Modest expectations – Carthaginian Vanilla

How appalling is Mr Albanese suggesting that the Parliament adjourn for a whole day as a part of respect and condolences admixed with confected piety.

All that does is delay what he then said is vital – that is, the passage of urgent legislation.

Otherwise such a gesture is symbolic of Parliament – hypocrisy and inaction.

By all means apologise that you did nothing about preventing the bushfires but spare us the crocodile tears – and get on with the business of government. In fact you should be meeting earlier.

And incidentally get away from this Albo and Scomo nonsense. It sounds as if they are clowns.

No caption required

Fell or Fall

I have written about clearing the trees around the house surrounded by bush. That’s fine if your land does not abut land where the owners can’t be found. The chap who cleared parts of the block and the boundaries asked Council about the absent owner. The Council were not particularly interested; so we went ahead and took down the trees on the boundary and in so doing, cleared the scrub from a large section of the block. This was last year. There were several trees that required a specialist arborist to fell them safely so that they did not fall on the house – a possibility if you do not have the specialist knowledge. In addition the insurance companies take a dim view of those who are literally “cutting corners”.

Even with gutter guard to prevent the accumulation of leaves in the gutters, these trees were a fire risk. We have a celery pine growing close to the back door. That was spared but pruned, as was the leatherwood, so essential for the bees to make honey with its distinctive flavour.

The detritus of forest clearing

However the mass of fallen trees if left present a problem. It was bought to mind by the allegation that the NSW Forestry Corporation leaves what is called “slash” after they have cut down trees. This outcome should be remembered anytime the foresters say we need “to thin the trees”. As you drive through areas which have recently been harvested, there is always a lot of residual wood left in the cleared coup. Around settlements, some trees when they are cleared by Councils are wood chipped, but these wood chipping enterprises seem to be carried out alongside roads where bringing in the appropriate machinery requires clear access.

But back to our block – left with a large pile of wood, there were several ways to go. We could have a controlled burn – a “pile fire” – with the local volunteer fire brigade using it as a training exercise. That proved not to be feasible. The pile of wood was on the absent landowner’s property. Then there was the problem that there was never suitable weather for such a burn to be organised safely, or so the local fire chief said.

In the end, we had the pile of wood removed, some of it would be used as firewood as many of the houses still have open fireplaces, but the rest moved to garden waste – still flammable but away from the property.

There is still a way to go, but bushfire prevention needs a concerted approach if the community is not to end in charred regrets.

Next to our property is a deserted miners cottage, which was illegally moved on site many years ago. It had been lived in, but now the empty land is covered in blackberries. Blackberries have also threaded their way along the foreshore and there has been no attempt to remove the bushes; the trees have been allowed to increase in number, because some eucalypts and melaleucas proliferate at a great rate. There is now a thick line of bush between the foreshore and the heritage footpath – so much so that visitors walk on the road at night because the footpath is too dark. The only clear line of sight to the harbour along this foreshore is in front of the former mayor’s property.

In the end in this over-governed country, we the ratepayers depend on the competency of local government and its finances are dependent on the ratepayers and the amount of money that trickles down from the State and Federal governments. So, can I ask what is being done about those people who buy a bush block and then do nothing to clear vegetation?

In our case on each side that is the situation. We have taken unilateral action, as we prefer prevention to “re-embering” a once pristine countryside.

Tasmania is here to burn. This is a serial problem, a new ABC soapie called “Burnt Hills”?

Postscript

I bought my wife a chainsaw for her birthday. No, we shall not destroy the habitat of the New Holland Honeyeaters or the wrens, who of course love a pile of rotting timber as a habitat. Then perched in the trees are the yellow-tailed black cockatoos. Green rosellas come calling once in a while – they are particularly fond of stripping fern fronds. There is still plenty of bush, but as the local fire captain said, keep it at least 30 metres back from your house. Enter the chain saw.

However, there are still those melaleucas, which are constantly sprouting. We cut them down. What next? The wood has few commercial usages, beyond a brush fence which was constructed years ago when the Council accidentally cleared a piece of our property and we needed a temporary fence while the undergrowth grew back.

Here on the west coast of Tasmania I thought we would be free of the bushfire smoke. However silly me – the population and wildlife of the West Coast are enshrouded in smoke. I worry that my grandchildren will show photographs of what their grandchildren will never have seen as they splutter with their chronic respiratory disease – blue skies.

A small question

One of the intriguing facts of the recent bush fires, which came to light in the fire started in Ebor, a self-styled village in the northern tablelands of NSW, is the impact of illicit crops. Here some guy tried to “back burn” to save his marijuana crop and in doing so set the bush alight with horrendous effect. I have been through Ebor some years ago, and chose not to stop. It is duelling banjoes country.

Even more dangerous are “meth labs”? A large one of those turned up as well. The bush has a way of hiding all manner of things, but the production facilities are flammable.

I have tried to find out whether growing marijuana in the bush leads to small isolated communities resistant to bushfire evacuation for obvious reasons. If marijuana growing in isolated communities can be substantiated, then such horticultural endeavour presents a hazard to human life, if nothing else. The answers don’t lie in intensifying police action, which in turn leads to hiding cultivation in more and more remote inaccessible bush.

However, it is a vexed situation as was tobacco cultivation in the Ovens Valley – the last place in Australia where it was commercially grown. I was working in Myrtleford in the years of the last tobacco crops grown there; we watched the whole farce of growers, “standover merchants” and various government agencies chasing one another around the district at harvest time which was enough for the government to enact their own variety of “chop-chop”.

Tobacco at Myrtleford

The crop is no longer grown in the Ovens Valley, and it is not a crop that is easily able to be illicitly grown there. The kilns for drying the tobacco leaf are a giveaway although many have now been re-purposed as stylish Airbnb accommodation. Anyway Australian tobacco leaf was never rated as much good, and until the early 1980s it was one of, if not the most heavily subsidised crop grown in Australia because of its inferior quality. I remember being a party before the Industry Assistance Commission Inquiry, on behalf of the medical profession, to argue the case for the subsidy to be withdrawn.

Therefore, given the changing attitudes to marijuana cultivation, would it not be better grown in controlled conditions away from the bush? After all, it would be one way to enhance tourism if they could visit a legal greenhouse and see the crop under cultivation and sample … just a thought.

I have a bone to pick with you

An interesting emergency occurred last week when we were having a meal of fish and chips. A fish bone lodged in my wife’s throat. This once happened to me when I was having a meal in Derby in the Kimberley. It was probably barramundi, and fortunately I was having the meal with the legendary outback doctor, Randy Spargo. The spectre of being evacuated to Perth, a distance of 1800 kilometres, confronted me if the bone could not be dislodged. Water and bread was Randy’s solution, and after the initial trial, we went to the local hospital to pursue his cure. Randy was extraordinary – it was as though he talked the bread down – a “bone whisperer”. Randy had worked for a long time among Aboriginal people and at one point had an Aboriginal partner. Randy had a very calming way of handling a situation that could have turned awkward. In the end, the bone cleared my throat, whether “talked down” or not.

We went back to the café and finished our meal. Next to the restaurant was a meeting of Pentecostalists, complete with glossolalia and very audible groaning, which created a fraught atmosphere when we left for the hospital. When we returned after the bone had “gone South”, all was silent.

So last week we embarked on the bread and water exercise. It was unsuccessful, as was the banana; so we called an ambulance and with the expectation of there being at least an hour’s delay then dialled a general practitioner friend for any other suggestions to try in the meantime. He suggested that the bone might be caught up in a tonsillar crypt, and reassured us that if it was not causing breathing problems we could leave it until the morning and via a referral from the general practitioner to an ear, nose and throat specialist the bone could probably be removed under local anaesthesia. This would be a two-stage procedure, potentially drawn out, dependent on the availability of the doctors.

We were about to accept our friend’s advice, and cancel the call to the ambulance when two paramedics turned up after an hour. The situation explained, Rocco, one of the paramedics asked if we had any Coca-Cola or lemonade – something both carbonated and acidic. As we had Coca-Cola he suggested my wife gargle with it. She went out to the kitchen, gargled and Eureka, it worked almost immediately. A few gulps and all’s well. So we learnt something, because as Rocco said the first response if they had taken her to the Accident & Emergency Department would be to purchase some Coca Cola from a vending machine and see if that shifted the bone.

