchurch on Sunday night has been followed by hundreds of aftershocks.
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GeoNet, which monitors seismic activity in New Zealand, said: “We can say one thing with certainty: there will be more earthquakes to come in this area.”

About 10 hours after the huge quake hit, GeoNet had recorded 232 aftershock events. One of those tremors was of 6.1 magnitude. By noon AEDT close to 300 shocks had been recorded.

Caroline Little, a spokeswoman for GeoNet, told Fairfax Media that the agency was “pretty confident” the initial earthquake was two seismic events about 50 kilometres apart.

It is the largest earthquake recorded in New Zealand since 2009.

A statement from GeoNet said: “It looks like we’ve got two separate but related quakes going on. Our reports indicate that the combination of these two quakes lasted two minutes, with the most severe shaking at around 50 seconds.”

“It’s quite a complex quake,” Ms Little said. “It looks like two events happening almost simultaneously.”The M7.5 looks like TWO separate earthquakes, which is why we are seeing aftershocks in two locations. More info to come. #eqnz— GeoNet (@geonet) November 13, 2016

Geoscience Australia said that the seismic event released more than 50 times the amount of energy than the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people.

Dan Jaksa is the senior duty seismologist for Geoscience Australia. He said it was unlikely there were two separate quakes but that, as the earth’s crust ripped, seismologists can record movement at different locations.

“We put a dot on a map and call it the epicentre and give it a number but of course it’s more complex than that,” he said.

Mr Jaksa said an earthquake of this size had an impact zone of about 150 to 180 kilometres.

“It’s way too far away to affect Australia,” he said.UPDATE: Mag 7.9 South Island of New Zealand. 14 Nov 2016 00:03 (NZDT). Lat/Long -42.7 172.7. Depth 59km. Info is preliminary.— EarthquakesGA (@EarthquakesGA) November 13, 2016

“What is occurring is a rip through the earth’s crust,” he said. “From our measurements it seems this one started onshore about 15 kilometres underground and ruptured the crust from west to east in a slightly north-easterly direction.”

GeoNet released an initial report of expected likely scenarios.Scenario 1 (Very likely): a normal aftershock sequence over the next few months. This means gradually diminishing size and frequency of seismic events.Scenario 2 (Likely): Possible rupture earthquake of magnitude 6 in North Canterbury and/or offshore.Scenario 3 (Unlikely): Another large earthquake above magnitude 7 within a month in the Marlborough and Cook Strait regions.

GeoNet measured the quake at a magnitude of 7.5, although the United States Geological Survey said it was of a 7.8 magnitude and Geoscience Australia said the event was of a 7.9 magnitude.

“There are a number of ways we can look at an earthquake,” Mr Jaksa said.

He said GeoNet relied on measuring close readings, which can “saturate” the measurement devices causing what he called “clipping”.

The different seismic waves arrival times: p-waves, s-waves, surface waves. Graphic: Western University Canada

The first measurements from an earthquake are the “p-waves”, which are compression waves travelling through the earth, much like sound waves. Mr Jaksa said these dispersion waves allow detection of a quake’s location and an initial estimate of its size.

Following the “p-waves” seismologists measure “s-waves”, which are slower moving shear waves travelling perpendicular to the direction of the p-waves.

Seismologists then measure even slower surface waves that shake the crust in rolling waves allowing a better understanding of the event.

The different seismic waves and the way they travel across the earth: p-waves, s-waves, surface waves. Graphic: UNC Charlotte

Mr Jaksa said GeoNet relied on more localised measurements, whereas Geoscience Australia incorporated more longer-period waves. USGS uses a similar method, explaining why the US and Australian agencies have issued similar magnitudes for the event.

He said the NZ measurement was more like the older Richter scale, which measured amplitudes of seismic waves. The current scales incorporate measurements of earth movement.

Ms Little said that GeoNet’s use of local stations gave it a better ability to locate the epicentre and determine whether it was one or two seismic events.

“We’re pretty confident it was two,” she said.Last 48 hours in NZ in 30 seconds. #eqnz

All quakes above magnitude of 2.

Source: https://t.co/p9CvaAHuK3pic.twitter南京夜网/6SuProXUue— Harkanwal (@kamal_hothi) November 13, 2016

Mr Jaksa said: “These scales are logarithmic, which means each unit increase represents a 10 times increase in size.

“However, this doesn’t account for the amount of energy released. The event overnight released 50 times the amount of energy than the 6.1 magnitude Christchurch quake did in 2011.”

