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Australian Financial Review : October 17th 2006
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Email, call or visit our website. education@CSAust.com 1800 251 849 www.CSAust.com The Australian Financial Review www.afr.com Tuesday 17 October 2006 5 Rejected MP planstogive Libsablast Steven Scott '' Independents threaten trouble in three formerly safe seats.'' Dumped NSW Liberal MP Steven Pringle will criticise his own party when state parliament resumes today and is likely to announce he will run as an independent in the March 2007 election. The move would be a further setback for Opposition Leader Peter Debnam, who has already suffered a drop in credibility after he failed to protect Mr Pringle from a preselection challenge, and would mean the coalition would need to pick up 17 seats to form government. Mr Pringle, who lost a bitter preselection battle in his north- western Sydney seat of Hawkesbury on Saturday, plans to make a personal statement to parliament after question time today. He has also sought advice from Northern Tablelands MP Richard Torbay, who is an organisational leader of the seven lower house independents. A spokesman for Mr Pringle said the MP intended to use the personal statement to ''vent'' under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Mr Debnam said he would try to dissuade Mr Pringle from moving to the crossbench. The move threatens to blunt the opposition's planned attacks on the government's handling of an inquiry into the Cronulla riots. Mr Pringle lost preselection to a right wing candidate, Baulkham Hills councillor Ray Williams, by 88 votes to 60, despite receiving a public endorsement from Mr Debnam. The seat had been the focus of extensive branch-stacking by both the right wing and moderates. Mr Pringle has already lashed out at the inability of Mr Debnam to control preselections. But Mr Debnam said there was a limit to what he could do. ''I only get one vote and the ability to talk to other preselectors,'' Mr Debnam said. ''It's sad to lose a colleague I've worked with for three years.'' Mr Pringle holds his seat by a 14.6 per cent margin. Even if the Liberals retain the seat, the campaign will be an unwelcome drain on the Liberal Party's limited resources. High-profile independents have also nominated in Goulburn and are considering running in Epping, which would make three formerly safe Liberal seats expensive election battlegrounds. Nats hop aboard rail plan, but PM wavers Mark Davis Political correspondent '' It's a question of what it would cost.'' Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday it would be wonderful if a proposed new inland rail freight link between Melbourne and Brisbane went ahead, but sidestep- ped questions about whether the government would subsidise the project. His comments come as Nationals leader and Transport Minister Mark Vaile throws his weight behind the proposal, declaring that the govern- ment will now seek formal advice on spending options for the Melbourne-Brisbane rail corridor. But while the multibillion-dollar project is backed by Nationals MPs and rural Liberal MPs as a way of reducing transport costs and pro- moting economic development in regional areas, some ministers will be wary about the costs of govern- ment involvement. A study earlier this year said the cheapest option for a rail link ± a route through the far west of NSW ± would cost between $3.1 billion and $3.6 billion and would not be finan- cially attractive for the private sector. Asked about the proposal, Mr Howard said: ''I think it would be a wonderful idea if it could happen, but like all of these things it is a question of what would it cost, who would pay the money, would it have enough freight and so forth.'' He would not say whether the government would subsidise it. The study found all route options for the rail link had a negative net present value, as anticipated rev- enues would not be large enough to offset the costs of financing, build- ing and operating the project, suggesting government involvement would be critical. Mr Vaile told the Nationals federal conference at the weekend that such a link would increase rail's market share of freight between the two capitals from 30 per cent to about 73 per cent. He said the Nationals would argue for the railway within the government and the next step was to get formal advice on the investment options. The rail link is emerging as one of the key infrastructure spending pro- posals the Nationals will be pushing the government to adopt as it heads to the federal election due next year. Most of its backers inside the government are suggesting the scheme could be a public-private partnership, with the government contributing funds to the construc- tion phase to defray the capital costs, making the project more financially attractive for private investors. But one government source said economic ministers would be look- ing for rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the project, given the experience of the Adelaide to Darwin rail link. The Adelaide to Darwin link cost $1.2 billion to build and had govern- ment grants totalling $460 million. However, it has made losses in its first two years of operation and its owners have written down the value of their investments in the project. The owners of the railway were also unable to persuade new inves- tors to make a $360 million equity injection earlier this year. Costello pushes reform package David Crowe and Adrian Rollins Small businesses would have more bargaining power under the plan. Photo: CRAIG ABRAHAM KEY POINTS The package could pass through parliament later this week. Barnaby Joyce has indicated he still opposes the reforms. with Mark Davis Treasurer Peter Costello is to seek the support of coalition MPs today for a major package of trade prac- tices changes that offer more bar- gaining power to small business and overhaul the way big mergers are approved, indicating his deter- mination to get the reforms through parliament as soon as this week. The move challenges Queens- land Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce to abandon his opposition to key elements of the package, which he voted against 12 months ago because of his fear they would reduce the power of the Australian Competition and Consumer Com- mission. The Treasurer yesterday dis- cussed the changes with Family First senator Steve Fielding in order to improve the odds of getting them through the Senate. The government's plan is to clear the amendments at this morning's regular meeting of Liberal and Nationals MPs so they can be introduced to the House of Rep- resentatives today or tomorrow and voted on in the Senate on Thursday. The reforms would deliver changes sought by a coalition of small- business groups to enable small companies that fall within a $3 mil- lion transaction threshold to nego- tiate together with big companies. But the government has made a concession to allow thresholds to be set by regulation so there is flexi- bility if some companies ± includ- ing petrol stations or rural equip- ment retailers ± exceed the limit. Another change modifies the cur- rent merger rules that give the ACCC first say on all mergers so that companies must appeal to the Australian Competition Tribunal. Mr Costello's amendments change the sections Senator Joyce opposed last year in order to give the ACCC the right to appear before the tribunal to submit evidence and cross-examine witnesses. However, Senator Joyce yester- day insisted he was unlikely to change his mind on merger rules because the government's media legislation, which passed the Senate last week, could lead to a series of big merger deals. ''It would seem absolutely ridicu- lous to have the next legislation we pass significantly reduce the power of the ACCC to decide those mergers and acquisitions,'' he said. Senator Joyce dismissed the plan to give the ACCC a greater say in tribunal proceedings. ''It hasn't got any new powers. It hasn't got the power of veto. It's not a member of the tribunal. From what I can see it means very little.'' Senator Fielding said his party's top priority was small business and he would consider the changes in that light. But Labor's small business spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, accused Mr Costello of trying to blackmail groups into supporting government changes that ran coun- ter to their own interests, and called on them to stand up to him. ''I challenge these small-business groups to do the right thing and reject the blackmail. Their failure to do so will be a dereliction of their responsibility to their members,'' Mr Fitzgibbon said.