As there were a few minutes while the fish bone was moving its way down the gullet, I asked how they had found their education. It was nearly 30 years since I undertook a review of the NSW Ambulance Service, and one of my recommendations had been to establish a formal tertiary education course for ambulance officer training, not only to introduce a reproducible training program, but also to assure reciprocity for Ambulance officer recognition between State services. At the time, training was internal and there was no reciprocity between the States. Learning was robotic and one of the teachers was reputed to carry a baseball bat to establish what passed as a learning environment.

It was a time when the NSW Ambulance had more ranks than the British Army such was the promotional system based on seniority rather than qualification. Behind this system was “the Brotherhood”, in which the power of the ambulance service rested at the time. Not a particularly enticing prospect for someone entrusted with review. However the NSW Ambulance Board at the time was progressive. Changes came. It seemed that the education recommendation has survived with these two paramedics being graduates of this system that had its genesis in the early 90s.

As Rebecca, the other paramedic there at the “Fishbone incident” said, looking at me just as they were leaving; “Thanks for the HECS debt!” I think she was joking.

Barramundi

When I have had the best seafood meal, I record it – not the exact date or time as they are immaterial except in a general sort of way. I am too impatient to be an angler and the complexity of the fly fisherman is well beyond my ken. However, I remember inter alia my very best barramundi meal.

It was Good Friday about 20 years ago and the temperature in the shade was in excess of 40oc by mid morning. We had pulled up at a nondescript store outside Wyndham. There was a sign advertising fish and chips, but given the time and place there was no expectation of there being any tucker available. No fish apparent. One of the young Aboriginal guys there looked at the other and said could we wait a half an hour or so. We agreed to wait.

Sure enough – a freshly caught barramundi appeared. One of the guys had gone down to the Gut and speared one. We didn’t mind waiting and then sitting in the shade, the sublime enjoyment of consuming this most notable meal of barramundi. When you are not expecting excellence, you appreciate it so much more. Legally caught? Of course, with a wink.

And one more thing…

I was a bit taken back by the army chief, Angus Campbell, jumping out of a helicopter onto the deck of the “Adelaide” to be surrounded by many cheering troops and saying what a good job they had done. I thought it would be better if this claque were out working in the community rather than giving the General a rousing cheer on a boat moored off Eden.

I wonder what would have happened if the head of the firefighters had called them in for a rousing reception while there were still bushfires all around. Condemnation I suspect.

Irrespective of the motive, with all due respects it was a bad look, redolent of George Bush declaiming on the Abraham Lincoln under a banner “Mission Accomplished.”

The fact is that the defence force was caught unprepared, and while they are obviously learning lessons with them increasingly visible in helping with bushfires, your self-congratulatory action, Angus Campbell, was a poor, unnecessary image which hopefully will not be repeated.

It is the problem with public relations staff trying to justify their existence.

Mouse whisper

The local vicar on the Tasmanian West Coast also owns the earth moving business. One feels very safe in the hands of someone who can move both heaven and earth.

Modest Expectations – The meaning of Life

Stop Press: Premier Andrews will strive to lead Australia out of the charred wilderness at the next Federal election. He is a builder.

Anthony Norman Albanese will make a great Governor- General.

Yet it is reasonable to believe prophecy is just one step ahead of fake news.

Nevertheless, what is going is eerily reminiscent of the Liberal Party Coalition in 1972 when it entered a period of policy paralysis – Vietnam and China being two unresolvable problems. Despite the apparently huge wave of support generated for Whitlam, he did not win a huge majority in the 1972 election. Despite the narrow margin to Whitlam, the two unresolvable were immediately resolvable.

On the other hand Rudd did have a landslide, and in the process the man from which Morrison is seeking advice, John Howard, lost his seat. Australia was prosperous and yet the Prime Minister lost his seat. This had not occurred since 1929 when Australia was struggling economically; Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce was intent on confrontation. He lost his seat of Flinders.

Over the years the fickle nature of the electorate has come to resemble Queensland where there have been electoral landslides over the past 50 years. Queensland is unicameral and thus landslides are not complicated by a House of plush red seats. Rudd and Abbott both won large majorities, but the Senate – the house of the Red Plush – can muddy the policy waters and in between even in the lower house when there are slim margins and independents calling the shots, policy goes out the chamber in a gust of deals.

So bugger bushfire policy, sweetmeats for the privileged and the rent seekers is the go, with parliament a sandpit.

But underlying Dante’s Australia are the climate change denialists.

Young John Howard was a protégé of John Carrick and Bob Cotton, two guys out of Florentine casting, and he was their Chosen One, but it took from 1974 to 1996 for him to achieve his aim – Prime Minister Howard. To be so single-minded requires a certain sort of brain. But John you are 81 and I admire you for your tenacity. You actually made a much better Prime Minister than I thought possible, because you had principles. Many of my achievements were achieved under your watch, although I am not sure you would acknowledge that.

However climate change is reality, just like getting out of Vietnam and recognising China was a reality so long ago when we were both young. And I sure I know where you stood on these two issues, Young John, just like climate change.

Don’t get it wrong again otherwise Daniel Andrews is a real threat to your protégé, Scotty.

In the meantime, read on …

To market, to market, to buy a plum bun, Home again, home again, market is done.

Everybody is concentrating on Scott Morrison in these extraordinary times because politics Australia has never seen such a transparent calculating self-marketeer as its Prime Minister. In this season of the bushfire, his prime aim is that he must not let it consume his base – the Liberal Party of NSW.

He has been wrong-footed, and there is discontent within the ranks. Worse, the country is watching and listening to the ABC and not the Murdoch publications, and Alan Jones, the parrot on his shoulder, is also away. The belated announcement of the call up of reservists, the deployment of aircraft and ships are all good anchors on which to embed images of a forceful leader.

Undermining the NSW Premier is an essential strategy. She and her head of fire fighting have been criticised unsurprisingly with the Daily Telegraph implicated, especially in the plotting. Shane Fitzsimmons has the temerity to say nobody told him of the deployment of defence force staff. Then the blame is smudged in the need for all to come together. Nobody wins by personal spats at a time when the country is burning; but seeds are sowed for a time in the future when social media starts to be infected by stories about what could have been done better before the intervention of the Marketeer.

In marketing terms, the emphasis must be taken away from the States – the fire fighters, which are the Premier’s responsibility and thus the essential ingredient in halting the fires. The emphasis must be transferred to men and women in uniform, his responsibility. The fire fighters only have fire trucks and a few aerial helpers, but the real toys are held by the Defence forces. The Defence Forces can provide the imagery of might, even if they in the present circumstances providing a very public but, if analysed, marginal impact.

A good marketeer demands images and big ships and big aircraft with attendant servicemen and women helping the small child onto a helicopter conveys both concern and relevance. “Army heroes” – The Daily Telegraph shouts on the front page – is ferrying people away in helicopters heroic? Soldiers doing their job – but heroes? In these Telegraph front page images, there is not a firefighter in sight.

After all, the community wants good news stores of heroism and the Defence forces – a federal responsibility – coming to the rescue is the story.

Now the images are collected and the Murdoch Press assured, control of the ABC is the target. Reading the hostility towards Morrison on Twitter by prominent ABC employees will test how strong Ida Buttrose will be under the inevitable “ember attack” by the Murdoch claque. A strategy of inserting a number of friendly commentators repeating the Prime Ministerial mantra into the ABC reporting schedule is underway. I suggest one look at some of the commentators based in Canberra who show the first signs of this phenomenon – earnestly repeating without commentary the government’s media release. Once this is done to the ABC seen as untouchably “independent”, then media control is complete. The ABC becomes a loyal servant, and who cares about a journalist without an outlet.

Prince Valiant coming to save the damsels in distress with an audience of faithful knights and yeomen is a perfect marketing morality play. However, the Prime Minister has a long path to cement that role given the uncertainty of his out-of-town rehearsals, but there is always Jon Shier as producer.

However in deploying the defence Forces, Mr Fitzsimmons recognised the problems when a group untrained in fire fighting are dumped upon him, and he went public. I am sure if he had been informed he would have suggested an appropriate role, but normally outwardly calm, he was obviously irritated that he was not told prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement.

After all, the current Minister of Defence, Linda Reynolds should know. She has had an interesting career. She has had an astonishing rise to one of the major portfolios has this Senator from Western Australia. However, she had two parallel careers: one working as a employee of the Liberal Party and the other as a member of the Army reserve from the age of 19 years, rising to the rank of Brigadier and being awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross. This is a relatively recent award given for conspicuous “non-warlike activities”.

