Fortescue to further trim its debt

Fortescue Metals is taking advantage of firmer iron ore prices to further trim its massive debt pile.

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The world’s fourth biggest iron ore exporter will buy back corporate bonds worth $US577 million ($A745 million) on June 1, a move it says will also deliver interest savings of $US48 million a year.

“This debt repayment delivers on our sustained commitment to reduce all-in costs, further generating strong cash flows and continuing to reduce our debt,” chief executive Nev Power said.

Fortescue has raced to cut costs this financial year as it grapples with the prolonged mining downturn, and has also focused on trimming its debt, which stood at $US5.9 billion at the end of March.

Earlier in April, the miner said it had stripped cash costs by 43 per cent from a year ago to $US14.79 per wet metric tonne of iron ore.

A rebound in iron ore prices in recent months has also given Fortescue some breathing space.

Spot prices touched a decade-low of $US38 a tonne late in 2015, but have recovered to nearly $US63 a tonne on Wednesday, though that is still down two-thirds from their peak in 2011.

The slump in prices forced Moody’s to cut Fortescue’s credit rating to two notches below investment grade earlier this year.

With the latest bond buyback, the company has now repurchased debt worth $US1.7 billion in the last 12 months. It last bought back corporate bonds worth $US750 million during the December quarter.

Fortescue shares initially surged on the news, but lost ground in afternoon trade, along with the wider market, to drop nine cents, or 2.9 per cent, to $3.06. They have gained nearly 70 per cent so far in 2016.

PM urged to protect migrant women fleeing violence

A coalition of 135 groups has written an open letter to the prime minister, calling for a guarantee that migrant women on temporary visas are able to access crisis payments when fleeing domestic violence.

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Among the signatories are the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, the Refugee Council of Australia and the Immigrant Woman’s Health Service.

The findings of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence handed down last month recommended that access for crisis payments be made available to domestic violence survivors, regardless of their visa status.

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FECCA chair Joe Caputo said he would like to see that recommendation being implemented but unfortunately service providers report it is not.

“Safety from domestic violence is a fundamental human right and must not be subject to a person’s visa status,” he told SBS. “So we feel that by these women being left behind, they are often forced to go back to violent domestic relationships or an abusive partner because they haven’t got access to services.”

The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery provides shelter to victims of trafficking and slavery, a number of whom are migrant women on temporary visas.

Project co-ordinator Laura Vidal said income support becomes the critical issue for migrant women on temporary visas fleeing domestic violence.

“Many of the women who are leaving servitude situations are experiencing a great deal of anxiety around not being able to access the support that they need and often that comes with significant lag times with a change in their situation when they then don’t have access to Centrelink payments.”

She said it is left up to charities to fill the breach and provide support; and they are struggling to handle the load.

“So often those are with us are being supported financially by the Salvation Army until they are in a position when they can have access to a more long-term and appropriate support mechanism,” she said.

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“And our program is entirely funded by the community, so as you can imagine that financial support does have its limits.”

Migrant women on temporary visas are particularly vulnerable when facing a situation of domestic violence, said Xanthe Emery, a senior lawyer from the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre in Sydney.

She said 40 per cent of her cases involve domestic violence; and that the centre gives advice to clients in a similar situation every day.

The language barrier, lack of family support in Australia and lack of knowledge about Australia’s legal system compound the problem.

“I have definitely had clients who were experiencing violence and didn’t know they could call the police, or that was something the police could help them with. They are told by their partners that if they report the abuse, their visa will be cancelled. And that threat is a very genuine fear for them, that they will be deported out of the country very quickly,” Ms Emery said.

FECCA chair Joe Caputo said it is vital that the federal government’s $100 million strategy to tackle domestic violence also include migrant women.

“We don’t want to have any one group at risk in this area. Given the urgencies, we have seen the federal government act on it. We support that strategy. The government ought to make sure that no-one is left behind on this.”

NSW premier cold on Wicked Camper reforms

NSW Premier Mike Baird rejected calls to ban offensive slogans on campervans, including the Wicked Campers fleet, from parts of northern NSW.

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Byron Bay Shire councillor Duncan Dey wants to wipe the “usually sexist” slogans off the vans or ban them from council caravan parks and is seeking the premier’s support.

