Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Australian political leadership

John Howard, the prime minister, declared on July 31st that he would stay on to contest a fifth election as party leader in the general election due late next year. Since Mr Howard has led the party to four successive victories in ten years, most Liberal members of Parliament applauded his decision.

The applause died a little two days later, however, when Australia's central bank announced a 0.25% rise in interest rates, to 6%. Ian Macfarlane, the bank's governor, said it was needed to dampen rising inflation and increased borrowing. It was the third such rise since the last election, in 2004. Mr Howard won that poll by appealing to voters to trust his conservative government to "keep interest rates low". It was a rash promise: the central bank operates independently of government. Its latest rate rise has unnerved heavily indebted Australians. It has also sent jitters through the Liberal Party.

The subject of Mr Howard's retirement plans has dogged him ever since he once suggested he would consider his future when he turned 64. Last month he turned 67. Peter Costello, the treasurer (finance minister), deputy Liberal leader and heir-apparent, confirmed a press report in July that Mr Howard had given him a private undertaking in 1994 that he would hand over the leadership to Mr Costello after one-and-a-half terms of a Liberal government. Mr Howard denied it.

Having already become Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister, Mr Howard always had an option to retire well before the 2007 election with his impressive record of economic management intact. The bitter public row with Mr Costello over the succession killed that option, since he would have appeared to be standing down under pressure. As it turned out, Mr Howard telephoned Mr Costello on July 30th to say he would fight the next election as leader, then faxed his decision to his parliamentary colleagues.

A downcast Mr Costello said he accepted that most Liberals did not want a leadership change now, and pledged to stay on as treasurer. This means the budget Mr Costello is due to deliver before the 2007 election will be his 12th (seven years ago, he said he had only "another budget or two in me"). Mr Howard and Mr Costello have formed perhaps Australia's most formidable political partnership ever, delivering strong economic growth, a series of budget surpluses and falling unemployment during their decade in power.

But little personal warmth exists between them. Mr Howard has no time for Mr Costello's liberal social agenda. And, as he turns 49 on August 14th, Mr Costello must contemplate that Mr Howard has now in effect wrecked his leadership ambitions. Even if Mr Howard wins the 2007 election and then retires, a clutch of equally ambitious Liberals is already elbowing forward to compete with Mr Costello for the crown. First, though, the Liberals have to win again. Rising interest rates won't make that any easier.


Lying unions

The ACTU [The Australian equivalent of the AFL/CIO or Britain's TUC] is seeking legal advice after it was accused by a government department of misrepresenting the background of workers featured in a campaign against new workplace laws. The independent Office of Workplace Services (OWS) found that claims made by five of eight sacked workers who appear in ACTU television commercials attacking the laws do not add up. The OWS report also found the ads had depicted the sacking of workers in circumstances that would have been legal under the old workplace laws, despite ACTU suggestions to the contrary.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet said he had written to the OWS asking it to explain why the workers were investigated and a summary of the report released to the media. He said he was completely confident the stories of the workers featured in the advertisements were true. "They have not lied, the ACTU stands by the ads and stands by the claims that have been made," he said. "The whole thing stinks of dirty-tricks political attacks on the integrity of ordinary working people."

Mr Combet said the publication of the information might have damaged the sacked workers' reputation and breached privacy laws. "It's clear the (investigation was) used for political processes and in the process people's personal information has been put into the public realm and we are very angry about it," he told ABC radio. "We are taking advice about a number of things and we will consider that when the advice comes in. "People have had the courage to come forth and tell their story of how they've been treated under the new laws." He said the workers did not deserve to be subjected to "unfair and flawed investigations", and the leaking of personal information to the media.

But Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews said the findings showed the ACTU could not be trusted. He said the OWS report was not leaked to the media, but had been provided following claims by the ACTU and the media that the new workplace laws were failing workers. The independent OWS had investigated the claims and provided its findings to the media and others who had been inquiring about them, he said. "What Mr Combet is doing is now attacking the umpire because he doesn't like the outcome of the investigation into these matters," Mr Andrews said.