She was wrong footed in taking the Prime Minister’s lead by going to Bali with her family, while Australia burned over Christmas, and leaving her portfolio to Minister Littleproud.* Modest Expectations Joel 11/10/19

Having been in the Army Reserve for 29 years, she would know the capability of the reserve forces. Given the gravity of the present situation her first response was surprising in seeming to criticise Mr Fitzsimmons rather than indicating she wanted to cooperate.

However, she made a big deal of the deployment of reservists when the Prime Minister announced it as unprecedented. The obverse question is why the reservists have been left idle domestically for so many years; again, Minister Reynolds should know. Hence if she thought they could contribute why did she delay any recommendation given that she would be well aware that mobilisation of such resources takes time. Or did she recommend in a suitable time that they be deployed and her advice was initially rejected. I presume she is not a muppet, saying nothing when all these disasters were unfolding.

One of tasks foreshadowed for the reservists is burying dead stock; and I think it a bit harsh when my friend said when that is finished they may be asked to bury the Government.

Somebody who knows

Chris Brook PSM FRACP State Health and Medical Commander (Emergency Management) Victoria 2009

You don’t need an analysis of the response to the 2009 Victorian Fires or the 2010 Queensland Floods. It’s all on the public record and in people’s living memories. What you also already know is that the then PM Kevin Rudd was front and centre from the outset in both events and was praised for his initiative.

That’s not to say that his promises were prudent, nor even fulfilled in whole, but he was everywhere. 

In both cases there was a massive rebuilding and recovery effort, largely due to the important work of the States continuing long after Federal intervention had come and gone.

But this misses the real story of the here and now.

It looks to me as though Morrison is set to reinvent himself, as he must, to get through this. All of the anti-climate change rhetoric and anti-socialist left tirades do not change the fact that he has lost the respect of a good part of the community – although the hyper partisan Murdoch press remains staunchly supportive.

He must by now realise that his precious wafer-thin budget surplus is gone and that long term economic damage has been done.

For the fire affected coastal and alpine communities the damage to domestic tourism – their lifeblood – will last for years.

So he will pivot embarking on a huge rebuilding effort; a stimulus thus cunningly concealed. If he’s clever the cost will be described as a capital injection (from borrowings but no one will worry about that) and he can still claim that we are in surplus on the current account.

Gorse – an example of Government indifference

Janine Sargeant – Tasmanian ratepayer & regular blogger

Recently I wrote to the Premier of Tasmania because I was concerned about the rapid spread of gorse along the Zeehan to Strahan road on the west coast of Tasmania. Its spread is symptomatic of the disregard of the environment by all levels of Government, given that gorse as well as blackberry are two of the biggest invaders on the west coast.

If an example of where fuel reduction is needed, this is one hell of a big one.

Fuel reduction is but one element in what should be a comprehensive Statewide fire management plan; the lines of responsibility are clear, readily accessible and the expected results can be easily tallied against the actual achievement.

On Tasmania’s west coast, it rains – a lot. However, it is now clear from the NSW South Coast experience that temperate rain forest can burn. The only thing that prevents it occurring in Tasmania is the level of rainfall, which this year has been about two metres. By way of contrast, the NSW South Coast’s rainfall this year was about half the expected rainfall, between 40 and 60cm, as it was also last year. Much has been said about the desperate lack of rainfall across much of Australia in what is the driest and hottest year on record.

However, despite the rainfall, Tasmania is vulnerable and the gorse invasion is just one symptom of Government’s neglect of the fire risk.

I would hate to have to quote this next summer because nothing has been done and the West Coast has been burnt – with gorse being a prominent culprit.

DIPWE defines the spread of gorse on the west coast as “widespread infestation”. Gorse is a declared weed under the Tasmanian Weed Management Act 1999 and “a Weed of National Significance”. Government’s response is supposed to be to “prevent further spread”, a response in word only as there is not action. Gorse is a major issue in a region that is heavily dependent on “wilderness”, native forests, wild rivers, spectacular scenery and unique fauna – these define the reasons why tourists come to Tasmania.

However, apart from being a hugely damaging invasive weed environmentally, gorse is a major fire hazard, because of its oily content and tendency to shed its dead wood as it grows.

Some years ago there was a gorse eradication program in this area, which seemed to be keeping this weed in check, but there is no evidence of anything being done recently and as a result, the spread of the gorse has gone unchecked. There is no evidence that agricultural contractors, utility maintenance crews, road and earthmoving contractors and other people visiting the areas infested with gorse, are required to undertake basic hygiene measures to prevent spread of seed; this doesn’t happen. In fact it is reported that the roadside mowing that occurs from Zeehan south towards Strahan is actually spreading the infestation closer and closer to Strahan due to seed spread because the vehicles are not being cleaned.

There needs to be an integrated control approach with a combination of methods: herbicide, mechanical, burning and biological control, for maximum chances of long-term success.

Tasmania’s environment, wilderness and forests are an incredibly rich resource that must be protected and in the face of what has been happening across NSW and Victoria, the Tasmanian Government needs to sit up, take notice and act before Tasmania too is wiped out by fires. The gorse invasion is one element of a potential major fire problem that being ignored. My letter to the Premier is ‘being considered’; I hope the response is a little more enthusiastic.

Mouse Whisper

My marsupial relatives, the dunnarts on Kangaroo Island remember that during the 2007 fires there were over 800 people, seven fixed wing water bombers and an Elvis Skycrane Helitanker, all assisting in firefighting efforts.

Now dunnarts smell smoke; and run at the first whiff.

Thirteen years later I have asked on DunnartMail how are they and if the resources committed in 2007 are different from that committed today. The fire in 2007 was contained quickly and the Dunnarts replied to my query.

Unfortunately, this time I have had no response. Communication has been lost.

There may be 500 firefighters, with about 50 of the Reynolds reservists there as back up, and there is at least one 737 waterbomber. Maybe the response is comparable to the 2007 effort and has not slipped backwards. Probably not. Who would know. But what of my cousins?

Now they may be extinct – a terrible, terrible outcome.

I weep for them – they were such a close-knit community.

Modest expectations – Montana

This is a story about the unexpected – an unremarkable story on the face of it, but like many stories of its ilk, instructive.

In August, as I have recounted several times in my blog, I was in Chile and in particular Valparaiso. As I was hobbling down a flight of stairs and across a doorway in the restaurant, my hand caught on something sharp. Whether metal or wood, it created a spectacular gash over my fifth metatarsal right hand. It as not particularly long, but it bled. My canes clattered to the floor. As I had nothing immediately at hand except paper serviettes to staunch the bleeding, and rudimentary Spanish to say “Ayuda”, it continued to bleed profusely. It took some time for my companion, who was sitting by the window in this upstairs-downstairs configuration, to come and put order into stopping the bleeding, by pressure.

Eventually Chilean band-aids were produced and these reduced the bleeding to an ooze. The wound was not stitched, but there was a bit of debridement and the edges of the wound were roughly opposed – without seeking outside medical help. I thought that was one reason it took a long time to apparently heal, but the skin remained pink as the scar tissue started to form.

One day about a month after I had returned home a lump appeared at the site of the scar. It grew relatively quickly, but the skin did not ulcerate. I went to my long time plastic surgeon in Melbourne. I thought there must have been some retained fragment – a foreign body that had been missed. The surgeon who has operated on me on a number of occasions said nothing except after a little hesitation, that he would take it off immediately.

Jean-Nicolas Marjolin

I was surprised by the length of the incision and its depth; I should not have been so surprised when the pathology came back – squamous cell carcinoma. Sometimes in wound tissue an aggressive skin cancer can erupt. That had occurred in my case – Marjolin’s is the eponymous name for it – normally these cancers appear as an ulcer, and this would probably have occurred in a few days if it had not been removed.

That was a month or so ago, but now the area has healed and the scar from the incision is barely visible.

A very good astute surgeon, now onto my next experience…

The Surgeon Never Replied

Below is a letter I wrote to a surgeon just prior to a proposed operation three years ago. I have still not had the operations, and although I have a few mild symptoms I have not had to endure the morbidity or my family the funeral costs which could easily have resulted from operative intervention. I am writing this blog to provide an informed consumer perspective on my doubts about spinal surgery.

The other problem with surgery, especially with severe osteoarthritis in the shoulder joints, is that when you are being moved about during cervical surgery the anaesthesia will mask any incidental damage being done in the shoulder. One does not feel the pain of tearing a ligament or muscles or the rotator cuff of the shoulder joint until one comes out of the anaesthesia, and suddenly there is another centre of pain. In the aftermath of proposed surgery, pain relief for me is always going to be tricky because of my sensitivity to opioids. That does not matter to the orthopaedic surgeon – the surgery itself is the centrepiece, not the subsequent morbidity nor the rehabilitation. After all, I was facing three major orthopaedic operations in short order – nearing the end of my eighth decade.

