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High inflation could prompt interest rate rises

Stronger than expected inflation figures may mean interest rates will be on their way up soon, economists say.

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The annual rate of inflation of 3.6 per cent to June was the fastest pace since late 2008 and higher than economists expected and outside the central bank’s target band.

The consumer price index rose by 0.9 per cent, and the underlying inflation rate, which strips out unusually large movements, increased 0.9 per cent.

The Australian dollar rose to a record high and bond prices fell as investors bet that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) could raise interest rates as early as August.

JP Morgan economist Ben Jarman said the underlying CPI was particularly strong and could prompt the RBA to raise interest rates soon.

“This is a high number and it will probably make them feel a bit uncomfortable,” he said.

“There’s always an outside possibility that they’re forced into hiking interest rates in the near-term.”

The RBA aims to keep headline inflation between two to three per cent over the course of the economic cycle.

The last time the RBA increased the cash rate was in November 2010, raising it to 4.75 per cent, and its next monthly meeting is on Tuesday, August 2.

Mr Jarman expected the central bank to keep the cash rate on hold for a few months, owing to the growing uncertainty in international markets.

Those concerns include sovereign debt problem in Europe and the possibility of debt default by the US government if it doesn’t raise its debt ceiling. RBC fixed income and currency strategist Michael Turner said he was still expecting the RBA to increase the cash rate sometime in the December quarter.

“A bit of that cyclone affect has filtered through to the June quarter even though the price rise was in the first quarter,” he said.

The Australian dollar rose to the highest since the government allowed the currency to trade freely in December 1983 after the release of the higher than expected inflation figures.

The Australian dollar was trading at 109.60 just prior to the data release late in the morning, but quickly rose to a post float high of 110.62 cents.

The currency reached its previous high of 110.11 cents on May 3. Mr Turner said the bond market also reacted strongly to the CPI numbers. Macquarie Group senior economist Brian Redican said the fairly high inflation numbers meant it was a lineball call whether the RBA would raise rates in August.

“The figures were much higher than the RBA had been talking about,” Mr Redican said.

But Mr Redican added that most of the higher inflation came from volatile items such as fuel and fresh food. “In three months time inflation will be looking a lot better,” he said.

Mr Redican said August was the most likely RBA board meeting for a rate rise.

“If they can get through the next meeting, then we’ll have an extended period of stable interest rates.”

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Jet breaks in half in Guyana crash landing

A Caribbean Airlines jetliner carrying 157 people broke in half when it crashed landed in heavy rain and fog, but no fatalities were reported, officials said.

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“It’s an absolute miracle that took place today,” Caribbean Airlines chairman George Nicholas told a news briefing at Cheddi Jagan International Airport. The Caribbean Airlines flight that originated in New York apparently touched down in the middle of the runway at that airport, then ran off the strip, crashed through a fence and finally stopped on a grassy slope near a road. The front section of the fuselage broke in the landing, briefly trapping passengers in the first class seats. But none of the 151 passengers and six crew members on the Boeing 737-800 jet were seriously injured, the airline said. All have been evacuated. Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy told AFP that one person suffered a broken leg and several others sustained minor bruises. “It’s amazing to have an aircraft in that shape with a small number of injuries,” Nicholas said. The plane crashed at 01:32 am (0532 GMT), and airport emergency crews worked in the dark for the first few hours as they rescued several passengers from the wrecked plane. The head of the Trinidad and Tobago state-owned airline said the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority would be spearheading the probe in collaboration with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). NTSB investigators are due in Guyana on Monday to assist with removing the plane’s critical blackbox – or flight data record – and data voice recorder. President Bharrat Jagdeo rushed to the airport along with several high-ranking officials, including the transportation minister, NCN television reported. Airline officials declined to provide details on the case, including the weather at the time of the incident. They said the pilot has 25 years experience, including flights to Guyana. The broken aircraft has been barricaded and under guard by police and soldiers at the semi-forested and sandy area, while Guyana officials closed the airport for nearly 10 hours, the airline said. Hundreds of passengers were stranded waiting for flights. Nicholas said baggage is being retrieved and would be made available shortly. Passengers who escaped the plane told Guyana’s WRHM Capitol News television that the cabin was filled with smoke. “Everybody was screaming like crazy,” a passenger from New York told Capitol News. “A guy jumped out and broke his foot. A lot of kids got injured.” The passenger was sitting in the rear of the plane and escaped with only minor injuries. A post-trauma team, including psychologists, is expected to assist with counselling passengers and crew.

