Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the biggest overhaul of the nation's public service in decades.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Thursday that his decision to reduce the number of government departments from 18 to 14 from Feb. 1 would "bust bureaucratic congestion and improve decision making."
Four new "mega-departments" will be the Department of Education, Skills and Employment; the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications; the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
Despite the shake-up, the biggest to the public service since 1987, Morrison said there would be no change in the ministers responsible for each portfolio.
The changes, not expected to generate significant budget savings, were about "better services on the ground" rather than saving money, according to the prime minister.
"Australians should be able to access simple and reliable services, designed around their needs," he said.
"Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people. The new structure will drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges."
The announcement comes more than a year after Morrison was chosen to lead the governing Coalition.
Two customs agents and an information technology worker appeared in a court on Thursday charged with drug offenses over Australia's largest seizure of methamphetamine, which had been smuggled to Melbourne from Bangkok in stereo speakers.
Police estimate the 1.6 metric tons (1.7 U.S. tons) of the drug also known as ice and crystal meth had a street value of AU$1.197 billion ($818 million). The 37 kilograms (82 pounds) of heroin also seized was the largest haul of that drug in Australia since 2017, police said.
"It's almost a quarter of the annual usage in Australia, so this will have an impact," Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters, referring to the crystal meth.
Married customs agents Rachel Cachia, 37, and Donovan Rodrigues, 38 appeared with their co-accused Stephen Mizzi, 37, in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on drug importation charges that carry potential life prison sentences.
They did not enter pleas or apply for bail. They will remain in custody until they appear in court next on May 7.
Customs agents are private-sector employees who facilitate cargo movements through ports. They do not have security clearance at ports, but operate as independent import-export experts who know how the system works.
Gaughan alleged the couple were "middle-to-high up" in the drug trafficking operation.
"They are trusted insiders in the industry. They used their position of trust to circumvent the border controls that exist within Australia," Gaughan said. "This vulnerability has been fully removed."
Police were now working toward bringing the bosses of the operation to justice, Gaughan said.
The three were arrested after police executed search warrants on Wednesday at several Melbourne properties.
Australian Border Force officers detected the haul in vacuum-sealed packages concealed in speakers at the Melbourne waterfront in April.
The drug shipment came to Australia from Thailand, but Australian authorities suspect it originated from another Southeast Asian country, which they have not named.
A larger consignment of 1.7 metric tons (1.9 U.S. tons) of crystal meth bound for Australia was seized in California in January. Australian police said then it was the largest shipment of the drug bound for Australia and the largest ever domestic seizure in the United States.
Australia is an attractive market for international drug traffickers because of the relatively high prices that Australian drug users are willing to pay.
The Australian city of Sydney was once again blanketed in dense smoke on Tuesday as nearby bushfires filled the air with hazardous smog, prompting locals to wonder when they will see the sky again.
Over the past month Sydney has come to resemble one of the world's most polluted cities rather than the blue-skied coastal haven it is internationally known to be.
So far in November and December of this year alone, the city has experienced more hazardous air quality readings than in the past five fire seasons combined.
"We're experiencing much higher levels (of particle matter) than what we normally have in Sydney and really lots of part of New South Wales State (NSW)," Christine Cowie, senior fellow at the Center for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research at the University of New South Wales told Xinhua.
On Tuesday it was two large fires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney which blocked out the sky, deteriorating air quality as the smoke drifted east and settled over the harbor city.
Health authorities warned vulnerable people, such as those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, young people and the elderly, to avoid being outdoors where possible.
However Cowie said that exposure to high levels of particle matter in the air could have effects beyond those with respiratory issues.
"These fine particles can penetrate deeply into our lungs and they can also cross into the blood system and affect other organs in our body," Cowie said.
"There's really strong evidence for the effects on the cardiovascular system and those effects manifest themselves in an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke primarily."
Cowie emphasised that Sydney is experiencing relatively short periods of hazardous air quality, compared to a number of metropolises which experience the year-round effects of air pollution.