The following is my letter to the surgeon appropriately de-identified sent in the days before the operation.

I thought I would explain the reasons for deferring my operation. I am sure you respect that the choice I have made has not been undertaken without much deep consideration of balancing the risks and benefits. My response was largely generated from our last consultation and your subsequent letter to Dr A. 

I note you made a comment that if I stressed my spine that there was a possibility of worsening the condition but I recently spent nine days in Malawi on a number of extremely rough terrains in a four-wheel drive without any apparent change.

Currently I have very mild numbness in my little and ring fingers intermittently in the morning on waking – not every day!

If one reads my latest MRI report it demonstrates that I have significant pathology in my cervical spine, yet I am virtually symptom free. You list the risks associated with the procedure without setting out the probability of any them occurring. Hence I take the paragraph in your letter to Dr A to mean that they are considerable risks. I thought it preferable to have the MRI at JHospital well before the operation rather than the day before – and there is no doubt that JHospital runs a very professional operation. However, so does the Diagnostic Imaging Department at IH, with which there appears to have been an unfortunate failure in communication (with yourself. I am sure you did not meant to criticise the IH nor the fact that at that time it was more convenient for me to have my imaging undertaken there.  

In addition you intend to take iliac crest bone which, as you rightly point out, is better than cadaveric bone for the putative operation on my cervical spine

However I have chronic polymyalgia rheumatica, the aetiology of which condition remains obscure, but there is one observation I would make which is that any shift in the dose of cortisone (currently 4 mgs a day) has a far more marked clinical effect than would be expected – manifested as stiffness and muscle weakness. There is no mention of the possible impact of operative trauma on such a condition, but you would have more information than I do. Therefore, that is one matter that needs to be resolved. The other of course is the effect that the cortisone has had on my bone given that I have been on the drug for three years, despite taking Vitamin D regularly.

I am nearly 77 years old, which is a factor, and the fact is that my cervical spine has significant pathology. The question that is raised is whether there is any guarantee that intervention would not have a cascading effect requiring more operative intervention for diminishing returns.

In relation to my lumbar spine, I do have symptomatology of mild spinal claudication as you have noted as 5/10, but as one senior physician said to me the other day, the major problem is my right knee – and knowing the success of such an operation would it not be preferable to do any operative intervention starting with the knee?

The question then arises of whether the operative schedule should be in reverse, and would a laminectomy guarantee relief of my symptomatology – particularly my ataxia and loss of proprioception? Your letter would seem to suggest otherwise. Is the fact that even if I had a lumbar spine operation I would not be helped? What are the odds of improvement given my age and lumbar pathology. 

I walk with two sticks for social reasons not because I need them invariably. For instance, I challenged myself the other day to walk without sticks but accompanied for three blocks to the coffee shop. There was some pain in my knee, minimal pain in my back and no symptomatology referable to my neck. The pain did not stop me at any stage, there and back.

I continue to do hydrotherapy twice a week and find it very helpful and, so as to clarify your comments in the letter concerning “Panadol Osteo” dosage, I am taking 4 tablets of Panadol (625mg) a day in divided doses and not six as previously. Do you think that a significant observation?

There are a number of other matters in your letter to Dr A, which could be better put. The comment concerning my heavy smoking history is totally ambiguous given that I have not smoked for 36 years, and it was taken not from any direct interrogation but lifted from my “confidential note”. The fact that I produced those notes to inform you so that it saved time and helped you to take a comprehensive history. I am sorry to have to make that point, but in providing such information it should be attributed and not just “noted”.

A copy of the letter was sent to Dr P who retired at the end of June and my doctor is now Dr Q locally. Given that the letter was sent to Dr A, who made the initial referral I am at a loss to understand how that occurred. The copy to Dr P has been archived at NHospital with certain agreed caveats. I believe that any copies of correspondence should not only be sent to Dr Q but also to Dr R, who has been the rheumatologist responsible for my treatment for PMR since 2013, when Dr A referred me to him, Dr A having made the initial diagnosis.

You have not referenced my severe shoulder osteoarthritis, which would be a consideration in any cervical spine surgery? (Here a confidential matter relating to another person has been excised from my letter.)

There are there other matters that puzzle me and that, given all the potential complications set out, I understand you will be away the week after the proposed date of surgery – and if that is true who would undertake my post-operative care, should any of the dire consequences set out in your letter occur. 

The second source of my puzzlement is an initial comment you made that you would be prepared to operate on my back four days after my cervical spine operation. Does that still hold true? 

The third matter is your comment that “ agreed with your need to alter the plan on the day before”. I must have misheard but I do not remember agreeing to a change in plan –especially as it would appear that a substantial part of my cervical spine is affected and yet I am virtually asymptomatic. My cervical symptomatology is better than it has ever been given the problems I had with it 20 years ago, and which were relieved by some excellent physiotherapy.  

Those cervical symptoms were resolved a long time before I first presented to Dr A. It is certainly not a decision I would take the day before the operation, given the seriousness of the complications you have listed. Hence this was my reason for undertaking the imaging a substantial time before the proposed operation.  

The underlying question is would it not be better to reverse the operative schedule on the basis of relief of symptomatology and enabling me to walk pain free, with a reasonable gait and with an improved ability to negotiate stairs, reverting to what I could do in early 2013 before the onset of the PMR, which seems to have acted as the tipping point for all this? 

As you foreshadowed in your letter you have awaited my further advice –and my basic response is the question above couched against the previous consultation, but not with the benefit of you reviewing the MRI and spinal X-rays

I asked for a number of second opinions. The average elderly person who is suffering from degenerative disease does not have that option because information in the health sector is so asymmetric.

To me the non-response to the letter reflects on the person. Here there is an arrogance characteristic of some of the medical profession. They do not see it, especially when they have only patient contact and are acting like a high paid tradesman, who comes in does his job, gets paid and moves on. From my experience very few tradesmen ever come back to view their work. Unfortunately, I was brought up to be a doctor and now as a consumer my perspective has only shifted to the other side of the desk. There should be debate, including this doctor who has remained silent for over three years. 

Boeing Sub-Max

In a investigative piece on Boeing at the time that it was amalgamating with McDonnell Douglas to monopolise the American plane construction in 1997, Boeing’s warts were well and truly revealed. McDonnell Douglas had some very good planes, but inter alia fell over because of its failure to build economic wide-bodied airliners, despite in 1995 receiving US$334m in rebates from kindly Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile the Pentagon was awarding Boeing US$1bn for “restructuring costs” and so eager was Export-Import Bank to ease any problems that Boeing might have, was renamed by some in Congress as the “Bank of Boeing”.

If you want to blame the Republicans for allowing this monopoly to occur, well that’s just not true. Increasingly when the truth of this has emerged, since there in the centre of these appalling decision, smoking a cigar in his Oval office was Mr Teflon – Bill Clinton.

He agreed with the advice that the Boeing position was legal because of the pressure it faced from Airbus. As the1997 correspondent said: “Using this logic all the US automakers could merge because the ‘Big One’ would still face foreign competition. Too bad the Detroit lobbyists can’t figure out a way to hide price hikes in the airline tickets and Pentagon procurements.”

Now Boeing is being confronted with a major problem – its latest airliners appear to be duds – and dangerous duds at that.

I have flown on most types of Boeing: 707 through to 747 internationally, 727 and 767 domestically, and even the 717 and 757 although not as commonly as the workhorse, the 737. They have all been good aircraft, although the Qantas 747s are becoming creaky and by preference I try to avoid them.

A former retired Boeing engineer and policy analyst has been reported recently as saying: “(There has been) a shift in the culture at Boeing from one which strove for engineering excellence to one focused on cost cutting. This deliberate strategy from the very top of the company led to massive, ill-thought-out outsourcing and the discarding of engineering talent as work was moved out of the Puget Sound region…(and in turn) has led to major failures on Boeing’s latest two major airplane development programs — first the heavily outsourced 787 Dreamliner and then the minimally upgraded 737 MAX. Both planes had to be grounded over safety issues.”

This failure has left companies in the supply chain in tatters. Fiddling and tweaking has not worked. Other airlines are running out of patience and are ordering planes from Airbus. As the airline fleets age then attention turns to maintenance; and if cost cutting takes over there as at Boeing, then air travel becomes not just an atmospheric pollutant but also a health hazard.

