SOS for team of new spin doctors

THE Keneally government has broken its own moratorium on hiring staff, with plans to recruit a team of spin doctors to join the overworked office of the Premier and her strife-torn cabinet.The government had pledged to only replace frontline public servants but yesterday placed ads for vacancies in ”a number of state ministers’ offices”.The ads call for policy and media advisers to assist ministers and their chief of staff. Salaries are negotiable.A June 2009 memo by former premier Nathan Rees said a jobs freeze applied to ”filling of all non-frontline jobs”.A spokesman for the Premier said the jobs offered yesterday were considered temporary positions and were therefore outside the scope of the jobs freeze.He denied the roles were considered temporary because the state government faced an election walloping, according to the latest opinion polls.There has been an ongoing shake-up of media advisers, with Phil McCall and Lee Davelaar punted recently from the Premier’s office to other ministers.Andrew Stoner, deputy leader of the opposition, said the hiring plans were another example of the Keneally government’s dedication to spin over substance.”This shows Kristina Keneally’s spin focus – three ministers gone in three weeks and she still wants to hire more spin doctors. Surely the people of NSW have stopped listening,” he said.”The state budget is in disarray because the government can’t control expenditure.”Recent data shows that the government has failed to contain wage growth across the public sector. Its total wage bill jumped 4.3 per cent last year.It’s not the first time the government has been accused of handing out jobs against policy. In November it advertised for jobs worth $2 million a year for the Sydney Metro Authority. The metro was abandoned at an estimated cost of $400 million.The Public Service Association last week estimated that NSW would need more than 100,000 public servants by 2030 as a result of job freezes imposed over the past decade.

Ad rules give false idea of integrity, says auditor

THE federal Auditor-General has challenged the reasons given for his removal as the scrutineer of taxpayer-funded advertising as it emerged he was never given the chance to argue his case.Ian McPhee also slammed the guidelines governing taxpayer-funded advertising as a softening of standards.”[It] gives additional latitude to a government in mounting a campaign,” he said. He would not be happy administering the guidelines, he said. ”I do not want my role associated with guidelines that give the impression of integrity and strength but in reality don’t have it.”Mr McPhee levelled his charges yesterday as Allan Hawke, who recommended his removal and then took over the advertising vetting role, admitted he had erred by not consulting Mr McPhee.”In retrospect I might have got that wrong,” he said.Mr McPhee and Dr Hawke appeared separately yesterday before Parliament’s joint public accounts and audit committee.The inquiry was convened after the government bypassed its own guidelines to rush out a $38 million taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to support its resources super profits tax.Until March the Auditor-General vetted government advertising to ensure it was non-political. After a review by Dr Hawke, the Auditor-General’s vetting role was given to a three-member panel led by Dr Hawke.Dr Hawke, a former senior public servant who is paid $175,000 a year for the part-time role of scrutinising ads, said that when preparing his report for the government, he had ”no inclination I would end up chairing the committee”.His report recommended the Auditor-General be replaced because his involvement undermined the accountability of departmental secretaries in managing their departments. He found ”the Auditor-General is placed in an invidious position whereby he can countermand cabinet’s decision”.At the time of the report, the opposition agreed with the findings and supported the government’s decision to replace the Auditor-General.But Liberal members of the parliamentary committee were critical yesterday as they grilled Mr McPhee and Dr Hawke.Mr McPhee said while there were ”risks” for his office in vetting the commercials, he disputed the reasons Dr Hawke gave. He said Dr Hawke had never consulted him with these concerns during the preparation of the report.Challenged by the Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, Dr Hawke admitted he had erred. ”I didn’t do it. I didn’t feel the need to. I had come to my conclusions.”However, Dr Hawke said he told the Special Minister of State, Joe Ludwig, what his findings would be before the report was finished. Senator Ludwig administers the guidelines and exempted the mining commercials.It was revealed last night Senator Ludwig kept the exemption secret from his own department until the conclusion of Senate estimates hearings last month.

