Friday, January 21, 2011

Gillard digs in her heels over NBN boondoggle despite flood costs

In good Leftist style, she wants a new tax instead of reduced spending

TONY Abbott says the federal budget could be "easily" reined in to pay for the Queensland floods recovery, as the political brawl over a possible disaster levy intensifies.

The Opposition Leader went on the attack this morning after Julia Gillard admitted last night that a one-off flood levy could be imposed to fund the multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort. “I'm opposed to unnecessary new taxes and that's what this is,” Mr Abbott told ABC radio.

“There will have to be very substantial commonwealth government spending as part of the recovery and reconstruction phase, but there's a right way and a wrong way to find that money.”

The Prime Minister has refused to deviate from the government's 2013 return-to-surplus deadline, warning of tough choices ahead as it works out how to pay for the recovery. “There will be spending cutbacks and there might also be a levy,” she told the ABC's 7.30 Report last night. “We are obviously working on those decisions now, as we work with our Queensland colleagues to clarify the bill for infrastructure rebuilding.”

The Howard government imposed a series of one-off levies to pay for a gun buyback scheme, to pay out former Ansett staff and to restructure the sugar and dairy industries.

But Mr Abbott ruled out opposition support for a similar approach on floods reconstruction. “The Howard government ran a tight budget and a strong economy in a way that this government never will,” he said. “Second, you don't need a levy here because there is out-of-control government spending which can easily be reined back and reprioritised.”

Mr Abbott wants the $37 billion National Broadband Network to be abandoned to help fund the recovery.

And opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb wants Medibank Private to be sold, saying it would raise up to $4.5 billion and free up $660 million in recurrent budget spending over a four-year period.

Ms Gillard said the timetable for the NBN rollout would not be altered.

Estimates of the flood recovery bill range from $6 billion to $20 billion. A cautious Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said she wants to see more detail on a possible flood levy before she decides whether to support it. “But I think when we have major events like this that disrupt not just one state, but we're seeing it Victoria as well, and we're seeing that disrupt the entire national economy,” she told ABC radio. “I think we do have to ask ourselves whether there is a better way of doing it, so I'm certainly interested in seeing more details.”


Greens starting to show true political colours

Says an old-time Labor Party man

SLOWLY but surely the Australian Greens' carefully cultivated facade is crumbling. On Monday, Greens leader Bob Brown was roundly condemned for his demand that coal mining companies be forced to pay a super profits style tax in order to fund the Queensland floods recovery effort.

According to Brown, coal barons were responsible for the climate change-induced natural disaster and soon-to-materialise "severe and more frequent floods, droughts and bushfires in coming decades". Presumably Gaia herself will collect the new levy.

One day we might discover that climate change indeed played a role, but Brown's ill-advised attempt to extract political capital out of a still-unfolding disaster is signal evidence that the Greens are simply another political party scoring cheap partisan points for electoral gain.

Of course, all parliamentary parties are born into original sin: compromise, pragmatism and sometimes sheer opportunism inexorably result as a party, whether Left or Right, is cast out of its ideological Garden of Eden.

The only real surprise is how long the Greens have managed to portray themselves as non-political, and thus above criticism, all the while playing politics with a ruthlessness to make the most battle-hardened Laborite or Liberal blush.

And yet Brown's cynical rhetorical overreach should come as no surprise. During the previous parliamentary term the Greens, whose raison d'etre is to tackle anthropogenically caused environmental damage, refused to support Labor's ETS legislation; thus preventing Australia taking necessary, prudent action to tackle climate change.

Greens opposition ostensibly arose because of Labor's allegedly meagre carbon reduction target. However, a more cynical motivation could be discerned: stealing votes from Labor's left wing at the next election.

Further alarm bells ought to have rung when in the election's immediate aftermath, where they indeed won over many disaffected Labor supporters, senator Sarah Hanson-Young unsuccessfully challenged Christine Milne for the party's deputy leadership.

Hanson-Young should be applauded: ambition is the defining feature of any politician worth their salt. But the secrecy surrounding the vote suggested a party desperate to peddle the myth that it wasn't really a political party.

If further evidence were required to prove the Greens are themselves capable of political bastardry, then witness billionaire Wotif founder Graeme Wood's $1.6 million donation to party coffers, the largest single political donation by an individual in Australian history, despite Brown's previous denunciations of such largesse.

Perhaps these events might finally shatter the mythology surrounding the Greens' Pocahontas brand of politics and force progressive Australians to examine their policy prescriptions more seriously.

Particular attention should be directed towards the NSW Greens. At its December State Delegates Council, the party decided to officially support the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. The Greens-controlled Marrickville council, in Sydney's inner west, quickly moved to implement party policy by officially backing the counterproductive and potentially anti-Semitic boycott in its entirety.

The good burghers of the inner west are now compelled to boycott Israel. Will the homes of Marrickville Jews be searched for illegal products? We shall await with bated breath the council's replacement of Israeli-designed Google search engines, Intel processors and other technology. Perhaps carbon-neutral homing pigeons will be recruited to fill the communications void.

The behaviour of the adjoining Greens-run Leichhardt Council also verges on the absurd. For instance, a proposal to build a Thomas Dux outlet (a scaled-down Woolworths supermarket) in Annandale was recently rejected, no matter that the venture would have created hundreds of jobs and produced an environmentally friendly option for residents who typically drive to Broadway or Leichhardt shops.

