Modest Expectations – Atlanta

At last he has gone. One down; at least one to go.

Now let me recall a real story based on an experience. It was the early 1980s and I was scheduled to go to America. Before I left Australia, I had a niggling tooth pain in one of my molars, but it just remained that by the time I reached San Francisco. My friend mentioned to me that the Bay to Breakers run was the next day. It was that time of my life when I was in my misnamed “fun run” phase.

San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers run starts at the Embarcadero on the Bay, where the ferry terminals are, then goes up the steep Hayes Street hill, along Curtis Street, all gay and Village People music blaring and then through the wooden shingle houses of Haight Ashbury belonging, as it did, in the world of Scott MacKenzie.  Despite being for a time a heavy drinker and smoker, I still got out for a jog every day. Although I never tried marijuana, even though it always seemed to be around, I once owned a house in Fitzroy in Melbourne which I rented out, and only after it was raided by the coppers did I find out that the tenants were growing a crop of cannabis in the back garden in what was known as the Pot House. The police were quite apologetic for the raid damage.

However, I diverge. The last part of the run was through the Golden Gate Park, strewn with pine needles. It filled me with exhilaration. My tooth was forgotten, the level of endorphins was high. The course was downhill amid the aroma of the pine forest. And best of all, the Ocean became visible, and then the run had ended.

Gradually as I wended my way back to where I was staying, the endorphin effect lessened. Celebratory drinks disguised the pain, but when I woke up the next morning, the right of my face was blown up. I had a fever and generally had lost the exhilaration of the previous day.

I had to go to Orlando in Florida on the other side of the country the next day, so we went to the local dentist, who was useless. He was busy and extracting the tooth could not be done there and then.  He prescribed oral bicillin and sent me on my way.

I don’t know how I made it across America on my own with only aspirin, bicillin and alcohol. However, the swelling was such that I drew curious glances from my fellow passengers; as far as I could remember nobody said much. But then, when you are that ill, it is difficult to remember.  I knew there was no angel shining a light on me until I arrived in Orlando very late where I was met by my “guardian angel”.

She took one look at me and contacted a local dental clinic. I could be seen first thing in the morning.

Alone in a bedroom overnight with only an abscess to keep me awake, I sat on the bed and watched television all night. I did not change out of my gear even though I was drenched with sweat; I washed my face but did not have the energy to shower.  I just sat and watched the time crawl past. It was probably the worst night of my life but compared to others who have been in excruciating circumstances, I at least had a goal – I had to live to my 8.15 am appointment.

I was picked up and taken to the dentist. He said as he examined me – it was lucky that I was here in the United States as this was one of a few places then that root canal therapy was being undertaken. Extraction was unnecessary.

The anaesthetic was bliss and then instead of yanking out the tooth, he cleaned the infection out and in so doing, relieved the pressure, inserted local antibiotic and said it would last until I got back to Australia. The dentist prescribed a powerful oral antibiotic. I remember emerging into the sunlight alone, (my angel had to go back to the Conference I was supposed to be attending). I did not feel feverish. I stood waiting for a bus, and even though the anaesthetic was wearing off, I had another bout of exhilaration. The scourge had been expunged.

I have transformed my experience into what may be considered a dental allegory when viewing the receding Rump disappearing down Pennsylvania Avenue.

When Tooth decays, gets infected and causes pain, the immediate response is to extract it and expose the underlying infection. However, if removing Tooth will cause a cosmetic ugliness, would one be tempted to treat the decaying Tooth conservatively with antibiotics and painkillers – or maybe there was nobody skilled enough to remove Tooth or cure Tooth of its affliction.

In the meantime, while there is indecision, the infection spreads and becomes an abscess, and then quickly the whole face begins to swell; and the pain becomes intense. As the affliction heightens, it becomes more difficult to control – until at last, somebody with the requisite expertise comes along and treats Tooth, drains the abscess of its golden strand purulence. A powerful antimicrobial agent is administered. It is touch and go; but the body in which Tooth lives is spared septicaemia, and able to resist a possible secondary infection from other germ.  Tooth is old, but it still can have poisonous aftermath, if infected remnants are left in the socket. Drain the cavity, is the command.

Then over time the cavity left is allowed to heal; not needlessly overtreated. Just gentle restorative justice for a body which had endured diseased Tooth for so long. So, impeach stage one may be all that is necessary.

Not Exactly the Jerilderie Letters

I am not sure a princess kissing Craig Kelly would turn him into a handsome prince. I’m not sure the spell being broken applies to toads.

Rather Kelly is beneath contempt, peddling the nonsense about COVID-19 cures without being called out by the Government. Rather than humouring this person, Minister Hunt should ensure he is driven from Parliament. However, he is one of the Prime Minister’s Protected Species.

Peter Fitzsimons has given us a clue in an article he wrote in September in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Another star of the Straight Talk Show in recent times has been Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth. For while it is unusual for a public servant to take direct aim at a politician, let alone one who is a member of the government, Dr Coatsworth didn’t hesitate last week when the member for Hughes, Craig Kelly spouted stuff in Federal Parliament that came from the very lowest dregs of President Trump’s bilge tank. You remember? Kelly was insisting there is a conspiracy to stop hydroxychloroquine being used, and if not for “groupthink” and the “complete abandonment of reason” driving a “war” on the drug, it would be widely embraced. This view is, of course, dangerous bull and Coatsworth said as much, even if he dressed it up with a little humour.”

Time passes. Trump has been denounced and yesterday a new President has been inaugurated to clean the stain. Australia should do the same.

In Australia, Kelly keeps spouting dangerous Trumpian nonsense without being reprimanded. The Deputy Prime Minister thinks that having somebody running around endeavouring to compromise the health of the country is amusing. I don’t.

From her privileged eyrie in Toorak, I see the smiling member for Higgins seems to find Kelly’s behaviour amusing. Big joke is it, Dr Allen? I wonder what her peers in the Academy of Health and Medical Sciences think.

But back to Craig Kelly.

Fitzsimons gives us the clue. Coatsworth would be an ideal candidate to stand against him. Coatsworth is personable, articulate, knowledgeable, intelligent. What else would you want in a candidate to challenge the Incumbent who has none of these attributes?

You have to be strong to be a candidate standing against Kelly because much of the stuff that will be thrown at you will be from the evangelical gutter, with the nocturnal Sky trolls braying continually. Premier Andrews keeping his cool showed how it can be countered, but Coatsworth has faced Ebola, another scourge.

However, there definitely needs to be a doctor or other health professional with Coatsworth’s attributes to stand against Kelly. One thing I don’t know about Coatsworth is whether he has a sense of humour – most importantly when dealing with Kelly and his ilk is to have a sense of the ridiculous to complement one’s inherent sense of humour. The real problem with people like Kelly, and Trump was a past master, is to be drawn onto their ground and end up by arguing their ridiculous premises.

You know what they say, never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Without wanting to put down other health professionals, the most familiar are the doctor, the nurse, the pharmacist – hence the need for the best available candidate to be put in the fray with the simple message that Kelly is too dangerous and detrimental the community’s interests. However, a preselection battle may settle his fate, although given the experience in Washington recently, I would not necessarily hold my breath.

Message simple – “Hughes needs better” and/ or “Kelly is trying to poison you.”

The latter comes out of the playbook of the defeat of David Hill in this same electorate in 1998. Then the head of Sydney Water, Hill was associated with the water contamination scare at the time. A variant on poisoning, but with less validity than Kelly’s reprehensible behaviour. However, it was the only NSW electorate where there was a swing against the ALP at that election.

Then there is the other local problem, which can be associated with the word “poison “. That is the steadily accumulating nuclear waste material in his electorate at ANSTO, and has Member Kelly done anything about ridding the electorate of it? After all, it is a Federal responsibility.

Now to get the right candidate to send Kelly back to his cavern. 

Brief Encounter

When you arrive at a T-junction on the Murchison Highway on the West Coast of Tasmania, you can either go left to Queenstown or right to Zeehan. Now if you go towards Zeehan, you enter the tiny mining township, with its modern amenities for the fly-in-fly-out miners. Once a tin mining area, it is now a flourishing area for zinc ore extraction There is nothing much to see in Zeehan, a number of old buildings attesting to its age. Then, before you see much of the settlement, you turn left past the huge black slag heap and onto the road to Strahan, which is lined by gorse. On the hills above there is evidence of a bush fire, almost unheard of before climate change intervened.

In Zeehan, although I have never seen it (even though I have passed through Zeehan many times), there is a small reserve of land named for Eileen Joyce.

Eileen Joyce was born here in 1908. Eileen Joyce – who? Most Australians would probably scratch their heads and wonder who she was. Yet Eileen Joyce was as famous as Vera Lynn in Britain in World War 2. She was a child prodigy, in that she came from very humble beginnings where there was no encouragement for her talents, until her ability to play the piano was recognised by the nuns in her school on the Western Australian Goldfields. Several years after she was born, her miner father had moved the family to a town called Boulder, where a relative owned a pub; that is where Eileen found an old piano and upon which she was given her first piano lessons.

As she tells it, she was the subject of a number of “discoveries” by the nuns in Perth where she was sent because of her piano virtuosity, and then by a series of famous musicians, starting with Percy Grainger and then Wilhelm Backhaus, who recommended that she go to Leipzig to study, which she did when she was 19 years of age.

Her breezy description in an interview disguises the extraordinary talent of this small woman with the delicate but sharp Irish features, the chestnut hair, the green eyes, the elegant backless evening dresses, and above all the flawless piano technique – and her stamina. This last was particularly shown in the war years where the number of concerts she performed was immense.

What she is remembered for, despite having a large repertoire, is her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, where her interpretation was considered on a par with that of the composer himself. Her performance of the second movement is woven through Brief Encounter, the 1945 David Lean film starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

Their characters meet by chance in a railway tearoom. They are both ostensibly happily married but develop a relationship, initially platonic but then progressing to a passionate love affair until reality of their family situation makes them realise the futility of their encounter. The chance meeting in the railway tearoom ends in the same tearoom, in an excruciatingly understated way.

Brief Encounter was written by Noel Coward, who had an acute eye for relationships, and this film teases out the sadness and futility of so much of life that we, the middle class, call respectability. I first saw the film when I was young without it making much impact; reprising it later in life demonstrates its force – and the train is always a useful metaphor for life’s journey and destination.  Eileen Joyce’s interpretation of that Rachmaninoff Concerto provides a forceful sound stage, because the music is both upright and passionate; love upon a stiff upper lip.

I listened to an interview with Eileen Joyce later in life. It was not the interview of the retired woman looking back, but a woman still alive and with a very British accent, as though she was bought up in the Home Counties. While she did, from time to time, return to Australia, her grave is in Limpsfield in Surrey, not far from Delius and her beloved conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. It is said she regretted that she was never made a Dame, but it is the problem of living too long and being forgotten.   

The defile though which Senator Lambie emerged

Sympathy for the working class has, for many, curdled into contempt. By 2016 the concept of “liberal democracy”, once bight with promise, had dulled into a neoliberal politics that was neither liberal nor democratic. The Democratic Party’s turn towards market-driven policies, the bipartisan dismantling of the public sphere, the inflight marriage of Wall Street to Silicon Valley in the cockpit of globalisation – these interventions constituted the long con of neoliberal governance, which enriched a small minority of Americans while ravaging most of the rest.

Jackson Lears, a professor at Rutgers wrote this in the January 14, 2021 issue of the New York Review of Books (NYR). I could not have put it better myself. The two leading villains in this scenario over the years were Clinton and Blair, but there have been many others.

However, Trump took it beyond any level of tolerance. He collected a constituency in Smalltown USA and elsewhere that felt angered, alienated and xenophobic.

It is said that Roosevelt had some warning of the Pearl Harbour attack but took the option that premature action was not justified. Japan had been telegraphing its punches for a long time before the eventual attack. As a result, an outraged USA arose from its isolationist position and joined the fray.

Likewise, even before he lost the election, Trump was indicating that he would not accept defeat. When it came, he then orchestrated the misinformation and stirred what others have described as his “group narcissists” to storm the citadel. Now normally there would have been “overwhelming force”. But not on January 6.

Perhaps if the normal defence response had been mounted and there had been pictures of Trump supporters being turned back, bloodied, gassed or shot, then the Trump grievance may have gained national sympathy. Instead, this was that day there was minimal defence of America against a mad treasonous President. The images of Pearl Harbour galvanised America; the Capitol invasion to destroy the Constitution has similarly galvanised America.

That pathetic bunch of Trump supporters now face the might of America if they want to continue the fight.  But does group narcissism want to see its own blood on its designer flak jacket?

Trump has joined Hideki Tojo in the Trash Can of History. Once King Leer, now the lid is being put on the Trash Can, once the stain remover has been poured in.

What are the lessons for a country which has tried to mimic Trump?

This woman storming the Capitol in the name of Trump was Ashli Babbitt, a 35 year old Californian former servicewoman, who had undertaken several tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. Her final rank was considered lower than one would have expected given the length of her service in the Air Force. She was known to have an explosive temper and to harbour grievances. She had been married twice. She had a large debt from a failed small business investment, and she had two violence orders issued against her. Although once a supporter of Obama, she had been convinced by QAnon conspiracy theories and thus was determined to go to Washington and protest on behalf of Trump.

When she reached the Capital, this is how her presence was described: The raging crowd that bashed in the windows of a barricaded door to the Speaker’s Lobby, with a short, tanned woman with an American backpack at the front of its ranks. Her attempt to climb through one of those windows, leading the way, despite a Capitol Police officer pointing a handgun in her direction. The abrupt way she toppled backward after a single shot resounded.

Ashli Babbitt died later that night, and while the word “martyr” was muttered, she was remembered as a poor, misguided person.

When I read her biographical details, her career reminded me of Senator Lambie.

Senator Lambie was born 49 years ago and grew up in a poor northern Tasmanian environment, in more ways than one. She gave birth to her first son while still a teenager, and her second relationship yielded a second child.  When recently asked about her perfect male, she was crude but direct. Her directness has been translated into being an aggressive personality. The accusations of vulgarity and bullying persist in legal action being taken by former staff members. But I jump ahead.

She joined the military with her career ending up as a military police corporal. She was discharged from the military because of a spinal injury and although she endeavoured to get a pension, she was labelled a malingerer and was refused.  That takes us up to about 2006.

Politics was an attractant. She worked for a time in the office of the Labor Senator Sherry, was an unsuccessful candidate for Liberal preselection before falling in with Clive Palmer’s Party just before the 2013 national election. 2013 was an auspicious time to be a populist and Lambie attracted a number of votes, enough to become a Palmer Senator. Populism attracts authoritarianism; Senator Lambie is no exception. It did not take her long to break away from Palmer and become an independent, maintaining her own so-called Network.

Lambie’s parliamentary career is dotted with trying to rectify her grievances, but she has a forum; she has a vote; the leaders of the nation court her; for now, she is Important – unlike Ashli Babbitt, who only had the streets and social media on which to air her grievances. Babbitt was too poor to be elected anywhere in America where, to be elected, a significant cache of cash is crucially important. However, the Australian electoral system allows for a person whose early career is not too dissimilar to Ms Babbitt to be elected.

I looked at the Senators who currently represent Wyoming, which has a population sufficient to send only one member to Congress. However, as the Constitution dictates two Senators, the same as every other State, Wyoming is well represented in DC.  In relative population terms Wyoming is the Tasmania of the USA – if only in this regard.

The senior Senator there is a male doctor; the other is a female lawyer who, when she was in Congress, was one of three women who insisted on being called “congressman”. She has held political office in her State since 1979 when she was 24. She is now 66, not a poor single mother but ferociously espousing the Trump line, even now. A different kind of authoritarian Trumpist but with the kind of power which Ashli Babbitt craved, but did not have.

It is therefore salutary to think that Lambie being elected several times assures the dispossessed that it is possible to go to Canberra, if that’s what you want: to be relevant, to be listened to – to avoid looking at the feather dusters that line the walls.

Now re-read the quote from Professor Lears at the head of this blog blot to see what Senator Lambie means in the scheme of things.

Mouse Whisper

In the last years of his life Richard Harris lived in the Savoy Hotel in London. Having become terminally ill, as he was being taken to hospital on a stretcher, he was able to raise himself up as he was carried through the lobby of the hotel and exclaim to the shocked guests, “It was the Food! It was the Food!”

Somebody should have brought the cake in out of the rain.

Modest Expectations – O Come Let Us Sing

The Gracchi Brothers

I remember in my wanderings through ancient history, that I heard the aphorism the mob that creates you tears you down. From my fading memory, I believe it referred to the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius. They were Roman populists in the style of “Make Rome Great Again” populism of the second century BC, but unlike Trump they had an agenda beyond shallow slogans and self-aggrandisement. They were interested in land reform and giving slaves a better deal. It is a scenario which has been repeated through the course of human history, but I’ve always associated the saying with the Gracchi brothers, because they were both beaten to death at different times – one of them being killed by a slave and the other by a chair leg.

In a way, egged on by Trump who then went back to watch his incitement on television rather than leading the mob, as one would expect for someone intent on making himself Great, the mob attack on the Capitol had its roots with the Gracchi. That mob has unwittingly destroyed Trump. To the people who matter, those who run American golf, erasing him is the greatest death for the narcissist – the most potent way for a mob to destroy him, this coward narcissist. He even fears germs.  But the people he wanted to impress because of the control over his mob are on their way to an FBI charge sheet.

Those of us who have grown up in a democracy, even as we were born into a time when Hitler was rampaging across Europe, Stalin was quietly executing on sight anybody who disagreed with him and Franco was twisting his heel on the Spanish Republic, have watched from afar.  Since 1945, we have seen America become the tar baby in too many wars just to maintain some mythical machismo “greatness”. Trump has allowed the country to be pulled down even further.

He has no way to go, because the fate of most narcissistic unhinged populists is death by the mob that constructed them.

He should be reminded of Mussolini, hung upside down with his mistress in Milan, like a slab of meat on an abattoir hook.  Already metaphorically, they have done that. Trump’s only exit will be an ornate box, his pall bearers being those to whom he has awarded the Legion of Merit – or pardoned.

For my part I would not want to be the watcher on a cast iron balcony if Tinpot Trumpism leads to the burial of America which, despite its flaws, so epitomises the best of Democracy.

Craig Reucassel

He is a very personable man but wasted. Why? Because he is not taken seriously. After all, his bio says “comedian”.  The problem is that he presents a very important subject in a very engaging manner. He employs stunts, but the problem with a stunt is that when it is over it leaves no residue.

Mr Reucassel

Craig Reucassel is a serious person. I have no doubt about that. However, he is one of the Chasers and seen as an iconoclastic entertainer. When he pursued the Prime Minister, he was cast back in his role of one of the “Chasers”, a humorous irritant. In fact, what he did show very clearly was the authoritarian, humourless nature of the current Prime Minister, unwilling to confront without the public relations machinery. This inability to face up to people was clearly shown in his visit to Cobargo during the bushfires.  Since then, he has had to have a crafted scenario, and he uses the lectern and the microphone to project this crafted image.

It was so different from the time Reucassel confronted John Howard with a plastic axe to jokingly test the Prime Minister’s security arrangements and asked for a hug – Howard provided him with it. So different, but then Howard was not a one-dimensional man, despite those who sought to paint him one shade of grey.

But is it enough to try and demonstrate the foibles of the Prime Minister when you are outside the Court by clowning? After all, the fool was an integral part of many a mediaeval court. The fool  was an “insider”.

Reucassel should be in Parliament. He is far smarter for instance than another entertainer Peter Garrett, whose lack of intelligence and guile was soon shown up in his short parliamentary career.

Reucassel has built a reputation with his on war on waste, but eventually he will need to tackle the hard end of what we all want – the formation of a national policy and its implementation. The world cannot continue to accumulate waste. Waste management once could be sloughed off to China, but no more. The sea is now yielding our waste, and while having the annual Clean Up Australia days in March may make the community feel good, obviously the awareness created by such days has not been translated to a national change in behaviour.

I once was asked to review single-use medical equipment and report on those that would be economic to reuse. Of all the instruments that were reviewed, the re-use of only one could be justified in economic terms.  For the rest, to buy a new instrument rather than sterilise for re-use was the most economic outcome. The arguments to which government listened were economic; it was not an era where degradation of single-use instruments was a serious consideration.  It was the era of fear of “mad cow disease” and deadly unseen prions in the nervous system, which resisted conventional sterilisation procedures. Thus, re-use was surrounded by bogeys, some of which have been answered or rendered less relevant by technological advances providing alternative outcomes.

