Nauru asylum seekers on hunger strike, advocates claim

The asylum seeker processing facility in Nauru.MOST of the 381 asylum seekers on Nauru are on a one-day hunger strike, with protesters calling on the government to close the camp and begin processing their claims immediately, according to refugee advocates.

The Department of Immigration rejects the claim that most asylum seekers on the island are taking part in a hunger strike. It considers people to have gone on hunger strike if they are observed to be missing three consecutive meals.

But Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told The Saturday Age he had spoken with three asylum seekers via Skype, all of whom said the hunger strike had begun.

The hunger strike coincided with Angam Day, a public holiday held to commemorate Nauru’s population rising above 1500 – the lowest considered sustainable for a population to survive – in 1949.

A Nauruan government spokesman said he was unable to confirm the reports because of the public holiday, but the Immigration Department said it was aware of only one person taking part in a hunger strike. Advocates believe that man has been refusing to eat for about two weeks. Another man was taken to the camp’s clinic on Thursday night after falling ill.

Meanwhile, the Nauru government says a deal was struck to charge Australia $1000 a month in visa fees for each asylum seeker detained on the island months ago.

The ABC revealed yesterday that visas for asylum seekers would be charged under a new category, Australian regional processing visas, which will cost $3000 a quarter for each asylum seeker. If the camp reaches its 1500-person capacity, the scheme would cost $90 million over five years.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said it was ”reasonable” that people transferred to Nauru held valid visas. ”No costs have been paid at this stage,” he said. ”The visa charges are the subject of discussions between Australia and Nauru, so it would not be appropriate to comment further. These ongoing costs are factored into the operating budget for Nauru.”

But a spokesman for the Nauru government said the matter had already been resolved.

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Swan’s switch left Rudd feeling betrayed, book says

Maxine McKew holds Wayne Swan squarely responsible for mishandling the mining tax.THE night before he turned against his prime minister, Wayne Swan went to Kevin Rudd’s office for a drink and congratulated him on defending the new mining tax, a new book reports.

As Julia Gillard’s challenge unfolded the next day, the man Mr Rudd had appointed Treasurer did not tell him he was abandoning him.

”In the case of Wayne, I did not even receive a telephone call advising me he had decided to withdraw his support from me and back Julia as replacement prime minister,” Mr Rudd tells the former Labor MP Maxine McKew in her new book. ”I had to telephone him myself.”

Mr Swan was responsible for bungling the introduction of the mining tax and Mr Rudd called in the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, to fix the mess, Ms McKew writes in Tales from the Political Trenches, to be published on Monday.

But while Mr Rudd had defended Mr Swan, the Treasurer did not reciprocate.

”In response to my question on the Wednesday afternoon,” the day of the coup, ”when I asked him ‘What’s happening?’, he replied he would be ‘voting for change’,” Mr Rudd says. ”It was only later that I discovered that an arrangement had been put in place to make him deputy prime minister” in a Gillard government. ”But the core point was this: at no stage did either Julia or Wayne say to me that, unless I undertook change x, y or z, there would be a challenge to my leadership.

”So did I feel let down and indeed betrayed? Well of course.”

But last night a spokesman for Mr Swan said: ”On the basis of the existing reporting of this book, it appears to be too full of errors, misunderstanding and untruths – and far too heavily skewed towards one particular version of events – to be taken seriously as balanced or accurate journalism.”

The Treasurer has more important things to focus on, such as ensuring Australia’s economy remains the strongest performing economy in the advanced world, the spokesman said.

Ms McKew offers a tough verdict on the coup against a first-term prime minister. ”It’s never happened before in our party. It was engineered and executed by a small group of people intent on indulging their own political vanities.”

Ms McKew is referring to the factional lieutenants and union chiefs who led the coup, the so-called ”faceless men”. But she also reports that Ms Gillard was using internal research to undermine Mr Rudd days before the coup as part of a ”conspiracy”.

Ms Gillard has maintained that she refused any part in any plotting and only made up her mind to challenge on the day of the coup.

