We are ready to assist: Johnston refuses to rule out help in Iraq air strikes

Mr Kerry today arrived in Sydney ahead of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, which will also be attended by Mr Johnston, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

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The annual discussions on foreign, defence and strategic policy matters are expected to focus on the US request for Australian assistance in Iraq, where a jihadist-led offensive has been increasingly claiming territory as part of a deadly advance.

The US began a campaign of air strikes against the Sunni militants over the weekend and has asked Australian forces for assistance as they continue humanitarian drops to Iraqi citizens forced to flee their homes.

Defence Minister David Johnston confirmed that Australian troops were in place as part of preparations to aid in the drops, telling ABC Radio that troops would “slot in and bolt on” as needed.

He said Australian forces weren’t involved in supporting US troops in strikes as yet, but would not rule out providing assistance in the future.

“Who knows what the future holds with these people and accordingly, we are ready to assist in whatever way we can, should we be asked to assist by the Americans and the Iraqi Government,” he said.

“The fact is this could turn very, very nasty in a very short peace of time and I think anything’s to be expected…. We’re not ruling out providing some backup assistance to the Americans.”

Islamic State fighter image ‘barbaric’

Mr Johnston also weighed in on an image of a young boy, believed to be Australian, holding up the decapitated head of a slain Syrian soldier.

Posted on Twitter, the photo reports to show the son of Sydney man turned Islamic State fighter, Khaled Sharrouf.

“I’m very upset about this sort of thing completely colouring our view of Muslims,” Mr Johnston said.

“I think anybody who knows and understands the Muslim community in Australia knows that by far they are a very peace loving and respectful group of people with respect to Australian laws.

“But what we’ve observed indicates that we need to be very vigilant.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also condemned the image, which he described as “barbaric”.

Focus on Force Posture Agreement

Future cooperation between Australian and US forces are expected to feature as part of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, or AUSMIN.

The discussions are expected to focus on the signing of the Force Posture Agreement reached by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Tony Abbott in June.

The agreement sets out the legal framework for the presence of US marines based in Darwin, set to rise from 1150 to 2500. It also allows the US to expand military assets over the next 25 years in Australia beyond the troop rotation.

Discussions will also include plans for US and Australian special forces soldiers to continue training exercises together once both nations have withdrawn from Afghanistan.

In a statement issued by her office, Ms Bishop said the meetings in Sydney are an opportunity to reaffirm Australia’s relationship with the US.

“Our discussions will explore opportunities to deepen our defence cooperation and interoperability between our two militaries,” she said.

– with AAP.

Kayak Ken keeps options open for Rio

Ken Wallace is back at the top of Australian kayaking but it’s anyone’s guess which boat he’ll be paddling in at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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Wallace, the 2008 Beijing gold-medallist, was Australia’s star of the canoe sprint world championships in Moscow, defending his K1 5000m title and also taking a surprise silver in the K2 1000 with Lachlan Tame.

Sprint specialist Tame was only partnered with Wallace just before the Moscow event due to the 31-year-old Gold Coaster being beaten to his pet K1 1000 event by Murray Stewart.

The new combination led for more than half the K2 final but were overtaken by Slovakia before holding off Serbia to win their silver.

Wallace admitted they fared much better than expected and wouldn’t rule out his own switch from the solo boat.

“A bit of training and who knows what could happen,” Wallace said.

“After the heat and the semi, it almost made us a little nervous that we thought we might go alright at this.”

Wallace underlined his enduring talent by beating off German powerhouse Max Hoff in the long-distance race in 20:12.981 – his seventh win from his last eight international 5km races.

“It means a lot to me, it is a very tough race,” he said.

Unfortunately for Wallace the K1 5000 is not an Olympic event, and no longer is the K1 500 he won in Beijing.

He will start 2015, a pivotal qualifying year for the Rio Games, battling against Stewart for selection in the K1 1000.

Stewart missed the final in the blue-riband event at the London Olympics but impressed on this year’s World Cup circuit, taking silver behind Hoff in Hungary last month before finishing fifth in a personal best time on the weekend.

There’s also some pressure on Stewart’s priority, the K4 1000, as Australia’s defending Olympic champions bombed in Moscow by missing the final after a late seat change backfired.

Canoeing Australia has admitted they will review the crew of Stewart, Tate Smith, Jake Clear and David Smith in their build-up to Rio.

The women’s K2 crew of Jo Brigden-Jones and ironwoman Naomi Flood showed promise in their first season together but could only manage seventh in the final on Sunday night (AEST).

West Australian Alana Nichols missed the final of the K1 500 but won the B final.

