Friday, October 19, 2012

Tiny loss is  first loss for an  Australian bank in 20 years

What a contrast with the U.S. and U.K. bank situation!

BANK of Queensland (BOQ) says it has turned a corner after posting a full year loss of $17.1 million, the first full year loss by an Australian bank in 20 years.

The loss for the year to August 31 compares to a net profit of $158.7 million in the previous 12 months. BOQ had forecast the result, which was caused by its exposure to the struggling southeast Queensland property market and other one-off items.

Chief executive Stuart Grimshaw said the bank was profitable in the second half of its fiscal year, and the next 12 months should be more positive.

"We've addressed the basics to become operationally fit and are focused on delivering better services for our customers and profitable growth for shareholders," he said. "I believe we have reached a crucial turnaround point and I'm looking forward to the next 12 months."

BOQ shares were down 11 cents, or 1.4 per cent, at $7.25 at 10.50am AEDT.

Mr Grimshaw said the bank's asset quality and risk management had been addressed.

"We have seen a fall in mortgage arrears over the past few months. However, we continue to be prudently provided for, hence the top-up of our collective provisions," he said.

BOQ raised its provisions for bad debt expenses in the second half of its fiscal year, which contributed to the full year loss.

"We are seeing stabilisation in the commercial portfolio with no new large impaired exposures in the second half," Mr Grimshaw said.

There are also some early signs of consumers returning to the housing market, he said.

However, the wider economic conditions remained challenging, with consumers still cautious and demand for loans subdued, Mr Grimshaw said.

BOQ's normalised cash profit in the year to August, which excludes one-off items, was $30.6 million, down from $176.6 million in the previous year.

BOQ declared a fully-franked final dividend of 26 cents per share, taking the full year dividend to 52 cents per share, down from 54 cents in the previous year.


Parents lose fight over religion in school

A TRIBUNAL has ruled that children who opt out of special religious instruction classes in state primary schools are not being discriminated against under the Equal Opportunity Act.

Psychologist Sophie Aitken and two other parents argued the Education Department discriminated against children who did not participate in the classes because they were identified as different and separated from their classmates on the basis of their religious belief.

They also claimed the fact students could not be taught the normal school curriculum while their peers attended the religion classes was discriminatory.

But Judge Timothy Ginnane dismissed their request that he order the Education Department to hold the classes outside school hours, make parents explicitly opt their children into the classes, or provide equivalent instruction for students who did not attend.

In his decision in the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal, published today, he said the parents had not established the state had discriminated against the eight children, who were aged between 6 and 12.

"Attendance by a child at special religious instruction does not, necessarily, indicate that the child, or the parents, hold any particular religious beliefs," Judge Ginnane said.

He said Parliament had authorised the provision of religious instruction in Victoria 60 years ago and the law was re-enacted six years ago.

"Instruction is not compulsory and parents have a choice whether their children attend. If they do not, they engage in useful, non-curriculum activities under teachers' supervision."

He said the religious classes had been implemented at the three schools in a thoughtful manner.

"The evidence did not establish that the children, who did not attend SRI at the three schools, were treated in any discriminatory manner."

Special religious instruction, which is mostly provided by Christian education provider Access Ministries, is offered at about two-thirds of the 1200 state primary schools in Victoria. The half-hour classes, which are held once a week, were changed from opt-out to opt-in last year after the parents lodged their complaint.

If an accredited instructor is available, schools must offer special religious instruction.

Ms Aitken, whose children attend Ivanhoe East Primary, told the tribunal her son Toby brought home a colouring sheet stating "God made the world" when she forgot to hand in his form indicating he had been opted out of special religious instruction.

When Ms Aitken told Toby this is not what she believed, he asked: "Why would a teacher say it if it wasn't true?"

The classmate of another son, Howard, told him he would go to hell if he did not believe in God.

But Judge Ginnane said he accepted the teachers' evidence there was no teasing, bullying or pressure on students to attend special religious instruction.

Education Minister Martin Dixon and Access Ministries chairman Bishop Stephen Hale welcomed the finding that the Education Department had not discriminated against students.