Sir Lunchalot smiles again

IN THE fortnight that followed Ross Turnbull’s dismissal as NRMA president, he made a point of dressing in his best suit and walking through Martin Place to show his friends – and foes – he wasn’t beaten.The man dubbed Sir Lunchalot, who dined in European castles and mixed with the aristocracy, now distributes food to Sydney’s homeless, who once counted him among their number.The downfall of the former Wallaby was one of the most humiliating in corporate history. He was sacked as NRMA president, dismissed from the board, accused of rorting his corporate credit card, declared bankrupt after amassing debts of more than $1 million, and forced to live in a charity hostel for the homeless.The final indignity came when it was revealed a washbag containing Viagra was impounded when he ran up debts at a Sydney hotel. And yet Mr Turnbull is still smiling, adamant he has become a stronger man.”I never thought ‘woe is me’. Never,” he said. ”I tell anyone who thinks they’re a victim to get out of it. Keep moving. Don’t lie down. People who are negative and act like victims I remove from my sphere. My advice is hang in.”His fall came in 2005 when the NRMA sacked him over ”his failure to follow agreed procedures over several months”. His huge credit card debts were a major factor.Today he is adamant he paid for backing the NRMA patrol staff in their enterprise bargaining dispute.”Fundamentally I did the wrong thing and I have no one to blame but myself,” he said. ”The NRMA took on the patrolmen and I was bound by corporate governance to follow the board. It was what the majority wanted. But the patrolmen? I couldn’t do it. They get our wives home, get our kids home safely when their cars breaks down.”To my knowledge there’d never been a complaint made against a patrolman for improper behaviour in its 85-year history.”I created enemies and I paid the consequences but I’d do it again. It would’ve been better for me personally if I didn’t but I had to be able to live with myself.”Mr Turnbull said he soon learnt who his friends were. ”The rugby people looked me in the eye, the politicians did but some businessmen couldn’t,” he said.”I don’t say this to be boastful but it gave me strength because I realised it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about me – it’s what I think about me that counts.”When he realised the end of his NRMA reign was near, Mr Turnbull went to a Circular Quay pub for a drink to work out his next step.”I realised drinking was not going to solve anything so I decided to go to Paris and think,” he said. ”I had millions of [frequent flyer] points but not much money. I flew to Paris for a week and walked for hours every day, just thinking.”Today the front-rower who went on to play a Test for Australia recalls his attitude to being dropped from his club’s rugby team in Newcastle in the 1960s put him in the right frame to keep moving.”After I was dropped I told the captain, ‘Don’t worry I’ll be dropped from better teams than this’ – and I was,” he laughed.He remembers the kindness of strangers and friends. Jeff Gambin from Just Enough Faith stood by him. A police sergeant saved him from further embarrassment during a fare evasion blitz.”I bought the ticket but lost it,” he said. ”I was told by the ticket collector to go to this big sergeant and he looked at me and said I looked like I had a ‘famous’ face. I could picture the headlines but he said, ‘Go, mate.’ All I could say to him was he was a good man.”Details of his financial affairs made daily fodder in the media as, among others, hotel managers, cafe owners, a wine storage company and limousine company lined up to say he owed them money.”I want to pay back the money I [still] owe [people],” he said.”The [NRMA] credit card business was a lot of fluff. I paid it [back], no one lost any money. That was an issue the media blew up because if I’d done anything wrong I would’ve been thrown out of there [immediately].”As for driving chauffeured limousines? ”How do businessmen get around? Froth and bubble.”

