Fiona Nash admits resource library wasn’t duplicated

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Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash has admitted a drug and alcohol resource library run by a body she cut funding to was not being offered by any other organisation, despite citing duplication as justification for her decision.

The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, which has operated since 1966, was placed in voluntary administration in November after its funding was cut. It will close at the end of the week.

Senator Nash told an estimates hearing on Wednesday she had received requests to meet with the chief executive and board of the council, but had not done so, because she received an “enormous amount of requests to meet.”

She said Alastair Furnival, her former chief of staff, met with the organisation to break the news that it would no longer be funded.

Mr Furnival resigned on February 14 over his connections to a company that performed work for the junk food and alcohol industries.

Senator Nash said ADCA had been without funding since June 30, 2013 because the previous Labor government had not put funding arrangements in place.

“Effectively ADCA was unfunded under the previous Labor government,” Senator Nash said.

Senator Nash said she provided the organisation with $750,000 to deal with its ”immediate difficulties” but at the same time decided not to provide any future funding.

She cited a “significant amount of duplication” among organisations in the alcohol and other drugs area as justification for the decision.

She has since announced a review of organisations in the sector.

Labor Senator Jan McLucas and Greens Senator Richard Di Natale questioned why the government had cut funding to the organisation before the review, which was due to conclude at the end of March, had been completed.

“Why did you knock off one organisation before you’d actually started the review,” Senator McLucas asked.

Senator Nash said ADCA’s financial difficulties presented an issue of ”immediacy”.

She acknowledged no other organisation was offering a service similar to ADCA’s research library, the National Drugs Sector Information Service. But she said the organisation were performing several other functions which were being duplicated.

Senator Di Natale said the library was one of ADCA’s ”primary functions”

Former public servant Jenny Hefford is being paid $45,000 to conduct the review. Health department official Nathan Smyth said her terms of reference were not public.

ADCA chief executive David Templeman said the organisation received ministerial approval in April last year for funding through to July 2016. Mr Templeman said the organisation took this as a ”clear indication of ongoing support,” but contracts were never signed.

Putin puts troops in western Russia on alert in drill amid tension with West over Ukraine

Ordered military drill … Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing the nation’s military muscle as tension builds with the West over Ukraine’s political transformation. Here he watches a 2013 military exercise on Sakhalin Island. Ordering military drill … Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing the nation’s military muscle as tension builds with the West over Ukraine’s political transformation. Here he uses binocular to watch a military exercise on Sakhalin Island, Russia in July, 2013.

Ordering military drill … Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing the nation’s military muscle as tension builds with the West over Ukraine’s political transformation. Here he uses binocular to watch a military exercise on Sakhalin Island, Russia in July, 2013.

Moscow: President Vladimir Putin ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia on Wednesday, flexing Moscow’s military muscle amid tension with the West over Ukraine.

Putin has ordered several such surprise drills in different Russian regions since he returned to the presidency in 2012, saying the military must be kept on its toes, but the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine gave them added geopolitical resonance.

“In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (0500 ET) today,” the Interfax news agency quoted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

The western district encompasses most of western Russia and borders Ukraine, which lies between NATO nations and Russia.

Forces must “be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds” as part of the drill, Shoigu told a Defence Ministry meeting.

Putin has made no public comment on Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power over the weekend after months of political turmoil sparked by his decision to spurn deals with the European Union and improve ties with Russia.

The United States and European nations have warned Russia against military intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Putin has called a “brother nation” and wants to be part of a Eurasian Union he is building in the region.

Russian officials have said Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine, while accusing the West of doing so, and Interfax cited the speaker of the upper parliament house, Valentina Matviyenko, as saying on Wednesday it would not use force.

But Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Russia’s interests and its citizens in Ukraine were under threat, language reminiscent of statements justifying Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, when he was president.

Shoigu said the drill would be conducted in two stages, ending on March 3, and also involved the command centres of Russia’s Air and Space Defence forces, paratroops and long-range aviation as well as some troops in central Russia.

