Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop agree to work together to defeat spill motion

Prime Minister Tony Abbott address the media in Sydney. Photo: Christopher PearceThe Pulse Live: Tony Abbott faces a leadership challengeAnalysis: When it finally came, its direction was tellingHow will the spill motion work?
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has dropped a bombshell in the leadership saga gripping his government, revealing he and Julie Bishop will work together to defeat moves to throw him out of the top job.

Mr Abbott revealed he and Ms Bishop, the deputy Liberal leader, will “stand together” to stare down a push by backbench MPs to spill their positions.

But Ms Bishop said she would vote against the spill motion out of “cabinet solidarity” and it is understood she is not running on any joint ticket. Earlier in the day she refused to admonish backbenchers agitating for change saying they would do as they saw fit.

West Australians Luke Simpkins and Don Randall emailed colleagues on Friday afternoon to announce they would be moving a spill motion when the party room meets in Canberra next Tuesday.

Mr Simpkins said voters had stopped listening to the Prime Minister and he was no longer capable of leading.

In a statement to the media that lasted 90 seconds, Mr Abbott said Mr Simpkins and Mr Randall were “perfectly entitled” to call for the spill.

“But the next point to make is they are asking the party room to vote out the people that the electorate voted in September 2013,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

“I want to make this very simple point: we are not the Labor Party, we are not the Labor Party and we are not going to repeat the chaos and the instability of the Labor years.

“So I have spoken to deputy leader Julie Bishop and we will stand together in urging the party room to defeat this particular motion.”

Mr Abbott said voting against the motion would be a “vote in favour of stability and the team that the people voted for at the election”.

Mr Abbott did not take any questions during his media appearance.

Ms Bishop told Fairfax Media: “I agreed with the Prime Minister that due to cabinet solidarity and my position as deputy there should be support for current leadership in the spill motion.”

This does not rule out the possibility of Ms Bishop running for the leadership or deputy leadership in the event the spill motion was carried.

Mr Abbott’s announcement could derail plans by some Liberal MPs to install Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.

Another potential rival, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, immediately ruled out a tilt at the leader or deputy leader positions.

“The matter is now before the party room but my position has not changed,” he said.

Immediately after Mr Abbott’s press statement, a cavalcade of ministers took to the airwaves to defend the Prime Minister.

“The last week hasn’t been a good week, there’s no way we can kid ourselves about that,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Sky News.

“On Tuesday there will be a vote which will clear the air. Those of us who support Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop will vote to defeat the spill motion, that is what I’m urging all of my colleagues to do.”

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said his vote against the motion would “differentiate” the Liberal Party against the chaos of the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard years.

“This is a once and only decision…I think this would be a disaster for the party and a disaster for Australia,” he said.

Mr Andrews added there was still no declared leadership candidate.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the spill motion would make the government look like “a bit of a circus”.

“I mean, 10 days ago people didn’t realise we had a leadership issue and here we are calling a spill,” Mr Robb said.

“I do feel that the Prime Minister deserves some breathing space to show that he’s listened to the criticisms and the concerns which in many cases are legitimate issues, mistakes that have been made.”

Mr Robb said he had “no idea” if the motion would succeed. Follow us on Twitter

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The last time Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott squared off

Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull hold a press conference after he was defeated by new opposition leader Tony Abbott by one vote in the leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday December 1, 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull hold a press conference after he was defeated by new opposition leader Tony Abbott by one vote in the leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday December 1, 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne
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Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull fronts the media after his defeat in 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne

Then-deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop and new Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott holds a press conference after defeating Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in the leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra in 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne

Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull hold a press conference after he was defeated by new opposition leader Tony Abbott by one vote in the leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday December 1, 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne

Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull hold a press conference after he was defeated by new opposition leader Tony Abbott by one vote in the leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday December 1, 2009. Photo: Glen McCurtayne

This article was first published in December, 2009.

The Liberal Party shocked itself when it elected Tony Abbott as leader this week.

The man who had masterminded the coup to destroy Malcolm Turnbull was Nick Minchin, the godfather of the Liberals’ conservative wing.

As soon as the results were announced – Hockey was eliminated in the first round of voting, and the final ballot was won by Abbott over Turnbull by a single vote – Minchin walked across to a shocked Joe Hockey.

They had not even left the party room. Astonished members were milling about. A gang of reporters was waiting outside. “If I’d known how it was going to go,” Minchin told him, “I would have slung you another 10 votes.”

Minchin was speakingpartly in jest. He was rebuking Hockey for failing to do his numbers, for bungling his run at the party leadership.

But he was also partly serious. Minchin had not expected Abbott to win. Nobody had expected Abbott to win. Not even Abbott. Contrary to widespread impressions in the media, Minchin did not even want Abbott to win.

Although the pair are both stalwarts of the conservative group in the party, Minchin knew very well what everyone else in the room knew – that of the three leadership candidates, Abbott was the most unpopular.

The parliamentary members of the Liberal Party had just chosen to elect a leader that most of them considered to be unelectable.

