Interest rate change key risk: Future Fund

The Future Fund sees rising interest rates around the world as the key risk to investment over the next few years, warning accommodative monetary policy is “unsustainable”.

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Interest rates rises “mechanically” have an impact on the value of assets, the fund’s chief executive officer David Neal told a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

“It’s possible that can be offset. If we have a very buoyant global economy that risk need not materially impair asset prices.”

Earlier the fund – set up in 2006 to cover future superannuation liabilities of public servants – released an update of its portfolio for the September quarter showing it has grown to $134.5 billion.

The fund has added $74 billion since its inception and returned 7.8 per cent over the past 10 years, comfortably ahead of its mandated target which equates to 6.8 per cent.

The mandate was from July 1 trimmed to inflation plus four to five per cent, from 4.5 to 5.5 per cent, to better cope with the present investment environment.

Meanwhile, the federal government has confirmed it will not be drawing down from the fund until 2026 rather than 2021 as initially envisaged.

In both cases, Mr Neal said the fund has not had to change its investment structure.

In August, chairman Peter Costello dismissed suggestions that given the Future Fund’s success it could run as a superannuation default fund.

Since then, the former federal treasurer, who was not at Tuesday’s hearing, has spruiked the idea of workers superannuation being run by a new government agency.

Quizzed on the issue, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the hearing he was not aware of the government considering such an agency.

Government hit with ‘surge’ of citizenship applications after Dutton’s bill fails in Senate

The Department of Immigration has received a rush of applications for Australian citizenship this week, after the government failed to pass sweeping reforms that included a tougher English language test.

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Department officials said citizenship applications had fallen to a low “plateau” since immigration minister Peter Dutton announced the crackdown in April.

But last week the government missed a deadline to pass the bill through the Senate, sparking a new rush on applications.

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“Since the announcement last week there’s been another surge,” Immigration Department official Christine Dacey told Senate Estimates on Monday evening.

The bill would have increased waiting times for permanent residents from one to four years, as well as introducing a new English language exam and a test on “Australian values”.

Ms Dacey said there was another spike when the changes were first announced in April.

“There was a very large spike on or about the 20th of April, and then there was kind of a plateau, which was lower than compared to 12 months ago,” she said.

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Last week, Mr Dutton confirmed the government would redraft its citizenship reforms and try again to pass them through the Senate.

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He said the government was willing to accept migrants who pass an English entrance exam at the Band 5 on the international testing standard, rather than Band 6 as previously proposed.

The tougher Band 6 test was a major sticking point in the Senate, including for the crucial Nick Xenophon Team on the crossbench. Band 5 is described as “modest” English user, rather than a “competent” one.

But there is no indication yet that any of the senators who voted against the bill have changed their minds. 

More than 118,000 people are waiting for their Australian citizenship applications to be processed by immigration department officials.

Mr Dutton confirmed those waiting for a response to their applications would now be processed under the existing rules. 

Digital clouds to help Qld agriculture

Queensland farmers will be relying on a different type of cloud to cultivate their crops with the state government funding research that allows plant monitoring systems to text growers when conditions are not right.

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Farmers often need to develop solutions specific for the Queensland climate and a $300,000 grant has been given to Dr Stephen Xu to work on a cloud-based system that checks soil moisture, air temperature and plants’ water consumption.

“There are some smart systems available for broad acreage farms but they are often expensive so it’s hard for farmers to deploy many of them,” Science and Innovation Minister Leeanne Enoch said.

“Dr Xu is trying to come up with a solution that is not only cheaper but can also integrate a wide range of data from different information platforms.”

Horticulture is the second-largest primary industry in the state and Dr Xu aims to have a system working within 18 months.

“I believe an integration of conventional knowledge and cutting-edge information technologies – like sensors, mobile network, the Internet of Things, cloud information platforms and big data processing – will be the future of agriculture,” Dr Xu said.

He will work on facilities in the Bundaberg region to develop a prototype.

