Likely court overturn of marriage survey

The Turnbull government could be forced to come up with a Plan C on same-sex marriage within weeks, as controversy reins over a new “no” case advertisement.

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The High Court will next week hear a challenge to the government’s plan for a postal survey on changing marriage laws.

The voluntary survey was Plan B after the Senate blocked the compulsory plebiscite promised by the coalition at the 2016 election.

Constitutional expert George Williams said he expected a quick answer to whether the government had the power to spend money on the survey without legislation having passed parliament.

“It is facing an uphill battle in this case, with its position running counter to line of High Court authority,” Prof Williams told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“Over a series of recent decisions, the High Court has found that the federal government generally requires parliamentary approval to spend taxpayers’ money.”

The government found the $122 million needed to run the survey by using laws to make an advance payment to the finance minister in circumstances where there is an urgent need for spending and the situation was unforeseen.

Same-sex marriage advocates who are taking the matter to the court argue the spending does not fit the category of either “urgent” or “unforeseen”.

“How could this expenditure be said to be unforeseen at the relevant date of May 5, 2017, when the government had a long-standing policy of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage?” Prof Williams said.

“Overall, I would be surprised to see the government emerge with a victory.”

The advocates are also arguing the survey falls outside the powers of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which has been asked to roll it out instead of the Australian Electoral Commission which usually runs referendums and elections.

If the survey is found to be unconstitutional, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will face a choice of doing nothing further on same-sex marriage this term, allowing a private member’s bill to go to parliament or having another shot at passing the plebiscite bill.

However he has repeatedly promised not to change marriage laws without the Australian people having a say and could face the ire of coalition conservatives if he departs from that.

Meanwhile, Labor has described as hurtful and offensive an ad featuring three mothers highlighting their concerns about how the marriage law changes will effect what is taught and promoted in schools.

One of the women featured on the commercial tells viewers her son had been told he could wear a dress to school next year if he wanted to.

However, the principal of the Victorian high school from which the mother withdrew her children said the offer to students “never happened”, Fairfax media reported.

Assistant minister Zed Seselja said the mothers were simply putting the case their ability to object to “fairly radical sex education in schools” would be harder if marriage was redefined.

Storm want to send Cronk out as NRL winner

Will Chambers says Melbourne will do their best to ensure they give departing halfback Cooper Cronk a fitting farewell in his last regular-season NRL match at AAMI Park.

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The Storm host Canberra on Saturday night with the club preparing for a massive occasion. It will be Cronk’s final home-and-away game and captain Cameron Smith will equal Darren Lockyer’s record of 355 games.

Smith will also accept the JJ Giltinan Shield for the Storm winning the minor premiership.

After 14 seasons with Melbourne, Cronk remains undecided on his playing future but is moving to Sydney for personal reasons and Chambers says the team want to perform well in honour of him.

They are set to host a finals match in week one but want this last regular match to be one to remember.

“I don’t think he wants much done – Cooper shies away from it and he just wants play good footy and wants everyone to perform,” Chambers said.

“I know that the boys will give it their best for Cooper this weekend because he’s been a big part of this club for a long time.

“Everyone always talks about the big three. Well, he’s the first of them to go.”

While Cronk’s on-field contribution speaks for itself, Chambers says the Test halfback has given so much to the club and to him.

“He’s been a big mentor to me; he’s the ultimate professional and he’s got an open heart,” Chambers said.

“Any new players who come here, he takes them out to dinner and he gets to know everyone.”

Chambers moved in with Cronk when he arrived in Melbourne as an 18-year-old and said he had taught him about professionalism and having a positive outlook.

“Cooper turned up every day with a smile and that’s what I took away and tried to keep.”

Approvals show housing sector resilience

Building approvals fell by a less than expected 1.

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7 per cent in July, and economists are confident housing construction is on track for a gradual easing.

Weakness in approvals for apartments dragged down overall activity in July, though the decline was less than the five per cent fall economists had been expecting.

CBA economist John Peters said the numbers indicate more resilience than markets had anticipated.

