Carr and Bishop outline foreign policy priorities

Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his Opposition counterpart Julie Bishop debated their visions in a debate at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

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Both leaders expressed the importance of Australia having healthy relationships with both the United States and China.

While no major policy differences emerged, some disagreement remains about Australia’s seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his Opposition counterpart Julie Bishop was described by the moderator as an optimistic discussion.

While both leaders attempted to outline their policy differences the similarities were more apparent.

Labor and the Coalition have both promised to review consular support services for Australians overseas.

Senator Carr says he’ll be announcing a review in response to concerns about money being wasted on cases of Australians getting themselves into trouble.

“I think they’re sensible reforms. They respond to the concern reflected in your questions that we’ve got too much diplomatic time being taken up looking after Australians who in many cases should be taking responsibility for their own safety.”

Julie Bishop says changes would also be made if she becomes Foreign Minister after the election.

Ms Bishop says the expectations of Australia’s international travellers need to be managed.

“Australians are an adventurous lot. They like to be traveling the world. But then when they get into trouble they want to have Qantas fly them home. And we have to manage those expectations.”

One area of contention was the issue of Australia’s newly-obtained seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Ms Bishop says in government, she would use the seat to vocalise the concerns of the Pacific Islands.

“I would use our position on the United Nations Security Council to pursue our strategic goals which include ensuring that our neighbourhood, and by our neighbourhood in this context I mean the Pacific, is secure and prosperous.”

But Senator Carr says it might upset Pacific neighbours if Australia used its position on the Security Council to raise regional issues that went beyond its mandate.

“The role of the Security Council of course is to work on peace and security. It’s a big step to say you’d take matter out of the Pacific and lodge them in the Security Council. I don’t think our neighbours in the Pacific, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomons, PNG would respond happily to an Australian Foreign Minister saying we’ve got these issues we’re going to lodge them as disputes in the Security Council.”

Ms Bishop and Senator Carr were both asked to outline their views on how Australia should prepare for potential future tensions between China and the United States.

Ms Bishop says she doesn’t believe that Australia will be asked to choose between a growing economic reliance on China, and increasing defence ties with the US.

She says it’s inevitable that there will be tensions between China and the US, but it should not be assumed that this will lead to military conflict.

“This is not the Cold War. This is a completely different scenario, where it’s a multi-polar world, where the United States and China have such economic integration that the likelihood of them engaging militarily is in fact subsiding. The engagement between the US and China on military exercises is increasing. The United States and China have a strategic and economic dialogue, which they both take seriously. There are more people in the United States State Department focused on the China relationship than we’ve probably got in the whole of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

Senator Carr says it’s a question of how China behaves as it asserts itself as it emerges as the dominant economy in the world.

He says he tends to agree with Ms Bishop that China and the US have a mutual interest in ensuring that their differences do not lead to conflict, and Australia should try to assist this trend.

“I think we’ve got to work with ASEAN (the Association of South-east Asian Nations). We’ve got to work in a spirit of seeking a peaceful resolution of the disputes that exist, the territorial disputes in the South China and East China Sea. Resource sharing is a positive contribution, and Australia is sponsoring work on that. Encouraging the military-to-military co-operation, which reduces the risk of an accidental conflict by local commanders. And of course, continuing to engage China so that those pockets of paranoia or nationalism that exist in the Chinese ‘commentariat’ can be tested and teased out by the Chinese talking in forums like this, getting to understand us and our instincts, as our knowledge of them deepens.”

When asked about Australia’s international reputation, both parties agreed that the country holds a strong position as a middle-power.

Senator Carr says Australia’s profile has been boosted since its election to the UN Security Council.

“Australia is seen as a creative middle bar. In fact the consensus in the forums in the world is that we decidedly punch above our weight, decidedly. I went through it. I mean election to the Security Council is a rough and ready test. It’s not a bad KPI (Key Performance Indicator) of where you stand.”

