Donut King’s sharemarket bloodbath as investors bail

retail food group. tony alford ceo of retail food group [donut king & bb s cafe] at the launch on the bne asx. SPECIALX 52869When a company falls more than 55 per cent in 10 days, it speaks volumes about its credibility.
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In the case of Retail Food Group, the sharemarket bloodbath continued afresh on Tuesday with the shares falling 25 per cent after the franchisor of iconic brands including Donut King, Brumby’s and Gloria Jeans, slashed earnings for the first half by 34 per cent.

That the company made the shock revelation days after reaffirming first half profit guidance to shareholders, did little to instil confidence.

That it blamed everyone and everything but itself, added to investor concern.

“Consistent with recent trading updates from other retailers, particularly those retailers with shopping centre exposures, RFG domestic franchisee revenue continues to track lower than expected,” it told the market.

Besides blaming “persistent challenging domestic retail conditions” and one off costs, it pointed the finger at the recent negative media coverage of the $170 billion franchise sector – and RFG in particular.

It said the negative publicity had resulted in a noticeable decline in the momentum of new and renewing franchise sales.

“Associated revenues are now forecast to be below prior expectations and future franchise trading revenue is also likely to be impacted,” the company said in an announcement to the ASX.

What it failed to do was acknowledge its own central role in this sad and sorry tale.

Until management stops with the blame game and starts addressing the real problem, things won’t get any better.

The reality is franchisees operating under the RFG umbrella have been suffering in silence for years.

The Fairfax Media investigation uncovered a brutal business model that has sent many franchisees to the wall.

The network is littered with franchisees who have lost their homes, suffered marriage breakdowns and decimated retirement savings.

Many lament that when they tried to sell their stores there were no buyers – not at any price.

Hundreds of stores have closed in the past 12 months and there are at least 200 stores for sale on Seek and in Chinese newspapers.

This is an issue for RFG as the lifeblood of a franchisor is opening new stores and renewing franchise agreements.

The more franchisees, the more fees and revenue.

To put it into perspective, any franchise network with more than 10 per cent of stores for sale is thought be under pressure.

Fairfax Media estimates 17 per cent of Gloria Jeans stores are for sale; at least 25 per cent of Pizza Capers are for sale. Michel’s Patisserie is also another target of discontent.

Some of the problems facing the stores are linked to the well-documented problems facing shopping centres over the past few years.

But much is attributed to a squeeze on franchisees from crippling fees, rising labour costs as well as higher rent and food imposts.

At the same time franchisees claim reduced support from head office as RFG attempts to cut costs to preserve margins.

They complain of too little product innovation, too little advertising and, in the case of Michel’s, poor quality food.

Since the stories broke, hundreds of franchisees and ex-franchisees have emailed, asking for help.

One RFG franchisees said “RFG are just raping us! Thats how violated and helpless you feel.”

A key area of concern is the company’s debt and whether the banks will continue to support the corporate entity as well as franchisees.

In a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange RFG said it was continuing negotiations with bankers to roll over a $150 million three year loan facility into longer dated maturities due to expire in 12 months.

There is also the spectre of a class action, regulatory intervention and a parliamentary inquiry into the franchise industry.

Then there are the hedge funds which started attacking RFG earlier this year when it was forced to restate its accounts.

In recent years RFG has been diversifying by opening up overseas and vertically integrating the business.

In its market update, it said these areas were tracking expectations.

But when it comes to full year guidance, it was unable to give any certainty for the franchise system.

If the company wants to regain the trust of shareholders, staff and franchisees, it will need to do a lot more than it is.

RFG management owe everyone a lot more than this.

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It’s the vibe: With or without the Comm Games, the Gold Coast is flourishing

The Gold Coast Aquatic Centre is seen at Southport on the Gold Coast, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. The Aquatics venue will host swimming and diving competition at the 2018 Commonwealth Games which will be held April 4-15 next year. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVING satsep23cover – THE NEXT 100 GREAT THINGS IN TRAVELIn 1997, a classic line was coined in the closing scenes of the movie The Castle, when Denis Denuto said: “In summing up, it’s the constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s justice, it’s law, it’s the vibe and aah, no that’s it, it’s the vibe.”
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Twenty years later, real estate agents are making a case about a new “vibe”, this time to describe the Gold Coast, which, all jokes aside, will likely give new meaning to the word when it plays host to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in a matter of months.