Angels to the rescue when fishers’ lives on the rocks

RECREATIONAL fishers have welcomed government measures to improve safety for rock fishermen at the same time as a partial ban on fishing on harbour wharves has been declared.After 15 rock fishing deaths in NSW in the past year, $90,000 will be spent installing 40 ”angel rings” or life buoys and multilingual safety signs at popular fishing spots.Several will be installed at black spots in the Royal National Park and Sutherland Shire, which ranks as the state’s third highest local government area for rock fishing fatalities, a spokesman for the Minister for Primary Industries, Steve Whan, said.Each device costs almost $2000 to install, and about half will be GPS-enabled at a cost of an extra $500 each. The rings issue an electronic warning if the device is tampered with, stolen or used in a rescue. The signs will be in English, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. A safety education program will also run in ethnic media.The spokesman said the installation of more life buoys was not tacit encouragement of rock fishing, but a practical measure to improve safety in tandem with education campaigns. There are 108 angel rings along the coast.Meanwhile, the Minister for Ports and Waterways, Paul McLeay, and Drummoyne MP Angela D’Amore announced yesterday a partial ban on fishing from four harbour wharves where there has been conflict between fishers and commuters.Fishing is now banned at Abbotsford, Cabarita, Chiswick and Kissing Point wharves at peak commuter times between 5am and 10am, and to enable access for cleaning.The chairman of the NSW Recreational Fishing Alliance, Malcolm Poole, said the ban was a workable compromise between the interests of fishers, commuters and others.”It could have been all 49 harbour wharves where that ban was applied, but … we negotiated back to that position,” he said. ”This is a trial to see how we can get co-operation going and to try to encourage fishers to do the right thing, or there’s every chance they could lose [the right to fish from the wharves].”The ban is backed by a $250 fine, enforceable by police and NSW Maritime officials.The mayor of Canada Bay, Angelo Tsirekas, said he had hoped for a total fishing ban on the ferry wharves.”I’ve certainly got some doubts whether it’s going to totally solve the problem but this initial step is, I suppose, a start,” Cr Tsirekas said.”My concern is that the impact of these restrictions won’t totally rid the wharves of the problems of the antisocial behaviour, and the problems that fishermen are leaving for commuters.”

Parental rebuke – Jesus Christ struck by the lightning hand of God

IT APPEARS God has sacrificed his only son. Again.A bolt struck a 19-metre high statue of Jesus Christ this week outside a church in Monroe, Ohio, and the statue erupted in flames. All that remains is a charred steel skeleton, its arms stretched towards heaven, a gesture that once earned it the nickname ”Touchdown Jesus”.Darlene Bishop, a co-pastor of Solid Rock Church, said she was relieved the lightning hit Jesus on Monday and not the home for at-risk women next door. ”I told them, ‘It looks like Jesus took a hit for you last night.’ ”Act of God? Act of nature?In 2008, lightning singed the fingers and eyebrows of Christ the Redeemer, the 40-metre Jesus statue that stands over Rio de Janeiro. In 2007, a bolt blasted the 10-metre Jesus statue at Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado and one of Jesus’ arms fell off.The saints and angels are not safe either. The Virgin Mary on the dome of Notre Dame de Chicago burst into flames in 1978. A bolt that struck St Joan of Arc’s statue in New Orleans sliced her staff in half. Statues of the Angel Moroni, common atop Mormon churches, are hit by lightning with such frequency – Moroni’s horn is particularly susceptible – that The Salt Lake Tribune once fretted over their safety in a front-page story.(Side note: the actor James Caviezel was struck by lightning in 2003 while filming Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He was playing Jesus.)Ancient Romans equated lightning strikes on statues with other bad omens such as chickens beginning to talk and blood raining from the sky.To find some modern-day meaning in Touchdown Jesus, we turned to the evangelist Pat Robertson, who has divined meaning from Hurricane Katrina (abortionists) and the Haitian earthquake ( pact with devil). He declined to interpret the significance of the strike.So we turned to science. John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist for the US National Weather Service, said religious structures, especially steeples, were often zapped because they were the highest point in an area.The same goes for towering secular symbols. A spokesman for the Statue of Liberty, Darren Boch, said: ”Oh, she’s hit by lightning on a continual basis.” Asked if such strikes might represent a malevolent act of God towards America, Mr Boch said: ”I can clearly state that no one here deems it an act of God.”As for the incineration of Touchdown Jesus, Pastor Bishop isn’t reading any significance into it. ”Honey,” she said, ”it’s just some fibreglass.”The Washington Post

