QBE now looking for growth

QBE boss John Neal has flagged higher dividends and solid growth in the insurance giant’s operations as he looks to draw a line under its turbulent recent history.

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QBE lifted its first half profit 24 per cent to $US488 million ($A661.74 million), putting it on track for its best full year result in five years.

It also lifted its interim dividend five cents to 20 cents per share and increased its payout ratio for next year from 50 per cent to 65 per cent, meaning greater returns to shareholders.

The result was a welcome change of pace for Mr Neal, whose first two years in the job were marred by a string of profit downgrades linked to underperforming businesses in the US and South America.

But those businesses have now been sold and the company is on track to have stripped out more than $US350 million in costs by the end of year, with another $100 million in savings expected to come next year.

Mr Neal is confident the turnaround is complete and says the insurer is now in a position to grow its gross written premium, the revenue it receives from customers’ insurance policies, by around three per cent a year over the longer term.

“We really have baselined our business,” he said. “In the last three years we have taken just north of $2 billion out of our top line – that’s a lot.

“But we have positioned our businesses to the point from where they can grow.”

Mr Neal said the first half result was also impacted by a $150 million increase in the cost of claims in Australia linked to what he said was the worst year for weather-related issues since 2011 – a year that included the Brisbane floods and Cyclone Yasi in north Queensland.

Rival insurer Suncorp took a more than $1 billion hit due to Australian weather events during the 2014/15 financial year.

Analysts expect QBE to post a full year profit of around $US900 million or higher for 2015, which would be its best result since 2010.

Meanwhile, returns from the company’s sizeable investment portfolio are expected to improve once the US Federal Reserve finally starts lifting interest rates – a move that could come as soon as September.

But Mr Neal has also warned the company faces a tough competitive environment in Australia and overseas, which is limiting its ability to lift premiums.

QBE shares climbed five cents to $14.02, which IG Market Strategist Evan Lucas said reflected relief among investors that there were no negative surprises from the insurer this year.

“They tend to over-promise and under deliver so this is an OK result,” he said.

QBE LIFTS PROFIT, INCREASES DIVIDEND

* Net profit up 24pct to $US488m

* Gross written premium up 3pct to $8.5b

* Interim dividend up five cents to 20 cents

Rabbitohs put faith in bad boy Paul Carter

South Sydney have turned to former bad boy Paul Carter to solve their hooking crisis while Bulldogs third-string rake Damien Cook will make just his fifth NRL appearance in Friday’s monster clash.

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Just as it was in last year’s season decider, this week’s grand final replay between the two teams may depend on which side reacts best to the loss of their dummy-half.

The Rabbitohs’ Luke is out of the ANZ Stadium showdown due to suspension with the No.9 to be worn by Carter, who was sacked by Gold Coast last year for drink-driving before being thrown a lifeline at Souths.

Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has put his faith in 24-year-old Cook after Michael Lichaa was ruled out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury.

With utility Josh Reynolds still several weeks away from returning from a knee injury, halfback Trent Hodkinson said he and his teammates had confidence in Cook.

“(Lichaa) is one of those players – your six, seven, fullback or nine is a big loss for you but we’ve got options there,” Hodkinson said.

“Young Damien Cook has been playing really good down in NSW Cup and if he gets a crack I’m sure he’ll be excited.

“We just want him to be strong, be clear and just get the forwards rolling on and be confident doing it and I know Damien will be.”

John Sutton has been named to replace suspended Rabbitohs five-eighth Luke Keary however he is struggling to overcome a buttock injury.

Broncos skipper Justin Hodges will be back from suspension for his side’s top-of-the-table showdown with the Sydney Roosters which looks likely to decide the minor premiership.

On the opposite side of the coin, the Roosters have questions marks over their three-quarter line with Blake Ferguson contesting a tripping charge at the NRL judiciary.

Trent Robinson has a handy replacement with Mitch Aubusson included on an extended bench while winger Brendan Elliot has been named in the starting team.

Halfback Benji Marshall will make a timely return for St George Illawarra as their top-eight hopes go on the line against Penrith.

Cronulla utility Ben Barba, who will miss two weeks with an ankle strain, has been replaced by Matt Prior on the bench.

Wests Tigers enforcer Martin Taupau will make his comeback from a three-week suspension while key trio Aaron Woods (knee), Luke Brooks (hand) and Robbie Farah (cheekbone) have all been named.

