Not so much a fizzer as just plain flat

COMMENTIF, AS the polls predict, this is Eric Roozendaal’s last budget, he has gone out with a whimper. Devoid of big new spending measures and nasty new taxes, the Treasurer’s second full budget is marked by its ordinariness.In a word, it is unexciting; but deliberately so: it is a pre-election budget, but not as we know it.At his press conference yesterday Roozendaal was at pains to paint himself and his Labor government as fiscally responsible managers. The pitch: NSW has weathered the global financial crisis better than any other economy and now it is time to rebuild the budget bottom line in preparation for any future economic turmoil.The problem is few will believe him. With an election just around the corner and a couple of state assets up for sale, no one believes the Keneally government will resist the temptation to spend up big to do what they can to avoid an electoral massacre.With an eye to the March election, the Treasurer has not forgotten to spend some money in the right places to look after some of the government’s mates.In his budget speech to Parliament, he avoided any mention of the generous poker machine tax cut that was leaked to sections of the media last week. Then it was pitched as a measure to help struggling country pubs. In reality, the introduction of a $200,000 tax-free threshold on poker machine profits will deliver a gift to an estimated 60 per cent of pub owners in NSW, including some already raking in millions of dollars annually.Members of another influential industry, the property developers, had been lobbying hard for the measures they received. In the end, the government went further than even they expected, with a two-year program of stamp duty cuts.They might have enjoyed top billing as the important centrepiece of the government’s recovery measures, but the reality is that the measure will have limited impact and comes relatively cheap.The main stamp duty cut will cost the government only $60 million a year while the package is estimated to deliver a modest 8000 new homes.In between the assorted scandals and ministerial resignations that dominated state politics before the budget, the government has been busy playing down expectations. It turned out to be telling the truth.But whether we can believe the rhetoric about continued fiscal responsibility until the March election is entirely another matter.

Djokovic launches blistering attack on French Open officials

Novak Djokovic launched a blistering, bitter attack on French Open officiating on Wednesday after he squandered a two sets lead to crash out of Roland Garros against Austrian journeyman Jurgen Melzer.The Serbian third seed slumped to a shock 3-6 2-6 6-2 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 quarter-final defeat to the 29-year-old left-hander who had never got beyond the third round of his previous 31 grand slam appearances.In a tense conclusion to the four hour and 15 minutes tie, which had seen the Serbian commit 62 unforced errors and face 24 break points, Djokovic believed he was the victim of a bad call in the 10th and last game of the deciding set.With Melzer serving for the match, Djokovic believed a passing shot which was called in by the line-judge had given him a 30-0 lead.But chair umpire Carlos Bernardes overruled the decision and awarded the point to the Austrian.”From my side and from my perspective, it was looking good. There was no space between the line and the mark, and that means the ball is good,” said Djokovic, who was trying to reach a third French Open semi-final.”I don’t know why the chair umpire got that decision. The umpire has so many years and years experience, and to make such a mistake at that point is unbelievable.”I don’t know what was going on with him, but the ball was looking good from everywhere. Even on the TV you could see it was good. I can’t blame him for losing this match, of course. But maybe if that call came in my favour and (Melzer) would feel a little pressure.”But I should have done my job earlier. That’s definitely my fault, and I paid the consequences.”Despite his anger, Djokovic does not believe the Hawk Eye system, used at the other grand slams, should be introduced.”No, I don’t think there is any sense on getting Hawk Eye on clay courts. You can see the mark.”Djokovic, who has followed top seed Roger Federer and fourth seed Andy Murray in making an earlier than expected exit from the tournament, praised Melzer, who now faces four-time champion Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.”I made a big mistake. I let him come back into the match with my unforced errors, and then he caught the momentum and he was playing really well, especially on his service games,” said the Serbian.”But this is tennis. These are grand slams. You always have to play up to the end, because these things happen.”AFP

Zero stamp lure in NSW

NSW retirees are being coaxed into selling their oversized houses and downsizing to newly-built residences, in a NSW budget plan aimed at boosting the new homes industry.

Home owners aged over 65 are being offered stamp duty savings up to $22,490 to encourage them to move.

The discount applies to purchases of newly-constructed houses and units, off-the-plan acquistions, and house and land packages.

The senior downsizers will pay zero stamp duty on property purchases costing up to $600,000 in what is billed as a policy-first for the housing market.

About 70 per cent of NSW sales are under $600,000.

NSW houses have a $546,000 mean price, and units a mean of $457,000, according to the most recent Housing NSW data.

