Target chiefs face backlash over rebates

Three senior Target managers have quit and several more face disciplinary action after doing something “mind-blowingly stupid”.

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They artificially boosted the retailer’s earnings by arranging rebates with 31 overseas’ suppliers for the first half of the 2016 financial year on the promise the retailer would pay higher prices in the second half.

That means Target was not on the cusp of a turnaround as first thought.

The troubled child of the Wesfarmers group, which includes discount retailer Kmart and supermarket chain Coles, reported an earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) of $74 million for the half, up from $70 million from a year ago.

However, its EBIT would have been $53 million if its wasn’t for the $21 million in income from the rebate arrangements, Wesfarmers confirmed on Monday after a two-week probe into Target.

Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder says less than 10 people were involved and it appears their motive was to prop up an earnings shortfall.

“What is so disappointing about this is that people have made the decision, probably through an implied pressure, to do something that was mind-blowingly stupid,” he told reporters.

“If we reported Target’s performance as $53 million rather than $74 million, we would have said `this is a disappointing financial outcome … but we still think there has been progress in terms of the quality of the business’.”

He said the company encouraged long-term sustainable growth over short-term gain and swift action was being taken against those involved.

Three senior Target employees have resigned over the scandal so far, including former Target managing director Stuart Machin, who quit on Friday.

Mr Machin had said he was not aware of the supplier arrangements but agreed to resign because it happened on his watch.

Wesfarmers, with its external auditors Ernst & Young, began investigating Target in March after the matter was brought to the attention of a new management team that took the helm after Wesfarmers’ restructured Kmart and Target into a single department store division.

The probe found Target struck rebates of $18.1 million with suppliers and several supply deals amounting to less than $3 million that did not comply with the group’s accounting policies.

The supply arrangement is expected to have a negligible impact on Target’s and Wesfarmers’ full-year results because any benefit recorded in the first half would be reversed in the second half due to higher product costs.

Target is also working with suppliers to unwind the arrangements.

Dockers contemplate wielding the axe

Fremantle players will be on edge this week as coach Ross Lyon considers wielding the axe in the wake of the club’s horror start to the AFL season.

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The Dockers are struggling in 16th spot with a 0-3 record following losses to the Bulldogs, Gold Coast, and West Coast.

No team has ever reached the finals from an 0-4 start, and the Dockers will start as underdogs in Sunday’s clash with unbeaten North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium.

Lyon admits his team’s new-look attacking game plan hasn’t worked to date.

But he said players needed to take responsibility for their sloppy skills and costly turnovers.

Fremantle ruckman Jon Griffin is almost certain to return against the Kangaroos to fill the void left by Aaron Sandilands (lung/ribs).

But Lyon will consider making a host of other changes in a bid to inject players with cleaner skills into the side.

Hayden Crozier leads the list of possible inclusions after starring in the WAFL over the weekend.

And even if Lyon doesn’t make any more changes beyond that, the player group is now on notice to clean up their skills.

“Clearly we need better kickers – people who can execute under pressure and hit some targets,” Lyon said.

“There are some terrible turnovers at the minute that are really costly.

“I’m really loath to be negative about this player group because of how much effort and how hard they work.

“But we know we need to improve our execution. Individuals have to take responsibility for that improvement.”

Veteran forward Matthew Pavlich was a rare shining light against the Eagles, booting a contender for goal of the year in the final term to give his side hope of pulling off victory.

Pavlich ended the match with three goals, but he’s no certainty to play against the Kangaroos given the hard surface at Etihad Stadium.

The Dockers are keen to protect Pavlich’s ageing body from breaking down.

But given the high-stakes nature of Sunday’s match, they may be forced to play him.

Police close inquiry into Sharks drama

Police have closed their inquiry into an incident involving Chris Heighington’s son at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Sunday.

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However, the Sharks have launched an internal review of their NRL game day procedures after the backrower’s three-year-old, Rocco, became caught under a maintenance buggy following their win over Gold Coast.

Police say the mishap involved no criminal offence.

“As far as criminal action or any charges under the Roads and Traffic act there won’t be anything there,” Inspector Rick Johnson from Miranda Local Area Command told AAP on Monday.