“I haven’t seen the details … but people sort of getting around in campervans enjoying the coast seems a pretty normal thing to be doing,” Mr Baird told reporters on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s something that the state government should be getting involved in.”

Mr Dey is preparing to argue for the reforms at a council meeting on Thursday, in a move supported by Ballina Shire councillor Robyn Hordern.

“Councillors will have seen the Wicked slogans over the years. We were relieved at one stage by many of the vans being taken off the road when found unroadworthy. They seem to have then returned, with the slogans even more offensive than before,” Mr Dey said in a motion lodged ahead of the meeting.

Mr Dey wants Byron Bay Council to write to Mr Baird and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk seeking support to get the vans off the road.

Signs saying: “Van drivers, your wicked slogan is not welcome in Byron Shire” could be erected at Byron Shire entry points, and the vans could be banned from council caravan parks, Mr Dey suggests.

Ms Hordern also lodged a motion to write to state and federal ministers pledging support for any action or legislative changes to ban the “inappropriate messages”.

“… the public display of these messages is often insulting and/or degrading to many members of our community,” Ms Hordern said motion lodged ahead of a council meeting on Thursday.

Annual Australian music festival Splendour in the Grass, held near Byron Bay, has also taken a stand against the campervans.

“If you’re booking a campervan, please steer clear of sexist slogans! You know who you are. It’s 2016, get with the program!!,” says the Splendour in the Grass website.

Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm said councils and “wowsers” in northern NSW should leave Wicked alone.

He said Wicked was an Australian business supporting tourism and reports its vans were being vandalised were disturbing.

Wicked had already toned down some of its slogans in response to previous complaints, he said.

“That’s how free speech should work, not by legislation,” he said.

“Personally, I find authoritarians disguised as hippies or feminists far more offensive than any slogan on the back of a van, but I don’t seek to ban them.”

Wicked Campers has been contacted for comment.

Pell’s claim he was deceived ‘is wrong’

Three former Catholic education officers have denied Cardinal George Pell’s claims their office deceived him about the activities of a violent and sexually abusive priest.

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Former Catholic Education Office director Monsignor Thomas Doyle and his deputy Peter Annett told the sex abuse royal commission of their shock, disappointment and anger on hearing Dr Pell allege the office withheld information about pedophile priest Peter Searson in the 1980s.

Cardinal Pell, an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne in the ’80s, told the royal commission in March education officials were fearful of telling him the full story about Searson because they knew he would be “decisive” and not accept the status quo.

In giving his evidence from Rome where he is now the Vatican’s finance chief, Dr Pell also said he thought the education office at the time was protecting Archbishop Frank Little.

But Mgr Doyle and other witnesses categorically denied this was the case.

“I don’t agree with that evidence. I don’t agree that the Catholic Education Office intended to deceive Bishop Pell, so I thought his statement was wrong,” the Monsignor told the commission on Wednesday.

He was disappointed with the Cardinal’s claims.

“I don’t think they were true,” he said.

The now retired priest also said the office would have welcomed then Bishop Pell’s assistance in removing Searson.

The commission has heard evidence Searson threatened one little girl by holding a knife to her chest, sexually molested children in confession and threatened people with a gun.

Searson died in 2009 without being charged.

He was suspended from duty in 1997, a year after Dr Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne.

The commission has also heard that Archbishop Little ignored repeated requests to remove Searson.

Mr Annett said on Wednesday at one stage in the late ’80s the number one priority for the office was to get Searson removed from the parish.

“I would have thought our staff would be completely frank with Bishop Pell and be cheering from the rooftops if he was able to take action,” he said.

He said he had to admit to “some shock” at what Dr Pell said in Rome.

“I was disappointed and perhaps angry, but certainly very disappointed,” Mr Annett said.

Mr Annett, Mgr Doyle and former education consultant Allan Dooley said there was never any instruction to keep information from then auxiliary bishop Pell.

A fourth witness, former education official Catherine Briant who in 1989 took over as zone officer with responsibility for Doveton from Mr Dooley, said she was not briefed on problems at the Holy Family school.