“Today’s residential approvals outcome is consistent with our medium-term view that that the widely anticipated decline in residential construction over the next two years will be gradual and protracted rather than something sharp and painful,” he said.

Approvals for private sector houses remained nearly steady at 9,743 in July, continuing the stabilisation seen in recent months.

However, the ‘other dwellings’ category, which includes apartment blocks and townhouses, slipped 6.7 per cent to 8,080, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said.

An increase in total dwelling approvals in June was revised to 11.7 per cent, but over the 12 months to July approvals are down 13.9 per cent.

The data reinforces figures released by the Housing Industry Association on Tuesday, which showed overall new home sales fell by 3.7 per cent in July, led by significantly fewer new apartments being sold.

The renewed weakness comes amid tighter lending conditions and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s warnings about the rising levels of housing debt.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority capped interest-only mortgage lending on March 31, telling lenders to limit higher risk interest-only loans to 30 per cent of new residential mortgages.

That set off a fresh round of rate increases by the major lenders, with banks repricing their loan books to make interest-only and investor loans more expensive.

The Australian dollar jumped after the release of the approvals data, and figures showing a sharper than expected increase in construction work done in the June quarter.

The local currency was trading at 79.89 US cents at 1545 AEST, up from 79.67 US cents ahead of the release of data at 1130 AEST.

Rohingya, others caught between fighting, border

Rohingya Muslims and others fleeing towards Bangladesh to escape violence in western Myanmar are facing the twin dangers of sickness and exile.

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A series of attacks on security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last week, allegedly by Rohingya rebels, has triggered a mass migration by villagers.

Over a hundred people have been killed in the clashes, most of them militants but also including civilians and members of the security forces.

Still, authorities in Bangladesh are trying to stop people and send them back into Myanmar.

People caught in between, like this woman Win who fears the Rohingya militants, say they cannot go home.

“I will not live there again, even if someone gives us gold or money. I will live if there are no more Muslims. I will not live at all if there are Muslims. I feel bad from my heart. My husband was also killed, as they slit his neck.”

This Rohingya woman, identifying herself only as Begum, says the Rohingya fleeing the violence have no choice either.

“In Myanmar, they are killing us. They burn our houses, killing Muslims, and, because of that, we have come here. They rounded us up with helicopters, looted our belongings, chasing and killing our men. They killed many people. So we came here.”

Conflict has simmered since last October, when a smaller series of Rohingya militant attacks on security posts prompted a fierce military response.

Myanmar’s national security adviser, Thaung Tu, has condemned the latest violence by the militants.

“It is a crime against Myanmar citizens. It is a crime against your country. It is crime against civilised nations that cannot be accepted by the civilised world.”

The United Nations has focused on the fighting in the area, issuing a plea that civilians be allowed to seek shelter.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, says the recent events can be put down to years of civil-liberty breaches.

“I utterly condemn the violent attacks on security personnel, which have led to the loss of many lives and the displacement of thousands of people. Unfortunately, what we feared appears to be occurring. Decades of persistent and systematic human-rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing.”

Bangladesh border guards reportedly have sent about 550 Rohingya back to Myanmar.

Still, more than 8,700 have registered in Bangladesh since late last week.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots that go back centuries.

 

Trump visits Texas as storm damage grows

Tropical storm Harvey is not going anywhere fast, the slow-moving nature of the storm causing further havoc and catching authorities by surprise.

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Thousands of people across the state have been affected by the intense weather conditions, which have brought the city of Houston to a standstill.

Among the dead is a Houston police officer.

The city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, relayed the news in an emotional press conference.

“This morning at 8am, the dive team was out there again, which was their number one priority, and, within 20 minutes, they found him. Unfortunately, in the darkness, Sergeant Perez drove into an underpass that’s about 16-and-a-half feet (5m) deep, drove into the water, and he died in a flood drowning-type event.”

Residents in Texas’s south-eastern Harris County were told to leave as workers released water to alleviate pressure on reservoirs built to handle drainage waters.

They had begun to overflow.

The Pentagon, which would usually be in recovery mode by this stage, says it is instead preparing for further calls for help as the storm continues to sit over the Gulf of Mexico.