There are parliamentarians who attention-seek by performing stunts. These chaps are variously labelled “eccentric”, “lovable” and all the words you don’t want when you desire to be considered serious.

In any event Reucassel, with his intrinsic sense of the ridiculous, would make a perfect parliamentarian. Watching him he has a touch of the ironies which adds to his charm. There is one caveat, irony does not read well in Hansard – the printed word misses the inflection.

I think his ideas and objectives are correct, but he needs a legislative platform to achieve it. Time to stop the destruction of this planet being considered a big gag.  There is so much social media – too much communication static for that to be achieved by his current course of action.  It is time for him to take his message into Parliament and form the appropriate alliances – that is, if you believe that the Imitation of Trump is not the way to run this country – and eventually vote the denialists out.

I would suggest one of the New South Wales’ seats held by one of the Trump neophytes would be perfect for him, given that upending Abbott showed the way to do it. Maybe Falinski, whose seat is MacKellar, would be the way to go. Falinski is the typical Liberal Party hack toeing the party line.

As Falinski said in his maiden speech full of the pieties expected:

And so a politician is accountable to their community – I am accountable to you.

Wrong, he is beholden to his masters, never voted against any government.  He has a voting record which would please Donald Trump – he should be vulnerable to somebody with the Reucassel values. I would love to see them debate why, for instance, Falinski has inter alia disagreed recently with the proposition:

The Prime Minister to attend the House by 2 pm Tuesday 8 December to make a statement to advise the House whether Australia is speaking at the Climate Ambition Summit and table any correspondence with the summit organisers relating to whether Australia is speaking at the summit. 

This is but one example, but Falinski’s voting record is reprehensible to any person who is genuinely Liberal.

Reucassel is genuinely concerned with climate change and the world becoming a rubbish dump. He should be elected to Parliament to pursue this goal and hold the government to account.  Falinski seems unwilling to do so. Is it Mitch Falinski, or is that your second name?

Talking of which…

David Sharma, suggesting some bureaucratic mechanism to review Trump followers being bumped out of social media. Since clarified…no…not really…but all things considered…

David Sharma is a Jew, an ex-diplomat and within his electorate are both survivors of the Holocaust and the heirs to those who died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

I appreciate that January is the silly season for media releases, but before he provides more detail of his scheme, he should read this description reprinted from the Washington Post about the January 6 Insurrection – the consequences of a relentless misuse of social media by a sociopath in power.

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, writes: 

There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags…

Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.

At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.

I wonder if David Sharma were to paraphrase the comfortable words of Prime Minister Howard by saying that the Liberal Party is a broad synagogue what would happen? I’m sure people in his Party like the Member for Hughes would offer an opinion on social media.

La Bandiera Gialla

Quarantine power is vested with the Commonwealth under the Australian Constitution. It seems such a clearly defined power that the enabling legislation beginning with the Quarantine Act (1908) has been rarely challenged. Perhaps in 1901 it was simply a matter of ensuring that ships ran up a yellow flag before entering port.

The problem was that before Federation, such as it was quarantine was the responsibility of the colonies. Enforcing quarantine costs money and while there have been epidemics before, memories are short. When COVID-19 invaded the country early last year, the public health defences were thin.  Then, using crude measures of lockdown and closure of movement including borders made sense. When in the dark, fumbling for candles and matches, it is best to make sure the doors and windows are closed. Hopefully there is enough moonlight until the sun comes up.

The other problem was that of a Federal Government being pressured by their business mentors to keep everything functioning. The decision to ensure priority be given to public health measures was touch and go; otherwise, Australia might have been placed in the same place as America and Europe are today. However, fortunately it all started in China, and given fear of the Yellow Peril lies deep in the Australian psyche, border closure initiated by Morrison, on advice, was instituted. Deep-seated prejudice led to a correct decision, but border closure should have been far more widely adopted then.

The government kept being badgered by its business mates to disregard public health, amplified by their foghorn in Alan Jones and his mates skulking in the Fox network.

Lip service was paid to social distancing, hand washing and remember the app? Before any vaccine, it was going to be the panacea. Like so much of the IT work overseen by the Department it proved to be a useless but not an unexpected piece of crap. It is fortunate that it did not interfere with the contact tracing system, where NSW in particular had a very strong system due to a previous Chief Health Officer’s foresight. Sue Morey’s work 30 years before in instituting a system saved Australia.

What turned out to be positive at the Federal level was Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth, public health physicians. Both of these doctors have a clear eye, and had both expertise and experience of the link between process and outcome.

They helped Brendan Murphy, who had been cast into an unfamiliar role as Head of the Department at the outset of a pandemic, the dimensions of which were not yet clear. He is not a public health physician, intrinsically shy and in the early days an appalling communicator but nevertheless assiduous, intelligent and with a proven administrative record and unlike his predecessor – as heads of the Health Department have been for nearly 40 years – he is a doctor.  This was a very important characteristic especially if you look closely at the performance of his predecessors, especially Jane Halton. You know, the person with her epidemiological expertise on display on the Crown Casino Board.

The problem with those who believe that Health can be administered by anybody is the same as saying you can govern Russia without speaking Russian. As “Pansy” Wright, that professor extraordinaire, said about the second year of medicine, one needed to increase one’s vocabulary by about 7,000 words in that year– such is the language of health. Well, on reflection, I suppose you could administer Russia if you had skilled interpreters and a very big knout.

Public health was in a lamentable state in Victoria, because its systems were tested and found wanting. New South Wales on the other hand had a system devised by Morey. The challenge of the infected cruise ships and outbreaks of the Virus in nursing homes showed its intrinsic systemic strength. Queensland with Jeanette Young at the helm did what Queenslanders always  do– keep it simple and authoritarian. The Queensland system has not been tested, and in the past, Young, who is not a public health physician, has been a bit of a “panic merchant” which suited the Premier just fine. However, there is always unease because both Queensland and Western Australia have to come out of lockdown sometime and have yet to gain the experience provided by Victoria and New South Wales.

South Australia has been tested and its Chief Health Officer like her Commonwealth counterpart has a clear eye, and therefore the State is fortunate. Having personally experienced recent travel around South Australia, everything being undertaken seemed eminently sensible. I have also been to Tasmania. I am not sure that the Burnie experience has been translated into policy reform; there was a degree of the sensible, but again the Premier likes to close borders

During this pandemic, Australians have shown compliance, unlike other countries which seem to delight in being unruly. When faced with public health advice translated into law, the number of those who have been defiant has dwindled. The Victorian experience, where Andrews initially presided over a disaster, ensured compliance which saved his political skin. He left the Trumpists in his wake. He discredited them here in Australia.

The problem is that Berejiklian still listens to them, and that is a real danger. She pretends to be liberal, on the left of her Party, when she may be a closet Trumpist. The images of her striding out to deliver her daily dictum and not wearing a mask when all others were doing so says it all and her disdain for her self-isolation is troubling; at times her behaviour seems at odds with the public health advice.

The institution of a so-called national cabinet which has no legal standing provides a public relations aura of cooperation, but it is a means of the Prime Minister taking credit for success while laying blame at the feet of the Premiers (with the exception of Gladys) when things go wrong.

Now, where are we?

Hardly a case of local viral transmission throughout Australia.

So why are the borders closed? This continued closure is shown in relief that some guy can go from Sydney to Broken Hill, which is about the same flying distance as from Sydney to Launceston or Sydney to the Sunshine Coast.

In other words, it is not about borders, it is about trust in the public health systems being uniform nationally. Where is the leadership here from the Federal Government?

Infections are all coming from overseas. Therefore, as the Constitution sets out, quarantine is a national not an individual State responsibility. The laws should be uniform. Everybody coming into Australia must be subject to quarantine, and at last there is some movement on my suggestion that there should dedicated facilities. I was only this week reflecting on the success of the original evacuation from Wuhan, where Howard Springs was successfully used. There is the furphy that the quarantine facilities should be located next to major teaching hospitals. If you drive between Barooga and Tocumwal in southern New South Wales, you can see a commemorative cairn to the 1,000 bed hospital which was built there during World War 2 – no major teaching hospitals there. That area would still be ideal for a dedicated quarantine facility.

Vaccination is now the go. Given that in the past coronaviruses have confounded the scientists wishing to make a vaccine against the common cold, why would devising a vaccine against this coronavirus be any easier, giving it is beginning to mutate – and there is no indication that it will stop at two. The protagonists would say that not at any time before has so much funding being flung at finding a vaccine in such a short time, when the technology is so clever if diverse.

I do not want to sound cynical, but Pfizer knows that to keep the vaccine which needs storage at minus 70 degrees means ultimately it is probably financially and administratively non-viable unless modifications can be made. The company needs to recoup its investment as soon as possible, and therefore it has to get its vaccine out as quickly as possible. How it is administered is not the company’s responsibility.

In Australia, John Skerritt, Head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), can be infuriating, but he is honest. The TGA Advisory Committee on Vaccines being chaired by Allen Cheng gives me further reassurance. Paul Kelly has shown a resilience not to buckle under political hysteria. His role in calming the Cabinet when they learnt that Dutton had returned infected from America last March was crucial; he made the Cabinet listen to science. Hopefully his authority now extends to those politicians caught trading in AstraZeneca shares.

There should be no hurry in Australia. The public health measures are in hand and seem to be working in isolating the infection now into clusters before it can spread, unlike elsewhere in the World.   The country must be sure there is no political interference, and all politicians’ portfolios in pharmaceutical shares should be declared now.

My greatest fear is that we live in a land where politicians are corrupt and/or corruptible with a government prepared to turn a blind eye to such activities.

I do not want to be jabbed with an unproven vaccine because some inner suburban politician is trying to make a buck out of it.

I listen to the Chief Medical Officer, and he has been mostly right during this whole saga, but nobody is infallible. I prefer to wait, even though I am a very strong advocate of vaccination, BUT when the vaccine has been proven.

Yet at a community level it is time to trust each other and open the borders, after ensuring that all measures are uniform. After all, that was the original intent of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) when it was set up in 1936 to be inter alia a meeting of all the Chief Medical Officers to seek a uniform approach to public health matters.

Unfortunately, it took 15 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic to be established, just before the major poliomyelitis outbreak in Australia in 1937, which incidentally started in Tasmania.

The NH&MRC is another story…

Winter on the Isle of Wight

It is on a trip like this when we expected to circle the island comfortably in a day that you meet the unexpected.

Quarr Abbey

Quarr Abbey was the place to visit. Here is a community of Benedictine monks. As we approached down the drive, this large red brick building suddenly emerged from the fields. This abbey church is not quite what one would expect. It looks modern. As we entered, the monks were filing out from nones, a short set of psalms sung in the early afternoon. The Abbey was designed by one of the original monks, who came back to Benedictine lands and helped to build the new Abbey in 1907.  The genius is in the brick arches which encase the spectacular nave, where the eye is attracted beyond the altar to the yellow light which comes through the windows at the east end of the church, in the way the light suffuses the modern red brick construction into a glorious whole that glows, even in the wintry light.

The monks were selling their recordings of Gregorian chants.  They are an accomplished choral group. The monk who served me volunteered that his voice was among the choristers, but not in the front line. The CD we purchased had been recorded nearly 10 years before. The monk himself had just celebrated his jubilee of being in the order. When he had come as a novice 50 years before, there were more than 40 monks, but the numbers had now fallen to 25. The monks live a subsistence existence coupled with devotion and the monk who served us had lived most of his life in this cloistered rustic life – where a life of tranquillity had given him age without wrinkles.

As Osborne House was closed at that time of the year, we stayed in Yarmouth some distance away, at The George Hotel, overlooking the Solent at the mouth of the Yar estuary. The room was the prized number 19 with an expansive balcony overlooking the estuary.

The George Hotel has been described as a winter hotel. Oak stairs that slope, a plaque that said that Charles 1 had been there on one of his last nights of freedom. A breakfast room that looks over the sea where you partake of porridge, kippers and that centrepiece of British life, a pot of Earl Grey, his lordship perfectly buffered in two tea bags.

Winter means virtually no tourists.  We thus were able to move about and find that the next person was likely to be a Caulkhead, as the locals call themselves. When tourists arrive then the pace picks up and time to chat to find out why and how the island ticks diminishes. The ship’s chandler in Yarmouth – Harwoods – established in 1893 is a great place in which to ferret. We ended up with two models of working fishing boats, a couple of pennants and batteries. We resisted purchasing the brass clock and brass barometer, and one of the boats anyway turned out to be made in China. But who cares – the feeling of being in a seaside community, rather than being a working fishing village was strong.

Winter in the Isle of Wight exuded a different sense of identity and that makes it charming – even when you stand on a bluff overlooking the ocean and the wind goes through you like Masefield’s whetted knife. There is always an unencumbered view to compensate, a coastline that starts West at the Needles and then along the white cliffs overlooking a surly sea.

Not a winter of discontent.

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes you read something somewhere 

“I will do my best to keep this short. I was listening to Sirius ‘Sixties’ when they were giving requests if the song had a story. This girl called in saying she was scared one night at home during a storm while listening to the radio. She called up the radio station and the DJ answered and she told him her plight. He said he would play the longest song he had just to comfort her on the telephone. Well, it was this one. They talked every night for two weeks and then he said he had some bad news. He was being drafted into the Army. He was leaving in a week. They wrote to each other when he was in basic and then he was shipped out at once to Viet Nam. They still continued to write but the letters weren’t coming as often. He came back to the States but got offered another DJ job hundreds of miles away. They still wrote but the letters were dwindling and finally stopped. She never knew what happened to him. They never met. She told Sirius that day that she prayed he was listening to this story and he would remember her. She didn’t care if he was married or not, she just wanted to hear from him. The 60’s DJ at Sirius promised to give him her number if he called in. Don’t ever know what happened. So, she requested this song, hoping he was listening.”

The song, Macarthur Park.  I have not interfered with this stream of consciousness it as I would not have done to that song. It is too compelling even for a Mouse.

Macarthur Park, Los Angeles

Modest Expectations – Iris

It was 1814, the Capitol in Washington was stormed. Then, the British not only stormed the Capitol but also burned down the White House.

Protesters scaling the wall of the Capitol building

One of the scenarios I predicted many blogs ago is that Trump would foment insurrection. I said he may set fire to the White House which, with two weeks of his gangster presidency – as one person has defined it – still leaves the metaphor to be converted to actuality. However, essentially Trump is a bully and thus by definition a coward. In his twisted mind, he wants the Biden Inauguration to be limited so that he can say he attracted a bigger crowd at his inauguration in 2017 as if that has any relevance to anything.

Trump predictably incited, and then the mob did what mobs do when they are allowed to act without adequate law enforcement. However, it could be argued that pictures of storming the Capitol, vandalising the Constitution in the name of this would-be despot, will galvanise the response of the lawmakers.  The only saving grace was that Trump had not organised an armed militia to back his activities.

However, a cynical person would believe that an undermanned police force being overwhelmed initially provided the horror of this unbridled mob, whereas the optics of a massive law enforcement force beating up legitimate protesters may have provided unwarranted sympathy for the Trump “stormtroopers”.

The award of the Legion of Merit should be returned by Morrison before it becomes his Millstone of Dishonour.  I am sure the award will be noted by the incoming Biden administration, and as the charge sheet against Trump increases this year, comparisons between Morrison and the corruption which has flourished under his stewardship with his mentor, Trump should increasingly become front and centre of the political debate.

Yet a year ago, who would have thought that the Democrats would have won both the Senate seats in Georgia. Biden has confounded me by his Presidential response to the Trump rant. He has stepped up.

Who will stand up for Australia?

Giving In without a Kelp?

This first blog blot of 2021 was prompted by an article on seaweed in a recent December issue of the New York Review of Books (NYR). I start in a laneway of Helsinki. We had just emerged from a crowded bar, where although we had booked, we were subject to the Finnish way – the people in the sitting before us were lingering and we could wait, couldn’t we, until they had finished? It was not a particularly friendly interchange, the restaurant was noisy, the atmosphere had that scurry of youth, and persons of age were regarded as somewhat out of place and thus there was nowhere to sit – and nobody moved to give us room to sit down.

Hence, upsticks literally and off down the lane to the harbour. Here on a summer’s day when you can buy cloudberries it is beautiful place to saunter in the warm sunshine, along its quay where a multitude of colourful vessels of different configuration and size are moored. But now my days of sauntering are over. Using two sticks is a very inefficient way to saunter.

This day, on turning a corner, there was a restaurant. Given that it had begun to rain heavily, it was more haven than gastronomy which drove us to enter. Instead of a noisy crowd, there were tables set in a way which beckoned the discerning diner rather than us sodden accidental tourists.

The staff were solicitous as there were few if any other customers.

We looked at the menu as something to do, and one of the waiters told us there was fresh asparagus – new season white asparagus. This dish has stuck in my memory ever since. White asparagus do not have the robustness and stringiness of the green variety; there is a certain delicate taste to them, and the way they were presented in a light coat of butter was as though we were eating the first picked.

This year as the Australian green asparagus harvest appeared, I wondered whether white asparagus would be available. At the same time, I remembered it was the time sea asparagus was harvested. Sea asparagus or samphire was somewhat of a fad a few years ago and was available around November for a limited time. It had a vague resemblance to asparagus and like much of seashore plants harvested had a salty taste, while otherwise the taste was unremarkable except that it was different from asparagus.

It was told to me that if one went to Kooweerup in Victoria, the swampland home of the growling grass frog and southern bandicoot and also home for asparagus, would be where you would find the white variety. If one went along certain Victorian foreshores where samphire was said to grow in abundance, then my lust for this delicacy would have been satisfied. However, Victoria was a prison due to the Virus at harvest time for these two commodities. Nevertheless, this year I tried to obtain some.  Being locked away in a different state leads one to yearn for that which proved, like the Holy Grail, to be unobtainable.

These are products where water is essential, but they exist very much on the edge of the western community palate. What about seaweed then?

When I buy sashimi, the accompaniment is wakame seaweed salad. The Japanese also use the black paper nori seaweed to wrap the sushi rice up with its various ingredients.

As for me, in the 1934 film “Man of Aran” that I wrote about earlier, the islanders grew potatoes in the bladderwrack, kelp left in the cracks of the stone in that harsh land.  Then “When the potatoes failed, they survived on Chondrus crispus or Irish moss.”  I once bought some carrageenan, a derivative from this red seaweed, back from Ireland. It hung around in the pantry with a ban put on it – the one which says: “if you want to cook it you can do it for yourself”. I succumbed to the blatant discrimination and eventually this vegan substitute for gelatin was thrown out unused.

Monterey kelp forest

Then there are the magnificent kelp forests. One the most spectacular is the 8.5m high one at the Monterey Aquarium, which occupies three floors of this building in this Californian coastal town made famous by Steinbeck in his writing about Cannery Row.

In the article “The Oldest Forest” Lucy Jakub who, as one would expect lives on a beach, reviews four books where seaweed is the hero. One of these books lists all the products from sunscreen to fertiliser where kelp is used. In fact, the author, Ruth Kassenger, adopts “a speculative theory, that early man had a diet rich in iodine and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) derived from algae through a number of secondary sources, which resulted in our larger brain”.

Seaweed in East Asia is a $6 billion a year bonanza, and its commercialisation was due to a British biologist Kathleen Drew-Baker, who showed in 1948 that the red seaweed, Porphyria, grew in two cycles – in the deep ocean releasing immature spores which settle closer to shore when right to propagate. (As a result of her work), Japanese scientists, in the midst of famine in US-occupied Japan, learned to pre-seed lines of nori in the lab and bring them to the ocean to grow.

Yet the article does not see any advocacy for further commercialisation. Attempts to propagate seaweed commercially as a substitute for fossil fuel in the USA have proved disastrous or viewed as Exxon’s investment as “greenwashing”. For instance, in the past decade, Exxon has spent $1.2 billion more on advertising than it has on biofuel development. After all, the Germans used seaweed as a source of potash, and the British for acetone for wartime use (WW1) when other materials were in short supply.

