Ian McPhee’s cardiac arrest was another crisis point in years of struggle. Photo: Paul HarrisAt 6 o’clock one Friday night last year, Ian McPhee was given five minutes to live.
Dr McPhee, an anaesthetist, had suffered a cardiac arrest after a medical procedure went catastrophically wrong, leaving his heart with no blood to pump.
“They said only five more minutes,” he recalls a doctor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital telling his distraught wife Kath, who is a nurse, that night in August. “That’s it. If he’s not resuscitated in five minutes, that’s it”.
It was another crisis point in years of struggle for Dr McPhee with Sezary syndrome – a skin-based cancer that affects only two or three ns each year.
The disease has burdened him with rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant that required the prior “destruction” of his immune system.
That led to the emergence of three major viruses and later, multiple organ failure. A subsequent liver biopsy led to the “five minutes” crisis.
Devastatingly, the bone marrow transplant failed. Weeks later Dr McPhee endured the irradiation of his skin “from the soles of my feet to the tip of my head” in a bid to eradicate tumours.
Briefly in remission, today Dr McPhee’s prognosis is uncertain. “It would seem to have recurred,” he says of the cancer.
He is still facing death, only now it is very much on his terms.
In March, the 62-year-old, from Tweed on the NSW far north coast, contacted Melbourne-based physician Rodney Syme, who after an initial assessment has “provisionally” agreed to provide a drug, Nembutal, to Dr McPhee to use if he decides to end his life.
Provision of the drug is a legal grey area and Dr McPhee’s wife and four adult children, who support his decision, may face police questioning in the aftermath.
In three weeks, Dr McPhee and his family will travel to Melbourne to make final arrangements with Dr Syme. The drug will not be handed over, but the pair will remain in touch until such time as he decides to take the option.
Making the arrangements will not be a difficult process, he says. Rather, “there will be great comfort”.
Dr McPhee knows there is a chance he might never need to use the drug, but says the comfort is derived from knowing it is there should the moment arrive.
“If I’m in a position such as the one I was in last year of overwhelming, unrelenting discomfort, either physical or existential, with no hope of a way out of that, then that is the moment,” he says.
Dr McPhee is an advocate for voluntary assisted dying legislation.
The NSW Legislative Council is due to consider a bill this month. If passed into law, it would allow terminally ill NSW residents aged at least 25 to end their own lives with medical assistance.
A patient must be likely to die of their illness within 12 months, the decision signed off by two medical practitioners and the patient assessed by an independent psychiatrist or psychologist.
Dr Ian McPhee with wife Kath and their dog Jack at their home in northern NSW. Photo: Paul Harris
MPs from the major parties will be granted a conscience vote. While advocates are hopeful it will pass the upper house, they acknowledge the numbers are tight.
The bill, conceived by a cross-party working group of state MPs, has prompted fierce debate and lobbying from both sides.
As part of its campaign in support of the legislation, the group Dying with Dignity NSW has filmed a video with Dr McPhee.
The Catholic Church has mobilised a grassroots campaign against voluntary assisted dying laws in NSW, with parishioners, school staff and parents urged to petition MPs.
The anti-euthanasia organisation HOPE is also active, arguing that such laws “would pose a very real threat to the disabled, the elderly, those with mental health issues and those ns, including young people, struggling with suicidal ideation.”
Dr Ian McPhee says making the arrangements to end his life would not be a difficult process. Photo: Paul Harris
The medical profession has been forced to take a position.
Last December the n Medical Association updated its policy to one which “maintains the position that doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person’s life”.
But it adds: “The AMA acknowledges that laws in relation to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are ultimately a matter for society and government”.
Should governments decide to change the law, the AMA policy states doctors “must be involved in development of the relevant legislation, regulations and guidelines”.
The NSW AMA, however, has taken a firm position against voluntary euthanasia, putting Dr McPhee – for the time being at least – at odds with the professional association.
The division’s council is due to consider in detail the NSW assisted dying legislation at a meeting next week.
“We feel that in the majority of cases palliative care is the appropriate way to manage death and dying, accepting that it’s not perfect,” says NSW AMA president Brad Frankum.
Professor Brad Frankum, NSW president of the AMA, has taken a firm position against voluntary euthanasia. Photo: Hayden Brotchie Photography
However, as a physician, Dr McPhee feels voluntary assisted dying is consistent with the medical principle of “first, do no harm”.
While he believes it “remains absolutely critical” that palliative care is supported, he says not all pain and suffering can be managed successfully that way.
He points out that for the past 20 years he has also run an acute pain service.
“So you could argue that one of the tasks I have had in medicine is to relieve pain to alleviate suffering,” Dr McPhee says. “And I see this as no different”.
Dr Syme, who is vice-president of Dying With Dignity Victoria, tells Fairfax Media he assessed Dr McPhee as a suitable patient because “he faces an appalling death”.
It has never been tested in court, but he disagrees that what he does is illegal.
This, he believes, was borne out in his successful appeal last December in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal which overturned the Medical Board of decision to prohibit him from providing advice to terminally ill patients.
Dr Syme says the aim with all of his patients “is to try and help them to go as far with their lives as they possibly can”.
Physician Rodney Syme says his intention is to improve patients’ quality of life.
Providing them with the knowledge they can access a life-ending drug relieves the intense psychological distress suffered by many patients, he says.
“Whether a person takes the medication I might give them is their intention, not mine,” he says.
“I argue that it is not my intention ever to persuade somebody to end their own life. My intention is to improve the quality of their life, to give them control. So I argue that I am not breaking the law”.
Ultimately, Dr McPhee said, the difference that passage of the NSW bill into law would make is significant for someone in his situation, including that he would not need to travel to be a patient of Dr Syme’s.
He would have the option of engaging with his local GP and dying at the time of his choice in the community he has lived in for 25 years.
In the meantime he is secure in the knowledge his plan will be in place.
“The time when I had multiple organ failure was hell; it was as awful as I can imagine any end of life,” he says. “I know I don’t want that again.”
Beneath an enormous sperm whale skeleton suspended in the n Museum’s Wild Planet Gallery, politicians and corporate bosses mingled over canapes, discussing sea level rises.
They had come to the March soiree for an “exclusive” parliamentary screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary, Before the Flood.
Organiser Kristina Photios pulled quite the crowd.
Photios, a former business strategist, had made headlines three months before when she quit the Liberal Party in despair over federal climate policy.
But there were Liberals aplenty at the museum, such as state Attorney General Mark Speakman and Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton, who gave a speech. Party elder Philip Ruddock attended, as did former premier Nick Greiner, the soon-to-be federal Liberal Party president.
And in the throng stood Photios’ husband Michael, the long-time factional controller of the party’s left, which had helped install a premier and a prime minister in the preceding 18 months.
The success of that night, Kristina said, encouraged her to found an organisation advocating “centre-right” solutions to existential environmental problems: Conservatives for Conservation.
Now, with Ruddock and Greiner as ambassadors, the not-for-profit group is pushing for more renewable energy just as the issue threatens to rend the federal Coalition apart.
Kristina is known for her passion for the environment, describing it to Fairfax Media as “the cause I have dedicated my life to pursuing”.
Conservatives for Conservation has also served as a platform for powerful companies that have recently paid Kristina and Michael as professional lobbyists. That includes the energy generator and retailer AGL, ‘s largest emitter, now pivoting from coal toward solar and wind farms.
A month after the museum event, Kristina told Facebook followers she was working for Clean Energy Strategies, her new lobbying firm specialising in renewable energy and climate policy. Around the same time she rejoined the Liberal Party, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s local electorate.