Officials say shelters are struggling to cope with the demand, with the main shelter housed in a downtown convention centre at nearly double its capacity.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner has appealed for greater resources.

“The reality is that not only are we providing shelter for Houstonians, but we are also providing shelter for people who are coming from outside the city of Houston, who have been directly impacted by the storm. We’re not turning anyone away, but it does mean that we need to expand our capabilities and our capacity.”

At least one site south of Houston has had its rainfall record broken by Harvey, recording 1.25 metres of precipitation since the storm began.

Around 3,500 people have already been rescued in the Houston area, and police say they are seeing instances of looting.

The crisis has drawn comparisons to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when then-president George W. Bush faced criticism over his response as almost 2,000 people died.

Speaking in Corpus Christi, where Harvey first made landfall, US president Donald Trump says he wants to set a precedent for disaster management.

“This was of epic proportion. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And I just want to say that working with the governor and his entire team has been an honour for us. So, Governor, again, thank you very much. And we won’t say congratulations, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to congratulate. We will congratulate each other when it’s all finished.”

Mr Trump planned to head next to the state’s capital, Austin, because he could not reach Houston in the hazardous conditions.

The United Nations says climate change could be responsible for the hurricane’s ferocity.

It says rising temperatures are likely to blame for increased humidity and heavier rainfalls.

Rebuilding efforts are expected to take years and cost billions of dollars.

Houston resident Jose Gonzalez says the mental scars will take longer to heal.

“It’s bad, man. It’s terrible. It’s really bad. The water is way … it’s almost, I want to say, up to my knees, just about, but it’s really bad over there. Nobody expected this.”

 

Billabong’s Australian earnings disappoint

Weak consumer spending and an outmoded bikini range in Australia has weighed on surfwear retailer and wholesaler Billabong’s annual earnings, the group’s chief executive Neil Fiske says.

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The group’s $51.1 million in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) was up 2.8 per cent, in constant currency terms, on the prior year, excluding significant items and the discontinuation of swimwear brand Tigerlily which was sold in April.

However, this was below Billabong’s forecast of EBITDA between $52 million and $57 million.

Revenue from continuing operations was down nine per cent to $979.5 million in the year to June 30, while sales revenue fell 6.7 per cent, in constant currency terms.

Mr Fiske said the major drag on the result was Australia.

“If it was not for the widely reported weak retail conditions in Australia we would have been well up in the guidance range,” Mr Fiske said.

“Not all of the weakness can be attributed to market conditions.

“We had some misses in our execution that weighed on our result, notably in brand Billabong and to a lesser extent Element.”

He said the group had stuck to a successful formula it had used in the prior year in women’s swimwear in Australia, only to fall behind the trends, something they were ahead of in the US.

“Recognising this, we quickly tested the US range in our Billabong stores and got a stronger outcome,” he said.

Mr Fiske said the group had continued the turnaround in its largest market, the Americas, which had shown significant improvement in sales and gross margins in the second half.

The group made an $8.4 million loss before significant items but this ballooned to $77.1 million when total impairment charges of $106.5 million and the discontinuation of Tigerlily were included.

The majority of significant items were related to brands and goodwill writedowns while $11.7 million was linked to the termination of a contract with an omni-channel provider.

Mr Fiske said market conditions remain challenging, particularly in Australia, but the group expects sustained earnings growth driven by increasing gross margins.

Billabong expects EBITDA for the current financial year to exceed the 2017 financial year’s, subject to reasonable trading conditions and currency markets remaining relatively stable.

Shares in Billabong gained half a cent to 75.5 cents.

IMPAIRMENTS WEIGH ON BILLABONG:

* Loss of $77.1m vs $23.7m loss

* Revenue down 8.9pct to $979.45m

* No dividend

Infrastructure ‘tsunami’ to boost Boral

Building materials maker Boral expects Australia’s property market to ease this financial year but predicts strong growth on the back of a wave of major infrastructure projects.

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The company boosted profit in the year to June 30 by 16 per cent to $296.9 million, helped by higher building activity in Australia and improved earnings from its US operations.