Even more farcically, late last year the council shut down a community sausage sizzle ($1 from each sale was being donated to local schools) run by an Annandale delicatessen because smoke was allegedly drifting into nearby shops. The council then graciously allowed the sizzle to continue on a six-month trial basis providing the meat was pre-cooked on an electric barbecue inside the delicatessen.

The man responsible for this policy adventurism is Greens mayor Jamie Parker. Using his mayoral credentials, he has also intervened in the Barangaroo development controversy despite Leichhardt bearing no geographic proximity to the area in question. Parker is the Greens candidate for the seat of Balmain at the March NSW state election and has faced allegations that his council spent $50,000 on a slush fund to pay for "major issues"; code for advertising Greens-friendly protest meetings.

The actions of the NSW Greens are of course hardly unique. Indeed, to this observer of Labor politics there are strong historical parallels with Bill Hartley's Victorian ALP of the pre-1970s. At times "Baghdad" Hartley's extremist grouping resembled more a Trotsky-ite cult than a mainstream political party, favouring militantly leftist policies, including a rabid anti-Israel strategy of forging close links with Arab dictatorships.

Not only did the Hartleyites make state Labor unelectable, their actions repeatedly cruelled federal Labor's electoral hopes. Following a close-run 1969 poll, ultimately lost because of a poor Victorian showing, Gough Whitlam finally convinced the ALP national executive to move against the recalcitrant branch, clearing the way for his famous 1972 triumph.

The Greens are unlikely to govern in their own right any time soon, yet political crunch time is looming. It is one thing for the party to secure the ballots of a narrow band of far-leftist anti-Israelis, Newtown vegans and Julian Assange supporters but the mainstream centre-left electorate is not likely to warm to such an extremist message.

For all its imperfections, the forbidden fruits of social democratic Laborism are likely to remain a continued source of temptation.


Remarkable Australian retailers

Woolworths and Wesfarmers [Coles, Target, Bunnings] have made the grade in a list of the 25 top global retailers, putting them in a similar league to US giants Wal-Mart and Costco.

The Aussie supermarket powerhouses are the only local retailers to make Deloitte's Global Powers of Retailing 2011 Top 25, which measures international sales performance for the year ending June 31, 2010.

Woolworths' $US44 billion group sales put it in 20th place, up from 26 in 2010, and Wesfarmers moved up five spots from to 23rd position with sales of $US40 billion.

Wal-Mart was the list's big hitter after posting a massive $US400 billion in sales last year, followed by Carrefour in France and Germany's Metro.

Deloitte's Andrew Griffiths said the Australian representation was particularly impressive given the difference in populations compared with the US, France, Japan and Germany.

"The other companies in the top 25 originate mainly from heavily populated countries such as the United States, Germany, UK, Japan and France," Mr Griffiths said. "If you add the fact that most of those also operate in multiple countries, unlike Woolworths and Wesfarmers, you get a far better appreciation of the relative strengths of Australian retailers."

The Australian companies might not be in the same financial stratosphere as some of their bigger European and US rivals but they strutted their stuff with flair in the Asia-Pacific region where they came in third and fourth behind 7- Eleven's Japanese owner, Seven & I Holdings.


Melbourne water users slapped with 'desal tax' despite recent floods

The Herald Sun revealed this morning the $100 tax had been slapped on Melbourne water users to pay for the plant despite recent floods guaranteeing city supplies for at least five years.

Mr Kennett told the Herald Sun Melburnians had a right to be angry about the tax. "I would make sure that for the length of the project that that tax is represented on our water bill and it is called either the Brumby tax or the Labor tax so everyone is reminded every year that this is a charge that we are paying because of the incompetence of a former Government,’’ Mr Kennett said.

"It's just unfortunate that Mr Baillieu and his Government will have to impose it to honour the contract that, I suspect, is watertight and therefore the money will have to be paid."

With dams approaching 54 per cent and rising, Melbourne has enough water to last more than five years - even if there were a drought. Some experts say it could be 30 years before a drop is needed from Wonthaggi's $5.7 billion desalination plant.

The Baillieu Government is searching the contract to find its full cost, and also loopholes that may minimise the annual $570 million payments it has inherited.

The Essential Services Commission has approved water price rises of up to 64 per cent to pay for major projects, including the desalination plant, in the four years to 2012-13. Industry sources believe about a quarter of the price rise imposed on 1.5 million City West, South East and Yarra Valley residential water customers is financing the plant's building costs. Barwon and Western Water households are also feeling the pain.

A Baillieu Government spokesman said last night there were fears the Government had been locked into an "unprecedented burden on every family".

University of Melbourne water expert Prof Hector Malano urged the Government to do all it could to walk away from the project. The maximum 150GL it could produce each year would be cheaply delivered by diverting 10 per cent of the irrigation water from northern Victoria through the north-south pipeline. "I really believe we could go 20-30 years without resorting to a desalination plant. And by then we may have better options anyway," he said.

Once it was switched on, the plant would have to continue operating to remain viable, whether water was needed or not. Because of this, the Brumby government made a deal with the AquaSure consortium building the plant to pay $570 million a year for 30 years.

The director of Monash University's Institute for Sustainable Water Resources, Assoc Prof Tim Fletcher, criticised the size and cost of the project. "If they had built a plant a third of the size it would have been sufficient to mitigate that risk," he said.

Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre chief Jo Benvenuti said many customers were struggling to pay water bills. "We are paying a lot more despite using a lot less - that's what's perverse about it," she said.

Prof Tony Wong, director of Monash University's Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, said water supplies would last about five years if the drought returned. It was an important insurance plan but should be used only to buy time while water recycling technology and acceptance improve.


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