Now they had replaced Turnbull, a man nominated as preferred Liberal leader by 32 per cent of voters in the Herald’s Nielsen poll,  with a man preferred by only 20 per cent.

Minchin’s main aim was to dump the Liberal Party’s support for an emissions trading scheme. He had been adamantly opposed to an ETS ever since he took the job of industry minister in the Howard government in 1998.

His voice had been dismissed in the cabinet when Howard decided to support an ETS in 2007. Now he was getting his way.

He would have allowed Malcolm Turnbull to stay in place if he had yielded. He had delivered his ultimatum to Turnbull five days earlier.

Minchin and Abbott had gone to see Turnbull in the Opposition leader’s office in Parliament House.

There was a huge reaction against the ETS from the grassroots of the party, they said. They pleaded with him to oppose the ETS or, at the very least, to defer it.

Turnbull was unmoved. “I’ve got a partyroom decision in favour of the policy and a spill [motion to declare the leader’s position vacant] against me failed just yesterday. Why would I back down on something I believe in?”

The two then said that they had no option but to resign from the frontbench, and they detonated a series of orchestrated explosions along it as well, as one after another, other shadow ministers resigned. By the end of the process, Turnbull had lost 14 of his frontbench. He could not limp on.  Another spill motion was to come.

The right of the party had lost that week’s gambit. On numbers compiled by the Liberal Whip, Alex Somlyay, the shadow cabinet had approved Turnbull’s position to support the ETS by 14  to 6; the Liberal party room had supported it by 47 to 32; and the Coalition party room, including the National Party, was in favour of it by 47  to 46.

But Minchin would not accept defeat. If Turnbull would not submit, he would find a more amenable leader.

Minchin wanted to install the avuncular Joe Hockey instead.

This was logical, but also perverse. Logical because Hockey was the most electable, preferred by 36 per cent of voters as Liberal leader.

And perverse because Hockey had been a solid supporter of the ETS policy. Indeed, he had urged it on the Howard government when he had been the acting industry minister in 2002, five years before Howard adopted the idea.

And Hockey was also a firm friend of Turnbull and an unwavering supporter of his leadership.

To be installed as leader, Hockey would have to dump his commitment to an ETS, and his loyalty to Turnbull. Turnbull and Hockey were the Liberals’ leading moderates, as distinct from the conservatives.

Yet that was the deal that Minchin now offered him. It was the same deal that he had offered Turnbull – defer or defeat the ETS, and I will give you the crown. This was the Faustian bargain.

“My whole political currency is as a straight talker,” Hockey agonised with supporters. “I will be destroyed.”

Hockey was confident he would carry the numbers in a leadership ballot. He didn’t agonise over the votes. He didn’t even agonise so much over disloyalty to Turnbull; he had promised not to challenge his friend, and he would keep his word, at least in a technical sense.

He would only stand for the party leadership if it was first declared vacant in a spill motion.

No, Hockey agonised over the ETS. Parliament resumed on Monday. The ETS bills were still pending in the Senate. A partyroom meeting was due on Tuesday. A leadership spill was a certainty. What would Hockey do?

First, he went to see his mate, the defiant leader. He told him that he didn’t think Turnbull could win. I accept that, replied Turnbull. If the leadership is vacant, said Hockey, I will stand.

Well, righto, came the leader’s response. Hockey had the clear impression that Turnbull had said that, if defeated in the spill, he would not then stand in the next ballot, the vote on the leadership.

This was logical. Because a lost spill, for a leader, is effectively a motion of no confidence. What’s the point in then standing again two minutes later?

Next, Hockey convened a big meeting in his office about 4pm. It was, essentially, everyone in the leadership group except Turnbull.

Minchin and one of his close conservative allies, Eric Abetz were there. So was  Abbott. So was a Hockey lieutenant, Christopher Pyne.

The pro-ETS Greg Hunt was there, and so was the anti-ETS Andrew Robb. Turnbull’s deputy, Julie Bishop, was in the room. So was a conservative mooted as her replacement, Peter Dutton. Even the federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, was present.

Hockey announced that he would stand for the leadership once it was vacant. Then he announced his policy on the ETS. Hockey would not have a policy, he said to an incredulous room.

It was simply too divisive. So he would allow party members a conscience vote in the chambers of the Parliament.

The group broke up to think  about it, and reconvened in Hockey’s office a little after 6pm. Hard positions had now formed. Minchin and Abetz opposed the idea of a conscience vote.

Minchin said it was “crazy” from Hockey’s point of view, that it would look weak. “Your first decision as leader would be no decision.”

One participant, and recollections differ over who it was, observed that under this plan, the ETS would probably pass through the Parliament – “we will have changed the leader and have the same policy!” he expostulated.

“What does the right get out of that?”

Hockey replied: “The right gets Dutton as deputy, me as leader, Abbott as shadow treasurer, and Julie Bishop in foreign affairs.” No one had broached with Bishop the idea that she would lose the deputy’s slot.

“Joe,” said Bishop, “before you start speaking about the deputy’s job, speak to me.” It didn’t come up again.