Chief scientist Alan Finkel called in June for an increase in renewable energy driven by a “clean energy target”. And Kristina’s clients stand to make a lot of money from the introduction of a target, which could secure hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in the sector.
But it is a divisive policy for the federal government. Turnbull is mulling how he might introduce a target without enraging elements of his party’s hard right, for whom wind farms are about as popular as Kristina’s left-faction husband.
Two months after the release of Finkel’s review, Kristina’s Conservatives for Conservation brought 90 corporate and political guests together for a “Finkel Report Brief” in a theatre in NSW parliament house.
The event’s host, upper house Liberal member Shayne Mallard would go on to tell parliament of the stimulating debate among the the “fantastic”, “diverse” panel.
Three senior businessmen sat on the four-person panel, representing AGL, the multinational technology company Siemens and the law firm Norton Rose Fullbright.
AGL has pushed for the n government to adopt a clean energy target as the company moves toward non-coal energy investments worth billions.
Siemens is another heavy investor in new energy technology while Norton Rose Fulbright describes itself as a “powerhouse” of energy advice.
What the audience paying $65 a head for the Finkel briefing was not told was that all three businesses were registered clients of the Photios’ lobbying firms.
AGL and Siemens were registered to Kristina’s Clean Energy Strategies while Norton Rose Fulbright was listed against one of Michael’s companies.
Kristina told Fairfax Media there was nothing to disclose.
“There is no commercial connection between Conservatives for Conservation and Clean Energy Strategies,” she said, ruling out any “cross promotion”.
Asked how the companies came to appear on her panel, she said “Conservatives for Conservation, in its infancy, identified leading experts within its network in the energy sector.”
AGL and Siemens distanced themselves from Clean Energy Strategies, claiming they had no commercial relationship with the firm, despite the register disclosures.
AGL said its involvement finished before the Finkel brief, while Siemens said its contract was with Michael’s sister firm. Norton Rose Fulbright said the invitation to attend came from Kristina, not her husband.
Michael, a former minister who quit NSW parliament in 1999, stepped down in February from from his role as leader of the NSW moderates.
But he still wields considerable influence within the party.
And through a series of lobbying firms he and his business partners represent some of the nation’s biggest companies, including large coal interests such as Coal Energy and the miner Glencore.
The Clean Energy Strategies website promotes Michael as a “managing partner” offering “contemporary and extensive government networks”.
“Michael from time to time provides strategic advice to clients of Clean Energy Strategies,” Kristina said.
But Michael told Fairfax Media he had stepped back from his role.
“I’ve until recently been a partner in the business and over the last few weeks the company has been in transition and Kristina has taken full ownership and responsibility for the company,” he said.
Despite having listed himself as a Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist as a “precaution”, he said “I have not been actively engaged in lobbying on behalf of clients of the company.”
A third Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist, Ian Hancock, also works for Michael’s firm Capital Hill, which represents coal interests, while sitting on the Conservatives for Conservation committee.
Kristina said possible conflicts of interest were managed under a strict policy.
While she is now her firm’s sole shareholder, taking over from Michael and his business partners, Clean Energy Strategies remains close to the other firms, sharing a floor in Sydney’s MLC building.
When Fairfax Media called Clean Energy Strategies’ office, a voice answered “Capital Hill?”
The new outfit was still waiting for its own line.
05.08.17 The AgeEssendonBooking 142697Photo shows Margaret Tighe from Right to Life at her home in Essendon.Photo: Scott McNaughton . 3rd APRIL 2012- NEWS- STORY EWA KRETOWICZ – THE CANBERRA TIMES- PHOTO BY MELISSA ADAMS.Archbishop Mark Coleridge appointed Archbishop of Brisbane.
The Catholic Church in is fighting on three fronts – same-sex marriage, euthanasia and education funding – that will test its influence both inside and outside the church, with the people in the pews and the politicians and powerbrokers.
Legalised same-sex marriage seems inevitable, euthanasia is back on the legislative agenda in Victoria and NSW, and the federal government has calculated that it can get away with an attack on funding for Catholic schools.
The church’s prospects seem precarious in all three – two moral issues and one about money – and there are even deeper challenges in declining Mass attendance, especially by young people, and the catastrophic damage done by the sexual abuse scandals.
Some hostile observers have speculated gleefully that the bishops have become detached from their flocks, the church is losing its social influence and its vaunted political clout is on the wane. Arguments can be made for each claim, but with an organisation as vast and complex as the Catholic Church one should be wary of simplistic conclusions.
Same-sex marriage is certainly not a crisis for the church as a whole. A few bishops have invested heavily in opposing it, but a poll published in Fairfax Media shows that they have failed to convince most of ‘s 5 million Catholics, with two thirds planning to vote in favour if the plebiscite is held. Meanwhile, two prestigious Catholic schools (St Ignatius College in Sydney and Xavier College in Melbourne) have cautiously endorsed the Yes vote.
Catholics see euthanasia as a far more important issue, and n society is more divided. Its greater weight is evident in the way the campaigns have been run, according to Paul Russell, executive director of anti-euthanasia group Hope.
The church’s same-sex opposition has been led from the top down, with the bishops leading the fight, while euthanasia opposition has come from the bottom up. Bottom-up is always more effective, Russell says, and the importance of this approach was evident when his group was instrumental in halting a euthanasia bill in South that was eventually defeated only by the Speaker’s casting vote.
“If euthanasia is passed today, people will die tomorrow,” Russell says. “My organisation is mobilising the grass roots, including other churches, and getting them to lobby MPs. It’s really important that MPs hear from their constituents. In these debates everything is local, except for public care specialists and doctors – there’s universality in what they say.”
Father Joe Parkinson, director of the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth, says same-sex marriage is about family, children, personal happiness, fulfilment and hope – it’s positive. “Euthanasia is about dying, the end of life, what do we do when there seems to be no hope, when the future becomes dark? The real issue isn’t about pain and suffering, death in the clinical sense. We’ve over-medicalised the dying process, and euthanasia is the ultimate medicalisation of dying,” he says.
“What worries me and a lot of people, if we medicalise that moment of mystery that we all have to negotiate, [is] what do we medicalise next? In the process we lose our humanity.”
Parkinson observes that same-sex advocates have run a highly engineered, well-resourced debate over years. “Even on a good day, the bishops would be hard put to respond to same-sex marriage in a way that improved their standing. But euthanasia advocates are much less well-resourced and organised, and have nothing new from 10 years ago.”
On the question of funding for Catholic schools, church strategists know they are in for a fight, but – as with euthanasia – believe they can win. Catholic schools, like Catholic hospitals and welfare agencies, have not suffered the loss of moral authority that the religious leaders have, and are a key tool by which the church wields influence.
Paradoxically, the church hierarchy has probably maintained a stronger influence in the political arena than in the pews.
In a television interview around 2005, Cardinal George Pell was asked: if he picked up the phone and rang John Howard, would the prime minister take his call? A somewhat embarrassed Pell eventually conceded that the answer was yes. Then Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen privately confided at the time that he too preferred to work behind the scenes, and had good access to political leaders.
So would Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull take a call from Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, ‘s senior Catholic as president of the bishops’ conference? “I think he would, and Bill Shorten too,” says veteran commentator and broadcaster Geraldine Doogue.
“I think politicians are still listening to the church. The business of Simon Birmingham and Catholic schools suggests the church has not lost its clout. But the Catholic Church has always known how to play power politics, and that’s not over yet.”
It has also had allies inside parliaments, particularly Tony Abbott in the Coalition government. It’s not that he takes instructions from the church, as some have alleged, but that he shares their values and vision of what a flourishing society looks like. And Abbott and other Catholic MPs are far more skilful in dealing with the media than are the bishops.