That quake was just five kilometres underground and 10 kilometres from the city centre. It killed 185 people.

Mr Jaksa said: “This is the most active seismic site on earth. It stretches from the Solomon Islands through Vanuatu and down to New Zealand.

“The Pacific Plate is going under the Australian Plate along this area. The Pacific Plate is moving 11 centimetres a year in a west-north-west direction. The Australian Plate is moving north-east at about seven centimetres a year,” he said.​

However, along the South Island things get complicated. Here the Australian Plate is largely going under the Pacific Plate.

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‘It wasn’t an intruder, it was an earthquake’: How it felt when the NZ quake hit

Part of the destruction caused by the earthquake. Photo: Iain McGregor/Fairfax NZ Sydney Morning Herald journalist Saimi Jeong.
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The door was rattling in my Christchurch hotel room. As it became more violent, I bolted upright, expecting an intruder.

The rattling turned into a rumble as the floor shook. It was only when I flicked on my beside light that I realised what was happening: lamp and curtains shaking, glasses and water bottle trembling on the table; it was the unmistakeable scene of an earthquake – straight out of the movies.

At first, I stayed in bed, waiting for it to pass. When it didn’t – and it could have been half a minute, but that’s a long time when the very earth itself is shaking – I slipped out from under the covers and carefully pulled on a shirt and shorts, in case we needed to evacuate. Unsure of what to do next, and with the tremor still going, I slipped back into bed. I imagined myself being pulled out of the rubble in the morning by figures in dusty body suits and hard hats.

After the first quake ended, I tiptoed across the floor in the new knowledge that nothing was as solid as it seemed, and poked my head out into the corridor.

Other heads were poking out, too. One of them, at the far end, was accompanied by a hand, waving gently at me as if to say: “Hey, we’re alive, isn’t that funny?”

I smiled and returned the wave. Another door creaked open and a hulking man with a shaved head emerged, walking down the corridor, my way. I waited, eager for more of an exchange than silent hand gestures.

“That was a long tremor,” he said as he walked past.

“Ye-e-e-eah,” I half laughed. He was already too far away for anything more to be said.

Unsatisfied, and with a post-rollercoaster-ride feeling in my stomach that was part adrenalin, part motion sickness, I grabbed my phone and texted: “Did you feel that tremor??” to a blogger from Australia in the room next door.

“Hell yeah. Just keeps going!” he texted back.

The room shook again every few minutes, then every 10 or so, and, again, hours later, by which time the shocks had lessened in severity and I had gained in confidence: What, this again?

To reach this level of cool, I had quickly Googled “what to do in an earthquake”.

In the stillness between shocks, I prepared according to the New Zealand government website Get Thru.

I swept my laptop and charger off the desk, then dragged it away from the outer wall of the hotel, positioning it so it wasn’t too close to the TV on the other side.

I pushed the chair away for unobstructed access and practised crouching under the desk, holding on to its edges. I tried another position: one hand on an edge and one clutching a table leg.

An hour and a half after the first tremor, I was feeling pretty self-assured.

Then the tsunami warning was sent around. I didn’t sleep for another two hours.

Saimi Jeong is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist.

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Australia’s most successful game studio is having an identity crisis

Fruit Ninja, one of the most successful games of all time, was an unexpected hit for Halfbrick.In years gone by Halfbrick had a tradition.
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When an employee decided to leave there was a farewell. A slideshow, a card signed by everyone. A speech — a celebration — topped off by a ceremonial bag stuffed full of marshmallows. Weird, flippant. By design. A sense of closure to dedicated service in pursuit of one unified goal: the creation of unique, innovative video game experiences.

A gesture reflective of the experience that — from the outside in — you might expect from a company like Halfbrick.

Halfbrick. Australia’s biggest, arguably most successful, video game studio.

Halfbrick: the golden child. Halfbrick: the success story. Halfbrick: the enduring symbol of an Australian games industry in full recovery. Halfbrick: the phoenix from the flames. After years of redundancy, studio closures and flat out misery, Halfbrick: everything we wanted Australian game development to represent. Verve, creativity, agility, polish, quality. Independence.

Halfbrick: the dream in action.

But Halfbrick as we once knew it has changed, and has been changing — according to sources — for years now. From the outside in Halfbrick has always existed as a static enduring example of success; living, breathing proof that Australia has a games industry worth believing in.