As has also been reported locally in the Seattle media “Boeing hopes for its first good-news event: the long-delayed first flight of the new 777X, with its massive composite wings. In late January, Boeing’s new leadership will reveal the latest tally of the cost of the MAX grounding, updating the $9.2 billion estimate through October. The rest of the year is likely to be a long slog, getting the MAX program restarted and slowly ramping back up again. No one can yet foresee the long-term impact.”

Boeing 737 Max engine

It sounds forlorn, since many of the mistakes Boeing has made in the 20 years interval have been glossed over by Government not holding them to account and the accompanying high profitability of the 737 until the MAX version came on line.

There have been failures such as not exploiting the 717, which, as one our own Alan’s choices, was particularly shrewd. There is now an increasing requirement for jet airliners with 100-150 seat capacity to run on regional services. The 717 fulfilled that need, but it was given the cold shoulder at Boeing because it was essentially a McDonnell Douglas enterprise and Boeing stopped making them. Only Delta, Hawaiian and Qantas have the plane in any numbers, and they are not selling them. Now through its Bombadier subsidiary, Airbus is filling the need. In the end the 717 will suffer as we all do – it will need spare parts that are no longer there.

However, all is not lost on the bottom line. There are the cost-plus projects where the Defence force chiefs inflate their budgets with expensive projects. Because they are seen as symbols of military might, it is interesting to reflect on the giant transport plane, built by Boeing, the C-17. With a budget of between USD200-300m a year for each one, one official labeled it the Golden Turkey because of its cost and its vulnerability to being blown apart by $22 mortar shell. Perhaps it has been made less vulnerable, especially after one crashed into an Alaskan forest in 2010.

Nevertheless more recently than that, someone who had experienced the joys of travelling in a C-17 said despite all the hype of being long range and being able to be refuelled in midair, it was more like a “stopping all stations conveyance” between the United States and Afghanistan, even including a stop for repairs.

Despite all the rending of garments, the Defence establishment continues to pour money into Boeing. In 2018, Boeing won contracts to build a new pilot training jet for the Air Force, an in-flight refueling drone for the Navy, and a fleet of the Airforce security helicopters.

As reported, Boeing’s “Defence revenues” had fallen by more than one-third over the timeline of a decade: from USD32.1 billion in 2007 to USD21.1 billion in 2017. But, President Donald Trump’s higher defence spending and three new military contracts put Boeing back in the game in 2018.

Still, to put all of the boondoggle in perspective, the Boeing commercial division in 2018 before the Supermax crisis billed USD60bn by airlines around the World.

Cap in hand to the Government you would think can go only so far, but Boeing has shown it has a capacious chapeau.

Mouse whisper

Just a message for the Nimbin anti-vaxxers …

Your child about two years old gets chicken pox; has a high fever – starts fitting – you prescribe one of those herbal remedies that incidentally has aspirin hidden away in it. Child severely incapacitated mentally – or dies.

Remember the name Reye, who first described the mixed brain and liver symptoms and signs as a syndrome in small kids.

Chicken pox plus aspirin; vaccinate against chicken pox. Reyes Syndrome no longer. QED.

Ralph Reye incidentally was an Australian pathologist – normally they are the doctors who deal with the dead.

Like polio, Reye’s syndrome was nearly eliminated until your mob came along.

Reye’s Syndrome

Modest expectations – The Roaring

As I’ve mentioned before (ME18 Pale Waves), we have friends in Lubec on the Maine-New Brunswick border, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. You can drive from the United States border to Campobello Island in Canada – an instructive exercise in itself. However, driving across to have a lunch of lobster is a good enough reason to go to the Island once one has tramped around the Roosevelt exclave. The house has beautiful views over the Bay of Fundy. Driving across the Canadian border is no problem, but coming back the other way across the United States border, even with your American friends you are liable to be greeted by an officious, albeit offensive, border official, who more often or not will want to look very closely at the boot of your car, if not to frisk you.

An old fish shed on the Bay of Fundy at Lubec

This is an aside to an observation that was made to me that a United President would not dare vacation outside the United States these days. Campobello island was where Franklin Roosevelt had the family holiday house; it was where he came to unwind as a young man; it is where he was stricken with poliomyelitis.

Later in his Presidency he used to relax at Warm Springs in Georgia and rarely went to Campobello after he became President.

The United States Presidents know that there are beautiful places to vacation in the United States and even Campobello island is only spitting distance away, but note: after he became President Roosevelt he went to Campobello only once a year until 1939 and then that was it! 

Now just why did Fran Bailey sack you?

Where do you start with Scott Morrison?

I always remember when Prime Ministers took their Christmas break they holidayed in Australia, even when the rich lent them a place in which to relax.

Look Prime Minister, I’ll come clean. I took a trip to the United States with Leader of the Opposition at the same time of the year you went to Hawai’i. Let me say, we did not tell the press gallery, but there was an important task to be sorted out. It was late 1974, just after Bill Snedden had survived the first challenge to his Leadership by Malcolm Fraser, and that and accompanying machinations had been kept away from the Press. Even Laurie Oakes did not get wind of it – nor Alan Reid. So not telling the press is legitimate, on the grounds of when it does not ask, why tell. The smart journalist will generally work it out.

Our visit to the United States was brief and Snedden was back and able to go to Darwin to view the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracey on Christmas day. The reason he went to the United States merited some degree of discretion, but for God’s sake a holiday with the wife and kids. Why the secrecy?

The only residual question is who paid for the holiday? The reason he did not disclose where he and the family went? Was it because it was somebody’s private luxurious pad? Now the reason for the secrecy has been cast against a backdrop of security.

The Prime Minister was reported to have returned via Hawaiian Airlines. I have flown Hawaiian Airlines as probably a number of you have too. Friendly environment, but hardly the most secure. When one of the pilots wants to go to the toilet, the cabin staff block the aisle with food trolleys. Also, unless the holiday was on Oahu, there would have been intermediate air travel, which would have accounted for the time lapse. The whole process shouts “Swiss-cheese” security.

I would have thought that the damage of being absent in an undisclosed location had been done. Finish the holiday and come home with the family. However, the whole episode has an element of panic, and given that the Prime Minister seemed to have difficulty with communicating anyway, he may have been on one of those beautiful resorts, perhaps on an outer island.

Now, Prime Minister, you are back in the country at a time when increasingly the whole nation knows you have ignored warnings, scoffed at global warming, sat on you hands in relation to water, and have no environmental plan to combat climate change. It seems that you remain defiant. The nation may view you as just stubborn to cover impotency, because you have done nothing but treadle the looms of the marketing flack that you once were.

One of the reasons you took the holidays is that you intend going to India and Japan in January to meet two of Australia’s pinups – Modi and Abe. The whole exercise shouts “Coal”.

I doubt if nature will call a truce for you while you go calling on them. But at least we shall know where you are when the fires are burning. I suppose if you will be doing your best to ask them to reduce their country’s contribution to World pollution and from Modi in particular tips on how to enact religious freedom, then it could be viewed as genuine contrition and be excused. But not if you are doing a coal deal and the flames are licking the edges of the Shire.

Let me say I am more concerned with how the volcano burns victims are getting along, especially when there is the potential for the health system to deal with more serious burns victims from these fires.

And one more thing, if you really looking for a really exotic location for “you, Jenny and the kids” go and keep the Biloela family company on Christmas Island; still part of Australia.

Everybody, Prime Minister, should have a road to Damascus moment.

Personally, I did not feel any anxiety about you being away. From reading the notes scattered on that road and the anger generated, you will be lucky to have Murdoch still supporting you – after all, he gave McMahon away as a bad job. The only thing you have on your side is time until the next election and the fickle nature of the attention span of the Australian to wash this incident away. 

The Boy from Wagga Wagga

I have met some impressive National Party leaders, but the current one I have not met. However, from a distance Michael McCormack is not impressive.

A self-combusting pile of manure?

In his fumbling response on climate change he mentioned three factors that he thought were important. McCormack is reported to have said that: “dry lightning strikes, arson and self-combusting piles of manure” were among the causes.

At least he peppered his invective with an attempt to diagnose the problem – somewhat thin, but a statement which raises the question of whether they are relevant elements to be pursued by government. Now that is the genesis of a policy.

In the background however, among his followers infected by the Hanson bacillus , bushfires are all about the Greens – it’s their fault not allowing for hazard reduction and allowing all those wicked national parks to stay in existence. Unfortunately, I was talking to a friend and he repeated the nonsense.