Once the project has been completed, Dr Xu said he would consider building a generic system that could be adapted to other crops in different regions.

Testing has already begun at a Department of Agriculture and Fisheries greenhouse in the Burdekin, where recycled mobile phones have been used for crop monitoring.

“Deployment of state-of-art information technologies will stimulate the agriculture sector to enter an ‘information intensive’ era in the next a few decades,” Dr Xu said.

‘Reckless decision’: Christine Forster slams Sydney council for offering free same-sex weddings

City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, an advocate for the ‘Yes’ campaign, labelled the decision to provide free facilities for same-sex marriage weddings as “reckless”.

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Labor councillor Linda Scott and Lord Mayor Clover Moore moved a motion on Monday night to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in the halls and facilities of Sydney for free if same-sex marriage was legalised.

The promise for free same-sex marriage weddings will last 100 days, but will not affect the existing bookings of heterosexual couples already using the facilities.

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But Cr Forster voted against the motion because it goes against everything the Marriage Equality campaign has fought to achieve.

“You can’t replace old discrimination with new discrimination,” Cr Forster told SBS News.

“This has been a fight all about equality for everyone before the law. So to me, it flies in the face of the core principles we’ve been fighting for.

Liberal Party Councillor (And sister of Tony Abbott) Christine Forster and Partner Virginia Edwards, while attending a Same Sex Marriage “Yes” campaign event.AAP

“I tried to change this motion on the floor of councils so it included all couples, but that was defeated by Clover Moore and the Labor councillor [Linda Scott]. But really I think it’s wrong that we exclude heterosexual couples, that is discriminatory.”

Cr Forster hoped the “reckless” decision did not persuade any late voters to change their mind after the ‘Yes’ campaign’s tireless efforts.

“It would be truly terrible if this reckless decision, a reckless move by the City of Sydney Council, persuaded even one voter not to vote yes,” she told SBS News.

“This just sends the wrong signal.”

“What we have been fighting for is marriage to become more inclusive, not exclusive. It’s been exclusive in the past.

“The reality is we should be inviting every couple that wants to get married, under an amended marriage act if that’s what happens. We want to be able to celebrate all marriages.”Christine Forster posted a response following the City of Sydney decision.Facebook

The Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore said in a statement the decision was simply rebalancing the scales.

“We’re making this gesture in the spirit of celebration and welcoming same-sex couples to this institution, to which they have been denied access so long — we are simply doing what we can to rebalance the scales,” she said in a statement.

“And the day after the amendments become law – we will also work with the Sydney Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to hold a mass same-sex wedding extravaganza in Sydney Town Hall.”

The Coalition for Marriage released a response slamming the decision claiming ratepayers could be funding the celebration of same-sex weddings.

“By promising to continue its already extensive and expensive ‘Yes’ campaign advocacy even if a ‘Yes’ vote prevails, the City of Sydney is sending a clear message that a change in marriage law will have consequences for everyone, including ratepayers whose money will be used to fund the celebration of same-sex weddings,” a statement to SBS News said.

“Many Sydney residents are rightly concerned about the impact of gay marriage on free speech, freedom of belief and their ability to protect their kids from exposure to MA-rated materials in school.

“This gesture indicates that the City of Sydney is ignoring the serious concerns held by many Sydneysiders.”

The result of the same-sex marriage survey will be released on November 15.

0:00 Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, endorses marriage equality in Yes Campaign video Share Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, endorses marriage equality in Yes Campaign video

If it’s a ‘Yes’ vote, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised to allow a private member’s bill to be introduced to the parliament in the final sitting fortnight of 2017 to change the definition of marriage.

That is the last week of November and the first week in December, meaning same-sex marriage could be legal in Australia by Christmas.

SBS News has contacted the City of Sydney Council for comment.