Even so, the children of Cronulla players could be prevented from joining their fathers on the field at the venue immediately after games as a result of the incident.

While players celebrating with their kids post-game are great images for broadcasters and photographers, they could be a thing of the past at Southern Cross.

Rocco entered the field after the siren and was knocked over by the buggy as it was being used to collect signage at the southern end of the stadium.

He visited doctors on Sunday night and Monday and has suffered no lasting ill effects.

The man driving the buggy was rushing to pick up the equipment before fans entered the field post-game, something Cronulla only started up again last year during day games.

Everyone, including Sharks support staff and families could now have to wait off the field, like the rest of the public, until the signage is cleared to enter the arena.

Fullback Ben Barba said the club remains shaken by the incident.

“It wasn’t something you’d like to see, especially given a lot of us are fathers,” he said.

“I haven’t talked about it with Chris because he has obviously been with the family but you just have to put yourself in his shoes.

“You would never wish that on anyone. Chris is still a bit rattled and so are we.”

Barba welcomed the review into game day operations.

“I think maybe next time the guys packing up can wait a little bit longer and let the fans and players celebrate with their family,” Barba said.

“No disrespect to the grounds staff but maybe that’s the way to go.”

Citizens kidnapped by China, says Taiwan

Taiwan has accused China, which regards the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, of kidnapping eight of its nationals who it said had been acquitted in a cybercrime case in Kenya.

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Kenya’s attorney-general said in January it was considering a request from Beijing to extradite 76 Chinese charged with cybercrime in Kenya for trial in their homeland.

But Taiwan said some of those people were from Taiwan and that 23 of its people had been acquitted last Tuesday by a Kenyan court and given 21 days to leave.

Yet China pressured Kenyan police to put eight of the Taiwanese nationals on a Chinese jet bound for China on Friday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said. It did not say how they were taken.

“This is an uncivilised act of illegal kidnapping and a serious violation of basic human rights,” the ministry said on Monday, adding it was demanding the immediate return of the eight.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which distrusts China, has also demanded China “repatriate our people and guarantee their legal rights”.

China views Taiwan as a wayward province, to be brought under Beijing’s control, by force if necessary. Defeated nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after a civil war with the communists in control in Beijing.

Only 22 countries recognise Taiwan, with most, including Kenya, having diplomatic relations with Beijing, recognising its “one China” policy.

Taiwan had sent officials from its representative office in South Africa to Kenya to try to deal with the case as it had no office in Kenya, the Foreign Ministry added.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which oversees relations with Taiwan, did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Kenyan government officials were not immediately available for comment.

China has looked on with suspicion at Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning DPP won presidential and parliamentary elections in January.

G7 ministers urge end to nuclear threat

John Kerry has become the first US secretary of state to pay his respects at Hiroshima’s memorial to victims of the 1945 US nuclear attack, along with his counterparts from the Group of Seven advanced economies.

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Following the visit, the ministers issued a statement on Monday reaffirming their commitment to building a world without nuclear arms, but said the push had been made more complex by North Korea’s repeated provocations and by the worsening security in Syria and Ukraine.

Gathering in the Japanese city of Hiroshima where the US dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, the ministers also said they found it profoundly deplorable that North Korea had conducted four nuclear tests during the 21st century.

“We reaffirm our commitment to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability,” they said in a written declaration on nuclear disarmament.

“This task is made more complex by the deteriorating security environment in a number of regions, such as Syria and Ukraine, and, in particular by North Korea’s repeated provocations.”

Earlier Kerry toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, whose haunting displays include photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs.

The ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US then laid white wreaths at a cenotaph to the victims of the bombing, which reduced the city to ashes and killed about 140,000 people by the end of that year.

“Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial. It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself,” Kerry wrote in a guest book.

After a moment of silence by the ministers, Japanese schoolchildren, who had lined the entrance waving flags of all the G7 nations, presented them with leis made of paper cranes, symbolising peace, in each country’s national colours.

At Kerry’s suggestion, the ministers also made an impromptu visit to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of the only structure left standing near the hypocentre of the bomb explosion and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Three days after a US warplane dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Japan surrendered six days later.