Yet growing seaweed is seductive as it is able to control the microblooms of the toxic algae by absorbing the fertiliser runoffs and moreover cattle fed seaweed produce less methane. However, among the experts quoted by the author, there is a consensus that where algae are grown commercially, it should be done so on small independent ocean farms. Overall, one writer Josie Iselin is quoted that we should: “leave the algae alone to do their own thing, heal the oceans as they can, and let them be, as the profound ecological engineers they are, not another for us to figure out how to manage.” After all, already “kelp forests naturally sequester 11% of their carbon in the sea”.

The NYR writer, Lucy Jakub is very perspicacious, because the prospect of worldwide famine is no longer an idle thought from a bunch of learned scientists gathering as the Club of Rome was in rediscovering Malthus. As she writes: crises lead to a search for silver bullets, in the hope they can be averted with unimaginable sacrifice, and in a spirit of optimism… (that can take) an algal-central perspective to envisioning the solution.

Just like the quest for white asparagus and samphire?

Life with the Bubble

Some years ago, I was in Brisbane staying in an upmarket hotel. I had just come in from a run along the Brisbane River. I came in, picked up a can of Diet Coke, ripped off the top and drank what would be considered a large gulp. Then, catastrophe. Let me say that it was the only time I have this intensely painful tearing sensation retrosternally. The intensity of the pain lives in my memory.

Cardiac pain has been described as a crushing pain in the same region, but one of the differential diagnoses is damage to the oesophagus mucosa, including oesophageal perforation. Perforation of the oesophagus is a potentially fatal condition as the pleural cavity and the mediastinum do not respond well to a flood of dilute hydrochloric acid or for that matter enzymic rich saliva and regurgitated gastric content.

After the acute pain, I was left with a dull pain. I rang a doctor friend, and before long I was in the intensive care unit of a major Brisbane hospital.

Fortunately, the chest Xray revealed that there was no perforation, and I was saved from a gastroscopy. The major discomfort and difficulty in swallowing meant fluids for a few days. After a few days, it settled down and I was discharged, wiser perhaps.

I had a “bit of form” as an acquaintance reminded me later when he showed me a photograph of me in a Barcelona restaurant pouring a porron of wine down my throat with the beginner’s luck in the amount of spillage being minimal.

Pouring the porron

However, I had no such luck on this occasion.

As background, spontaneous oesophageal perforation was first described by the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave in 1724. Boerhaave’s syndrome is a form of barogenic rupture caused by a rapid rise in intraluminal pressure when there is sudden distension of the oesophagus in a closed space.  The original case described was one of explosive vomiting.

Rapid ingestion of the cold beverage with bubbles can led to spasm of the distal oesophagus followed by expansion, resulting in a sudden build-up of intra-oesophageal pressure. The vast majority of perforations occur in the left lateral wall of the distal oesophagus, 3–6 cm above the gastro-oesophageal junction, as this part is particularly weak.

What prompted this reminiscence is the latest Coca-Cola advertisement where these jolly young things are shown irresponsibly attacking these beverages, with one complete numbskull leaning backwards and pouring the drink down her upside down throat where the forces of gravity mean the fluid has to flow uphill against them. Not like our famous Prime Minister with his imbibing a yard of beer where the beer could at least flow downhill, given presumably that Hawke, like all bright bored students, had spent time when learning this party trick to also learn how to control his oesophageal reflexes.

This particular appalling example in the obviously American advertisement was the young woman who needs to use her oesophagus musculature to ensure that the Coca Cola could flow uphill. She was obviously a performer, who had trained herself to do so. Perhaps, the whole scenario was fake, concocted. In the event of those who would dare to “copy-cat” this manoeuvre, will Coca-Cola assume responsibility for all the potential incidents that may happen?

Youth have no fear, youth will push the limits. Coca Cola is the driving force. That is always the message – derring-do with a bottle of Coke.

After all, who was the person when I was young who taught me how to open a bottle with my teeth.

Fortunately, St Paul had a message for me (sorry the political incorrectness) which I heeded through cracked teeth:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Well, not completely. However, I do tend to learn from my mistakes.

 Tea for Two

Ceylon is always associated with tea. Just after the start of World War 2

Great Britain purchased 80 per cent of the Ceylon and Indian tea crop. Australia was left out and tea was rationed here during the War. Tea plantations in Ceylon had been associated with Lipton but together north-east India (Assam and Darjeeling) with China being there the earliest Australian source. During the War, the Australian largely garrisoned Ceylon, because the local Ceylonese were not trusted. In fact, Ceylonese troops in the British Army rebelled on the Cocos Island wanting to surrender to the Japanese, with the result that after the rebellion was quelled, three of the rebels were executed, the only time during the War that British troops were executed for treason.

Then after the War, when your relatives went “Home to GB” by ship, the first port of call was always Colombo, the tell-tale memento being the carved ebony elephant on the mantelpiece.

The other attractions of Ceylon for a young eye were the stamps. These were large rectangles with the portrait of the sovereign in the upper right quadrant. They were informative because the plates had been so finely engraved. The commonest stamp of the set sent on mail was the 20c, with deep blue engraving of coconut palms bending in an unseen wind, but distant was a two-masted boat, presumably at anchor because the sails were furled. Several years ago, I bought the 11-stamp series, admittedly with King George V’s head in the corner. Each of the stamps features one idyllic scene which is far from the current situation in Sri Lanka. The stamps nevertheless illustrate the diversity that was Ceylon.

Until 2016, I had only visited Colombo airport en route from Singapore to London on Air Ceylon in 1971. The next year the name of Ceylon, derived from the old Portuguese name, was changed to Sri Lanka – “Resplendent Island”.

Sri Lanka had been a place where there were many religions. The Buddhist Sinhalese dominate the South, and at one time the Hindu Tamils were in control the north. Independence was accompanied by a debilitating war between the two populations, and in 2016 the tourist trail was well insulated.

There are many Ceylon burghers in Australia, those the results of miscegenation with the Dutch or Portuguese; they had been emigrating to Australia post-war. This was the closest coloured people were allowed as migrants from that country while the White Australia Policy was in force. They are predominantly Christian.

Then there were the Muslim Sri Lankans. I had involvement in counselling one, an international medical graduate who was both Muslim and a Sri Lankan national. I had not realised up to that time that Muslims form a significant minority in Sri Lanka. I found out that they control the gem trade.

The other association I have made with Ceylon was its sapphires. Those whose jewellery containing a Ceylon sapphire knew it to be so because of its intense blue. However, as a change on this trip I bought a green sapphire, together with an aquamarine. The choice in that emporium in Kandy seemed endless.

Kandy

Driving to Kandy, the old capital and then driving to Galle could not be more different. They are both about the same distance from Colombo, but driving to the old Capital, Kandy was like driving along a ribbon shopping strip for 120 kilometres, without any break between the settlements for countryside. Beyond Kandy in the mountains are the terraced tea plantations where women were harvesting the leaves and placing them in a bag, the holding straps of which were firmly stabilised by the woman’s forehead. The technique is portrayed in the 9c pre-war stamp of a tea picker – a woman of course.

Galle, after a minor bottleneck in Colombo, is a four-lane drive away.  Until they started playing test cricket there, I had never heard of it. Then the tsunami came on Sunday 26 December 2004 after the massive earthquake under the sea north of Sumatra.

In the words of one of Galle citizens who was watching at the time:

A long stretch of Sri Lanka’s coast was devastated by these killer waves, with more than 40,000 dead and staggering 2.5 million people displaced. Although 1,600km from the epicentre, the waves struck with huge force and swept inland as far as 5 kilometres.  Waves as high as six meters had crashed into coastal villages, sweeping away people, cars and even a train with 1700 passengers.

One of the worst hit areas was my home city Galle, the capital of Southern Sri Lanka. The water came from two sides to Galle town giving no chance for many people who were going about their daily life…

This happened while civil war was being waged – a 25-year civil war between Tamil and Sinhalese that did not end until 2009. An estimated 80,000-100,000 people died between 1982 and 2009. The deaths include 28,000 Tamil fighters, more than 21,000 Sri Lankan soldiers, 1,000 Sri Lankan police, 1,500 Indian soldiers, and tens of thousands of civilians.

Here we were seven years later in a country that had papered over so much trauma in its community fabric, and we, the Australian visitors, were travelling around as though Sri Lanka was still the Pearl of the Orient. As our driver in Galle said, those who were within the walls of the old Dutch fortress had a far greater chance of survival when the tsunami came.

When we visited, Galle exhibited few scars and the cricket ground, where Shane Warne achieved his 500th Test wicket, looked as though nothing had happened, but then 12 years had passed before we visited.

However, one major reason to go existed beyond Galle when the road reverted to type and we travelled through seaside villages until there they were, the men stilt fishing, their bodies entwined on a pole with a cross bar several metres above the water and at the same time fishing. No fishing in waders or from a wharf. Fishing this way enables them not to disturb the water. The tsunami curtailed this form of fishing; the stilts have returned, but not to the same number.

So many recollections associated with this country, with all its various names suggesting serenity, yet so little has the community strife had an impact we could have been traveling on a magic carpet far away from all that horrendous backdrop. Life on our magic carpet seemed so welcoming and tranquil.

How far from the Truth?

As I written about the injustice meted out to them, the Tamil family, Priya Murugappan, her husband Nades, and their two Australian-born daughters – Kopika now aged five, and Tharunicaa aged three imprisoned on Christmas Island, do not think so, even though the Australian authorities seem to make sure that the horrors awaiting them are not lost in a welter of government generosity and kindness. They get none.

Unlike the time Minister Dutton laid a wreath on the altar of St Sebastian’s in Colombo in 2019. How touching! The crocodile tears were flowing everywhere as he placed the wreath for those who had been killed in a suicide bombing on Easter Sunday of that year.

Sri Lanka is not the Pearl of the Orient any longer, and certainly if you are Tamil – or apparently Christian – or Muslim.  In the previous year, those Muslim shops in Kandy that we visited were burnt down by what were described as Buddhist mobs. Muslim burial is forbidden. Nothing like a bit of religious zeal and intolerance.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Gerry Marsden died this week. I saw Gerry and the Pacemakers and Brian and the Tremolos when they performed in Melbourne in the mid-1960s. It was around the time of the Beatle frenzy and a young lawyer mate of mine got free tickets. I was even then a trifle too old for pop concerns, but we went along. Nothing much I remembered beyond “Ferry across the Mersey”. They were Liverpool Lite, managed by Brian Epstein but without the Beatle panache.

Over the years, the song “You’ll never walk alone” was associated with Gerry Marsden and became the signature tune of the Liverpool Football Club.

However, I remember the song almost a decade earlier when it was sung by Julie Jordan in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, as a hymn to her lost partner, Billy Bigelow, killed in an industrial accident.

When you realise that Carousel opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, just before VE-day, and ran for 890 performances. Its London rn began in 1950 and was just as successful. Every one of those audiences included dozens of women who lost husbands or sons or fathers or brothers in WW2. This song was for them, as someone wrote.  I wonder if Marsden went to his grave realising that it was more than a disembodied dirge in the 60s, but a song which comforted those who had suffered loss at the most personal level and for whom the words had a deeper meaning than a feel good Scouse anthem.

As a postscript, in 1999, Time magazine named Carousel the best musical of the 20th century.

Mouse Whisper

The taxi driver recounted the story of the famous Australian cricketer who promised $50,000 towards the reconstruction of the Galle cricket ground since it lay outside the fortress walls and was completely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. The amount promised was modified several times and when we asked how much this cricketer eventually had actually given, the driver signalled with his fingers – zero.

A different type of gall I would think.

Galle Cricket Ground

 

Modest Expectation – UoVa Piazza UOva

I am commencing this blog on Boxing day, another of those dubious holidays related to the British class structure in which boxed trifles were provided to the deserving poor on the day after the upper classes had gorged themselves with exotic meat, forcemeats and sweetmeats – the proclivity of the entitled for languid enquiries “Another swan breast, Andrew? Perhaps another leg, Charles?”

In Great Britain swans have received special protection by the Crown at least as far back as 1482, when King Edward IV authorised the Act Concerning Swans, which made all swans in Great Britain property of the Crown. He signed the law, which remains in force today, not because he wanted to conserve them, but because he loved eating swans. Edward, although born in Rouen, was a Yorkist who was embroiled in battling the Lancastrian Tudors and having seen Henry VI off, he died in his bed. His sons were not so lucky, ending their brief lives in The Tower of London due to a bit of nepoticide by their uncle, Richard, who became the Third.

St John’s College Cambridge

Like all British idiosyncrasy, only unmarked muted white swans fit into that protected category, and the Queen is even more discerning. She only eats swans from the Thames and its upper tributaries. Elsewhere the Crown has made a deal with the Worshipful Company of Vintners & Dyers in regard to swan ownership and from them to the Fellows of St John’s College Cambridge, who are the only chaps outside the Royal Family able to indulge themselves with roast swan on certain days of the year. These jolly fellows used to have swan traps along their College walls, but the traps have fallen into disuse. The College does not have a separate Warden of the Swans as the Crown does to maintain its swan traps.

Swan meat is said to be gamey, but tasty, presumably it is little different from goose except for the fat.  It would be fitting that when “Banjo” FitzSimons achieves his Republican Dinner to mark our eventual break from the 1788 Invasion he should institute a “Swan Song” dinner where the major fare is a muted white swan garnished to acknowledge Edward IV’s other undying contribution – Yorkshire pudding.

I am sure that we could find a suitable South Melbourne-gone-Sydney person to carve our exotic roast. In recognition of our cultural affinity, the Swans regalia has always been red and white. But aren’t Australian swans black?

Huon Pine

in Strahan, a village on Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s West Coast there is a two-storied Pole House called Piner’s Loft. It was the labour of love of an extraordinary builder called Dan whose partner was so important to him in providing the inspiration to construct from old Tasmanian wood. In other words, it was built as an homage to the Tasmanian forests. He used only recovered wood, except for the structural poles which were blackwood, and not completely seasoned. However, even with the cracks in the unseasoned wood, blackwood is sturdy and the cracks have stabilised with age. Blackwood is not immediately endangered and is an essential component of the temperate rain forest which covers south-west Tasmania. There are two of these lofty trees along the drive. This drive to the back door has been delivered by the local vicar, who also works in his earth-moving business – literally not only moving heaven, but also earth.

Piners Loft, Strahan, Tasmania

There is another structural pole tucked away in the Loft, and that is one of King Billy Pine. However, in the case of the indigenous pine only recycled wood was used. The floorboards, window and door frames are mostly celery pine, and outside the back door, there is celery pine growing quietly. The fascia board is of Tasmanian blue gum, the only tree whose flower is a State emblem. Blue gum is a tree whose profligate growth has made it declared verminous in California.

Meanwhile, the bathroom door is an exotic, Western cedar.

The Piner’s Loft kitchen is composed of that most beautiful of Tasmanian woods, the Huon pine. Once almost sawn to extinction, these trees live a thousand years and beyond. In the forest, their caterpillar like fronds suggest a tree which may have watched the dinosaur walk. In the wild they are the most unprepossessing trees as they age, with bare arms stretching through the canopy. The trunks are gnarled and twisted; and yet the wood is magical as it is worked.

The Huon pine used to be cut by men called piners, who would travel upstream searching for it because Huon pine grows close to water courses. These piners would stay in rough shelters enduring the rain year round, sleet in winter and mosquitoes in summers. They floated the cut logs down the rivers.  They all but cleared the forests of the pine, so now only salvaged wood can be worked. Cutting down a Huon pine is cutting off your inheritance; the remaining trees are protected.

Huon Pine

Huon pines contain a natural oil called methyl eugenol, which gives the wood both its legendary durability and its unique fragrance. They grow very slowly, requiring about 500 years to reach the size at which time the trunk can be sawn into timber. Huon timber varies from a light straw to a rich golden colour.  Fresh wood surfaces darken after contact with air and sunlight.  It is a light, soft and very fine textured wood which is easy to saw, chisel, plane, turn or sand. It is a very good timber for building boats because its close grain, in addition to its lightness and the oil in the wood assists in the waterproofing.

The shavings work well in cupboards to guard against silverfish and other insects which like to eat one’s clothing. It is thus a wood of many seasons.

I am now looking at a Huon pine bowl we mutually presented ourselves as a Christmas present. The aroma is pungent, filling the air as you would expect. It is not the smell of the eucalypt. Roger, the wood turner who made the bowl says he can no longer smell the wood, but for those of us unused to its distinctive pine oil odour, it fills the room.

The wood is known for its “birds-eyes”, flecked dark spots in the wood which is prized. This bowl has waves through the timber like the clouds in a sunset, where the pale yellow of cloud grades into ochre heavens and in so doing catches all the shades in between. It is a glorious piece of carving and like the Loft not only is testimony to the sawyers of the West Coast but also the survival of the fauna and foliage of that State struggling against the barbarian blackberry, bracken and gorse – and bushfire.

This Tasmanian heritage is threatened but unfortunately the government sits by, its hands tucked firmly under it buttocks, while it dreams of dams and concrete. This is what it terms heritage.

But perhaps I am being too critical, but this excerpt from the 2020/21 Tasmanian Budget is indicative of the priorities:

Funding of $75,000 has been provided in 2020‑21, to continue the development of bushfire mitigation legislation commenced in 2019‑20. The legislation aims to improve bushfire mitigation in Tasmania by streamlining approval processes to reduce fuel and mechanically clear vegetation, and ensuring clear accountability for landholders and occupants. Enough to clear the politicians’ country chalets; how thoughtful!

Such is this frugal cornucopia emptied on fire protection, but Captain Courageous stands on his poop deck – and emotes “Thou shalt not enter, ye vermin from other States who dare to violate the purity on my Bailiwick.”

But for the time being, I am looking at this beautiful Huon pine bowl.

Gascon Paradox

This is probably well-known; thus, I apologise for those in the know. Nevertheless, it was mentioned during the preliminaries to cooking a goose for Christmas lunch. Gascony is considered that part of France in the Southwest below Bordeaux and stretches into the Basque country at the foot of the Pyrenees and to Bayonne nearer the coast where the rivers flow from the mountains.

Gascony

Bayonne is famous for its cured ham – so the story goes, a mediaeval nobleman was out hunting and mortally wounded a wild boar which escaped, only to be found some months later dead in a hot briny pool. The carcass had been so cured by the brine in the intervening months, such that the discoverers waxed lyrical and Bayonne ham was born with all the attendant requirements, which the French love to impose, such as in this case special river salt that is needed to cure it … need I go on?

Gascons, who have affinity to these Bayonne Basques, are believed to be the owners of a gastronomic paradox. To paint a suitably gourmand picture, foie gras is one of the delicacies of Gascony but if one is to eat it one has to turn a blind eye to the process of gavage where the goose is force fed so that its liver suffers fatty degeneration, and then the bird is harvested, its liver to destined  inter alia to be spread on toast. I must admit to having had such a breakfast, beats rice bubbles and Vegemite on toast – at least in France. Sorry, I did feel not any pangs – to me it is just an exotic form of dripping .

Condom Armagnac

However, that is the Gascon way. They eat loads of goose and duck fats – saturated fats to the brim – and yet the Gascons live the longest of any Frenchman or woman, with the lowest incidence of heart disease. There are various reasons given – you know, they have an amazing leguminous diet, but the reason I like best is that Gascony is an area where  fine dry wine from Bordeaux is produced, and imbibing that in moderation has a positive effect in countering the fat. They even mention, as one moves across Gascony to Condom from where Armagnac, the source of oldest top-flight brandy, has been made since the thirteenth century, one can begin to salivate at the prospect of a cooked goose. Armagnac is the foxglove extract of France.

To make a point, our goose was moreover well and truly cooked.

The roast goose on Christmas Day was perfect; it is a difficult bird to cook well. The line for it being overcooked is thin and then, as experienced by us many years ago, the goose becomes tough and inedible. The traditional cold goose on Boxing Day was well complemented by the fennel and orange salad. The company was perfect in the Padlocked City.

But the Chateau Rothschild will have to wait.

Retreat into Reality

I am so sick and tired of incompetence and/or corruption of government, where deceit is a valued commodity in a Pentecostal cloak, which has now assumed the dimensions once afforded to the Masons’ secret handshake.

So much so, that I have retreated into the reality of the most memorable opening scenes of films that I have seen during my life.

The first is Out of Africa, where the opening scene, Kenya 1913, is of a steam train coursing across the empty savannah Plain. It is a spare train, few carriages and then the first image of Meryl Streep. She has a luminosity as though encased in an aureole.  The image is brief.

