Abbott denies ‘victory’ speech

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has denied saying that the Coalition was within reach of a ‘famous victory’

Reports yesterday said Abbott rallied his troops with a message that an election victory is

within their “ready grasp”.

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As the coalition joint party room met for what may be the last time before the election, Mr Abbott imbued his team with a sense of hope.

Victory is within our ready grasp,” he reportedly told them.

“We are in reach of a famous victory.”

But the ABC reports Mr Abbott as clarifying this point “What I said was the next election is certainly winnable, but there’s an enormous long way to go.

“It’s very, very difficult to beat a first-term government – it hasn’t happened for almost 80 years.”

Retiring Labor backbencher Bob McMullan believes it’s almost impossible for the government to lose from its current position in the polls.

Labor’s primary vote has taken a dive to 35 per cent, a level some say makes the election unwinnable.

However, the latest Newspoll has Labor ahead on 52 per cent after the distribution of preferences.

Mr McMullan yesterday told Sky News the crucial measure on election day would be the two-party preferred vote.

“No government at the position we are in the polls six months out has ever lost,” he said.

“No leader of the opposition with a disapproval rating of Tony Abbott has ever won.”

Mr Abbott continues to trail Kevin Rudd as preferred prime minister, but he has closed the gap during recent months.

Mr McMullan wasn’t the only person to sound a note of caution to the coalition.

Nationals leader Warren Truss told coalition MPs they were “not home yet”.

Afghan commitment finite: Rudd

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan will be “defined and finite”, with the government laying the groundwork to announce a timetable for the partial withdrawal of troops.

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The government is making it increasingly clear the mission for Australia’s trainers in Afghanistan – who make up about half of the 1550-strong commitment – will be completed once troops have fully trained the 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province.

And Defence Minister John Faulkner has signalled an imminent announcement on how long that training mission may take.

Public support for the war is on the wane, and it is likely to continue to fall following the deaths of three commandos in a helicopter crash on Monday.

The latest accident – just a fortnight after two soldiers died in a roadside bomb blast – takes to 16 the number of diggers who have died in Afghanistan since Australia committed to the war in 2001.

The government now appears to be getting ready to put in place a timetable for the withdrawal of the trainers in the face of growing Australian frustration about the war.

Both the government and the coalition support the commitment in Afghanistan, though Labor has repeatedly stressed the current force of around 1550 is appropriate while the coalition has flagged it could be boosted.

With the government taking a pounding in the opinion polls, MPs may be worried about how the unpopular war is playing out in the community.

A poll by Essential Research showed 61 per cent of respondents wanted Australia to withdraw from Afghanistan – and that opinion was evenly split between coalition and Labor voters.

Mr Rudd assured caucus on Tuesday that Australia’s mission was clearly defined – the training of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. We have a “defined and finite role” in Afghanistan, he told them.

Senator Faulkner has indicated he will put forward an expert assessment of a timetable for the completion of training in the near future – it could come when he makes a ministerial statement on Afghanistan this week.

He had been due to make the announcement on Tuesday but delayed it due to the deaths of the commandos.

“I … intend to make some announcements soon about what the best professional assessments we have from the ADF (Australian Defence Force) and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) about the timeframe involved in completing that training mission will be,” Senator Faulkner told ABC radio.

“We are certainly making progress in that regard and, as we achieve that, we obviously want to see, and will see, a conditions-based transition to Afghan National security forces so they can take responsibility for security and stability in their own country.”

Bikies take protest to parliament

Bikers have converged on NSW’s parliament house seeking the repeal of anti-association laws they say were rushed in after a fatal brawl at Sydney Airport.

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About 30 bikers from various groups, representing the United Motorcycle Council of NSW, roared along Macquarie Street, with other traffic coming to a standstill as police quietly kept an eye on events.

Led by chairman Mark “Ferret” Maroney, the council came to deliver a letter to Attorney-General John Hatzistergos.

“We’d like the anti-association laws debated, they weren’t debated when they first come in over a year ago, they were rushed through parliament and we want them to listen to us and we’re ready to debate them now,” Mr Maroney told reporters outside parliament.

While Mr Maroney said the council “have no fears”, there are concerns the laws will have an impact on family and friends.

“Our concerns about the laws – we have children, we have grandchildren – it involves everyone, not just bikers,” he said.

In the letter to Mr Hatzistergos the council refers to concerns aired by Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery that “the legislation was not necessary and could be used on any group”.

Control orders

Under the laws, the government may impose control orders on members of a “declared” organisation, prohibiting them from associating with other members. Anyone convicted faces up to five years in jail.

Mr Maroney told reporters: “We want to know why it wasn’t debated to start with, why it was rushed through.”

“We talked to politicians privately, off the record, who’ve said had they known exactly what the anti-association laws contained they would not have voted for it.”