Even so, the church’s influence behind the scenes is something of a myth, according to Parkinson. He says that never in his lifetime has a Catholic bishop been able to direct people how to vote.
“It’s never been true that the church could impose its beliefs on n society. Its influence inevitably has changed, but I would expect that, much as the influence of government has shifted. If you compare Menzies’ day to Turnbull – are we even on the same planet?”
Among Catholics, same-sex marriage is just the latest issue in which large numbers are unconvinced by the bishops’ orthodoxy. The gap opened with the reforming 1960s Vatican Council that told Catholics to honour their conscience, and widened with the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception. Vast numbers of otherwise faithful Catholics rebelled, explicitly defying the Pope – a habit that, once begun, seemed easier with practice. Today many, if not most, are at odds with church teaching not just on contraception but divorce, premarital sex, same-sex marriage and even abortion.
Paul Collins, the historian and former Catholic priest, blames the church’s malaise chiefly on Pope John Paul II, however. “I hold him completely responsible for all of this because of the type of bishop he appointed. Most n bishops are good administrators, bureaucrats, but they don’t have any leadership qualities. It’s the same in our political life.”
Doogue agrees that the bishops’ strengths are not those prized in the modern world. “Their job description is changing before their eyes, and they have no idea how to fill it. I don’t think they know how to speak to the modern world. If you look at big secular institutions going through trauma – the Commonwealth Bank, for example – you see that they’ve heard the criticisms. It’s extremely difficult to get that sense from the church.”
It may be evidence of a waning self-confidence among the Catholic hierarchy that Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge all refused to talk to Fairfax Media for this article (Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe??? is overseas). Hart, in particular, has courageously faced the media in some unpalatable situations and the public on talkback radio, making this reticence surprising.
But it is not surprising if 5 million ns don’t think exactly the same about anything. Dr Bob Dixon, who recently retired as the church’s national research director, says Catholics have always disagreed about important social questions.
“There seems to be a common view that Catholics are like coins from the mint, all required to be identical – or like soldiers in an army who respond unquestionably to the general’s orders. But Catholics, like everyone else, are all different, formed in their opinions by their upbringing, social environment, education, experiences and personality.”
Further, the Second Vatican Council dropped the idea of blind obedience to the church, and instead encouraged Catholics to develop an informed conscience. All that the church has asked since then is that Catholics “must pay careful attention” to the teaching of the church, Dixon says.
Is this in fact what Catholics do? In the 2011 National Church Life Survey, a national random sample of 4219 church-attending Catholics from 217 parishes around were asked how they decided about moral issues, Dixon says. “Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said ‘I always follow the teachings of the church’ and 5 per cent said ‘the teachings of the church do not influence my decisions about moral issues’. But 68 per cent chose the option that most closely reflects the teaching of Vatican II; that is, ‘I look to the teaching of the church for guidance, but then I follow my own conscience’.”
This shift to personal responsibility, he says, has been accompanied by another in the basis of morality, where traditional Catholic natural law is being displaced by a contemporary rights-based morality. “This is particularly evident among younger people, and particularly pertinent in relation to an issue like same-sex marriage.”
According to a senior lay leader who does not want to be named, sexual abuse scandals have so eroded the church’s moral authority that people have stopped listening. But this doesn’t apply on euthanasia, where the church has far more credibility because its wide, no-strings attached healthcare services – including being perhaps the largest palliative care provider in – give it real authority.
The church must also dispel the notion that its arguments are “only” religious. “The idea that any objection is purely religious has been a construct for many debates, including IVF in the 1980s and stem cells in the 1990s. It’s a strategy to put the opposing view as biased, though the other side is not valueless either. But in politics, defining your opponent is a very important skill.”
Veteran campaigner Margaret Tighe, 85, the president of Right to Life, is adamant that the church cannot hide behind the sexual abuse crisis to avoid its moral responsibilities.
“As soon as the church speaks on moral issues, people say, ‘How can you talk?’ But that’s not an excuse to be silent on moral issues. It’s difficult times we live in. Sadly, we’ve lost on the abortion issue, but that’s no reason to give up. I’m sure that by our existence we’ve saved lives.”
Perhaps the first challenge for the leadership, if the Catholic Church is to retain its social influence, is to reconnect with the grassroots.
According to Doogue, the biggest issue facing many Catholics, including herself, is a sort of personal crisis of conscience. “I am personally struggling a lot ethically with how one balances the extraordinary amount of good work and fine displays of love and charity against the much smaller egregious examples. It’s a real conundrum, and it’s preoccupying people in the pews.”
She is also discouraged by the rush to judgment by outsiders, especially young people who are generally anti-institution. “There’s a mood about, make institutions bleed. I find some of it extremely self-righteous and counter-productive. The church, under good leadership, can come back.”
Clearly it is a difficult time to be a devout Catholic. If same-sex marriage passes, it will be a crisis only for a few bishops and a small percentage of Catholics. If euthanasia is legalised, that will mark a shift in societal values that disturbs many Catholics. If they lose on education funding, that will show a serious decline in political clout.
Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow for the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.
On Sunday we celebrate the 30th anniversary of my book Making Money Made Simple, which was launched in 1987, and has sold over 2 million copies around the world. It’s fascinating to look back 30 years and think about what was like at that time.
Inflation was running at 8 per cent, the cash rate was 11 per cent, and the standard variable rate on a housing loan was 15.5 per cent. That sounds astronomical today, but remember in 1987 the average Brisbane house cost $62,000, which was 2.6 times the average income of $24,000 a year. Today, at $500,000, the average house is equivalent to approximately six times the average full-time income of $80,000 a year.
The 1987 edition of the book had an example of a couple on the average wage who bought the average house and, using one wage to pay off the mortgage, were free of debt in five years. It’s an indicator of the escalating cost of home ownership that, using the same figures today, the average couple after 10 years have just reduced their mortgage to a level where it could be serviced on one income. And yet interest rates in 1987 were three times what they are now.
It does make me extremely concerned when I hear reports in the media that mortgage stress is the worst it has been. If that is the case when interest rates are at historic lows, imagine the chaos if there were substantial rises.
In the book I pointed out that both shares and property, if carefully chosen, had potential for good capital gain: that certainly proved to be correct. Thirty years ago the n All Ordinaries Index was 1765 – despite a series of crashes since then the index has increased three-fold today to almost 6000. But that does not take income into account. If you had invested $50,000 in January 1987 in a fund which matched that index, and reinvested dividends, your portfolio would now be worth $625,000, a return of 9 per cent a year compounded.
But a major theme of the book was fundamental principles, and they have not changed. In the latest edition, just like in the first one, I point out major handicaps to financial independence, such as confusing a good current income with financial independence, the absence of goals, and the “must have now mentality”, which leads people into debt because they borrow for items instead of saving up for them. I also explain that a major difference between financial winners and financial losers is that winners borrow at low rates of interest (tax deductible) to acquire assets like property and shares that tend to rise in value – the losers borrow at high rates of interest (non-tax deductible) for items such as cars and furniture that fall in value.
And, as longtime readers would know, I continually stress the importance of understanding compound interest. To put it simply, how much you have at the end of the investment period depends on both the rate of return, and the length of time the investment program must be in place.
In 1987, I illustrated this with a riddle about a lily in a pond. If the lily starts as a tiny speck, and doubles every day, how long would it take to go from filling a quarter of the pool to filling it all? The answer is two days. It would go from a quarter to a half on the ninth day, and from half to completely filling the pool on the 10th day. Imagine if that lily was your savings program and you had to stop on the eighth day because you retired. You would have lost three quarters of what you could have achieved if the time was just 20 per cent longer.