The state government scheme extends stamp duty cuts from the traditional preserve of first homebuyers, who have preferred to buy established residences, as part of its concerted attempt to kickstart the ailing residential construction industry.

The budget also offers zero stamp duty – and the potential saving of $22,490- to all home buyers and investors, albeit with a strict restriction.

It will only be available if they put a deposit down for an off-the-plan purchase or house and land packages costing less than $600,000.

There will also be a 25 per cent stamp duty cut for home buyers and investors – and a potential $5623 saving – if construction is already underway.

The stamp duty discounts will be available for the next two years.

NSW Treasury expects between 1000 and 2000 seniors to take up the offer annually following its July 1 start date.

Another 5000 to 6000 investors and home buyers are expected to take up the wider off-the-plan offering, at an annual $60 million cost to revenues.

The government has budgeted for the seniors zero stamp duty initiative to cost $10 million in each of the next two years.

The seniors must sell their primary place of residence to move into the newly-constructed house or unit.

“For people aged over 65, it won’t matter at what stage of construction the home is – they will pay no stamp duty,” NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal said.

The newly constructed homes for seniors must not have been previously occupied or previously sold.

For couples, at least one of the parties must be aged 65 or over to be eligible.

The initiatives are designed to help lift the NSW housing construction out of the doldrums.

NSW housing construction has been trailing Victoria for the past five years and Queensland for the past four years.

Last June, NSW housing construction fell to record lows when just 422 units and townhouses were approved, compared with the previous 10-year June average of 1400 approvals.

“The zero transfer duty for people aged over 65 will contribute both to the goal of helping older home owners seeking to downsize their home, and the goal of encouraging new home construction,” the budget papers said.

“The greater concession for purchasing off-the-plan will assist the financing of new developments.”

Jonathan Chancellor is The Sydney Morning Herald’s Property Editor.

Boy ‘born into captivity’ to detained asylum seekers

A BABY boy has been born to Sri Lankan asylum-seeker parents at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the birth two months ago highlighted concerns about the length of time detainees were being held.”It’s extremely sad this baby has been born essentially into captivity and is living in captivity,” she said yesterday. ”It’s a depressing place. There’s no doubt it is a jail.”A Department of Immigration spokeswoman confirmed the infant was living with his parents in residential accommodation at the centre.Opposition Leader Tony Abbott cut short a media conference outside Villawood yesterday after being heckled by the Refugee Action Committee. Earlier he denied suggestions his asylum-seeker policy was cruel, saying the Rudd government’s policy was not compassionate.”The cruellest thing you can do is put in place policies that encourage people smugglers to put desperate people’s lives at risk in leaky boats on the open sea,” he said.Legal experts say asylum seekers who develop mental illness in detention could seek compensation through the courts.Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre co-ordinator David Manne said there would be a case for seeking redress under Australian law if detainees could show their mental health had been damaged by time in immigration detention. ”If someone is subjected to conditions which are harmful … then there is no doubt they could seek redress under Australian law,” Mr Manne said.Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns said this would affect taxpayers. ”The detention of asylum seekers, particularly women and children, is not only legally dangerous for the Commonwealth but will cost taxpayers millions in claims,” he said.Ms Hanson-Young said the government was ignoring the ”human cost” of detention.”The only conclusion that can be drawn from the government’s dogged pursuit of a policy of suspended claims, desert prisons and indefinite detention is that it does not care about the emotional and psychological damage,” she said.But a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans rejected the claim. ”People in immigration detention are treated fairly and humanely,” he said. ”They are provided with appropriate services.”