Merryl Streep

Then onwards – images of the train coming into focus, crossing more fertile country, always mountains in the background. Night falls, and only the train’s headlamp and lights in the carriage burn bright, and then it is next morning and the train reaches its destination. People, apart from that fleeting glimpse of Merryl Streep as Karen Blixen as appear for the first time.  The background wistful yet lush music of John Barry is a perfect accompaniment to this beautiful opening scene.

Then there is number two, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is 1961. The vision of a yellow taxi driving down a deserted Fifth Avenue around dawn and depositing this slim figure in black with the beehive hairdo in front of Tiffany’s is one of minimalist elegance. Whether any actress other than Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly could have provided such panache with so little movement would have been a challenge. Eating a pretzel and drinking coffee from a paper cup without fumbling is in line with the minimalism.

For an instant, in front of the Tiffany’s window, she is the lady behind the bar at the Folies Bergère in the Manet painting of the same name, and then she is drifting around the corner, down 95th street, finally depositing the food bag in a trash receptacle. All the time, Moon River is being played.

The third is Chariots of Fire where, after the memorial service introduction, we see this phalanx of young men in the training gear of the time, white shirt and shorts running through the shallows, supposedly at Broadstairs in Kent, where the British team was in training in Paris for the 1924 Olympic Games. The fact that they were running in bare feet is emphasised in the first shot. This opening sequence was shot in Scotland near St Andrew’s Golf Course and that the other runners were essentially a bunch of golf caddies is just too much inconsequential information. The fact that the final clip from this opening scene sees the running pack traversing the first hole at St Andrew’s, rather than the Carlton Hotel’s lawns on the Kent foreshore, did not diminish the expectations for a film which celebrated an idealistic romantic notion of heroism. That is the reality I like – and the Vangelis theme helped.

I could not summarise the theme better than the composer himself – Vangelis was a somewhat more convenient name than Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou.

Lord Lindsay aka Lord Burleigh

He recalled the dilemmas of Eric Liddell, the Scottish athlete who would not run on a Sunday because it was contrary to his Christian beliefs; Lord Lindsay, who selflessly gave Liddell his slot in a weekday heat so that the Scot could compete in the Olympics; Harold Abrahams, the Jewish runner ostracised by the establishment. All were men who would not compromise on their values, no matter the cost.

“If you look for truth you have to be courageous. My main inspiration was the story itself. The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else, other than to express my feelings with the technological means available to me at the time.”

The title “Chariots of Fire” brought me back to the where and now. The term derives from the Old Testament and it is adopted as a metaphor by William Blake. Jerusalem, the choral interpretation of his poem, is embedded in my brain. We sang it so often at school. The men above deserved a “chariot of fire” as their accolade.

If Blake could descend in a chariot of fire and see our Australia, would he wonder whether we could ever build Jerusalem among our own dark satanic coal mines. But we should finish the anthem – and the race which both Abraham and Liddell ran beyond their Olympic participation is equally applicable to us Australians – a universal call

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem

Safe as a Bronte Beach Santa Party

Anonymouse

First fireworks, and now cricket – what is the NSW Government thinking? Picture this: in the red corner, Cricket Australia, the SCG and the McGrath Foundation, and in the blue corner, “the best medical advice” of NSW.  So, who won the bout between cricket and good public health sense? Well, who do you think? But the more pertinent question is who lost, and the answer is the people of NSW.

At the same time as the Premier of NSW has the northern beaches locked up and the best medical advice to everyone in greater Sydney is don’t go out for new year’s eve, apparently it is perfectly OK for up to 125,000 people to travel by public transport to the SCG, mingle as they enter and exit and sit in the stands unmasked (that’s 25k for each day of the test). How can this be so?

Memo to Gladys:  Cancel the cricket, give the McGrath Foundation the million or two dollars that it raises at a Sydney test (and in the long run that will be a bargain compared with the massive cost of many COVID cases and a protracted lockdown that inevitably will be caused by the super spreader test), send the cricketers and their entourages packing to somewhere much safer for them and for NSW.  Stop mucking around with the lives of the people of NSW, lock down greater Sydney and mandate mask wearing immediately until you actually have this outbreak under control.

With the Northern Beaches and Croydon outbreaks growing and the potential for weeks or months of lockdown looming as happened in Melbourne, having fireworks and allowing five days of cricket with spectators to go ahead is about as responsible as the Bondi Beach Santa party. Time will tell – if the cricket goes ahead – whether all the predictions of it being the super spreader of all time are realised. If so, NSW’s world best contract tracing system won’t amount to a hill of beans.  We still don’t know who was the source of the Avalon cluster, or who has pushed so hard for the Test to go ahead in Sydney and why the NSW Government is taking such a huge risk in allowing it?

Mouse Whisper

I get sick and tired of hearing this doggerel. You know that one that starts “A for horses”… “B for mutton”….”C for yourself” and ends up “X for breakfast”, “Y for husband” and “Z for breezes”. For the least comprehending of you guys read, in order:

Hay

Beef

See

Eggs

Wife

Zephyr (incorporates the “for”)

I bet you are all slapping your thighs with laughter and emoting “How clever”. But it is a clue to the reason for the title of the blog in the twisted mind of my mausmeister … if you can be bothered. I believe he is going to publish the hundred Blog title names after he reaches that centenary blog.

X for breakfast

Modest Expectations – Archie MacLaren

There never was a cricketer with more than the grandeur of A. C. MacLaren. When I think of his play now, years after it all happened, the emotions that stir in me afresh, and all my impressions of it, are mingled with emotions and impressions I have had from other and greater arts than bat and ball. 

Thus spake Neville Cardus, once the doyen of cricketing savants. But what is the relevance to this Christmas blog about an English captain who never won a series against Australia. I shall leave it as a challenge to those who can be bothered, like my teenage grandson Luka who is already a cricketing tragic with better-than-average all-rounder credentials.

One of the more recent cricketing traditions around Christmas has been the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, but in 1951, the third test in Adelaide finished on Christmas Day, with only the second defeat of the Australian cricket team since the end of World War 2. The West Indian cricketers broke into a spontaneous calypso. At that time, their major West Indian strike bowlers were:

(a) Sonny Ramadhin, of Indian descent from Trinidad, who bowled both right hand leg and off break without a discernible change in his action. His off break was not the conventional “googly”. He bowled with cap on head and his sleeves done up. It is not recorded whether he ever wore an overcoat while bowling during a damp English tour. However, at 91 he is still alive. A quirky fact about Ramadhin was that he was not given a Christian name at birth, acquired Sonny later on to disguise this fact and moreover was given fictitious initials “KT” presumably for further respectability.

(b) Alf Valentine, a Jamaican who bowled left-arm off-spinners with a vicious tweak. While Sonny was tiny, Alf was tall. Alf, who was a year younger than his “spin twin”, died in 2004.

Together, they destroyed Australia that day, and everybody was able to indulge themselves in a Christmas dinner as the Test conveniently finished before four in the afternoon. Given the Australian view at that time about doing anything on Sundays and religious holidays, I have no memory of any controversy about cricket being played on a Holy Day.

Memories of Christmas

When I was small, Christmas, even at the height of wartime, was magical because there was always a large Christmas tree and it was always decorated with the mostly homemade decorations that my mother made, scrounged and generally tried to drown the tree in cheerful decoration. Whence I was a small boy I loved the intense green colour of the pine tree. In the second week of January in the hot summer sun, it was sad to see the pine tree lying, browning, discarded on the nature strip when two weeks before its brilliant green frame seemed to touch the ceiling with the star on the top. Mother was religious; father was not. I felt that the Christmas tree bound our small family together.

I learnt early to read “not to be opened until December 25”; but everybody excused Little Johnny when his sneak preview damaged the signage too much to be repaired. Poor little Johnny can’t read – you can’t expect him to know. Oh yeah!

Notwithstanding, my father seemed to be a ghostly presence in my early years during the War when he was bouncing back from naval duty and then disappearing again up North. He came back to graduate as a doctor in early 1946. When I think about it, he seemed to buy my Christmas presents with an eye to himself. I remember the Hornby replica of the Flying Scotsman train; then there was a Meccano Set, much more complicated than my competence or interest. From a child anyway I was never much interested in building things or gadgets. My father on the other hand loved gadgets; and he liked collecting them and books.

I always liked the stocking because of the mysterious bulges which turned out to be mostly edible. However, the wonderment remained until I found out that Santa Claus did not exist. Not that we ever put out a glass of milk or a biscuit or whatever. Still, it was a shock I do remember, and after that Christmas never had the same edge of belief and wonderment.

I had never thought about the underlying deceit and lies from that first encounter at Christmas. At the same time we were all solemnly told not to lie as children, and I more or less obeyed. In our society, however truthfulness is not universally rewarded while untruthfulness is not punished. Truth is slippery, and our perception of it nudges our belief system. In the case of Santa Claus, it is rationalised by adults as a good spirit, but to a small child, such abstract thought is years away.

While deception is part of life and is the basic tool of the magician, lying deliberately can become pathological, and when occurring in a person of influence such as Trump it can be destructive. His apparent success has encouraged other politicians, especially those who have had a career of essentially talking in tongues, distorting perceptions, to abandon, ignore or be extremely inventive around telling the truth.

I wonder if the underlying cause is the harsh parent syndrome, where no matter what explanation, you are going to receive a severe dose of corporal punishment. “It was not me,” Donald screamed, “It was my bruvver.”

But then Trump’s father’s second name was “Christ”. 

Ruminations prompted by St Lucia’s day

In 1700, Sweden, which included Finland at the time, planned to convert from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. 

Therefore 1700, which should have been a leap year in the Julian calendar, was not a leap year in Sweden. However, 1704 and 1708 became leap years by error. This left Sweden out of synchronization with both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, so the country reverted back to the Julian calendar.

February 30, 1712, came into existence in Sweden when the Julian calendar was restored and two leap days were added that year. Sweden’s final conversion to the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1753, when an 11-day correction was applied so that February 17 was succeeded by March 1 that year. Not everyone was pleased with the calendar reform. Some people believed it stole 11 days of their lives.

This exercise in calendrical calisthenics was also applied in terms of St Lucia’s Day which falls on December 13, which under the old Julian calendar was the winter solstice, but the tradition has persisted despite the Gregorian calendar.

St Lucia lived in Sicily in the fourth century C.E. and was an early martyr to male jealousy. She had a suitor who would not accept her giving her life to God. He and his pagan mates tried to burn her and when that did not work, they stabbed her in the throat. She has become the patron saint of virginity, kindness and the blind.  She was also supposed to have taken food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, wearing a headdress of candles to light the way so she could have her hands free to carry the provisions. Allegedly some monks brought her story to Scandinavia and everybody was so entranced that she has her own day in the Swedish calendar.

She even has her own signature buns (lussekatter)– dotted with raisins and a touch of saffron for taste, to be eaten for breakfast.

Lucia, the bearer of light

My Swedish friend sent me a link to wonderful choral performance, to celebrate the day. It was presumably at dusk on this shortest of days. A recent quote sums to beautifully provide another insight relevant to the celebration. The most important thing is to hold that tiny spark of life, if it is in a bud, in a seed, that is our work, to hold on to life, so when spring comes back, there can be growth. 

The choir is essentially composed of young people in white robes with a red ribbon tied around the waist. Red is the liturgical colour for saints. In this video they were all young women. The lead singer of the choir had a garland on her head, with nine candles. She represents Lucia, the bearer of light. In the background are a number of young male choristers who, as distinct from those in white are well rugged up in identical clothes and a scarf twisted over to cover their necks. The viewers know the depth of the cold by the condensation in the air as they sing; no indoor auditorium for these young people.

There is a section of young children singing in a snug festive room as they make Christmas decorations, there is a music section with an alto saxophonist and double bass; in one section the singer, who is accompanied by a piano accordion, is in traditional Sámi dress in front of a lavvu with reindeer roaming in the backgound. I presumed, by the presence of Swedish subtitles, that the singing in this segment was in Sámi. The concert was an hour long, and the link: https://www.svtplay.se/video/29267198/luciamorgon-fran-jukkasjarvi

Watching and listening to this concert made me think of the paradox of Christmas. Christmas has become just that – a celebration in the snow. All the trappings, all the sentimentality is linked to images of Northern Europe or those areas of North America where the pine trees are the backdrop and the images are of clear starry cold nights with reindeer, sleigh rides, snowmen (never snow women – or have I missed something?).

But when the Nativity was wowing them in Bethlehem, there was not a reindeer or sleigh in sight.

Yet in Jordan we travelled down from the freezing mountains, where shepherds watched their flocks by night, and the skies were clear. We encountered, in this country where Christ may have walked, both frankincense and myrrh for sale. These, together with gold, the wise men may have bought on the way. Sitting in the adobe shop, I could have imagined that this could have been the case, and then the three wise men deciding whether the baby needed swaddling clothes as well.

Petra – The Treasury

Travelling through Jordan, there is the reminder of not only Christianity but of other religions, their faith and their architecture. The most stunning is the rock city of Petra built by the Nabateans, Arabs of whom there is sketchy knowledge, but they were polytheistic and important in managing the regional trade routes. Petra is just the most breathtaking manifestation of the way the peoples who populated modern day Jordan approached their beliefs. Standing on the top of Mount Nebo, one of the most sacred sites for both Christians and Jews, we gazed out over the landscape where many of the settlements have Biblical reference, among these Bethlehem lying 50 kilometres away to the west.

One of the common threads in religious belief is the celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas is no different. However, in Jordan there is a degree of authenticity, where snow may be on the peaks, in winter while at sea level the pasture remains green and fertile along the Sea of Galilee. By authenticity, it should be recognised that the Nativity was a time when Arabs and Jews merged into a common heritage as they gathered around the newly-born Infant.

However, to have a Christmas tradition re-cast in the starkness of the Middle East, where Peace on Earth is a rare commodity.  The nativity is not just a play for infants performing before treacly parents. The Swedes showed in their celebration of St Lucia’s day that children are only one part. The problem with so many of the Christmas carols is that they refer to the Northern European latter-day traditions rather than to the Land in which Christ was born. I portrayed this conundrum in a short story I once wrote; and there are only a few that tie the birth of Christ to where it occurred in their Christmas observance. The processional “Once in Royal David’s City” is one such hymn.

Let us have a Palestinian Christmas – just once. When I went to Bethlehem, there were a substantial number of Christian Arabs. That was 25 years ago when I took a ten-minute taxi drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. How times have changed. Still, in Australia we can have Christmas in the desert. It would be more authentic, but it is the longest day here. After that, it is all downhill to winter.

Still, as I write I see the decorated fir tree in the window of our house. We are prisoners of tradition, no matter how this observance contrasts with what I have written. Would I substitute a coolabah tree or native cypress covered in Antipodean detritus? I think I would, and who needs candles when we have so much daylight and the Southern Cross?

 My first Christmas December 25, 1939

Winston Churchill’s message on that day:

There is a certain similarity between the position now and at the end of 1914. The transition from peace to war has been accomplished. The outer seas, for the moment at any rate, are clear from enemy surface craft. The lines in France are static. But in addition on the sea we have repelled the U-boat attack … and we can see our way through the magnetic mine novelty. Moreover, in France the frontier is maintained instead of six or seven of the French provinces and Belgium being in the enemy’s hands. Thus I feel we may compare the position now very favourably with that of 1914. And also I have the feeling (which may be corrected at any moment) that the Kaiser’s Germany was a much tougher than Nazi Germany.

I shut my eyes. It is as though Boris Johnson is talking. Churchill was lucky; over to you, Bojo. Got a rabbit foot handy?

Mouse Whisper

I understand that this was not a boy called Christopher questioning.

Apparently, this little child asked his father “where does poo come from Daddy?”

His father explained it to him and a look of horror came over the child’s cherubic face, “And Piglet?”

Happy Christmas to all and May your Yuletide never go out.
Don’t forget putting Mirth into the Myrrh, Sense into Frank and Gold into AUz.

Modest Expectations – Powder River

Ukhaa Khudag mine, one of at least 15 coal mines in Mongolia

Friedland chairs Toronto stock exchange-listed miner Ivanhoe Mines which owns 79% of South Gobi Energy Resources which currently achieves the most export sales out of the Mongolian coal producers.

The tax on mining profits in Mongolia was 25% compared to Australia’s proposed 30% mining tax, Friedland said.

Mongolia had a clear advantage in that it neighboured (sic) its Chinese customers. 

“They’re closer to China than your lucky island.” Friedland told the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum last week.

Australia-listed Hunnu Coal is busy advancing several promising Mongolian thermal and coking coal projects with minimal start-up costs.

Wood can see some shocks ahead for Australia’s leading export industry.

“I think Australia is going to find it hard to compete with coal 600 kilometres from Beijing with labour at tenth of the price. Mongolia has a highly supportive government and has abolished the stupid taxes Australia is now contemplating. Australia has got some problems.” 

He noted some other advantages of mining coal in Mongolia. “Australian mines are getting deeper and older. The easy, cheaper coal is gone. These deposits in Mongolia are open cut from surface – they haven’t even been developed yet, the best years are still coming.”

The Mongolian government is working hard to expand the coal industry and announced major railway investment plans last month.

Wood said one of the plans was a link from the giant Tavan Tolgoi coking coal field in the South Gobi province, where Hunnu Coal has projects, all the way up to northern Mongolia where it can link up to Russia’s Tran Siberian railway line. 

From there, the coal is railed out for export through Vladivostok port on the east coast of Russia. 

“That’s a very short boat ride to Korea and Japan,” Wood said.

He said the Koreans, Japanese and Russians were keen to invest in Mongolian rail.

Wood said the Japanese and Koreans were extremely keen to get access to Mongolian coal “so it’s not just about China; Mongolian coal will be seaborne and that is a real threat to Australia.” 

“That’s why Friedland is saying these things. 

“These things aren’t going to happen next month, they are not going to happen next year but people are making investment decisions in Queensland based upon five to ten years.

“In five to ten years they will be competing against Mongolian coal well and truly.” 

In the light of the recent announcements about Mongolia supplying coal to China, perhaps it would be useful to refresh the Australian Government’s recall of this article that appeared in Mining of 9 August 2010 when the coking and thermal coal deposits were being opened up in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

While there is Australian investment in mining in that country, this assessment was given by the Canadian/American billionaire, Robert Friedland. He had then invested heavily in Mongolian coal, as now he is investing in gold and nickel in Australia. His parents were Holocaust survivors and Friedland from a young man has moved with shakers. For instance, as a student he managed an apple orchard in Oregon, where Steve Jobs, a friend would come to work at weekends – that “small enterprise’s” name came from that Jobs’ experience. Friedland himself is undoubtedly smart and well-connected.

Matthew Wood is Australian and was trained as a geologist with qualifications in mineral economics. At the time of this 2010 article he owned Hunnu Coal, but sold it two years later to Hong Kong interests. He has kept up his mining interests in Mongolia so much so that he was recently awarded the Order of the Polar Star, the highest award which the Mongolian government gives to non-Mongolians.

Hey, Prime Minister, when you held up that lump of coal in Parliament, were you sure it was Australian?

Peterborough, Coorey and the Goyder Line

Phillip Coorey has a very spare entry about his early life in his published biography. However, on radio recently he revealed that he was bought up in Peterborough in South Australia. He rattled off a few not very convincing reminiscences to the effect that, as a lad, he may have been committed to a life on the header there.

What he did mention was Goyder’s Line. Surprisingly, the radio interviewer seemed not to have heard of Goyder’s Line. This is a line drawn across a map of South Australia by George Goyder, the then state surveyor, who meticulously drew this imaginary line from just north of Ceduna to just north of Pinnaroo on the border with Victoria in the early 1860s.

Above the line, the land was unsuitable for long term cropping; below the line it was suitable for cropping. His findings were greeted with the normal sceptical response, even when recognition of the line was drafted into legislation. A few good rainfall years turned scepticism into scorn and the Act was soon repealed. Then the normal series of drought years followed, validating Goyder’s observations, and the Act reinstated.

If you drive north of Goyder’s line, there are the results of the scorn on view, ruined sandstone houses of those who knew better.  The land along the Flinders Range is littered with evidence of how correct Goyder was.

Ruins of a farmhouse, near the Flinders Ranges

An interesting observation when driving south is that fords across the many water courses are replaced by bridges, starting just north of Goyder’s Line; a significant reminder of the more reliable rainfall south of the Goyder?