Miller extends Moto3 lead in Indianapolis

Australia’s Jack Miller has extended his Moto3 championship lead with a mistake-free third place finish at the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

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The 19-year-old from Townsville started from pole position and led for the opening three laps, as up to 10 riders battled it out for the win on Monday morning (AEST).

Miller remained in the mix up until the final moments, when he was pipped at the post by eventual victor Efren Vazquez and second-placegetter Romano Fenati.

The podium finish has kept the Red Bull KTM Ajo rider 21 points clear of Vazquez on the overall standings after round 10 of the championship.

“We finished the race without making stupid mistakes and I’m very happy about that,” Miller said.

“We’ve managed to score points that allow us to continue leading the world championship.

“We have a good advantage over those behind us and that’s good for us, but now we need to focus on Brno (next week), where I think the bike will be much better suited to the track than here at Indianapolis.

“We knew the weekend was going to be a struggle, but at Brno think we have another good opportunity, so I’m already looking forward to next weekend.”

Five-time MotoGP world champion and countryman Mick Doohan on Monday praised Miller for his performances so far this season, including four wins, and reiterated his belief that the teenager will be Australia’s next big star.

“He’s going fantastically,” Doohan told AAP on Monday.

“He’s still the form (rider) of Moto3 at the moment, although it’s a close run up the front there.

“If he can continue harnessing his talent the way he’s been doing it, it’s not long before we’re going to see him up the front end of MotoGP that’s for sure.”

It’s unclear where Miller will race next year, with the Queenslander caught up in a contractual dispute.

Marc VDS claim they have a binding agreement for him to ride their Moto2 bike in 2015 and 2016, however Miller’s camp have denied that is the case.

News Corp Australia on Sunday claimed Miller was on the verge of signing with leading MotoGP team Repsol Honda, but the report remains unsubstantiated.

Hawthorn’s Roughead facing AFL ban

Hawthorn’s star forward Jarryd Roughead has been offered a one-match AFL ban for tripping Melbourne’s Dom Tyson.

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Roughead leads the AFL’s Coleman Medal on 55 goals after booting five majors in his side’s 50-point win over Melbourne last weekend.

The dual premiership player won the Coleman Medal in 2013 and was also named in the All-Australian side for the first time.

Ladder leaders Hawthorn travel to Perth to play fourth-placed Fremantle on Sunday.

Geelong pair Steve Johnson and Travis Varcoe and Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe and Nick Suban have been cleared, the AFL’s match review panel announced on Monday.

Due to Roughead’s previous poor record, his penalty of a reprimand is increased to a one-game ban even with an early guilty plea.

The level-one offence drew 80 demerit points and reprimand.

Roughead’s existing bad record of 64.06 demerit points carried over from within the past 12 months boosts the penalty to 144.06 points and a one-match sanction.

An early plea would allow Roughead a reduction of 25 per cent, down to 108.05 points which is still a one-game ban.

Contact between Johnson’s boot and Neale’s neck/head area was assessed as lacking the force required for a reportable offence.

Fyfe’s high contact on Geelong’s Andrew Mackie during the third quarter of Saturday night’s game at Simonds Stadium, which resulted in a free kick against Fyfe, was cleared.

“It was the view of the panel that Fyfe had no realistic alternative way to contest the ball and the high contact was caused by circumstances outside the player’s control,” the panel said in a statement.

Incidents between Varcoe and Suban were also cleared following third-quarter incidents. The panel deemed insufficient force was used to constitute reportable offences.

The panel cleared Sunday’s second-quarter clash at the Gabba between Brisbane’s Justin Clarke and Adelaide’s Tom Lynch, which resulted in a neck injury for Lynch.

Clarke had no realistic alternative way to approach the contest, the panel said.

Due to Roughead’s previous poor record, his penalty of a reprimand is increased to a one-game ban even with an early guilty plea.

The level-one offence drew 80 demerit points and reprimand.

Roughead’s existing bad record of 64.06 demerit points carried over from within the past 12 months boosts the penalty to 144.06 points and a one-match sanction.

An early plea would allow Roughead a reduction of 25 per cent, down to 108.05 points which is still a one-game ban.

Contact between Johnson’s boot and Neale’s neck/head area was assessed as lacking the force required for a reportable offence.

Fyfe’s high contact on Geelong’s Andrew Mackie during the third quarter of Saturday night’s game at Simonds Stadium, which resulted in a free kick against Fyfe, was cleared.

“It was the view of the panel that Fyfe had no realistic alternative way to contest the ball and the high contact was caused by circumstances outside the player’s control,” the panel said in a statement.

Incidents between Varcoe and Suban were also cleared following third-quarter incidents. The panel deemed insufficient force was used to constitute reportable offences.