As a property market, it has once again outperformed just about every other region in Queensland, with Domain Group data showing the median house price has grown by nearly 8 per cent in the past year to a new median of $615,000.

That’s nearly double Brisbane’s growth of 3.6 per cent, putting the Gold Coast’s median only $40,000 behind Brisbane’s.

It’s unit market, the largest in Queensland, has defied trends throughout the rest of the state, growing by 3.7 per cent to a new median of $420,000 – making it one of the most expensive unit markets in the state.

Real estate veteran and CEO of Ray White Surfers Paradise Andrew Bell has worked through four boom and busts on the Gold Coast and says that right now, the vibe on the glitter strip couldn’t get much better.

“I don’t know about a vibe,” he laughed. “It’s even more than a vibe. There is a definite degree of confidence and an air of positivity – prosperity – pervading the coast.”

As it moves in to 2018, edging closer to the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Commonwealth Games, the Gold Coast is poised to unleash its natural beauty and spectacular coastline on to a world stage.

But Mr Bell says that while the Gold Coast’s success may have started with the Games, it won’t end there.

“It’s not about a 10-day sporting event,” he said. “Yes, the Games will provide a window to the coast for the rest of the world but it will continue to go from strength to strength long after the Games is over.”

Mr Bell said the Gold Coast’s success goes back to when the city won the rights to host the Games, and Jupiters Casino (now called Star), had to make good on a promise they’d made to spend $345 million to rejuvenate the hotel.

“Certainly, there was a significant turn around from then,” he said.

“Jupiters spent a couple of hundred million more than that in the end. Then, across the road, Pacific Fair saw it happening and thought ‘we’d better not get left behind’, so they spent $800 million rejuvenating it.”

The significant projects began rolling in, one after the other, most notable the extension to the light rail system.

“I could name work after work that started to pump money into our region. We’ve been enjoying the ‘Commonwealth Games effect’ for five years,” Mr Bell said.

“So for people to say that there will be a ‘Commonwealth Games effect’ just next year for the Games, they’re wrong. This prosperity has been emerging over a number of years.”

Interstate migration, particularly from Sydney, is up. A renewed local economy means more jobs, which is what was stopping people from Sydney and Melbourne from moving to the coast before, Mr Bell said.

“We’ve really broadened our economic base – we’re not just a tourist centre, we’ve got genuine long-term jobs,” he said.

“In the past here were no jobs for them but now there is, which is why we’re getting an inflow of interstate migration. There’s this really positive attitude towards the Gold Coast – and we haven’t even had the Commonwealth Games yet.

“We’ve got some of the best schools and universities in the country. A lot of people in Sydney in particular, and to a lesser degree Melbourne, have reached that point where they’ve gone ‘this is crazy’. For $1 million, you can buy a substantial property on the Gold Coast and have a beautiful lifestyle.”

Not surprisingly, the positivity has spilled over into the local property market. Moreover, its growth has been measured and sustainable, rather than morphing into a boom situation.

“What I love most is we’ve remained a sustainable market. We’ve been growing at a great rate, but a sustainable rate. We’re nowhere near a bubble; it’s a great, sensible market,” Mr Bell said.

“I’ve been through booms and busts and I hate them. If we had seen surges in prices there would have been a reason for it. There’s been no suburbs that have had prices that have gone up as a result of a direct association with the Games. People have handled it well.”

Mermaid Beach has been the jewel in the Gold Coast’s crown this year, recording the strongest growth for houses. It’s median price is up by nearly 10 per cent, according to the REIQ, reaching a median of $1.53 million.

Even better, the Gold Coast property market has managed not just to survive the slow down in Chinese investment this year, but flourish in spite of it.

Earlier this year the federal budget slugged foreign buyers with steeper charges on purchases and new fees on property left vacant for six months or more.

These measures were taken after the FIRB annual report revealed Chinese buyers led a 19 per cent jump in residential applications, equating to a peak of proposed investment worth $72.4 billion for the 2015-16 financial year.

Mr Bell said the Gold Coast had handled the slow down well, with the exodus of foreign buyers revealing the strength of the local and interstate market.

“I think we were less aware of the local market before then. Sydney in particular, in the last four months, has been an incredibly strong market,” he said.

“There’s certainly been less foreign buyers but we haven’t suffered for it. It hasn’t knocked prices around.”

REIQ CEO Antonia Mercorella said the Gold Coast’s growth surge was helped along by a boost in tourism numbers.