Peterborough almost straddles the line – so cropping occurs for now. In any event Peterborough has another claim to fame besides Mr Coorey. It is where there is one of the two horse abattoirs in Australia. A horse abattoir differs from a knackery in that it produces horse meat suitable for export, mostly to Europe.

Goyder’s Line is the drought line. No other State has such a meticulously worked out differentiation of this arid land into its cropping and grazing potential.

As was reported:  “George got on his horse and rode 3200 km east to west across the colony. Finally, in 1865, Goyder submitted his report and map to the state government.

Goyder used old rainfall guides and changes in vegetation to produce his report. He noted that mallee scrub, which needs a higher rainfall, dominated in the south while saltbush which can exist on far less moisture was the main vegetation in the north. With his report showing that north of the line was drier and the south wetter, he discouraged farmers from planting crops north of his line, as he considered this land only suitable for grazing.”

Goyder’s Line thus remains. Thirty kilometres north of Peterborough is a ghost town called Dawson. It was set up in defiance of Goyder’s finding. It remains as a testimony to those who gambled their livelihood against the empirical evidence; and lost.

Peterborough survives as an outwardly prosperous town for now, but there is the ever-present threat of a shift of Goyder’s Line away from Peterborough because of climatic change.

Irrigation has enabled the Riverland to prosper above Goyder’s Line; and technology has been used to crop above Goyder’s Line, but it remains as a concrete reminder of scientific integrity.

Australia has produced an array of substantial scientists, whose renown does not rely on being puffed up by that bane of civilisation – the public relations spinning arachnoids. Goyder was one such scientist.

The night I danced with Nikki Savva

1970s Darwin

It was a time before Cyclone Tracey, and the Travelodge was the most prominent feature of Darwin. We were there campaigning for the LCP in the Northern Territory election, which resulted in the LCP winning 17 out of the 19 seats. The remaining two went to independents; Labor’s strategy left them with no seats. How much our visit to Darwin influenced the result is not clear. After all, there were no Aboriginal candidates in any of the electorates. All the candidates were Territorians, aka “whitefellas”.

In this bubble at the Travelodge that evening, there was much jollification, and I remember at one stage dancing with a young reporter from The Australian, Nikki Savva. It is a funny thing that memory of this brief encounter has stuck in my mind when other memories of that night have dissolved.

Eventually, I drifted off to my room staggering along with my colleague. He had the room opposite. It was a different image when I awoke next morning.  The door of the room opposite was wide open. The room was empty. The room was now a wreck – it looked as it had been trashed, but when I walked across the corridor, I smelt the aftermath of a fire. The walls were covered with soot – there had been some water damage.

Blearily I went back to my room. It never occurred to me until later that I had not been evacuated. I had slept through the ruckus and nobody had thought to wake me. Such considerations came later when I learnt that my colleague had lit his mattress and was found in a smoke-filled bathroom, completely disorientated. His rescuer was a journalist travelling with the team. The fire brigade had been called, but I slept on. This was not the last time I slept though an awkward situation, nor that I escaped being burnt to death. Sometimes as the memory grew distant, in one of my rational moments, I believe that there is a force which determined that my time was not up – not then.

What was so different from today? There was no report in the media, although everyone knew but nobody talked about it – nobody wrote it.

I never knew who paid for the damage. It did not come across my desk.

Somehow I doubt whether that would be allowed to go unnoticed today.

However, so much has changed, but old habits die hard for me not acknowledging by name those who were in that burning room that night.

But I do remember Nikki Savva – a brief encounter and I doubt whether we have ever spoken since, such were our different career pathways. However, I enjoy her insights – and sometimes I agree with her, for what it is worth.

The charred Letter

In a slightly different mode, after the 1974 election I went to Snedden and said that the Liberal Party should have a Tasmanian strategy, since all the five House of Representatives seats were held by Labor, but were very winnable given that the number of electors is relatively small and local issues dominate. Labor was vulnerable if Whitlam’s lack of empathy for Tasmania could be countered. In fact, Lance Barnard being Whitlam’s deputy and a Tasmanian gave a certain sheen to Whitlam in the eyes of Tasmanians.

When Barnard retired from the seat of Bass not long after Fraser replaced Snedden, little or no credence was given to Snedden’s campaign to highlight that being distinct from the Whitlam haughtiness, Snedden cared for Tasmanian problems. There was even a shadow ministerial portfolio which Snedden gave to Bob Ellicott. It was pure populist politics.

As history showed, a retired army officer called Kevin Newman, well connected by marrying into a northern Tasmanian establishment family, won in a landslide. Many of the sage journalists identified it as a turning point in the eventual electoral demolition of Whitlam.

That is the background to this response the office received after letters seeking their priorities were sent to each of the Councils in Tasmania, which in those days numbered 79. This meant that some of the municipalities were formed when the populations of some was far greater than now.

Ruins of hotel, Linda Valley, Gormanston

I was reminded of one response when driving through Gormanston on the shoulder between Mount Lyell and Mount Owen before the Murchison highway plunges down to Queenstown. Where once copper miners lived near the mine the municipality no longer exists. Now almost a ghost town, but back in 1974, it was a separate municipality. Many replies to the letters were received, but about six months after, a reply was received from the Warden of Gormanston apologising for the lateness, but the Council offices had been burnt down. The letter was written on decent note paper, but it confirmed the Warden’s excuse. The edges of the letter were severely charred.

Snow Gums

Some years ago, we were driving around Tierra del Fuego and on a bare hill there were these blanched fallen tree trunks, resembling the bones of long lost creatures. When I asked about them, my guide said that there had been a great fire about 50 years before, and in the harsh conditions of the island, trees had never grown back.

Snow gums after bushfire

I remember a few years after a bushfire at Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps, had destroyed a great number of snow gums. They were whitened reminders among a blackened landscape slowly recovering. However, snow gums take 50 years to grow again, and before the fire there had been a huge stand of these beautiful trees. Now there are bleached reminders of nature’s revenge.

Near Mt Arrowsmith on the Tasmanian West Coast snow gums abound. They have one of most beautiful trunks of any of the eucalypts, along with leopard gums and salmon gums, not to mention the ghost gums of Central Australia. The trunks have dove grey and fawn markings against an essentially creamy white trunk. Bark is added decoration, lightly suspended from some the trunks, for snow gums are the contortionists of the eucalypt world, tossing themselves into bizarre shapes, but always maintaining their delicate beauty.

The road near Mount Arrowsmith is where the Murchison Highway is liable to be closed by snowfalls in winter, and it is here that a bushfire has left its signature. The bush has been reduced to a picket of black sticks where the only regeneration is blackberry bushes and bracken. It showed how long it had been since we had travelled the road from Hobart. Normally, we come down to the West Coast from Devonport – at least before COVID-19 closed off Tasmania. It showed how long it had been since we had driven from the south, because Hobart is further away than the northern Tasmanian cities.

I always believed that the West Coast of Tasmania was immune from bushfires because of its high rainfall, but in January 2016 there were multiple storms without much rain, but with a large number of lightning strikes which resulted in the West Coast burning in patches. Most the fires were concentrated in the northwest corner, but 1.2 per cent of the wilderness area was burnt. My belief that rainforest and moss lands would contain such a fire was disabused by the findings of an Inquiry. When the weather was dry, and today as I write this the temperature is 32oC in Strahan, then “all bets are off”. The West Coast of Tasmania will burn.

It is a wake-up call, especially as trading off an irreplaceable flora against a lean-to shed built by someone secretly growing marijuana and which can – and probably will – be easily rebuilt seems to be a no brainer.  Those entrusted with fire control need to make decisions based on the greater good – saving endangered irreplaceable flora makes a lot more sense than sacrificing it to save a couple of sheds.

Here in the south-west of Tasmania preservation of the environment is paramount. The human population is small, but if the wilderness was destroyed in a bushfire, it does not have the ability to regenerate quickly – if at all. The indigenous pines grow slowly – that is why when you look at a fully grown Huon Pine, or King Billy Pine you are looking back at a thousand years; some romantics say that the forests are little changed from when dinosaurs walked.

Gorse invades the West Coast of Tasmania

There are different priorities, because it is not only lightning strikes and man-made hazard reduction that can destroy the irreplaceable but also the disgraceful lack of attention that the Tasmanian government pays to the invasion of blackberry, bracken and particularly gorse, all together already creating a monument to West Coast neglect. A northern hemisphere native, gorse is a noxious weed here and a major fire hazard.

Look at the scene in the South-West four years after the fire. Just forgotten. It could be the harbinger of things to come.

Reflections on Matthias

Matthias Cormann is on the road again, metaphorically speaking. One of the pursuits which engages those trivia-centred people is to name five famous Belgians; and then for the master class five famous Walloons and five famous Flems. Matthias is neither of these. He was born of working class parents in the sliver of the country bordering Germany, which is naturally German speaking. Here the border has moved between the two countries depending on the political situation. He lived very close to the German border and his obvious affinity for Germany rather than the country of his birth is shown by his middle order award in 2018 from the German government for advancement of relations between Australia and Germany.

Cormann studied law and learnt Flemish at the first and French at the second university. He then went on an exchange Erasmus scholarship to Norwich, in the course of which he learnt English – all before he was 24 years of age. All that is on public record, together with his pursuit of a young woman to Perth.

Rejected, he went back to Belgium, but the second coming was very soon after. It seems an impetuous action, but then he was only 25. His quick eye obviously saw better opportunities in Western Australia rather than the country of his birth. Whether, as a member of small minority in a country riven by tribal strife where, in the job market, these tribal allegiances are translated into patronage, from which he was excluded, one can only speculate. However, if he is a serious contender for the OECD job, you can be assured there will be a rake going through the reasons for his flight from Belgium.

His adeptness at negotiating the political shoals in Australian politics were probably helped by a deferential mien which, as he rose up through the ranks, was retained as a courteous demeanour of appearing to listen. Perhaps having a very good grasp of where he was going and where he resides on the ladder of political influence was equally important.

He has no ideology; and that helps when some of your colleagues show moronic shrillness. However, his accent has been a useful weapon, when in others it could have been scorned. The accent is like a blade of steel – it gives him authority, even when he has blathered on and on, not answering questions as is his irritating wont.

Now he is trying his array of tricks on the world stage. Whether he survives the first cull is problematical given the Prime Ministerial aroma on this stage. Being a political chimney sweep covered in coal dust is not the image for selection for the OECD position. If Cormann presents a green visage to the members of the OECD, he needs to measure that against his welcome back into Australia, where his backers essentially have been the mining business community. Even a modern-day Metternich has limits to dissemblage.

However, what he may be angling for is the Australian ambassadorship to the OECD. The current incumbent could easily be recalled and there would be Matthias, like Banquo’s ghost, to haunt the new boss of the OECD – and incidentally polish his credentials on the world stage. Just a possibility. 

Mouse Whisper

Kristi Noem sounds like the name of a Christmas elf or a doughnut; but she is in fact the Governor of South Dakota.

She was recently in Casa Blanca, where she was surprised by her bruised hero, Heel Spur. She did not have time to express her adoration before he looked at her contemptously and turning to the pianist snarled: “You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it, Uncle Sam!”

Uncle Sam commenced playing, wistfully singing “You must dismember this…”

Tears formed in her eyes, “Oh, Heel, you know we’ll always have Pierre.”

Pierre, capital of South Dakota

 

Modest expectations – Beach

The search for truth and justice is sometimes long, arduous and costly. Politicians and journalists speaking and writing in good faith to further that search deserve our thanks, not our condemnation. 

The last Cabinet meeting in the old Cabinet Room 1988

One of the reasons Hawke was a successful Prime Minister was he set a high bar of intelligence for those who aspired to serve in his Cabinet. Hawke had an uncanny appreciation of the Australian profile but made sure that his level of intelligence was not on public display to the Australian community. The results were there was to project the Australian larrikin, and except in those crucial years when he was Prime Minister, he laid off the grog. He was reputed to be a good chair of meetings, which is often the case with intelligent people because they never let the meeting get away from them. They are confident in their own ability to elicit the best from their Cabinet. It is not as though they are in the majority the whole time, but they are able reconcile dissenting views.

I hardly knew Hawke, but I knew a number of his Ministers, and it was that time when my cohort – people in their late thirties through to mid-fifties were running the country. His achievements have been lasting – Medicare, national superannuation, floating the dollar and addressing tariff walls, and industrial peace – being obvious. He shared the success of his government around and was, for the most part, not seen climbing over Ministers to claim success nor resiling from failure. There is always a dark side to most people. Hawke was no paragon of virtue, but he was a substantial person.

However, it is an axiom in the race to the bottom that no national leaders ever let anybody more intelligent than themselves into their Cabinet. It has never been truer than today when you cast your eye over the current Australian leadership.

Smart people fail, pulled down by people less mentally equipped than themselves. The “Tall Poppy syndrome” is not an Australian trait by accident. The lesson of Malcolm Turnbull who, like Hawke, was a very intelligent “blow-in”, is a case in point. However, Turnbull was never comfortable about mixing in the front bar. In a trip to rural Queensland, the boys in the bar christened him the “tent peg” – Akubra hat on his scone and the body a tailored peg of new clobber – shirt and moleskins – not a speck of dust to be seen – unless it was the dust of his Commonwealth car or the plane moving away.

I remember another very smart NSW lawyer in the Turnbull mould, Ted St John. He didn’t last long, but he did make the point that if Australia didn’t pay politicians enough, then the standards would fall. He unfortunately was so wrong.

Election to Parliament is now equivalent of saying “Open Sesame” for the Mediocrity. The essential element of the new order is to be able to suck, while strategically learning to place the foot in the face of the competitor. Hardly an edifying exercise, but one about which the community I suspect has not wanted to know.

The parliamentary salary is incidental when compared to the accompanying perks and post-parliamentary life. So being a member of parliament is a desired objective, given the curricula vitae of most brings little worthwhile experience but plenty of ambition and a loose grasp on morality in all its forms.  Our politics are directed inwards, but I have written extensively about political dysfunctionality.

Incidentally the quote at the start of this piece comes from the eulogy on the death of Ted St John given by Michael Kirby in 1994. It says most of what I have taken a longer space to write.

Sinophobia or an Amplified Dislike?

The Virus has pushed much of the politics to deal with the financial downside, with the tension between those who wanted to prioritise health against those with the Trump agenda of prioritising business. As America is finding out, a pandemic saps the strength of the nation.

At the same time, a China increasingly immune from the pandemic has turned its attention to Australia. It seems as though that in concentrating on Australia, they are invoking the traditional “lingchi” method – death by a thousand cuts – cutting off the pectorals then the arms while the victim is still alive – and ending with decapitation.

The aggressive Morrison believes that playing to the “high vis” front bar, aping Trump, in some way neutralises the Chinese cold fury. Other countries “will hold Morrison’s coat” and salve his wounds every time his Chinese adversary knocks him down, whispering in his ear “just another round. You have softened him up, champ.” In other words, if Australia wants to lead direct confrontation, it takes the pressure off others.

The problem is that China holds most of the cards. There is an essential need for iron ore while Brazil remains a “basket case”; so we hold one card for now. However, they will continue to squeeze us on our exports which can be sourced elsewhere. The Chinese picked out barley exports as an early target. From sources years ago, I was told the best barley comes from the Yorke peninsula. This is in the electorate of Grey, which has shown substantial volatility in past elections. Whether the Chinese would drill down to an assessment of the impact of a boycott or imposition of outrageous tariffs on electorate voting patterns in Australia; it is a possibility.

If the Chinese are meddling in our electoral process, either directly or indirectly, it is noteworthy that Morrison does seem to have pushed forward the member of Chisholm, Gladys Liu, given her links to China. However, she may be paddling very hard, but beneath the surface.

In any event, the Chinese approach is calculated, although leaving coal-laden ships off the coast may be a mixed blessing by shrivelling our reliance on coal exports. This is one positive consequence. As it is with the timber ban – nothing like rendering native forests into wood chip. So a ban may improve our forest management and not leave the detritus of the chain saw as a tinder box for future bushfires.

Kingston SE’s Big Lobster

However, the consequences of rock lobster and wine targeting, as such action targets particular electorates in my thesis of the Chinese taking a very specific approach to lingchi dismemberment. As a consequence, rock lobsters are suddenly more readily available and at a cheaper price for the Australian consumer. Robe is one area where there are lobsters – the nearby town of Kingston SE has The Big Lobster. The response is not to send the boats out and when they do bring in a catch now, it may go into a sea tank on shore. When we purchased ours at Robe, only three had been cooked and we bought the one-and-a half kilo lobster. In addition to availability, the price was reasonable, thanks Xi-Ping, you bloody beauty.  Nevertheless, I am not quite sure about the value of that card.

Wine is more complicated but if the influential want to continue buying our wine – it may come up with a Tonga label and be imported as such. After all, 30 per cent of the Tongan economy is already Chinese.

But the newly-designed “lingchi” will continue, especially if we allow ourselves to be tied to the Chinese post, to be continually sliced.

The next anti-Australian strategy is to troll people who have not been inured to it. The Chinese have a store of grievances. After all, Australians have been beastly to the Chinese since goldfield days where they were forced to land at Robe to avoid the punitive poll tax the colony of Victoria imposed on them.  Tens of thousands of Chinese from all walks of life, searching for the “New Mountain of Gold” under a pall of discrimination, trudged from the port of Robe in South Australia across Victoria to the diggings. I am sure the Chinese government has a reservoir of troll scrolls to annoy and stimulate the Jones Boyo commentators inciting them to fall into the trap and inflame the situation into their own megaphonic integral loop of affront.

The Asian student has been a vital contributor to the education economy. The lure of the Australian universities was strong when their prestige was such that the Asian elite used to send their children to be educated here. Remember when the Australian upper class sent their children to be educated in the Old Country. Australia had a similar snob cachet. Now, not so much. Quality of education evens out; and as with everything, education improves locally as the middle class grows as it has done in China.

Australia is not a maritime nation, despite having one of the longest coastlines.  Rather it is a recreational yachting nation with a xenophobic concern for border scrutiny. Sometimes an early closure of our borders is justified, as with the Virus.  On the other hand border closures, if indiscriminate, lead to an inwardly concentrated nation with just too much a sense of hedonism.

So how are we dealing with the fact that the wedge of ocean south of us is our backyard? Is there any discussion about the future of Macquarie Island at a time when the world is warming? It may be inhospitable now, but in the future, who knows – except its sovereignty is clear.

On the other hand, the future of Antarctica is murky. All the optimism embodied in the 1957 Treaty is rapidly fading. China already has three bases in an area of the Antarctica claimed by Australia, where our nation has been a shrunken violet but has laid claim to 40 per cent of the land mass. It is hard to defend such a claim when our inattention to its strategic value seems to lead to much talk, and little action.

One of China’s three icebreakers

China has the three latest icebreakers.  Australia has one. But never fear. Australia has ordered six submarines to be ready by 2050 to satisfy the current electoral imperatives of the South Australian Liberal Party and to help Christopher Pyne in his retirement. How they will defend our Southern bailiwick is not clear – if, by 2050, there is a bailiwick.

Thus, there have been many words which reveal a depressing situation. At least it seems that New Zealand is patrolling the Southern Ocean. It is difficult to find out what Australia is doing, but some of the illegal fishing boats have suspiciously Chinese names under flags of convenience. Most of Australia’s maritime resources are concentrated in the north to repel the asylum seekers. I am not sure what we gain by patrolling the Red sea, but it is probably important to America.

Our policy reminds me of the British who, in Singapore, faced their guns toward the sea, because the British thought that the threat came from the sea. Pity the Japanese thought otherwise.

Australia has a great deal to lose if it loses its passage to Antarctica, given the large amount of territorial water shared with New Zealand. And I have not addressed the impact of Heard Island. Every rock is important as the people of Tristan da Cunha, a South Atlantic British protectorate which has set up a fishing war zone around the territory three times the size of Great Britain, has recognised. It would be better if we joined the UK in keeping out the “Chinese pirate navy”, as it is called by the islanders – more use than playing war games in the Northern Pacific.

And if you wonder about relevance, just look at where your rock lobster has been sourced while we have been sending all of ours to China – Tristan da Cunha.