BP fumes at Obama’s reparation demands

WASHINGTON: Barack Obama was to come face-to-face with BP executives for the first time just hours after describing their company’s actions in the Gulf of Mexico as ”reckless”.At the core of their discussions was to be a multibillion-dollar compensation fund proposed by the White House to finance the clean-up of the Gulf coast along with restoration of the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and small-business owners.BP is said to have bridled at the size of its expected contribution to the fund and at Mr Obama’s insistence it be managed by an independent trustee.But BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, and its chief executive, Tony Hayward, were likely to get short shrift from the President at their meeting, scheduled to start yesterday.The President told Americans in a prime-time television address on Tuesday he would not rest until BP paid for the damage to lives, businesses and shorelines. He warned, however, that it would takes years to set things right.”But make no mistake: we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.”Invited by the media to ”get angry” during the eight-week crisis, and chided by political opponents as having been slow to grasp the enormity of the brewing environmental and economic catastrophe, Mr Obama used the address to spruik his administration’s efforts so far.While it revealed little new, he also took the opportunity to call on Americans to end their addiction to fossil fuels and to help hasten the country’s transformation to renewable clean energy. Noting that the US, with just 2 per cent of the global population, consumed 20 per cent of the world’s oil, Mr Obama said: ”The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean-energy future is now.”Mr Obama’s 18-minute address was the first he has delivered from the Oval Office in his 17-month presidency, and the first such address to mention energy since Jimmy Carter’s pledge in 1979 to end America’s dependence on foreign oil.Though the speech is likely to have soothed some anxieties, the President was unable to tell Americans what they have been anxiously awaiting: exactly when the leak will be stopped.Mr Obama said he expected BP would be able to capture around 90 per cent of the oil flow ”’in the coming weeks and days”, before a relief well was completed some time in August.Earlier, the government increased for the fifth time its estimate of the oil flow to as much as 60,000 barrels a day.In the early stages of the leak, in late April, BP suggested oil was gushing at just 1000 barrels a day.A statement issued by BP said: ”We share the President’s goal of shutting off the well as quickly as possible. We look forward to meeting with President Obama for a constructive discussion.”Some members of Congress have insisted that BP should inject $US20 billion ($23 billion) into a compensation fund.A BP America executive, Lamar McKay, told a House of Representatives committee hearing on Tuesday the issue remained unresolved.”We’re going to pay all legitimate claims [but] a decision on whether to do a trust fund or account hasn’t been made yet.”Mr Obama said he would tell BP’s chairman he must set aside ”whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness … This fund will not be controlled by BP.”

Consumers lambs to slaughter as wider drought lifts prices

AN INCREASE in drought across the state and a record price paid for lamb this week has fuelled concern that some food prices could rise.Rainfall across most of the state over the past six months has helped farmers, and conditions for pastures and winter crops are the best in two decades.However, drought figures to be released today reveal almost half the state remains on the brink of drought, with the area already in drought creeping up by 4.5 per cent last month to 13.9 per cent.Even before winter, the price of lamb had already eclipsed the highs seen last July, when prices usually rise. Beef prices have increased over the past few months and are also tipped to rise due to winter shortages.The Minister for Primary Industries, Steve Whan, said lamb was already too expensive for many families to buy.”This week a new lamb price record was set for NSW, with a pen of lambs at Forbes selling for $193 per head. There’s no doubt this spike in price is due to limited supply,” he said.”This is good news for our farmers who have been battling drought, but in the end the cost will be passed on to consumers at their butcher’s shop.”The sheepmeat industry leader for Industry and Investment NSW, Ashley White said the drought increased production costs. ”The prices of lamb have been $5.50 to $6 a kilo, carcass weight – prices used to be $3 to $3.50,” he said.”It was 1916 since our sheep numbers were this low and that’s been mainly drought-related so people have been cutting back their breeding ewe numbers, but on top of that export and domestic demand has been good and stayed the same.”Mr White said farmers were faced with a catch-22 decision: whether to sell female lambs and get high prices or keep them as breeders for the coming seasons.”Financially they have done it really hard ever since 2002, but this season is shaping up better.”Crop planting began after the rains in May. Most of the state’s canola crop and 70 per cent of the wheat crop are now planted, but stock farmers still had concerns, Mr Whan said.”Stock water remains an issue for many farmers, particularly in southern regions where there is still great variability in both water supplies and pasture condition,” he said. “Pastures remain poor in most southern areas and the northern tablelands and growth is expected to stall now that cooler conditions have set in.”The president of the NSW Farmers Association, Charlie Armstrong, said that while 87 per cent of the state was not in drought, farmers had to contend with locust plagues and small returns on crops already planted.”Certainly over a period of time and if we divert into a greater proportion of drought that does mean food prices go up,” he said.”We’re being cautious because the figure for marginal [drought] was about 50 per cent and that says you’re on a knife-edge. It doesn’t take very much lack of rain to tip people back into drought.”