With Kane Elgey (hip) and Aidan Sezer (shoulder) out, Gold Coast will field a makeshift halves combination of Daniel Mortimer and Josh Hoffman.

Isaac De Gois will wear the Parramatta No.9 jersey with Nathan Peats out for the rest of the year with a broken neck.

Dale Finucane has been named by Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy but seems an unlikely starter after suffering a dislocated forearm against Cronulla on Monday.

Shoulder charge to be tested at judiciary

In a supreme test for rugby league’s new and controversial shoulder charge laws, three NRL players will fight their bans at the judiciary.

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For the first time since the governing body toughened its stance on the no-arms hit, Manly’s Jorge Taufua and the Sydney Roosters’ Aidan Guerra will contest their grade-one charges in a bid to play this weekend.

A third player, South Sydney’s Issac Luke, will also attempt to overturn the charge.

However the Rabbitohs rake will still miss at least one match after taking the early guilty plea for a separate dangerous throw charge.

Six players were cited by the match review committee (MRC) on Monday, bringing the players charged over the past fortnight to nine, instantly igniting rabid debate on whether the NRL has gone overboard in its attempt to stamp out the illegal tackle.

Players have expressed their confusion over rule changes which were made 11 days ago. There is a consensus there are cases where defenders believe they have no option but to brace for contact.

Roosters captain Jake Friend called for common sense to be applied.

“Whilst it might look like (a shoulder charge), it’s simply for impact – you’re bracing yourself,” he said.

“Hopefully some ex-players that have played footy, they’re the ones that can determine the difference rather than people that have never played the game.”

Friend admitted there was a growing fear that the NRL’s crackdown will have a massive impact on the upcoming finals series.

In fact, with Manly’s Willie Mason already sidelined for his innocuous hit, there are already repercussions.

“At this time in the year, it will impact the finals if it keeps going this way,” Friend said.

Canterbury chief executive Raelene Castle conceded there was an air of uncertainty around the new laws, but called for consistency on the governing of the tackle – particularly in the judicial system.

“It’s really difficult when you change a rule mid-season,” she said.

“What is a shoulder charge? What’s protecting yourself?”

The MRC’s Michael Buettner explained that there were indicators to how players were cited for the shoulder charge and urged coaches to enforce the message.

“The key components are the forceful contact, the upper arm tucked into the side of the upper body. It’s irrelevant what the lower arm does,” he said.

“And also at the same time, wrapping with both arms.

“So if they’re not present, then obviously that will be considered a shoulder charge.”

Two other players levelled with shoulder charge bans – Gold Coast’s Lachlan Burr and Canberra’s Jordan Rapana – copped one and two-game suspensions respectively.

Rabbitohs pivot Luke Keary accepted a one-game ban for his shoulder charge.

Six WA men avoid jail for child sex crimes

A former Perth teacher and five other men have avoided jail after pleading guilty to separate child sex charges against the same boy who lied about his age.

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Four of the men met the complainant, who was 14 and 15 at the time, via the dating apps Grindr and Gaydar and all believed he was older, the West Australian District Court heard on Tuesday.

Ex-teacher Shaun Tate, 44, pleaded guilty to three charges of sexually penetrating a child and was sentenced to an eight-month intensive supervision order.

The offences were not related to the school where Tate was employed before he was charged.

Defence lawyer Neville Barber said the boy admitted lying about his age on the phone apps, which required users to be at least 18 years old and that showed a callous disregard for those who responded to him.

“Who is the more recklessly indifferent here?” Mr Barber submitted.

He said while there was an age disparity, there was no power imbalance and the complainant conducted everything on his own terms.

Prosecutor Zarah Burgess submitted that people often lied online and it was when people met in person that they should make further inquiries, especially if the person appeared young.

Judge Julie Wager accepted Tate’s version of events and noted he was a person of integrity, had showed insight into his offending and was remorseful.

“You’re a person of good conduct and I’m sure you won’t offend again,” she said.

Allan Raymond McCullagh, 68, pleaded guilty to two offences of sexually penetrating a child and was sentenced to eight months prison, suspended for 12 months.

He had a previous record that dated back almost 30 years, the court heard.

Joseph Raymond Fonti, 48, pleaded guilty to 11 charges, including sexual penetration of a child and indecent dealings with a child, and was given a two-year intensive supervision order.

