Feb 05

Parties dispute size of ‘budget holes’

Labor and the Coalition are embroiled in claim and counter-claim over election costings and budget savings.

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Treasurer Wayne Swan says the coalition has an $800 million black hole in its budget savings because it has overestimated the savings from scrapping Labor’s national broadband network (NBN).

But the opposition has countered by claiming the government has a $3.4 billion black hole caused by the fact it’s spending much more than saving.

Mr Swan said today the Coalition couldn’t save $2.44 billion over four years as planned by axing the NBN.

“There’s certainly an $800 million hole in a budget saving that they are claiming when it comes to interest to the cost of the NBN,” he told the Fairfax Radio Network.

Mr Swan was referring to a Treasury analysis released to The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday. But the opposition says it hasn’t seen the analysis.

Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey attacked the newspaper for running the story without seeking a reaction from the coalition.

Asked if the story was correct, he told ABC Radio: “How do I know?” “I don’t know what’s in the document.

“This is a secret Treasury document … that we have not seen.”

Mr Swan used the analysis – coming just a day after Mr Hockey contradicted his leader Tony Abbott to the tune of $7 billion on the size of the coalition’s spending promises – proved the opposition wasn’t fit to manage the economy.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said he was sceptical about the Treasury analysis and was confident the coalition’s own figures would “absolutely stack up”.

“No one’s seen this thing,” he told Sydney’s TripleM Radio.

“This is coming from the government which couldn’t get its mining tax figures right.”

Mr Abbott was referring to Treasury estimates for revenue from Labor’s planned super profits tax on mining companies. Initially in May, it said $12 billion would be raised from the tax.

Two months later it revised that figure to more than $20 billion because of higher estimates for commodity prices.

Opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb said it was not good enough for Labor projects to have been costed from the budget without providing the details.

“They haven’t identified where it was in the budget, how it was in the budget,” he told ABC Radio.

The coalition yesterday listed 211 of Labor’s spending pledges, saying they amounted to $5.8 billion.

But Labor had only ever said it was spending about $2.9 billion, leaving a $3.4 billion hole, Mr Robb said.

Feb 05

More Australians becoming problem drinkers

Australians rank among the world’s worst abusers of alcohol, with few seeking help to curb its impact on their health, research shows.

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A study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) has found 18 per cent of Australians will experience periods of problematic drinking within their lifetime, while four per cent become alcoholic.

Problematic drinking includes being unable to perform duties at home or work, or having alcohol-related arguments with a spouse or run-ins with the law.

Professor Maree Teesson said it totalled 22 per cent of the population – or about 3.5 million Australians – whose lives would be seriously and negatively affected by alcohol.

The majority, she said, were young men while less than one in five of those affected would receive any form of professional help.

“One reason for the lack of treatment is that alcohol problems still have a terrible stigma about them,” Prof Teesson said.

“People are much less likely to want to own up to having a problem with alcohol than they are about other physical or mental illness yet their abuse of alcohol has serious consequences.

“(They) include getting into fights, drink driving (licence suspensions), taking time off work, child neglect, getting into trouble with the police and driving while drunk.”

Prof Teesson and fellow researcher’s analysed data collected from almost 9000 Australians aged 16 to 85 years for the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2007.

The snapshot of alcohol disorder and dependence showed one third of Australian men will have a drinking problem at some point in their lives – about double the rate of alcohol abuse among women.

Married people and those from a non-English speaking background were less likely to have a problem with alcohol.

Men born during the 10 years to 1987 were 1.7 times more likely to drink at risky levels compared to men born in the decade prior.

More than 40 per cent of those with alcohol problems also report a mental illness, while comparison with a similar study done 10 years ago showed no improvement.

“Alcohol problems are most common in young men, so we need better interventions and prevention strategies for young Australians,” Prof Teesson also said.

Looking globally, Australia was found to have rates of problematic drinking on par with New Zealand and the United States, and well above other developed countries including France, Germany and Spain.

The paper concluded “prevalence rates for alcohol use disorders in Australia are some of the highest … worldwide”. Meanwhile, “treatment rates were unacceptably low”.

Russia and Ireland were also thought to have a high prevalence of alcohol-related problems, Prof Teesson said, though there was a lack of comparable research.

The NDARC is based at the University of NSW, and the study is to be published this week in the journal Addiction.

Feb 05

Our memories easy to ‘contaminate’

Australian research has shown how easily eye witness accounts, a foundation stone of the judicial system, can be “contaminated”.

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The University of Sydney study found people could add new detail to, or even amend, their memory if they discussed their recollection with someone who saw the same event.

It was a subconscious process, said Dr Helen Paterson, whose research has focused on chatter between co-witnesses and its role as a “potent delivery mechanism” for false memories.