“Tourism is one of the largest contributors to Queensland’s gross state product [GSP], with almost 8 per cent of GSP coming from tourism,” she said.

“This is roughly $25 billion in the year to June 2016, which means when that sector grows it offers employment opportunities and this attracts workers who need somewhere to live.”

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Secular society Christianity’s greatest challenge: bishop

Outgoing Anglican bishop Stuart Robinson has listed a secular society without an understanding of Christianity and Jesus as the greatest challenge facing people of his faith.
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Describing recent same-sex marriage legislation as “as balanced as it can be”, the bishop of Canberra and Goulburn said he was keen to impress upon his successor the importance of addressing a secular Australia, urging Christians to “present as credible, rational, faith-filled people who have got a great story to tell”.

“[Building a relationship with secular society is] achieved through individual Christian people being clear in their faith, by offering consistent witness to their faith, speaking about their faith and getting involved in local communities and making a difference, so people say ‘Oh, those Christians really are trustworthy and true’,” Bishop Robinson said.

Bishop Robinson will leave the diocese in March for Vaucluse in Sydney.

His 10-year tenure was marked by the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, which revealed 28 allegations against 24 perpetrators in the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn between 1980 and 2015.

Bishop Robinson said the royal commission had highlighted “terrifying deficiencies within our organisational structure and within our pastoral care”.

He described the ongoing treatment of people who had been abused and mistreated by church leaders as ongoing and conceded the process had taken a personal toll.

“I think the depth of the depravity and the pain that it caused, not only in the lives of those directly affected but in the friendships they had, the community pain, they’re the kind of things that struck me with great force and will remain with me forever,” he said.

Bishop Robinson listed his greatest achievements over the past decade as “remaining sane, being faithful to my wife, being a good dad to my children and grandchildren while at the same time trying to be a faithful pastor and bishop”.

“For the last decade I’ve had the privilege of working across the archdiocese with hundreds or thousands of people, hearing their stories, sharing in their different ministries and being part of their church life and seeing them make a difference in their local communities,” he said.

“For me, that’s been a great highlight.”

The diocese of Canberra and Goulburn will be led by long-serving Vicar-General Assistant Bishop Trevor Edwards until a new bishop is elected by the diocesan synod in mid-2018.

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Public servants feel like bit players in game: Parkinson

One of parliament’s major forums to hold governments accountable at times leaves public servants feeling like bit players in a political exercise to embarrass governments with “gotcha” moments, Australia’s most senior public servant says.
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Prime Minister and Cabinet department secretary Martin Parkinson said Senate estimates hearings held an important role in government, but the regular hearings to grill ministers and senior public servants about their work could descend into political point scoring.

“Where it becomes problematic is when it moves from genuine efforts focused on improving public administration to simply trying to embarrass the government of the day,” he said. Latest public service news

“This has been true for a long time. You understand why it’s all about trying to embarrass the government of the day, but there are times when public servants sit there and think, ‘we really don’t need to be here, because we’re simply bit players in this whole exercise and you’re not actually interested in improving the quality of public administration’.”

Government agencies had not moved far enough to keep pace with changes in public expectations about what services they delivered and how they engaged with people and listened to them, Dr Parkinson said.

The public service had also erred in how it had viewed other “disruptions”, including eroding trust in government and changes in the global strategic balance.

“If you think about all of those things, what have we done as public services? We’ve responded to them as if they are incremental changes, and I actually think they are much more paradigm shifts and that’s why I keep coming back and I use the word ‘disruption’ really as short hand for that,” Dr Parkinson said.

Social media users regarded its platforms as a way to quickly enter conservations with other people, something the public service was yet to understand, he said.

“What’ve we essentially done? We’ve treated it as a post box, we’ve taken a message and shoved it down social media, out to you.”

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Five property market trends to expect in Australia in 2018

It’s the question on the lips of Australia’s property punters, homeowners and wannabe buyers: what will the property market do in 2018?
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It’s now clear that 2017 will go down as the year that saw some of Australia’s hottest property markets switch gear following a five-year streak that saw Sydney’s median house price pile on over $530,000 and Melbourne’s add more than $352,000.

Explosive house price gains slowed to a trickle in Melbourne and even turned into decline in Sydney in response to new policies designed to safeguard some of the cornerstones of the economy – property prices and debt levels.

