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Pressure builds over rising petrol prices.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: Pressure is building on the Prime Minister over petrol with a senior Liberal MP voicing concerns about the impact of the soaring prices at petrol pumps, particularly in regional areas. Warren Entsch, a parliamentary secretary for industry—that is, a junior minister in the coalition—has written to both John Howard and the Treasurer, Peter Costello, seeking government action to meet the concerns of coalition MPs in marginal seats who want a freeze put on inflation indexing of fuel excise. The coalition party room is certainly divided, even with some country MPs actually questioning the value that such a freeze would bring. Mark Willacy.


MARK WILLACY: Back for a two-week parliamentary sitting on a cold, wet and miserable Canberra day, coalition MPs were quizzed about another wet and miserable topic, petrol prices, and the verdict was strikingly similar.


UNIDENTIFIED: People are very concerned about fuel prices. It’s one of the touchiest areas in politics you can find because everyone fills their tank at least once a week.


UNIDENTIFIED: I think they are a big concern for everyone around Australia, yes.


UNIDENTIFIED: Everyone is concerned about the price of fuel, I am sure.


UNIDENTIFIED: I certainly have concerns about the way in which fuel has impacted on regional Australia.


MARK WILLACY: So far, those pushing for a freeze on the inflation indexing of the government’s fuel excise take have been backbenchers. This morning, parliamentary secretary, Warren Entsch, moved the debate one notch up the government food chain, revealing that he wrote to the Prime Minister two weeks ago to express his concern about petrol prices.


WARREN ENTSCH: World oil prices certainly play a major role in the impact and that is the reality, but I think there are other issues there that we need to address as well and I have raised those with the Prime Minister.


MARK WILLACY: So does Mr Entsch understand the worries of other coalition MPs who want a freeze on the indexing of fuel excise?


WARREN ENTSCH: Absolutely. Absolutely, and they have every right to do that. I made a choice of writing and expressing my concerns some weeks ago actually before this speculation came into the media, and I am just looking forward to a response at the moment to my letters. That will then give me an opportunity as to which direction I go from there. I would rather have that response rather than come in with a sledge hammer approach and try and create it through the media.


MARK WILLACY: Petrol prices are expected to be a key agenda item when the coalition party room meets tomorrow. Queensland National Party MP, Paul Neville, who is on a razor-thin margin of 0.3 per cent is one backbencher worried about a backlash at the bowser. What does he think about a freeze on the indexing of excise?


PAUL NEVILLE: I think that is something the government will have to have a look at but I think the big problem is that we are talking about fractions of a cent. What is more important is to get the crude oil into Australia at the right price.


MARK WILLACY: Other coalition MPs, like Liberal, Barry Haase, reckon his colleagues who are advocating a freeze are way off track.


BARRY HAASE: I just think they are on the wrong issue, yes. The reduction of 0.6 of a cent is not going to make any difference to somebody at Drysdale River Station paying $1.45 a litre.


UNIDENTIFIED: But the next excise increase is likely to be a lot more than 0.6 of a cent, isn’t it?


BARRY HAASE: The excise increase?




BARRY HAASE: Yes, mildly so, but still not significant. The point is not excise on fuel here. No excise—no taxes; no taxes—no welfare system. Simple.


MARK WILLACY: The opposition has been quick to exploit government divisions on fuel by calling for a Senate inquiry into petrol taxation and pricing, but it has found no support from Democrats leader, Meg Lees.


MEG LEES: If you look at their terms of reference, it is just a point-scoring exercise. We actually want some results. We want to see people, particularly those on low incomes, given some options by way of transport. We know why the price of petrol is up. Yes, some of it is down to the federal government but most of it is over to the oil-producing countries who want more money for their product.


KIM BEAZLEY: I cannot understand why Meg Lees won’t support this. Meg Lees bears half ownership of the GST on the basis of certain undertakings by John Howard. She should be out there ahead of us demanding a Senate inquiry on this matter.


MARK WILLACY: With no luck pushing for a Senate inquiry, opposition leader, Kim Beazley, is likely to now use question time to renew Labor’s attack, but coalition MPs expect the Prime Minister to stand firm and, like the GST, hope his petrol pain will simply evaporate.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: Mark Willacy in Canberra.