Minchin argued repeatedly that Hockey’s position was ridiculous – you can’t have a policy of not having a policy, he said.

At this point,  Abbott declared his hand. “This is an impossible situation for the colleagues,” he said.

“Some want to vote for the ETS, some want to vote against it. You can’t leave it unresolved. The party has to be offered a clear choice.” If Hockey would not change his mind, said Abbott, he would stand as the anti-ETS candidate.

About 8pm, Minchin visited Hockey once again. Abbott joined them. Minchin tried once more to find a way to kill the ETS but install Hockey as leader.

He offered a new formula – a secret ballot on the ETS offering three options – in favour of it, against it, or in favour of a conscience vote on it.

Hockey was ready to accept this, but Abbott would not brook anything offering a conscience vote  option.

That night, as the candidates counted their numbers, a Hockey lieutenant contacted Turnbull about 8.30pm to make sure of his undertaking to Hockey that he wouldn’t stand.

He told Hockey that he had received the assurance and had noted the conversation in his diary.

Yet Turnbull publicly vowed, in the strongest of terms, that he would stand and fight.  At the Tuesday meeting, the leadership was declared vacant with a vote of 48 to 34, a clear dismissal of Turnbull.

Then Bishop, as deputy, called for nominations for the leadership. Turnbull was on his feet instantly, followed a second later by Abbott. Hockey rose a moment later. It was to be a three-way contest.

In the first round of voting, Abbott won 35 votes, Turnbull won 26 and Hockey won 23. With the lowest tally, Hockey was eliminated.

The moderate vote had been split between Hockey and Turnbull. Some had abandoned Hockey because of his equivocal position on the threshold issue of the ETS.  Hockey was shocked.

In the run-off, Abbott beat Turnbull by 42 votes to 41. One vote, unbelievably, was informal. After Minchin’s crack about the 10 votes, Hockey replied incredulously: “He’s a piece of work, isn’t he?” indicating Turnbull. “He promised me he wouldn’t run if the spill got up.”

Later, he bumped into Turnbull on the flight back to Sydney.  “I’m too angry to talk to you,” said Hockey.

Turnbull is adamant that he gave Hockey no undertaking. Both men lost. Turnbull lost his leadership, Hockey lost his challenge, and neither got to keep the ETS that he had supported.

And Abbott was, truly, the accidental leader.

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Dire forecast led to Reserve Bank cut

The Reserve Bank released its quarterly statement on Friday. The Reserve Bank released its quarterly statement on Friday.
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The Reserve Bank released its quarterly statement on Friday.

The Reserve Bank released its quarterly statement on Friday.

The Reserve Bank board decided to cut interest rates on Tuesday after being presented with forecasts showing what would happen if it did not.

The revelation, in the latest Reserve Bank quarterly statement, suggests the bank’s original economic forecasts were far worse than those released with Friday’s statement.

The statement predicts “only modest” employment growth and a further rise in the unemployment rate. Its central forecast for economic growth in the year ahead has been marked down from 3 per cent to 2.75 per cent.

The fine print of the statement reveals that not only were the forecasts made less alarming by factoring in the interest rate cut announced on Tuesday, but also by factoring in a second cut in May and the chance of a third one a few months later.

The statement says the forecasts were “conditioned on the assumption that the cash rate moves broadly in line with market pricing as at the time of writing”.

The market pricing assumed another cut in the Reserve Bank’s cash rate from 2.25 per cent to 2 per cent in May and then an even chance of a further cut, to 1.75 per cent, in October.

The forecasting assumption is a change from the one used by the RBA in its previous statement in November which assumed a steady cash rate years into the future.

The current cash rate is the lowest since 1959. The cuts assumed in the RBA’s statement would take it to its lowest since the bank was founded as the Commonwealth Bank in 1911.

Even factoring in those cuts the bank expects Australia’s economic growth rate to slide to just 2 per cent in the March quarter. Taking into account the historical range of forecasting errors the bank concedes it could fall to 1 per cent. Beyond that it expects economic growth to recover climbing to 3.75 per cent by 2017, although it concedes it might still be as low as 2 per cent by then.

It expects the unemployment rate to climb to 6.3 per cent before falling, although it concedes it could climb to 7 per cent.

The RBA says the unemployment rate has been climbing at an gradual pace of 0.1 percentage points every three months for the past two and a half years.  It says despite the an increase in the number of people employed since then there has been no growth in the number of hours worked since late 2011, meaning there is less work for each person available to work than there was three years ago.

The bank says it is not expecting the government to boost the economy, predicting that public demand will grow “at a below-trend pace” over the forecast period.

It says mining investment will fall sharply over the next two years and that non-mining business will remain subdued until at least mid-2015.

Household spending growth should remain weak despite the lower oil price and lower interest rates, held back by low wage growth and a weak labour market.

The higher import prices resulting from the lower dollar had yet to feed through into retail prices because retailers were finding it difficult to pass on costs.

The bank was careful to say that although it was factoring in further interest rate cuts the assumption in its forecasts did “not represent a commitment” to those cuts. It might cut by less, or more, depending on how conditions developed.

