16/02/2007 - 15:44

"D-Grade politics" and the Barack attack in a view from the Arch

16/02/2007 - 15:44

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Matt Birney says no to Omodei, Howard says no to Obama, Obama says 'Oh yeah?', Carpenter says yes to homebuyers, Roberts says yes in Halls Creek and McGinty has a think in this week's View from the Arch - with Aged Care, the Murray-Darling and more

"D-Grade politics" and the Barack attack in a view from the Arch

Bridges Birney-ed in reshuffle

What could have been the return of the prodigal son to the Opposition frontbenches was not to be, with prominent backbencher Matt Birney refusing an offer from Liberal leader Paul Omodei of a shdow ministry.

Mr Omodei said today that while he was disappointed at the decision, any return by Mr Birney to the front bench would be made on the Leader's terms.

Mr Omodei, who has made clear his desire for Mr Birney's return, was unable to convince him, despite offering two "high profile" portfolios - believed to be industrial relations and tourism.

But Mr Birney refused, saying he did not want to return to the frontbench if it meant taking portfolios from his supporters.

"I'm not so desperate to promote my own career that I'd be prepared to step on the toes of my colleagues by stealing their portfolios from them," he said.

In the changes, shadow treasurer Troy Buswell will add the key electoral issues of housing affordability and works to his existing treasury and electoral affairs portfolios.

Environment spokesman Steve Thomas has picked up planning from MLC Simon O'Brien - who retains transport and infrastructure, while child protection spokeswoman Robyn McSweeney will add heritage to her portfolio, losing local government to agriculture spokesman Gary Snook.

The Barack Attack

Prime Minister John Howard probably won more column inches in American newspapers this week than his accumulated total over the 10 years he has governed Australia, or even as Opposition Leader to Bob Hawke.

But it wasn't Mr Howard's position that sparked the headlines, merely the way he said it.

In case you've missed it, Mr Howard was being interviewed by Laurie Oakes on Channel Nine's Sunday program when he was asked about the Baker Hamilton plan to withdraw troops by March 2008.

The plan also formed a cornerstone of the policy of Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose anti-war stance is viewed as one of the strongest among contenders for the party's nomination.

Mr Howard's position on the matter of troop withdrawal has long been to avoid deadlines - that Australia's 1,400 troop commitment should only end when Iraq's embryonic democracy is no longer under threat from the numerous groups seeking to become the next Saddam Hussein.

So when he was asked what he thought of Senator Obama's position, Mr Howard didn't mince words.

"If I were running Al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats," he said.

The problem, as pundits in Australia and overseas have pointed out, was not so much with Mr Howard's position, but rather the way it was said.

Federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd was immediately on the offensive, saying the Prime Minister's comments were an irresponsible, partisan attack that risked the strength of the US alliance.

Mr Rudd says Labor would withdraw troops in a responsible fashion, but is not being specific about his plan for Australian soldiers.

"[It] depends where we are on the rotation cycle and they are normally of a six-month duration, and it depends also on the detail of those consultations with the Americans," he said.

Mr Howard accused the Opposition Leader of ducking the question when asked what the consequences of an early withdrawal would be.

Mr Rudd challenged Mr Howard to a televised debate on the issue, which Mr Howard refused, saying the Opposition Leader could ask him questions in Parliament.

Aged Care

Something that wasn't up for debate in the House of Representatives this week was Mr Howard's announcement of a $1.5 billion boost in aged care spending.

The money will be spent on caring for ageing Australians still living in their own homes, as well as extra funding to assist those in nursing homes.

In a move foreshadowed by the Minister for Ageing last year, Mr Howard is also expected to rule out accommodation bonds for people going into high-care nursing home beds.

Murray Darling

Of course, the $1.5 billion on offer there is almost nothing compared to the $10bn-over-10-years investment the Federal Government has promised in its plan to take control of the Murray-Darling basin from the states.

It's also practically nothing to the Government, as Finance Minister Nick Minchin told the Estimates hearing of the Senate's standing committee on Finance and Public Administration, which heard on Monday the measures did not go to Cabinet before being announced as Government policy.