Yes, 30 years have passed, and economic conditions are dramatically different. Nobody knows what they might be in another 30 years – what we do know is that fundamental principles never change. As always, follow the fundamentals, and success is virtually assured.
Noel Whittaker is the author of Making Money Made Simple and numerous other books on personal finance. His advice is general in nature and readers should seek their own professional advice before making any financial decisions. Email: [email protected]苏州夜网.au
Melbourne. Melbourne University open day – Melbourne Age. news. Photo by Angela Wylie. August 19 2007. SPECIALX MELBOURN n Financial Review Education Summit. KEYNOTE MINISTERIAL ADDRESS | ??????s position in higher education and key updatesSenator the Hon Simon Birmingham, Minister for EducationWednesday 30th August 2017 AFR photo Louie Douvis .
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 13: Aurizon CEO Andrew Harding for half yearly profits report on February 13, 2017 in Sydney, . (Photo by Ben Rushton/Fairfax Media)
Sally McManus , Secretary of the ACTU. Photo Nick Moir 30 March 2017
NEWS: Sydney UNI + Video. Story by Anna Patty. Joellen Riley, the Dean of Law at Sydney University. Photograph by edwina Pickles. Taken on 17th May 2016.
Aspiring students, many with their mums and dads in tow, had travelled from as far away as Dubbo to the University of Sydney Open Day to make some big decisions about the future.
But when they arrived last weekend, they found that many of the lecturers they were relying on for advice had abandoned information booths to join picket lines in protest against the latest university pay offer.
The withdrawal of labour on the biggest day of the university calendar, which attracts more than 30,000 visitors, was part of the traditional argy-bargy of enterprise bargaining.
But the tone of that bargaining shifted dramatically across universities around the country this week after Murdoch University in West gave up on routine industrial tactics of negotiation and bargaining. It took the “nuclear” option.
It applied for – and won – the right to terminate the university’s enterprise agreement with staff. It was a landmark decision for a public institution, and the Fair Work Commission’s judgement has shocked university staff around the country. It is also expected to fuel greater militancy on the part of unions and employers.
Until now, the hardline industrial tactic had been reserved as a last resort within the private sector by businesses including transport company Aurizon, power company AGL and mining companies Peabody Energy and Griffin Coal.
The WA decision has strengthened the bargaining power of university management overnight, something federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham was quick to promote.
He is urging university leaders to follow Murdoch University’s example to modernise work practices and save money while his government cuts their teaching budgets by 4.9 per cent in 2018 and 2019.
The WA decision has opened the way for up to 30 universities across the country to remove union control on management decisions, fixed-term contracts and staff discipline rules.
Birmingham thinks there is scope to lower rates of funding growth for universities based on their ability to absorb costs through more modern and efficient staffing structures. But while he is pushing for open slather, Labor wants new laws to restrict employers from terminating enterprise agreements so easily.
If an enterprise agreement is terminated, workers fall back onto award wages which are often much lower and conditions, won over many years of collective bargaining, can be lost. And Labor and the unions are worried about an increasing number of enterprise agreements which have been terminated in the last two years.
“It can put employees and unions in the position of having to start again and mount arguments for previously hard-fought improvements to their pay and conditions,” Labor’s workplace spokesman Brendan O’Connor says.
“Labor is concerned it has become too easy for employers to undercut wages and conditions through various loopholes in the Fair Work Act, particularly at a time when we are facing record low wages growth.”
Labor says bargaining power is tilted in favour of bosses, and wants to change fair work laws to limit the ability of employers to terminate agreements.
n Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus says companies need to be stopped from bypassing the normal bargaining process and reaching for the “nuclear option”.
“I think it is a crisis for enterprise bargaining,” she says. “You can no longer bargain fairly.”
“If it’s the case now … that employers can just apply to have agreements cancelled, we are in serious trouble.”
According to the unions, workers could see their pay packets cut by 30 per cent if they are forced onto lower paying awards, despite decades of bargaining for better wages and conditions.
McManus accuses lawyers of hawking the enterprise agreement termination model to employers and accuses Murdoch University of inappropriately spending up to $2.8 million in public money to “get its own way in bargaining”.
Former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons, who now works for think tank Per Capita, says he was shocked to see hardline IR tactics now being used in the public sector.
“This is migration of a tactic from the mining industry which has always been the reservoir of the worst in n industrial relations,” he says.
Lyons believes the Fair Work Commission has set the bar too low in satisfying the legal test set out in section 226 of the Fair Work Act, which says an agreement must be terminated if it is not contrary to the public interest and it is appropriate taking into account all the views and circumstances of employees, unions and employers.
“It’s not really the way enterprise bargaining was supposed to work that essentially the employer can go to a tribunal and wipe out potentially 20 years of the outcomes of collective bargaining. It’s pretty outrageous really,” Lyons says.
But with companies and now universities armed with the “nuclear option”, Lyons says unions need to lift their game in the skills of negotiation and bargaining.
Innes Willox, chief executive of employers’ organisation n Industry Group, says the Fair Work Act provisions that enable the termination of an expired enterprise agreement contain substantial protections, and strike the right balance between the interests of all parties. “It is important that the provisions remain in place,” he says. ‘Old rituals’
Academics at the University of Sydney were divided when it came to supporting the National Tertiary Education Union’s decision to strike on Open Day. One left-wing academic was critical of the union “falling back on old rituals”, including strike action. The academic believes the union would have been better off “handing out leaflets on a day when students are making big decisions about their future”.
The University’s Law School dean, Joellen Riley, who publicly resigned her membership of the NTEU in 2013 over its industrial militancy, is now on the university’s side of the enterprise bargaining table. She describes negotiations over the past six months as constructive and collegial.
“So I was deeply disappointed to see that the NTEU picketed the university on its most important day of the year for showing potential students all the benefits of a Sydney university education,” says Professor Riley, an expert in workplace relations law.
The university’s offer retains conditions in the current agreement, including 50 days of personal leave each year. It also proposes to introduce 22 weeks of paid parental leave for fathers and same-sex partners. The university is offering a 2.1 per cent pay rise, but the union is insisting on 2.4 per cent and plans further strike action next month in its push to get it.
The union’s NSW state secretary Michael Thomson says 2.4 per cent is in line with NSW public sector rates. Union members have also been pointing out that university vice chancellor Michael Spence received a $1.4 million salary package last year including a $200,000 bonus.
While there are some disagreements about the union’s industrial tactics, there is no suggestion so far that Sydney or any other university will follow the Murdoch example. A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed the termination option was not being considered.
“It is difficult to say at this point in time, the university will need to read the decision to fully understand the applicability of it to our circumstances,” she says. “Although we are disappointed that industrial action is being taken by the NTEU, it is important to note the effort that all parties have put into the enterprise bargaining process over many months.”
The union’s national president Jeannie Rea says most universities around the country were negotiating enterprise agreements without resorting to Murdoch’s tactics. She says it was “pretty strange for Murdoch to take the step it did” when three other West n universities were close to reaching agreements.
But Murdoch’s decision will give comfort to employers who want a better enterprise agreement. “The significance of this decision is that hopefully it gives employers the courage to push for enterprise agreements that are best practice and not put up with agreements that are outdated,” says Minter Ellison partner Kathy Reid.
Reid, who represented Murdoch University, said most employers were not likely to want to take the drastic step of terminating an enterprise agreement. She rejects union claims that the case has undermined enterprise bargaining.