Mr Rudd has largely been blamed for mishandling the mining tax. The announcement of the tax in its original form in 2010 provoked the big miners BHP Billiton, Rio and Xstrata to fund a vigorous $22 million ad campaign against the tax. It was used within the caucus to argue that Mr Rudd had gone to war with the business community.

But Ms McKew holds Mr Swan squarely responsible. Mr Rudd had wanted to avoid a contentious debate on a mining tax and so had set down key conditions for Mr Swan in setting up the tax. ”Rudd told Swan that he needed to secure the support of at least one of the major industry players and that he needed to have the states on side. Neither would be easy. But as West Australian Premier Colin Barnett has said, Rudd’s ‘jaw just about hit the table’ when Barnett told the PM at a COAG meeting in April 2010 that the tax was a dead duck”.

The big mining firms ”felt blindsided by an uncompromising Treasurer”, Ms McKew writes. ”Swan had not delivered and Rudd had come to believe that he had been sold a pup.”

Mr Rudd asked Mr Ferguson to find a political solution. He believed that one was in sight but the coup ejected Mr Rudd before one could be delivered.

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Labor in row on foreign workers

The draft report has already caused ructions.BATTLE lines are being drawn over a caucus committee report that urges a tougher attitude to bringing in foreign workers for resource projects.

The committee, chaired by Senator Doug Cameron, calls for a ”fundamental reassessment” of what skills are needed and available for the resources sector, given the recent downturn in employment opportunities for Australians in the sector.

”Discussions should take place with the trade union movement in order to develop an agreed formula for access to Enterprise Migration Agreements, 457 visas [to bring in foreign workers] and the operation of regional migration agreements,” the draft says.

The committee was set up after ALP and union concern over the migration deal between the government and Gina Rinehart for workers for the Roy Hill project.

The draft report has already caused ructions. The committee’s deputy chairman, Andrew Leigh, an economist, has resigned from his post because he disagrees with the interventionist recommendations. The Australian Financial Review yesterday reported Labor frontbenchers were claiming that rebel backbenchers were pressuring Prime Minister Julia Gillard to dump enterprise migration agreements and were using the issue to destabilise her leadership.

Senator Cameron, a known Rudd supporter, angrily denied the destabilisation claim, saying it was ”outrageous” that some were viewing the committee’s work through a leadership prism. He said mining companies must have a ”social licence” from the community. At present the economic and social contributions of the resources sector were insufficient to spread the benefits of the boom.

The draft report, due in caucus in late November, calls for the government to sponsor an independent private sector study on Australia’s increased reliance on the mining industry.

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Union agrees to staff working with puffing punters

Backtracked … Mark Boyd, NSW secretary of the Union ‘United Voice’.THE union representing hospitality workers, United Voice, has dropped its opposition to smoking by high rollers in VIP gaming rooms in a deal struck over James Packer’s proposed $1 billion hotel and casino at Barangaroo.

A memorandum of understanding between the union and Mr Packer’s Crown Ltd says smoking by high rollers would be a ”commercial necessity” at the complex, which would target the lucrative Asian gambling market.

The agreement is a radical departure from the union’s position in June, when it accused the NSW government of ”gambling with the health of casino workers” by not supporting an opposition push to ban smoking in the Star casino’s high roller room.

The NSW secretary of United Voice, Mark Boyd, said at the time: “The health standards are clear, there is no safe level for tobacco smoke. That’s why it is barred in every other workplace in NSW and these laws are being extended to open areas.”

He added “the casino says working in these rooms is optional but it is clear that failure to work in these rooms can damage career prospects”.

Asked why the union had changed its position, Mr Boyd said it had looked at workplace practices and air filtering technology at Crown’s casino in Melbourne. ”It’s not that we don’t have a concern any more,” he said. ”It’s that if you get rostering and technology right then it’s less of an issue.”

Under the deal, United Voice will have an office in the complex and union officials will be able to make presentations to employees during induction training.

