Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 12:05 UK

Treasury chief on 'wombat leave'

Dave Watts/
Hairy-nosed wombats are endangered

Australia's top treasury official is taking five weeks leave to look after endangered wombats.

Ken Henry, treasury secretary and animal conservationist, has warned that hairy-nosed wombats are "on death row".

But opposition politicians - and even wombat lovers - question if now is the time to be thinking about wombats.

Inflation is at a 16-year high, interest rates are up and fuel prices are rising. Mr Henry will also miss a central bank meeting.

For the love of wombats

Mr Henry will be looking after 115 hairy-nosed wombats in an isolated spot in northern Queensland, with no mobile phone coverage and two-and-a-half hours on a rough track from the nearest town.

Wombat facts
There are two types: common and hairy-nosed
Wombats are native to Australia
The average wombat is about one metre long
They eat mainly grass and roots
Source: Wombania's Wombat Information Center

"There are 10 times as many giant pandas in the world as there are these guys," Mr Henry told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"This place doesn't stop when I am not here."

Mr Henry's leave will take place during the government's winter recess but he will miss a central bank meeting.

An editorial in the Daily Telegraph noted that "given half a chance, most of us would happily take several weeks off work to play with wombats in their native environment. But most of us aren't the Treasury Secretary."

"I think we all love the hairy-nosed wombat," opposition politician Brendan Nelson said.

But he expressed concern that Mr Henry will be out of telephone contact while Australia "is going through one of the most challenging economic periods that we have seen in recent history."

His government colleagues say the leave was approved and Mr Henry will return refreshed and ready to tackle Australia's economic problems.

"It's appropriate he takes a break now and gets recharged," said Treasurer Wayne Swan.

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