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Census won’t count Jedis or pastaferians

You may be a Jedi or even a pastaferian, just don’t expect it to be acknowledged in this year’s census.

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On August 9, millions of Australians, whether living at home, in tankers, on submarines or in remote communities, will be asked more than 60 questions about their profession, religion, income and the makeup of their family.

At the launch of the 2011 census in Sydney on Wednesday night, Federal Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten asked people to keep the jokes to a minimum.

“In 2006, 55,000 Australians marked themselves down as Jedi. That’s not a recognised religion in Australia,” Mr Shorten told reporters.

“You hear all sorts of discussion in the social media about calling yourself a pastaferian, which is a worshipper of pasta.

“That is funny, but we would rather you fill in the census correctly.”

The census, which this year celebrates 100 years, provides a “treasure trove of information” that drives government policy and investment in health, education and infrastructure, Mr Shorten said.

“It will help government to be able to make important decisions based on the best possible information.”

He said it also gave vital insight into social trends for businesses and government.

“Are we marrying more? Are we divorcing more? Is grandma still at home? Are the kids still not moving out anymore?

“The way Australians are organising their lives is often in advance of what business and government are doing in the way of policy.”

Australian statistician Brian Pink said this year’s census is focusing on reaching all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, as well as the 19 to 34 age group.

People are also being encouraged to hop online and fill in the eCensus.

Looking back over the census’ history, Mr Pink said it provided an interesting and often quirky glimpse into where we have come from.

“A century ago the Australian population was a little under 4.6 million.

“Collectors went around their business on horses, bicycles and camels,” he said.

“It was the 1901 or 1911 census that had the question, which went something like, ‘How many imbeciles or idiots do you have in your house?'”

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UN council ready to ease Libya sanctions

Muammar Gaddafi’s government and the rival rebel opposition have both asked the United Nations for access to the assets in order to purchase much-needed medicine and other essential supplies.

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Portugual’s UN Ambassador Jose Filipe Moraes Cabral, who chairs the Security Council’s Libya sanctions committee, told reporters that the two sides would have to make a formal request to the committee but added that there appeared to be a consensus on the committee in favour of unblocking funds. Cabral said he has asked UN special envoy on Libya Abdul Ilah al-Khatib to tell the rival governments that the sanctions committee was ready to act in days once “concrete” requests are received. The ambassador said a system would have to be set up in order to distribute supplies “without any discrimination and through a totally transparent process.” He also insisted it would be nothing like the $64 billion oil-for-food program in Iraq that was overshadowed by corruption allegations. Cabral said UN agencies or other international organizations should handle any goods sent to Libya. On February 26, the Security Council ordered all countries to freeze assets and ban travel by Gaddafi and his close associates. It also ordered an arms embargo. The sanctions list was expanded in March when more individuals were added to the list, along with Libyan banks and the Libyan National Oil Corporation. Aid groups across Libya have reported shortages of basic items like vaccines and painkillers. They say stockpiles in the Gaddafi-controlled west and the rebel-held east have been rapidly depleted by five months of war. Although some essential goods could be imported under the current sanctions regime, they cannot be paid for because Libyan assets abroad are frozen and foreign banks are refusing to do business with Libyan entities.

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Optimism as Aussie dollar climbs

The Australian dollar is three quarters of a US cent higher as optimism grows that US politicians will work out a deal to avoid a default on its debts.

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At 0700 (AEST) on Monday, the Australian dollar was trading at 110.11 US cents, up from 109.54 cents on Friday.

With less than two days before the US hits the August 2 deadline to raise the $US14.3 trillion ($A13.1 trillion) borrowing limit, President Barack Obama and leading lawmakers came closer to a deal to avoid a debt default.

Failure to arrive at an agreed outcome would cause a shutdown of some government services and potentially trigger a downgrade by global ratings agencies.

However, US Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid both said they were hopeful that a deal would happen soon.

Westpac New Zealand senior market strategist Imre Speizer said the optimism in Washington helped improve market sentiment and helped push the Australian dollar higher.

“There is speculation there will be something announced over the next day or so on the debt ceiling,” he said from Auckland.

“That’s basically the story that is driving up risk sentiment, this morning, certainly for commodity currencies.”

Mr Speizer said a resolution in the US would drive up equity markets and give the Australian dollar a boost.