Several trends will present themselves in the year ahead as these regulations filter through banks, buyers and markets – here are five of them. 1. Mortgage rates are expected to keep rising

Financial markets predict the Reserve Bank will lift the official cash rate off the record low 1.5 per cent level late in 2018, which would have a measurable impact on household mortgage payments, according to ME Bank head of loans Patrick Nolan.

“[Higher RBA rates] mean repayments will also increase, typically $50 for every 25 basis point rise on a $400,000 loan,” Mr Nolan said.

But even if that doesn’t happen, borrowers should prepare themselves for higher mortgage rates.

Though the Reserve Bank delivered sets of rate cuts in 2011-13 and again in 2015-16, major banks opted not to pass the cuts on in full to borrowers, and although the cash rate has not moved in 15 months, mortgage rates have been creeping higher.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has tightened lending policy, which compelled the banks to lift interest rates out-of-sync with the Reserve Bank – as a result, the gap between the official-set RBA interest rate and what a standard variable mortgage borrower is offered at the bank is the widest it has been since 1994.

“Banks have been using their oligopoly pricing power to lift home loan standard variable rates relative to the RBA’s cash rate since 2008, primarily by cutting standard variable rates less than the cash rate during the RBA’s easing cycles,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote this week.

Whether the Reserve Bank does find a way to raise interest rates in 2018 or not, one thing is clear – mortgage rates are unlikely to decrease in the near future. Source: ANZ Research2. Property prices will continue to cool

Sydney property prices have begun to slip after several years of double-digit percentage price gains, while Melbourne’s growth has noticeably slowed towards the end of the year – experts predict these trends will continue in 2018.

“Banking regulators want to see a slowdown in house price growth, and that’s what we expect in 2018,” Mr Nolan said.

ANZ economists, who are among the only ones predicting multiple RBA rate hikes next year, say APRA’s policy tightening has caused weakness in the property sector, but declines will remain localised.

“APRA’s tightening on investor borrowing and interest-only loans has resulted in higher interest rates for those borrowers, and lowered demand for housing,” senior economists Daniel Gradwell and Joanne Masters said in a report.

“Weaker auction results point toward further slowing as we move into 2018. Our forecast that the RBA will increase interest rates next year will also work to lower price growth. But if the RBA doesn’t tighten, then prices will likely slow less than we forecast. Importantly, there is still nothing to suggest to us that prices are going to enter widespread declines.” Source: ANZ Research3. First-home buyers will make a comeback

“With investors taking a step back, first-home buyers will find more opportunities in 2018,” Mr Nolan said.

“They will continue to benefit from competitive interest rates, new concessions (if eligible) and ample apartment stock, although checks should always be made to ensure quality buys.”

But while ABS data does appear to show first-home buyers leaping at stamp duty concessions in NSW and Victoria, they still need a leg-up, according to ANZ.

“The deposit burden for first-home buyers continues to rise, and more people require assistance getting the deposit together,” Mr Gradwell and Ms Masters said.

“But once they are in the market, low interest rates mean that repayments are affordable, and the interest bill has been falling.” Source: ANZ Research4. Upgraders will stay put, opting to renovate

Eye-watering stamp duty taxes on property transfers act as an anchor, pinning Australians to their current home. As the stamp duty due on a median-priced house in Sydney and Melbourne hovers about $50,000, homeowners increasingly opt to stay where they are and renovate.

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in renovation loan applications in 2017, a trend that we’re likely to see well into 2018, as households chose to renovate over moving,” Mr Nolan said.

“Upgraders are avoiding costly moving costs such as stamp duty. We’re also seeing some more top ups as people take advantage of lower interest rates and leverage the extra equity in their property in order to finance renovations.”

The issue worsened significantly as annual house price gains soared. Specifically, the stamp duty owed on a median-priced property in Sydney 20 years ago was, adjusted for inflation, $10,916 but it is now $50,302 – a rise big enough to shape homeowner behaviour.

The thought process is clearly shifting, with recent Westpac research showing a 14 per cent rise in the number of homeowners considering renovating in the next five years, compared with 2015, while HIA economists predict a strong growth in the renovations market through into the early 2020s. 5. Owner occupiers to win from competitive lending rates

Mortgage repricing in 2017 has been largely centred around investor loans, which leaves fewer investors walking into banks looking for finance.

As a result, owner-occupier borrowers are making their way back onto centre stage.

“With limits on investor and interest-only growth, banks are competing over a smaller piece of the lending pie, and are offering some great deals for owner-occupiers,” Mr Nolan said.