Universities will pay dearly when boomers cash in

THE state’s university campuses are preparing succession plans and bracing for the financial impact when baby-boomer academics start retiring.One-quarter of academic staff employed in NSW universities are 55 or over, and 41 per cent are 50 or older.The proportion of older baby boomer academics is markedly higher at the University of Western Sydney, University of Technology, Sydney, Southern Cross University and University of New England.In his annual report to Parliament on the state’s 10 public universities, the Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat, warns that universities face financial risks due to the ageing workforce.The cost of employing disproportionately large numbers of ageing staff is dragging down their finances as they must provide for escalating long-service costs, superannuation liabilities and rapidly accruing holiday leave entitlements.Mr Achterstraat said universities also would face greater financial commitments when recruiting to replace the ageing staff who will retire en masse from the workplace, with further costs involved in competing for limited talent.In 2008, an analysis by demographer Professor Graeme Hugo found the entry of baby boomers into higher education, together with increased participation rates, resulted in a rapid expansion of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, when entrants to the academic workforce were typically aged in their 20s and 30s.He said slower growth in academic numbers since then, and particularly in the past decade or so, has resulted in a rapidly ageing academic workforce with a ”missing generation” – younger academics under 40.Rhonda Hawkins, the University of Western Sydney’s deputy vice-chancellor, said it had been actively addressing its ageing workforce problems since 2006, targeting recruitment of under-40s.She said the university was planning an international ”Preparing for Academic Practice” conference next year to attract early career academics.”We have embarked on a major academic staff recruitment campaign which will see 100 new staff appointed. This recruitment will target early career academics to boost numbers in key areas of demand,” she said.Sharon Farquhar, Southern Cross University’s human resources director, said it had a comprehensive plan to deal with the ageing academic workforce.”The university is building an academic leadership development program to ensure there are successors for academic management positions and to ensure academic managers are skilled to manage our key resource, our staff,” she said.SCU had an active succession plan for key roles and was increasing its focus on planning for anticipated retirements.The Greens MP John Kaye said universities faced a massive challenge maintaining quality while replacing retiring academics over the next five years.For the past decade, he said, observers of Australian universities had predicted ”a tsunami of retirements with large scale financial and reputational risks”.RETURN THE TENURE : IT’S ACADEMICProportion of academics over 50:Southern Cross 55%Western Sydney 54%New England 53.6%UTS 46%Charles Sturt 44%Macquarie 42.1%Newcastle 41%Wollongong 39.8%UNSW 35.2%Sydney 35%SOURCE: NSW AUDITOR-GENERAL

Beale has spring in his step with burden of charge off his shoulders

WALLABIES fullback Kurtley Beale has thanked coaches and teammates for their unwavering support as he coped with the pressure of an assault charge, for which he was found not guilty yesterday.With the pathway for his fledgling Test career now re-opened after yesterday’s verdict, Beale was in good humour last night as he arrived at Sydney airport for his flight to Perth, where he will rejoin the Wallabies in camp. He had left Mt Druitt Local Court six hours earlier after being found not guilty of assault.Beale, 21, was charged with assaulting his 17-year-old female cousin at a family party at Tregear on July 18 last year. It was alleged he put her in a headlock and punched her four times in the head. Beale pleaded not guilty to one count of common assault.Yesterday he was found not guilty by magistrate Glenn Bartley, who said he relied on the credible evidence of Beale’s stepfather Bob Smith. Smith said he did not see Beale approach his cousin. She had not been injured and had drunk beer and half a bottle of bourbon that night, the court heard.A smiling Beale last night told the Herald of the past few days. He played his second Test for the Wallabies, against Fiji on Saturday night in Canberra, and faced court yesterday before flying to Perth.”It’s all very quick,” he said. ”Everything has been happening so fast. It’s been busy with the court. Now I’m just focusing [on the Wallabies]. I’m very excited. I just have to get through this flight. I’m very excited to get back to camp.”Asked how he made it through the season with the case hanging over his head, Beale replied: “Throughout the campaign – the Super 14 and leading into the first game of the Test season – my focus has been on footy. While I have been around with the boys, they have helped me a lot. The coaching staff have helped me as well, by sticking by my side and encouraging me to do well leading up to every game.”Beale paid tribute to Waratahs teammate Drew Mitchell, who was his roommate during the Super 14 and with whom he and winger Lachie Turner formed a formidable back three for NSW in the second half of the season. “There was Drew Mitchell and the senior players,” he said. ”And with my family, we stuck as a tight unit … we knew the result would be in my favour.”Earlier, outside the court after his hearing, Beale said he was “very relieved that it’s all over now. I’ve always said that I was not guilty from the start.”Beale is relishing the prospect of playing England. He will get his first chance in Perth tonight as a bench player for the Australian Barbarians, who will play England in their first tour match in Australia, and possibly in the first Test there on Saturday.”England are a great side. They are a big force in rugby union,” Beale said. ”With selection for the Test [on the line] … fingers crossed. I just hope I play well [tonight] and then train hard and like everyone, put my hand up and if selected [for the Test] be ready.”Wallabies coach Robbie Deans and Waratahs coach Chris Hickey believe that with the court case behind Beale, the best would now come from the fullback who earned his first Test cap after coming off the bench against Wales during last year’s Wallabies spring tour.”He’s been pretty good, he’s a very positive sort of bloke,” Deans said. ”But it’s also a bit of a cloud over you. He’s a young man. It’s not the sort of thing you want hanging over you … I’ve got no doubt he’ll be a lot more buoyant now and a lot wiser for the experience.”

