22/06/2007 - 20:24

Something completely different in View from the Arch

22/06/2007 - 20:24


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The Canberra controversies of broadband pork barrelling, poorly behaved unionists and the budget surplus were blown out of the water this week by a new policy on remote indigenous communities, while Neale Fong's email history had a similar effect in WA.

The Canberra controversies of broadband pork barrelling, poorly behaved unionists and the budget surplus were blown out of the water this week by a new policy on remote indigenous communities, while Neale Fong's email history had a similar effect in WA.

Howard takes over in Northern Territory's "national emergency"

Last Friday the Northern Territory's Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse handed down its inaugural report, making 97 recommendations to try to wipe out child sexual abuse across northern Australia.

These include a shake-up of the education system, support from government agencies and the tightening of pornography laws.

The report findings were confronting, with report authors saying they had found child sex abuse in every community the inquiry had visited, finding some cases of young children being exposed to pornography and then later imitating the actions with each other and indigenous and non-indigenous adults.

Speaking at the June 15 launch, Chief Minister Clare Martin admitted not enough had been done to protect Aboriginal children.

"This is a landmark report that will sadly expose the great pain and unhappiness of many people," she said.

"I commit the government to implement the key action areas of this report and get on with the job of tackling this deeply disturbing issue."

But Ms Martin said the need to involve the federal government meant she would not respond in full until August.

One week later, as Ms Martin waved a flag at a passing convoy of trucks carrying the V8 Supercars that will race at Darwin's Hidden Valley racetrack this weekend, Prime Minister John Howard and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough summoned a press conference to detail their response.

Mr Howard said the federal government was intervening because the NT government had failed to act on the evidence presented, and challenged Western Australia, NSW and Queensland to implement similar measures.

He said federal parliament would, if necessary, hold a special sitting during the winter break to push through legislation which will also introduce reforms to ensure welfare money is spent on essentials like food, instead of drugs and alcohol.

The government will also increase police in affected areas and make all Aboriginal children undergo health checks.

The government will scrap the permit system which restricts non-Aboriginal access to indigenous land.

"In relation to alcohol the intention is to introduce widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months," Mr Howard said.

"We will ban the sale, the possession, the transportation, the consumption and (introduce the) broader monitoring of takeaway sales across the Northern Territory."

Possession of X-rated pornography will be banned and all publicly-funded computers searched for evidence of stored pornography, Mr Howard said.

Fifty per cent of welfare payments through Centrelink to parents of children in affected areas will be quarantined to prevent all their money being spent on alcohol.

"Effectively, the arrangements will be that that 50 per cent can only be used for the purchase of food and other essentials," Mr Howard said.

The commonwealth will also make welfare payments dependent on children attending school, he said.

The federal government will further take control of Aboriginal townships through five-year leases to improve property and public housing, Mr Howard said, adding that compensation would be forthcoming if required.

The government will also marshal work-for-the-dole participants to clean up Aboriginal communities.

"There will be an immediate increase in policing efforts," Mr Howard said.

"We'll be asking each state police service to provide up to 10 officers who will be sworn as police in the Northern Territory."

The government will also set up a sexual abuse reporting desk.

The response will be overseen by a taskforce of eminent Australians, led by Magistrate Sue Gordon, chair of the National Indigenous Council and author of the 2002 Gordon Report into Aboriginal child abuse in Western Australia.

Constitutional Lore

Mr Howard said he made no apology for overriding NT laws to implement his plans, saying protecting children of tender ages was more important than constitutional niceties.

"We are dealing with children of the tenderest age who have been exposed to the most terrible abuse from the time of their birth, virtually," he said.

"It is interventionist, it does push aside the role of the territory to some degree - I accept that. But what matters more, the constitutional niceties or the care and protection of young children?"

In a statement, the federal government said the NT government will be expected to develop a comprehensive strategy to tackle the "rivers of grog" across the territory and resume all special leases over town camps in the major urban areas where lease conditions have been breached.

It will also be expected to remove customary law as a mitigating factor for sentencing and bail conditions.

For her part, Ms Martin, whose government is far more limited than those of her state-based colleagues, told reporters she promised to work with the Federal Government, but had not been consulted by the Prime Minister.

"What we have got here is some measures in a press release. We need to look at the details," she said.

She dismissed as "utter rubbish" suggestions her Government had been slow to act on the report into sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

"We have taken very early action by appropriate CEOs sitting down with the 97 recommendations of the inquiry and starting that work," she said.

