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Govt plays down link between fire aid and sti -

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Govt plays down link between fire aid and stimulus package

The World Today - Wednesday, 11 February , 2009 12:18:00

Reporter: Lyndal Curtis

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Government and Opposition are maintaining a spirit of cooperation in Federal
Parliament to show respect for the victims of the bushfires.

Question Time, where rival politicians often clash, will be suspended for the rest of the week.

But there's still underlying tension between the Government and Opposition.

The Prime Minister's move to link the recovery effort to the disputed economic stimulus package is
jarring with some Coalition MPs.

The Government insists its commitment to rebuild affected communities is unconditional.

Chief political correspondent, Lyndal Curtis, reports.

LYNDAL CURTIS: As the fires rage and authorities continue the grim task of finding the extent of
the human toll, the mood in Parliament is solemn.

There'll be no return to the public brawling that is Question Time either today or tomorrow.

That decision was reached this morning by the managers of House business for the Government and
Opposition, Anthony Albanese and Joe Hockey this morning.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The House has again awoken, to more stories of horror from the Victorian
bushfires, as we confront the biggest natural disaster in our history, it is appropriate that the
House respond accordingly.

JOE HOCKEY: The gravity of this unfolding human tragedy is such that the ink is not dry in the
written story of what will be one of Australia's greatest ever tragedies.

And whilst there will be many questions to be asked, and hopefully all of them to be answered, we
agree that whilst this tragedy continues to unfold, now is not the time.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Instead MPs who come from the fire and flood ravaged parts of the country will be
allowed their voice, the Prime Minister will also give the Parliament an update on the latest from
Victoria.

Neither side wants to play politics, they know it's not the time and people would not thank them
for it.

But the Prime Minister's decision yesterday to link at least part of the rebuilding effort to the
economic stimulus package has proved a jarring note.

KEVIN RUDD: In dealing with the reconstruction, repair of schools in disaster affected areas, the
Australian Government will make available from the $14.7-billion Building the Education Revolution
Program, the Victorian Government will be able to give priority construction of school
infrastructure in communities affected by bushfires.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The Government has been quick to clarify the statement, saying the offer to help
Victoria put communities back together is uncapped, unconditional and unrelated to any legislation
currently before the Parliament.

The Families Minister Jenny Macklin:

JENNY MACKLIN: Our commitment is unconditional; it does not depend on the passing of any
legislation before the Parliament.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So Victoria does not need to use any money which may come to it from the stimulus
package to rebuild these communities?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, but they can, it makes absolute sense that if they want to that they should be
able to.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But Opposition backbenchers aren't convinced.

DENNIS JENSEN: I really don't like saying this, but the linking of the two is quite frankly
appalling.

PAT FARMER: I think that absolutely the Government of the day is playing politics with all of this,
and they're talking about their spending package rather than the people that really matter on the
ground out there, and I'm appalled at the attitude of a number of people from the Government in
using this as a political football.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And if Labor Senator Doug Cameron's words are anything to go by, the message doesn't
seem to have gotten through to all Labor MPs.

DOUG CAMERON: It's absolutely essential, that this package is delivered to assist both the
Victorian bushfire victims and the global economic challenges that we are facing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The Prime Minister's office says the money to rebuild what existed before the fires
raged through the Victorian countryside on Saturday is in no way tied to the stimulus package.

But the spokesman says it was simply common sense to point out that if, for example, Victoria
wanted extra buildings at the schools, such as better libraries, then that money could come from
the stimulus package, and Victoria could put that request at the top of its wish list.

The Opposition leader's office seems happy with the Government's clarification, although the
question remains why the Prime Minister needed to raise the issue of the stimulus package at all,
when the reaction was easy to foresee.

Both the Government and Opposition are pressing up against a deadline, with the Senate vote on the
stimulus package due tomorrow.

The Coalition isn't backing down at all from its opposition to the package. While the Government
says it still holds out hope the Coalition will change its mind, the Treasurer is busy trying to
find some common ground with the crossbench senators.

The Greens, Family First and independent Nick Xenophon all want different things in order to get
their vote and there's no guarantee the Government will agree to even some of it.

They are continuing to press their case; Greens Senator Christine Milne and Senator Xenophon are
making it clear they are sticking to their guns.

CHRISTINE MILNE: And so we're going to be working for the next 24 hours, and we want the Government
to come back with some serious negotiation.

NICK XENOPHON: Look I find it very difficult to support the package in its current form; it is, it
is a case where I believe a package needs to be improved.

LYNDAL CURTIS: With the vote due tomorrow or at the outside on Friday, decision time is fast
approaching and the Parliament will soon see how much the Government is willing to compromise in
order to get it's urgent package through and how far the minor parties are willing to push it.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Chief political correspondent, Lyndal Curtis reporting.