Morgan Stanley analysts confirm that while investor interest rates have been significantly tightened, owner-occupier principal and interest loans have seen smaller increases.

“We have argued that differentiated home loan repricing on [owner-occupier] would continue, but it has actually become even more pronounced,” the analysts wrote.

“In the past year, the major banks’ interest-only investment property loans have been repriced ~90 basis points, while principal and interest owner occupier loans have been lifted just 10-15 basis points.”

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ATO cuts 4600 jobs in four years

A cut to the Australian Taxation Office’s headcount reaching 4600 in four years has left remaining staff struggling and the agency under-resourced, Labor says.
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Agency annual reports show the magnitude of its recent downsizing under Coalition efforts to reduce the number of public servants.

Labor’s acting shadow Assistant Treasurer Matt Thistlethwaite said the cuts had made life for the office’s remaining staff harder.

“ATO staff are trying as hard as they can, but they’ve been left struggling thanks to these cuts by the Coalition, job cuts that have coincided not only with multiple web outages, but also billions of dollars in consultancy fees,” he said.

“Labor believes in a strong, sufficiently resourced tax system that can work with parliament on important reforms like closing down loopholes for dodgy multinationals.”

The ATO cut its headcount of staff from 25,093 at the end of the 2012-13 financial year to 20,435 last June as part of the Coalition’s push to downsize the public service.

An ATO spokeswoman said it managed cuts to prevent any impact on revenue collections or service delivery, and had maintained balanced workloads for staff.

“We achieved this by making judgements about what is priority work, how we get the work done, and what work we could stop or reduce to maintain delivery of our commitments to government and the community,” she said.

“We also reshaped and rebalanced our workforce, to ensure we have the right people with a combination of the right capabilities for now and for the next generation of tax and compliance experts.”

But the Australian Services Union representing tax officers said the reduction left questions whether the ATO had the resources to enact an ambitious agenda set out by its boss, Chris Jordan.

ASU official Jeff Lapidos said while the agency recently had money needed to employ more staff, caps on staffing levels had stopped it from growing.

The office had a difficult few years since cuts in 2013 and following years, he said.

The ATO said staffing cuts played no role in problems with its IT systems.

“The nature of the unplanned outages experienced is varied and there is no single systemic or underlying cause of these issues,” its spokeswoman said.

A series of IT outages has hit the ATO this year, stopping businesses and individuals from lodging their tax returns online.

Major ATO meltdowns in December, 2016 and July this year prompted widespread criticism and an admission from Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan that the ATO’s reputation was being damaged.

In February, the ATO’s website, online portals, Australian Business Register and business reporting channels were unavailable for two business days, while a series of outages hit users on April 19 and four separate dates in May.

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Talented women brushed as Malcolm Turnbull lets the Nationals run amok

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gives a press conference at 1 Bligh Street to announce his cabinet reshuffle on 19 December 2017. Photo: Jessica Hromas
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In the race between the merit principle and sectional politics, the former is often cited, but the latter more often observed.

Now we have a frank explanation of how power is really apportioned within the Coalition: geography.

Thus, Victoria’s Darren Chester, widely agreed to be the Nationals’ most competent figure, gets punted from Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet to be replaced by a rookie preferred by Barnaby Joyce.

Why? Because the replacement, David Littleproud, is a moral conservative and a Queenslander.

Consider his qualifications for federal cabinet: 18 unremarkable months on the backbench, notable for not much more than voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Representatives where it was his voice that called for a division.

Ditto the promotion from obscurity of John McVeigh – another Queensland LNP backbencher who leapfrogs the junior ministry to go straight into cabinet.

That Joyce should swing such lead will be seen by most voters for the absurdity it is. This is the man whose stewardship of the junior Coalition party has been a liability through 2017, contributing to Turnbull’s humiliation over a banking royal commission, and resulting in Joyce’s own expulsion from the Parliament. And let’s not forget the $40,000 cheque he initially accepted from Gina Rinehart for his brilliance as Agriculture Minister?

Chester, on the other hand will be remembered as one of the few Nationals possessed of the courage and the simple 21st century modernism to stand with the Australian mainstream as an outspoken advocate for marriage equality.

What does he get for this willingness to line up with the PM no less? The axe.

It’s a reminder that one should never underestimate this government’s capacity to muff the politics, or worse, lurch gratuitously to the right even when the only pressure to do so comes from within.