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Australia to bake as western heat heads east

A summer blast of heat is headed for the east and south of Australia. Photo: Karleen Minney A summer blast of heat is headed for the east and south of Australia. Photo: Karleen Minney
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Beaches will be popular for many coastal regions across southern Australia. Photo: Wayne Taylor

The water will be the best place to cool off as the heat hits. Photo: [email protected]上海龙凤

A summer blast of heat is headed for the east and south of Australia. Photo: Karleen Minney

A summer blast of heat is headed for the east and south of Australia. Photo: Karleen Minney

Heatwave outlook from Tuesday to Thursday. Photo: BoM

The increase in temperatures will bring an increased risk of bushfires. Photo: NASA

Summer will return with a vengeance to much of southern Australia in coming days as an intense build-up of heat spreads east.

North-western Western Australia has been simmering for much of the past week as a slow-moving high-pressure system over the Bight locked in heat over the region. That high has drifted towards the Tasman, directing northerly winds to draw heat down into south-eastern Australia.

“It looks like the heat will set in for a while,” Simon Allen, a senior meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, said. “Remote areas may get some record temperatures across the weekend and into early next week.”

Marble Bar, in the WA Pilbara, clocked up its fifth day of 41-plus degrees weather on Friday and is forecast to cop at least another six days of intense heat. Gascoyne Junction has a similar outlook, with 49 degrees predicted for Wednesday, the bureau said.

Among the large cities, Adelaide will endure the highest temperatures from the coming heatwave, with tops ranging from 34-39 degrees over the next week. Melbourne should also have tops above 30 degrees for most days next week, with the exception of Sunday and Monday, when a weak cold front will cool  southern Victoria.

Sydneysiders, though, should enjoy one of the best weeks of summer, with little chance of rain and coastal breezes keeping maximums in the city below 30 degrees for each day except Sunday.

The western suburbs will be a few degrees warmer, with Penrith expecting 36 degrees on Sunday.

“It will be a nice return to summer, especially for the east coast,” Tristan Meyers, a meteorologist with Weatherzone, said, noting that persistent southerlies had produced a couple of cool weeks.

Almost all of NSW had an average or below-average January for maximum temperatures. Heavy rain over inland areas in the middle of the month helped restore soil moisture levels, keeping a lid on temperatures.

Broken Hill, for example, received four times its usual January rain, or almost 100 millimetres. Tops were about 1.7 degrees below average.

However, the mining town can expect sixdays of 38 degrees or warmer from Saturday as the heat arrives.

Fire authorities are also anticipating a lift in fire danger warnings.

“As the heat builds up, you would get more dangerous fire conditions,” Mr Allen said.

For now, the Rural Fire Service was not expecting to declare any total fire ban days, although the Riverina and western regions of NSW were likely to get at least “very high” fire danger ratings, a spokesman said.

How long the heat lasts depends largely on the duration of the break in the northern monsoon season. Darwin, for example, is likely to continue a run of relatively dry days for this time of year.

The relative absence of cloud cover over much of the country has also brought some unusually cool overnight temperatures.

Kununurra, in the eastern Kimberley, posted a record chilly February minimum temperature of 19.5 degrees on Thursday, the bureau said.

Tindal RAAF base in the Northern Territory was another cool spot, with 16.3 degrees recorded on Thursday, more than 2 degrees less than the previous record minimum for February.

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Investor love drives ‘sexy six’ to new heights

Share the love, share the profit: The big banks, Telstra and Wesfarmers offer inticing yields. Photo: Becky RockwoodIt has been a terrific couple of years for shareholders of the six big dividend-paying blue chips stocks – the big four banks, Telstra and Wesfarmers.
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But are these companies being loved too much, given that they are mostly trading at record highs and much more expensive than comparable overseas companies?

The interest rate cut this week has driven their prices even higher as the chase for yield intensifies.

Commonwealth Bank shares traded at about $90 on Monday before pushing beyond $90 since the Reserve Bank cut the cash rate by 0.25 percentage points to a new record low of 2.25 per cent on Tuesday.

Telstra, already at a 14-year high, pushed past $6.60 following the rate cut.

Wesfarmers, which owns, among other businesses – Coles, Bunnings and Officeworks – is also higher, trading above $44.

“All the banks are expensive given that forward earnings analysis leaves little room for disappointment and CBA is certainly priced for perfection,” says Scott Schuberg, chief executive of Rivkin, whose services include tips on Australian shares.

Data provided by Lincoln Indicators shows Commonwealth Bank shares are on a forecast price-to-earnings (PE) ratio of 16 times with the remaining big three on multiples of 13 and 14 times.

Although Australian banks are not strictly comparable overseas banks, US bank Wells Fargo is on a forecast PE of almost 13 times and British bank, HSBC, is on almost 11 times.

Dividends from Australian companies are favourably taxed through dividend imputation and overseas companies pay smaller dividends.