Excluding significant items, its full-year profit rose 27.9 per cent to $343 million, while revenue was up 1.8 per cent per cent to $4.4 billion.

Chief executive Mike Kane said the results were underpinned by growth in each of Boral’s divisions: Australia, North America and the USG Boral joint venture.

Boral Australia in the 2018 financial year is expected to deliver higher earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) than in FY17, excluding property, which is tipped to be in the lower end of the historic range of $8 million to $46 million.

Value of work done in its roads, highways, subdivisions and bridges segment increased by 14 per cent year-on-year in FY17 and is tipped to grow by a further 15 per cent this financial year.

Boral Construction Materials and Cement managing director Joe Goss said several major projects were moving from the engineering stage into construction.

“We have been talking about … this big tsunami coming on involving projects where we are finally getting into the phase where the engineering work is done and we’re actually putting a lot of materials on the ground,” he said.

Boral is involved in projects such as the Warrego Highway stage 2 and Kingsford Smith Drive in Queensland, and Sydney Metro, while it is tendering for a range of work including Melbourne Metro.

It expects housing starts in Australia to fall around 12 per cent to about 190,000 in FY18, while housing starts in the US are forecast to lift eight per cent to 1.29 million.

Mr Kane said Boral anticipated greater savings through synergies following its $US2.6 billion acquisition of North American building products and fly ash company Headwaters than its earlier forecast $US100 ($A125 million) a year within four years of the deal’s closing.

“I am more optimistic today than I was when we announced this deal,” he said.

Boral shares dropped 20 cents, or 2.9 per cent, to a three month low of $6.63.

BORAL’S FULL-YEAR PROFIT RISES:

* Net profit up 16pct to $296.9m

* Revenue up 1.8pct to $4.4b

* Final 50-per cent franked dividend of 12 cents a share, up 0.5 cents

Australian hospitals drive Ramsay’s growth

Private hospital operator Ramsay Health Care expects its Australian operations will remain the group’s powerhouse as demand for hospital services continues to grow.

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Managing director Craig McNally says demand for hospital services is underpinned by a growing and ageing population, increased chronic disease, innovative treatments and new technology.

Ramsay operates hospitals in Australia, France, the UK, Malaysia and Indonesia, and lifted its net profit by nine per cent to $488.9 million in the 2016/17 financial year.

Growth in admissions and procedural volumes boosted revenue in its Australian operations by seven per cent, and earnings rose 14 per cent to $650 million.

“Australia remains the powerhouse of the business,”‘ Mr McNally said.

He expects strong growth in the Australian hospital business to continue in the 2017/18 financial year, fuelled by ongoing growth in hospital utilisation rates, upgrades of existing hospitals and new facilities.

“Strong growth in our Australian business will continue, but we do anticipate more challenging environments in Europe – tariff environments are going to get more difficult for FY18,” Mr McNally said.

He said Ramsay’s operations in the UK and France performed to expectations in 2016/17 as governments in both countries made changes to their respective national tariff, which governs the pricing of healthcare services.

Ramsay is not expecting earnings growth in the UK and France in 2017/18.

Mr McNally said the company is continuing to expand its pharmacy franchise network, and will have 55 retail pharmacies once current contracts are completed.

The expansion of the pharmacy network proved slower than anticipated in 2016/17 because of regulatory processes.

Ramsay is targeting core earnings per share growth of between eight and 10 per cent in 2017/18.

Equities researcher Citi said Ramsay’s net profit was in line with expectations but its revenue was slightly weaker, as was its earnings per share and guidance for earnings per share.

Ramsay shares dropped $3.78, or 5.3 per cent, to $68.10, their lowest level since March.

AUSSIE HOSPITALS DRIVE RAMSAY HEALTH’S PROFIT GROWTH:

* Net profit up 8.6pct to $488.9m

* Revenue up 0.2pct to $8.7b

* Final fully-franked dividend up 9.5 cents to 81.5 cents

Brad Scott continues as North’s AFL coach

Feeling the job’s only half done, newly re-signed coach Brad Scott says he never contemplated leaving North Melbourne.