“A false memory is the recollection of an event, or details of an event, that did not actually occur,” Dr Paterson said on Monday.

“Witnesses who discuss an event with a co-witness are very likely to incorporate misinformation presented by the co-witness into their own memory for the event.”

Dr Paterson said when two people discussed an event they had both witnessed they could then find it “difficult, if not impossible” to sort their genuine memories from information they were told.

When deliberate misinformation was introduced, even warning a witness about this made them no more able to sort the fact from the fiction.

Dr Paterson also said discussions between co-witnesses were found to have more affect on a person’s memory than exposure to inaccurate media reports or leading questioning.

And once a false memory was implanted, it could be very difficult to shake.

“Once their memory has been contaminated in this way, the witness is often unable to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate memories,” Dr Paterson said.

Dr Paterson’s research uses a video of a house burglary that test subjects watch on their own without knowing there are two different versions.

After a co-witness discussion, most participants go on to report remembering specific details that were not in the version they were shown.

She said the research underscored the need for police and the courts to discourage contact between co-witnesses who were usually barred from hearing each others’ testimony in court.

“Despite these attempts to keep witness testimony independent, it is clear that witnesses often do talk to each other about the event,” Dr Paterson said.

“Discussion among witnesses is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.”

Feb 05

Latham defends guest reporting role

Former Labor leader Mark Latham has defended his confrontation with Prime Minister Julia Gillard while posing as a journalist, arguing it was she who made it physical.

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The Nine Network, which has hired Mr Latham as a guest reporter for 60 Minutes, has apologised for Saturday’s ambush on the campaign trail, viewed by many as aggressive and reminiscent of the John Howard handshake.

Ms Gillard argued Mr Latham’s new role was inappropriate, saying on Sunday: “I am the prime minister of this country, I’m not a human interest story.”

But Mr Latham said the prime minister’s comments were “gobbledegook”, after she’d appeared on the cover of women’s magazines during the election campaign.

“I don’t need a permit to talk to a person that I’ve known well over the years,” he told Sky News on Monday.

“At one time we were very close, personally and politically, so I approached her and made a point that’s relevant to my story.”

Mr Latham said Ms Gillard gave him a “patronising, condescending” touch, and called reports of an aggressive confrontation “nonsense”.

“I didn’t swear at her, I didn’t raise my voice,” he said.

“The physicality of it was all on her side, and you know, she gave me an answer that was true to form, a non-answer.”

The hiring of Mr Latham as a guest reporter was also frowned on by the Nine Network’s veteran political correspondent Laurie Oakes, who called the meeting “ugly”.

Mr Latham said the network’s apology would both placate the Labor Party and boost ratings ahead of 60 Minutes.

Meanwhile he said Oakes had declined his request for an interview for the 60 Minutes story.

Mr Latham said he didn’t anticipate a long stint for 60 Minutes. “I reckon the clock is ticking on me,” he laughed.

Feb 05

Campbell defends testimony at trial

Stressing she had “nothing to gain,” supermodel Naomi Campbell denied providing false testimony at the war crimes trial of Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor, who is accused of receiving blood diamonds.

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“I’ve no motive here. Nothing to gain,” she said in a statement released in London late on Tuesday.

The model defended her testimony after her former agent, Carole White, and US actress Mia Farrow both told judges this week that Campbell had accepted a gift of diamonds from Taylor and boasted about it the next day.

Farrow said Campbell had named former Liberian president Taylor as the man who sent her a “huge diamond”.

This contradicted Campbell’s testimony on Thursday at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, in which the model said she was not certain about the identity of the person who sent her the parcel of gems.

In her statement on Tuesday, the 40-year-old model did however concede that she had slipped up when she told judges during her testimony that coming to court was a “big inconvenience”.

And she stressed: “I am a black woman who has and will always support good causes especially relating to Africa.”

According to White, the supermodel’s agent at the time, Campbell and Taylor had flirted throughout a charity dinner hosted by South Africa’s then president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria in September 1997.

At one point, “she told me: ‘he is going to give me some diamonds’,” White said in her testimony on Monday. “She was very excited.”

Defending Taylor, lawyer Courtenay Griffiths on Tuesday branded White’s account a “complete pack of lies”.

“You’ve made it up to assist in your lawsuit (for breach of contract) against Ms Campbell. Bluntly, for you this is all about money.”

But White, 60, insisted she was not lying: “It is totally the truth. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my business argument with Naomi Campbell.”

On Monday, Griffiths also sought to discredit Farrow.

“Mia Farrow sees herself as the modern-day Mother Theresa to Africa,” he told a press conference.

“She does not have an open mind so far as Charles Taylor is concerned. She is looking for sainthood.”

Giving testimony last week, Campbell conceded that two men brought a pouch containing two or three “dirty-looking stones” to her bedroom at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria.