The talking point in federal politics as 2017 winds up has been the extent to which Turnbull’s fortunes have improved in the final days as big problems like the dual citizenship fiasco, same-sex marriage and energy policy have been resolved.

Progress on these fronts has shifted the pressure to Labor, which is now struggling with the citizenship backwash threatening a series of ruinous byelections.

But where success emboldens some leaders, it seems to have no such effect on Turnbull.

After his initial promise in fixing Tony Abbott’s unconscionably bloke-heavy bias, Turnbull has elevated just two women this time and one of them, Bridget McKenzie, purely because she is the new Nationals deputy leader. Her portfolio of sport, rural health and regional communications is barely cabinet level.

Once again, competent women such as Julia Banks, Nicolle Flint, and Sarah Henderson must wait, having been overlooked in a Coalition that says quotas on gender are anathema, but defends trashing the merit principle on just about any other grounds.

Turnbull called his line-up diverse. Perverse would be more accurate.

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Top scores a bittersweet result for Amber

The Age, News, 19/12/2017, photo by Justin McManus. Amber Truong has become the dux of the disadvantaged Wellington Secondary College, achieving an incredible ATAR of 99.4. But the Vietnamese international student’s VCE journey has not been easy. Her mum died when she was hit by a motorbike in Vietnam. She was travelling to her second job when the fatal accident took place. She held down two jobs so that she could send Amber to an Australian school. Amber had to return to Vietnam to bury her mum.Amber Truong’s world fell apart a few weeks after she arrived in Australia.
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Her mother and father had been involved in a horrific motorbike accident back home in Vietnam.

As they were picking up vegetables for their market stall and wholesale business, a drunk cyclist hurtled into them on the dark road.

They worked long hours – from midnight to midday – so they could send their eldest daughter to Wellington Secondary College in Melbourne’s south-east.

Amber, who was then a year 10 student, caught the next flight home to Vietnam. iFrameResize({checkOrigin:false},’#vce-honour-roll’); var frame = document.getElementById(“vce-honour-roll”);

But by the time she arrived, her mother had passed away in hospital.

“She gave up her entire life to give me and my siblings the best living conditions and a better future,” Amber said.

The teenager made an important promise at her mother’s funeral.

“I promised that I would study hard to make that money worth it,” she said.

“I will become successful one day and take care of my siblings and my dad.”

Amber’s decision to stick by this promise appears to be paying off.

The 18-year-old has been crowned dux of her school with a bitter-sweet ATAR of 99.4.

While the Mulgrave state school is considered disadvantaged, it punches above its weight in academic performance.

This year, 33 students achieved an ATAR of 90 or above, with the majority local students.

“You couldn’t get a prouder school,” principal Hugh Blaikie said.

Amber hopes to study biomedicine, and has received scholarships at Monash and Swinburne universities.

She said the months following her mother’s death were a struggle.

Amber cried a lot. She also worried about money.

Her mother was the main income earner and in order to continue paying the $16,000 international student fees her father had to sell the family car and a block of land.

Her aunt, who she lives with in Waterways, provided emotional and financial support.

“They know how much I wanted to study here so they gave me everything,” she said.

Her mother’s death wasn’t the only hurdle that Amber encountered during her final years of school.

When she arrived in Melbourne in 2014 she hardly spoke a word of English.

“It was really scary,” she says. “I couldn’t understand what people were saying.”

She spent two terms in intensive English language classes at school before moving into mainstream classes.

Easily distracted at home, she maximised her study time at school.

The diligent VCE student stayed back at school until 7 or 8pm every night. Her cue to leave was when the teacher in charge of locking up the school walked towards her classroom, jangling a big bunch of keys.

She woke up every morning at 4am, when the house was quiet, and studied in her bedroom, surrounded by motivational quotes pinned to the walls. ‘Never ever underestimate anything’ one reads.

Amber is among the 14,797 VCE students who received a study score of 40 or above in at least one subject.

She received a 45 in maths methods, 45 in further maths, 44 in English as an additional language, 42 in chemistry and 40 in physics.

Her favourite thing about school was the dedicated teachers.

“All my teachers are very supportive. I came to them every single day at recess and lunchtime and asked questions.”

Early on Friday morning, Amber caught the bus to school so that she could open her VCE results with her maths methods teacher Jan Mann.

“We hugged each other when we saw the score and jumped around,” she said.