From the inside out; a different story. Halfbrick: a studio with a powerful, damaging identity crisis. Halfbrick: a company teetering on the edge of a chasm it doesn’t quite understand, can’t quite traverse.

Over the past six months we’ve spoken to numerous sources within Halfbrick. Ex-developers, ex-designers. Some left years ago, some left as recently as last month.

But they all tell the same story.

And that story begins with a little game called Fruit Ninja.

Fruit Ninja: the centrifugal force around which Halfbrick’s story orbits.

Fruit Ninja, released in April 2010. A minor miracle of design. One of the first mobile games to take full advantage of the iPhone. One of the first on the platform to seamlessly merge form and content. Fruit Ninja: a game built for touch screens. Almost instantly, it was a massive hit.

It sold 200,000 in its first month. A tremendous number at the time, but modest in comparison to what would come. In three months: 1 million. By September 2010: 2 million. March 2011: 20 million. By May 2012 it had sold 300 million units and was on one third of all iPhones in the US.

2015: 1 billion.

Fruit Ninja is one of the most successful video games ever made.

The kind of success story you could never predict, let alone plan for. In many ways Fruit Ninja was a glorious accident. In others it was a calculated stroke of genius, led by a small group of developers hell bent on success.

Fruit Ninja in its earliest state was designed by Luke Muscat, prototyped by Joe Gatling and worked upon furiously by Luke himself alongside Steve Last and Shath Maguire. Fruit Ninja was almost exclusively the end result of that team’s hard work.

“Fruit Ninja wasn’t planned,” one source explained. “It didn’t have a long development cycle and it wasn’t the result of management making the right call — except to get out of its way.

“Fruit Ninja was a miracle. And everything changed as a result of that miracle.”

The writing was on the wall. Alongside the shift towards free-to-play, sources say Shainiel Deo was determined to add a layer of middle-management to what was previously a flat company structure.

It was the source of much resentment, particularly amongst long-serving staff, who were now being asked to justify design decisions to middle managers with no real understanding of how Halfbrick had worked in years previous.

The real issue: Halfbrick traditionally promoted from within, which helped preserve its unique culture. Now Shainiel was creating what one source described as a “fairly draconian” management layer. Crucially, he was creating this management team using external hires.

Many in this middle management layer were notorious for drawn-out meetings that were frustrating and unproductive, particularly to those involved in design.

Others were more forgiving, believing middle-management was brought in to execute a new mandate from Shainiel himself — who was becoming increasingly distant (and inaccessible) to Halfbrick’s rank and file.

“Shaniel had the right intentions,” explained one ex-staffer. “The big issue at the heart of all this: how can a small, indie spirit which results in great games, be maintained in a big company with expensive overheads.

“Those two things were at war.”

In the midst of this expansion, Halfbrick opened a Sydney office.

There was an element of naivete among the new recruits. Some were young — direct from university or college — others were attracted to Halfbrick’s reputation as a space where game design was placed at a premium. It was 2011. Halfbrick was the most successful game studio in Australia. There was a reverence at play — some experienced developers took a pay cut just to be involved.

All were chasing that dream: creative freedom, working with like-minded people. There was a sense of myth-making, a romance to the idea of Halfbrick: a game design mecca where prototypes flowed freely in a glorious flat structure where everyone worked as equals.

“After I joined,” says one source, “it became quickly apparent that things weren’t going to play out that way.

“It wasn’t exactly flat management. It wasn’t exactly creative freedom.

“We arrived at a company that was trying to find its identity.”

Almost immediately, the Sydney studio was tasked with porting existing Halfbrick games to Asian markets. First off the rank, Fruit Ninja Champions for Korean consumers.

The team were disappointed. Mostly they were confused. This wasn’t what they signed up for. None of them spoke Korean. None of them had even visited Korea.

“The Korean market is extremely competitive,” explained our source. “It’s full of cultural nuances we couldn’t possibly master. It was an intense, saturated market we didn’t understand.

“It was a terrible idea. We tried to be friendly about it. At a certain point we all said, ‘we don’t want to do this’. We were basically told, ‘well you’re doing it anyway’.”

The Sydney operation operated as a satellite to the main studio in Brisbane. In the beginning the team felt part of a cohesive ‘Halfbrick’ culture, but that quickly deteriorated. Halfbrick was in the process of changing dramatically. This was reflected in Shainiel’s relationship with the development team in Sydney.