The yield on offer from the Commonwealth Bank and the other five stocks remains very attractive given the miserly interest paid on cash investments, such as term deposits.

Term deposits with maturity dates of less than a year are paying less than 3 per cent.

The danger for the banks and their shareholders would be a problem with the housing market.

Greg Smith, head of research at Fat Prophets sharemarket research, says that with lower interest rates the “housing market is not going to fall over”.

Michael Heffernan, a senior client adviser and economist with sharebroker PhillipCapital, does not see dangers for investors in the dividend-paying blue chips.

“People have been saying this [that they are over-priced] for years,” he says. “It started when Telstra was $3.60, now it is $6.60.”

Telstra’s forward price-to-earnings ratio of about 20 times is getting up there, analysts say.

US telecom AT&T is on a multiple of almost 14 times and China Mobile is on almost 16 times. However, as Greg Smith points out, Telstra has made acquisitions and is finding new ways of exacting value from its business.

Wesfarmers is on a multiple of almost 21 times. Its closest Australian peers, such as Woolworths and Harvey Norman, are on multiples of about 16 times. Wal-Mart in the US is on a multiple of 17 times. 

However, investors should not expect the share prices to continue growing at the rate that they have in recent years, Michael Heffernan says.

Despite the steep increase in the share prices of these stocks, the shares can still be bought on a cash dividend yield of about 5 per cent, or about 7 per cent after franking credits.

Heffernan’s conservative expectation is that share prices of the six could grow about 5 per cent this year which, after franking credits, gives a total return of more 12 per cent. That is a good return in this environment, Heffernan says.

Investors will get a better view of how the companies are performing with the earnings reporting season underway this month.

Commonwealth Bank reports half-year earnings on February 11, Telstra on February 12 and Wesfarmers on February 19.

The other three big banks have September 30 financial-year ends, but NAB gave a trading update on Thursday with no negative surprises and ANZ will provide a trading update on February 17. 


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Cobalt crisis turns the eyes of the world onto Australian racing

With the cobalt chloride crisis gathering momentum daily, it seems the stakes have never been higher in this remarkable drama. It also appears racing’s integrity has never been as challenged.
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Four Victorian trainers, including three from the upper echelons of the profession, have had horses with positive swabs to cobalt – in some cases multiple positives.

The trainers are yet to be charged but would have us believe it’s an apparition, a single mistake, some extra vitamins or supplements causing the cobalt level to go over Racing Victoria’s threshold. One of the trainers, Danny O’Brien – who has three horses to have tested positive – has been so incensed he has demanded a swift resolution and is looking for an apology from Racing Victoria.

For its part, Racing Victoria has the eyes of the international racing community watching it closely. The industry regulator has placed cobalt – above 200 micrograms per litre of urine – on its banned list of drugs.

On this list, cobalt sits alongside of EPO, “elephant juice”, narcotics, stimulants and every seriously bad drug.

Horses found with such drugs in their system are banned from racing.   Trainers found using them on their horses face three years of disqualification. They cannot associate with any other licensed racing person, trainer, owner or jockey for the duration of that disqualification. Many in the industry believe a three-year disqualification to be career ending.

So how did we get here? Around 2005, athletes or sports scientists looking for an advantage discovered that cobalt, a cheap, freely available mineral supplement, had the same benefits as the best doping drug ever, EPO.

But cobalt is non-prescription and dirt cheap.

The problem is that cobalt is a heavy metal poison and its medical use had been abandoned because wherever it was used there were patient deaths.

Indeed in every scientific article that identified cobalt as a new potential doping drug, athletes were warned not to use it because of its toxicity and potentially fatal consequences.

Around this time racing intelligence on the US east coast received reports that cobalt, now known as “blue” or “altitude” had crept into harness racing. This threat was recognised early by the owners of a private racetrack – The Meadowlands. Independent of any jurisdiction, the owners banned a number of trainers whose horses had shown elevated levels of cobalt.

Since then the international racing community has been on high alert and has been scrambling to introduce new rules to deal with the cobalt threat.

There is no doubt cobalt is a massive, performance-enhancing drug – boosting the blood count and boosting endurance. But it is toxic  and so it’s a threat, where any notion of animal welfare is discarded in the quest for a performance advantage.

The international racing community is united in dealing with cobalt and test results from all over the world have been shared to identify normal levels of cobalt, which then allows for the setting of an international threshold for urinary cobalt.

The latest data available was presented at an international racing convention late last year, gathered from post-race testing from countries including France, Britain, the US, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

The data was collected from more than 10,000 horses – including horses on normal cobalt supplements – and showed an average of 5.3 micrograms per litre, a lowest level of 0.11 and the highest rating of 78.15. Based on all these results the international racing community believe 100 is a suitable threshold for cobalt.

The level is presently in place in Hong Kong. It means there is a one-in-63,000 chance of a normally treated horse exceeding this level and therefore it is a level where one can differentiate between normally supplemented horses and those who have been doped with cobalt.

This level of 100 is half that of the 200 adopted by Racing Victoria and the Australian Racing Board, with some international analysts describing the Australian threshold as generous, which allows treatment with normal cobalt supplements for up to 12 hours before racing. Race-day treatment or medication is banned in Australia and around the world.