While agreeing that Australia’s image overseas is positive, Ms Bishop says this position could change.

Ms Bishop says it’s important that Australia continues to engage with its neighbours and to operate within a prosperous regional framework.

“I believe that Australia’s image overseas is positive. I think that we’re considered a constructive middle power. And our image is of course dependent upon our ability to maintain a strong and stable and prosperous economy, (and) it’s dependent upon the quality of our engagement.”

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Bendigo Bank profit up, confidence down

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank posted a strong jump in annual profit, but faces increasing earnings pressures this year in an economy with low confidence.

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The nation’s biggest regional lender lifted its underlying cash profit by 7.7 per cent lift to $348 million on the back of increased net interest margins, a measure of the profit it makes on loans.

The bank’s managing director Mike Hirst described the result as a solid one in difficult trading conditions.

It is able to lift its net interest margin by delaying passing on the Reserve Bank’s rate cuts.

It has now made those cuts, and while the historically low rates were providing comfort to the bank’s existing mostly retail borrowers, Mr Hirst said the effects were yet to be reflected in a return of consumer confidence.

“Consumer confidence and demand for credit remains low, and competition remains very strong for retail deposits,” he said.

“Certainly if we had a resounding result one way or another at the election, you would hope there would be some more confidence emerge in the market.

“Ultimately low interest rates are good for banks because they lead to expanding economies and the creation of credit.”

Morningstar analyst Ravi Reddy said there would be a negative impact on margins this year and that combined with subdued credit growth would put pressure on the bank.

He said while the bank had done well achieving higher revenue growth than cost growth, the four major banks were still more attractive for investors.

They were achieving better returns than the Bendigo Bank, reflecting their ability to source wholesale funding cheaper, he said.

One area of concern was an 18 per cent jump in the bank’s exposure to bad debts to $37.8 million.

That is related to its exposure to struggling North Queensland cattle properties and increases in bankruptcies by investors in the collapsed Great Southern managed investment scheme.

Wholesale funding costs fell during the year and the bank had taken advantage by jumping into that market and issuing two senior unsecured debt offers, its first since the GFC.

Retail deposits fell slightly but still comprised 78 per cent of funding, giving it the freedom to issue debt and possibly also source funds through residential mortgage backed securities, the bank said.

It also grew its total lending by 4.8 per cent, outperforming the industry average 3.4 per cent.

Bendigo’s net profit, including one-off effects, was up 81 per cent to $352.3 million.

Last year’s figure was reduced by a $95 million writedown on its margin lending operations and wealth management division.

Bendigo shares gave up some early gains to be two cents higher at $10.62 at 1500 AEST.

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APN looks for more cost savings

Jobs could be on the line as the Australian regional media (ARM) operations of APN News and Media look for more cost savings with revenue continuing to fall.

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APN chief executive Michael Miller said the group intended to retain all of its Australian regional newspapers at the moment but when asked if job cuts may be necessary said: “I can’t say no to that”.

“Unfortunately, that’s business.

“I think it’s prudent that all businesses look at their cost line.”

Also, new technology could be employed and duplication between newspapers in the group eliminated.

Sydney-based APN, which also has significant publishing and radio assets in New Zealand, on Friday booked a net profit of $12.8 million for the six months to June 30, 2013.

In the prior corresponding period, APN reported a loss of $319.4 million after slashing the value of its New Zealand publishing business.

ARM revenue fell 14 per cent to $107.8 million, compared to the prior corresponding period.

ARM earnings were down 40 per cent to $12.7 million.

Tough conditions in the retail sector and in local job markets continues to weigh upon ARM’s advertising revenue.

But, APN said, the fall in revenue had eased early in the second half of the company’s financial year, and government spending was starting to pick up.

It said it had achieved cost savings in the first half from the restructure of ARM’s operations in northern NSW, resizing of its head office and the outsourcing of support functions.

Also, a printing plant at Ballina had been closed earlier in August.