A time to forget politics, and remember a fallen hero

HER voice breaking, the young fiancee of the fallen soldier Jacob ”Snowy” Moerland tearfully read a love letter he had written to her from Afghanistan.At a time she should have been preparing for their November wedding, Kezia Mulcahy joined 2500 mourners to farewell her 21-year-old fiance at a moving ceremony in Gayndah, Sapper Moerland’s tight-knit home town in rural Queensland.”To my angel … a voice I hope to wake up to every morning till the end of time. You are everything to me, my one and only,” Ms Mulcahy read.”Nothing could make me happier but to call you my wife.”My heart and soul is yours.”Sapper Moerland was killed by a bomb blast on his first tour of Afghanistan on June 7.Family, friends and locals filled the Gayndah town hall to capacity, with 500 inside and about 2000 outside.His father, Rob, described a larrikin with big blue eyes whom he taught to fish and chop wood. ”I’m struck by everyone who’s here, showing respect to our son,” he said.”Bringing Jacob up … Sandy and I did good … I will miss you, mate. I couldn’t be prouder.”Eight members of the young soldier’s unit carried his coffin out of the town hall.Local war veterans formed a guard of honour before his mother Sandra was handed mementoes of her son’s short life – his slouch hat, a maroon cushion with his four war medals and the Australian flag that had been draped over his coffin. In a statement released before the funeral, she said: ”Jacob is now home and he can rest in peace. We will never forget his sacrifice.”The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, attended the funeral. Another Brisbane-based combat engineer, Darren Smith, also died in the blast. His funeral will be held in Brisbane tomorrow.AAP

New asbestos fear at schools

A LEADING asbestos auditor has identified further problems with the schools asbestos register, claiming it can be misinterpreted because of its complexity.About 70 per cent of NSW public schools contain asbestos, which is recorded on the Department of Education’s asbestos register.The register’s accuracy was challenged last week after the potentially toxic substance was discovered at a Wollongong school in an area where it had previously been undetected.Andrew Mantle, of Asbestos Audits, Reports and Management Services, said that school staff often struggled to understand the register.”They often require multiple referencing to different tables within the report. This is extremely complicated and therefore is often missed or wrongly interpreted,” he said. ”The report system needs to change, so everyone has a thorough … understanding of where the asbestos is.”And private schools have no central asbestos register, posing a potential risk to staff and students. ”This is not simply a state school issue,” Mr Mantle said. ”We have completed audits for some of the most prestigious schools … They, too, had serious and urgent issues. Most alarmingly, they had no register in place.”An Association of Independent Schools of NSW spokesman confirmed there was no central register but said that individual schools would have asbestos management plans.”Independent schools are left to their own devices as long as they are meeting all the standards and requirements set by the Government and the Board of Studies,” he said.”Under those requirements they are obliged to provide a safe and secure environment for students and staff, and minimising the risk of asbestos would be part of that.”Materials containing asbestos are harmless if undisturbed but become dangerous once broken up.The NSW Department of Education maintains children and staff are not at risk of asbestos exposure in schools. ”The safety of its students and staff is the Department of Education and Training’s top priority,” a spokesman said.However, the P&C committee at Baulkham Hills North Public School said the department had been slow to act to deal with asbestos in a staff car park.P&C president Craig Turner said the school had warned the department about the problem a year ago. ”We are very concerned …,” Mr Turner said. ”Little bits of asbestos come up all the time. The department has looked at it but it hasn’t been rectified. The school community doesn’t have a lot of faith in the way the department is handling this.”The department’s spokesman said the asbestos in the car park did not pose a threat because it was firmly bound in fibrous cement, commonly known as fibro.”Fibro fragments have been removed from the car park … on three occasions,” he said. ”A hygienist report is being prepared and will recommend remediation works be … completed by the end of the year. The site will continue to be monitored to ensure it is safe until the remediation works are carried out.”

Jones leaves Cup after health scare

Heading home … Socceroos goalkeeper Brad Jones.JOHANNESBURG: FIFA has granted the Australian team dispensation on humanitarian grounds to replace reserve keeper Brad Jones. Jones has left the team’s training camp in South Africa for London due to a health issue involving a family member.

While Australian officials declined to elaborate on the exact details of his situation, it is understood Jones’s young son is seriously ill.

Under normal circumstances no player can be replaced in the 23-man World Cup squad other than for medical reasons but FIFA has relented on this occasion.

Jones is Australia’s third-choice keeper and, while he was unlikely to figure in the tournament, coach Pim Verbeek did not want to leave himself shorthanded.

At this stage, Jones has not officially withdrawn from the World Cup but FIFA has given him the option to make that decision after discussions with his family.