In the beginning Shainiel was on first name basis with everyone — including those in the Sydney studio. But that quickly changed. Sources say he was distancing himself from the day-to-day management of Halfbrick, which frustrated many within the Sydney studio.

Eventually, Shainiel decided to make the trip to Sydney. The team were excited.

“It was like dad coming to visit when dad doesn’t visit often,” one source said. “We were like little kids. The big man’s coming!”

The trip didn’t play out like the team had hoped.

“Shainiel had changed a lot,” we were told. “He wore different clothes, had a different attitude. He didn’t remember who in the office he’d actually met before.

“Suddenly he was like, ‘have I met you before?'”

“With Halfbrick’s choice to publish ‘Yes Chef’ and ‘Top Farm’ I think the penny dropped for more than a few people.”

Yes Chef and Top Farm: clearly inspired by existing franchises like Farmville and Bejewelled. Games that didn’t match the previous levels of polish and innovation expected of a studio with Halfbrick’s stellar reputation.

Many were disappointed by the shift in direction and the games being published.

Halfbrick began hemorrhaging staff. Most of whom left of their own volition.

Many left because the job felt dull and creatively redundant (“I wasn’t satisfied with the work I was doing there”). Others struggled with the new imposition of middle-management (“expert employees that had been making excellent games for years weren’t trusted to do their jobs — so they left.”)

Regardless of the reasons, over the course of a year roughly 30 frustrated developers left Halfbrick, choosing to work on their own projects independently or forming small micro-studios.

Among them, a core group of long-serving key staff members that included Chief Creative Officer Luke Muscat — the man responsible for so much of studio’s success. Arguably the most prolific game designer in Australia.

Luke — alongside Phil Larsen and Hugh Walters — left Halfbrick to form Prettygreat, a brand new studio devoted to making video games in the mobile space.

To those remaining at Halfbrick, it was a crushing blow.

“Design lost an advocate at the company [when Luke left],” explained one source. “It lost a voice.”

Many in the design team openly wondered if Luke would be replaced, but it soon became apparent that replacing Luke wasn’t going to be a priority.

“Vague answers were given like ‘someone will step up’. I now suspect that meant ‘we don’t want one.’

“By this point I think management lost faith in designers.”

“Halfbrick remains a design focused company and this change will empower everyone in our teams to contribute to design rather than concentrate design control in the hands of a few.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere and we want to create an environment that fosters this notion.”

That statement was sent to Kotaku on September 14, 2015. The day Halfbrick decided to make the role of ‘game designer’ redundant at its studio.

It was a move that surprised many. Few were aware how dramatically Halfbrick had changed since the release of Fruit Ninja.

But those with an insider’s perspective understood perfectly: it was consistent with the behaviour of a company consolidating past successes. As one source told us at the time, creative risk-taking was “a thing of the past” for Halfbrick.

There would be no slideshow. No giant bag of marshmallows. Despite years of combined service Layton Hawkes and Ryan Langley — Halfbrick’s two remaining designers — were given a handshake and 10 minutes to leave the office.

Two game designers. It didn’t make sense. For a studio as sizeable as Halfbrick, that number seemed low. It seemed low because it was low. In fact, just days previously, Halfbrick had at least four game designers on staff.

Sources report that, just days before Layton and Ryan were made redundant, the remaining two designers on staff were quietly taken into a room and ‘promoted’. Instead of being called ‘game designers’ they were now ‘product managers’.

“It was out of the blue,” one source said.

The day after those promotions, the remaining two game designers had lost their jobs.

But why Layton? Why Ryan?

Multiple sources informed Kotaku that Ryan and Layton had expressed concerns regarding Halfbrick’s direction; that both felt the need to defend design as a discipline.

Almost everyone we interviewed believes Halfbrick was in the process of creating a work environment where management decisions were accepted without question.

“They want ‘yes men’ that will agree to make the games they want,” said one source.

“A lot of issues came from hiring people who were ‘yes men’,” claimed one ex staff-member.

“Shainiel doesn’t want anyone to challenge him directly.”

Making video games at Halfbrick is different now.

Roughly three months ago Halfbrick formalised a new set of processes that determines what games would be created and released.

Games don’t start with an idea. They don’t start with a mechanic. They start with questions like ‘should this product be built’ or ‘can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?’

Those processes, those questions: they’re largely based around a book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

One source: “to get a project approved for development, you start by trying to find a gap in the market, and then interviewing people to see if you should build something in that area.”