North Korea threat ‘critical, imminent,’ Japan tells US, South Korea

Onodera’s remarks underscored the deep concern in Tokyo after North Korean weapons tests, including test firing missiles over Japan, as Pyongyang seeks to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

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His comments broke from more measured language on Monday by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo, as the three men met on the sidelines of a gathering of Asian defense chiefs in the Philippines.

“(The) threat posed by North Korea has grown to the unprecedented, critical and imminent level. Therefore, we have to take calibrated and different responses to meet with that level of threat,” he said, speaking through a translator, at the start of talks in the Philippines.

0:00 What ties North Korea and China? Share What ties North Korea and China?

South Korea’s Song also acknowledged that “North Korea’s provocative behavior is becoming worse and worse,” in public remarks before reporters were escorted out of the meeting room.

Mattis renewed sharp criticism of North Korea’s tests, saying they “threaten regional and global security.”

Mattis, who kicked off a week-long trip to the region on Monday, has been eager to emphasize diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully as escalating tension between Washington and Pyongyang stoked fears of ‘armed confrontation.’

Asked about his conversation with Onodera after the two met earlier in the day, before joining South Korea’s Song, Mattis said they discussed “maintaining stability and peace in support of the diplomats.”

Meanwhile, former US President Jimmy Carter said he is willing to travel to North Korea on behalf of the Trump administration to help diffuse the situation, the New York Times reported.

Mattis has been more cautious in his public remarks than US President Donald Trump, who has been locked in a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatening to destroy North Korea if necessary to defend the United States and its allies.

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Kim has blasted Trump as “mentally deranged.”

0:00 Residents of Hiroshima talk about the terror of nuclear missiles and their lasting legacy Share Residents of Hiroshima talk about the terror of nuclear missiles and their lasting legacy

Grave concern

Mattis is at the start of a week-long trip to Asia and will attend meetings hosted by defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines.

ASEAN defense ministers, in a joint statement, expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.

They underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula.”

Mattis’ trip, which will include a stop in Thailand, comes before Trump’s first visit to Asia next month, including a stop in China.

Trump has been pressuring China to do more to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. China is North Korea’s neighbor and biggest trading partner.

Mattis, while in the Philippines, said he will commend the military for defeating insurgents in Marawi City on the islandof Mindanao.

The Philippines said on Monday it has ended five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.

Some experts see the Marawi insurgency as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by Islamic State loyalists to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.

“It was a tough fight,” Mattis told reporters on his flight to the Philippines, adding he thought the Philippines’ military had sent “a very necessary message to the terrorists.”

On Thursday, Mattis will lead the US delegation in Thailand for the cremation rites for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Trump hits back at widow’s claims he didn’t remember fallen US soldier’s name

The pregnant widow of an American soldier killed in an ambush in Niger said Monday that Donald Trump had struggled to remember his name during a condolence call, in an account the president immediately disputed.

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Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband Sergeant La David Johnson was one of four US soldiers killed in the October 4 jihadist attack, has generated a storm of controversy that is now heading into its second week.

“Yes, the president said that he knew what he signed up for but it hurts anyways,” Johnson said on ABC’s Good Morning America TV program, in her first public comments on the death of her 25-year-old husband.

“And I was – it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it.”

I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2017

Myeshia Johnson, who is carrying the couple’s third child, said she “heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name and that hurt me the most.”

“The only way he remembered my husband’s name because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David.”

Myeshia Johnson, the wife of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, looks down at his casket after his burial at the Hollywood Memorial Gardens in Hollywood, FloridaAAP

The US president fired right back on Twitter, insisting: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”

Details of Trump’s call were made public last week by a Democratic congresswoman who claimed the president had offended Johnson’s widow, drawing accusations from the White House of politicizing the issue.

The escalating row prompted Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly, a former general whose son died in Afghanistan, to deliver an emotive defense of the president — while lashing out at the Florida congresswoman, Frederica Wilson.

Myeshia Johnson told ABC Wilson’s account of the call was “100 per cent correct,” saying she was a lifelong family friend and had listened in over a speakerphone.