In Murdoch’s case, she says, the outdated enterprise agreement was holding it back from realising a bright future. “The judgement was recognising that with an outdated enterprise agreement, Murdoch is not going to be able to realise its new strategy and to do all the great things it wants to do.”
The Fair Work Commission agreed to free Murdoch University of the “constraints and impediments” in its enterprise agreement to allow it to be more agile in transforming to meet new challenges in a “changing globally competitive education landscape”.
The university wants to be more flexible in determining the way academic staff split their time between teaching and research among other staff management issues. It is operating at a deficit, putting it under great financial strain.
But contrary to the university’s argument, Commissioner Bruce Williams says in his judgement that termination of the agreement would make it harder for the union and management to reach a future agreement.
“Given the recalcitrance of the university to date, it is likely that termination will simply embolden the university to dig in further and continue to demand acceptance of its clauses without compromise,” he said in his judgement.
The NTEU branch president at Western Sydney University, David Burchell, says enterprise bargaining has been tougher this year than in years gone by. University management has seemed more aggressive and organised at the outset.
“The overall mood in the sector has been different,” he says. “A number of university managements were taking a more aggressive posture.”
Slater & Gordon Chairman John Skippen leaves the company’s AGM in Melbourne. Photo by Jesse Marlow. . GRECH BRW 080515 MELB PIC BY JESSICA SHAPIRO… Andrew Grech, manageing Director of Slater & Gordon in his Melbourne office this morning. FBM FIRST USE ONLY PLEASE!!! SPECIALX 84853
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA 14 NOVEMBER 2013: Photo of James MacKenzie who is retiring as Chairman of Mirvac, during the company’s AGM meeting in Melbourne on Thursday 14 November 2013. AFR / LUIS ASCUI
Paying Slater and Gordon’s former chief executive Andrew Grech a remuneration package of $1.5 million in a year when the company almost collapsed isn’t a good look.
That the company is valued on the market at $28 million, after overseeing a strategy that resulted in the decimation of billions of dollars of shareholder funds, doesn’t help the optics.
Nor does a board decision to shell out a $1.6 million package to the chief financial officer, Bryce Houghton, whose resignation coincided with the company’s announced full-year loss of $547 million, including an impairment charge of $350 million on its disastrous UK acquisition in 2015.
The way executives are paid, in good times and bad, speaks volumes about a company’s culture. It also says a lot about the board.
Slater and Gordon went on a debt-fuelled acquisition binge that almost destroyed it. But along the way it forgot its core values, which include deep ties with the labour movement and representing the underdog, the victim.
This was epitomised by a decision in 2015 to spend millions of dollars on a high-profile, five-year sponsorship of the Olympics, at a time when money was precious.
Besides being a poor use of shareholders’ money, during the period of Slater and Gordon’s sponsorship, the AOC has been at the centre of a series of scandals in recent years.
Not the least being controversies around AOC president John Coates, including when Coates wrote to senior AOC staff that a young, female employee, who was being treated for cancer, should “get out in the real world” because the AOC was not a “sheltered workshop”.
How the Slater and Gordon board and senior management could have thought such an expensive Olympics sponsorship was a good fit with a law firm that represents blue-collar workers is hard to fathom. That it didn’t pull the plug after the scandals erupted is equally curious.
Grech resigned as managing director on June 29 as part of a recapitalisation agreement with hedge funds. That agreement included Grech remaining on the board as non-executive director until the completion of the recapitalisation agreement.
But a remuneration report released on Thursday night reveals Grech will continue to receive fees equivalent to his base salary as managing director at $560,384 until he leaves.
It says the board’s approach to remuneration is “balanced, fair and equitable”.
The question is fair to who? Shareholders who will be diluted to 5 per cent after the rescue plan is completed in mid-November?
Interestingly, directors, including chairman John Skippen, took home a similar level of director fees in 2017 as those approved by shareholders in 2015, back when the company was valued on the sharemarket at $2.8 billion.
It meant Skippen pocketed $240,000 during a year when the company had a negative cash flow, massive losses, was under investigation from ASIC and shareholders had launched a class action.
Skippen was chairman when the company received a “first strike” on its remuneration report in 2016 after thinking it was a good idea to pay bonuses to executives as well as issue performance rights to Grech when the company was essentially in a death spiral.
Part of Grech’s $1.5 million includes an expatriate allowance paid while he was in the UK trying to fix the mess and an “end of service benefit”, which he will receive when he ceases being a non-executive director.
In anyone’s books, this is a lot of money for running a company that almost went belly up from poor strategy and execution.
The board, particularly those members who signed off on a series of debt-funded acquisitions over the years, can’t escape blame. The role of the board is ultimately to take responsibility for strategy, culture and reputation.
In the case of Slater and Gordon, the $1.2 billion acquisition of a British personal injury law firm just shy of its own market capitalisation was a big risk. At the time of the announcement, I wrote that it would give it a “massive short-term sugar hit, but the long-term aftertaste could be a concern”.
Britain is a tough market, with a number of n companies losing a fortune. Hubris and greed would add Slater and Gordon to the list.
The consortium of international hedge funds that will take ownership of Slater and Gordon, in a plan announced on Thursday night, will appoint company director James MacKenzie chairman and clean out the other directors.
It will also roll out a new business strategy, which will make the company leaner and take it back to its roots. The strategy will involve growing its personal injury practices in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, improving and restoring its relationships with the union movement and leveraging third-party relationships to build referral networks.
It sounds simple enough but will take deft work and an ability to stop the exodus of good, high-profile lawyers.
Some of the decision makers have already jumped ship, getting off scot-free. Some have stuck around, for now.
But the rise and fall of Slater and Gordon, and the hopeful rise again, will be one for the corporate history books.
The rescue package means Slater and Gordon will remain a listed entity, with lead hedge fund Anchorage Capital committing to remain a shareholder for at least three years. The UK business has been hived off, the class action settled. Now it is a matter of wait and see.
There has been a lot of talk about Parramatta in the press of late, and for a good reason.
The level of construction activity is in the billions, the offices are full, shop tills are ringing and industrial landlords are snapping up any land they can find.
It’s not having a day in the sun, more like the rest decade, if all the projections come true.
One of the latest projects is the $876 million South Quarter development by Dyldam, which includes a $225 million commercial hub, covering offices, retail and hospitality outlets over 39,000 square metres.
GPT Group is building a $230 million office tower, while Walker Corporation and Charter Hall are part of the revamp of the $6 billion Parramatta square development.
According to Savills’ research, getting a foothold in the office sector will be no mean feat with the private sector competing head-on with an expanding array of government offices all wanting space.
In the latest data from the Property Council of , vacancy for premium-grade office space is zero, while B-grade is filling up fast.
JLL’s director of leasing, Scott Butler, said Parramatta was undergoing “phenomenal regeneration”.
All this activity is leading to solid rental growth.
JLL Research is forecasting above-average prime gross effective rental growth over the next year, with prime grade vacancy zero, no prime-grade assets and only 10 secondary grade assets with more than 1000 sq m of space availability.
“Not only have we seen commercial values appreciate very strongly over the past three years in Parramatta, but the net increase in stock over the next three years will likely be the largest of any of Sydney’s commercial markets.”
Mr Butler said Parramatta is the geographic centre of metropolitan Sydney, and a key piece in the formulation of government infrastructure policy. This will include development of the Parramatta Light Rail, as well as early feasibility works under way for the Sydney Metro West.
However, Parramatta’s occupier profile is diverse. JLL’s head of research, , Andrew Ballantyne said Parramatta already had a strong representation of corporate , with seven of the top-20 ASX-listed companies in its CBD.