Developers had to take ideas to marketing, describe their game’s potential audience, and wait for interviews to be set up.

“It means you have a bunch of developers sitting around trying to sort out interviews for six weeks without building anything.”

According to sources, Shainiel and the management team were rejecting prototypes at an alarmingly high rate.

“There was no real vision. So much standing between a team starting and finishing a game.

“The new lean process really encourages copying.”

Those who remained after the ‘game designer’ role was made redundant believe that decision, along with these newly mandated processes, are a major issue. Creativity has stagnated. Morale is at an all-time low.

“Developers also can’t focus on what they’re good at,” said one source.

“Mostly people don’t care,” said another. “They’ve managed to effectively weed out the people who care.”

In September 2016 there was another purge. But this time it was voluntary.

Frustrated by a lack of support for his ‘Lean Start-Up’ inspired processes, Shainiel sent out a company-wide email.

His offer: voluntary redundancy to anyone in the company who wanted it. His reasoning: Shainiel only wanted people who were “100% committed” to Halfbrick in its current state.

It was referred to as the “golden handshake”.

Anyone with issues regarding how Halfbrick was being run could leave, and would receive a payout. The minimum payment: $10,000, but employees would be paid whatever they were legally entitled to as a redundancy payment. For some long-term staff members, that number was upwards of $20,000.

Everyone had 10 days to decide.

Numbers regarding how many took the redundancy are vague, but most put the number at around 14.

14 staff members took Shainiel up on his offer, took the “golden handshake” and left Halfbrick of their own volition.

At this stage Halfbrick’s future is unclear.

“They’ve lost so much talent,” one source told us.

Some believe Halfbrick will continue to leverage its existing properties — cement Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride and expand those brands into new, potentially lucrative markets. Others believe Halfbrick will move towards publishing — helping other studios release games into an increasingly temperamental mobile market.

Previous communications suggest Halfbrick will continue releasing its own, studio developed video games, but it’s difficult to tell: Halfbrick and Shainiel Deo turned down repeated interview requests for the purposes of this story.

“Our focus lies in the future,” said a Halfbrick spokesperson, “and we don’t want to dwell on the past.” celebrates video game culture with news, reviews and long form features. read more »

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Metro rail from CBD to Parramatta confirmed – but it’s $10b and 10 years away

Another metro line will be built between Sydney’s CBD and Parramatta by the middle of next decade, the Baird government says Photo: Supplied The new metro rail line will include new stations at Olympic Park and the Bays Precinct around Rozelle. Photo: Supplied
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The Baird Government has committed to a new metro rail line between Sydney’s central business district and Parramatta, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

Amid open warfare within the NSW Nationals following the backlash in the Orange byelection at the weekend, the government said it would use funds raised from the $16 billion sale of Ausgrid and so-called value capture to pay for the project, intended to relieve mounting pressure on Sydney’s overcrowded Western Line.

The new rail line will run driverless, single-deck trains and include new stations at Olympic Park and the Bays Precinct around Rozelle.

Premier Mike Baird said the government wants construction to start on the new line within five years and for it to be operating in the second half of the next decade.

But he was short on releasing details about the cost, the exact route or how many stations would be built. Those aspects would be subject to talks with industry and the wider community, and a business case for the project.

“We know where the rail link is going to go. What we need to finalise now is both the route, the number of stations and that is one of the great things we have through this – the opportunity to engage,” he said.

“We’re very confident that we have every capacity to deliver this project.”

Mr Baird said the Ausgrid deal had given the government the ability to bring forward planning for the project, which was first revealed by Fairfax Media in September.

“A metro line in Western Sydney will effectively double rail capacity between Parramatta and the Sydney CBD,” he said.

“This is the first step – we’ve identified the need for this project, we’re committing the government to delivering it and today we begin the work to bring metro rail to Western Sydney,” he said.

Called “Sydney Metro West”, much of the new line will run through tunnels. The route follows a similar abandoned scheme promised by the former Morris Iemma Labor government in 2007 and then abandoned.

The first stage of a $20 billion metro line under construction at present, between Sydney’s north-west and Chatswood, is due for completion in 2019. The second stage of this line will continue onto the CBD, Sydenham and on the existing Bankstown Line and should open in 2023.

Transport Minister Andrew Constance said the new west metro line to Parramatta would complement the existing Western Line, which was quickly reaching capacity.