One statistician, in describing the Australian level as generous, said the likelihood of a horse getting into the 200 level was one-in-2.8 million.

Cobalt is a trace mineral and while it is necessary for some body functions, including red-cell production, it is only required on trace amounts.

There are no reported cases of cobalt deficiency in horses and some animal nutritionists say horses get enough cobalt from grazing and there is no role for cobalt supplementation in horses.

There are no toxicology studies on horses receiving high doses of cobalt or regular excessive cobalt treatments, but cobalt is a heavy metal that is never broken down in the body, but accumulates in tissue. This means that the animal welfare aspect of cobalt misuse is confronting.

Australia has the horses of  some high-profile trainers testing positive to a totally banned drug, which has proved fatal when used in humans.

The stakes are high, but if it helps Racing Victoria handle the issue, the race has already been run in Harness Racing NSW where cases have been heard, trainers have been disqualified for up to 10 years, and have withstood Supreme Court challenges and appeals.

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Iron ore likely to sink below $US60 at Chinese New Year

The forthcoming Chinese New Year could be the trigger that sinks iron ore prices to under $US60 per tonne, according to analysts.
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Australia and New Zealand Banking Group analyst Daniel Hynes said the New Year, a key holiday in China, would be a “key point” as the price of Australia’s number one mineral export continues to plummet.

Chinese New Year is on February 19 and the associated holiday runs until February 26. Iron ore prices are currently at five-and-a-half-year lows of $US61.64. The last time iron ore traded at $US59 was April 2009.

“They don’t want to take delivery during the holiday period and slightly after it,” said Mr Hynes. “It’s the end of their financial year as well. There’s every chance it could slightly dip below $US60, obviously.”

Post-holiday, however, “is usually a seasonal pick-up,” he said. “They have new budgets, new quotas, and everyone’s back after the holidays.”

Mr Hynes said recent monetary easing in China would eventually lead to a pick-up in demand. This week, the People’s Bank of China cut the reserve requirement ratio – the amount of capital banks are required to hold aside – by 50 basis points to 19.5 per cent.

“I would have thought the RRR cut would have provided some sort of support but it’s early days since that was done,” said Mr Hynes. “There’s a bit of a lag in the iron ore market to those kinds of macro drivers. That should provide some sort of support but the overall environment’s still relatively weak … the upside does look limited in the short-term.”

UBS commodities analyst Daniel Morgan said iron ore trading in the $US50s could happen next week: “The risk lies very much to the downside.”

Although iron ore was cheap, said Mr Morgan, the price of oil was going down and the US dollar was going up. “That means marginal players can survive at low prices. Everyone’s costs are coming down and it’s a race to the bottom,” said Mr Morgan.

Mr Morgan said UBS tipped iron ore at $US66 at the end of 2015 and $US65 at the end of 2016.

“We’ve got a supply-side that’s growing rapidly with low-cost supply from BHP and Rio, we’ve got a demand-side that’s not growing due to China’s property slowdown.

“If commodity history teaches you anything, it’s that someone who’s high-cost doesn’t exit in an orderly fashion. We have oversupply and a sluggish market where people keep discounting and trying to cut costs.”

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Running seven marathons in seven days in seven continents

Maria Conceicao is attempting to run seven marathons in seven days. Photo: Supplied Maria Conceicao is attempting to run seven marathons in seven days. Photo: Supplied
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Ever thought about running a marathon? What about seven? In seven days. In seven continents. That is what former flight attendant Maria Conceicao is attempting, starting in Melbourne on Sunday.

Conceicao, who already holds three world records for endurance activities, is hoping to raise around $100,000 for her charity the Maria Cristina Foundation, which helps educate underprivileged children in Bangladesh.

The idea for the 777 challenge – seven marathons in seven days in seven continents – came in 2011 after she did a marathon in each of the seven emirates in the UAE.

Conceicao, who is from Portugal but lives in Dubai, says she concentrates on endurance events, especially running, because they seem to be the best for attracting sponsorship. “Many people can relate to it,” she says. “We set our goals high and we never give up trying to achieve them.”

Not too many will be able to relate to what she is attempting, starting on Sunday morning at Princes Park in Carlton, however. Three other runners are joining her for the full event, while dozens of others are taking part in individual legs.

After Melbourne, she flies to Abu Dhabi and two hours later will run her second marathon. That night she will fly to Paris and again run two hours after landing. From there it’s off to Tunisia for the Africa leg, starting at 1am on Wednesday.

She will leave at lunch time for New York and that night will have her first sleep in a hotel room bed. On Thursday, the fifth leg takes place on Long Island before she flies to Punta Arenas in Chile, arriving on Friday for the penultimate marathon. The final run is in Antarctica on St Valentine’s Day.

She is flying on scheduled flights in economy class, making sleep and recovery tough.

“Ideally I would like ice baths and sports massages between races, however this will prove difficult with the constant travel,” saidConceicao. “Injury is one of the biggest worries.