Mr Miller said APN’s regional newspapers in Australia were heavily reliant upon mining industry advertising, and the contraction in that sector had affected those papers directly.

ARM, therefore, needed to focus on other sectors, such as tourism and agriculture, and on growing demographic segments such as the babyboomers in Queensland.

Also, ARM now had a new management team.

Queensland’s economic recovery from recent natural disasters would also help ARM’s performance to improve, Mr Miller said.

APN said its publishing arm had already achieved $25 million in cost savings and was targeting $35 million for the full year.

Shares in APN were 6.5 cents, or 22.41 per cent, higher at 35.5 cents at 1216 AEST on Friday.

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Greens happy with Melbourne ballot draw

The Greens have had their chances of retaining their only lower house at the federal election improved with Adam Bandt appearing above his Labor rival on the ballot paper.

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Sixteen candidates will contest the seat of Melbourne – the most for any lower house seat in the country, the Australian Electoral Commission said at the close of nominations on Friday.

Mr Bandt drew the fifth position on the ballot, just above Labor candidate Cath Bowtell at number six.

Independent Anthony Main is in the top spot.

The 16 candidates represent a range of parties including the Palmer United Party, Stable Population Party, Sex Party, Animal Justice Party and Family First.

Mr Bandt said he was pleased with his position on the ballot paper, but it would only make a difference “at the margins”.

“It’s obviously better to be higher up than lower down, but I think in an electorate like Melbourne where people are pretty savvy and pay attention, and a very high proportion of people don’t follow their how-to-vote cards anyway and vote the way that they want, I think if it makes any difference it will be minimal,” he told AAP.

Ms Bowtell said being “in the middle of the ruck” meant people would have to decide to put Labor number one.

She said the Greens had the benefit of incumbency and it would be hard to beat Mr Bandt.

“We’re convincing (voters) to put us number one, they’re going to have to look for my name and we’re going to hand them a how-to-vote card and hopefully they’re going to follow that,” she said.

“I think people in Melbourne are smart enough to work out who they’re voting for and they will put number one who they want to vote for.”

Ms Bowtell said a decision on where Labor will direct preferences will be made now they have the full list of candidates.

The Greens hold the seat by a six per cent margin.

Mr Bandt won the seat in 2010 with the help of Liberal preferences, but Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has directed candidates to preference the Greens last on September 7.

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Malthouse not keen on AFL finals back door

Carlton coach Mick Malthouse is taking no solace in the prospect of Essendon’s woes opening up another AFL top eight spot after the Blues’ failure to make it on their merits.

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A wasteful Carlton fell 12.10 (82) to 9.22 (76) to the Bombers at the MCG on Saturday night, squandering chances of killing off the contest with inaccurate shooting for goal, then being outscored four goals to none in the last quarter to have the game ripped away.

The loss left eighth spot out of reach, although if the Bombers are stripped of premiership points, as expected, the ninth-placed Blues can still sneak into the finals.

“Not interested, not one little bit interested,” Malthouse said of that prospect.

“We came here to win, we didn’t win.

“I don’t know what’s going to take place (with Essendon), I don’t care what’s going to take place.

“We play Port next week, technically we can’t make the eight.”

Malthouse said the Blues had to take responsibility for their “terrible” kicking for goal.

“No one means to miss but we missed that many times it becomes contagious,” he said.

He said the fact that the Blues have lost four games by single-figure margins this season, and won only one, was a major disappointment.

But he was unwilling to say whether Carlton’s season should be deemed a failure if they don’t play finals.

“I don’t look at making the eight, I look at having wins against sides that you should try to beat,” Malthouse said.

“You try to win every game.

“Clearly sides you don’t beat, by definition of how we’ve gone against them we’ve seen them in the eight.”

The Blues lost Brock McLean to a quad injury in the first quarter, further depleting a midfield already missing Chris Judd and Andrew Carrazzo.

Malthouse was unsure of McLean’s prospects of playing in Saturday’s clash with the Power.

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