“Western Sydney is a population growth corridor of NSW and will record strong growth in the working age population. We believe that organisations are increasingly undertaking more sophisticated workforce population mapping exercises and will consider Parramatta as a strategic location to assist with the work-life balance of employees,” he said. Retail booming
Knight Frank’s senior research manager, NSW, Alex Pham said the Parramatta CBD was experiencing a massive development boom, with more than 21 DA-endorsed mixed-use developments in the pipeline. According to the City of Parramatta, projects could yield nearly 9200 extra dwellings and about 170,000 sq m more commercial floor space.
The retail vacancy rate in the Parramatta CBD retail core measured 2.8 per cent as at July 2017, marginally higher than that in the Sydney CBD at 2.6 per cent.
“Currently dominated by food outlets, we expect the tenant profile in Parramatta to change over the coming years as a larger variety of fashion, footwear and technology retailers take up space in the Parramatta Square development. With the Parramatta light rail linking surrounding suburbs, Parramatta will become a more attractive retail destination for western Sydney residents,” Mr Pham said.
“Food retailing was the most dominant retail category in Parramatta as at July 2017, accounting for 27 per cent of the total tenancy mix.”
Knight Frank research shows most food retailers were street-front takeaway shops, restaurants and cafes, which accounted for 82 per cent of the total number of food retailers in Parramatta. Clothing and footwear retailers had the second-largest presence in the city, representing 19 per cent of the total retail units. This is in contrast to the Sydney CBD’s retail tenancy mix, which has clothing and footwear as the most dominant retail category, 39 per cent, followed by food retailing at 18 per cent.
What a joke. A scholarly article in Treasury’s latest Economic Roundup has admitted that all the years of handwringing over our poor productivity performance was just jumping at shadows.
Turns out all the angst was caused by not much more than the figures being distorted by the mining industry’s construction boom.
This after our top econocrats gave speech after speech urging “more micro reform” to improve productivity and keep living standards rising. (They’d have advocated more reform even if productivity was improving at record rates; its supposed weakness was just a convenient selling proposition.)
Meanwhile, the business lobby groups, led by the Business Council of , claimed – without any evidence – the supposed weakness had been caused by the “reregulation” of wage fixing under Labor’s evil Fair Work changes, and demanded the balance of bargaining power be shifted yet further in favour of employers. (A claim even the Productivity Commission wasn’t convinced by.)
Even at the time, it seemed the contortions of the mining industry during the decade-long resources boom were a big part of the story, but that didn’t stop people who should have known better going into panic mode.
“Despite concerns”, the paper by Simon Campbell and Harry Withers, says with masterful understatement that “‘s labour productivity growth over recent years is in line with its longer-term performance.
“In the five years to 2015-16, labour productivity in the whole economy has grown at an average annual rate of 1.8 per cent.
“This compares to an average annual rate of 1.4 per cent over the past 15 years, and 1.6 per cent over the past 30 years,” says. A productivity primer
Let’s take a step back. Productivity compares the quantity of the economy’s output of goods and services with the quantity of inputs of resources used to produce the output.
When output grows faster than inputs – as it does most years – we’re left better off. This improvement in our productivity is the overwhelming reason for the increase in our material standard of living over the years and centuries.
Productivity can be measured different ways. The simplest (and least likely to be inaccurate) way is to measure the productivity of labour: growth in output per worker or, better, per hour worked.
Labour productivity improvement is caused by two factors. The first is by increases in the ratio of labour to (physical) capital used in the economy.
This known as “capital deepening” – translation: giving workers more tools and machines to work with, which makes them more productive.
The second driver of labour productivity is improvements in the efficiency with which labour inputs and capital inputs are used, arising from such things as improved management practices. This known as MFP – multi-factor productivity.
In recent years the figures have shown multi-factor productivity growth to be zero or even negative, causing great concern among some economists, including the Productivity Commission.
But Campbell and Withers argue this focus on MFP is misplaced. They remind us that MFP is calculated as a residual (the product of a sum), meaning its likelihood of mismeasurement is high.
And they criticise the conventional view that physical capital should grow no faster than output – known as “balanced growth” – because capital deepening is an inferior source of productivity improvement to MFP. Forget ‘balanced growth’
People take this view because (making the unrealistic assumption that the economy is closed to transactions with foreigners) increased investment in physical capital must come at the expense spending on consumption.
The authors point out that achieving improved MFP isn’t costless, while the price of capital goods (most of which are imported) has fallen persistently relative to the price of consumption goods.
“This has allowed to sustain its high rate of capital deepening without forgoing ever higher levels of consumption,” they say.
Actually, they say, our economy has never fitted the “balanced growth” story. Of the 30-year average of 1.6 per cent annual growth in labour productivity, MFP contributed only 0.7 percentage points, while capital deepening contributed 0.9 points.
Next the authors examine the causes of the ups and downs in labour productivity improvement overall by breaking the economy into six sectors: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, utilities, construction and services (everything else).
They find that labour productivity in agriculture is now 2 1/2 times its level in 1989, but it’s too small a part of the economy – 2.5 per cent – for this to make much difference to the economy-wide story.
The utilities sector showed strong productivity growth until the turn of the century, before steadily declining through to 2011-12, mainly because of one-off developments such as the building, then mothballing of many desal plants. The key factor
The story of mining is well-known: its productivity fell because of the delay between companies hiring more workers to build new mines and gas facilities and that extra production coming on line. Since 2012-13, however, mining productivity has shot up. What a surprise.
Productivity in manufacturing and construction has grown at similar rates to the economy overall, as has productivity in the services sector (hardly a surprise since services now account for 70 per cent of gross domestic product).
Over the past five years, more than half of our total labour productivity improvement was attributable to the services sector, compared with about a quarter attributable to mining.
Apart from productivity improvement in the various sectors, overall productivity can be affected when changes in the industry structure of the economy cause workers to shift from lower-productivity sectors to higher-productivity sectors, or vice versa.
Because mining, being highly capital-intensive, has by far the highest level of labour productivity, the authors say it’s really only when workers move in or out of mining that structural change has much effect on economy-wide productivity.
“These movements of labour into and out of mining have been the key driver behind the fluctuations in … aggregate labour productivity growth,” the report concludes.
Now they tell us.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ownership of retirement properties is set for a major shake-up as operators look to gain funds for growth, and reduce risk, by introducing capital partners.
In comes as the retirement industry faces heated media, regulator, government and financial market scrutiny over questionable business practices including churning of residents, excessive fees and charges, high exit fees and exorbitant refurbishment costs.
Retirement village giant Aveo, under pressure from regulators and facing a NSW government inquiry, recently said it would simplify contracts with elderly residents and provide money-back guarantees and shortened buyback periods.
In terms of ownership it is a very fragmented sector, and pundits say consolidation is needed to push along regulation reforms.
Lendlease, which has $1.7 billion invested in retirement ownership, told investors this week it was “exploring the introduction of capital partners to help fund the growth of the business”. Reports suggest there are a number of interested parties.
Analysts said China Investment Corp was a very interested partner as it looks to expand its footprint into the sector. Morgan Stanley and Gresham are overseeing the process, which could run into early November.
Other potential parties could include Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, Blackstone’s real estate arm, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and China’s Cindat Capital Management.
“We are looking to bring in a partner,” chief executive of Lendlease Steven McCann said.
“We’re not going to obviously get specific on dates. But we’re in the process of those discussions currently and the aim is to find the right partner at the right price to enable us to continue to grow that business.”
Average retirement unit resale prices were up 11 per cent, reflecting the broader strength of the residential and retirement living market.