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Scott will become the longest serving coach of the Kangaroos, surpassing Denis Pagan, if he sees out his new two-year deal that takes him through until the end of the 2020 AFL season.

Already signed for next year, Scott said the extension was backing from the club of the current rebuild, which saw them finish 15th this season with just six wins.

“I’ve been extremely impressed with the way the club has stuck to the strategy this year through periods of adversity,” Scott told reporters on Wednesday.

“When the wins aren’t mounting and the losses start to stack up, people can falter at times – even if you do have a solid strategy but the football club has been rock solid.”

Scott’s new deal ends speculation he had topped the wishlist of rivals Gold Coast.

The 41-year-old, who became coach in 2010, said he had always remained committed to North despite media speculation linking him elsewhere.

“I would expect people would approach my management … but I was certainly not keen to explore any other options,” Scott said.

“The media speculation was out of control … I have been very clear in telling everyone exactly the process we would go through.

“It was purely to work out I was still the best fit for North Melbourne and as soon as they came to that conclusion it very quickly got to this result.”

Scott refused to buy into talk about North being frontrunners to steal Richmond star Dustin Martin with a seven-figure offer or lure Josh Kelly from the Giants.

He did say that the future of a number of their players, including veteran Jarrad Waite, were on hold.

“There are some really tough decisions you have got to make on individuals and we have a really strong philosophy that we’re club-first,” he said.

“We can’t give Jarrad and the others exact scenarios because we’re very fluid in our list build at the moment.”

Scott said he couldn’t put a timeline on when the Kangaroos would again play finals because he felt it was dependent on the other 17 AFL clubs.

But he was confident North had the right plans in place.

“We’ve got a really clear strategy and we’ve got to stick to that and I’m confident if we follow that through success will come,” he said.

Broncos can still win title: Bennett

A worrying stat may suggest otherwise but Wayne Bennett insists Brisbane can still win the NRL premiership ahead of Thursday night’s crunch clash with North Queensland.

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Bennett claimed the Broncos had moved on from last round’s shock 52-34 loss to Parramatta and believed they were “in as good a position as anyone” to claim the 2017 title.

Brisbane are guaranteed a top four spot and can finish as high as second with victory over a desperate North Queensland in Townsville.

However, their premiership credentials took a major hit from the Parramatta juggernaut last round.

It was just the second time in Broncos club history they had conceded 50 points at Suncorp Stadium.

But a much more concerning stat was expected to trouble Bennett ahead of the NRL finals – no team has conceded 50 points in a game and gone on to win the title in the same season.

Yet Bennett believed Brisbane were still on track for title No.7.

“We are in as good a position as anyone else,” Bennett said of claiming the title.

“A lot of teams aren’t going to be playing next week.

“All of our critics didn’t think we would make the eight so who knows what we can do from here.”

Bennett reacted to last round’s rout by calling in defensive specialist and ex-Broncos hardman Peter Ryan for a morning of brutal tackling drills on Monday.

However, Bennett claimed he was so convinced that last round’s loss was an aberration that he reckoned he did not sit his team down to address the thumping.

“To be honest with you I haven’t actually,” he said.

“And if they had been doing that all season it wouldn’t matter.

“But they haven’t been doing that all season – 21 out of 22 games ain’t bad.

“The team is not built on one defensive display good, bad or indifferent.

“We do it pretty well most weeks. We just had a bad day.”

Another key injury also could not waver Bennett’s faith in his side.

Brisbane received a blow when they lost form prop Korbin Sims (broken arm) for the season against the Eels.

He joins hooker Andrew McCullough (knee) who went down five weeks ago.

Sam Thaiday initially helped fill in for McCullough at rake but will now slot into the front row for Sims with Ben Hunt the starting No.9.

“I have been pretty pleased with how we have covered them (injuries) – I think we are in pretty good shape,” Bennett said.

“We are not overachieving by any means, but there is a lot of upside to this team.”

Bennett confirmed form backrower Alex Glenn would play despite missing Wednesday training with a groin complaint.