The mayors of five local councils in NSW, one of which is Randwick, are members of the Green Party, and there are 58 Green Party members scattered across 31 councils; hardly a coalition of obstruction. One can criticise the Greens for being conservative heritage protectors, but they are not the only people trying to retain “old growth”.

Yet the right wing columnists spread conspiracy theories about the Greens manipulation as reasons for the fires. For God’s sake we have conservative government both federally and in NSW and the lack of policy and planning in the face of climate change is not due to obstruction by the Greens.

It is our governing politicians doing nothing.

The problem with many politicians is that they do not have the capacity to read – they are functionally illiterate. They have to be told because they cannot read. If they could read then they would look over the science and see that although there are a few areas of scientific fact in contention, there are agreed facts.

Read what the science says: once fires get to a certain temperature then it doesn’t matter how much hazard reduction one does, the country still burns. The burnt vineyards in South Australia were manicured and easy to access, and yet the fire still ripped through the vines.

How you build a national bush fire policy is to mitigate risk. The first statement from McCormack in this interview was “put the fires out”. The unquestioning outcome, but a Hillsong prayer is not the only option.

Science says it is unwise to build on steep slopes, ridge hilltops and riverine bush, where access roads are minimal and where access are cute cul-de-sacs. The fires came eventually to a friend’s house sweeping off the ridge and engulfing this holiday home. Hazard reduction won’t change the vulnerability of gutters with overhanging eucalypts if the fire front is charging down the slopes and the tree crowns are exploding. Before the fire, the ocean views were extraordinary; there were koalas in the trees and the house nestled snugly on the slope had only one access road. New building regulations have seen the house yet to be rebuilt after four years.

After the fires

Turning to the matters McCormack raised. Evidence suggests that about five per cent of fires are started by lightning strikes. Here the Hillsong prayer may be the only option.

Arson is difficult to prevent. True pyromania is thought to be rare, and laying to one side insurance and criminal arson, the other arson profile that the fire brigades looks out for are the “hero” arsonist; a profile that in the United States is predominantly white males between 16-30 years of age. There is another potentially very dangerous group – the revenge arsonists where there is a fine line between revenge and terrorist.

I was in Valparaiso, Chile, in August. Driving by the quaint houses clinging to the steep slopes above the city proper where access roads are narrow and poor, I didn’t think about bushfires. However now these suburbs are burning, as this coastal city goes up in flames – as does the surrounding country side with its forests and picturesque vineyards. There are reports that these fires have been deliberately lit.

On the third matter, waste management is an increasing matter for national policy and not just how to dispose of paper and bottles. The mixture of bacteria and the oxidation process of substrate such as cellulose are an ever-present problem. Trying to develop a national policy on waste management, where incineration is one solution, means that fire control should be a priority. That does not factor in the development of illegal waste dumping of flammable toxic materials in remote unsupervised bush lands. Mr McCormack, waste management policy is not just about picking up cow pats on your property before they explode into fireballs.

A report from California that is instructive is saying that most human-caused fires are accidental and avoidable, such as a burning cigarette carelessly tossed out a car window. But Californian fires can also start from “fireworks (the odds of a California wildfire double on July 4), improperly extinguished campfires, out-of-control burn piles, hot vehicle parts making contact with dry grass, power lines rubbing and arcing in windy conditions, and a variety of other causes. A surprising number of fires start when trailer chains or wheel rims strike pavement and send sparks flying.” This last situation is the likely cause of one of the most deadly Californian wildfires. The Californian attitude is far more cavalier than that of the Australians, and universal bans on lighting of fires are harder to enforce. However, there is an increasing recognition that there will be longer and hotter periods as summer merges with spring and autumn. The end result means a drier and drier landscape.

Hazard reduction by all means – but have we a systematic nationwide policy on hazard reduction and one that will become increasingly narrowly focused when climate change has rapidly reduced the available days for hazard reduction, and the community will increasingly become layered in smoke from fires spreading over those remaining days. The nation will become very impatient with a government that blames the Greens.

The bushfire is a complex challenge; it demands coherent policy; it also demands the funds to efficiently and effectively manage the challenges and, given the way the water policy has been corrupted, to also deal with the other factors that affect how we as a nation can respond to widespread bushfires. What happens when there is no water to fight fires?

Perhaps the best form of hazard reduction would be to remove the rent seekers and the other parasites that bug our political system. The problem at present is they wield the levers of power not the hoses. Barnaby Joyce’s bizarrely berates the government and demands it get out of his life – well, yes, but first the government should give us back our water, then it should have to courage to develop some decent policy recognising that we are in a different climate ballgame now (yes, the Prime Minister can take his baseball cap off to that) and then everyone might get out of Barnaby’s life.

However, all revolutionaries by their nature are optimists. I am and always have been an optimist – even now one foot away from a minha cadiera de rodas

Christmas on the move

Christmas was never a good experience when I was young. We generally went to my grandmother’s place, and the day generally ended in unpleasantness, as one or other family argued among themselves – and when I was young I generally engaged in fighting one of more cousins at some stage during the afternoon. The item of consumption that sits uppermost in my memory was my grandmother’s obsession with making Yorkshire pudding to top off the roast bird. It was one of Cook’s lesser legacies to Australian cuisine.

Santa Fe farolitos

While I had my 1956 Christmas in the Sea of Japan on the S.S Taiping, my nomadic Christmases started in the 1980s – different year; different place. However, the only time that I remember snow in any quantity was Christmas in Santa Fe. Snow was a foreign experience to me, and so trudging through snow covered streets lighted by farolitos – candles stuck in sand in paper bags. In the freezing cold we were part of the congregation at an outdoor Navajo Mass. The mass was memorable with its Navajo interpretation that included the final benediction of a sort – the man close to us raising his rifle and firing a shot into the darkness.

All part of celebrating the miracle of Christmas wherever you may be.

And given it is Friday 27 December, may I wish you all the Best for the Feast of St Stephen – at least east of Rome.

Mouse Whisper

The ultimate put down.

Asked if he liked Melbourne, Augustus Woodley Bernal replied:

“Immensely. But don’t you think it’s a little too far from town.”

Bernal spent some time on the Bendigo Goldfields as a Commissioner in the early 1850s.

Chortle, but remember it was people like Bernal who came, saw and went back to Britain – just leaving the questionable imprint of the British gentry.

The Gentry

Modest Expectations – John Buchan footprints

I wonder as NSW is being swept by bushfires how the person inured to arm waving, hallelujah clapping and glossolalia would respond to Revelation 8.7.

The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

Of course it is not climate change; it’s the Bible, stupid.

I have always wondered whether this last book of the Bible was written by some guy on qat such is the imagery. I have never understood the fascination with this final book, as though Christianity needs to have fear as a motiving force for belief and intolerance.

However, these bushfires in Australia are no joke. We are not going to be consumed this year by the fires of Hell, but I do not want to live in an environment of smoke for half the year, where a hundred fires burn and where the population is worn down – and the important Samaritan element of a voluntary brigade of fire fighters become exhausted.

It provides a reason for the need to mobilise the population able to cope with the increased capriciousness of nature as the planet warms.

The Australian Defence Force bluntly states it is not trained to fight fires on the ground outside their installations. How long that dictum will hold is problematical.

However, that is not to underrate the current amount of assistance being provided by the Defence Forces, especially given the water bombing by fixed wing and helicopter has been such an important factor in limiting the spread.

However, eventually water runs out and fire retardants have unspecified long term toxic effects. In the end, the potential outcome just reframes the delusionary Revelation. No need for the angel; our Prime Minister will suffice in sounding the instrument – perhaps the whimper of a claypipe blowing bubbles. However there is still the one bubble of denial in which Morrison is encased. Not the best way I would have thought to fireproof the country, one way or another.

Bushfires in Australia

One of the images of Sydney I have always had is that of the frangipani. Normally, it is just too cold in Melbourne for frangipani to flower; it is the same in most parts of California. Frangipani is the flower of the tropics – Hawai’i being closely associated with it.

Sydney is thus typically sub-tropical. Therefore, it should have two seasons – hot but wet and humid in summer; dry in winter. The oppressive humidity and summer rain is the normal antidote for bushfires from the Illawarra northwards along the coast.

To me the frangipani is the totem of this climate; they may grow in Melbourne but not flower normally. The winter cold and frosts kill them.

Melbourne has a Mediterranean climate – very hot and dry in summer with a beautiful autumn, cold wet winters and a blustery spring. February has traditionally been the time of the catastrophic bushfires. Ever since Melbourne almost burned in the February bushfire of 1851, late summer is the perfect time for major bushfires not only in Victoria but also in Tasmania and South Australia.