She dealt with complaints he was bullying and harassing staff. She had no dealing with Bishop Pell, nor was she ever instructed to keep information from him, she said.

The hearing into widespread clerical abuse in Melbourne, which started last November, concluded on Wednesday.

No ‘Hollywood movie’ end for siege: court

Charging into the Lindt cafe to take down armed madman Man Haron Monis would not have ended like a Hollywood movie and would likely have left hostages dead, an inquest has heard.

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The police response to the December 15, 2014 siege has been the focus of the latest round of hearings at the NSW coronial inquest, with the first high-ranking officer to take command of the scene grilled for a day-and-a-half about initial actions.

Assistant Commissioner Michael Fuller took charge at 9.50am, as the 17-hour incident was beginning.

At this time, scant details were known about what was happening inside the old bank on Martin Place, with no indication the gun Monis had was real or fake and the possibility of a bomb in his backpack.

Given how little was known, the best course of action was “contain and negotiate,” Mr Fuller has told the inquiry.

Under this approach the focus was on gathering information and liaising with Monis, and police would have to be convinced there was the imminent or immediate threat of death or serious injury to have stormed the building.

Sending in armed officers would not likely have ended well and would not have been like a Hollywood movie in which Monis was shot between the eyes and all lives were saved, Mr Fuller said.

“My fear was any action, deliberate action, would certainly have caused a loss of life and I’m not talking about the perpetrator,” he said.

But, when officers stormed the cafe after Monis had killed manager Tori Johnson, Mr Fuller’s fears were fulfilled when mother-of-three Katrina Dawson died after being hit by shrapnel from police rounds.

Before Monis had shot Johnson, Mr Fuller said not enough was known to order a forceful response even after a warning shot had been fired, contradicting UK terror experts.

A report prepared for the coroner by British counter-terrorism experts stated police should have immediately entered the building after Monis first fired his shotgun, at 2.03am.

Ten minutes and 37 seconds later, Monis forced Mr Johnson to his knees and executed him with a point-blank shot to the head.

Mr Fuller disagrees with the UK report, saying community expectations in that country were different and led to different police orders and responses to armed sieges.

“Strong action by police after a warning shot would likely cause someone’s death,” he said.

Under Mr Fuller’s command, snipers moved into place and negotiators were brought in.

But he has told the inquest a plan to smash the bullet-proof glass to provide a clear shot for the snipers, was too risky to be considered.

“It gave the target time to move,” he said.

The siege reached its deadly conclusion after Monis’ execution of Mr Johnson caused police to storm the building.

Monis was gunned down, while Ms Dawson also died.

The inquest continues before NSW Coroner Michael Barnes.

Australia shores up Antarctic stronghold

Australia will fork out hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure the nation remains leader of the global pack when it comes to Antarctic involvement.

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The federal government on Wednesday announced a decade-long plan underpinned by a $255 million pledge which in combination with a new icebreaker vessel represents Australia’s greatest investment in Antarctic research, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.

“There is increasing interest in the Antarctic and what this (plan) does is it not just preserves our base, but it actually gives us the platforms and the credibility to increase our influence over Antarctic research (and) to protect (Australia’s territory),” the minister said.

Australia’s interest in the frozen continent, over which it holds a 42 per cent claim, stretches from its role as environmental custodian, to scientific research, national security and economic benefit.

The plan includes making Hobart the global gateway to Antarctica and negotiating with international partners who can use Australia’s proximity, infrastructure and resources to reach and remain down south.

The funding will see $200 million channelled to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to support its ongoing programs, while the remainder will go toward infrastructure including multi-terrain vehicles capable of spending prolonged periods on snow and ice.

The investment supports an ambitious new strategy, AAD director Nick Gales said.

“International interest in Antarctica is growing rapidly and our reasons for being there, for being a leader in Antarctica, have never been more relevant than they are (now).

“If Australia stepped back from its engagement in Antarctica our influence would wane and the things which are a government priority … would be more at risk.”

One such threat is a proposal by some countries to conduct mining experiments in Antarctica, a move opposed by Australia.

The government’s plan received immediate endorsement from key stakeholders including Antarctic climate and ecosystems professor Tony Press, who said the investment will significantly contribute to Australia’s efforts in Antarctica.