Mr Boyd said the number of jobs available in the high roller rooms at Barangaroo would be ”a very small percentage” of the overall workforce.

The former federal Liberal leader John Hewson has questioned the NSW government’s handling of the project, which it has agreed to move to the second stage of an approval process.

Mr Packer’s proposal is being assessed under the government’s ”unsolicited proposal” process, which means if cabinet decides to award a second Sydney casino licence it will not go to tender.

”The problem here is that people perceive that Packer’s bulldozed this through,” Dr Hewson told ABC radio. He also criticised Mr Packer’s claim that even if there had been a tender, he would have won.

The Sydney lord mayor, Clover Moore, said she was appalled by the lack of transparency in the process. ”There’s no public consultation and it’s all been done behind closed doors by both the major parties to James Packer,” she said. ”It’s public land. It’s probably one of the most important sites in Australia”.

A Crown spokesman declined to comment.

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Signals from a careful commuter

She’s got the toughest job in the government and she’s famously shy about her private life. For some she’s going to be the next premier, for others she’s the politician with the unpronounceable surname, but for a woman who ought to have the weight of the world on her shoulders Gladys Berejiklian is travelling light.

“I am very customer-focused,” she smiles when asked how the job of fixing Sydney’s transport woes is going.

“If I get presented with a proposal the first thing I ask is: how does it help the customer?”

So far the customers appear to be giving her the benefit of the doubt. But for how long? A year and a half into her ministry, Gladys Berejiklian, member for Willoughby, NSW Minister for Transport, knows public patience can’t last.

But if she is feeling anxious she isn’t showing it.

We talk over a Friday lunch at the New Shanghai restaurant, downstairs in Chatswood Chase. It’s in the middle of her electorate and she knows people everywhere. There is even a baby to admire. The place is as busy as … well a Chinese restaurant in Chatswood and Berejiklian wastes little time on the menu. “I’m starving!” she exclaims and immediately suggests the Rainbow Beef as a specialty of the house. We settle for that with stir-fried green beans and some salty prawns and dumplings. I suggest the eel. She’s not keen but I go ahead anyway and end up being the only person who has a go at it.

We sit close together on stools at a small table that is soon crowded with dishes and chopsticks and her preferred tipple of green tea. As we talk I notice her acknowledge people with a discreet wave of the hand or a smile. Such is the political life.

Up close, Gladys Berejiklian is friendly and warm and knows her ground. She is polite and makes time. She is interested and asks questions, despite glancing at her BlackBerry to remind her she has six meetings in a row after our lunch. It’s a punishing work schedule that begins early and finishes late. It can make a mess of your health but she looks well and says she gets to the gym.

I don’t comment on her clothes but do notice a silver necklace with a name I can’t read. I politely inquire; “It’s my name in Armenian,” she replies with a laugh. “I had a bet in the office that you would never bother asking about it!” I feel suitably chastened.

Berejiklian is well aware that success in the transport portfolio is one of the key measuring sticks by which Barry O’Farrell’s government will be judged.

But what does success mean?

Well for a start she won’t be rushed. “I understand that people want me to announce things but that was what Labor did. Announce things all the time and never do anything. I won’t do that.”

In Victoria, Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal counterpart, Ted Baillieu, has earned the sobriquet “Timid Ted” for his hesitancy on the path to reform. Critics level the same charge against O’Farrell. He’s too cautious; he won’t get on with things.

As Nick Greiner once exasperatedly said to me about O’Farrell, “Look, Barry is Barry.”

Berejiklian bristles at the idea that O’Farrell might go down in history as a do-nothing Premier. “Barry will be remembered very well,” she says firmly. “He is doing a lot behind the scenes and making the decisions that set the solid foundations for the future.”

After 16 years in opposition and with a landslide on his lap it was O’Farrell who last year famously brushed aside an interview request from the ABC’s election-night host, Kerry O’Brien, with the words, “I’m only going to talk to Gladys.”

