Coalition split over energy price rises

THE Coalition energy spokesman, Ian MacFarlane, has contradicted his leader Tony Abbott’s claim that carbon tax is the only cause of power price rises, saying the Coalition would ”forcefully encourage” the states to privatise their electricity networks and would listen to calls to rein in overinvestment.

Yesterday Mr Abbott said the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had ”fabricated” the entire idea that overinvestment in electricity ”wires and poles” had caused price rises beyond the carbon tax, and refused to commit the Coalition to regulatory reform.

”The problem is not the regulation of power prices. The problem is the carbon tax putting up power prices,” he said.

”This is a fabrication by the Prime Minister. This is an absolute furphy from the Prime Minister. Why would we believe the Prime Minister now about so-called gold-plating of power infrastructure when she’s never talked about it for the last five years?

”The Prime Minister herself in Parliament last year said that there was a need for more investment in power infrastructure. So, if there’s such a terrible problem of overinvestment in infrastructure, why did the Prime Minister say the opposite last year?”

But Mr MacFarlane told the Herald the issue of over-investment in wires and poles was ”absolutely a question for a Coalition government and we wouldn’t take five years to do something about it”.

He said he would ”forcefully encourage state governments to open their electricity distribution networks to competition, whether that is by privatisation or allowing private competitors into the market” to ensure price rises slowed down.

”We couldn’t force them but we could use all the levers available through COAG [Council of Australian Governments] to push them in that direction.”

He said he would ”listen to and take advice from the Australian Energy Regulator” about regulatory rules. The regulator

has been proposing regulatory changes for more than a year and has repeatedly argued that the present regime means power bills are higher than they should be.

Mr MacFarlane agreed and said by his calculation the NSW government was earning $190 a year from every household through its electricity assets.

”The biggest immediate pressure is the carbon tax but I accept electricity prices have risen because of unnecessarily high distribution costs … the government knew these astronomical price rises were coming through the system because of transmission investment and they’ve been asleep at the wheel. We wouldn’t be,” he said.

The federal MP Malcolm Turnbull said it was legitimate to ask ”whether the level of investment has been excessive, whether there has been gold-plating”.

In a speech today, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, will push the need for privatisation of networks.

”We still have key networks in government hands in Tasmania, Queensland, NSW and Western Australia … The incentives of government shareholders are unavoidably mixed and complicated … It is difficult to know what the objectives would have been had the businesses been in private hands but perhaps … [it] would have assisted in preventing some of the recent significant price increases,” he will say.

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Accuser in tears after arrest of Hey Dad co-star

Sarah Monahan … and as she appeared in the Hey Dad cast. Arrested … Robert Hughes.

AFTER a two-year investigation and a three-month global hunt by police, former Hey Dad..! TV star Robert Hughes was last night behind bars in London, accused of molesting five girls more than 25 years ago.

His arrest prompted tears from Mr Hughes’s former co-star Sarah Monahan, who played Jenny on the hit show.

Ms Monahan tweeted: ”I am literally crying with happiness right now.”

Police allege the charges relate to crimes against five girls between 1985 and 1990 in a number of northern Sydney suburbs.

In May this year, police applied for an arrest warrant on 11 alleged offences, including sexual and indecent assault.

But Mr Hughes, who had been living in Singapore when the claims were first aired, could not be located.

Strike Force Ruskin police said detectives had ”conducted extensive inquiries internationally to locate the man”, eventually finding Mr Hughes in London. At about 4pm Sydney time yesterday, officers from the London Metropolitan Police arrested Mr Hughes, whose age was given as 63, in an upmarket area of central London.

He was taken to Belgravia Police Station and was last night expected to be charged by virtue of the arrest warrant. A Westminster local court hearing was expected to be held late last night.

Australian authorities would apply for the man’s extradition to NSW, with investigators from Strike Force Ruskin planning to travel to Britain to secure his return to Sydney.

The strike force was set up after Ms Monahan, the actress who played one of Mr Hughes’s on-screen daughters in the hit situation comedy, first raised the allegations via the media.

Ms Monahan alleged Mr Hughes, who played architect Martin Kelly on the sitcom, touched her inappropriately while on the set of the show, which aired on Channel Seven from 1987 to 1994.

Ms Monahan, who now lives in the US, last night thanked detectives for ”lots of hard work by all. You guys rock.”

”I got the call at 2am my time, promised I wouldn’t leak it out till they made their official announcement, but by 3am it’s all over the news! How awesome is today?”

The Herald last night contacted the talent management company run by Mr Hughes’s wife, Robyn Gardiner, but it did not respond to questions.

When the allegations were first publicly raised, Mr Hughes denied claims he had molested his young co-star.

”I’m absolutely, totally shocked at the allegations and I deny, absolutely deny, everything,” Mr Hughes told Channel Nine’s A Current Affair.