She said she did not know who the gift came from, but “assumed” it was from Taylor. The model said she donated the diamonds to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund the following day.

Prosecutors are trying to link the gift to Taylor, whom they accuse of having taken a consignment of uncut diamonds to South Africa “to sell… or exchange them for weapons” for Sierra Leone rebels.

Taylor, 62, is on trial for his alleged role in the 1991-2001 Sierra Leone civil war that claimed some 120,000 lives.

He is accused of receiving illegally mined “blood diamonds” for arming rebels who murdered, raped and maimed Sierra Leone civilians, amputating their limbs and carving initials on their bodies.

In Tuesday’s statement, Campbell conceded that telling judges it was a “big inconvenience” that she had been forced to give evidence had been a “poor choice” of words.

“Campbell accepts the use of the word ‘inconvenient’ was a poor choice of word but it was made off the cuff and was taken massively out of context,” said the statement from her media representatives, the Outside Organisation.

“It was in relation to a nonsensical question as to whether or not she was nervous appearing in court.

“Campbell had explained that she had fears for her family having read about Taylor’s alleged crimes on the internet, hence her initial reticence in appearing.”

The statement added: “The suggestion that Campbell in some way doesn’t care about the plight of those suffering in Africa is ridiculous and hurtful.”

Feb 05

Gillard set to announce $2b Sydney transport fix

Labor plans to spend $2.

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1 billion on a 14-kilometre rail link to ease congestion in Sydney’s western suburbs.

This is the government’s single biggest election campaign spending plan and makes good on a state Labor government promise from a decade ago shelved earlier this year.

Infrastructure and transport minister Anthony Albanese said it was important for Parramatta to grow as Sydney’s second central business district.

“So what we are doing in building the 14 kilometre Parramatta to Epping rail link is ensuring that this missing link that we know is viable, we know it’s necessary and we know it’s a much needed project for Western Sydney, can go ahead,” he told ABC Radio.

“That will have the added bonus of people to the west of Parramatta getting increased capacity on the western line for the western express services that are anticipated as part of the state government’s transport plan.

” The plan will be formally announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and NSW premier Kristina Keneally om Western Sydney on Wednesday.

Through this plan, $500 million of state government money will be spent first with the federal government picking up 80 per cent once the budget returns is back in surplus. Mr Albanese said Sydney was facing particular pressure.

“We have been able to come to this agreement with the NSW government whilst having no impact on the budget bottom line,” he said. Mr Albanese rejected suggestions this was simply rewarding the incompetence of the NSW Labor government.

“No, what we are doing here is partnering with the state Labor government,” he said.

“They have been working very closely with Infrastructure Australia.

“They have produced a transport plan for the next 10 years. What they showed in that was that there were a number of projects that cou ld be brought forward with support from the Commonwealth.”

The rail line covers five Labor-held electorates and has already been dubbed the Bradbury express after Labor MP David Bradbury whose electorate of Lindsay is facing growing population pressure.

Mr Albanese said there had been considerable growth in two key areas which were producing a great deal of economic activity.

“Therefore it makes sense for there to be this investment and for this project to go ahead,” he said.

Feb 05

UN role confirmed for Rudd

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has gone on the attack after hearing Kevin Rudd will work part-time for the United Nations.

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The former prime minister has been appointed to a new 21-member panel on global sustainability, a decision announced by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon in New York overnight.

“It’s now official, former prime minister Rudd does have a part-time job with the United Nations,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday.

The appointment put yet another question mark over the make-up of Labor’s next ministry.

“What it means is that this government’s ministry is in complete flux,” Mr Abbott said.

Labor was losing its “two best ministers” in outgoing Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and Defence Minister John Faulkner.

Mr Abbott also questioned a possible deal over the foreign portfolio, saying a deal might have been struck for Mr Rudd to replace Stephen Smith.

It left a ministry in which the next finance, defence or foreign minister could not be named ahead of polling day, he said.

Mr Abbott said Labor was delivering the prospect of part-time ministers. Environment Minister Peter Garrett had been one for months, he said.

Mr Rudd has defended his decision to take up the position.

“This appointment is entirely consistent with Mr Rudd’s work as a member of parliament should he be re-elected at the coming election,” his spokesman said in a statement.

The panel’s first meeting will be held in about one month’s time, which is likely to be only meeting this year, while there should be another two in 2011.

Mr Rudd, who will not be paid, had a “strong commitment to building on the international agreements on climate change,” the statement said.

The panel is expected to deliver its final report by the end of 2011, ahead of the 2012 UN conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wasn’t buying Mr Abbott’s attack on Labor’s so-called “part-time ministers”.

“He’s probably trying to avoid answering questions on this (the economy) today, and so talking about other matters,” she told reporters in Adelaide. She did not comment on Mr Rudd or his new role.