From hunting elk to bagging bin Laden

ISLAMABAD: The US has spent nine years and billions of dollars trying to hunt down Osama bin Laden amid the rugged, lawless badlands along the Pakistani-Afghan border.But, according to Pakistani officials and his own family, Gary Brooks Faulkner of Denver, Colorado, thought he could get the job done himself, with a pistol, a dagger and night-vision goggles.Mr Faulkner talked with family members about his quest, and at Denver International Airport on May 30, he was asked what his family should do if he came back from Pakistan in a body bag.Mr Faulkner, 50, and his younger brother, Scott, discussed Gary’s desires for cremation.Scott snapped a farewell picture on his BlackBerry. Then Gary, a construction worker with failing kidneys, boarded a plane for Pakistan.On Tuesday, Pakistani police said they had arrested Mr Faulkner in a remote, mountainous region near the Afghan border. ”He’s not insane,” Scott told reporters in Denver on Tuesday. ”He’s just very passionate.”Since the September 11 attacks, Scott said, his brother – a devout Christian with no military training – has taken at least six trips to Pakistan to find bin Laden.”After Osama mocked this country on 9/11 and it seemed that the military wasn’t doing enough, it became his passion -his mission – to track down Osama and kill him or bring him back alive,” Scott Faulkner said. A physician, Scott described his brother, who is divorced with one adult son, as charming, chatty and in fine mental health.Pakistani police quoted Gary Faulkner as telling them he was ”on a mission to decapitate bin Laden”. He had been staying at a hotel in the town of Bumburate in Chitral since June 3. Local police were providing security for him, not uncommon in border regions where kidnappings and killings of foreigners have occurred.But on Sunday, he sneaked out of the hotel.After a 10-hour manhunt, he was picked up on a mountain path as he was trying to make his way into Nuristan, an eastern Afghanistan province that abuts Chitral, according to Pakistani officials. He was moved to the city of Peshawar for questioning, they said.It is one of the areas where bin Laden is rumoured to be holed up. Scott Faulkner said his brother had developed intelligence from sources he would not reveal that bin Laden may be on a specific mountain honeycombed with caves and rocky hiding spots. Gary Faulkner had seen armed men with two-way radios patrolling the area and wanted another look.An avid outdoorsman and hunter raised north of Denver, Gary Faulkner had learnt how to live off the land in the mountains of Colorado. He thought, Scott Faulkner said, that his hunting skills would help him track down bin Laden.During his initial trips he ran into mercenaries hoping to collect the $US25 million ($29 million) bounty the US has placed on the al-Qaeda leader’s head. But in recent trips it seemed no one was looking any more.The journeys were risky, though Gary always secured Pakistani visas and was in the country legally, Scott Faulkner said. One time, the Taliban discovered the hotel where his brother was staying and shot the guard there ”between the eyes”.Gary Faulkner fled. Scott wired him money and the US embassy helped get him out of the country.”The first couple of times, it was a shock to the family,” Scott Faulkner said of his brother’s travels. ”We don’t go to Pakistan looking for mass murderers.”The family grew to accept Gary’s obsession and decided it was in character for a man who spent years in Central America, repairing hurricane damage and building churches, or who would vanish for days on a hunting trip and abruptly bring back an elk.Colorado media reported that Gary was convicted of burglary and larceny charges in the 1980s, but his brother would not answer questions on that issue.Last year, Gary Faulkner was diagnosed with a severe kidney ailment and placed on dialysis. He was unable to continue his construction work, which had financed his previous travels to Pakistan. He moved into an apartment in a building owned by Scott, who thought his brother’s hunt for bin Laden was over.However, Gary Faulkner sold his construction equipment and bought a return ticket to Islamabad, leaving on May 30 and due to return Monday.A spokesman for the US embassy, Richard Snelsire, said the embassy had been notified of the arrest of a US citizen, and was working on arranging a consular visit with that individual. Mr Snelsire declined further comment. Scott Faulkner said he was in touch with the State Department, which he believed was working to secure his brother’s release.Gary Faulkner had called Scott last week to report he had received dialysis in southern Pakistan and planned to return north to resume his search.”Gary is a Christian,” Scott Faulkner said. ”He understands that, if he dies, I will see him again in heaven. A lot of people live in fear. My brother does not have that fear.”Los Angeles Times