"It is very reassuring to know the judge upheld our belief the guidelines aren't discriminatory and we respect the right of parents to have the option to opt out," Bishop Hale said.

But Ms Aitken, who is yet to decide whether she will appeal, told The Age she was disappointed by the decision.

"This leaves kids as young as five being separated from their peers on religious grounds, where non-Christian children are treated differently by not being offered proper instruction during this time," Ms Aitken said.

"I would encourage families, whatever their religious affiliation, to protest against this system by opting their children out of SRI."

Parent group Fairness in Religions in School said the judgment simply highlighted that the act itself was insufficient. "The fact that the judge found no discrimination does not make Special Religious Instruction right, it simply means that the schools have done their best under difficult circumstances," said spokeswoman Lisel Thomas.

"Teachers don't want to segregate children on religious grounds. We say, let's take this burden off government schools and let them deliver inclusive education, where children of all faiths can learn together. State schools are not church playgrounds."



Three current articles below

Renewables energy target 'driving up prices'

THE Australian Energy Markets Commission has warned that the renewables energy target is distorting power markets, both driving up power prices for consumers while causing uneconomic outcomes for generators and their owners.

"I do have some issues with the competitive sector of the electricity market," the commission's chairman, John Pierce, told a business forum earlier today.

"The renewables energy target, especially, [since] one consequence is to depress wholesale [electricity] prices and drive retail [electricity] prices up." This is because electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as wind earns much of its revenue from renewable energy certificates and not primarily from the electricity market, unlike competing generators.

And, due to its intermittent source of energy, it will produce electricity even when it would not be economic to do so, which forces down power prices to unrealistic levels.

As a result, the wholesale price of electricity has been driven down by rising renewables output, which can make it uneconomic for larger generators to produce electricity, and make it difficult for investors to back new projects in the future.

"That is reflected by changes of state regulators changing wholesale producer allowances, moving away from marginal cost basis to using estimates of spot prices on the [national electricity market]," he said.

This will undermine the competitive position of the smaller, independent power retailers, who do not own their own source of electricity supply, and ultimately may reduce the level of competition in the electricity markets.

Separately, the NSW Minister for Energy, Chris Hartcher, said the poor management of the electricity sector had resulted in electricity distributors over-investing as much as $1.8-1.9 billion over the past five years.

In Victoria, the figure was a more modest $400 million, he said.

This is due to the poor way the sector has been managed by the Australian Energy Regulator, which approves spending plans of the network companies. As a result, NSW wants the AER to be separated from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, he said.

Mr Hartcher ruled out reducing the reliability standard of electricity supply in NSW, which has been the subject of some debate as the source of much of the over-investment in capacity in the network.

"Reliability is not an area of compromise," he told the forum.  Rather, he is looking for greater spending efficiencies, along with changes to work practices, to keep a lid on power prices.

Earlier today, the Productivity Commission released a report, highlighting the poor management of the electricity sector in unnecessarily driving up power prices.

Mr Pierce's comments followed the decision earlier this week of EnergyAustralia, known formerly as TruEnergy, to shut down one of its generators at the Yallourn power station in Victoria. It blamed weak demand and the impact of the carbon price for its decision.


Despised  HOV lanes of freeway to be scrapped by new conservative government

The High Occupancy Vehicle lanes beloved of Greenies are called T2 and T3 lanes in Queensland.  Brisbane also has a "Green bridge" over which buses only are allowed.  Lets's hope that nonsense ends soon too

THE despised T2 lanes on the Pacific Motorway will be scrapped next year and replaced with a total of four general traffic lanes, increasing the road capacity by 50 per cent.

Transport Minister Scott Emerson will announce the changes on Thursday which will be in place by mid-2013 at a cost of $5 million.

The reconfiguration means the removal of two of the "shoulders" or "police enforcement lanes" which flank the three existing traffic lanes.

Mr Emerson said the price tag was a bargain compared with the $100 million it would cost to build the extra lanes, if the T2 lanes were retained.  "The T2 lanes had 10 years and the feedback that I get from most people who use this road is that they don't think it's being used sufficiently to justify it continuing," Mr Emerson said.  "It's important to realise that by getting rid of the T2 lane we actually get an extra lane as well.  "That's a pretty big win for motorists."