Feb 05

Abbott struggles with broadband basics

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has struggled to explain the basics of his broadband policy, saying he is not a “tech head”.

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Mr Abbott was conspicuously absent when his colleagues, communications spokesman Tony Smith and finance spokesman Andrew Robb, unveiled the coalition’s $6 billion broadband plan in Canberra on Tuesday.

It guarantees minimum broadband speeds of 12 Mega bits per second (Mbps) for 97 per cent of homes, whereas Labor’s national broadband network promises 100Mbps to 99 per cent of households.

Mr Abbott was later quizzed on how many towers the opposition would have to build to implement the plan, how many kilometres of fibre would be required to connect them, and what spectrum would be used to deliver the network.

“I’m no Bill Gates here and I don’t claim to be any kind of tech head,” he told ABC Television in response.

Mr Abbott also drew blanks on what his broadband network’s peak speed of 12Mbps actually meant.

“Again, if you are going to get me into a technical argument, I’m going to lose it because I am not a tech head,” he said.

“We are offering 12 and up … but in the vast majority of cases it will be a lot more than that, a lot faster than that.”

Peak speed is the best speed at which internet users can download material, usually when there are fewer people online, for example at midnight. When there is lots of online traffic, download speeds slow.

Mr Abbott said Mr Smith and Mr Robb were more adept at fielding technical questions than he was.

“I do not have the same level of technical competence in this area that they have,” he said.

Mr Abbott said the coalition would deliver a “good” broadband scheme that was quicker and cheaper than Labor’s offering.

Feb 05

Gas mining blockade continues in Queensland

Residents at Tara, west of Brisbane, have blocked the Queensland Gas Company (QGC) from continuing seismic testing in the gas-rich Surat Basin amid concerns over the company’s operations.

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Activists from environmental group Friends of the Earth have joined the blockade because of concerns about the effect of the coal-seam gas extraction processes on the Great Artesian Basin.

Coal seam gas extraction uses large amounts of underground water.

Campaigner Drew Hutton said a meeting with QGC officials on Monday failed to break any ground.

Another meeting with senior executives is scheduled for 11am (AEST) on Tuesday, but blockaders were not hopeful of an outcome, he said.

“I have a suspicion that those talks are not going to lead anywhere,” Mr Hutton told AAP.

“I don’t think the company is terribly keen to do much more than simply a tactical retreat at this stage and we would want much more than that.”

The landowners say they are being affected by noise and air pollution from the company’s wells and want action from management before it moves ahead with plans for a multi-billion-dollar LNG project.

Mr Hutton said about 25 people had taken part in the blockade and vowed it would not end until management agreed to make their operations more transparent.

“This is a community that has been badly impacted by this gas mining development, we want the community protected from it,” he said.

“We’ve got people out here who are ill from the emissions they’re having to deal with close to their homes.

“People have come here … bought some land to live their dream and they’re faced with a nightmare.”

He said Tara had about 60 gas wells but QGC wanted to build hundreds more.

Comment is being sought from QGC.

Feb 05

Falls festival line-up announced

Three decades of American music history will be revived at the Falls Music & Arts Festival when Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Public Enemy and Interpol take to the stage.

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Organisers behind the live music festival, which is split between two sites in Marion Bay, Tasmania, and Lorne, Victoria, have announced another line-up leaning heavily on US acts.

The Cool Kids, The National, Sleigh Bells, Cold War Kids and The Soft Pack will provide an insight into the latest sounds from the States.

But the inclusion of three generation-shaping American heavyweights is likely to prove the biggest draw for Falls Festival, which runs from December 28-31.

Joan Jett’s teenage band The Runaways epitomised the essence of 1970s punk during a turbulent four-year reign, before the singer hit mainstream fame with her number one single I Love Rock’n’Roll.

A decade later Public Enemy became to hip-hop what The Beatles were to pop music as the collective elevated rap music permanently into the mainstream.

The pioneering group, including Flava Flav and Chuck D, will perform their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet in its entirety for the first time in Australia.

Interpol, meanwhile, have grown into one of the most influential rock bands of the last ten years, trailblazing on the heels of fellow New Yorkers The Strokes.

The American invasion will be matched by an equally impressive line-up of Australian acts.

Homegrown legends come in the form of The Living End, Paul Kelly and Ash Grunwald, while aspiring favourites include Tame Impala, Angus & Julia Stone, Washington and Cloud Control.

UK bands Klaxons, Marina And The Diamonds and Kitty Daisy & Lewis, Canadians Hot Hot Heat, Junip from Sweden and Senegalese rapper Daara J Family make up more of the international flavour at Falls Festival.

Many more acts are confirmed for the summer music feast, which celebrates its 18th year in Victoria and its eighth in Tasmania.

Tickets go on sale from September 9.