Fisheries rate lowly in policy at a national level – an Assistant Minister who reports to the Minister of Agriculture, Littleproud, who comes from Central Queensland.  At least the Assistant Minister comes from Tasmania, and Macquarie Island falls within Tasmanian jurisdiction and the Antarctic Division is located in Hobart. However, Minister, that is not what I am writing about.

A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to the Bathroom

Anonymouse – regular correspondent

The zig zag lines …

It comes on so infrequently. But when it comes, it always comes in the same way. The first indication is the loss of vision laterally – always in the left eye. Then this loss – called a scotoma – spreads across the whole left visual field as it is taken over by a downwards arc of small shimmering white triangles, called a fortification spectrum because its pattern resembles the walls of a medieval fort, with zigzag lines on the leading edge.

Sometimes a dull pain commences in my right fronto-temporal region.

As my attacks are so infrequent I don’t have any anti-migraine drugs, but I do always have aspirin on hand; taking one gram of aspirin solves the visual problem almost immediately. The headache persists as it sometimes does, but I am wearing dark classes.  I am away from the computer and this description is being transcribed as I work through the murk of this attack.

I did not know what I was doing or what was happening when I experienced my first attack. It was so sudden and the immediate reaction was that something catastrophic was going on with my eyes. Wise counsel provided a simple solution – it was a pre-migraine aura and aspirin in a large dose and avoiding light was the answer (add to that – avoiding computer screens).

This latest attack has come only days after I had visited the optometrist and received a clean bill of health, at least to the limits of his expertise.

This might be of interest to others who have experienced something similar – or need some reassurance.

Black Friday

Loss of Life and Property Exceeds 1851 Destruction

“18 people perished in Victoria to-day. The death toll has now reached 20 since the fires commenced. At least 10 others are missing. To-day was the blackest day in the tragic history of Victorian bushfire terrors, eclipsing the terrible “Black Thursday” of 1851, and the disastrous fires of 1926, 1928 and 1932. 

Damage almost beyond assessment has been done. Thousands of square miles of valuable timber country have been burnt out. Farm lands have been ravaged and dozens of homes destroyed. A large section of the State is now a blackened ruin and smoke from the advancing flames shrouds the entire State. 

Seven people met terrible deaths when two cars in which they were making a dash for safety through the blazing bush at Narbethong were overwhelmed by flames. Eleven men perished in a holocaust in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria.

The Narbethong tragedy was discovered by firefighters who were searching the ruined area for people who had been reported missing. They found the burnt out cars close together on a track leading from the Buxton-Maryville road to Peiglan’s mill. Nearby were five bodies, those of three men, a woman and a child in the ruined cars were the charred bodies of two more men. All the victims had been terribly burned and the heat had been so terrific that some of the metal of the cars, and the glass windscreens and windows, had been melted.

Two families were making a dash to Narbethong. On the way they picked up three Greek workers, who had been sheltering in a river. Not long afterwards, a wall of flame met the two cars as the fire, which had raced through the Acheron district with incredible speed, overtook them. Five of the victims, including the child, made a run for it, but dropped in their tracks as the scorching blast struck them. A similar fate overtook the two men who had remained in the cars. It was an irony of fate that, had the Greeks remained in the river, they would still be alive, for seven other men, employees of the same mill, were found safe after the fire had passed.

Eleven men lost their lives in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria. The men apparently lost their lives after an ineffectual effort to save the Rubicon and Pearce mills from destruction. As the fire advanced, they were obliged to run for their lives. Five of them died on the track through the forest. Their bodies burnt almost beyond recognition, were found this morning. The other bodies were found not far from the mills. Two bodies were huddled in a small clearing. Smouldering coats covered their faces, but the heat had killed them.

In another part of this area 25 timber workers saved their lives by standing in a dam for many hours, dipping their heads beneath the surface periodically to save their faces from the heat. The fire which claimed the lives of the Narbethong victims almost accounted for two other men from Feiglan’s mill who, shockingly burned about the lower parts of their bodies, reached Buxton to-day after a nightmare journey through the fire-swept forest. Covered with sawdust, they stated that, after trying without success to save the mills, they ran to the only cleared patch, the cricket pitch, where they lay down and covered themselves with sawdust from the mills. Scorched, and suffering agony to the limit of endurance, they remained there until the fire had passed.

The sawdust had been charred. and their bodies from their feet to their waists were badly burned. The destruction of telegraph lines has made a careful check-up of the missing people impossible at present and it is possible that some of those, whose whereabouts are unknown are safe.

The Powelltown valley was a sea of flame and hundreds of acres of valuable timber country have been destroyed. Anxiety expressed yesterday about the safety of men, women and children at the Ada River mill was allayed to-day when they were brought safely to the township. Noojee, the scene of the disastrous fires in 1926, is again menaced. The flames are creeping slowly towards the town through the heavily timbered country. Huge trees in the Loch valley have crashed to the ground and there appears to be no hope of combating the flames at this juncture.

One party of men who had been making a road to Rubicon power station ran down the track, but five men waited while one of them went to the rescue of his dog. These men were not seen again. The others reached a clearing which they had prepared earlier in case of an emergency. Rubicon residents succeeded in getting through to Alexandra, although, for many miles, they had to drive through terrible fires.  

This report has been retrieved from Trove. It is often disconnected but it reflects the horror and fear that the correspondent was feeling.

Pointedly it was further reported that the then Prime Minister Lyons was fighting fires in Tasmania where he had his home. Joe Lyons himself even at that time had health problems. Three months later he was dead of a heart attack. No Hawaii holiday for him.

I was born in Victoria. Then we grew up with the memory of Black Friday. Our parents and grandparents had suffered that day.

I thus object to the term “Black Friday” being used as an adaptation of an American marketing ploy to start the annual fleecing of the population in the lead up to what were once   religious festivals.

Even more distasteful is that the “black” signifies turning the ledger entries from red to black, in other words for the marketeers “black” is synonymous with profit – hence the name “Black Friday”.

We, as Australians have come through yet another horrendous bushfire season in 2019, where every day of the week could have been labelled “black” – and here the term has been used in a trivial manner spitting in the face of those who have tried to tame nature. To end the week of the “Black Friday sales”, there were the images of politicians lachrymose over the memorial of two firefighters who perished in the bushfires earlier this year.

These men were members of the Buxton fire brigade in NSW. The Buxton in Victoria was in the midst of the Black Sunday fire in 1939. A tragic association – it should be noted that the 1939 news account used the word “holocaust” before it was given that wider connotation.

Nevertheless, the use of the word was that of a correspondent trying to find a way to express the horror of that day.

Black Friday is 13 January in the Australian lexicon. Those of you who try to trivialise and violate the meaning of Black Friday will probably be greeted with a shrug of the collective Australian shoulders signifying how far the decline in public morality has fallen.

Mine is a different ledger from that of the on-line retailers. Fire is red; it turns the country black as the aftermath. However, if that is how the country wishes to debase “Black Friday” on the Amazon Altar, so be it.

Mouse Whisper

Once upon a time, there was a gracious lady. She loved the elms in her city as much as she loved the gum trees of her rural childhood.  The city sheriff wanted to cut the elms down and replace them with desert ash.  Elms were not tidy; they shed their leaves and the leaves needed to be cleaned up on the roads. Tidiness was the word; as the sheriff turned to ash.

She protested loudly. She wrote; she marched; she created a controversy. Eventually she defeated the sheriff, and the elms still grow and flourish.

Unlike the World at large.

Her elms remain as major survivors of the Dutch Elm Disease which killed elms all over the world, but not here.

The elms are now a valuable asset. The city is famous for them. The world comes to see these elms.

The lady lies at rest; her resting place covered with rosemary. On her rough granite gravestone is inscribed a drawing of the elm leaf – and an inscription to she who loved the elm and the eucalypt.

There are now perhaps 70,000 elms in Australia, most of which are in Victoria.

One of Victoria’s many avenues of elms

Modest Expectations – Earthquake in Hunter Street

I arrived at the Melbourne apartment having come down from Sydney on Wednesday 25th November. The desk calendar said May. I had not been here since then?

The Virus has wreaked havoc and it is time to reflect given that I have been writing my blog continuously during this time. Hence, once written, always there.

There have been two major disasters – one was the Ruby Princess. Some say the targets to whom I assigned blame were wrong. There is always the fall guy, and people have told me who it is.

Given the Premier seems to be wrestling with disclosing her misdemeanours, she is trying to deflect an increasing number of embarrassing disclosures by filibustering. The “poor little me” melodrama is becoming increasingly tiresome, but people should listen to her fellow Armenian, Mr Aznavourian sing “She”:

She may be the face I can’t forget

A trace of pleasure or regret

May be my Treasurer

The price I have to pay.

Increasingly her NSW constituents may begin to agree with her fellow Armenian’s summation. Obviously, the Queensland Premier may agree as she has used poor Gladys as a punching bag; the State of Origin biff has extended to the two government leaders.

Anyway, the Queensland Premier has her own idiosyncrasies, apart from Jeanette Young, including her insistence on being called “Palashay” and not the original Ukrainian “Palastchuk”. Perhaps it was this Slavonic heritage that loved the sound of Dr Young’s continual “nyet”. Who would know?

Border closures were initially effective as was confining people’s movements, but after a while it became a symbol of secession – even puerile schoolyard spats. It should be noted that if Andrews had not given it credibility by supporting Morrison’s “National Cabinet”, it would have floundered. In any event Morrison has shown little trustworthiness.

Lockdown had a novelty value as Insiders showed with their amusing washing troubadours way back in March and Daniel Emmet continued the fun with his banishment of the Virus to the sound of “Nessun Dorma”.

However, it progressed from a romp when Peter Dutton came back from the USA with the Virus and it was reported that his senior colleagues immediately panicked until they were quietened down by Dr Paul Kelly. However, the lavage jolliness had given away to a sense of vulnerability, albeit fear.

What has happened is that the State governments took the matter very seriously and closed the borders. It is a difficult area to manage because not opening borders can lead to two outcomes, as has been shown over the succeeding months. The first is that despite the Commonwealth having the quarantine power it was virtually ignored by the State Governments – except in one area – the actual meaning of “pandemic”.

However, in one way, the Commonwealth listened to the health experts, and those like Brendan Murphy, who was appointed Head of the Federal Health Department, listened to the health experts in his own team – Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth. There were myriad others with varying levels of health expertise, but apart from a number of superficial missteps, Murphy listened to the right voices and the distilled Health advice prevailed over Murdoch and his fellow Ignorants, most of whom could understood the share market but not much else.

In the end, apart from the tourist industry and interference with social communication, the real effect of border closure was magnified by the closure of the NSW / Victorian border. One of the worst happenings is to continually go into lockdowns, then open the borders, then go into lock down again – on and on heightening confusion. I am not a fan of hotels being used as quarantine facilities because in the end all are porous. This is the nature of the beast, especially when you impose imprisonment without accompanying health expertise, and then find out you did not have the expertise anyway. This occurred in Victoria and Daniel Andrews assumed control, locked the State down, imported the contact tracing expertise from NSW, where it had saved the Armenian bacon, and while all about were behaving badly Andrews gradually, over 112 days, bullied Victoria into compliance. It was a terrible time for those in the State but demonstration of the discipline needed to eliminate the virus that is raging everywhere else in the world, apart from selected areas in the South Pacific.

In the end, the strategy had its effect. It suppressed the Virus, and in the case of Victoria probably eliminated it. As a result, woe betide any tennis player who comes to Australia with a cavalier attitude. He or she will be faced with a battle-hardened population who are not going to allow a set of “celebrities” to import the Virus. The message is plain.  Get it into your heads, nobody is going to breach security again and bring in your own tidal wave of infection.

What Andrews showed was courage under fire from the Murdoch media and an Opposition who, if their actions were seditious rather than serious criticism, should be facing charges. He showed that once a lockdown is imposed, and his State embarked on a recovery plan, he had to get it right and not backtrack. That drifting in the political breezes is happening all over the world, in and out of lockdown with political rather than the resolute application of health priorities being uppermost . Under the recklessness of the Mad Trump or the hubris of the Swede Tegnall, people die, people clog up the health system and, as with any arterial blockage, the end result is death to the blocked area.  Andrews showed the way by eliminating the blockage and should be overwhelmingly elected Australian of the Year.

South Australia has since had a similar outbreak in hotel quarantine, and the lockdown was far shorter and the epidemiological weapons used had been improved across Australia since March. As this blog goes to posting, NSW has just had a breach in hotel quarantine.

Underlying all the political action is that there will be a viable vaccine available soon. There seem to be plans upon plans for distribution of an untested product.

There are two questions that seem to be consumed by the cacophony of the public relations spin. What are the side effects and can I die from the cure? How long does the immunity last? You see, I grew up in a world where we had injections before we went overseas, and they did not grant life-long immunity. You had to get injected for cholera and typhoid each time you went overseas – and the latter gave me a nasty local reaction. I’d been through it at that time, bearing my vaccination card, when overseas travel was a far smaller sector than in the modern world.

This whole area is complicated by the Head of Qantas saying that you would not be able to board an aircraft unvaccinated. Forced to take an unproven vaccine? Where is the duty of care? The world of business is treading a perilous pathway.

Finally, one thing I would say is that the media is braying about how well our political leaders have stood up in the recent polls. Did the polls award Morrison the Lodge in 2019?  Did the polls accurately reflect the votes in the recent US elections. Let’s face it. Polls stink.

Ah yes, but this is the poll I like. It says I am popular. The politician preens. It says that people think of me as a perfumed gardenia. Beware, gardenias die very quickly and leave a stench not a perfume. But then I am given another gardenia, and it’s alright, isn’t it?

Why not a Summit at ShaTin?

The Chinese are insulting us. The Prime Minister armed with his Pentecostal shield fights back. The Chinese are trying to strangle our industries. The Chinese have taken over Hong Kong completely. Dissidents are being locked up.

Sha Tin race course

But it is not all bad. There is still horse racing in Hong Kong – whether at Happy Valley on the Island or Sha Tin in the New Territories with Australian-bred horses, Australian-bred trainers, Australian-bred jockeys and even Australian-bred stewards. All their antics are broadcast by Channel 7 in the interests of Sino-Australian recognition of our long association with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Chair of the Club is Phillip Chen Nan-Tok. He seems to be well connected, having been a senior executive of the Swire Group and of various property developments in Hong Kong and on the Mainland.

It is all unreal. Munchkin-like barrier attendants. The race commentary and in between race commentary is all very English, although the race-caller is obviously Antipodean; he does not have the languid style of the British race-caller or the unintelligible brogue of an Irish counterpart. There he is describing Australian horses galloping around these racetracks with not a whiff of tear gas or the young rioting against Mainland repression.

The betting brings Hong Kong plenty of money – and not an Australian boycott in sight. I wonder therefore if the Chinese will be at the Australian horse sales in the New Year.

Bliss

My son gave me “Abraham Lincoln” – which coincidentally was reprinted in 1939, the year of my birth. This book was written by William Thayer, an American educator, who was born during the American Civil War.

Lincoln

The book details a mob response to the death of President Lincoln in very graphic terms:

“In some localities the grief expressed itself in the form of vengeance. It assumed that form early on Saturday morning in the city of New York. Armed men gathered in the streets threatening speedy death to disloyal citizens. Their numbers rapidly increased, until fifty thousand assembled in Wall Street Exchange, bearing aloft a portable gallows, and swearing summary vengeance upon the first rebel sympathizer who dared to speak. One thoughtless fellow remarked that ‘Lincoln ought to have been shot long ago’; and he was struck dead instantly. The grieved and vengeful crowd seethed towards the office of the World, a disloyal paper, with mutterings of violence on their lips. It seemed scarcely possible to prevent violent demonstration. A bloody scene appeared to be imminent. At that critical moment a portly man, of commanding physique and voice, appeared upon the balcony of the City Hall, from which telegrams were read to the people, and raising his right hand to invoke silence, he exclaimed, in clear and sonorous tones:-

‘Fellow-citizens, – Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies! Justice and judgement are the habitation of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow-citizens! God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives!’

The effect of this serious address was magical. The raging populace subsided into repose. A hushed silence pervaded the vast assembly, when the voice of the speaker ceased, as if they had listened to a messenger from the skies. The change was marvellous. The speaker was General James A. Garfield, who became President sixteen years afterwards, and was shot by an assassin four months later! How strange that the inhabitants of that metropolis, who listened to the gifted statesman so gladly, April 14th, 1865, should be shocked by the news of his assassination on July 2nd, 1881!”

There are two stories in this excerpt from the book. The one directly showing that in times of crisis America always seems to unearth a saviour. Garfield’s ability to quell the mob reaction restored a degree of order into what was one of the most provocative acts imaginable to incite mob revenge – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

James Garfield had been a major-general in the Union forces while still in his 30s and had seen action in some of the major American Civil War battles such as Shiloh while still a young man. He may have been described as portly in the above excerpt, but he was only 34, and “portly” is not a word I would normally associate with a person of that age.

Garfield

Moreover, as with Lincoln, Garfield was born in a log cabin – Lincoln in Kentucky, Garfield in Ohio – both Republicans, both with progressive social agendas.

When Garfield was shot, he had a doctor called “Doctor Willard Bliss” foisted on him. Doctor was actually his first name and in most of the description of this man, he is known as “D W Bliss”. Bliss was a rogue, in that he ran away under fire at the Battle of Bull Run, and then claimed that he participated in a great victory. He faced prison for stealing Army equipment but was helped to evade conviction by his political contacts.  He took the opportunity of an association with Lincoln’s son to spruik a false cancer cure.

Notwithstanding that, he bobbed up as Garfield’s personal physician again on Lincoln’s son’s recommendation. He was completely disdainful of Listerian concepts in mitigating infection. It is not reported whether he ever uttered something like “fake news” or “hoax’. However, it was his complete repudiation of infection control including shoving unsterilised instruments into the President’s body in a vain attempt to find the bullet that accelerated the President’s ultimate demise.

Despite a welter of optimistic reports on the progress of the President’s condition, completely fake, Garfield died on September 16 – two months after the assassination attempt. A long pus-laden sinus was found in the President’s body at post-mortem – the track outlined where Bliss’s probe had gone.

At trial, Charles Guiteau, the would-be assassin,  said in his defence that he did not kill the President, Bliss did. Nevertheless, it was Guiteau who was convicted and hanged in January 1882.

In fact, Bliss billed the US Government for an outrageous sum for services rendered, but in the end received nothing.

Real gallows humour, because with Bliss, quackery and fake news clashed with scientific evidence. Scientific evidence and the life of a President were the victim of the Bliss cocktail.

Ambulant recognition

Simple things are often lost in the grand sweep of the disabled. One of the problems with being disabled is the lack of uniformity of public toilets, those in restaurants and also those within service stations which are the most easily accessible, unless the service station has a sign which says “Express”, which stands for “no toilets”.

The problem:

There are four essentials.

  • The toilet seat must be about 50 cm from the floor.
  • There should be a rail to hold on to when standing up.
  • There should be a handle on the inside of the door; just try getting the door open if you have only a small bolt handle and you are too weak to use it.
  • There is a need to have an ambulant toilet, the use of which should be enforced with appropriate signage in each of the male and female toilets, so the first stall can double as the ambulant toilet with appropriate adjustment in size.

I am going to name one toilet. The one at the Pheasant’s Nest Service Station which is one of last on the Hume Highway before Sydney, and therefore has a strategic importance if you do not want to be caught short on the freeway, caught in an unexpected gridlock.

The disabled toilet has been converted into a shower for interstate truck drivers and was locked. You can hold all the Royal Commissions in the World, but the recommendations often float away.

It would be very useful if there was an enforceable guide for toilets – then there may be an attempt to get uniformity, to conform to the standards, which are clearly set out if one can be bothered to read them.

In Namibia, I once flew for more than three hours in a light aircraft with a bottle for use in the emergency. The flight was from Windhoek to the Hartmann Valley in the north-west of the country, close to the Angolan border. There, alongside the airstrip in magnificent solitude, was one the cleanest flush toilets I have ever used.  That was a very good definition of “relief”. I called the toilet – Mafeking.

Hartmann Valley

Dial M for Misnomer

I had one of those “Four Weddings and a Funeral” moments recently. You know when:

Charles:  How do you do, my name is Charles.

Old man: Don’t be ridiculous, Charles died 20 years ago!

Charles: Must be a different Charles, I think.

Old man: Are you telling me I don’t know my own brother?