President Obama is expected to make a statement on the negotiation late on Monday morning (AEST).

On Tuesday, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) board will hold its monthly board meeting.

Of the 15 economists surveyed by AAP last week, 12 expected the central bank to keep the cash rate on hold at 4.75 per cent.

Mr Speizer said he expected the Australian dollar to trade as low as 109.65 US cents and potentially go higher than its post-float record of 110.81 cent during the local session on Monday.

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‘Serious’ global pain if US defaults

The White House and its divided Republican foes have failed to break an impasse that could see the world’s richest nation default on its debt, with potentially ruinous global results.

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With a week to go before the US Treasury says it will run out of cash to pay its bills, the US dollar slid against key currencies and US stocks fell as markets measured the risk of an August 2 deadline passing without a breakthrough.

Top Senate Democrats and Republicans cautiously urged compromise even as Republican House Speaker John Boehner struggled to keep his conservative troops in line behind his plan for raising the $US14.3 trillion ($A13.11 trillion) US debt limit.

‘DEAD ON ARRIVAl’

“We’re willing to listen to all the good ideas. I’ll even listen to some bad ideas if it’ll help move down the road,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, even as he declared Boehner’s plan “dead on arrival.”

“We need to re-engage with the president,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who days earlier had washed his hands of negotiations with Obama and placed his hopes for an ambitious compromise in the Congress.

McConnell noted that Republicans only control half of Congress, and, in a message sure to rile Tea Party hardliners, told reporters: “I’m prepared to accept something less than perfect, because perfect is not achievable.”

The White House came out guns blazing at Boehner’s plan, warning that Obama’s advisors would push him to veto it in the unlikely event the measure survived the Democratic-led Senate.

STANDING FIRM

Boehner insisted his plan, which Obama opposes because it would force another debt-ceiling showdown during the 2012 presidential election campaign, was the only “reasonable approach” – even as he tamped down a conservative revolt.

But the speaker suffered a setback late in the day when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the non-partisan last word in polarised Washington’s spending battles, said his bill would not cut as much spending as advertised.

Boehner, whose measure fell short of the $US1.2 trillion ($A1.1 trillion) in cuts over 10 years he wanted as the price for raising the debt limit $US1 trillion ($A916.59 billion), said through spokesman Michael Steel he was “looking at options to re-write the legislation”.

It was unclear how that would affect a vote on the bill, originally scheduled for Wednesday but now postponed until Thursday, amid concerns conservatives unsatisfied with the depth of its spending cuts might deny it even a majority of Republicans.

Washington hit its debt ceiling on May 16 but has used spending and accounting adjustments, as well as higher-than-expected tax receipts, to continue operating normally.

TOUGH CHOICES

If there is no deal, the United States, still recovering from the 2008 recession with unemployment hovering around 9.2 per cent, could be faced with tough choices- either a debt default or reneging on obligations like government benefits for the poorest, most vulnerable Americans.

Obama has agreed in principle to deep spending cuts, including savings from social safety net programs dear to his Democrats, but Republicans egged on by the Tea Party have refused his call for tax revenue increases targeting the rich and wealthy corporations.

Reid’s plan would lift the debt ceiling by $US2.7 trillion ($A2.47 trillion), lasting to 2013, tied to the same amount of spending cuts over 10 years, and does not include tax increases.

Christine Lagarde, the new head of the International Monetary Fund, said a US default would bring “serious” pain to the global economy and warned: “The clock is irremediably ticking, and people really have to find a solution.”

And Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega, whose country’s economy is booming, said the United States needed to come “to its senses,” saying he believed there would be a solution “but I am worried by the turn of events”.

And while foreign stock markets have so far remained relatively immune to the troubles in Washington, US markets sank for a third straight day.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 0.73 per cent the broader S&P 500 shed 0.41 per cent, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.10 per cent.

The biggest sign of market disquiet was a clear move out of the US dollar on currency markets, while gold climbed six dollars to above $US1,620 an ounce in New York trade, though it was still below the record of $US1,624.07.

At 0800 AEST on Wednesday, the US dollar had sagged nearly one per cent against the euro, which traded at $1.4516, compared to $1.4375 a day earlier.

The US dollar lost another 0.6 per cent to the safe-haven Swiss franc, dropping to 0.8012 francs, and fell 0.5 per cent against the yen to 77.94 yen.

The pound also pushed up sharply against the greenback, buying $US1.6422 against $US1.6278 a day earlier.