However Australian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the plan is light on detail and the financial commitment could be a bluff.

“The current funding allocation towards the AAD over the forward estimates drops from around $115 million per annum to $90 million per annum,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

“Any funding put forward by the minister may merely be to restore what was taken away by previous budgets.”

Mr Hunt defended the funding announcement for the AAD while the CSIRO is being forced to cut 275 scientist jobs due to a lack of money.

“What we’re doing is building Hobart and Australia as the great climate science and Antarctic destination and when you put it all together what you see is a very significant advance in overall scientific support,” the minister said.

Bali Nine member has ice addiction: prison

Bali Nine member Michael Czugaj has been moved from Indonesia’s notorious Kerobokan prison, with authorities saying he is strongly addicted to the drug ice and needed to be separated from “his network” in jail.

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The Australian was sentenced to life imprisonment after the then-19-year-old was arrested at Denpasar Airport in April 2005 with heroin strapped to his body.

Czugaj was moved to Madiun Prison in East Java overnight on Wednesday, after he was allegedly found holding less than a gram of “sabu sabu” or ice at Kerobokan prison, the Head of Bali Corrections Division Nyoman Putra Surya said.

Nyoman alleged the Australian’s “addiction was strong” and that leftover ice was “often” found in his cell.

He was one of more than 60 prisoners who were moved in the early hours of the morning, seven of whom were foreigners with six of those from Iran.

A friend of Czugaj, who did not wish to be named, told AAP he had been moved at around 3am, in such a rush that he was only allowed to take a pair of pants and a t-shirt.

It is understood he will be placed into isolation when he gets to the East Java jail.

Nyoman told reporters that Czugaj had got from the drug from a visitor and that they needed to move him “far away from his (drug) network in Bali.

It was alleged the Australian admitted to using ice while in the prison but denies ever dealing the drug.

“Every time we found (the drug), it was always only leftovers. We want to prove it directly,” Nyoman added.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs told AAP it was continuing to provide all appropriate consular assistance to Czugaj.

“Due to privacy obligations we are unable to provide further information,” they said in a statement.

GWS star hurt ahead of big AFL match

GWS expect Ryan Griffen to play in Saturday’s big AFL match against Hawthorn, despite the star onballer suffering a corked back at training.

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Griffen was holding his lower back as he left the track early on Wednesday, but the Giants later said he was in no doubt for the twilight match at home.

He was among the Giants’ best players last Sunday in the win over St Kilda and will have a crucial role in combating the Hawthorn midfield.

Another pivotal duel will be the Giants bug catchers against the Hawks mosquito fleet – how well the Giants defence copes with Hawthorn small forwards Cyril Rioli, Paul Puopolo and Luke Breust.

Puopolo had the game of his life in last Friday night’s great escape against Adelaide.

Rioli’s genius is self-evident and Breust is also a dangerous small forward.

But the Giants running defenders are also in form and last Sunday they scythed through St Kilda.

GWS co-captain Phil Davis said teammates Heath Shaw, Zac Williams and Nathan Wilson would have to find the right mix of defence and counter-attack.

“They (the Giants backmen) are defending really well, but it’s their offence that’s getting a fair bit of attention at the moment, so hopefully they can keep that balance this weekend,” Davis said.

“It’s extremely difficult when you’re playing some really good forwards and you want to go the other way – that’s when you rely on the midfielders to make it a bit easier to defend.

“You need to play two ways as a small defender and at the moment we’ve got a really good balance there, but I’m not sure there is a bigger challenge than the Hawks.

“They’ve got three of the top five or six small forwards in the competition in the one forward line.”

Low inflation risks budget day rate cut

Treasurer Scott Morrison could yet be upstaged on budget day after the latest inflation figures showed prices fell for the first time in eight years.

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This could result in the Reserve Bank cutting the official cash rate to a record low of 1.75 per cent at next Tuesday’s monthly board meeting, just hours before Mr Morrison hands down his first budget.

It would be the first move since last May when the rate was cut to an all-time low of 2 per cent.

The consumer price index fell 0.2 per cent in the March quarter, leaving the annual rate at just 1.3 per cent, well below the central bank’s 2-3 per cent target band.