Verbeek said the 28-year-old West Australian would be given time to make up his mind whether to compete or officially withdraw before any final decision was made to ask for a replacement.

“We expect him not to come back – that says enough about the seriousness of the matter,” Verbeek said.

“The FFA is in contact with FIFA … at this stage we cannot 100 per cent say Brad is not coming back.

“We have decided he needs to be with (his family), as long as he needs to be there.

“It is a very serious matter and we wish him strength and luck and everything that is necessary for him to be with his family and support his family.”

Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill said the close-knit squad had been deeply affected by Jones’s news – relayed to the players before their 3-1 friendly defeat by the United States on Saturday.

“We consider ourselves a family, and the news we heard … it was devastating. It hit all the boys for six,” Neill said.

“We wish Brad and his family all the strength and the luck they’re going to need.

“I’m sure the character that he is, he’ll be big and strong for his family. He has our support.”

If Jones withdraws, he will be replaced by Adelaide United keeper Eugene Galekovic, who is in South Africa as back-up.

Galekovic was regarded by many as unfortunate not to have been in the official squad after starring for the Reds in the Asian Champions League, and is a worthy replacement.

Feelings within the Socceroos squad about Jones’s personal drama were evident when they scored the goal against the US in Saturday night’s warm-up match at Roodepoort. Tim Cahill and Luke Wilkshire both paid tribute to Jones after Cahill’s first half goal.

Meanwhile, team officials have sought to alleviate any concerns over Cahill, who was forced to leave the field at half-time in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the USA after injuring his neck.

”Scans have cleared him of any serious injuries,” an FFA spokesman said yesterday. Staff will continue to monitor him.

– with AAP

Biggest swing in history

LABOR will be clobbered by voters at the Penrith byelection, with secret ALP polling obtained by The Sun-Herald indicating Premier Kristina Keneally will preside over the greatest-ever swing against a NSW government.In an ominous sign for the scandal-plagued state government before an election in March, internal party polling predicts a massive two-party preferred swing of 27 percentage points against the government in Penrith on June 19.The slaughter is set to be worse than the previous greatest swing in NSW, when John Watkins’s former seat of Ryde returned to the Liberals last year with a 23-point two-party-preferred swing.On a two-party preferred basis, Labor is on track to claim just 32 per cent of the vote, with 68 per cent for the Liberals representing a stunning turnaround from the 2007 election when disgraced former MP Karyn Paluzzano won for Labor with 59 per cent of the vote.The results of the polling have left ALP strategists reeling and senior government figures clutching for reasons why things cannot get any worse for the ageing Labor administration 10 months out from an election.The polling, conducted by UMR Research early last week, came just days after Transport and Roads Minister David Campbell quit after he was caught leaving a sex club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.It also coincided with revelations that motorists, particularly in car-reliant areas such as Penrith and the lower Blue Mountains, will endure decades of gridlock because state government bungling has made building roads such as the M4 East financially unviable.But the bulk of the damage to brand Labor in Penrith appears to have been done by Ms Paluzzano, who quit this month after she was exposed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption as a liar and a parliamentary expenses fiddler.According to the ALP polling, 73 per cent of voters who intend to switch their vote from Labor to another party or candidate cited her behaviour as a factor.Fifty-two per cent of voters who planned to abandon Labor said the Paluzzano saga was ”very important” to their decision.A further 21 per cent said it was ”somewhat important”.Of the 350 voters interviewed by UMR, 55 per cent intend to vote for Liberal candidate Stuart Ayres, a big turnaround from the 2007 election, when 33 per cent of the primary vote went to the Liberals.The Labor primary vote is predicted to wilt from 49 per cent to just 27 per cent.ALP head office in Sussex Street is shaken by the size of the predicted swing because, despite a three-year hiatus, Labor has held the seat of Penrith since 1973.Senior Liberal sources said the results of their party’s polling would not be known until next week.The Liberal Party, under leader Barry O’Farrell, is likely to keep its figures close to its chest. The party is desperate not to let Labor grab the mantle of underdog and allow Ms Keneally to claim a better-than-feared defeat as a victory.Mr O’Farrell was on the campaign trail in Penrith with Mr Ayres again yesterday but Ms Keneally has been largely absent, leaving Labor candidate John Thain to do his best on his own.Labor strategists do not want Ms Keneally, its last genuine electoral asset, to be associated with defeat in Penrith.Ms Keneally would not comment on the polling yesterday but has previously warned her supporters to expect a swing in the order of 20 per cent.A senior ALP source said: ”The Labor Party is under no illusion about the difficulty of winning the seat of Penrith.”