"If you read the report you will find that many of the recommendations build on things that we are currently doing in the areas of alcohol, education, and certainly we will continue to do that."

Politicians Pay-rises

Another report that federal politicians wasted no time in acting on was the latest determination of the Remuneration Tribunal - the independent statutory body that, among other things, sets salaries for members of Australia's parliaments.

This determination awarded the MPs a 6.7 per cent pay rise - about $150 a week extra for the average backbencher.

Prime Minister John Howard's salary will increase by around $21,000 to $330,000 a year, while Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd will get an extra $15,000.

The increase, which independent MP Peter Andren says is about 2.5 per cent above the average, will not be repeated in at least one state, with Victoria having passed legislation to cap salary rises at 3.25 per cent.

But the Premier of Western Australia Alan Carpenter told reporters he didn't think politicians should determine their pay packets.

"The pay rises and pay rates of WA politicians are quite rightly determined by an independent authority," Mr Carpenter said.

"Our model in Western Australia is that the independent Salaries and Allowances Tribunal makes the determination free of political interference, politicians don't set their own pay rates, nor should they, and I think that's the best policy to have."

The Prime Minister told reporters that, while the pay rise would never be popular, increases outlined this week were reasonable.

"When you look at the workload carried by members of Parliament, particularly the workload carried by senior ministers and indeed senior office bearers in the Opposition, I don't think -- given wages that are paid for other occupations in the community -- that they are excessive," he said.

Shadow treasurer Wayne Swan and Labor Public Administration & Accountability spokeswoman Penny Wong also backed the increases, adding that the decision was ratified by the independent umpire.


An independent umpire might also have been needed for the Government's unveiling of a $2 billion plan to provide faster internet access across the nation.

Mr Howard, and Communications Minister Helen Coonan announced on Monday that a joint venture between Singapore telecommunications company Singtel's Australian arm, Optus, and rural finance company Elders had been awarded a contract worth $958 million to build a network in the bush with rural finance company Elders.

The joint venture, known as OPEL, would provide broadband of at least 12 megabits per second by June 2009.

"What we have announced today is a plan that will deliver to 99 percent of the Australian population very fast and affordable broadband in just two years' time," Mr Howard said.

While a press release from Senator Coonan's office putting the figure at 100 per cent was heartily criticised by the Opposition, it was a leaked email from Senator Coonan's office that really got the Opposition going.

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd brandished the message, dated May 31, in Parliament, saying it showed the plan was targeted at marginal seats held by coalition MPs.

The message asked for electorate maps to be available for the cabinet discussion of the broadband plan.

"It also refers explicitly to - and I quote - the top 40 electorates unquote for the purposes of this announcement, all of which happen to be government-held," Mr Rudd told parliament.

"Prime minister, how does this leaked email sit with your assurances barely five minutes ago that the government's handling of this matter has been even-handed?"

Mr Howard responded by saying that the announcement was about providing services across rural and regional Australia, and it was a matter of "electoral reality" that most rural and regional seats were held by the coalition.

A productive course of action

Leaks weren't helping the Federal Opposition either, with an ALP briefing to Mr Rudd on the nation's productivity rates falling into the hands of the media.

The Australian reports that the document advised Mr Rudd to ignore the latest national accounts figures - which show a rise in favour of the May Budget, which forecast zero productivity growth for the year ahead.

But the document also forecasts productivity to accelerate and says a key factor for the sluggish growth in recent years has been the buoyant jobs market.

The briefing document, prepared by Mr Rudd's senior economics advisers Tim Dixon and John O'Mahony, urges Mr Rudd to dwell on the estimated zero per cent productivity rise in the May budget, rather than looking at the latest national accounts figures, which show a rise in productivity of 0.6 per cent for the March quarter and 1.4 per cent in the December quarter.

"The final statistic (for the 2007 financial year) will only be available in September after the release of the June quarter ... but it is likely that the outcome will be higher than estimated in the budget," the document states.

Treasurer Peter Costello said the document showed Mr Rudd does not understand productivity growth.

"Unfortunately for Mr Rudd this explanation says that, yes, you were wrong, yes, you didn't understand, yes, the government was right," Mr Costello told ABC radio.

"Here's the rub. It says you can continue using these wrong statistics ... because even though they're now out of date, they have not yet been updated by the Treasury," Mr Costello said.