Paul Andrew Collins, 41, pleaded guilty to two sex charges and was given a 12-month intensive supervision order.

Edward James Harry Wilson, 25, pleaded guilty to six charges, including sexual penetration of a child and indecent dealings with a child, and was given a two-year intensive supervision order.

Michael Baine-Davies, 66, pleaded guilty to six charges, including sexual penetration of a child, and was given an 18-month intensive supervision order.

Chinese travellers give Syd Airport a lift

An influx of Chinese travellers to Australian shores has helped boost earnings for Sydney Airport.

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The number of international passengers travelling through the airport rose 2.8 per cent in the first six months of 2015.

Growth in passenger numbers from China was particularly strong, up 16.8 per cent.

Short-term visitors from China have more than tripled in the past decade, with 933,700 arriving in Australia during the 2014/15 financial year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Sydney Airport chief executive Kerrie Mather said nearly half of Chinese visitors travel to Australia via Sydney Airport.

That number is expected to rise as China’s middle class swells in the coming decade.

Ms Mather noted strong demand among passengers from India, Philippines and the United States had also underpinned growth.

“Growth in Chinese travellers through Sydney Airport accounted for 60 per cent of foreign nationality growth,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Australian nationality travellers, the largest market at approximately half of all international travellers, grew by a robust 2.1 per cent.”

Overall, total passenger numbers rose 2.1 per cent to 19 million during the six-month period.

The rise helped lift the airport’s total revenues 4.6 per cent to $594.7 million and boost underlying earnings 6.4 per cent to $488.3 million.

Upgraded baggage handling facilities and an 8.7 per cent rise in revenues from the airport’s car parking and ground transport business also helped drive revenue growth.

The company expects to build on its parking revenue by expanding facilities by 1,600 space, with existing parking resources hitting capacity during peak school holiday periods.

Meanwhile, the airport has sealed a deal with Qantas to take back control of its domestic Terminal 3, four years ahead of the lease expiry, in exchange for $535 million in cash.

The airport will take over the leases of 51 retail and food stores immediately, opening up new revenue streams and will assume control of advertising and valet parking businesses in 2019 when T3 opens up to other airlines.

The airport operator also hinted its interest in operating Sydney’s proposed second airport at Badgerys Creek.

Sydney Airport has first right of refusal to develop and operate the new facility, which is expected to be operating by 2025.

Ms Mather said Sydney Airport was continuing informal talks with the federal government, which is expected to outline its terms for the development and operation of the airport as early as December.

She said in other cities with dual international airports, it was common to see both encourage and support traffic growth.

SYDNEY AIRPORT FLYING HIGH

* Net profit: up 149.7pct to $134.6m

* Revenue: up 4.6pct to $594.7m

* Interim distribution: up one cent to 12.5 cents per security.

Electric shocks for abuse victim: inquiry

A ward of the state who was raped by older boys at Victoria’s Turana youth centre was subjected to a dozen electric shock treatments to cure him of his homosexuality, an inquiry has heard.

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Robert Cummings said the treatments started after he told an officer he was being abused by an older boy.

Mr Cummings, 60, told the child abuse royal commission that a doctor told him: “You’re here because you’re homosexual and we’re going to cure that with electric shock treatment.”

Mr Cummings said he was frogmarched by two “screws” to get the electric shock treatment, despite telling staff and doctors he was being abused, was not homosexual and did not want the therapy.

The then-15-year-old was subjected to 12 electric shock sessions over a two-month period in 1971, while still being raped by other residents of Turana.

Mr Cummings said he became a target when the other boys found out about the treatment.

“I was being called bum boy. I was abused by other boys on a frequent basis because they knew about the sessions at the hospital.”

Mr Cummings said he reported the abuse to the doctor who told him: “Well we need to up your dosage of electricity.”

“I remember screaming from the pain and being thrown from the chair,” he said.

At first he was given a shock when images of naked men appeared on a screen.

Later he was also shocked when a half-naked image of a woman appeared.

“The doctor said ‘we don’t want you to fixate on women’.”

Mr Cummings spent 41 years as a youth worker, returning to Turana as a recreation officer at age 19, in the hope of stopping what happened to him happening to anyone else.

Former residents have told the royal commission Turana was a brutal place where children were treated like car parts in a warehouse.

“We were looked after very much the same way as you look after car parts or old TV sets or something like that,” said witness BDB, who cannot be identified.