Three council representatives entered Parliament House requesting that Mr Hatzistergos meet them and accept the letter.

But after a short wait they were told no one from the attorney-general’s office would see them because the letter posed a “security issue”.

Earlier on Wednesday Mr Hatzistergos told reporters the council had not contacted his office.

“I don’t negotiate over the application of criminal law,” Mr Hatzistergos told reporters. “If the hat fits, wear it.”

Opposition criticism

Opposition police spokesman Mike Gallacher said the bikie laws had not been put into practice.

“We moved heaven and earth to rush anti-outlaw motorcycle gang laws through the NSW parliament in early 2009, and the state Labor government have, to date, failed completely to actually exercise those laws,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

He also criticised police for not using the laws.

“A core component of the legislation was the new power given to police to declare a criminal organisation if they satisfied legislative criteria set down for assessment by the police commissioner,” Mr Gallacher said. “That still has not happened.”

Wednesday’s gathering outside Parliament House, where group members wore their colours, would have been a breach of the legislation, Mr Gallacher said.

“So the fact they protested at all is evidence enough that the state Labor government has failed.

“I’ll continue to call on the police minister and the attorney-general to push for these laws to be enforced.”

Anthony Zervas, 29, died in a brawl between warring bikie gangs at Sydney Airport on March 22, 2009, casting the spotlight on outlaw motorcycle groups.

Bullying suicide sparks school changes

Students transferring schools mid-term will be required to sit down with a counsellor under changes to be introduced by the NSW government after the suicide of bullied schoolboy Alex Wildman.

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The 14-year-old took his life on July 25, 2008 at his family’s home at Goonellabah, near Lismore, after being beaten and bullied by other pupils at Kadina High School.

Following an inquest into his death in Ballina earlier this month, Deputy State Coroner Malcolm MacPherson made a series of recommendations.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Verity Firth signalled that many of these, including an enrolment policy for students who transfer, will be put in place.

In his findings, Mr MacPherson said Alex had not been seen by a school counsellor, who worked part time and was not at Kadina on the days leading up to the boy’s death.

His teachers did not know of the bullying and had not been told about previous incidents at his former Sydney school.

Alex, described as a “highly intelligent and sensitive young man”, endured attacks and threats at Ingleburn High School in 2007 and the bullying started again when he moved to Kadina.

He was assaulted several times and taunted and threatened by other pupils on the internet, the inquest heard.

Ms Firth said a review of school counselling services in public schools was already under way. The Education Department would also trial at several schools a dedicated email address to which students can report bullying.

She has also instructed the department to compile a concise brochure about bullying, after Mr MacPherson recommended that information given to schools about the practice be simplified.

“There will never be a one-size-fits-all response,” she said in a statement.

“It is important that we still allow school communities to develop their own policies, but at the same time make sure that everyone has access to basic and clear information.”

In his findings, Mr MacPherson concluded that although he could not pinpoint a single factor that led to Alex’s suicide, bullying contributed.

Two days before his mother found him dead in the garage of the family home, he had been hit on the face and head during an attack at the school, which was filmed on a mobile phone.

Rudd facing ‘leadership spill’

Canberra is awash with speculation that a Labor leadership spill is imminent, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s deputy Julia Gillard being named as likely contender.

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It’s reported the ALP right in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have turned against Mr Rudd, with powerful party factions plotting a leadership challenge.

He’s been holding crisis talks with Ms Gillard and other senior ministers this evening.

Gillard’s office confirmed the meeting, but stressed that the deputy prime minister was not interested in ousting Rudd as Labor Party leader.

“Nothing has changed,” a spokesman for Gillard’s office said.

Secret canvassing

The ABC said senior party figures have been secretly canvassing whether Gillard has enough support to replace Rudd, who is suddenly struggling in the polls as an election looms.

A cabinet source told Sky News that the push was coming from more rightwing elements of the centre-left party.

Senator John Faulkner, who denied any knowledge of the canvassing on ABC Television, earlier joined Treasurer Wayne Swan, frontbencher Anthony Albanese in the prime minister’s office.

Trade Minister Simon Crean has backed Mr Rudd, saying he wasn’t aware of any leadership challenge.

“I do not support any leadership challenge,” Mr Crean said.

“Any loose talk or idle speculation on this matter is counterproductive.

“I urge solidarity behind the leader. I support Kevin as the Leader.”

Nine News reported that NSW senator Mark Arbib, Victorian senator David Feeney and parliamentary secretary Bill Shorten told Ms Gillard earlier on Wednesday they’d lost confidence in Mr Rudd and wanted her to run.

She gave no answer.

Union support

In another development, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is backing Ms Gillard to take over the Labor Party’s leadership.