The panel cleared Sunday’s second-quarter clash at the Gabba between Brisbane’s Justin Clarke and Adelaide’s Tom Lynch, which resulted in a neck injury for Lynch.

Clarke had no realistic alternative way to approach the contest, the panel said.

Stone says future bright for Knights

Newcastle may have endured the season from hell but incoming coach Rick Stone says the last three weeks have convinced him there are brighter days on the horizon.

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The club on Monday announced Stone would replace Brisbane-bound Wayne Bennett at season’s end on a two-year NRL contract.

Newcastle, currently in 14th, have endured a series of off-field dramas in 2014 which have derailed the campaign of last season’s preliminary finalists.

Their annus horribilis began with the jailing of Russell Packer and reached a low point with a serious neck injury suffered by Alex McKinnon in round three.

They have also had to contend with the exit of owner Nathan Tinkler, Bennett quitting with a year remaining on his contract and marquee player Darius Boyd taking indefinite leave to seek treatment for depression.

Stone said their were shoots of green beginning to show, such as the NRL debuts of local juniors Sione and Chanel Mata’utia and memorable wins over title contenders Sydney Roosters and Melbourne over the last three rounds.

“It’s been documented we haven’t had a lot of luck this year, starting with Alex and a few different things haven’t gone our way,” Stone said.

“The last few home games have showed there is plenty of fight in the team and there’s plenty of talent in the team, we’ve debuted a couple of young blokes the last few weeks. There are a few more who are getting closer to NRL debuts.

“Times are good for us. In the Knights’ history, whenever we’ve done well, we’ve had a good influx of local kids playing in our teams.”

It will be Stone’s second coming at the club having served as head coach from 2009 to 2011.

After taking over following Brian Smith’s sacking, he had two years and a half years in the top job, before stepping down to serve as Bennett’s assistant for the last three seasons.

There had been calls for the club to sack Bennett so the Knights could begin rebuilding.

Stone said he was well placed to see out the year as the club’s NSW Cup coach and take the reins to start planning for next season.

He said the club would pay particular attention to their front-row stocks.

Stone was widely tipped to earn the top job after Penrith assistant Garth Brennan dropped out of the race two weeks ago and CEO Matt Gidley said the club considered six candidates for the position.

Stone, 47, joined Newcastle in 2006 as an assistant to Michael Hagan and has also served as the coach of rugby league minnows Fiji at last year’s World Cup.

He said he had grown as a coach the last few years and was confident he was ready to return to the head coaching ranks.

The Knights have several senior players off-contact in 2015 in Willie Mason, David Fa’alogo and Chris Houston.

Gidley said Stone had the respect of the playing group and his presence would be key in attracting and re-signing talent.

“I think one of the keys is Rick has been a part of this group for the last three years,” Gidley said.

“He’s been involved as a senior coach at this club since 2006. He understands the kind of club we are and the type of club we can be.

“In terms of our roster, it’s relatively settled next year. I haven’t had any players come and ask to leave. It’s clear from the way the team is playing that they’re all happy enough.”

BP tankers start returning to roads

BP’s fuel tankers have started returning to the road after a triple fatality but the company says any defects will be fixed first.

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Tankers outside Victoria began returning to service on Monday across metropolitan and regional areas.

BP’s Victorian drivers were being briefed at a safety meeting on Monday with vehicles in that state expected to progressively return to operation from Tuesday onwards, a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Inspections of about 30 BP vehicles in Victoria and another 20 around the rest of Australia over the weekend uncovered some “wear and tear” defects but no trucks were grounded.

The majority of BP’s haulage is conducted by third party operators and the company says it is continuing to work with its contractors to identify trucks which are similar to the vehicle involved in last Thursday’s accident.

A four-year-old boy, his mum and another woman died when the trailer of a BP petrol tanker became detached while rounding a bend on a country Victorian road, crashing head-on into and crushing two cars.

VicRoads checked 20 BP trucks and 19 trailers, issuing five major and 20 minor defect notices for what it says are standard maintenance issues between services.

The major defects affect a major component of a vehicle and BP is addressing all defects before returning the trucks to service, VicRoads director of regulatory services Richard Bell said on Monday.

“The defects reflect standard maintenance issues that occur in between regular services, such as suspension wear and tear, tyres and oil and fuel leaks,” he said in a statement.

“We did find an example of chassis cracking, which falls in a major category and BP have advised us that these repairs will be carried out this week.”

BP said all defects, even minor ones, will be addressed before any vehicle returns to service after the national recall.