“Whatever Miss Wilson said was not fabricated,” Johnson said. “Why would we fabricate something like that?”

Asked if she had any words for the president, she replied: “No. I don’t have nothing to say to him.”

0:00 Top US general says no sign soldiers in Niger took too many risks Share Top US general says no sign soldiers in Niger took too many risks

Trump himself kicked off the furor early last week by falsely claiming that Barack Obama and other former US leaders did not call the families of fallen soldiers.

As the controversy escalated, the president went on to claim that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since taking office.

That has reportedly left his administration scrambling, with four families of servicemembers receiving rush-delivered letters from the White House in recent days, according to the Atlantic.

Bega tight-lipped on Murray Goulburn

Bega Cheese has remained tight-lipped about whether it is pursuing a potential takeover of troubled dairy processor Murray Goulburn but has said it has a strong enough balance sheet to fund growth opportunities, including acquisitions.

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Bega Cheese and Canadian dairy giant Saputo are believed to be among the front runners for acquiring Murray Goulburn.

Murray Goulburn confirmed in September that it has had approaches from a number of suitors interested in either buying some assets or taking over the whole co-operative.

Bega Cheese executive chairman Barry Irwin and chief executive Paul van Heerwaarden did not mention Murray Goulburn at its annual general meeting at Kalaru in NSW on Tuesday.

But Mr van Heerwaarden did say Bega’s very strong balance sheet put the company in a position to consider growth opportunities, including those in dairy and those that went beyond dairy products.

“Bega Cheese has always maintained a strong balance sheet believing that we should be in a position to respond to business opportunities if and when they present themselves,” Mr van Heerwaarden said.

Murray Goulburn is expected to say more about the sale process at its annual general meeting on Friday.

Mr Irwin told Bega shareholders that Bega had become the company of choice for Australian dairy farmers over the past few years.

“We’ve had a phenomenal inquiry from dairy farmers wanting to transfer supply to us,” Mr Irwin said.

“We did accept some in the 2017 financial year and have clearly taken more this year as our capacity has allowed us to.”

In August, Murray Goulburn reported a $370.8 million loss for the year to June 30 amid plummeting milk supplies.

Dairy suppliers have been deserting the co-operative after it unexpectedly slashed its farmgate milk price in April 2016, sparking chaos across the industry

Mr Irwin on Tuesday also said Bega’s nutritionals business had returned to stability, and there were further growth opportunities in that area, the high-value dairy ingredients business and in the international and Australian food service and retail channels.

Bega shares were five cents higher at $7.70 at 1256 AEDT.

Backyard bird count off to a flying start

Whether they squawk or twitter, swoop or swim, Australia’s birds are being sought out for this year’s national count of our feathered friends.

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The week-long Aussie Backyard Bird Count is aiming to find a record 1.5 million birds before it wraps up on Sunday.

The count is now in its fourth year and organisers from conservation group Birdlife Australia are confident they can beat last year’s total of 1.4 million birds that were spotted by more than 61,000 people.

Birdlife Australia spokesman Sean Dooley says about 389,000 birds were recorded when this year’s count kicked off on Monday, with an estimated 6,000 people taking part on day one.

“That augurs well for a record count,” he told AAP on Tuesday.

To take part, you don’t need to be an expert twitcher or even have a traditional backyard.

A special Aussie Backyard Bird Count app helps identify various species, whether they appear in a backyard or apartment balcony, park, school playground, bushland reserve, by the beach or a wetland.

The rainbow lorikeet was the most common bird counted last year, followed by the noisy miner and Australian magpie.

Mr Dooley said the annual bird counts help fill in big gaps in knowledge about Aussie birds and have so far uncovered a wealth of interesting data, including the decline of sparrows in many urban areas and a drop off in kookaburra numbers in east coast cities.

“We actually have as many birds as we’ve ever had in our suburbs in terms of raw numbers but the number of species we have, the diversity, is dropping,” he said.