I remember driving down the Hume Highway to Melbourne in February 2009 the day before the most deadly of all bushfires swept across the highway on its way to the incineration of nearly 200 people. When the wind comes from the north and the air is so dry then you know Victoria will burn at the slightest ember from a discarded cigarette or spark from an overloaded power line.

Yet as a child I can remember there being a huge bonfire to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day piled up in front of our house. It was November 5. Catherine wheels attached to letterbox, jumping jacks and tom thumbs exploding across the grass verge, rockets disappearing into the night sky. Fireworks everywhere. Fire everywhere.

Two months later there was always a fire along Gardiner Creek in the rye grass, and one year I remember it scorching the fences alongside the reserve. It was all very exciting to have the fire brigade coming with the bells ringing. Memories from one’s childhood stick and may become enlarged. However, it does take a shift in climate to make a bonfire in November very unwise.

The question thus which needs to be answered – is the shift in the fires in line with a change in the climate pattern?

I read today that: Bush fires raged on the outskirts of Sydney today as the heat wave continued. Metropolitan fire brigades received 40 calls before noon. The temperature rose to 98 degrees by midday – at 9 am it was 93 degrees, a record early morning mark for November. There are few towns that are not menaced on the Blue Mountains and grave anxiety exists throughout the tourist areas. Fires are also burning at Linden, Blaxland and Hazelbrook as well as at Springwood, Glenbrook, Leura and Katoomba. Shortly after noon a huge wall of flame advanced on Glenbrook…

The newspaper report was 6 November 1936. The Blue Mountains is the touchpaper for bushfires in New South wales.

Frangipani do not grow well in the Blue Mountains – the climate is too much like Victoria. Too dry; too cold in winter.

But I note the frangipani in the backyard this year is losing its flowers prematurely. Maybe when the frangipani stops blooming, the fires may come to the coast.

However, while the frangipani may be an intuitive bellwether, even more germane is the fact that: 1951-1952 could possibly be one of the worst on record for eastern Australia when more than 8 million ha were burnt.” This is a reliable quote from a CSIRO 1976 appraisal. This reported: “The season began in late October 1951 with a series of lightning fires in southern central Queensland around Charleville. About 2.8 million ha were burnt in these fires. These were followed by very large fires in northern N.S.W. in November and in late January and early February many fires were reported in southern N.S.W. and Victoria.”

The similarity is there with 2019, but hopefully the possible further outcome will be avoided.

The one obvious conclusion is that bushfires are part of the Australian character. The population has become used to them – but not every year as may be predicted by a continent running out of water and ill-prepared in people and machines for this to occur on an increasingly regular, perhaps annual basis.

Are we expected to cope with catastrophic bushfires every year, until there is nothing left except a charred remnant of what was a beautiful unique land we all have been given a variable amount of time to enjoy?

However, training the defence force to defend the nation against fire would be a good start, joining the career fire fighters in helping to alleviate a stressed volunteer fire fighting force. I would think it more useful for our army to do that rather than killing pushtuns in far off Hindu Kush.

Getting more aircraft able to bomb the fires seems a good idea, especially if we have a yearly bushfire season , but where do we get the water?

I would hope that if fire retardant is increasingly used, its toxicity, both short and long term, is tested and continued to be monitored.

Hazard reduction? Now what does that mean? I remember well when a hazard reduction exercise resulted in a shed containing many of our belongings was burnt down, due to the “Department of Sparks and Wildfire” as it was called through gritted teeth.

What is a community centre to provide a haven against fire – a nuclear fall-out shelter; underground refuges akin to those along “Tornado Alley” in the mid-western states of the United States; fireproof concrete bunkers; a clean room facility where children, the aged, the susceptible can seek shelter on days when the smoke is so heavy?

Then there are the questions of what we do with people who want to commune with nature, with or without growing a bit of “weed” living in uninsured wattle and daub houses surrounded by bellbird and bush. No phone reception. Romantic until it burns.

I love living surrounded by bush, but I have spent money to clear the bush around the house and create a firebreak with a wide drive separating the house from the tea tree. The local “firies” had prior to this work, designated it as a “red flag” house – in other words don’t bother trying to save it if there is a bushfire. And this house is on the West Coast of Tasmania, parts of which have not burnt for at least 500 years and where the annual rainfall exceeds 100 cms. However, temperate rain forest is now vulnerable.

As I have said many times before, Australia is a land that demands respect; ignore that dictum at your peril. After all, it is all about frequency – bush fire season piled upon bush fire season without remission.

I do not know what the solution is but in any event this Government with the Book of Revelation under its arm is not prepared to listen; and may I say that does not help.

Barton is the Name; I did quite make the Game

Gordon Barton is a name that would hardly resonate with anybody these days. However in his time in the 1960s and 1970s he cut a dashing figure as he strode across the business landscape. A libertarian, he parleyed transporting onions across State border into IPEC, then the largest express transport company with over a thousand trucks.

Very early on he had taken an anti-Vietnam War stance and a group formed around him, initially designated the Liberal Reform Group which eventually became the Australia Party. He was the epitome of the new force on the conservative side of the political spectrum, prepared to tackle the Whig element embedded in the Liberal party.

His party picked up almost 3 per cent of the national vote in 1972 which, when cast against the rise of Steele Hall in South Australia and Rupert Hamer in Victoria, suggested that the reform of the Party was high on the agenda of a cadre of Party members and Business.

After the Coalition debacle as portrayed in the media and self-appointed opinion leaders (the days before influencers), Barton further promoted the Australia party, which would occupy the centre of the political spectrum. He dabbled in setting up newspapers which represented his free-flowing views.

He believed that there was a place for a political force to occupy what he saw a defeated coalition team, which had seen debilitating stoush between Gorton (Victoria) and McMahon (NSW), with McMahon being the Prime Minister who lost the Coalition Government to Labor under Whitlam after 23 years.

There was however another force emerging, who did not just dabble in the media, he immersed himself in it. This was Rupert Murdoch. He supported Whitlam in the 1972 election, where he obviously developed a taste for power broking.

Billl Snedden (Victoria) then won the ballot for leader of the Opposition from Nigel Bowen (NSW) by one vote. Bowen had enough then having been in Parliament for less than a decade and soon departed to the judiciary.

Snedden had grown up in Western Australia, but after a stint in Europe he had settled in Melbourne and won the seat of Bruce, which he was to hold until he retired in 1983. The Victorian Branch of the Liberal party still had a significant cohort of people who thought the unquestioning fawning over royalty, domestication of females as a definition of animal husbandry and retention of capital punishment were viable policies. Snedden determined that he should take the party out of the aspic of the previous years in government.

Yet Snedden had never been seen as progressive. He had gone along with the Party line and at the time of the election defeat had been Treasurer. Nevertheless, despite the narrowness of his victory as Leader and the misgivings of some of the party, he was approached by a well-credentialled group from the business sector to set up a “think-tank”. It was early days in 1973, when much of these discussions were occurring that Gordon Barton in his role of maverick reformer came from the sidelines to chat with Snedden. Whitlam had taken a certain amount of energy from the Australia party with his withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam.

Barton not only owned trucks but he diversified into other areas including Angus & Robertson through his company, Tjuringa Securities, but his Australia party, fizzled, changed into other centrist groups trying to to accommodate the “wets”.

As David Owen, the British politician, who himself broke his links with the Labour party to become a founding member of the SDP in the UK, once said to me: “Beware the soggy centre of politics” by which I took it to mean that it was the dedicated authoritarians, whether of the left or right, who would drown you. In retrospect, “wet” was an only too true a name for the group.

Recently Owen was quoted as saying: “There was never any question that the SDP was going to be a left-of-centre party. The project, bluntly, was to replace the Labour party; to be a centre-left party shorn once and for all of the hard left.” So he has not shifted his suspicion of the centre but he still recognises that there should be a place for a political force away from the extremes.

Barton in the end became bored with Australia and decamped to the Netherlands to expand his business worldwide, which failed and he slowly faded away until he died in Marbella Spain in 2005.

For a while under Snedden the Liberal party toyed with a progressive agenda, but inter alia his failure to win the 1974 election snuffed that out.

Murdoch meanwhile has never got bored with the fragrance of power and the political chessboard.

A commentator in one of the Australian newspapers recently bemoaned the rise of Trump and Johnson, and the ingredient in their success has been Murdoch. From a young guy, who was both radical and republican, Murdoch had become the genius of the authoritarian right, where now lurk many who would have been equally at home as they would have been under Franco or Mussolini.

