Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Must not mention the Irish liking for booze

Ireland's Prime Minister has taken offence to a St Patrick's Day video message from Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has told an Irish newspaper he had watched Mr Abbott's video and rejected the perception that Ireland was synonymous with alcohol.

Mr Abbott prompted criticism last week for the video message, in which he awkwardly describes St Patrick's Day as the one day when "it's good to be green".  He proclaims Ireland's most famous day "a great day for the Irish, and the English, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians and everyone who cares to come to a party".

Mr Abbott signs off his message with an apology that "I can't be there to share a Guinness or two or maybe even three".

Mr Kenny said he had heard Mr Abbott's comments and he didn't agree with them.  "I've heard the Prime Minister's comments. He made them. I don't agree with that," he was reported as saying in the Irish Independent.

"I think that it is perfectly in order for so many Irish people in Australia to have an enjoyable celebration of St Patrick's Day and St Patrick's week, and to do so in a thoroughly responsible fashion.

"There has been a long-term view of a stage Irish perception. I reject that. I think it's really important that we understand that we have a national day that can be celebrated worldwide, St Patrick's Day."

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews also drew a link between St Patrick's Day and alcohol consumption, tweeting a picture of himself holding a can of Guinness.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was asked about Mr Kenny's comments and whether Australia had received a complaint from the Irish ambassador on the video message.

Ms Bishop said: "I have not had the Irish ambassador complain about a conspicuous consumption of alcohol."

After the video was released last week, two St Patrick's Day events decided not to screen the message after it made headlines in Ireland, with critics describing it as "patronising".


Coalition to wind back tax disclosure laws over 'kidnap' fears

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told Coalition party room members that the government would wind back tax disclosure laws after complaints by private business owners that they could be kidnapped when people realised how wealthy they were from tax information that was made public.

Fairfax Media first reported the concerns raised with the government by private business owners who think they may be held at held at ransom because of the laws that will require the Tax Office to publish the tax details of about 1600 private and public companies with more than $100 million turnover on the website.

The government now wants to remove about 700 private companies, which it believes should be exempted.

Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said there were real concerns about the implications of the publication of the tax data of private companies. Mr Frydenberg said there were safety concerns because it made those individuals potential kidnap targets.

Another Coalition colleague said that access to the financial statements of the 700 companies meant that they were at a commercial disadvantage when, for example, they happened to be suppliers to the big supermarket chains, or negotiating with them.

After listening to Mr Frydenberg argue his case, Mr Abbott agreed to advance the proposed changes to exempt private companies. That could mean the nation's top public companies will still have their tax information published.

The laws, which Coalition ministers, including Treasurer Joe Hockey,  voted against when in opposition, will from this year allow Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan to publish information,  including total income, taxable income and tax paid.

The decision to wind back the laws comes amid intense lobbying by business groups for the laws to be scrapped, with suggestions that publishing such information may be "misleading".

On Friday the Tax Office revealed it would allow Australia's biggest companies to review their tax information before it is published in the public domain in December.

This would include tax information on private companies controlled by billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, and could also expose other wealthy individuals who do not appear on rich lists such as the BRW Rich 200.

Shadow assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh said the Liberal Party had opposed better transparency on the tax affairs of big multinationals since the day Labor first proposed it.

"This would be yet another example of the Abbott government siding with the big end of town against the interests of the Australian community," he said.

Mr Leigh said Mr Hockey was "full of big talk about cracking down on tax avoidance, but when it counts in the party room and the parliament, his government consistently lets companies off the hook."

"Rolling back these transparency laws means shielding big multinationals from public scrutiny," he said. "Without transparent tax reporting, it will be easier for some big firms to continue to avoid paying their fair share of tax."

When the laws were being pushed by the former Labor government through parliament, Mr Hockey said he had "deep concerns" and the Coalition would not support publishing information that could be "reasonably attributed to a single person".

Despite the government pledge to look into the privacy concerns, Australia's biggest public companies are gearing up to unveil public reports detailing how they are good taxpayers.

Australia's big four banks are among a raft of companies working with their communications staff to voluntarily launch reports about taxes paid. A number of companies have already made submissions to the federal inquiry on corporate tax avoidance about the taxes they pay and their "good working" relationship with the Australian Tax Office.

Greens Leader Christine Milne said: "The kidnapping argument is laughable.  This is just yet another example of the Abbott government doing everything it can to protect the people it governs for – the rich."