“Good sleep is the key to recovery and it’s going to be virtually impossible to get as much sleep between races as I will need.”

Costs for the challenge are being covered by sponsors on Dubai, but on the strict condition that more is raised in donations than the cost of the adventure.

The $100,000 she hopes to raise will cover the schooling of about 50 Bangladeshi children in the country’s best schools for a year. The foundation currently sponsors more than 200 children in total, some of whom are schooled in Dubai.

Conceicao accepts that her endurance test is not without its dangers to her health. “I don’t think anybody in medicine is likely to support the idea and most will advise against it,” she admitted.

“However, I am doing it and so a doctor will usually advise me to listen to my body and my experience so far and not to overdo it.

“However, I have the lives of over 200 children at stake. I will keep going until somebody physically carries me off the race course!”

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Planning the path of a cricket prodigy

Family affair: Mackenzie Harvey prepares for another day’s cricket. Photo: Simon SchluterIt’s a prediction that makes Cricket Victoria’s regional manager Stuart Clark cringe. “I think avoiding the phrase, ‘This kid’s got a big future’, would be very helpful,” he says.
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Clark knows there are times when resistance is pointless, when the sheer boundless potential of a young cricketer reduces observers to slobbering messes prone to gushing in “best I’ve seen” terms. He knows that where talk about Mackenzie Harvey is concerned, he’s going to be doing a lot of cringeing.

At the state under-14 championships, in which Harvey will captain South East Bayside Breakers in Sunday’s final against Western Spirit, there’s been plenty of gushing. Doug Patrick, Melbourne Cricket Club’s long-time recruiter, can imagine the conversations between fathers who’ve watched the left-hander peel off centuries of astonishing class.

“They talk, ‘Gee whiz, my kid’s pretty good, but have you seen Mackenzie Harvey?’ ” Patrick says. “There’s a whole aura and bubble around him that’s almost out of all proportion.”

Patrick can appreciate why, having watched Harvey since he was 11 and been increasingly taken by a boy who is strong of body and of mind, is “a bit [David] Warner-ish” in the way he imposes himself on games, has such good hand-eye co-ordination he could play any sport well. He is especially taken by his concentration, through every minute of every match.

“When kids get smacked a million miles and the ball takes 10 minutes to come back, they can lose heart very quickly. The next ball’s worse and goes even further. And Mackenzie’s just marking out his guard and standing on his bat.”

And not only against kids. He was playing sub-district seconds at 12, and last month made his first XI debut for Elsternwick in what Clark rates as up with the best community cricket on offer. “He’s getting challenged against men on turf in a high level of cricket, he gets challenged in school cricket regularly [for Brighton Grammar]. He’s got some good challenges, and he’s doing well when they’re presented to him.”

What to do next with such a precocious sporting talent is a vexed question, much harder to answer than in football, where the pathway is absolute and many more pots of gold are waiting over the rainbow.

As an unabashed suitor attempting to woo him to the Albert Ground, Patrick would admit to being both part of the solution and the problem confronting Harvey and his family. “It might seem like an envious situation, people clamouring for his attention, but it’s not easy,” Patrick says.

“He’ll be getting all sorts of flavours on the same theme, and he has to have a mind strong enough to filter all that and work out what’s best for him. Everyone’s keen on helping him, but their minds can be rendered mush pretty quickly. If I was a parent I don’t know what I’d do.”

Darren and Jacqui Harvey aren’t sure either, but they’re not making any rash decisions. They’ve told their son there are certain people they’d like him to listen to, “and if others give you advice, just say thank you politely and move on”. They know it’s a mantra they must follow too.

Having a cricket pedigree helps. Darren began with Wonthaggi Workers Club, where his youngest brothers Craig and Chad still play, and their more renowned sibling Ian first turned out in a career that featured 73 one-dayers for Australia and attained limited-overs messiah status on the county scene in England, where he settled. He has never seen his nephew play; Darren says Mackenzie has “a few YouTube clips” of his uncle that he watches occasionally.

He remembers Mackenzie coming out to bat, aged four or five, in an annual game Elsternwick plays against Bayley House, a facility for the intellectually disabled in Brighton. Jacqui’s mother had modified one of Ian’s Australian one-day shirts and yellow pants to fit him, but the opposition was agog that such a little kid could be playing.

“They bowled a short one and he went, ‘Whack!'” Darren recalls. “He’s played every year since.”

Darren reckons they’ve been blessed at Elsternwick to have the likes of Rohan O’Neill, Cam Christiansen and president John Dunnachie, who first took Mackenzie for Milo cricket, on hand to encourage and guide him. As young as eight he’d be called out for fielding drills at the end of training, starting off backing up the wicketkeeper and soon progressing to joining in everything.

Last summer, Darren told his son he’d drop back to the thirds so they could play together. “We played two games and he went up to the seconds and left me behind!”

He does a lot of walking when Mack bats against men, lapping Elsternwick Park to steady his nerves, while Jacqui stays put wherever she’s sitting when their son walks to the wicket. It’s a family affair; little sister Tess declares that she went to 37 cricket games in the school holidays, although Mackenzie reckons she’s making it up.