Unaccustomed to the poor air conditions, some Sydneysiders took to fashioning facemasks out of scarves and other items of clothing, while schools cancelled outdoor sporting events to avoid any unnecessary risk.
As of midday on Tuesday there were 116 bush and grass fires burning across NSW - 56 of which were not contained - and over 2,000 fire-fighting personnel were working in the field with the help of support aircraft.
So far the fires have claimed the lives of six people this season and destroyed roughly 670 homes and 1,400 structures.
Sydney's smoky conditions are expected to persist at least until the end of the week when onshore winds may develop to help clear the air, particularly near the coast.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday that allegations of a Chinese plot to plant an agent into Australia's Parliament are "deeply disturbing and troubling."
The Nine Network on Sunday aired explosive accusations that suspected Chinese operatives had offered Melbourne luxury car dealer Bo "Nick" Zhao 1 million Australian dollars ($679,000) to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Melbourne.
The 32-year-old was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room in March after reportedly approaching ASIO, Australia's counterespionage agency. Police have been unable to determine how he died.
"The government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference," Morrison told reporters. "I would caution anyone leaping to any conclusions about these matters."
ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess said late Sunday that the allegations are serious.
"Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security," he said. "ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia."
Parliamentary intelligence committee chief Rep. Andrew Hastie called for an investigation into Zhao's death.
"This isn't just cash in a bag, given for favors. This is a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our Parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system," he told the Nine Network.
Earlier this month, Hastie said he and fellow Liberal Party member Sen. James Paterson had been barred entry to China for a study trip because of their criticism of the Chinese government.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday that some Australian politicians, institutions and media outlets have "reached a state of hysteria and extreme nervousness."
"No matter how bizarre the plot is and how their tricks are refurbished, lies are always lies," Geng said at a regular briefing. "We have never been and are not interested in interfering in others' affairs."
He urged Australian officials and journalists to adopt a healthy attitude toward China in the interest of bilateral relations as well their own "physical and mental health."
The latest revelations come days after a self-confessed spy seeking asylum in Australia reportedly gave ASIO inside intelligence on how Beijing conducts its interference operations abroad and revealed the identities of China's senior military intelligence officers in Hong Kong.
Wang "William" Liqiang provided detailed accusations of China infiltrating and disrupting democratic systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He would be the first Chinese intelligence operative to blow his cover.
China attempted to discredit Wang, saying Sunday that he is a convicted fraudster wanted by Shanghai police.
"He's in Australia. And we have the rule of law in Australia," Morrison said of Wang, who is living in Sydney with his wife and infant son on a tourist visa. "And as a result then you can expect the same protections to apply to anyone who is living in our country, whether on a visa or any other arrangement."
The Australian government has been trying to neutralize China's influence by banning foreign political donations and all covert foreign interference in domestic politics.
Resource-rich Australia relies on China for one-third of its export earnings.
More than 100 schools across South Australia (SA) have been closed as the Australian state braces for catastrophic fire danger day.
Temperatures in some parts of the state were forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius on Wednesday, accompanied by strong winds.
About seven districts were declared catastrophic fire danger zones by the state government, and a state-wide total fire ban was put in place.
"From sunrise until well past midnight, this state is going to experience very difficult fire conditions," said Brenton Eden, Country Fire Service (CFS) assistant chief officer, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
With 10,000 firefighters ready in the CFS, he said those conditions posed challenges for the fire service. "As people will have seen in New South Wales (NSW), should a fire start, the fire activity will be intense. It will be fast and it will be difficult to control."
Four people were killed by bushfires in NSW recently which also destroyed more than 500 homes and burnt more land than any other fires in the state in the last 25 years.
Eden said the conditions on Wednesday were expected to be the worst in SA since 2015.
"These are the worst fire conditions we've experienced since going back to Pinery four years ago where we lost 85,000 hectares and (had) two fatalities in that tragic accident," he said.