This day, I was in a hurry and I thought I had transcribed the phone number correctly.

I rang. A familiar voice, as I thought, answered.

“Marcus, this is father.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. My father died 40 years ago,” followed by a piece of unnecessary invective.

The receiver was slammed down.

I checked the phone number. It was that of one of my cousins who was born grumpy. His name started with “Michael” but although I see him infrequently, I know he is deaf. I could not be bothered ringing him back.

Mouse Whisper

At last, the Trapdoor has been removed and I have been able to visit Melbourne and all my mouse mates who went to Murine Grammar School. I was with a wise friend, Melchior who travels every year here with his two friends, Balthazar and Caspar. Melchior in not Australian but apparently COVID-19 immune.  As we ran along a Melbourne street, we saw this newspaper poster on the newsstand:

SMITH

BLASTS

TON

Melchior was at once fascinated since Melchior is familiar with gold. So he pondered; “Goldsmith?”

“Blasts?” explosives –

“Ton” – unusual for a goldsmith to mine his own gold?

Melchior said such was the rarity no wonder it had made news.

“Good try but not quite right, Melchior!” was all I whispered.

Modest Expectations – Arthur Phillip

This is my 88th blog. I have not missed a week – and the sequential naming of the Modest Expectations to reflect that number in some way. 1988 – the Bicentenary of this Nation was quite a year. I received funding from the Commonwealth Department of Health to write a book where I asked a number of health professionals how and why they were there in Australia in 1988, at the time of the Bicentenary. It was called “Portraits in Australian Health” – not a particularly riveting title.

However, what I wanted to see in their recounting of their lives was why at that point of Australia’s history, they were where they were. The backdrop to each of the lives of those interviewed was Australia.

This idea was expanded by the BBC in 2004 where they identified celebrities and took them through their genealogical paces with a predictable chorus of “gosh” and “unbelievable” and “who would know?” as each of the atavistic eggs was unscrambled. All beautifully orchestrated.  By and large the people chosen were performers, who could act the part of the stunned inheritors of their family helix.

I suspect that the budget for these TV shows is generous, because it showed that people are curious about other people. “Celebrity” gossip is the fare of the magazines which concentrate on a vague representation of the truth. The BBC, as did I, actually did research!

My concept was relatively simple: sit the person down and let him or her talk. Some I had known before; others only by reputation and I tried to achieve some sort of balance. A few I regret using; others were incredibly important in tracing the path of the reason for their being health professionals and providing “a tapestry” for the 200 years.

However, in retrospect there were at least two major omissions in people from certain categories. There is no dentist in the book; the person I had singled out, because of his long family association with the profession declined to be interviewed; he died not so long after of cancer. That was the only rejection that I remember.

The other omission which, if I could I would rectify, was an Aboriginal person with a health background. On reflection, I should have asked Naomi Mayers, who was the Chief Executive Officer of the Redfern Aboriginal Service. Much later I had lunch with her and a number of Aboriginal people in Redfern and even then I had no inkling of her link to the Aboriginal singing group, the Sapphires. But I didn’t identify her and I regret it.

However, as I found as I met more and more Aboriginals, there was a rich cultural heritage, much of which was hidden from whitefellas. I have always been sceptical of the historical importance of bush tucker, which has acquired a following among well-heeled whitefellas. Much of the tucker available would hardly merit a feed, so tiny are the individual berry, fruit and the other flavouring agents.

However, what I have found very interesting and have met on various occasions were ngangkeri, the medicine men. When I was often visiting Wilcannia in the early 90s, I heard about the kadaitcha men who were still around. However, that was all, and after all “the feathered foot” left no trace; so how would a whitefella find out more. It was all intriguing and the more I was accepted the less I knew.

The Aboriginal society is “many nations” – after all, look at the difference in the culture across the nation. The problem is that in the confected restoration of Aboriginal culture, the diverse nature of the culture has been increasingly homogenised. That cannot be criticised as it recognises that the Aboriginal culture is not static; and given the improvement in communication and educational opportunities it is unsurprising that the Aboriginal is becoming less and less regionally distinctive. Having said this there will always be nests of such traditional culture.

The conundrum for such communities is how to preserve culture against the predatory nature of a culture of booze, fast foods , “black milk” and all the churning of this faddish instant googled-eyed Facebook age – yet not denying progress.

It would be a challenge now to find the Aboriginal health professional who would fit easily into a portrait of Australian health. In 1988, it was only four years since the first Aboriginal doctor graduated.

Charlie Perkins

Charlie Perkins

I was thinking about the first time I met Charlie. It was obviously in 1973, and up until that time, all I had heard about him was that he participated in the Freedom Ride to confront rural NSW concerning Aboriginal rights. To the urban Australian living in comfortable suburbia, Aboriginals were invisible.

As I child I remember receiving Church Missionary Society pamphlets about all those nice little Aboriginal children running around in Roper River Mission – so happy to be one of God’s lambkins. It was all so foreign, and the first time I saw real, live Aboriginal children was years later when I went with my parents to Central Australia. Part of the tour was a visit to the then Lutheran Hermannsberg Mission. We white children eyed off the Aboriginal children, who did likewise and giggled at this awkward bunch of kids from down south.  Nobody encouraged us to mix and eventually we got back on the bus and left. There were also the blackfella children in the settlements along the old Ghan route which then wound through the floodplain country and terminated in Alice Springs.

I remember I insisted in Alice Springs that my parents buy me a black ten-gallon stockman’s hat, and even though I have a large “scone”, the hat came down over my ears. My other purchase caused all sorts of bother, and when it was brought home it had its own “cordon sanitaire” because the ochre covering this large bowl was very thick and had never been fixed, so if you touched it, the ochre always stained your hands. Eventually the bowl disappeared from the house – as did the hat.

Hermannsberg Mission

However, there were several episodes of the ABC lunchtime serial “Blue Hills”, which have remained with me. These concerned a storyline where Aboriginal Heritage would lead to “a throwback” situation which meant that apparently white parents with Aboriginal blood could be confronted with a “piccaninny” child. Then, as the serial progressed, what relief – Aboriginal heritage was diluted – absorbed – assimilated – and joy of joy – no return to the noble savage. Well, that was the gist of the serial story and reflected the attitude of Australian suburbia superficially encased by a white picket fence of normality.

There were three films that I remember in my early childhood leading into teenage years. All had a variable effect on the development of my attitudes towards Aboriginal people. After all, I grew up in a world dismissive of our landlords. The 1947 film Bush Christmas starred a 12 year old Aboriginal boy from Woorabinda in Queensland, Neza Saunders, who showed how to eat a witchetty grub. At that moment, I wanted one to eat. A gourmet meal of witchetty grubs sadly still remains on my to do list.

The film Pinky explored the plight of the light-coloured black American in a 1949 film of the same name. I remember in the context of a society which, despite the pious comments of my schoolteacher, remained at its base racist. We, as children because we grew up in a homogeneous culture, did not have the basic experience to question. However, for me, it instilled in me a sense of unease, the word “miscegenation” still unknown to me.

This unease was reinforced by Jedda, a film where the central tragedy of the Aboriginal was played out in Charles Chauvel melodrama. Jedda was such a beautiful young image for myself, a teenage boy. Years later I went to Utopia, an Alyawarre settlement on the Andover Highway. As an Alyawarre woman, she had grown up there and later had a troubled relationship with the community.  I did speak to her on the telephone but she was away when I stayed in Utopia.

It was still a long time from Jedda before I was to run across Charlie Perkins. I do not know why but we had an immediate empathy. One problem I had noted was that Aboriginal reticence meant that you had to learn to speak through the silences. As one of my Aboriginal brothers would say, the non-verbal conversations with the various vocal clicks was difficult for whitefellas so used to voice communications. The other manifestation that was clear from a growing association with Aboriginal people was if a particular government meeting was thought irrelevant, the Aboriginal representative just did not turn up, but as the Aboriginals have come in from the fringe that dynamic changed. Aboriginal people can recognise tokenism.

In 1973 in Parliament House it was demonstrated very clearly that here was a nation wrestling with the Menzies’ legacy and in particular the engagement in Vietnam. Whitlam terminated Australian involvement, and both he and the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Snedden visited China that year. Snedden was privately concerned with the lack of involvement with Aboriginal People, since even though the 1967 referendum was an overwhelming affirmation of Aboriginal rights that was not easily translated into a workable outcome for our society.

Aboriginal tent embassy

Charlie Perkins, when he was young, had this busy enthusiasm about him. Snedden suggested that I might try and talk to him. The easiest way to talk to him was around the campfire which the Aboriginals had started outside Parliament House. We got on well from the start and spent a lot of time yarning around the fire. To me it was symbolic of establishing an understanding, and Charlie was appreciative that somebody from the Opposition had bothered to brave the fireside. It did not take long for the message to come back from one of the Nats who had seen me with Charlie around the fire saying: “Who’s that Communist working for Snedden?” The other occasion that I well remember was walking with Charlie across King’s Hall one evening, when Mick Young with Eric Walsh came up and said to Charlie without acknowledging me, “You coming to dinner, Charlie?” Charlie shot back, “No, I’m going to have a meal with Jack Best.” These are in the order of things inconsequential. Both Charlie and I wanted a better world and we threw out ideas, most of which drifted off in the camp fire smoke.

So did we, drifted away from one another. Much later when I met him when he was a senior public servant, he seemed to have lost much of this zest for life, but then that happens when you become a fully-fledged bureaucrat.

However, he was also fighting renal failure.

I read Pat Turner’s Charlie Perkins Oration this year, and even though I am not sure I agree with everything she said, she was right in saying that Charlie – the Charlie I knew – never backed down. Yet he showed a willingness to engage in all sides of politics. Later I was to have quite a bit to do with Congress, the Aboriginal Health Service which grew out his early activity in Alice Springs. It is a pity Charlie died while still a relatively young man, succumbing to one of the sequelae of that most deadly infections to Aboriginal people – the streptococcal bacteria.

Conquering that scourge of Aboriginal people still remains. It is not the only one.

Charlie to my mind was the first person who taught me the etiquette of equality of the whitefella in the eyes of the Aboriginal person.  I never attained the level that we could have called each other “brother”, but he enriched my life. Aboriginals were not a cute fringe eating witchety grubs, playing in mission dirt or conforming to a stereotype imposed on them.

Thanks, Charlie for being around when you were – brief as it was. However, you opened up a new perspective for me, and in so doing enriched my life in so many ways.

John Kitzhaber Concludes – A New Model for the Nation

Dr John Kitzhaber

A financially sustainable system designed for value and health can take many forms, but it must include five core elements:

  1. Universal coverage;
  2. Defined benefits;
  3. Assumption of risk by providers and accountability for quality and outcomes;
  4. Capped total cost of care through a global budget indexed to a sustainable growth rate; and
  5. Cost prevention by addressing the social determinants of health.

Here is one example. Starting with our current public-private financing structure, modify the three large insurance pools that currently define the US healthcare system.

  • Pool 1: To achieve universal coverage (element 1), restore the ACA individual mandate but ensure that people have affordable health plans in which to enrol. Expand Medicaid eligibility to include the 28 million people who are currently uninsured or create a new, affordable, publicly subsidized option to offer them. At the same time, move Pool 1 to a CCO-like capitated model that encompasses elements 2 through 5. If coverage in the individual market is unaffordable, those below a certain income level (e.g. 450 percent of the federal poverty level) could buy into Pool 1 with income-based cost sharing, which would make universal coverage more feasible. This is particularly important today as millions of people are losing their employment-based coverage and moving to Medicaid or the individual market.
  • Pool 2: Because Original Medicare is still paid through fee-for-service, the program must be moved to a capitated model. One approach would be to create incentives to enrol in a Medicare Advantage Plan (most of which are already capitated) and change the Medicare Advantage Plans that are still fee-for-service to capitated models that meet elements 2 through 4. Because reimbursement would now be based on managing cost and improving health, Medicare Advantage Plans would better incentivize providers to view their patients as a whole through, for example, nutrition counselling or working with social services for safe housing, thereby meeting element 5.
  • Pool 3: Allow the remaining markets—employer-sponsored medium and large group and self-insured markets—to operate as they do today, negotiating prices with health plans and using their market power to insist on capitated risk contracts with provider networks. The public sector price negotiations outlined below would provide a benchmark, giving employers additional leverage in negotiating prices in the commercial market. This advantage should be amplified by forming new partnerships with Unions

Continue the transformation by using the consolidated purchasing power of Pools 1 and 2 to negotiate one set of prices for both pools. This would include not only what providers are paid per beneficiary (risk-adjusted according to each beneficiary’s expected care needs) but also prescription drugs, medical devices, laboratory services, imaging, and all the other niche business models that have been established under the fee-for-service model to maximize revenue. This kind of price negotiation is what most large private employers (making up the majority of Pool 3) do today. Public payers should follow suit by using the consolidated purchasing power of the public sector—which is footing an ever-larger part of the bill—to get the best price and value for the United States of America community. If the public sector were so inclined, it would also be possible to both negotiate limits on individuals’ out-of-pocket expenses and ensure there are no caps on annual or lifetime benefits.

The result would be a new system of universal coverage built on our current public-private financing structure. With the majority of Americans in some form of capitated risk model, this new system (1) reduces the total cost of care through price negotiations, a global budget indexed to a sustainable growth rate, and provider accountability for quality outcomes; (2) preserves consumer choice and allows current insurers to compete for Pools 1 and 2 in a restructured market; and (3) delivers more and more value and health because it requires strategic, long-term, effective investments in the social determinants of health.

This is merely one way to design a new, health-focused, financially sustainable system. There are others. My objective here is not to advocate for the example I have just outlined here, but rather to spark a new debate that will lead to a better system. Instead of being constrained by what currently exists, we need to start with our objective, agree on essential elements, and then let the contours of the new system emerge. Long-term, this will serve us better than starting with a plan that may not meet the criteria needed to achieve our goal. For example, while both Medicare for All and a public option are ways to achieve universal coverage (element 1), neither directly addresses the total cost of care (elements 3 and 4) or focuses on increasing investment in the social determinants of health (element 5). Surely, we can imagine linking the total cost of medical care to a sustainable growth rate within the next few years. Then we can work backward to create a health system that meets the objectives of Democrats by expanding coverage and improving health and meets the objectives of Republicans by reducing the rate of medical inflation through fiscal discipline and responsibility.

COVID-19 and the Urgency of Now  

As the healthcare system has become ever more dependent on public debt, its financial underpinnings have become inexorably linked to the capacity of the government to borrow. That capacity has been suddenly and dramatically diminished by COVID-19 and by the business closures and high unemployment resulting from efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

To prevent a complete collapse of the economy, there has been a massive federal intervention to keep credit flowing and to provide loan guarantees and direct payments to businesses and individuals. America will have to spend at least $5 trillion this year alone to sustain our economic infrastructure and to support its unemployed. This will leave us with an unprecedented budget deficit and a national debt approaching $28 trillion—with little or no capacity to absorb the 60 percent growth in health care spending that is projected by 2028 (from $3.7 to $6.2 trillion), especially when prices for medical goods and services are projected to account for 43 percent of that growth.

The pandemic is forcing us into an era of dramatic constraints on the public resources allocated to the healthcare system. Neither the government nor private-sector employers can afford the current system anymore, given the economic losses that both employers and individuals have experienced since February and the massive amount of public debt that has been accumulated just to hold our economy together. At the same time, those parts of the healthcare system that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 are those most dependent on fee-for-service reimbursement, which exposes the basic flaw in a business model that depends on volume, regardless of the value of the services rendered.

This economic crisis means that, for the first time, the economic interests of workers, employers, the government, and many parts of the healthcare sector are aligned. The time to transform the system is now. We have crossed the Rubicon, and there is no going back. We can either watch our current system unravel, with millions more losing coverage and ever-widening income inequality, or we can work together to design a system that helps stabilize our economy and better serves the needs of the American people.

The Role of Unions

This is the moment for more states, facing huge general fund shortfalls, to move to a CCO-like care model for Medicaid, and for Congress, facing staggering debt, to create incentives for Medicare beneficiaries to enrol in a Medicare Advantage Plan and to move that program to a fully capitated model in which providers assume risk for quality and outcomes. Health professionals should be vocal advocates for both of these changes—and that advocacy should be backed up by the strength of the union movement to bring this model to the commercial market. This will require forging new alliances at the bargaining table between Unions and payers—both public and private.

Coverage of the cost of healthcare is, of course, part of the total compensation package, which means that in collective bargaining, wages are often pitted against health benefits. For public employees, general fund appropriations for healthcare compete not only with general funds for wages but also for essentials like increasing nurse staffing ratios, reducing class sizes, and investing in housing and other social determinants of health. The traditional goal in bargaining over healthcare is to reduce, to the greatest extent possible, out-of-pocket costs for Union members (which is very important).

The problem is that focusing only on this aspect of the total compensation package—without questioning the cost structure, quality, or efficiency of the care being purchased—suppresses wage growth. Without aggressively challenging the cost structure and value of the healthcare being purchased, the dollars spent on rising premiums flow into a system that redistributes them upward, taking money from the pockets of working Americans to enrich the profits of large corporations and wealthy individuals (further exacerbating income inequality).

A CCO-like model would be better because it caps the total cost of care without sacrificing quality and it realizes savings to invest in the social determinants of health—including wages. Particularly for workers making minimum wage or close to it, income is a primary driver of health.

Employees and employers have a shared economic interest in reducing the rate of medical inflation and in focusing on value and health. Providers, for the first time, now have an economic interest in changing the payment model from fee-for-service to capitated because this is the only way they can survive in an era that no longer can sustain debt financing. From the standpoint of the Labour movement, CCO-like models could result in increased wages, better staffing ratios, and more funding for education and other services that are critical to making our society more just.

This need for greater social investment must  emphasized. Reducing the total cost of care will assist all working Americans (not just those with union representation) because it will make not only their wages go further but also relieve them of the anxiety of not knowing whether the next illness will push them into bankruptcy. And it will give us, at last, the ability to address the conditions of injustice that underlie disease.

Let’s Begin Now!

Creating a new system with the five core elements will take time. But there is much we must do quickly. Because the economic consequences of the pandemic—particularly the increase in unemployment, with its associated loss of workplace-based coverage—are driving us toward Pool 1 (Medicaid, the uninsured, and the ACA marketplace), this is the logical place to start.

The most urgent coverage problem is for those who are not offered or have lost workplace-based coverage and whose income is too high for Medicaid (above 138 percent of the federal poverty level) but too low to afford the individual market. These struggling individuals are joined by a growing number of underinsured Americans who are technically covered by employer-sponsored plans but face copayments and deductibles so high that for all practical purposes they are uninsured. People of color—particularly Black, Hispanic, and Native American people—make up disproportionate numbers of both of these groups.

The state of Oregon offers an illustration of both the problem and the opportunity. By the end of April, 266,600 Oregonians had lost their jobs (an unemployment rate of 14.2 percent). An estimated 215,800 of these people will be eligible for Medicaid, 20,500 will move to the ACA exchanges, and 30,300 will remain uninsured.20 Because Medicaid is entirely financed with public resources and the ACA exchanges are heavily subsidized with public dollars, this amounts to a dramatic increase in public sector financing of healthcare. In terms of the healthcare model proposed in this essay, Oregon’s Pool 1 is expected to increase from 34.9 percent to 41.3 percent of the state’s population over a few months.

Furthermore, if 80 percent of those who lack health coverage in Oregon made use of coverage for which they are currently eligible—Medicaid or the subsidies available through the ACA marketplace—the number of Oregonians who are uninsured would drop from almost 250,000 to 34,000 (from 6.2 percent to < 1 percent). The only obstacle is the total cost of care.

Since states are facing enormous budget deficits and the federal government is facing a looming debt crisis, it is imperative that shifts toward public financing be accompanied by effective mechanisms to reduce the total cost of care through global budgets (indexed to a sustainable growth rate, with providers at risk for quality and outcomes). At the same time, such global budgets are now more appealing to many hospitals and primary care practices because of the sharp loss of revenue among those with fee-for-service models.

Mouse Whisper

I know we were all keen on Amy Klobucher, when she seemed to be the most articulate candidate back in those days when the Democratic race was like the first at Rosehill. She dropped out, and although considered as Biden’s running mate, she missed out here also to Kamala Harris.