Kerry’s trip could pave the way for an unprecedented visit to Hiroshima by a sitting US president when Obama attends the annual G7 leaders summit in another Japanese city next month.

A visit could be controversial in America if it were viewed as an apology. A majority of Americans still view the bombings as justified to end the war and save US lives, while the vast majority of Japanese believe it was not justified.

The G7 foreign ministers’ trip to the museum and memorial is part of Japan’s effort to send a strong nuclear disarmament message from Hiroshima, the world’s first city to suffer atomic bombing.

“I think this first-ever visit by G7 foreign ministers to the peace memorial park is a historic first step towards reviving momentum toward a world without nuclear weapons,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement.

In a separate, detailed statement on maritime security, the G7 ministers voiced their strong opposition to provocative attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas, an apparent reference to China, which is locked in territorial disputes with other nations including the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.

Police hunt suspects in India temple fire

Medical teams are tending to hundreds of people injured in a massive fire at a temple in southern India that killed at least 110 people, as authorities search for those responsible for putting on a fireworks display that caused the blaze.

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Police detained five workers for questioning about fireworks stored at the site, hoping to learn more about who owned the fireworks and who had contracted the pyrotechnical display, police constable R. Unnikrishnan Nair said.

The five were later released, but Nair did not say if they were able to help authorities track down any of the 15 temple board members who fled after the accident.

Amid the burnt out wreckage of the Puttingal Devi temple complex, in the village of Paravoor, rescue officials sifted through huge piles of dust, wood and concrete for clues about how an unauthorised pyrotechnic display staged before dawn on Sunday went so horribly wrong, sparking a fire that swept through the temple as it was packed with thousands for a religious festival.

As of Monday morning, the death toll from the tragedy stood at 110 people with more than 380 others hurt, including many with burns and others injured when a building storing fireworks collapsed.

Villagers and police had pulled many of the injured out from under slabs of concrete and twisted steel girders. They were taken to hospitals in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, about 60 kilometres south of Paravoor, as well as the nearby city of Kollam.

Scores of worried relatives crowded the Kollam District Hospital, searching for loved ones still missing.

“We are just trying to calm them down so that they can give us the information, with which we can help them find their missing relatives,” said K. Shijil, a help-desk worker at the Kollam hospital.

Among a throng of people crowding the help desk was Somraj, grey-haired man in his 50s who was looking for his son-in-law, Anu Lal.

“We were about to return home, when Anu said, ‘let’s watch for a few more minutes’,” recalled Somraj, who goes by one name as do many in southern India. “Then came this loud explosion, and everything went dark. I’ve been searching for him everywhere.”

The fire started when a spark from a fireworks display ignited a stash of fireworks that had been stored at the complex.

Scores of devotees ran in panic as the massive initial blast cut off power in the complex. Flames trapped many devotees inside the compound. More explosions sent flames and debris raining down, with some chunks of concrete falling as far as a kilometre away, a witness said.

“It was complete chaos,” villager Krishna Das said. “People were screaming in the dark. Ambulance sirens went off, and in the darkness no one knew how to find their way out of the complex.”

TV channels showed video of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the sky.

Most of the 110 deaths occurred when the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed, Chandy told reporters. Most of the bodies have been identified, officials said, though there were still at least 11 unknown victims charred beyond recognition.

District authorities worried about safety had denied permission to the temple this year for its annual competitive fireworks show, during which different groups put on displays at the end of a seven-day festival honouring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

“They were clearly told that no permission would be given for any kind of fireworks,” said A. Shainamol, the district’s top official.

Australia in China Week: Education as investment

A delegation of about 1000 Australian politicians and business leaders is in China this week for Australia in China Week, a key trade mission to China.

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They’ll be touting Australia as a premium destination for investment, tourism and education. With more young Chinese people looking to study overseas, Australian universities are keen to make their pitch.

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Beijing’s notorious smog and traffic are two things Hou Qinteng says he won’t miss when he leaves to study his Masters in International Business in Brisbane later this year.

The 22 year-old says Australia’s environment and relaxed lifestyle played a major role in his decision to apply to the University of Queensland.

“Australia is a beautiful place, it’s not that crowded like Beijing. You can feel relaxed and comfortable there,” Hou said.