He said the OWS had the responsibility to decide whether the full report into the investigation should be released. "The main point here is it's exposed a phoney political campaign on the part of the ACTU and it shows that one can't trust anything the ACTU says about these things," he said. He said the ACTU had returned to using actors in their latest round of TV commercials because the so-called real cases didn't stack up


Rogue police in Victoria

A driver wrongly identified as the first in the world to return a positive roadside drug test has won a major legal victory. A judge has ruled John De Jong, 41, can pursue a defamation lawsuit against Victoria Police. He is claiming substantial damages.

The Ballarat courier-driver was tested and identified during a police-organised media stunt on the first day a drug bus took to the road, in December 2004. Justice Bernard Bongiorno said his claims, if proved, would show police invited the media to attend and then said Mr De Jong had twice tested positive for illegal drugs.

An independent laboratory later cleared Mr De Jong -- a result confirmed by the police lab. Mr De Jong says police refused to apologise. Mr De Jong's lawyer Katalin Blond, of Slater & Gordon, said yesterday he was relieved. "John is very stressed by this still," she said. "By calling the media . . . by parading John before them, what else did they think would happen?"


Aussie booze popular

Australia is exporting more wine, but prices have dropped. Australian wine exports grew 9 per cent in the year to the end of July, but average prices fell 8 per cent. The 743 million litres exported in the 12 months to July was valued at $2.79 billion, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation says.

Sweden has developed taste buds for Australian cask wines and was the largest contributor to value growth -- up 33 per cent to $50 million. Exports to China also grew, but were offset by a 65 per cent drop in the average price a litre, to $1.64.

"The key driver of the price decline was an increased share of bulk wine in the mix," the corporation's July 2006 wine export approval report says. The report says 80 per cent of Australian wine shipped to China is bulk wine valued at $0.66 a litre.

The United Kingdom remains the number one destination for Australian wine. Despite a one per cent drop in volume and three per cent price slump, the market was valued at $958 million for the year to the end of July. The US ranks second with $899m, followed by Canada ($244m), New Zealand ($91m), Germany ($76m), Ireland ($55m) and Sweden ($50m).


Logging on private land heavily restricted in NSW

Local timber industry workers and landowners have called on the NSW Government to get rid of its draft code of practice for private native forests. Around 500 people attended a protest rally in Grafton yesterday. Many have complained that there has been little public discussion on the code, and they want an extension to the submission period.

Sue Doust, of Timber Community Australia, says the code, if adopted in its current form, will cause big financial losses to landowners and the timber industry. "It is another harsh hit on the industry that I frankly don't believe the industry is going to be able to recover from anytime soon," she said. "Landowners will take full financial and legal responsibility for the logging arrangement on their property. "Now, if you're a mature landowner or an absentee landowner you're going to take one look at that and you're going to shut the door."


Leftist nut silenced

Radio station ABC 774 has censored criticism of controversial ABC board member Keith Windschuttle. On the Sunday Arts program, host Helen Razer was interviewing film director Bob Weis about his documentary Women of the Sun - 25 Years Later, charting the stories of Aboriginal women. Razer noted the film compared his family's history as Holocaust survivors to the contemporary situation of Aborigines in Australia. Weis said he would like to make one more "conceptual leap", to which Razer replied "be my guest".

Indigenous actress Justine Saunders sat beside Weis and encouraged him as he said: "That while David Irving - the Holocaust denier - sits in prison . ", before he was cut off. Mr Weis said yesterday he uttered the words "the Australian Government", but that did not go to air. Razer hit the dump button, saying on air: "I can't possibly let you say that", before switching to pre-recorded audio.....

Weis yesterday revealed he was going to say: "That while David Irving - the Holocaust denier - sits in prison, the Australian Government put our chief Holocaust denier on the board of the ABC." Weis was alluding to Mr Windschuttle, the author of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History that claimed massacres of Tasmanian Aborigines had been exaggerated....

Local radio manager at ABC Victoria Steve Kyte yesterday said... "The program team felt the guest had said something potentially defamatory... We reserve the right to dump guests and callers for legal reasons."

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