Anti-privatisation push sees Greens and Labor strike preference deal in key NSW seats

Opposition to the Baird government's electricity privatisation plans has galvanised a preference deal between Labor and the Greens in 23 key seats and the upper house in a significant boost to the ALP's chances at the March 28 state election.

The agreement, potentially worth up to four percentage points to the ALP in each seat where the Greens poll strongly, is a turnaround from 2011 when the Greens declined to preference Labor in all but a handful of seats.

At the time, the then Labor government was seen by local Greens groups as so toxic to voters that preferencing them risked damaging their own campaign.

Under the deal, the Greens, via their local groups, have agreed to recommend a preference to Labor ahead of the Coalition in 23 key lower house seats.

They include the Nationals-held north coast seats of Ballina, Lismore and Tweed where Labor hopes opposition to coal seam gas will play strongly in its favour.

The deal also applies to Strathfield, where former Newcastle MP Jodi McKay is trying to unseat Liberal MP Charles Casuscelli and the western Sydney seats of Campbelltown and Granville, which Labor lost in the 2011 landslide.

It also covers Port Stephens and Swansea in the Hunter and Wyong and The Entrance on the Central Coast where Liberal MPs appeared at the Independent Commission Against Corruption's inquiry into illegal political donations.

Elsewhere, Blue Mountains, East Hills, Gosford, Heathcote, Holsworthy, Kiama, Kogarah, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Oatley, Penrith and Prospect are also covered by the agreement.

Balmain and Newtown, which Labor and the Greens are each seeking to win, are not included.

In the upper house, Labor has agreed to direct preferences to Greens candidates above the line directly after the ALP candidates and ahead of all other candidates.

The Greens have agreed to direct preferences to Labor candidates above the line.

NSW has optional preferential voting but the decision still boosts Labor's chances.

A Fairfax/Ipsos poll in February showed the Coalition leading Labor by 56 per cent to 44 per cent on a two-party preferred basis based on 2011 preference flows.

However, when respondents were asked to state their current preference choice, the Coalition's lead narrowed to 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

The election's central policy battleground is Premier Mike Baird's promise to partially privatise electricity distribution businesses and use the anticipated $20 billion proceeds for infrastructure.

Greens campaign director Chris Harris said the preference deal was "largely due to opposition to the state government's privatisation proposals and federal and state government cuts to public and community services".

A Labor spokesman said the election was "about stopping the risky privatisation of the electricity network".

"The Greens have taken the same view as Labor that privatising the electricity network is a bad deal for NSW, so we're happy to enter into a preference agreement with them," he said.


Australian republic: Bill Shorten reignites debate by casting doubt on relevance of the royals

Bill Shorten has used a debate in Parliament over the rules governing order of royal succession to re-commit Labor to the case for an Australian republic.

In a bold speech designed to distinguish Labor from a government which this year knighted Prince Philip – a decision that outraged voters and nearly caused the removal of Prime Minister Tony Abbott – the opposition leader said Australians no longer viewed their country as an outpost of empire, but rather as a proud and forthright nation of independent mind.

"If we were drafting our Constitution today, does anyone seriously dispute that we would require our head of state to be an Australian, this is how we see ourselves, this is who we are," he said.

Calling for a respectful, national conversation between equals rather than a celebrity-driven process, he said a multicultural nation no longer saw relevance in the British royals, even if they harboured affection for the reigning monarch.

"I and Labor believe it's time, it's time to breathe new life into the dream of an Australian republic," he told the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Mr Shorten also thanked Mr Abbott for unintentionally giving the republican cause a kick along recently.  "The Prime Minister's decision to knight Prince Philip reminded us all how far we've travelled since the days of the famous words of Prime Minister (RG) Menzies who said of the young Queen Elizabeth II: "I did but see her passing by".

"I believe that Australians are ready for a discussion about an Australian head of state. 

Mr Shorten also described as a grievous mistake the decision in the unsuccessful 1999 republic referendum of putting two questions, rather than one, to voters.  "The equivalent of Collingwood agreeing to play Essendon and Carlton at the same time," he said.

Much of the enthusiasm and energy of the "yes" cause, has lain dormant, since then."

He said it should not be long before the nation would "right an historical wrong" by correcting the national birth certificate to include the first peoples in the Constitution.  "The words in our constitution matter," he said.


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