“We had no one to talk to. People weren’t interested whether we did well in school, in fact, if we attended school.”

BDB, who grew up as a boy but now lives as a woman, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a youth at Turana in 1965.

BDB banged on the locked dorm room’s door and yelled to go to the toilet to avoid the boy’s nightly visit.

“I was pretty frightened of him and I really didn’t like what was going on,” BDB said.

BDB said an officer told her to sit in the tea room while they waited for the youth to go to sleep. The officer then exposed himself to BDB and asked her to touch him.

“I remember him telling me everything was OK while he was doing this.”

BDB did not report the abuse.

“There was a culture in Turana that if you told on someone, lagging as they called it, you would get a beating.”

Abuse survivor Joseph Marijancevic said Poplar House, the high-security section of Turana, was a brutal place and there were three riots during his six-month stay in 1966.

“One of the screws beat up one of the lads so badly they had to take him to hospital,” Mr Marijancevic said on Tuesday.

“They dished out treatment that shouldn’t be dished out to adults, let alone children.”

The public hearing focused on the Turana, Winlaton and Baltara state-run youth centres has heard children were sexually abused by staff members, social workers and other child residents.

AFP offer to help probe Bangkok bombing

Australian Federal Police have offered their expertise to investigate the Bangkok bombing, which authorities say was aimed at foreigners.

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At least 20 people were killed and 123 wounded when a bomb was detonated outside the Erawan Shrine late on Monday, in what is said to be the worst attack on Thai soil.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said authorities were hunting a male suspect seen on CCTV footage in the area before the blast.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament the “vicious attack” was clearly aimed at innocent people, but no Australians were known to have been harmed.

The AFP has offered forensic and investigative assistance to the Royal Thai Police and are awaiting a formal response from Thai authorities.

“Australians should continue to go to Thailand because the objective of the sorts of people who let off bombs in crowded cities is to scare us from being ourselves and we should never be intimidated by that,” Mr Abbott said.

However, anyone travelling to the country should exercise caution.

Melbourne man Hussain Masri witnessed the aftermath of the blast and said the scene was dominated by fire and the sounds of people screaming.

“After the blast it was so scary, especially seeing bodies and limbs and motorbikes on fire and the smell – the smell of burning,” he said.

Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes and his family narrowly escaped the blast when he took a different route as they were walking toward the shrine.

“I had the pram with the grandson … walking past the shrine would have been very difficult because it’s a bumpy road. So I said to the kids ‘follow me, I’ll take you this other way’,” Barnes told AAP from his Bangkok hotel room.

Queensland woman Grace Evans, 68, a regular visitor to Thailand, fears more bombs.

“I just feel in my heart there is more to come; I really do and that’s why I really, really want to go home,” she said.

Melissa Bennett, 37, and her 15-year-old daughter, Georgia, are returning to Australia on Tuesday on a scheduled flight.

“We’re leaving today and I’m glad,” Ms Bennett said. “I heard a siren this morning and felt that panic, so I’m glad that we’re going today,” she said.

But Sue Reeves, 57, who was in Thailand during the 2010 street protests, was more positive.

“We’re going to be a bit cautious today until there is more found out about (the bombers) before we venture outside the hotel,” Ms Reeves said.

“We’ve still got another three nights in Bangkok and I expect probably tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll get on with what we planned to do.”

Qantas says Australians who want to get out of Bangkok can book earlier flights home.

Travellers who want to cancel future flights into the city can opt to change their destination, or get a credit on their unused tickets.

Since 2006 Bangkok has witnessed repeated rounds of deadly political violence, flanked by two coups. Until Monday though, foreigners had rarely been caught up in the bloodshed.

Mood improving among consumers

A positive tone is emerging among Australians as the Abbott government continues its renewed focus on the economy.

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“Every single day this government is focused on jobs and growth,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament on Tuesday, in what has now become a familiar line in his question time responses.

Whether or not voters are listening, among a smattering of new economic figures, consumer confidence edged higher to be above its long-term average.

The ANZ-Roy Morgan weekly consumer confidence gauge rose by 0.6 per cent, reaching a one-and-a-half month high.

ANZ economists were surprised by the result given the gyrations in financial markets last week resulting from the unexpected devaluation in the Chinese yuan.

Just a few weeks ago sentiment had plunged over worries that the economic problems of China and Greece might impact Australia.