“The underlying demographics of the sector remain compelling and we acquired the remaining 50 per cent of Brighton on the Bay and Townsend Park, taking the portfolio to 71 villages,” Mr McCann said.
Macquarie Equities analyst said Lendlease also lowered the weighted average discount rate by 30 basis points to 13 per cent in the retirement business, with the weighted average future growth rate also declining about 10 basis points to 3.7 per cent.
Lendlease’s n communities and retirement development business was in “good shape”, although production delays over the year slowed down completions, the group said.
Diversified developer Stockland, also a big player in retirement living, has 12,000 residents in its portfolio.
The retirement business returned 11 per cent growth over the past year and, while it had previously pursued joint venture options, it was not actively considering them now.
In September last year, Stockland hired Macquarie Capital to find investors for its $1.1 billion retirement business in , with a potential spin-off under consideration.
“At this stage, we’re not exploring that. We have done a lot of work on that over the last couple of years,” Stockland’s chief executive of retirement living Stephen Bull said.
“While we’ve been very pleased with the response to that in terms of giving us a lot of comfort … the business is growing really strongly and we’re really happy with that growth profile. So, certainly, at this stage, we’re not exploring that further,” he said.
Stockland was diversifying its offering by building retirement apartments such as the Birtinya at Oceanside in Queensland.
“This type of product allows us to attract the customer that previously hasn’t been a customer that would come into one of our villages. So, it’s enabling us to drive growth,” Mr Bull said.
For the past month listed companies and their investors have been enthralled by the August earnings season.
The were some big winners, and big losers, surprises and puzzlers.
Here the BusinessDay reporting team take at some of the biggest sectors on the index to show who hit and who missed across banks, retail, mining, media and telcos, real estate, insurers and agribusiness . CBA blowbank bumps banks
Bank profits appear to be defying the doomsayers again, helped by very low numbers of borrowers getting into financial strife, and recent hikes in some home loan interest rates.
However, the performance is being overshadowed by fierce political scrutiny, which has been turned up another notch thanks to the bombshell allegations involving the Commonwealth Bank.
CBA, a bellwether for the industry, delivered earnings that were better than expected for year to June, with profits of $9.9 billion and a bigger dividend.
For several years, the market has been bracing for bank profits to be hit by a rise in bad debts – but CBA’s result showed the opposite had occurred. Its impaired loans as a share of total assets fell to 0.15 per cent, the lowest in recent years.
Westpac, ANZ Bank and National Bank all told a similar story in their trading updates, saying credit quality had improved.
Regulator-imposed caps on the mortgage market have also led to banks increasing their interest rates on interest-only home loans in recent months, and this is helping profit margins.
However, the good news for CBA shareholders arrived as the bank was engulfed by allegations from Austrac that it breached anti-money laundering (AML) laws more than 53,000 times.
In weeks since then, CBA’s share price has fallen about 10 per cent, as other regulators have announced their own inquiries into the bank, and analysts have predicted its share price will be held back by the allegations.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev will retire by June 2018. Photo: DEAN LEWINS
“We continue to see CBA as one of the world’s premium banking franchises. However, we believe the AML allegations are likely to be an ongoing drag on its reputation, provide unwanted management distraction and lead to elevated costs,” UBS analyst Jonathan Mott wrote after the bank’s results.
While other banks are not in Austrac’s sights, some observers believe the episode has increased the odds of a royal commission into banks, which would likely be viewed as bad news for all bank shares. Retail’s mixed bag
n retailers delivered a mixed bag in what could be their last full year of trade before e-commerce giant Amazon opens locally and causes – depending on who you ask – either widespread carnage or little more than a splash.
Coles blamed Woolworths cutting prices, Aldi’s expansion westward, and poor shopper sentiment for slow sales growth and a slide in earnings.
But its owner Wesfarmers was again saved by its conglomerate structure, with an earnings windfall from better coal prices and solid growth from Kmart and Bunnings sending its profit skyward.
Rolling out Bunnings in Britain and Ireland was costing more and taking longer than expected though, alarming some analysts.
At Woolworths there was impressive sales growth but that came at the expense of profit, as it cut prices and improved service. Worse-than-expected losses at its discount chain Big W dampened the good news and another turnaround plan – Big W’s third in four years – was announced.
Amazon loomed large as it started work on its first local distribution centre in Melbourne’s south-east.
JB Hi-Fi struck a defiant tone, insisting it would remain the go-to showroom for consumer electronics in the eyes of shoppers and suppliers. Its profit was up, but some analysts remained concerned the consumer electronics giant was not doing enough to prepare for Amazon’s disruption.
Gerry Harvey, ever the contrarian, said current economic conditions were favourable and helped Harvey Norman record an “unprecedented” result: profit grew and it said a share buy-back was on the cards.
But investors were disappointed by a dividend cut and slowing sales in the last quarter and Harvey Norman stock fell 7 per cent.
One-time darling Domino’s Pizza continued its fall to earth – profit grew but it flagged much slower sales growth going forward. Almost $1 billion was wiped from its market valuation in the ensuing sell-off. Mining dividends
Dividends were a stand-out feature as mining companies unveiled a big surge in profitability. Over coming weeks n mining companies will pay billions of dollars in fully franked dividends to investors.
Rio will pay $US2 billion in dividends, BHP $US2.3 billion, Fortescue $US778.5 million, and South32 $US334 million.
On top of this, Rio Tinto and South32 pleased the market by announcing substantial increases in share buybacks.
And on the days that the major miners released their results, they were not shy about highlighting their generosity and focus on shareholders.
Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques said his company was “delivering superior cash returns to shareholders”.
Companies are cutting the dividends they will pay.
While Andrew Mackenzie, chief executive officer of BHP, said the revitalised miner had “laid strong foundations to grow value and support shareholder returns for decades to come”.
Given the large dividend cash splash, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the miners were keen to emphasise their cash returns. And they certainly could afford it, having benefited from better prices for some key commodities during fiscal 2017.
The average price of a tonne of iron ore shipped to Qingdao in China in 2016-17, was $US69.51, according to Bloomberg, compared to a much lower $US51.42 the previous year.
Coal prices also jumped, pushing up BHP’s coal earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation 496 per cent in fiscal 2017.
So what were they saying to investors by lifting their dividends? The message seemed to be something like this – ‘stick with us, we’ll reward you well’.
BHP’s Mr Mackenzie virtually said this himself, in an investor and analyst briefing. “At BHP, our purpose is to create value for shareholders. This is at the centre of everything we do,” he said, very early in his speech.
The world’s biggest miner might also have been sending a message either about, or to, the activist investor Elliott Management – which has called for an overhaul of BHP and better returns to shareholders – that BHP was well aware of the importance of sharing its profits with shareholders.
Some of BHP’s key decisions and statements over recent weeks, such as the increased dividend and decision to exit the controversial US onshore shale assets, seemed to show that BHP had been listening to what Elliott and others had been saying, and it had acted.
BHP Billitonhad a clear message for investors. Photo: JOE CASTRO
Perhaps the push from Elliott, that shareholders need to be well rewarded, has reverberated around the wider mining industry, benefiting shareholders in a range of companies in the process.
The outlook for the miners and their shareholders looks positive, with commodity prices stronger than 2015-16 and demand continuing from China. On the day Rio released its half-year results, Rio CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques gave a positive assessment of the outlook for the Chinese economy for the next couple of years.
And BHP shareholders will be hoping that the analysis of Peter O’Connor, metals and mining analyst at Shaw and Partners, holds.