So if the proverbial political bus rumbles along doesn’t she have the inside running over the Treasurer, Mike Baird, for succession? She has seen this coming and her political discipline kicks in. She doesn’t smile and I get the message.

“Barry is my boss. I don’t agree that I have a more favoured relationship with him than others. He has good relations with all the Cabinet.”

What about leading the party one day?

“I don’t have time to take my eye off the job I have,” she says. “I don’t want to speculate about the future leadership. I am concentrating on getting the best job done that I can.”

For a person who’s been in politics for so long she is strangely reticent about her private self and is especially reserved about the issue of gender in politics.

I ask around these issues until she says, “look I’ve asked you twice, so please …”

But I can’t resist. After all it’s been the week from hell for misogynists. Julia Gillard has given them a pasting in Parliament and all over the world her speech has been tweeted, bookmarked and applauded. So what did Gladys think?

“I haven’t watched it.”

Really? I look at her but she is quite resolved. It seems hard to believe.

I get a sense of how determined she can be.

“I am not comfortable talking about politics through gender. I have always felt that the best thing you could do as a woman was to do the best job possible.”

Yes, but surely she has experienced what many talented women feel, the everyday, commonplace condescension that accompanies the successful woman?

“As far as the Liberal Party is concerned I have never experienced any discrimination,” she replies with a smile.

The daughter of Armenian migrants who fled from Syria and Jerusalem in the wake of the Armenian genocide and arrived separately in the late 1960s, Gladys grew up in the midst of the biggest Armenian community in Sydney, centred on Willoughby. The eldest of three sisters, she studied hard and stayed at home until she was 30. She worked her way up in the Commonwealth Bank, was interested in politics from an early age and had Peter Collins as an early mentor. She is a close friend of the federal Liberal MP Joe Hockey. There’s an Armenian connection there, too.

She speaks her parents’ language and has a strong sense of her heritage. She worries as they have relatives in Aleppo and Syria now is a dangerous place.

Berejiklian is single and elsewhere she has said that perhaps she will meet the right man some day. I don’t ask her about it. It’s a tough enough question for anyone in her position and politics doesn’t give you any privilege on the answer.

Right now she is struggling with trying to prioritise Sydney’s transport options. There seem to be so many projects and where is the capital coming from to fund any of them?

I suggest to her that from the outside it looks as though O’Farrell is hedging his bets on transport and setting up two competing streams of advice. First there is her Transport Ministry and then there is Infrastructure NSW, set up in the middle of last year under the leadership of Greiner, which has just produced a major report to the government recommending the WestConnex roads project as its priority. The Premier says he will go ahead with the WestConnex proposal. But Infrastructure NSW has plenty to say on buses and light and heavy rail, too. So where does that leave Gladys?

She insists there is no conflict. That Infrastructure NSW was always going to be used as a vehicle for identifying the key road project and that’s what it has done.

So how does she want to be remembered after the first term?

“I want the Opal card rolled out across trains, buses and ferries so it is available for most customers.

“I want to finish the Inner West Light Rail extension, I want the South West Rail Link well under way and construction happening on the North West Rail Link.”

I ask about how it can possibly take so long for an integrated ticketing system such as the Opal card to be introduced when other cities have their Oyster (London) and Octopus (Hong Hong)? She sighs and I gather has asked the same question.

She says she has been on the front foot with the bureaucracy. “The first decision I made as minister was to cut the number of agencies, from 10 to four. I’d been planning what I wanted to do so it was very early when I did that.

“It’s taken a while to get the bureaucracy right – now though they know that every proposal that comes to me needs to show the benefit to the customer.”

She is “absolutely committed to the North West rail project”, agrees that light rail can “move more people and is definitely better in some places”, but adds that “a quality public transport network is one where modes are integrated and you have the right mode in the right place”.

She’s no ideologue, “There’s no one answer to Sydney’s transport issues. We will need everything – heavy and light rail, buses, ferries, cars, active transport and most importantly integration between all of these.”

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