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Sydney man charged with ‘foreign incursion’ after raid at Mount Lewis

A man from Sydney’s west has been charged with foreign incursion offences after police raided a home near Bankstown on Tuesday morning.
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Belal Betka, 25, from Mount Lewis, allegedly travelled to the conflict zone in Syria in March 2015 before returning to Australia seven months later.

He is accused of aligning with the so-called Islamic State, and to have been in its defacto capital of al-Raqqa.

Mr Betka has been investigated by police since his return to Australia in October 2015, according to a joint statement by NSW Police and Australian Federal Police.

On Tuesday, he was arrested by the Joint Counter Terrorism Team and charged with incursion into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities, which carries a maximum penalty of life behind bars.

He is the first person based in Australia to be charged with such an offence, according to police.

Mr Betka has also been charged with entering/remaining in a declared area, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment, and dealing in proceeds of crime in excess of $1 million.

He will face Bankstown Local Court tomorrow.

Mr Betka is not one of the most renowned people alleged to be an Australian foreign fighter. However, his alleged activities were nonetheless regarded as significant by Australian authorities.

The Joint Counter Terrorism Team ??? made up of NSW Police, AFP, ASIO, and the NSW Crime Commission ??? said there is no “current or impending threat” to the community.

AFP acting Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Hurst said the arrest was “the culmination of long-term surveillance, intelligence, and protracted evidence-gathering”.

“This has been a long painstaking process, putting the pieces of the puzzle together to turn intelligence into evidence,” she said.

“Keeping the community safe from anyone that may seek to cause Australians harm is the key role of the JCTT.”

NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Willing said it’s illegal to fight for a terrorist organisation, and anyone who thinks they can “needs to reconsider that position”.

“The public can be reassured that all law enforcement agencies, at state and national level, work tirelessly to ensure the safety of the community,” Assistant Commissioner Willing said.

Both police agencies urged anyone with information to phone the National Security Hotline on 1800 123 400.

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Temperatures to top 42 degrees in Sydney’s west before southerly arrives

Sydney will sweat through a scorching day on Wednesday, with parts of the city to exceed 40 degrees as firefighters warn of “very high” fire danger for the region.
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The Bureau of Meteorology predicts the inner city will reach 36 degrees, while Bondi will have a top of 34, Penrith and Richmond will have a maximum of 42. Campbelltown and Liverpool will reach 38 degrees.

Angus McLean-Smith, a meteorologist with Weatherzone, said the hottest temperatures are expected in the late morning, driven by north-westerly winds.

A southerly change will then sweep across the city from about midday, with temperatures dropping quickly and rain and thunderstorms possible for the afternoon.

In the west, the cool change is due from about 1pm.

“There’s a southerly coming through, a big southerly change in the afternoon,” Mr McLean-Smith said. “That’s going to cool across the board.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service has declared a total fire ban for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter and North Western regions for all of Wednesday, with hot and windy conditions bringing “very high” fire danger for Sydney and “severe” fire danger for the other two regions.

The Greater Sydney region includes the Blue Mountains and Central Coast, while the Greater Hunter encompasses Cessnock, Dungog, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Muswellbrook, Newcastle, Port Stephens, Singleton and the Upper Hunter, and the North Western region includes the Moree Plains, Narrabri, Walgett and Warrumbungle.

After Wednesday, the heat will temporarily taper off, before the mercury rises again in time for Christmas Eve. Christmas Day itself is due to be mild and cloudy, with late rain, southerly winds and possible thunderstorms.

On Tuesday, NSW Ambulance received 55 calls for heat-related illnesses between midnight and 2pm, including dizziness, nausea, fainting, heat exposure and one child who was locked in a car.

Most of those feeling the heat were aged over 60, with the weather exacerbating pre-existing conditions like heart problems, diabetes or chemotherapy.

Temperatures soared away from the coast, with Badgerys Creek, Camden, Campbelltown, Horsley Park, Penrith and Richmond all reaching or exceeding 40 degrees.

The heat affected track infrastructure on the Blue Mountains train line, causing some delays.

A NSW Ambulance spokeswoman urged people to take care in the heat, reserve their activity to the coolest part of the day, avoid drinking tea, coffee and alcohol, and keep up with their medications.

“Try to stay out of the direct sun – this is particularly important for the elderly and very young,” the spokeswoman said. “Drink plenty of water and if outdoors, carry a water bottle.

“If you know of family, friends or neighbours who are isolated or alone, check on their well-being to ensure they are OK.”

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.