In the two-day first stage, military units would be brought to “the highest degree of combat readiness” and would be deployed to testing areas on land and sea, Interfax quoted Shoigu as saying.

The second stage would include tactical exercises and involve warships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, he said, and some warplanes would move to combat airfields.

No mention was made of the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol in Crimea, where tension over Ukraine’s turmoil is high because of its presence and a large Russian-speaking population.

Shoigu said the drill would also test the counterterrorism measures in place at military units. Russian officials have referred to some of the Ukrainian opposition forces whose protests pushed Yanukovich from power as “terrorists”.


Willie Tonga sheds kilos to revive career

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Parramatta centre Willie Tonga has undertaken the most significant off-season transformation of his career, dropping 12 kilograms in four months in a bid to end his horror run of injuries.

Brought to the club from North Queensland in 2012 as a high-profile signing, injuries have restricted Tonga to 16 of a possible 48 games – with just one try – in the past two seasons.

The former Australian and Queensland representative centre peaked at a career-high 107 kilograms last year, a factor he believes contributed to his injury-plagued season of four matches. Under the watch of new coach Brad Arthur, the 30-year-old has dropped more than 11 per cent of his body weight to start 2014 at what he believes is his ideal size.

“I have dropped 12 kilograms from last year,” Tonga said. “For some reason they wanted me to play heavier and I couldn’t carry it. I just didn’t feel comfortable so I said ‘no, I have to get back down’. I’m 95 kilograms now.”

Tonga captained Parramatta at the inaugural Auckland Nines a fortnight ago, showing glimpses of the flashy footwork that earned him representative honours. He hasn’t been able to reach the lofty heights many expected he would at the Eels, but he believes his size hindered his performance.

Tonga has cut back on the amount of time he spent in the gym under former coach Ricky Stuart and has made several adjustments to his diet to ensure his body remains healthy for 2014. “I couldn’t carry it on my knees, on my back – I had major back surgery obviously,” Tonga said. “On all my joints, it just didn’t help. Now it’s the best I’ve felt in years and it’s probably the lightest I’ve been since I was 17. With the Polynesian genetics, if we look at weights we put on weight. We were in the gym doing those max reps and stuff like that trying to bulk up and we didn’t need to to do that.

“I just tweaked a few things like my diet and a couple of things in the gym and my body is feeling awesome. A lot of the boys are asking me what diet I am on and I tell them that I’m not on a diet, I have just changed the way I eat. I used to eat pasta . . . didn’t eat junk food or anything, but I just cut out a few things and the weight just stripped off.”

Fellow centre Jacob Loko has also had his fair share of injuries during his short career. Tonga believes his giant frame has contributed to his lack of game time in recent years. “I remember when I came to the club he [Loko] was only 102 kilos, and that was only a couple of years ago, now he’s up to a 112 kilos,” Tonga said. “I think his knees aren’t going to be able to cope with that – putting on 10-12 kilograms in six months, that’s a lot on your body. These young kids won’t be able to handle it.”

Big, bad Wolf: Margaret and David snub local horror movie

Pomerantz and David Stratton’s failure to review Wolf Creek 2 on At the Movies raises eyebrows.

Shooting star … John Jarrett reprises his role as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek 2.

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American theatre critic Walter Kerr once dismissed a Broadway production of I Am A Camera with the three-word put-down ”Me no Leica”. Film critic Leonard Maltin distilled his damnation of the 1948 movie Isn’t It Romantic? into what is supposedly the shortest movie review ever written: ”No”. But Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton have gone one step further, panning Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2 without saying a word.

They dismissed the locally made horror film in the final seconds of their ABC-TV review program At The Movies this week with the words, ”We’ve chosen not to review Wolf Creek 2, but on our website you’ll find interviews with director Greg McLean and actor John Jarratt”. (Said interviews were filmed, it seems, without the involvement of either of the show’s hosts.)