Commonwealth Securities chief economist Craig James believes confidence is stuck in a grove that is far from negative, but he also issued a warning that politicians should heed.

“The greatest threat to consumer confidence is the negativity of major political parties,” he said.

Among other figures, motor vehicles sales are almost four per cent higher than a year ago, while the minutes of the Reserve Bank’s August 4 board meeting provided an optimistic tone.

While the minutes are somewhat dated with the central bank having released its in-depth quarterly monetary policy statement just a few weeks ago, it was a reminder that it is getting more comfortable with the present level of interest rates.

“Increasingly (it) looks like being an extended period of unchanged Australian interest rates at two per cent,” National Australia Bank’s chief economist (markets) Ivan Colhoun said.

However, amidst all this position news on the economy, there was some not-so-good news for Treasurer Joe Hockey.

The latest weekly Essential Research survey showed a further deterioration in how people perceived his performance.

While 31 per cent said he was doing a good job, 48 per cent disapproved – producing a net score of minus 17 points compared with minus 12 in July 2014.

This was despite a positive response to his second budget in May.

Barca coach Luis Enrique wants Pedro situation resolved

Pedro revealed last month the Spanish and European champions had received offers for him after agreeing to trim the size of his buyout clause to 30 million euros ($33.

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3 million).

Media reports suggested the 28-year-old might seal a move to English champions Chelsea, although Manchester United are said to be the current favourites to secure his services.

Although Pedro started Monday’s Spanish Super Cup second leg against Athletic Bilbao in the absence of the unavailable Neymar, Luis Enrique is expected to give him limited playing time again this term with a settled forward line of the Brazilian, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

“It’s a difficult situation and it’s hard (for Pedro) to stay focussed,” Luis Enrique told a news conference after Barca fell 5-1 on aggregate to Bilbao.

“I want the market to damn well close so that I know who I can count on,” the former Barca and Spain midfielder added.

Barca’s defeat to Bilbao ended their hopes of a clean sweep of all six trophies they are contesting in 2015, something they became the first and only side to achieve in 2009.

They have won four titles this year — the Champions League, La Liga, the King’s Cup and the European Super Cup — and play at the Club World Cup in December.

Luis Enrique looks certain to be without centre back Gerard Pique for Sunday’s opening La Liga match at Bilbao, when Barca launch their bid for a sixth title in eight years.

Pique was shown a straight red card 10 minutes into the second half of Monday’s match at the Nou Camp for insulting one of the assistant referees.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers; Editing by John O’Brien)

Colonel Hadfield believes we’re not alone

Former Canadian astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield believes we are not alone in the universe.

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Hadfield, who has travelled to space several times, worked on the International Space Station and is one of those rare human beings who’s had the chance to actually walk in space.

He says it would be conceited to believe we are the only ones out there.

“We always guessed that we’re not alone in the universe. We’d like to think that we’re the centre of the universe, we’d like to think that we’re the only life in the universe but with every big telescope we build, the more we can look. The more we can realise how insignificant we are,” Hadfield told AAP in Sydney.

The former astronaut is Down Under to give a series of talks called A Spaceman’s View Of The Earth.

But what truly put Hadfield’s name on the map was his version of David Bowie’s classic track Space Oddity, recorded from the International Space Station while in orbit and its video garnered almost 90 million views on YouTube.

Hadfield believes the astronomical advancements we’ve made in recent years have brought us closer to finding life elsewhere.

“Just in the last decade we have found thousands of planets around other stars where we can actually start to see the planets or at least the affects of them,” he said.

There are even specific planets that Hadfield says potentially have the right conditions for life.

“We’ve seen over a thousand and out of those thousand planets at least five are earth-like. We don’t know if they have life or not but they are similar to earth – the same sort of distance from the sun, the same sort of heat.

“… We know there are not just billions, not just trillions but septillions of planets out there,” he said.

He does, however, concede that the distances from earth to these other planets with potential for life are huge but it’s only a matter of time before we discover life out in the great beyond.

“The odds are overwhelming that we’re not alone but we haven’t found any evidence yet. And that’s part of the reason we’re exploring the universe to find out are we alone or not,” he said.

*Hadfield’s show A Spaceman’s View of the Planet will take place at Sydney’s State Theatre on Tuesday and at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne on Thursday night.

*His album, Space Sessions: Songs From A Tin Can, is out on October 9.