Senator Minchin has told the estimates hearing the decision was made by a proper process, and that it was not uncommon for governments not to go through Cabinet for every decision.

"There are decisions, such as this one, led by the PM and involving senior officials, and if the cabinet is not meeting but there is an appropriate level of consultation involvement by means other than cabinet, a decision is made," he said.

But Labor Senator John Faulkner labeled the decision extraordinary.

"Are you seriously saying to this committee that in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia, there is any remote precedent for the amount of expenditure that is involved in this particular matter not going to the Cabinet - $10 billion over 10 years?" he said.

First Start allowance

In what will be an emotive issue in the lead-up to the State election, Premier Alan Carpenter launched a government-funded home loan initiative worth $300 million.

In a scheme to be known as First Start, the government will purchase a share in the homebuyer's first property, and then providing them with a low-deposit loan to purchase the remaining share.

Purchasing up to 40 per cent of a property for families with incomes under $60,000 and up to 30 per cent for couples who earn under $50,000 and singles earning under $35,000, the maximum purchase price on a house will be $365,000.

Halls Creek

Speaking of accommodation, Indigenous Affairs Minister Michelle Roberts announced a $21.6 million package for the community of Halls Creek, the money being used to build two residential care homes for children aged under six, and six to 15-year-olds.

It would also allow for the introduction of truancy and parenting programs, as well as improved foster care services.

While she welcomed the introduction of the policy, Shadow Child Protection Minister Robyn McSweeney said she was concerned that the government's first action for at-risk children would be a foster arrangement with the child's extended family.

"Community Development assessments failed nearly one third of foster children in Western Australia, and three hundred and fifty children claimed to have been abused in the very homes chosen to protect them," she said.

She said the hostel would only succeed in protecting Aboriginal children if early risk intervention took place, or it will become a haven of last resort after repeated abuse.

Prostitution

Attorney-General Jim McGinty made a move to clear-up confusion in the state's prostitution laws, this week unveiling a plan to decriminalise and regulate brothels and escort agencies under a certification system run by the department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor.

Mr McGinty, who spoke on receiving the recommendations of the Prostitution Law Reform Working Group, said the government would work to develop laws that would be acceptable to Parliament, after the Prostitution Control Bill 2003 failed to receive majority support in the Legislative Council.

With Greens MLC Giz Watson as a member of the working group, and her party holding the balance of power, the new laws seem certain to pass.

Holidays

With Federal Parliament next sitting on February 26, Mr Howard has flown to New Zealand for two days of trade discussions and analysis of the political and security situation in the South Pacific.

Mr Howard will have a visitor of his own on February 22, with US Vice President Dick Cheney arriving in what the Prime Minister called an important opportunity to consult on major international issues.

Also out of the country is Premier Alan Carpenter, who is currently in India on a 10-day trade and investment mission.

The final word

In a week where former MP and now C-list celebrity Pauline Hanson announced that not only did she have a country music singing boyfriend but that he'd written a song about her - she's co-incidentally planning to run in the Federal election - the final word must go to Stirling MP Michael Keenan.

Mr Keenan, a Liberal who won the marginal seat from the ALP's Jann Macfarlane in the last federal election, was busted this week by AAP journalists using a taxpayer-funded Comcar to run what he called a personal errand.

For the record, Section 4.3 of the Members and Senators Entitlements Handbook declares "car-with-driver transport may be used when travelling on parliamentary business... in Canberra and surrounding districts within a radius of 30 km of Parliament House."

Mr Keenan, who had earlier refused to answer the journalist's questions when they saw him getting out of the car with a takeaway coffee cup in his hand, defended his use of the vehicle.

"I could stay in Parliament for 14 hours a day if I had to, I suppose," he said.

Arch ventures to say he probably could. Of course, with Stirling being held on a 2 per cent margin, and the ALP actively recruiting high-profile candidates for the seat, he may not be faced with the burden much longer.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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