A senior source told AAP on Wednesday night that the AWU had switched their support from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Ms Gillard.

Rudd defeated conservative prime minister John Howard in late 2007 and has enjoyed strong popularity until recent months, but his support has slid after a series of missteps and a reinvigorated opposition under leader Tony Abbott.

BP reattaches oil cap after sub crash

The oil containment system in the Gulf of Mexico has been reattached and is capturing oil again, BP said, after it was halted following a collision involving a robotic submarine.

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The cap “was successfully reinstalled on the Deepwater Horizon’s failed blow-out preventer” at 6:30 pm (1130 GMT), BP said in a statement, adding that “the system resumed collecting oil and gas” a half hour later.

Oil and gas for some 10 hours spewed out unhindered on Wednesday into the Gulf of Mexico after BP detached its containment cap to make repairs after a remote-controlled submarine crashed into it.

“We had an incident earlier today, they noticed that there was some kind of a gas rising,” said Admiral Thad Allen, the US official coordinating the response to the disaster.

“They indicated the problem was a remotely-operated vehicle had bumped into one of the vents,” Allen said, adding that the “top hat” container was being checked and could be reinstalled later on Wednesday.

That would leave crude gushing into the ocean at a rate of between 30,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, according to the latest US government estimates. The containment system had been capturing roughly 25,000 barrels every 24 hours.

The containment system, which works by trapping leaking oil and then siphoning it up to a container ship, was shut down after gas was detected in a part of the unit that contains warm water, which is intended to prevent icy hydrates from forming and clogging the system.

Allen said the collision with the robotic submarine, which is operated from the surface by remote-control, appeared to have closed a vent, creating pressure that pushed material up into the water unit of the containment cap.

The cap was being examined and if no hydrates were found reinstallation would begin later on Wednesday, Allen said, warning that if the siphon pipe had to be refitted the operation, “will take a considerable amount longer.”

In a day of bad news for the oil spill response, Allen said two people involved in the containment and clean-up efforts had been reported dead.

One was killed in what he described as “an accident regarding a swimming pool,” but no details were provided about the death of the second individual, who had been working off the Mississippi shore, Allen said.

He offered his condolences, and said police were investigating the second death.

East Timor asks PM to intervene on gas

East Timor has asked Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to intervene personally in a dispute over plans for a gas plant in the Timor Sea.

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Australia and East Timor will share the spoils from the Greater Sunrise plant when it is built, but there is a stand-off between East Timor and the development consortium over aspects of the operation.

The consortium, led by Woodside Petroleum, wants to process the gas via a floating platform onto ships, but East Timor wants the gas piped to its shores to provide jobs onshore.

The consortium claims the floating plant would generate at least $US13 billion for East Timor, but its government wants to see its costings, claiming $US65 billion could be made from an onshore plant.

East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta asked Mr Rudd, during a meeting in Canberra on Wednesday, to press Woodside for a better deal.

Mr Rudd with his “persuasive intellect and charm” might be able to persuade the consortium to talk with East Timor government, Dr Ramos-Horta said in a speech later to the National Press Club.

“Maybe why not push the consortium … bring the pipeline to Timor Leste because in the end a very prosperous Timor Leste will be to the benefit of Australia.”

Dr Ramos Horta said the figures Woodside was using to claim an onshore plant was too expensive were “absolutely exaggerated”.

He said the government was open to dialogue and discussing options.

“If the pipeline is far too expensive to bring to Timor Leste in reality … then we have to think twice.

“We don’t want a white elephant that we have to pay for.”

Mr Rudd said the issue was a matter for the East Timor government and the consortium to resolve.

“Australia does not support any particular location for processing the LNG,” he told reporters after meeting Dr Ramos Horta.

“We agreed that this matter should be settled in the processes consistent with our treaty obligations.”

Backpacker fire deaths remembered

Ten years have passed but the pain still runs deep for the families of 15 young people who perished in the Childers backpacker hostel fire in Queensland.

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To mark today’s anniversary, a memorial service was held inside the restored hostel, which has since been revamped into a memorial building for the 15 victims, most of whom were from overseas.

Survivors, parents of those killed, British Ambassador Baroness Valerie Amos, Queensland Deputy Premier Paul Lucas and townspeople attended the service.

The town’s mayor Lorraine Pyefinch acknowledged the courage it took for some to return to the site.

“For some of you it will be 10 years since you were here in this building, and I know that this visit and the ceremony here today will bring back some very painful and strong memories,” Ms Pyefinch told the service.

“As a community, Childers, and in fact our whole Bundaberg Regional Council area, thanks you for having the strength to travel here today for this very important anniversary.”

She ended with a message from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd mourning the loss of life and praising the community’s compassion.

