“Hamas win a threat to Middle East peace.” The international story is top news in today’s Oz. Hamas, the militant Islamic group bent on the
destruction of Israel, will be asked to form the next Palestinian
government after a landmark election win that cast grave doubt over the
future of the stalled peace process. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ask Hamas, which
spearheaded a five-year suicide bombing blitz, to form a new cabinet,
and Fatah will go into opposition, ending the 30-year reign of the
party founded by Yasser Arafat.

And yet “another Nat talked with Libs,” says the paper. National leader Mark Vaile has jetted out to
Geneva amid accusations a second Victorian MP held secret talks to
defect to the Liberal Party after the 2004 election. Nationals MP John Forrest confirmed last night he held talks with
Victorian Liberal Party MPs Sharman Stone and Stewart Macarthur over
his frustrations at not being promoted to the front bench, talks he
admitted prompted speculation he could quit or jump ship.

Let unskilled workers in, says Cynthia Banham in today’s SMH. Australia will have to open its doors to potentially tens of
thousands of unskilled migrants to save its smaller Pacific island
neighbours from economic ruin, a report commissioned by the Federal
Government has found. The report, by a taskforce on foreign aid, argues that the
plight of the island nations has become so dire that urgent
remedies, notably moving abroad in search of job opportunities, are
necessary to keep them viable.

Meanwhile, Treasurer Peter Costello has offered an olive branch to the
railing Nats, reports the paper, saying the government would not exist without them. Nationals MPs are angry over the defection of Victorian senator
Julian McGauran, which has led to a cut in their ministry
representation. Some have blamed Mr Costello for playing a role in tempting
Senator McGauran across to the Liberals and say their coalition
partners cannot be trusted.

More political manoeuvring in The Age, where Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has dramatically intervened in Labor’s
preselection war, calling in faction heads and demanding they
protect all ministers from the axe and make room for his
hand-picked “star” recruits. In a high-risk move that angered the Left faction, Mr Bracks
gave the factions an ultimatum: meet his demands by this afternoon
or he will call in the ALP’s national executive to deliver
them. Leaders of the Left last night foreshadowed a possible Supreme
Court challenge to Mr Bracks’ intervention, saying it breached ALP
rules and would destabilise the party in the lead-up to November’s
election.

Across Victoria, fire crews are still battling to keep fires under
control, reports the paper, which has a round-up of fire stories. The hopes of weary firefighters lifted late yesterday as a
thunderstorm brought rain. But they also were conscious that
lightning strikes could create spot fires.
Several thousand people around Kinglake remained on alert as the
bushfire that has burned out 1,200 hectares of national park
continued to threaten their homes. More than 11,500 firefighters battled to save
towns near four out-of-control bushfires yesterday amid searing heat
and strong wind, echoes the Herald Sun.
As Victoria sweltered through one of its hottest Australia Days on
record, firefighters continued their struggle in brutal conditions.
In the Grampians, the state’s biggest fire has burnt more than
126,000ha and 24 houses. A CFA tanker was burnt out after getting
bogged in the path of a firefront 15km north of Natimuk yesterday.


“ATM fees soar,” announces the Daily Telewith
the news that Australians are being stung a record $583 million a year
to withdraw their own money from automatic teller machines. The profit
gouge is up more than $80 million in the past year – and is set to
soar even higher within months.
Westpac will in April lift the fee for its customers to use
other banks’ ATMs by 33 per cent from $1.50 per withdrawal to $2. Other
banks are expected to follow suit.

In Canberra, about 20 pregnant or breastfeeding women employed by the Greenhouse
Office face anxious months, unsure if their children have been exposed
to lead poisoning.
The Department of the Environment and Heritage informed staff just
before Christmas that the water in their Parkes building, from a
rainwater collection system, was contaminated with lead levels which
were recorded at ten to 16 times accepted levels, saysThe Canberra Times.

And on the Gold Coast, Deputy Mayor David Power could be prosecuted
over his leading role in a secret developer-backed election fund,
reports the Courier-Mail. A Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation could also lead to
prosecution of other councillors and failed candidates who had access
to the $150,000 fund as well as a prominent Gold Coast solicitor.
The fund bankrolled the campaigns of “like-minded” candidates at the 2004 election.

“Mower kills IVF Pioneer,” says The Tiser today with the news that South Australian IVF pioneer Professor John
Kerin has been killed in a freak accident on the hobby farm he bought
just two months ago. The medical director of Flinders
Reproductive Medicine, Professor Kerin, 61, died when the ride-on mower
he was operating overturned on his Eden Valley property. “Tassie record turn true blue,” says The Mercury,
noting that a record 160 Tasmanians made history yesterday when they
become Australian citizens. They were among a record-breaking 14,000
people across the country to
gain citizenship this Australia Day and joined 3.5 million who have
taken the pledge since Australian citizenship was introduced more than
55 years ago.

The Falconio case looks set to get another run in the papers – Joanne Lees, the girlfriend of British backpacker Peter
Falconio, murdered by drug runner Bradley Murdoch, has vowed to tell
all about Peter’s disappearance to “correct inaccuracies and
misconceptions” surrounding the case, says the NT News. Joanne Lees said she wanted to honour Mr
Falconio’s memory by writing her own story about his disappearance “and
the four years that followed culminating in (Murdoch’s) conviction.”

To The Westnow and Westpoint chief Norm Carey has laid the foundations for a third
corporate reincarnation after the collapse of his sprawling development
group, setting up new development companies with his brother Frank and
his Westpoint right hand man, Graeme Rundle. The structuring of new companies comes amid claims that Westpoint staff
were being recruited to work on potentially profitable new property
developments. The group’s chances of survival took a hit on
Wednesday when receivers from insolvency firm KordaMentha seized
control of key Westpoint company Westpoint Corporation Pty Ltd as it
struggled to deal with the fall-out from the collapse of its web of
mezzanine financing schemes.