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Joyce spots chink of light in bid for lower house

BARNABY JOYCE’S path to the House of Representatives – and possibly the deputy prime ministership – appears smoother after the Nationals MP he is seeking to replace refused to commit to recontest his seat.

Senator Joyce has been keen to move to the lower house at the next election. For months he has has been eyeing the Queensland seat of Maranoa, held by Nationals MP Bruce Scott since 1990.

Previously Mr Scott, who held a junior ministry in the Howard government, has resisted pressure to move aside for Senator Joyce, and frequently insisted he would recontest. But with the preselection to be decided for the first time by a postal ballot beginning next month, Mr Scott would only say yesterday he would do what was best for the Coalition.

”I’m a team player of a strong Coalition team and I will be spending my time and energy talking about how we can defeat this dreadful Labor government at the next election,” he said. ”I’m absolutely committed to getting the best for the electorate and do everything I can for a change of government in Canberra.”

He said he was ”fit and healthy” and enjoyed his job but declined to say in the statement, and through a spokeswoman later, whether he would renominate.

Senator Joyce said if Mr Scott did not renominate, he would run. If Mr Scott did nominate, he would consult local Nationals first, but it is believed he would challenge regardless. He said he had no immediate designs on the Nationals leadership, held by Warren Truss, a position he would need to fill if he were to become deputy prime minister in an Abbott government.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, declined yesterday to comment, saying it was a matter for the party.

Preselection squabbles are rife in the Coalition. The Nationals and the Liberals in NSW are at loggerheads over who should run for seats including Hume, Lyne and Gilmore.

NSW Liberal and National officials are trying to finalise an agreement to determine which party runs in which seats.

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Silent journeys

Desh Balasubramaniam is a former asylum seeker and founder of arts movement Ondru.THE political debate in Australia about asylum seekers has focused on those arriving by boat. They have been demonised, rather than described as what they truly are – some of the most desperate and vulnerable people on the planet, usually fleeing persecution, violence and even torture.

It is disappointing that senior politicians fan the dog-whistle notion of ”queue jumpers”. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no queue or processing system accessible to asylum seekers in their home nations; indeed, only 0.5 per cent of the world’s more than 15 million asylum seekers have access to a queue.

Most asylum seekers are not ”boat people”, another dog-whistle term that sells Australians short; most Australians are kind and generous, and many celebrate that a key strength of our nation is a cultural diversity partly generated by refugees.

Of those who do arrive by sea, about 90 per cent are found to be genuine refugees. In the past 30 years, only about 30,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat. The vast majority of people who ask for asylum here arrive by plane and seek refugee status while living in community housing.

Another disingenuous tactic to generate or inflame some voters’ antipathy is the use of the term ”illegal immigrants”. Asylum seekers are neither immigrants nor illegal. Immigrants leave their country by choice and can return at any time. There is no Australian law against arriving here without a valid visa to seek asylum. Further, as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Australia is obliged to protect people escaping persecution.

One way to help stop these people from risking their lives at sea is to seek a regional solution; only a handful of countries in our region are signatories to the Refugee Convention. Another part of the solution is to significantly increase the number of asylum seekers officially permitted to come here. Australia takes a mere 13,500 asylum seekers a year, or about 0.2 per cent of the world’s refugees. We rank 69th in the world in terms of the number we take relative to our population. As many as eight in ten asylum seekers are in developing nations; the biggest numbers are in Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Germany and Jordan.

The issue of asylum seekers is a humanitarian one, not political. Today’s guest in The Zone is here to help put a human face on the debate. Not only is Desh Balasubramaniam a former Sri Lankan refugee, he is also the founder of a Melbourne-based arts and literature movement, Ondru, set up to help broaden minds and deepen understanding about people who are forced to flee their home nations. Ondru’s mission is to ”evoke, challenge and inspire positive social change through honest expressions of arts and literature”.

His personal story exemplifies the contribution asylum seekers can make to our economy and society, and Ondru’s existence shows the way creativity can be used to help promote a positive public conversation, rather than the often-toxic one that has sullied Australia.

”What we want to do is broaden people’s perspectives, to create dialogue, to question. Nobody leaves their country without actually considering the options, and they leave as a last resort. We don’t talk sufficiently about the journey they go through, all that uncertainty.

”And then they arrive here and there’s another struggle – whether you’re accepted to stay here. And then there is another struggle, and that is to adapt. So those are the matters that we should question and reflect upon, not just make uninformed statements that too many people are coming.”

Balasubramaniam was born and raised until the age of 13 in the war-ravaged northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. His parents fled with their four children and accepted on humanitarian grounds by New Zealand, where they settled in a country town.

Balasubramaniam spoke little English, and says the hardest thing he has ever done is get through his schooling. One of his abiding memories is being told by his father to do his homework by looking up every single word in the dictionary. The struggling student declared this an impossible task. His father threw the dictionary across the room to him and retorted that ”impossible” was a term found only in a fool’s dictionary. Balasubramaniam subsequently crossed out the word in every dictionary in the household.