“While we mourn the loss of life, I commend this community’s ability to come together in compassion, remembrance and support,” the message concluded.

The fire was deliberately lit by Robert Paul Long, who had been evicted from the hostel and is now serving a life sentence for murder and arson.

Poignant tributes

Poetic messages read out on behalf of victims’ parents also spoke of a life sentence and of never ending pain.

“My darling daughter where did that smile go. The one that could melt my heart. I would have hidden you away if I’d known we’d had to part. It’s lonely here without you. It’s a shadow life I lead… every moment is a sad and painful need,” one message said.

Another read, “The awful pain of losing you, is still so hard to bear. It’s difficult to have to face the day and know you’re not there.”

New Zealand survivor Richard Tempest told the service he remembered the tragic day well but life must go on.

“I would like to make a special note of Tracey Campbell who sits here today and (who’d) survived the fire,” Mr Tempest said.

“She’s got a beautiful daughter… it’s proof life really does go on.”

Health report causes cancer concern

Health Minister Nicola Roxon says a 10 per cent spike in the number of cancer cases in Australia is a “worrying trend”.

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The latest biennial snapshot of the nation’s health, released on Wednesday, shows the number of cancer cases will rise to 115,000 this year.

Although fewer people are smoking, and cancer survival rates are improving, the disease still causes one in three deaths.

Cancer is Australia’s leading cause of disease burden, accounting for 19 per cent of the total burden, ahead of cardiovascular disease at 16 per cent, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report.

“There is a worrying trend that is in this report, which shows that this year we can expect 115,000 Australians to be diagnosed with cancer,” Ms Roxon told reporters in Canberra.

“That is a 10 per cent increase from 2006 – a very big jump.”

Ms Roxon said governments had to continue to reduce smoking rates and tackle the risk factors that are known to cause cancer.

“Cancer is an area where we have to continue the fight,” she said.

“The good news is our treatment is getting better and our survival rates are better.”

AIHW director Penny Allbon said the increase in cancer cases was partly due to earlier detection.

“That’s due to increased awareness and screening,” Dr Allbon told AAP.

“Beyond that, I don’t think anybody really knows why it’s on the increase.”

But she emphasised that even though the prevalence of the disease was going up, death rates were going down for most cancers.

“So it’s a mixed story.”

The AIHW report also found dementia rates are set to double within the next 20 years. The number of elderly dementia sufferers will jump to more than 450,000 by 2031.

The 12th biennial health report contains alarming findings about younger people, too.

It says the rate for chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection, has tripled during the past decade.

Rates of HIV and gonorrhoea have also climbed over the past 10 years, although they’ve stabilised recently.

Obesity levels are ballooning across all age groups, with 61 per cent of adults overweight.

Men are more likely than women to be fat, while one in four children aged between five and 17 are considered overweight.

Rising levels of obesity and less regular exercise are being blamed for the sharp increase in diabetes cases.

More than 800,000 Australians have the disease, triple the rate of 20 years ago.

But it’s not all bad news. Overall, Australians live longer than most people on the planet.

The nation ranked third in the world, behind Iceland and Japan, in 2007 for life expectancy.

Men live 79 years on average, while Australian women clock up just under 84 years.

Stock market soars on change of PM

At 1207 AEST, the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was up 27.

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9 points, or 0.62 per cent, at 4514, as Julia Gillard made her first statement after being elected leader of the Labor Party.

The broader All Ordinaries index was 21.5 points higher, by 0.46 per cent, at 4530.9.

On the Sydney Futures Exchange, the September futures contract was 29 points higher at 4,503 points, on volume of 17,281 contracts.

The gains were led by resources with the market assuming a change in government leadership may be bring some change of direction on the resources super profits tax (RSPT).

Ms Gillard said she would call an election in coming months and would throw her door open to miners to end uncertainty.

Ms Gillard said the government would cancel its RSPT advertising and called on the resource industry to do the same, as a sign of good faith.

Ms Gillard said she was committed to returning Australia’s budget to surplus by 2013. Bell Financial Group senior adviser Chris Kimber said resources stocks were surging on expectations that the government now would make changes to the RSPT.

“All of the mining stocks are responding to the leadership change,” Mr Kimber said.

“People are expecting Gillard to water it down or alter it completely.”

Mr Kimber said the market was hoping the government would increase the rate companies start paying tax on profits above six per cent and abolish the 40 per cent rebate for loss making projects.

Rio Tinto climbed $1.25, or 1.77 per cent, to $71.79 and BHP Billiton was 64 cents higher, or 1.64 per cent, at $39.78.

The big four banks were mixed, with ANZ up 14 cents at $23.02, NAB was nine cents higher at $24.76, Commonwealth was down 14 cents at $51.07, and Westpac was 17 cents lower at $22.39.