“So it might look on the surface like things are going well because you have thousands of rainbow lorikeets and noisy miners but if they are the only species surviving that has all sorts of implications for the urban environment.

“When you see the larger, more aggressive birds rising in number, like the magpies, currawongs, ravens, crows, butcher birds and noisy miners, you tend to get fewer small birds, which tend to be the insect eaters and do a great job of keeping insect numbers down.”

AUSSIE BIRD FACTS

* 1,403,788 birds were counted in the 2016 Great Aussie Bird Count

* 576 different species were identified

* Top three birds: rainbow lorikeet, noisy miner, Australian magpie

* People in NSW counted the most birds – 493,987

* More than 800 species of birds have been recorded in Australia

* 237 birds are listed as at risk, extinct, critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable

* Main threats to Aussie birds: change in habitat, predators, human activity

(Source: Birdlife Australia)

IS left trail of blood in Syrian town

The Islamic State militants came into the Syrian town with a hit list.

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By the time they left three weeks later, more than 100 civilians had been killed – shot or beheaded, their bodies dumped in farms and ditches.

The apparent revenge killings in the town of Qaryatayn underscore the ability of the extremists to inflict heavy losses even when they’re in retreat – and portend more violence as they fight to hang on to their last strongholds in Syria.

News of the gruesome slayings began to emerge late Sunday, after IS militants were driven out by advancing government troops.

Terrified residents said they watched the slaughter from their windows or in the streets.

“They came into town with a hit list,” said Abdullah AbdulKarim, adding that 35 of the 50 militants who overran the town late last month were originally from Qaryatayn. He said the militants accused many of their victims of collaborating with the government but many others were also caught in the revenge killing.

Once a predominantly Christian town known for its ancient monastery, Qaryatayn has changed hands between IS and the Syrian government several times during Syria’s civil war. Parts of the 1500-year-old St Elian monastery were demolished the first time IS took over the town in 2015 and thousands of its Christian residents fled.

An AP video, filmed as Syrian government troops recaptured Qaryatayn on Saturday, showed several bodies lying in the streets. A town resident said IS “monsters” killed more than 100 people, including soldiers and civilians.

“They killed children and women with knives, they beat women, broke their arms,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the killings of at least 128 people in Qaryatayn, including at least 12 killed by government forces on suspicion of aiding the IS militants.

AbdulKarim and Mohamed Hassan, an activist who runs the Palmyra Network News, put the death toll at 75 civilians, saying many more remain unaccounted for.

$31m promised for veterans’ mental health

The federal government has pledged an extra $31 million to help support veterans dealing with mental health issues and their families.

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Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan announced the funding in parliament on Tuesday as part of the government’s response to a recently completed Senate inquiry into veteran suicide.

Around $16 million will be spent over four years on a new payment for financially vulnerable veterans claiming mental health conditions.

Just over $7.1 million will go towards extended support for families of support, with a further $2.1 million for an annual health assessment for ex-serving Defence Force members in the first five years after discharge.

An additional $4 million will be used to pilot a case management program for transitioning recently discharged personnel, plus $1.7 million for a scoping study to professionalise veterans’ advocacy.

“I want to reiterate to the entire Australian Defence Force and ex-service community that this government will continue to prioritise mental health support for our veterans,” Mr Tehan told MPs.

Mr Tehan noted the story of veteran Jesse Bird, who died by suicide in June, and publicly apologised to his family and friends.

He conceded that departmental processes failed – or did not exist – to offer service to the 32-year-old, who was dealing with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“While struggling with all this, Jesse decided to end his life,” he said.

The case, which was subject to a review by Defence and Veterans’ Affairs, highlighted the issue of providing timely compensation and financial assistance to support veterans suffering mental health conditions.

“These issues let Jesse down as he was unable to get financial assistance when he needed it.”

The government has agreed to 22 of the committee’s 24 recommendations, including wide-ranging reviews of the department’s processes.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.

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