He completed secondary school and went to university, where he took degrees in law and business.

He then found himself struggling to find his identity, so he travelled on a limited budget though a number of countries, usually hitchhiking, and worked in a series of jobs as he sought to reconcile being Sri Lankan, a Tamil and a New Zealander. His voyage took him to Melbourne, and something clicked.

”I felt Melbourne had this beautiful essence where I was able to meet people from all walks of life. Initially I was washing dishes, I was driving forklifts.

”I felt that whatever I wanted to do could be done here in Melbourne. I didn’t feel that in other places before. There was this beautiful essence and I felt this is where I want to be.”

He’s still here. Having worked in law firms, he moved to his current employer, the Victorian Department of Education. His work has contributed to engaging various disadvantaged communities through education and jobs as well as supporting industry to fill skills gaps.

That’s his day job. He spends another 40 hours a week alongside the other volunteers who have created Ondru.

Ondru means ”one” in Tamil and was an idea that came to him during his travels. Ondru seeks to inspire and generate community dialogue through a range of projects.

Balasubramaniam and his partners, who come from various nations including Spain, Sudan, France and Australia, are also planning to create workshops for schools, and would be happy to hear from teachers or principals, who can contact them through the website ondru苏州美甲美睫培训.

”It’s not just about living beside the other person, it is about being able to understand each other. If we’re saying we are to inspire social change or evoke and challenge, that is the context that we must understand – the intentions and why people act in a certain manner. That’s what we’re trying to bring about through our expressions.”

Their projects and events are all detailed on the website. They include dance, poetry, other literature, a magazine, film and photography.

Projects under development include Tales of Exotic Stress, a photographic study of indigenous themes, and Carriage of the Unspoken Letters, which combines photography and dance to compare Eastern identity with Western modernity.

In coming weeks, Melburnians will witness one of the biggest and most ambitious things Ondru has attempted. In a project called Voiceless Journeys, the group has photographed and interviewed 101 people from diverse backgrounds who are making their lives here after leaving their countries as a result of internal problems or conflicts. The plan is to enlarge the images, in some cases to the size of a wall, and display them throughout the city.

”We focused on telling the silent stories of people who have left their countries as a result of conflict or internal problems to make their lives here. What we wanted to do was not only celebrate the cultural diversity of Melbourne and wider Australia, but also raise awareness about their journey, their struggle, their survival, and their achievements.”

Balasubramaniam’s journey, struggle, survival and achievements enrich our community. He and the many others who have been sufficiently resilient and resourceful to escape terrible circumstances and rebuild their lives, are, surely, the sort of people employers should fight to employ and neighbours and communities hasten to embrace.

As we head towards another election, we can only hope our political leaders cease seeking political mileage out of the plight of such people, and encourage acceptance and understanding of potentially outstanding contributors to the growth and continuing prosperity of one of the world’s richest and most diverse nations.

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Attempt to wind up Islamic school over debts

Dianne and her son Mustafa, 6, moved from Queensland so Mustafa could attend the school.A CLOTHING company which supplies school uniforms has made a court application to wind up Malek Fahd Islamic School in Sydney because of its alleged failure to pay debts of $286,303.

In its application lodged with the Federal Court, Duboke Pty Ltd, trading as Oz Fashions, alleges Malek Fahd has failed to pay 11 invoices dating from January 18 to February 14, this year.

The Federal Court of Australia will hear the matter next Friday.

Documents filed with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission show that Duboke and Malek Fahd’s parent company, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, share the same business address at 932 Bourke St, Waterloo.

Duboke made its application on July 19, 11 days before the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, wrote to the school asking it to repay $9 million in state-government funding.

Mr Piccoli said the school had breached funding requirements which prevent it from operating for profit. He said the school was transferring money to the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils without receiving any services.

The Association of Independent Schools of NSW was also asked to terminate more than $1 million the school receives in National Partnership funding for disadvantaged students, as part of a five-year agreement between state and federal governments.

For its state government funding to be reinstated, Mr Piccoli said the school would need to provide credible evidence that services were being provided in return for the money it transferred to the federation.

Mr Piccoli wrote to the federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, saying he had referred the matter to police and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

The federal Department of Education commissioned an independent audit of the school in December to find whether it was spending public funding on the education of students.

The Herald was unable to contact the school principal, Dr Intaj Ali, for comment yesterday.

In a statement on July 31, he disputed Mr Piccoli’s findings that the school was operating for profit and said he would challenge his decision.

”The school will take the appropriate steps to have this decision reviewed and is confident that ultimately the correct outcome will be achieved,” he said. ”Malek Fahd wishes to reassure all parents, students, staff and the wider community that its focus remains on the delivery of quality education for our students and it will continue to work with both the NSW and the federal education departments.”

The Herald also sought comment yesterday from the federation, which declined to comment and from Duboke’s solicitor, Marc Ryckmans, who did not return calls.

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