He said the eight-lane section would run for 5km from the Klumpp Rd interchange to the Gateway Motorway merge, before reverting to six lanes.

"The Pacific Motorway during peak times looks like a car park and so this announcement will mean greater capacity for motorists travelling on this stretch," Mr Emerson said.

Paul Turner from peak motoring body RACQ welcomed the decision and urged the Brisbane City Council to also consider the future of its T2 and T3 lanes on suburban streets.

"The T2 lane (on the M3) has caused more congestion than it's solved because it's forced traffic into two lanes which could be three, or even four as it turns out," Mr Turner said.

"Overall we think lanes that artificially limit the traffic haven't worked and we'd like to see them removed."

He said the lanes' removal would reduce poor behaviour by frustrated motorists.

A spokesman for Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said BCC recently removed the T2 lane on Tiber St at Norman Park which was less than 1km long.


"Public" bikes in Brisbane spark little interest

WITH some 165 cities around the world now operating public bike-sharing schemes, it seems that any globally-aspiring city must have one.

They are part of a familiar checklist for cities striving to become the greenest, the most innovative, the most liveable.

* Show-stopping architecture? Check.

* Thriving cafe/restaurant/bar scene? Check.

* Non-stop stream of cultural events? Check.

* Bike share scheme? Check.

In 2010, Brisbane and Melbourne introduced Australia's first schemes, which work by allowing subscribers access to a network of bicycles docked in stations scattered around the city. Brisbane has up to 2000 bikes and 150 stations, while Melbourne has 600 bikes and 50 stations.

Such schemes show a lot of promise in helping address critical environmental, social and planning issues faced by cities, but only if they are implemented with local conditions in mind, not copied and pasted, as appears to have been the case in Australia.

As a result, the Australian schemes are at risk of being more ornamental than functional.

Both Brisbane and Melbourne's have attracted criticism for their underwhelming performance, leading to adjustments on the run.

Prices have been lowered, helmets made available and sign-up methods streamlined in the hope of enticing more people to subscribe.

Recent reporting indicates that the measures have had some impact in increasing usage, albeit from a low base.

Although, when set against the experience of similarly-sized schemes in comparable cities, usage rates are still much lower.

So, why haven't people taken to bike sharing in Australia yet?

New research led by Elliot Fishman from the Queensland University of Technology sheds some light on this. He and his colleagues asked people about their attitudes and behaviours regarding Brisbane's CityCycle bike sharing scheme.

The results are instructive, though not all that promising for a quick fix.

First, participants indicated that they would be more likely to use CityCycle if they could do so spontaneously. This is related in large part to mandatory helmet requirements.

Being required to wear a helmet for schemes such as CityCycle is akin to "opening up a pub and then asking everybody to bring their own glasses", Fishman told the ABC.

Australia is the only country operating a bike-share scheme with mandatory helmet requirements. Mexico City, for example, repealed its helmet law in preparation for its bike-sharing scheme.

The problem in Brisbane is not helped by other compounding factors, including the prohibitively lengthy sign-up process and 10pm closing of docking stations.

Survey participants were apprehensive about using CityCycle because of concerns about safety, which result from a lack of appropriate bicycle infrastructure and the perceived negative attitude of car drivers toward cyclists.

Although safety is an issue relating to cycling in general, the success of CityCycle is dependent on it being approachable for people without extensive cycling experience.

If unchanged, this is likely to fundamentally undermine the success of the scheme. Overcoming such barriers will not be quick and easy.

Mandatory helmet laws have considerable support, infrastructure takes years to rollout, and the attitudes of cyclists and drivers toward one another will likely be slow to change.

Nor is it a good look, in the meantime, having 150 fully-stocked bike stations around Brisbane acting as gentle but ever-present reminders of the scheme's limits.

In rushing to keep up with the Joneses, it seems that local realities have been underestimated or, worse, overlooked. It is, of course, not a bad thing looking for inspiration over the fence. It would be foolish to think that other places didn't have worthwhile ideas for making Australian cities better places to live, work and visit. It's just not much use unless you have your own house in order. And worse if you forget about the house altogether.


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