Opponents have learnt not to give the kid an easy break. “There was a firsts opening bowler coming back through the seconds last year who knew he was only 13. He told me he went a bit easy on Mack, ‘but then he went back and tried to ramp me …’ ” One so young playing in such strong company is celebrated by all; after he made 18 in a half-century partnership on debut in the firsts, Noble Park players sought him out to shake his hand.

Mackenzie’s trophy cabinet includes state titles and a World Cup winners’ spoils in indoor cricket; he was picked as the world team’s wicketkeeper after leading an underage Australia to victory in South Africa. When Darren says he was chosen in the Elsternwick firsts primarily as a medium-paced bowler, Mackenzie breaks off from a table tennis game with Tess to object.

“Just mediums? I bowl gas!”

The boast carries a cheeky teen’s grin. Clark says he doubtless knows his ability but is anything but brash. “At the end of the day he’s a well-mannered, quietly spoken 14-year-old boy. It’s important to remember that.”

His take on the now and what cricket’s crystal ball might have in store for him is an innocent counter to all the fuss. What he likes most about cricket is playing with friends, and at different grounds. Captaincy has been “a bit more intense”, but a good education in what teammates bowl and how to help bring out their best.

He doesn’t get nervous much, “if it’s some sort of final I might”, probably gets more out of playing with and against men because of their experience, and doesn’t think he should be dominating for his school or in underage cricket because you start every innings on zero, and past innings mean nothing.

Does he feel pressure? “Not really. I’m still growing up.”

Clark points to James Pattinson, Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell as Victorian underage cricketers who have gone on to make the game their profession. “That gives an indication that elite sport’s elite – there’s very few who get to that level.”

Patrick takes up the theme of sobriety, pointing to the life outside sport and school that has been the undoing of many a prodigy. “Fourteen’s a ridiculously young age. I’m more interested in how he is at 18, 19.”

For such a player, high-performance squads will increasingly take charge of his development and iron out the technical deficiencies Patrick says Mackenzie’s strength of mind and body currently mask. St Kilda, Richmond and Prahran, among others, would also love to have him, giving the family much to ponder.

“I know the Harveys have got to think about all that, but I’m not going to pull back on going 110 per cent to get him.”

It is plainly early days, but Darren wonders if another season at Elsternwick, batting in the firsts with experienced adults rather than Premier Cricket seconds or thirds with other up-and-comers, might be the way to go. There is much thinking to be done, and patience will be key.

The other day, Mackenzie told his mother he wants to play for Australia by the time he’s 20. Some nights he plays cricket in his dreams.

What happens?

Mackenzie Harvey grins. “Everything.”

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Windale servo sells E10 petrol for 99 cents a litre

The Medco service station on Lake Street Windale had E10 at 99 cents a litre on Friday.
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A WINDALE service station has declared war on its competition by selling fuel at Sydney prices.

The Medco service station on Lake Street, formerly Liberty, is selling E10 for 99¢ a litre. The average E10 price in the Hunter on Friday was 111.5¢.

Service station manger Manu Ravindranath said the new owners were committed to offering fuel at the cheapest possible price.

‘‘They believe Newcastle motorists should be able to buy petrol for the same price they can in Sydney,’’ he said. ‘‘We have had people coming from 10 kilometres away to fill up.’’

Windale is the Medco Petroleum’s first Hunter outlet.

NRMA Hunter director Kyle Loades said the motoring group welcomed the emergence of strong competition among Hunter fuel retailers. ‘‘This is exactly what the Hunter needs,’’ he said. ‘‘What we have seen elsewhere is that when a strong independent appears the major players are forced to follow.’’

The gate or wholesale price for E10 on Friday was 108¢ a litre, while the cheapest Sydney price was 93.7¢.

‘‘What we typically see in Sydney is E10 being sold at or under cost,’’ Mr Loades said.

Mr Ravindranath said he was confident the the service station could afford to match Sydney prices in the long term.

‘‘We have an arrangement with our distributor that will allow us to sell at the cheapest possible price,’’ he said.

The latest fuel price movement data shows regular unleaded prices in the Hunter fell on average 2.3per cent in the week ending February 1.

By comparison, prices fell on the average 0.7per cent in Sydney, 3.1per cent on the Central Coast and 0.5per cent in Wollongong.

NRMA senior economic advisor Wal Setkiewicz said he expected fuel prices to continue to fall in the Hunter for about another week.

■ FILL up your car now because the current petrol price honeymoon could soon be over over, the NRMA and CommSec say.

The volatile world oil price has climbed 20 per cent from its sub-$US50 lows of January.

NRMA president Kyle Loades warned motorists to start to expect growing price differentials between the cheapest and most expensive fuel prices – in Sydney at least.

CommSec economist Sebastian Savanth said motorists had probably seen the low point for fuel, with a ‘‘double whammy’’ of rising crude prices and a falling exchange rate likely to show at the pump.

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