For his part, Mr Rudd said he welcomed the productivity debate, saying his first policy document released in January laid out the charge against this government that productivity growth had declined from the nineties through until this decade.

He said from the mid-90s productivity growth was 3.3 per cent average annual growth, and 2.2 per cent through to the turn of the decade, while for the decade projected ahead in the government's own Intergenerational report it was 1.5 per cent per annum.

"These are long-term productivity numbers. What's Mr Costello's response? Pick out a quarterly growth number here, a quarterly growth number there and try and construct a story out of it," Mr Rudd said.

He said the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Reserve Bank of Australia both say quarterly productivity numbers are of little value.

"For Mr Costello and Mr Howard to go out and say `Wacko, we have had two quarters according to the national accounts of some positive productivity growth, and out of that construct a story that all is right in the world and Bob's your uncle,' frankly it's like saying that because you had a bit of rain recently there is no longer any problem with the drought."

A break in the weather

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, the issue of lobbyists contact with members of Parliament and bureaucrats found its way back on to the agenda, just as it seemed the Government would be able to put an end to it.

Parliament last night approved a recommendation from the Procedure and Privileges Committee to suspend dumped former minister John Bowler from Parliament for seven sitting weeks, for the leaking of a report to lobbyist Julian Grill, who in turn amended the document after showing it to his client, Precious Metals Australia.

That amended report was the basis of PMA successfully pursuing a lawsuit for royalties against another mining company, Xstrata.

Mr Grill, who along with Mr Bowler was found to be in contempt of Western Australia's parliament, was forced to apologise to parliament for his actions, and had his access to the building withdrawn.

However, in what may be giving Parliamentarians a sense of déjà vu, a freedom of information request by state Opposition Leader Paul Omodei has uncovered the exchange of nine emails between disgraced lobbyist Brian Burke and Department of Health director-general Neale Fong.

The correspondence, which had been earlier been denied in Parliament by Health Minister Jim McGinty, will be the focus of a state parliamentary inquiry.

Mr McGinty told Parliament he wanted to table the emails, but because they were older than three months their contents could not be retrieved by the WA Department of Health.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," he said.

"I don't wish the influence of Brian Burke to hang over any department I am involved with in any way, shape or form.

"It is about the integrity of the health department, it's Director-General and other staff."

Dr Fong, WA's highest paid public servant, later told reporters he did not recall the emails but could have been providing advice for a friend of Mr Burke.

"To receive an email from Brian Burke for some advice about a friend or whatever I'm happy to give it and that's what I did," Dr Fong said.

"I don't remember there being email traffic ... I never said I don't remember giving him any advice."

Shadow Health Minister Dr Kim Hames said the revelations brought into question any deals done by the Health Department since Dr Fong became Director General.

"If Brian Burke has been involved in lobbying for Health Department contracts and he has a relationship with Dr Fong, it undermines every decision he and Jim McGinty have made for our health system," Dr Hames said.

"We need a forensic examination of, at the very least; Dr Fong's computer to reveal exactly what has been going on here."

Reports indicate the inquiry will be led by Perth barrister Ken Petit SC.

The Final Word

In a week where Democrats Senator Lyn Allison did not, contrary to reports, trade in her Prius for a Vectrix electric scooter - which is just as well, because in Arch's opinion it simply wouldn't work for car pooling, the final word goes to the Northern Territory's Shadow Treasurer Terry Mills.

The Territory government this week was pushing through an amendment to its Firearms Act to allow paintball operators to set up in the Territory.

The activity of paintball, in which participants fire pellets of paint from air guns at their opponents, had been illegal in the Northern Territory and Tasmania under the respective acts.

The government had taken changes to the law seriously, even sending Police Minister Chris Burns on a fact-finding mission to an Adelaide paintball facility.

Dr Burns said licensed operators would run paintball games at licensed venues in the Territory.

"There will be strict controls and guidelines put into place to ensure the effective and responsible operation of those venues," he told reporters in March.

Parliament House may not be the licensed premises Dr Burns had in mind, but Mr Mills, in challenging the minister to a paintball shoot-out, told the ABC it seemed like just the place.

"I think parliament house would be an excellent place to conduct a game of paintball," he said.

"The dye that is used in these little pellets is biodegradable, it can be cleaned off the panels."

That may be, but Arch doesn't think it would do wonders for the dry-cleaning bill.


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