He’s just one of the tens of thousands of Chinese students looking to Australia for higher education. They currently make up more than 27 per cent of all international students in Australia, helping to make education the nation’s fourth-largest export.

In 2014 international education contributed about $17 billion to the Australian economy, and that figure is expected to grow.

The University of Sydney is just one of the Australian universities which has sent representatives to Beijing for Australia in China Week. Spokesperson Michelle Carlin says Chinese students are extremely important for the university.

“There’s a lot of competition for the top students. There’s some of the most talented students in China obviously, it’s a very big market,” Carlin said.

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In China coaching companies help prospective students navigate foreign application and visa processes.

Over the past 6 years Beijing-based company Due West has helped hundreds of students apply to universities and colleges abroad. Due West coaching director John Beck says America is still the number one choice.

“Students are looking at the global university rankings, and the United States when it comes to higher education rankings is the leader in the world,” Mr Beck said.

But Australia is gaining ground. Courses are cheaper and it’s considered safer than the United States. Some Australian universities also accept the Gao-kao – China’s tertiary entry score.

Studying in Australia can also open the door to permanent residency. But while many Chinese students hope to stay overseas, most choose to come back for new opportunities in China’s fast-changing economy.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, about 80 per cent of those who study abroad return home.

Iris Huang helps run the Australia-China Alumni Association from Guangzhou in China’s south. She says Australia’s proximity to China – geographically and economically – offers Chinese students more flexibility.

“They can fly back and forth maybe more frequently than before, live in two countries because the two countries are working closer than before,” she said.

Calls for reform after stats reveal more than 850,000 legal guns in NSW

Figures revealing some NSW residents are stockpiling hundreds of firearms have sparked calls for tighter gun laws.

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NSW police statistics obtained under freedom of information by the Greens show some Sydneysiders possess close to 300 guns, while around 50 people in the state have 100 guns or more.

“Something is broken in our firearm laws when people are allowed to build up their own large private arsenals,” the NSW Greens justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said.

The Greens have set up a website listing unnamed firearm licence-holders’ gun hauls and their postcodes.

A person living near Newcastle who owns 322 guns topped the list, while a gun owner in suburban Mosman has an arsenal of 278.

More than 850,000 firearms are registered across the state.

“These private arsenals represent a real threat to community safety,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“They are honeypot targets for criminals who want to get their hands on potentially hundreds of guns in a single raid,” he said.

Anyone with five guns should be required to provide an exceptional reason to acquire more, Mr Shoebridge said.

Gun Control Australia said current laws meant there was no limit to the number of firearms in the community and have called on the Federal Government to launch a national audit of guns.

Last week former prime minister John Howard, who introduced the laws 20 years ago after the Port Arthur massacre, said they needed to be strengthened.

“Once you give people access to weapons and those people snap or exhibit a mental illness, then you will have tragedy,” he told SBS’s Insight program.

But Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the government has no plans to change the national gun control laws.

NSW Shooters and Fishers Party MP Robert Brown last week said he opposed tighter gun laws, saying law-abiding people owning registered guns was not a problem.

Sanders gets set to barnstorm California

Defying opinion polls and expert predictions, US Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders aims to seize the party’s White House nomination from Hillary Clinton’s grasp with a last-ditch come-from-behind triumph in California.

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By far the most populous US state, California is the largest prize of the state-by-state nominating contests, and the vote on June 7 is one of the last before Democrats convene in July to select a nominee for the November 8 presidential election.

An aggressive schedule of large rallies is planned along with heavy purchases of TV, radio and online advertising in three languages and a “far, far more expensive” campaign effort than in any other state, Sanders campaign sources disclosed.

California has been a reliable source of campaign funds for Clinton, and opinion polls show her ahead there by up to 14 percentage points. The statistical analysis media site FiveThirtyEight gives her a 91 per cent chance of winning the state primary.

The Sanders campaign push aims to net up to a 10-point win in California, helping him deny the front-running Clinton the 2383 convention delegates she needs to clinch the nomination and give him the momentum to force a contested convention where he can try to win over the “superdelegates”, those not decided by a state nominating contest and free to support anyone, the campaign sources said.