“We are satisfied that we have a robust maintenance program for the ongoing inspection of our vehicles and work with the relevant regulators to ensure adherence to applicable regulations.”

Hodges pushed for quick NRL return

A rare Monday training run for Justin Hodges has the Broncos preparing to welcome back their star centre for Thursday night’s big NRL clash with South Sydney.

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Hodges sweated it out for about 25 minutes by himself at Red Hill as he ran sprints, shuttles and also dummy-half drills in a bid to prove he’d quickly overcome his hamstring injury to play at ANZ Stadium.

The 31-year-old hardly missed a beat in his fitness test and gave the thumbs-up as he returned to the sheds before for his side’s closed training session.

“He’ll make the right decision for himself and the team,” said fellow co-captain Corey Parker.

But with just two field sessions to prepare for the in-form Rabbitohs, it was crucial Hodges, who normally rests up at the start of the week, took part on Monday.

Centre partner Dale Copley revealed Hodges, who had an injection last week as he missed Friday night’s 41-10 thumping of Canterbury, returned to training on Saturday.

Copley, behind only Jarryd Hayne with 16 tries this year, switched from the left side to the right with Hodges sidelined and would likely return to left centre again if the 13-Test veteran makes a timely return.

Copley has enjoyed a breakthrough season in Hodges’ absence on the right side, while also relishing the chance for three starts in his preferred position on the left after Jack Reed was dumped for a big night out last month.

The 23-year-old law student felt the move from the wing closer to the action and a boost in confidence had been significant factors in his improvement.

“I think I belong in the NRL, I feel I’ve been contributing to the team and feel comfortable where I am,” he said. “But I’m not getting carried away.

“I’ve still got a fair way to go I think.”

Copley highlighted the difficulty of Brisbane’s assignment against second-placed Souths, who played with a point to prove in their 23-4 defeat of pacesetters Manly.

It came five days after they were branded predictable by outgoing Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett.

“There’s no secret in that their strength is how big they are,” Copley said. “The problem is trying to stop those big blokes, and that’s the task we face.

“They were obviously pretty impressive; anytime you beat Manly you’ve done something right.”

Another raider eyes Treasury Wine

A takeover battle has broken out for Treasury Wine Estates, the maker of Penfolds Grange.

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The company’s board are unwilling takeover targets, but confirmed on Monday that they had received a second private equity proposal, matching last week’s $3.4 billion offer from US-based KKR and Rhone Capital.

Both potential bidders have been given access to the wine maker’s books to conduct due diligence.

The proposals are not binding and there is no certainty of an official offer being lodged, Treasury Wine said.

The new bidder does not yet want to be identified, but various reports citing market sources said it was US buyout firm TPG Capital.

Treasury Wine shares leapt to a 13-month high, adding 20 cents, or 3.9 per cent, to $5.33.

That compares to the bidders’ $5.20 per share proposals.

The popularity of Treasury Wine, which also owns Wolf Blass and Lindeman’s, comes despite its financial struggles since being spun out of the Foster’s brewing group in 2011.

It took an embarrassing $160 million in writedowns in 2013, due to an oversupply in the US that saw $33 million worth of wine destroyed.

Another $260 million impairment charge has been flagged this year as new chief executive Michael Clarke implements his strategy to turn the company around.

That includes major changes to its global business, which Mr Clarke has indicated is more important to the board than takeover opportunities.

Analysts value the share price at about $5.25, and believe a bidding war would increase the offer price, and the chances of shareholders accepting a change of control.

“It’s becoming very, very apparent that soon it will be out of the board’s hands if all of a sudden it becomes compelling and is a premium,” IG market strategist Evan Lucas said.

“Shareholders will start going `we want to take this, we believe that is fair value.”

Morningstar analyst Daniel Mueller speculated that the company could be broken up if it falls into private hands.

“The industry has had a pretty challenging decade for a number of reasons and whether private equity thinks there’s a more long-term cyclical change in the winds, I’m not sure,” he said.

Treasury Wine was still regarded as a premier wine producer, with low cost horticultural assets that might appeal to college endowment, pension or sovereign wealth funds, he said.

Private equity firms traditionally buy underperforming public companies to restructure and turn them around and before returning them to public hands.

Tablet sales tumble at JB Hi-Fi

JB Hi-Fi is pinning its hopes on families wanting to sit around big-screen TVs playing computer games to make up for declines in tablet sales.

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The electronics and whitegoods retailer says tablet computer sales slipped in July, but believes an expected rise in demand for games in the lead up to Christmas will help bolster its earnings.

JB Hi-Fi posted a strong full year net profit result on Monday, up 10 per cent to $128.4 million for 2013/14 thanks to higher margins and cost cuts across the business.