In a recent report he said BHP shares could climb above $40 over the next few years thanks to a collection of factors, which he described as: historical precedent, the crown jewel assets, margin and return on invested capital leverage, capital management and divestments, and macro and commodity tailwinds. Awful August for media
‘s major media and telecommunications companies revealed lousy results this reporting season. The exception was out of home advertising, which is growing so well that TV and radio broadcaster Southern Cross Austereo announced it, too, will be getting in on the digital billboard action.
But for traditional businesses, the news was not good. Telstra has finally made the decision to stop paying out over 90 per cent of profits in dividends. Shareholders were most unhappy that this unusually high payout ratio won’t continue forever, with Telstra predicting dividends will drop from 31?? this fiscal year to 22?? in 2018.
Analysts have pointed out the yield is still about 6 per cent, but it was up around 8 per cent before the change. Telstra’s results were flat, with revenue up 0.4 per cent to $26 billion and a full-year profit of $3.9 billion. Telstra now has to prove it can find a way to plug the revenue being taken away by NBN Co’s new infrastructure.
Vocus Group has been having a rocky year and terminated due diligence on two private equity bidders just a week before its results. It saw increases in revenue and underlying net profit of $152 million. But it also booked a $1.5 billion goodwill impairment, dragging its result down to a $1.4 billion loss.
TPG will report its results in late September.
For television and print media, results were a chance to prove they have thrown enough excess weight overboard in the past year to stay afloat, all while watching one of their own slip under the surface. The industry is also in a holding pattern while it waits to see if the government can get ownership reforms through the Senate.
Seven West Media wrote off $1 billion in the value of licences and subsidiaries, thus turning a $168 million profit into a $745 million loss. It also complained about the increasing cost of sports rights, a year after defending the high price it has been paying for sports. It halved the dividend to 2?? and shares were this week testing historical lows under 70??.
Nine Entertainment Company posted a profit of $124 million, but again this was turned into a loss by writing down its broadcasting licence, redundancy costs and an onerous output contract with US suppliers. Its full-year dividend decreased from 12?? to 9.5??. Nine’s share price was getting a boost before the results, but has since been dragged down on news US broadcasting giant CBS might be buying Network Ten out of administration.
Ten usually waits until October to report full-year results, but this year has a note from its administrators excusing it from financial reporting for the time being.
CBS will take over Ten Network. Photo: Jessica Hromas
Fairfax and News Corp’s results showed spending on print advertising continues to decline, but online real estate advertising remains healthy.
Fairfax delivered a $97 million profit and focused on the performance of its real estate site Domain, which it will be listing on the sharemarket in November. Total dividend for the year was 4?? per share. It did the heavy lifting on masthead write-downs in 2016.
It was a mixed reporting season for the n real estate investment trusts with the rise in the office and industrial sectors offsetting the decline in the retail landlords.
Overall, the retail sector, which has a 60 per cent weighting in the S&P REIT index, fell by 20 per cent in the reporting season, while the office and industrial rose by 20 per cent, in terms of prices. For the year to August 31, the whole sector was down 7 per cent. Offices, sheds win as malls struggle
Office leasing and demand for physical assets has put a base under the sector and e-commerce growth looks set to keep warehouses busy, while struggling retailers are putting a strain on malls as new tenants replace failed ones at lower rents.
Winston Sammut, managing director, Folkestone Maxim Asset Management, noted the divergence, pointing out retail landlords including Westfield Corporation, Scentre Group and Vicinity Centres underperforming the overall property sector.
“The main concern with the outlook for the retail landlords seems to be the tough conditions impacting on leasing, coupled with the uncertainty of the extent of the impact from Amazon’s entry into the n market early next year,” Mr Sammut said.
“While the outlook for the office sub-sector is considered sound, earnings per security guidance was surprisingly less supportive of a continuing positive outcome for commercial property. Nevertheless, strong revaluation gains were recorded across the board with expectations that rental growth for Sydney will likely continue at around current levels, while this is likely to be the case for Melbourne to a lesser extent.”
Mr Sammut said on the residential front, ‘s low-interest-rate environment has seen volumes rising despite tighter credit controls coming into play. Even though the residential cycle appears to be continuing longer than previously expected, it would appear volumes are reaching their peak.
At the end of August the A-REIT sector is trading on a distribution yield of around 5.2 per cent, which remains attractive from an income perspective compared to the current cash rate and the 10-year bond rate currently around 2.6 per cent.
Citi analysts said it was a “solid reporting season”, with a better-than-expected 2018 outlook, scope for guidance upgrades and improving valuation appeal.
“Investor positioning could result in renewed interest in the sector. However, a challenging retail outlook remains a key drag on potential sector outperformance. Fund from operations (FFO) growth is becoming more concentrated as 80 per cent of sector growth is driven from 50 per cent of market capitalisation,” Citi says.
“Goodman, Stockland, Mirvac and Scentre Group are the key drivers of sector growth and only AREITs with 4 per cent forecast 2018 FFO growth, despite what felt like better-than-expected outlooks from the AREITs.”
Retail portfolios reported solid comparative net operating income growth of 3.5 per cent, but comparable specialty sales growth weakened for all retail portfolios, indicating challenges may persist and sentiment could remain soft. Treasury leads way
Agribusiness companies flew under the radar this season but there were a couple of notable exceptions.
One result was the handsome $269.1 million full-year net profit posted by ‘s biggest wine company, Treasury Wine Estates.
Treasury’s net profit was up 55 per cent on the previous year, as it continued its revitalisation under chief executive Michael Clarke. The market responded positively to the result, pushing shares in the company to record highs well above the $14 mark. Just two years ago the stock was trading at less than $5.90.
Sales figures showed that Treasury, which owns some of the nation’s best known wine brands including Penfolds, recorded a 34.5 per cent jump to $394.3 million in sales to Asia, as the company rode the wave of growing demand in Asia for n wine.
It was the kind of growth that would have made the leaders of the nation’s biggest dairy processor, Murray Goulburn, more than envious, if they actually had the time to look outside their own struggling organisation.
Murray Goulburn slumped to a $370.8 million net loss after tax, revealed that revenue fell 10.3 per cent to $2.49 billion in fiscal 2017, and milk intake fell a whopping 21.8 per cent to 2.7 billion litres.
The story for Murray Goulburn is that its future is on the line as its revenue shrinks, it loses farmers to other dairy processors, and it assesses “unsolicited proposals from third parties” ranging from the sale of non-core assets, to a “whole of company transaction”.
“The coming months will be pivotal for the future of the business,” Ari Mervis, Murray Goulburn’s chief executive, said.
It was no understatement. In a few short months, the business might have actually changed hands. Insurers’ pressure at the margins
‘s biggest insurance companies are benefiting from a trend towards rising premiums, which helped to strengthen share prices over the first half of this year.
Suncorp, Insurance Group and QBE Group all confirmed they expected further hikes in premiums, but their results were also marred by disappointing guidance.
IAG shares hit a record high earlier this year, after it released reserves because lower cost of claims, but on results day it forecast skinnier margins over the year ahead due in part to higher expected costs from motor claims.
Suncorp, the other dominant firm in motor and home insurance, also left some investors underwhelmed when it delivered full-year results. Its earnings were lower than expected, and some analysts grumbled about its plan to bring forward $100 million in spending to develop a “marketplace” for financial services through an overhaul of its online presence, physical stores and brokers.
QBE Group also forecast full-year profitability for the year ahead would be at the low end of previous guidance it had provided in June, when it was slammed in the market for another profit downgrade.
QBE’s earnings rose 30 per cent in the first half, but investors are demanding the global insurer do more to eliminate surprises, after a big loss in its emerging markets business undermined confidence in its turnaround.