Meanwhile, the Australian dollar cracked new highs above 110 US cents after the release of official inflation figures on Wednesday AEST.

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Health reform gets green light

It comes as the Western Australian government has agreed to sign up to a national hospitals plan after 18 months of wrangling with Canberra.

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Premier Colin Barnett announced that his cabinet had agreed to the National Health Reform package and would sign it by Tuesday.

“That has been a very contentious issue for the last 18 months,” he told reporters.

The premier said that when the reform package was first announced under former prime minster Kevin Rudd, the proposal was for the states to lose one third of their GST revenue to fund it.

“Western Australia was the only state that stood out against that and we refused to sign that agreement.”

Mr Barnett said that since then other states had progressively pulled back from the deal and the reform was now being pursued on the basis of health care, not financial issues.

“Western Australia will retain its GST and we will control all state government funding going into the pool arrangement,” the premier said.

Mr Barnett said his government saw merit in pooling federal and state funding to improve hospital care across Australia, but still had concerns about the planned size of the federal bureaucracy under the proposed plan and some primary health care issues.

He said that if the WA government did not sign, the state would have to risk losing future, and perhaps even existing, commonwealth funding to support its hospitals.

WA Health Minister Kim Hames said the federal government had “given enormous ground”, allowing the WA government to sign the deal.

He said a model put forward by the Victorian government to set up separate funds to be managed by the states had finally been agreed to by the federal government and that helped broker the deal.

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Jetstar staff ‘working 20 hour shifts’

Employment contracts of some cabin crew working for budget airline Jetstar are more onerous than any under the Work Choices industrial relations regime, independent senator Nick Xenophon says.

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Foreign-based crews employed by the Qantas-owned carrier were working under completely different conditions than those based in Australia, he said.

Flight attendants in Thailand are paid just $258 a month as a base salary, plus $7 for every hour they fly and allowances.

In April, five Thai-based crew members declined to staff a Sydney to Melbourne flight after becoming exhausted from a series of domestic and international flights.

However, Jetstar CEO Bruce Buchanan says rostered shifts only go up to 14 hours.

He says he’s disappointed Senator Xenophon has chosen to repeat claims being made in the media, rather than picking up the phone and talking to him.

He dismissed staff complaints as coming from “some people” who were unhappy with things going on in an airline that flew 3000 flights a week.

“Something’s not going to go completely to plan,” Mr Buchanan told ABC Radio.

XENOPHON WANTS REFORM

Senator Xenophon says it is vital that regulations are introduced to protect cabin crew whose contracts specify no limits on the hours they can be required to work.

“When cabin crew tell me that they are worried they won’t be able to function appropriately in the event of an emergency, then that’s a serious issue,” he told ABC Radio on Thursday.

The features of the Jetstar contract for overseas-based crew made the worst features of Work Choices “pale in comparison”.

“These are some pretty nasty contracts,” Senator Xenophon said, adding they were completely unacceptable from an Australian perspective.

Jetstar’s cabin crew employees are accusing the airline of ignoring their concerns about fatigue after being forced to work up to 20 hours straight.

Staff say exhaustion on long-haul flights is common and they have raised concerns with senior management numerous times.

At least 60 complaints have been raised internally, citing serious concerns over fatigue on just the Sydney-Darwin and Sydney-Perth routes alone, the ABC reported earlier.

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‘Journalists killed in NATO raid’

“Three of our colleagues were murdered and 15 injured while performing their professional duty as Libyan journalists,” said Khaled Basilia, director of Al-Jamahiriya television’s English-language service.