Underlying measures of inflation – which smooth out volatile price moves and are closely monitored by the Reserve Bank – were also unexpectedly benign.

Financial markets put the chance of a cut now at 50/50 having previously seen little chance of a move in the near term.

“Clearly the chances of a rate cut next week have moved a lot higher,” Commonwealth Bank of Australia senior economist Michael Workman said.

He said the extraordinarily low outcome reflects not only lower petrol prices but widespread price discounting by retailers.

Whether a rate reduction would lift the mood of Australians or spook them is unclear given the already low level of rates.

New figures showed the fragile state of consumer confidence, falling sharply ahead of the budget.

The weekly ANZ-Roy Morgan confidence gauge tumbled 3.5 per cent to end below its long-run average.

It reversed the gain of the previous week that followed stronger than expected jobs figures.

Mr Morrison is confident the budget will provide greater certainty.

“Confidence is important in the economy because it is supporting household consumption in our economy which is supporting growth,” he told reporters in Queanbeyan, NSW.

ANZ head of Australian economics Felicity Emmett said it was a disappointing result, although she is not expecting any significant policy surprises that will hit household pockets.

“Any impact on confidence may be temporary,” Ms Emmett said on Wednesday.

The latest Essential Research online poll found almost half of respondents expect that “well-off” people will benefit most from the budget.

However, there would be strong support for increased health and education funding, personal tax cuts, reduced superannuation tax concessions for high earners and an increased tax on cigarettes.

But only 22 per cent wanted to see a cut in the company tax rate.

Australian Industry Group boss Innes Willox has a simple message for Mr Morrison – be bold.

Business wants the budget back in balance in five years, while providing a trajectory to a cut in the company rate, reductions in personal income tax, and some serious work around infrastructure and skills.

“It’s not rocket science what business is after,” Mr Willox told Sky News.

“We don’t want this to be a timid budget, we want it to give us very clear directions for the years ahead.”

Melbourne Metro fully funded in Vic budget

Victoria will fund the $11 billion Melbourne Metro Rail project without federal help after taking a swipe at the “merchant banker” Malcolm Turnbull.

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The 2016/17 state budget includes $2.9 billion for the twin rail tunnels under the CBD, with the rest out beyond the forward estimates.

“We just can’t wait. We are deadly serious about delivering this project, and we will deliver it, with or without the federal government,” Treasurer Tim Pallas told reporters on Wednesday.

Victoria originally wanted $4.5 billion from the federal government for the Melbourne Metro, but Mr Pallas said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was only interested in loans.

“(You should) stop pretending you are a merchant banker and start pretending to be a prime minister,” Mr Pallas said.

The state government will fund the entire project and hopes to recoup some costs from the private sector, although Mr Pallas said he’d welcome future funding from Canberra.

“I just want this nonsense of everybody picking their favourite project and pushing and shoving so that nothing ever gets done, to come to an end,” he said.

The budget also includes $1.3 billion for investment in regional rail and $1.1 billion to rebuild schools.

Funding has already been announced for 400 new police, along with $572 million to respond to the recommendations of the family violence royal commission.

There isn’t much relief when it comes to the cost of living despite a $2.9 billion surplus in 2016/17, but the business community received a payroll tax threshold increase.

Mr Pallas admitted the government had more work to do in 2016, with housing affordability due to be addressed, along with a response to a review of vocational education and a review of Gonski funding.

He flagged maintaining net debt at six per cent of gross state product, unlocking up to $16 billion for infrastructure spending over 10 years while keeping financial costs low.

Revenue growth is pegged at 3.4 per cent, while expenses are growing at 3.3 per cent, and Mr Pallas argued he was being prudent by not spending more.

“Our revenue growth has sat around 5.9 per cent … we’ve had to trim our expectations,” he said.

Shadow treasurer Michael O’Brien said the budget surplus was built on high taxes.

“I’d be embarrassed if I saw taxes increase by 20 per cent in just two years on my watch,” Mr O’Brien told reporters.

He also said public sector wages had increased 15 per cent in two years, but police, nurse and teacher numbers had not increased that much.

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was a “pro-business” budget that backed businesses to succeed.

Comment was being sought from the federal government.