Sanders, a US senator from Vermont, has eroded Clinton’s lead in California, according to a Field Poll released on Friday. Clinton led Sanders by only 6 points in that survey, down from a double-digit lead earlier this year.

“With California what we’re going to do is something that (Sanders) really likes to do: barnstorm the place,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior adviser, acknowledging Sanders’ underdog status against Clinton, the former secretary of state.

That means two or three large-scale rallies a day for weeks, possibly starting in late April to target early voters, he said.

Such rallies are a sweet spot for the 74-year-old New York-born democratic socialist’s firebrand speaking style championing the working class and vowing to erase economic inequality.

At a late March event in The Bronx, he drew 18,500 people.

Clinton leads in pledged convention delegates – those allocated to candidates on the basis of the state primaries and caucuses – with 1287 to 1037 for Sanders.

California has 475 delegates, to be divided proportionally according to the June 7 primary vote.

The Clinton campaign plans to put up a fight.

“We’re fighting for every vote by talking to Californians about why Hillary Clinton is the only candidate in this race who will break down the barriers that hold people back and deliver real results,” Amanda Renteria, Hillary for America national political director, told Reuters.

Sanders has won seven of the last eight state nominating battles but faces a potentially rougher road in big states like New York, where Clinton was a US senator and which holds an April 19 primary.

Larry Cohen, a senior campaign adviser, said the campaign aims to match or outdo the 10,000 volunteers it enlisted in New York by drawing on the Labor for Bernie volunteer group, local and national unions and other groups.

“We’ll certainly do Spanish-language advertising,” Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.

Devine said Vietnamese was also part of the plan. The languages are nods to California’s large populations of Latino and Asian voters.

Weaver compared California to Michigan, where Sanders notched a surprise win in early March after advertising in Arabic to woo the state’s heavy concentration of Muslims.

Given the state’s size, the effort will be “far, far more expensive than any other state that we’ve done,” Weaver said.

High-speed rail benefits questioned

Regional towns and rail enthusiasts have welcomed a revival of plans for an east coast high-speed train, but some experts question whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

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After more than three decades of debate, hopes for a Brisbane-Melbourne service have been reignited amid reports that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports it being built in phases, with high-speed links between cities and regional centres such as Shepparton in Victoria and Goulburn in NSW eventually joining up to create a network.

While previous proposals have relied heavily on taxpayer funds to cover the cost of such a project, last estimated to be about $114 billion, Mr Turnbull reportedly favours using value capture financing.

The government has previously said it is considering innovative ways to support better infrastructure such as value capture funding, which uses increased land value generated from major transport projects as a potential source of money.

The idea has been welcomed by Goulburn Mulwaree Council and the Australasian Railway Association, which are urging the government to secure land corridors for the project.

But Sydney University associate professor in aviation management Rico Merkert says while there are environmental and strategic benefits from having high-speed rail services, questions remain as to whether it represents value for money.

He says an east coast service would compete with airlines, which don’t require government subsidies, plus there would be huge costs associated with maintaining the network.

Having the fast trains stopping at regional towns en route to Melbourne or Brisbane could also be a disincentive for travellers.

“Where and how often it will stop plays an important role in the economics of that train journey,” he told AAP.

“If you stop all the time, that jeopardises some of the economics behind the project.”

Assoc Prof Merkert also questions whether regional centres such as Goulburn and Shepparton would ever have big enough populations to warrant a high-speed service.

He favours a more limited fast-train network, initially connecting Badgery’s Creek airport in Sydney’s west with the nearby hub of Parramatta and then another link to Canberra.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council chief executive Warwick Bennett believes a high-speed network would bring huge benefits in terms of jobs and population growth to the area.

But he said securing land for the project was key.

“It requires state and federal governments to put in the corridor and we could have it in six to eight years if there was real buy-in by both governments,” he said.

The rail industry’s peak body, the Australasian Railway Association, agrees on the need to secure land corridors but doesn’t want a high-speed network to come at the expense of inland and metro rail projects.

Chief executive Danny Broad says governments need to prioritise which sections of a network would be built first.

“It is a visionary project and has great community appeal but securing the corridors is the first step and then looking at where the business case stacks up,” he said.