Bullying played part in suicide of Alex, 14: coroner

Alex Wildman … took his own life.Bullying by fellow students played a ”significant” role in a 14-year-old boy’s decision to take his own life, a NSW coroner has found.

Alex Wildman was found dead by his mother, Justine Kelly, in the garage of the Lismore family home early on Friday morning July 25 in 2008.

Today, the deputy state coroner Malcolm MacPherson found that the NSW Department of Education’s policies to protect students from bullying had ”failed” in Alex’s case.

”The question is why did the system fail Alex?” Mr MacPherson said at Glebe Coroner’s Court.

He detailed the months of verbal and physical bullying to which the Year 9 boy was subjected in the lead up to his death, including an assault on Kadina High School grounds two days prior.

There were also online threats and ”hurtful and spiteful” taunts from fellow students.

Alex was called ”mono nut”, ”gay”, a ”dickhead” and a ”faggot”.

”On 23 July 2008, in front of a large number of other students, [two students whose names cannot be published for legal reasons] assaulted Alex at Kadina by grabbing his hair and hitting him in the face and head,” Mr MacPherson said.

”Two days later Alex was dead.”

The Coroner made nine recommendations, including that public schools with 500 or more students employ a full-time counsellor and that a dedicated email address, text message and/or chatroom accounts be established for all schools where students and parents can report bullying.

He also recommended compulsory meetings of school executives take place when students who have previously seen a school counsellor transfer to another school.

Mr MacPherson said the department should revise its anti-bullying policies to make it clear when police should be called to deal with physical assaults, threats and intimidation.

He said the Police Force should consider employing more school liaison officers.

After the findings were handed down, Alex’s mother and his stepfather Bill Kelly, who were at the court, asked the media to respect their privacy.

Those seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 131114 or SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263).

If he’d had a gun he would have shot to kill, say police

A man accused of committing a violent rampage through western Sydney says he would have killed people if he had been carrying a gun, police allege.

Charlie McGee, 24, has been charged with 27 offences including four counts of attempted murder, for an alleged crime spree that began at 2pm at Lalor Park.

It ended about an hour and a half later in Doonside following a police pursuit during which a car driven by McGee allegedly hit two schoolgirls.

During that time, McGee is accused also injuring three men while attempting to steal their cars including attacking one man with a hammer.

He allegedly asked another of his male victims to look under the front of car for damage before driving directly at him.

McGee did not appear before Blacktown Local Court today but the magistrate was told McGee was displaying psychotic symptoms.

In police documents tendered before the court, it is alleged when interviewed by officers McGee showed no remorse for his actions.

He is also alleged to have made repeated comments that “if he was in possession of a firearm he would have killed multiple persons during his rampage”.

McGee is accused of stealing two cars – a white Toyota ute and a Toyota Paseo – during the crime spree, while attempting to carjack three others.

He is alleged to have beaten the owner of the ute, Jamal Yassin, with a hammer he had also stolen.

He is accused of then attempting to steal four other cars without success before threatening to kill a woman if she did not give him the keys to her Paseo outside a McDonalds.

McGee was allegedly driving the Paseo when he was spotted by police and told officers he drove the car at the two schoolgirls hoping it would prompt the officers to stop.

He crashed into a nearby ditch filled with workmen a short time later and allegedly put up a struggle when officers tried to arrest him.

The Blacktown Local Area Commander, Superintendent Mark Wright, told the media that there was no motive for the alleged crime spree at this stage.

“It was a fairly random attack,” he said.

McGee did not apply for bail and is due to appear at Penrith Local Court on August 13.