“The growth in western Sydney means we have no choice. You’re not going to be able to get people onto trains in 15 years if we don’t start the firing gun,” he said.

The new metro project will dovetail with the planned 22-kilometre light rail line from Westmead and Parramatta to Olympic Park and Strathfield. The light rail line is likely to be built in stages from 2019 at a cost of more than $3.5 billion.

Mr Constance said the new metro link and the Parramatta light rail line were “two very different transport projects”.

“Light rail is about connecting precincts – this project is obviously a mass-transit solution which is going to lead to connectivity between Parramatta and the CBD,” he said.

David Borger, the western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, said a metro line between the CBD and Parramatta was the “missing piece of Sydney’s transport puzzle” and would re-energise the city’s west, including Olympic Park.

“The Western Line is old, slow and congested. [The new line] will provide a significant incentive to the private sector to think about locating jobs in Parramatta … and Olympic Park will boom [because of the rail project],” he said.

Mr Borger said the planned metro line would require the construction of a new station at Parramatta, the best location for which was now occupied by a council-owned car park north of Parramatta Square.

Deputy Opposition Leader Michael Daley described the government’s announcement as a “desperate attempt to talk about anything other than the mauling they received in Orange” in the byelection at the weekend.

“It really is the mother of all distractions. There is no details, there is no designs, there is no dollars. No one can say where the stations will be going,” he said.

A consortium of property developers has already submitted to government an unsolicited proposal for a metro-style rail line from Central to Westmead in western Sydney via Strathfield, Olympic Park, Camellia and Parramatta.

Christopher Brown, the chairman of lobby group Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue, said a number of private-sector infrastructure groups were eager to become involved in the government’s new metro line.

And he called on the government to investigate a public-private funding model to fast-track the new line and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

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National Film and Sound Archive director Michael Loebenstein announces resignation after five years

National Film and Sound Archive CEO Michael Loebenstein has resigned after five years at the helm. Photo: Richard BriggsThe search is on for a new director of the National Film and Sound Archive, with the announcement Monday that chief executive Michael Loebenstein has resigned.
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Mr Loebenstein will return to his native Austria to head up the Austrian Film Museum, where he worked prior to moving to Canberra five years ago.

During his time at the helm here, he steered the archive through tough financial times, which involved a sharp reduction in staff and funding, and cutting the signature weekly screening program at Arc Cinema.

But he also brought youthful vigour, European swagger and wide-ranging enthusiasm to the institution, overseeing the restoration of several classic Australian films, and a collaboration with international best-selling musician Gotye, whose sound and light installation brough more than 100,000 visitors to the archive’s art deco headquarters.

Speaking to Fairfax Media shortly after gathering staff together to announce his departure, Mr Loebenstein said he was confident he would be leaving the archive “in good shape”.

“I would never even have considered accepting an offer or even toying with the idea of going back to Europe if I had felt that I would let the NFSA or the larger sector of our Canberra collecting institutions down,” he said.

“And while the hardship in a way still continues because we are seeing government appropriations and the efficiency dividend is really weighing heavily on all of us there, I think we are more stable than we were a couple of years ago.

“I think that the organisation has gone through a process of renewal where we managed to take the best of the old days sort of people with the vast experience of decades and the ethos and the passion, and combine it with new and young and energetic people who’ve come in over the last years, so I must say I’m most sentimental these days.”

He said the NFSA had emerged as a leader in the digital collecting realm.

“We managed to just be part of the really good group of people across the cultural institutions, talking about the future of digital, and the need for Australia really to step up and look at digitising our heritage to connect our citizens,” he said.

“Personally I would say, we’ve managed to stir the pot in an inclusive and productive way.”

But he said he was excited to be returning to the Austrian Film Museum, which marked its 50th anniversary last year.

NFSA chairwoman Gabrielle Trainor said Mr Loebenstein had seen the archive into the digital age.

“Michael has led the NFSA during a time when we have made a giant leap forward towards our goal to become leader in the digital environment, and an engaging place for encounters with our amazing and diverse film and sound history,” she said.

“His time with us was marked by a significant reinvention of the NFSA into a more outwardly focused, collaborative institution which continues to collect, preserve, and more broadly share our film and sound treasures.”

Mr Loebenstein will head back to Vienna to face a European winter in January, and said he would miss the “extremely high-definition Canberra skies… both on a chilly day as well as on a really hot day”.

The NFSA board announced Monday it would conduct an international search for the archive’s new chief executive.

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