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He branded the strike “an act of international terrorism and in violation of UN Security Council resolutions”. Earlier, NATO said it struck three television transmitters to silence “terror broadcasts” by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. “NATO conducted a precision air strike that disabled three ground-based Libyan state TV satellite transmission dishes in Tripoli… with the intent of degrading Gaddafi’s use of satellite television as a means to intimidate the Libyan people and incite acts of violence against them,” said NATO. But Basilia said the channel posed no threat to civilians. “We are not a military target, we are not commanders in the army and we do not pose threat to civilians,” he insisted. “We are performing our job as journalists representing what we wholeheartedly believe is the reality of NATO’s aggression and the violence in Libya.” A defiant Gaddafi again vowed to defeat his enemies, in a new audio message broadcast on state television. Speaking to loyalists the Libyan strongman said he will “never abandon” the battle, and warned his enemies they would be “defeated thanks to the courage of the Libyan people”. Replacement for slain officer Meanwhile the Libyan rebels probed the mysterious killing of their army chief, General Abdel Fatah Yunis, and appointed a temporary replacement for the slain officer. “The NTC has appointed an investigative committee and we will publish all the facts of this investigation,” said Ali Tarhuni, who handles economic affairs for the rebel National Transitional Council. Yunis was the faithful right-hand man of Gaddafi, participating in the 1969 coup that brought him to power, before defecting to the rebels fighting to oust the strongman since February. Tarhuni said Yunis’s bullet-ridden and partly burned body was found early on Friday on Benghazi’s outskirts, but that the NTC had received news of his death late on Thursday when the head of a militia behind the crime confessed. “The head of the militia is imprisoned now,” Tarhuni said, adding some of the perpetrators, who he said belonged to Jirah Ibn al-Obeidi brigade, were yet to be incarcerated, and the motive remained unclear. Tripoli pinned the blame squarely on Al-Qaeda and argued the killing exposed the impotence of the NTC. “By this act, Al-Qaeda wanted to mark out its presence and its influence in this region” of eastern Libya controlled by the rebels, regime spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said. “The other members of the National Transitional Council knew about it but could not react because they are terrified of Al-Qaeda,” he added. Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi named “the interim chief of staff (of rebel armed forces) until further decisions are made,” said NTC spokesman Mahmud Shammam. Rebels order militia to disband And as the murder of Yunis remained cloaked in mystery, the rebels ordered all militia to disband and come under the control of the insurgents’ interior ministry. “The time has come to disband these brigades. Anybody who refuses to take part in this decree will be tried with the full measure of the law,” NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in Benghazi. He also denied media reports suggesting that the “February 17” rebel group was behind the assassination. Yunis’s death, and that of two officers with him, left the rebels facing a military leadership crisis on the same day they made fresh gains in the western Nafusa mountain range. Rebels urged to stand united The United States urged the rebels to stand united and stay focused on ousting Gaddafi, and blamed the veteran Libyan leader for creating the conditions that led to the murder. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the rebels should “work both diligently and transparently to ensure the unity of the Libyan opposition”. The assassination of Yunis, Libya’s former interior minister, sparked speculation he had been killed as a traitor by one of the two warring camps or as a form of revenge for his past role in crushing the Islamists. A senior opposition figure in the rebel capital of Benghazi accused Gaddafi of playing a role in the murder in an attempt to press rebels to back off from Brega. Yunis was killed as he returned to Benghazi from the front line near Brega on the orders of the NTC. “Whoever took part in this crime will be brought to justice no matter who they are,” Tarhuni said. The unity of rebels in the east – where there are more than 30 brigades – is crucial for the many Western powers which have recognised the NTC as the sole legitimate authority in Libya.

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Rudd’s heart operation a success

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd will return to his job with plenty of ticker after undergoing successful heart surgery on Monday.

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His wife anticipates it will be difficult to keep him quiet during his two months of recovery.

“Our present challenge is not really that he won’t recover with more energy than he’s had before, but rather my challenge is to keep him as still as possible for as long as possible,” Therese Rein said after her husband’s surgery.

The 53-year-old had an operation to replace a leaky aortic valve that was inserted almost 20 years ago.

Mr Rudd’s original valve was replaced because of the effects of rheumatic fever he suffered as a child.

Doctors considered Monday’s surgery routine and cardiologist Dr Malcolm Davison said the four-hour operation at Brisbane’s St Andrews War Memorial Hospital was a success.

“At this stage we’re extremely pleased with his progress,” he said.

“The surgery has gone according to plan and he is in a stable and very satisfactory situation.”

The new heart valve comes from a cow and is expected to last another 15 to 20 years.

Mr Davison said the foreign minister would likely remain unconscious on a ventilator until Monday evening or Tuesday morning.

He will be discharged from hospital in seven to 10 days and take eight weeks to recover fully from the surgery.

Mr Rudd’s three children joined his wife at the hospital during the surgery.

Ms Rein thanked the medical staff and wider community for their support.

The former prime minister received well wishes from his political friends and foes alike.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she had spoken to Mr Rudd and gave her best wishes for a speedy recovery.

“He’s got a real sense of confidence having been through it before,” she told ABC Radio.

The foreign minister’s opposition counterpart Julie Bishop said, knowing Mr Rudd, “he will be back up, out and about, as energetic as ever”.

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