But it has started the new financial year on the backfoot, with same store sales in July down 5.5 per cent due to a slide in sales of tablets, such as iPads and Android devices.

It’s a trend that newly installed chief executive Richard Murray expects to continue for the remainder of the first half.

“Customers seem to hold on to tablets for longer, especially the higher (more expensive) models, and the older models are handed down within the family,” he said.

“Large screened mobile phones, called phablets, are seen as a viable alternative to tablets.”

Investors punished JB for the fall in July sales, with its shares closing nearly eight per cent lower at $17.84.

While fewer tablet sales will impact on JB’s first half, Mr Murray said other products such as big-screen TVs and gaming consoles were expected to be solid.

Families who missed out on the latest gaming consoles last Christmas are expected to snap them up this year because they’ve come down in price, he said.

There were also more games coming out that made better use of the more powerful consoles.

“This Christmas it’ll be about the family console,” he said.

“Where previously you started with a console of $1,000, you’re probably going to see prices half that this Christmas and that’s making the products much more accessible to consumers.”

Over the longer term, JB is pinning its growth prospects on whitegoods and appliances with plans to convert 26 more stores into JB Hi-Fi HOME stores this financial year.

Mr Murray said the home appliances market, worth around $4.6 billion, was larger than any of JB’s other markets.

The company is targeting trends such as people’s desire to integrate technology into their homes and to use appliances, such as coffee machines, as a fashion statement.

“We’re very clear that we have growth ahead of us,” he said.

“People are proud of their appliances; they’re colourful and more integrated with the interior design of their home.

“The connected home is still in it’s infancy. People like wireless audio, tablets holders on the wall where they can control the front door or turn on lights through wireless systems.”

But Morningstar senior equities analyst Tim Montague-Jones said JB Hi-Fi faces competition in that market, with many other retailers, including Bunnings, having already expanded into whitegoods.

“The market is becoming more competitive so we don’t expect to see any significant increase in revenue from the JB Hi-Fi HOME concept,” he said.

SOLID PROFIT FAILS TO IMPRESS JB HI-FI INVESTORS

* Net profit of $128.4m, up 10 pct from $116.4m in 2012/13

* Revenue of $3.48b, up 5.3 pct from $3.31b

* Final dividend of 84 cents, up 12 cents

Marquez could win all 18 races: Doohan

Mick Doohan believes there’s every chance reigning MotoGP champion Marc Marquez will make history and win all 18 races this season.

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The 21-year-old Spaniard notched his 10th straight victory at the Indianapolis Grand Prix on Monday morning (AEST), equalling Australian Doohan’s record set in 1997.

He finished 1.8 seconds ahead of Yamaha pair Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, with Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa in fourth.

Marquez now sits on a perfect 250 points on the overall standings after 10 GPs, 89 points clear of Pedrosa in second.

Five-time world champion Doohan said he was surprised his record remained unmatched for so long, especially during the years Rossi won his seven MotoGP titles.

“Rossi had a good crack at it and Marquez, in his current form, is looking like he’s going on to win maybe another 10,” Doohan told AAP on Monday.

“He’s certainly the man of the moment – he’s making the other guys look like amateurs.

“He’s got a teammate on a similar bike, he’s got good rivals on other competitive bikes, but he’s just riding on a different level to everybody.

“There is no doubt there’s every chance he’s going to win all 18 (races this year).”

Doohan still holds the all-time MotoGP record of 12 wins in a season, also set in 1997 en route to his fourth successive title.

But he reckons it’s only a matter of time before Marquez breaks that one, too.

“There was 15 races in the season I did it, so … with eight races left, and on his current form, there’s a good chance he’s going to pick up more than two wins,” he added.

The Queenslander said while Honda clearly had the edge on Yamaha in 2014, Marquez’s mental strength and confidence has proven the real difference.

“What he gets away with is nothing short of spectacular,” Doohan said.

“He’s consistent as well. He doesn’t make a mistake.

“The thing with that is the other guys will lift their level as well. It may not be the next race, but certainly they’ll keep pushing until they try and close the gap, that’s for sure.”

Marquez himself marvelled at his unbeaten start to the year, but admits it won’t be easy to maintain it.

“Every weekend I say, ‘Ok, here is maybe the time to finish second or third. Here will be the time where I struggle’. But every race I feel so strong,” he said.

“The most important thing is that I enjoy it and like we saw on the podium the team enjoys every victory like the first one, which keeps the motivation and concentration.

“But it will be so difficult to win every race.

“Yamaha were close to us here and next is Brno and Silverstone – two tracks where last year we struggled a little bit more and Yamaha is strong.”