In declining to consider a movie that topped the local box office last weekend with a haul of $1.7 million, they handed its makers – who were described this week by actor Simon Westaway as being “as bad as drug dealers” – an almighty slap across the face with a wet fish. More importantly, they abrogated their responsibility as Australia’s most-watched movie critics. Yet Stratton reviewed the film for The Australian.

McLean surely speaks for many of them when he says: ”Even if they didn’t enjoy the movie, there are many, many Wolf Creek fans out there who love horror and thriller movies and want to support locally made productions. Like them, I’d love to hear their thoughts on our movie, whatever they might be.”

Each week, more than 300,000 people tune in to hear what the gently bickering pair think about the latest releases. The calendar is sometimes too crowded to accommodate every film, but the significant ones are rarely overlooked. And like it or not, Wolf Creek 2 is significant.

The original film, released in 2005, is by most measures the most successful home-grown horror movie of all time. (Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s $100 million-grossing Saw was developed in Melbourne, but made in Hollywood.) For better or worse, John Jarratt’s maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor has become an iconic figure. The phrases “Wolf Creek” and “head on a stick” are now deeply resonant parts of pop folklore.

You can decry Wolf Creek’s role in the rise of torture porn if you like, but it’s worth remembering that the pair did review the first one in 2005, and each gave it four stars (though David did admit he had “qualms” about it). The sequel is certainly no more violent than the original.

For Margaret and David to ignore the belated $7 million follow-up is to turn their back on a serious engagement with our culture. It doesn’t matter if they like the film or loathe it – it is an artefact and it demands inspection. If they aren’t willing to do that it’s time they vacated the chairs they have occupied for almost three decades and give someone else a go.

It was Margaret who delivered the non-verdict this week; David sat mute at her side, an inscrutable silver-bearded sage. Perhaps he has learnt the lesson of his long-ago skirmish with Geoffrey Wright, whose 1992 film Romper Stomper he refused to rate (though he did dismiss it in Variety as ”A Clockwork Orange without the intellect”). But his silence this week is damning.

Once upon a time, these two were proud warriors against censorship. A few years ago, the exhibition mounted to celebrate their 25 years on TV made much of their willingness to speak up.

What a cruel and sad irony it is that they now prefer not to speak at all.

Twitter: @karlkwin

NICTA lab staff claim sackings breached the law

A third of staff who lost their jobs at the national ICT research organisation’s Parkville laboratory will go to the industrial umpire, claiming their sackings breached the law.

Colin Rose, founder and joint chief executive of industrial relations negotiating firm Rose and Barton, will represent 25 of the 76 staff who were made redundant or failed to have their contracts renewed at a Fair Work Australia hearing on March 12.

Among them are staff on 457 visas, fixed contracts and those who held ongoing positions at the national information communications technology research group known as NICTA.

Mr Rose said staff at the specialist laboratory believed they had been given insufficient time to make an informed decision before signing redundancy papers and that they had not been given the opportunity to be redeployed within the organisation. He said staff had not ruled out also lodging unfair dismissal claims.

”Human resources did one of the most appalling jobs I have ever seen in an organisation of some stature,” Mr Rose said.

He said several staff were on stress leave because of the way the redundancy process was handled.

Mr Rose said staff wanted management to start the redundancy process again, allowing for more consultation with affected staff, and more redundancy provisions than the minimum required by law given the researchers held such specific expertise and finding another job could take some time.

Staff have also raised concerns over some clauses in the deed of release, including one which places an obligation on the workers to provide an indemnity to NICTA for tax liability. This could mean that if NICTA makes an error in the amount of tax deducted from an employee’s wage, it is up to the employee to correct the error with the tax office. Employment law principal at Maurice Blackburn, Kamal Farouque, said this was excessive and unnecessary.

NICTA chief operating officer Phil Robertson said the organisation understood it was an upsetting time for staff and was making efforts to redeploy staff where possible. ”But we are faced with the reality of dealing with a very difficult situation,” he said.

As reported by Fairfax Media on Wednesday, Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the bionic ear, criticised the sackings. He said the move could adversely affect Australia’s standing as a biomedical research powerhouse and the development of the next generation of researchers.