However, the most final reason for her not getting the nod was:

She’s from Minnesota!

In explanation, no Minnesotan has ever made President, and such a judgement tends to stick once voiced. At least Barcelona is not in Minnesota.

Modest Expectations – Derby Day in Walla Walla

State Capital West Virginia

It was late in the day some years ago and we had just driven past the capital of West Virginia, Charleston. The golden capital strikingly stood above the low-level smog which was layered over the city itself. Here we were in the Alleghenies, a 640 kms portion of the Appalachia, a rich source of coal. Here pitched battles were once fought between the miners and the mine owners – called the coal wars. The reason lay in the fact that during this period more miners were killed here in accidents than were lost by the US armed forces in World War 1.

West Virginia had been carved from Virginia in 1863 during the American Civil War, partially because the West Virginians did not follow most of Virginia which seceded at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Yet the electoral base and its Democrat traditions lay in its workers, radical by American unionism standards, reinforced by the memories of the coal wars.

I wondered, as we approached the entrance to this property with its imposing edifice, whether it was a hotel where we could stay for the night. I drove in and the colonnaded entrance suggested that perhaps I had inadvertently driven into a private estate. However, I got out of the car, in jeans and all, and entered the building in all innocence to enquire what was this place.

The Greenbrier

The man behind the reception desk looked me up and down and said, “Sir, this is The Greenbrier.”

As I learnt very quickly, The Greenbrier was the place where Presidents stayed, and I found out there were references to them as far back as Polk and Tyler. I thought the car parking space for the resident golf professional at the time, Sam Snead, said it all. This was a comfortable Republican enclave in the heart of what was a poverty-stricken mining area. I remembered once, on a flight north in Australia, there was a dishevelled guy sitting next to me. We got talking, although I had difficulty understanding him; he turned out to be a miner going up to the coal mines in Queensland. He was from West Virginia, and his mumbled English was full of archaic constructions and words that meant nothing – it was a dialect probably based on 17th or 18th century English. In the end, in the light aircraft, the noise of the plane made it impossible to talk and we lapsed into silence.

But back to The Greenbrier. The Government had built a huge bunker at the hotel during the height of the Cold War, which had the capacity to house the whole of the Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. The facility had long been decommissioned by the time we had stayed. I believe I was punished for my disrespectful comment as the room assigned was so far from the main building that it almost collided with the fence and was well behind the bunker. Still, they allowed us into the dining room.

However, before that could occur, the reception desk clerk had said, “If you wish to dine in, sir, you will need a jacket.”

“No worries.” I had a jacket – a blazer in fact.

A key was pushed towards me. The Greenbrier had welcomed us, after a fashion. Menofregismo as the Italians would say.

West Virginia has always been reliably Democrat, but now no more.  The three Congress members are all Republicans; only one of the two senators is a Democrat and over 50 per cent of the time he voted with or for Trump, even in the impeachment he was only one who crossed over from his Democrats for Trump.

From being reliably Democrat, now West Virginia is almost the most Republican State if judged by the vote for Trump here recently – all changed in a decade! Biden received less than 30 per cent.

The use of coal is rapidly dying, so it would be a useful exercise for the Biden Government to determine how to restructure the West Virginian economy to phase out coal. It is more difficult than just bribing the mine owners to provide the semblance of work by keeping uneconomic mines open. However, it probably would be just as cheap for the Government to bypass the owners and pay the miners a living wage disguised as a redundancy package or employ them to resuscitate the once pristine landscape mined over the past 150 years.

After all, the wealthy and influential were prepared to invest in an opulent playground here, including the Congress shelter bunker. Notwithstanding that it had been decommissioned well before we stayed, here was further evidence of the very essence of privilege in one of the poorest parts of the country.

The latter part of the last century and into this, first as governor and then as Senator, Jay Rockefeller, the great-grandson of John D Rockefeller, as a Democrat (unusual because the rest of the family were solidly Republican) won most of his elections by huge margins. There is little doubt that during his long association with West Virginia he and the coal industry were on very good terms – for most of the time. However, towards his retirement, he began to realise the impact of coal on climate. Two years before his retirement, in 2012, he made in the following statement:

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too. 

Here in Australia the problem is that fear has gripped Joel Fitzgibbon, not any constructive thought. His livelihood lounging on the plush red seats of Parliament House is threatened. Forget about climate, but then there are unions agitating for retention of coal mining, and the power of the unions depends on these miners coughing up subscriptions – but for what? As with the car industry, government subsidy for the uneconomic only ends up improving the bottom line of the big foreign-owned companies.

The slick Monsieur Perrottet wants to restore his stained escutcheon by expanding the coal industry in NSW to pay off a short-term debt and in so doing leaving an incalculable environmental debt for generations of Australians; the feathery Premier just keeps talking to see if she can break the world record for not taking a breath. There is some in government with a contrary idea of how to lessen the coal dependency, despite export prices for both coking and thermal coal are being maintained.

Yet there is fear of divesting away from coal. This has been aggravated by the electoral results in Queensland, and by the “near-death experience” of Fitzgibbon in his seat of Hunter. The other NSW coal seats did not seem to mirror the same extreme behaviour.

There is another problem, and that is the Fly-in-Fly-Out miners. This expanding cohort should not be confused in the arguments over the hearts and minds of the local coal miners.

As one local Mount Isa correspondent has written:

The issue of Fly In Fly Out did not get much of a look-in in the federal election, perhaps because it is mainly seen as a state issue.

FIFO is convenient for workers who want to live by the coast but still enjoy high-paid jobs in remote locations.

It is also convenient for companies who have better control over their staff and their movements whether it be on chartered flights, mining camps or buses.

But it is a terrible deal for places like Mount Isa and the towns of North West Queensland which get all of the downsides of a large mining operation on their doorstep but few of the benefits.

Yes I understand that airports, motels, pubs and clubs, and the like do well out of a transient workforce but other businesses not so well.

The wear and tear of mining operations on roads and other facilities is a cost borne by those communities. And only this morning did I hear a speaker at a MineX breakfast talk about the need for a local work force because without that “we have no social licence to operate”.

The Queensland government recognised the issue with the Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities Act introduced last year to ban 100% FIFO mining near towns like Mount Isa and Cloncurry.

However, companies can get around this simply by posting one staff member locally which meets the wording of the act but not the intent.”

Balmain coal miners

Great is it not; with one selfish self-centred politician intent on contaminating the narrative of moving away from coal.  A leader, if one can term Albanese that, should have called him out immediately.  Or do I do Mr Albanese a disservice. Maybe he really wants to see the Balmain coal mines re-opened in his electorate.  Fitzgibbon can’t have it all his own way. After all, my late neighbour used to tell me that, as a boy, he would go around the corner to the coal dump and bring coal home for the stove and the fire. It was said that Balmain was then quite a sooty turn to behold.

As a 40-year resident, I remember seeing the entrance to the mine.   After all, to that smooth genius, Monsieur Perrottet, reopening the mine shafts under the Harbour would bring lots of “coal hard cash” and so convenient – or not. And what a jape – reopening a coal mine in a Green electorate. Problem is that is where Perrottet and his fellow travellers want to scar Australia, the wildlife do not vote. However, in Balmain, I am assured that Monsieur would find a different form of wildlife – one that rumbles around the suburb in their Land Cruisers looking for anybody with a lump coal in their political pocket. After all, Monsieur wants to demolish the White Bay Power Station – perhaps a new location for an underground coal mine.

But I stray from my West Virginian narrative – at least I have a narrative.

While America looks away.

I was rummaging through my old magazines and I came across a copy of a Harper’s dated August 1999, in which there is an article where two journalists were assigned to report on Cyprus – flipping a coin to determine which of them travelled to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the other to the Republic of Cyprus. As the lead-in to that article, it was stated; “Cyprus remains partitioned, a case study in how ethnic hatred perpetuates itself but perhaps also a manual on how peace can be sustained in places like Kosovo”.

It was nearly 20 years later that my friend and I walked across the Green Zone that separated the two sides of the divided Nicosia, the major city of Cyprus.

There is something strange walking across what is essentially the line where battle formally ended.  A few peacekeepers wearing blue berets are moving around inside the buildings and the only sound is a radio blaring out modern pop. There is nobody to block our crossing through the rubble strewn street, only a strange sense of abandonment, although you know eyes are watching you in the CCTV cameras slung along your pathway. Passing from one side to the other met with little interference from the Cypriot or Turkish side.

Once we were across then there was the question of transport. We did not have to wait long before a taxi pulled up and took us to Kyrenia, a seaside town on the Turkish side where we had a pleasant seafood lunch. The taxi driver said he would return, and he did, punctually. The only noticeable difference from one side to the other was the appearance of mosques; the cars still drive on the left, irrespective of which side of the green lines one drives.

Cyprus is the only place outside the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland in Europe where there is a remnant link to the previous British occupation – driving on the left hand side of the road.

In 1878 Cyprus entered the British Empire under rather unusual circumstances. The Ottoman Empire had just been at war with Russia and were very much in danger of losing control of their capital Constantinople. The British intervened in the crisis on the side of the Ottoman Turks by sending a fleet to intimidate the Russians. The Ottoman Sultan was so thankful for the British intervention that he granted the control of the island of Cyprus to Queen Victoria. This lasted until 1960 when independence was gained. Throughout the 1950s a Greek terrorist group EOKA, under a former Nazi collaborator George Grivas, exacted a price on British occupation, a killing spree of British soldiers and Turkish Cypriots in the main.

The British still retain armed forces bases there on territory that was ceded to the United Kingdom on independence. That means that slivers of Cyprus remain British soil.

While there was a myth abroad that the Turkish and Greek Cypriot relations had been harmonious before the invasion but after Independence, that was far from the truth. The Green Zone actually began a line drawn by the British in 1963 because of strife between the two.

By 1974, the treatment of the Turkish Cypriots was bad enough for Turkey to intervene, and it did not take that long for the Greek Cypriots to quickly sue for peace. This led to fragmented jurisdictions, separated by a UN peace force which have, since the ceasefire, patrolled the Green Zone that extends across the island, cutting through Nicosia as mentioned above.

There the line has remained intact despite regular exchange of obscenities, rock throwing, and the more serious “cocking and pointing”.

When the Harper’s article was written there was very limited access across the border. The two journalists met once, face to face, for coffee in Pyla, a small fishing village within the Green Zone.

There may have been calm when we visited, but there was residual bitterness. We were there at a time before Erdogan came on the scene with all his populist fury. However, he probably recognises what one Greek Cypriot soldier said when asked whether he would retaliate: “No,” he said smiling, “We are careful not to provoke them, because we are the weaker side.” 

Erdogan must know that and after the defeat of Armenia recently, he may be tempted to have a “go” at Cyprus.

Apart from the increased access across the Green Zone, since the 1999 Harper’s article was written, another phenomenon has occurred. It was first evident when I picked up the menu at the hotel in Limassol where we were staying. The menu was not only in Greek and English but also in Russian. The Russians have made a large investment in Cyprus – either with or without Putin’s collusion. Who would know the extent of each?

Now there is a cohort of Russians who have not only invested in property but also have bought Cyprus passports, a practice contrary to EU rules. Under pressure from the EU, Cyprus has now withdrawn that permission to buy into the Republic. Unlike Armenia, Cyprus is a member of the EU, but the Russian passports have not been cancelled.

However, would that matter given that America is now  distracted and if the Turkish Cypriot grievances are inflamed by Erdogan, how would the Republic respond? Seek Greek support? It was not there in 1974.   Would it be now?

The European Union?  Does the EU want to go to war with Turkey, a member of NATO? After all, it was NATO bombing of Serbian held positions and a USA-brokered peace which, in the 1990s, ended that perennial obsession of the Serbs to dominate the Balkans.

This is different political chemistry, and one without a strong America, with a lame-duck President with Russian connections still at the helm. Cyprus has inhospitable mountainous areas. Don’t we know it? We got lost in the wilds of Cyprus, and only worked our way out by pointing the car down the mountains, but at least there was a track to follow.

So military conquest of Cyprus is not just a case of rolling up to seaside resorts like Limassol and Paphos in Turkish tanks. The mountains are perfect for guerrilla warfare.

So-called Russian peacekeepers could already be there to help – and themselves – as they have done in Armenia. They might be there to welcome the invading Turks.

As for the sovereign British bases, maybe Boris would let the Russians have them. After all, he could say it is part of his Brexit plan. Hopefully no one would write, as Queen Mary did with “Calais”, that Cyprus will be written on his heart.

Nevertheless, it should not be ignored that the Russians doing the Trump

Presidency have built up a seasoned defence force, which has honed its skills in Syria and elsewhere. Why not Cyprus? Why not indeed!

John Kitzhaber continues his analysis of the US health system…

Dr John Kitzhaber

Public Resources

We need to understand the central role of public dollars in our healthcare system. Healthcare is the only economic sector that produces goods and services which none of its customers can afford. This system only works because the cost of medical care for individuals is heavily subsidized with public resources. This happens directly through public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. It also happens indirectly through the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and through the public subsidies in the individual insurance market established through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As a result, about 90 percent of Americans depend on public subsidies to help them cover the cost of their care—all except the 28 million Americans who remain uninsured. These people are not eligible for a public subsidy themselves, but through their taxes they help subsidize the cost of healthcare for everyone else. This egregious situation reflects the systemic inequality that exists not only in our healthcare system but also across our whole society.

Thus, the central issue in the healthcare debate involves the allocation of public resources, which represent a kind of fiscal commons. They are shared resources raised from society as a whole—and they should be allocated in a way that benefits all of us, not just some of us.

The National Debt

We also need to recognize that our healthcare system is increasingly financed with debt. Why? Because public resources are finite and Congress is borrowing ever more money to pay for existing programs and services—including health care. This fact is reflected in the congressional budget deficit and in our national debt. The national debt is the accumulation of years of budget deficits and represents the amount of money that has been borrowed to cover the difference between congressional spending and the tax revenue available to pay for it. Since healthcare now accounts for over 28 percent of the federal budget not spent on interest—and is projected to grow to 33 percent by 2028—it has become a major driver of the national debt.

This means that as the population ages and the cost of care continues to rise, the economic viability of the healthcare system will increasingly depend on borrowing money—and on the capacity of the federal government to absorb more debt. If the capacity to borrow is constrained, the financial underpinnings of the healthcare system begin to unravel. Since COVID-19 has created exactly this constraint on borrowing, a healthcare financing crisis that was on the horizon is now at our door.

Income Inequality

Furthermore, a growing share of the money borrowed to prop up our medical system is not being used to expand coverage. Instead, it is enriching the profits of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Let me be very clear: our current healthcare system is increasing income inequality through a process called rent seeking. This occurs when powerful stakeholders manipulate public policy to increase their own wealth without the creation of new wealth (i.e. they take more of the pie without making the pie bigger). For example, when the pharmaceutical industry convinced Congress to prohibit the government from negotiating drug prices for the 60 million Americans on Medicare, it distorted the market by putting the power in the sellers’ hands to set whatever prices they wish. After many news stories about “big pharma”, more people have become aware of concerns with drug prices. What seems to be less well known is just how profitable medical insurance is: in 2019, the seven largest for-profit insurers had combined revenue of over $900 billion and profits of $35.6 billion, a 66 percent increase over 2018.The result of the rent seeking that is evident throughout the health care industry is lower disposable income for the individuals who have to pay those inflated prices, increased profits for the companies, and wider income inequality.

Health versus Health Care

Finally, we need to recognize that the goal of the healthcare system should be to keep people healthy, not just to finance medical care. In other words, it needs to address the social determinants of health—access to healthy food and clean water, safe housing, a reliable living wage, family and community stability, and more—which have a far greater impact than medical care on the health of both individuals and communities. Yet the ever-increasing cost of care compromises our ability to invest in these things.

Today, healthcare providers and the system have different goals. While most care providers are trying to enhance people’s health, they nevertheless work in a system where the incentives are to increase profits and redistribute more wealth to the wealthy.

Confronting the Total Cost of Care

Improving health requires a financially sustainable system that ensures that all Americans have timely access to effective medical care

and

that makes long-term investments in the social determinants of health. To achieve these dual goals requires five core elements:

  1. Universal coverage;
  2. A defined set of benefits;
  3. A delivery system that assumes risk and accountability for quality and outcomes;
  4. A global budget indexed to a sustainable rate of growth; and
  5. A cost prevention strategy that allocates some of the savings to addressing the social determinants of health. A system that incorporates these elements can take many forms, but without all five we cannot achieve our goal of improving health in a financially sustainable way.

There are two primary obstacles keeping us from moving toward a new system focused on value and health: the way the debate has been framed, and the cost-shifting strategies that—until the pandemic—allowed us to avoid the growing discrepancy between the cost of the system and our ability to pay for it.

How the Debate Is Framed

For decades, the national healthcare debate has been paralysed largely because neither Democrats nor Republicans have seriously challenged the underlying healthcare business model—the debate has been over what level of funding to provide. The current business model is built around fee-for-service reimbursement. The more they do, the more they get paid. Since the fees paid for medical services usually are not linked in a meaningful way to a positive health outcome for the person receiving the care, the system incentives are aligned with maximizing revenue rather than maximizing health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) attempted to move away from this model with incentives to participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs), which are networks of providers that shared in savings if they delivered care more efficiently (called upside risk). The problem is that the ACOs were not required to assume any significant degree of downside risk, in which they had to refund a payer if the actual costs of care exceeded a financial benchmark. Furthermore, the ACA did not take on the rent seeking (transferring wealth to the wealthy) that accounts for so much of the cost in the system. As a consequence, the cost of health care grew from $2.6 trillion in 2010 to $3.6 trillion in 2019.

In the wake of the ACA, both major political parties have continued to debate only the extent to which we should fund the system, creating a false choice between cost and access. This false choice is reflected in the Republican view that the cost of health care is unsustainable and must be constrained, and in the Democrat view that any reduction in spending will reduce access. Both sides are right, if they remain wedded to the current business model.

Republican proposals to “repeal and replace” the ACA would simply reduce the public subsidies in the current business model, increasing the number of uninsured Americans and exacerbating the inequity that already exists. Democrat efforts to expand coverage through proposals like “Medicare for All” would significantly increase public subsidies but within the same inflationary fee-for-service business model, adding to the burden of debt that future generations will have to pay. To put it another way, Republican proposals increase inequity and harm people today; Democrat proposals increase the debt and harm people tomorrow.

Cost-Shifting Strategies

Framing the debate in this way allows legislative bodies to avoid directly addressing the cost of care by simply shifting that cost somewhere else, a strategy used by other third-party payers (insurance companies and employers). As the total cost of care increases, instead of seeking to reduce it, these payers take actions that shift the cost to individuals, who cannot afford it, or to future generations. Here are the most common cost-shifting strategies:

  • Reducing eligibility, cutting benefits, and/or raising co-payments and deductibles—all of which shift costs to individuals;
  • Reducing provider reimbursement, which may result in efforts by providers to avoid caring for those who cannot pay and/or lead to increased fees by providers when they are caring for people who are insured; and
  • Increasing debt-financed public subsidies, which shifts the burden to our children and grandchildren.

Importantly, none of these cost-shifting strategies reduce the total cost of care, which is the central structural problem in our system. Before COVID-19, we were able to rely on these strategies, particularly debt-financed public subsidies, to avoid the difficult choices necessary for a solution. But given the economic crisis we face now, we must directly confront the total cost of care. Fortunately, this gives us the opportunity to pursue new strategies that both redesign the current hyperinflationary business model and invest in those things that have the greatest impact on health and well-being.

To be concluded

Mouse Whisper

Out of an abundance of caution

ex abundanti cautela

In law, describes someone taking precautions against a very remote contingency. “One might wear a belt in addition to braces ex abundanti cautela”. In banking, a loan in which the collateral is more than the loan itself. Also, the basis for the term “an abundance of caution” employed by United States President Barack Obama to explain why the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts had to re-administer the Presidential oath of office, and again in reference to terrorist threats.

In reference to Chief Justice Roberts, who flubbed it the first time, Obama recognised the deep conspiracy and made him do it again – correctly. Our authority is the impeccable, Il pagliacco Guiliani.

Just a quote dripping with irony, it has become the favourite phrase of the month, and it seems that is how one formally approaches the Virus, but you must be in full evening dress with all medals displayed (sic).

For we mice it is more that we’re “Out of our barn dance our Cat’s in”.