However, the particular Murdoch genius is to define an enemy. It may be a mythical enemy, but one nonetheless which had its seed in his treatment as a boy at Geelong Grammar School, as a young man tolerated by the English upper-classes as “Red Rupert” at Oxford, a man embittered by the treatment of his father by “the enemy.”

The Murdoch legacy is that those who believe the political process is about policy are hopelessly wrong. The political process is about coercion and power.

The commentator forgot Canada where the Murdoch infectivity is low. How the survival of Trudeau plays out may be a blueprint for how any political force handles an uncaring authoritarian elite. The current crop of independents in the Australian Parliament may represent a potential core, but it becomes too easy to become comfortable and acquiescent.

Australia is not Canada, but the two countries have the same sort of parliamentary system and the same question applies: why is anyone in parliament?

The political picture in Australia may be depicted as a division between Capital and Democracy and Labour and Socialism accentuated by the adversarial way the parliament had been arranged according to the rules, which govern the British parliament at Westminister. Nevertheless, there were certain traits which cross traditional party lines, in particular xenophobia expressed through the “White Australia Policy” and the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” where individual excellence is consumed by the destructive collectivism which is called “mateship”.

So the whole system is set up for brawling, now that the oratory powers of the politicians, so important for debate, have waned from what they once were – and now also parliament is about deals, increasingly hidden from public view.

Therefore, there have been periods when the time is right to set up a political force in the centre. Australia is restive, but what about the group of independents in the Parliament. Has the system of coercion, subtle often as it may be, sucked them in? Are they the genesis of this third force? We shall be looking at them individually as to whether they see themselves as a potential coherent force, or just another group of dealmakers absorbed into the Canberra culture.

Trudeau has been instructive, whether deliberately or not, but he has the conservative forces well defined on his right; and on his left a motley group of Greens, New Democrats and may I suggest Quebecois.  Why the left? This group is not going to vote for the Conservatives but do provide the illusion that the Liberal party is what it says it is – and in the slightly moist soggy centre.

Combine that structure with a Bartonesque figure with the pugnacity of Rupert and we may have a goer.

Ça donne à réfléchir peut-être.

Mouse Whisper

All is not lost, Jeremy, you won the Cambridge seat and the people have obviously heard about Boris in Oxford. You won one of the seats and the LibDems the other.

And the LibDems losing their leader got a bath – quite literally as well as retaining the seat of Bath.

Modest Expectations – The Two Noble Kinsmen

Leigh Sales, what planet are you on? Take your statement last week about those poor tradies who need to drive Uber at the weekend for extra cash. It was put into perspective a few nights later when – that “uber tradesman” Scott Cam was revealing as “chiselling” the Government out of a six-figure sum for his part time services. For his part-time activity he was not behind a steering wheel. He is the Wheel!

Ms Sales, “tradies” as you call them are doing very well, by and large. Probably given you are upwardly mobile, it is just conceivable that you employ a “tradie” or two. I like the word “tradie”; it fits into all forms of the alphabet a-gender

From personal experience, one of my “tradies” owns a hotel and the other has so much work, the last thing he requires is the wheel of car in the evening other than to go home. I suggest that Ms Sales profiles the Uber driver. I know anecdotally my Turkish-born taxi driver who has been driving me for years and who has had a network of drivers from the pre-Uber days, now drives for Uber in addition to his own clientele. However, I suspect that you will find a great many Uber drivers, who are first generation arrivals in this country.

One of the interesting aspects of taxi travel, of which I once did a great deal, always riding in the front seat, I learnt a lot about the outside world; it was the front seat to an ethnic collation.

However, the racial profile of taxi drivers has changed. I always remember a young Greek doctor who, when he first arrived in Melbourne in the mid 90s, could not believe the number of Greek taxi drivers here. Now there are less Greeks. Taxi driving is an indicator of a less established community. For instance, you may find that an increasing number of Sikhs, newly displaced from the Punjab, are a major taxi or Uber population. But freed from the bureaucratic entanglement of the old taxi cartel, Uber driving attracts the retrenched older person and the student out to make a quid – particularly overseas students. I do not deny that there is a poor postilion under-class, but it ain’t “tradies”.

Nevertheless, it made me think about the proposition of the under-utilised “tradie” workforce, if indeed there is such a thing.

Given that it is a local council responsibility to provide a home maintenance and modification service in addition to hospital adjustment to daily living (ADL) for patients returning home, I would have thought that if there were these Sales’ “tradies” out there looking for twilight cash, then they should be easily absorbed more usefully into an Australia-wide home maintenance and modification service co-ordinated as it is locally. It is difficult to gauge how prevalent these schemes are; I remember when I was running a community health program nearly 40 years ago, some of the more progressive local governments had begun to set them up, but in those days there was a bureaucratic separation between health and housing.

Michael Portillo has recently fronted a documentary on the UK public housing situation acting unfortunately as an apologist for (rather than he once was an acolyte of) Margaret Thatcher. She was guilty of poor decision making when she sold off the social housing stock for a pittance without any strategy for its replacement. Portillo himself tried to absolve her of the social vandalism.

The whole question remains of who pays for social housing but more importantly prevents the purchase for its speculative purchase to drive up prices and hence to conceal the underlying inflation in the economy. At the same time the tacit pact between big business and government suppresses the earning power of those who should be able to afford such housing, either by renting or purchase.

In any event, it is just another area for you to explore, Ms Sales, especially with all this talkfest going about us aged across Australia, rather than indulge in the mythology of the “poor tradie”.

Albanese and the Coal Scuttle

The Adani Coal Mine is a private mine. It’s been approved. It is going ahead. It’s not a Government mine… Finance has been the issue with the Adani mine, but it’s had its environmental approvals. I support the jobs that will be created by any project, any project in Queensland or anywhere else for that matter. What Government needs to do is to set in place strict environmental guidelines. When those guidelines are approved, then you have projects which go ahead if they receive private sector support. 

The first reaction to this Albanese mouthing is that the weasel should be removed as a protected species irrespective of the Albanese predilection to cuddle the animal.

Let us make an early prediction. Albo will have difficulty retaining his seat if he does not do a better job of explaining whether he will be emulating the Prime Minister and going into the House brandishing a lump of coal – Balmain coal – or not. After all, his electorate boasted a coalmine, and my late neighbour remembered as a boy running around the corner to pick up some lumps of coal for the family stove. The air was full of coal dust, pit ponies were still being lowered every day into the mine and there were several major accidents when men were killed. However, the coal was convenient to keep the stove going and the fire alight; ensuring the skies were grey.

It is written in the wind as far as you are concerned Mr Albanese. Go on a trip to Queensland, hug a replica of the Balcaldine tree, and desert a Sydney where the pall of brown smoke foreshadows summers of the future, where blue skies are an increasingly distant memory, as they were when coal was mined.

I have lived in the electorate long enough (although we were only recently redistributed to Albo) – long enough to have seen it desert its working class legacy to that of wall to wall cafés. I can remember the whistle signalling that work had commenced on Cockatoo Island across the Parramatta River. I can remember the odours from the soap factories, which had saponified the river for years. I had walked up the hill and been shown the entry to the Birthday and Jubilee mine shafts that had been sunk when Queen Victoria was in her venerable years. The area was a wasteland of weeds, but you could still see the access points to the mineshafts. The soil is thin and poor in Balmain and as you stir it you wonder how much of the contamination of the past is floating into the atmosphere. And the working class had to endure it, while the tycoons flourished.

Balmain coal mine

In Balmain, one of Paul Keating’s achievements in decontamination was the development of the old Ballast Point Caltex site into a magnificent public park; so much of the harbour waterfront was lined by industrial sites, now gradually renovated, although not necessarily reflected in the growth of liveable space. The working class has become educated, but the same tycoon-types still exist, now complicit with a rising rent seeker class, a.k.a. politicians.

Now, Albanese of Grayndler goes off to circulate in central Queensland, unfamiliar territory for a Sydneysider well versed in the rent seeker class who inhabit Sussex Street but will the Camperdown boy be seen at the end of the street in Moranbah? How much can a fleeting visit do for the Queenslander’s view of you, a Mexican arrayed in RM Williams clobber, your sombrero at a rakish angle to display your winning countenance.

Then that statement you made of: “if we don’t mine it, somebody else will.” A variant of “if we don’t kill our grandchildren than somebody else will”. How well you demonstrate the Hollow Man.

When you come back to your ex- coal mining electorate of Sydney, I’m sure you’ll get a rapturous welcome with us all waving soot laden miner’s lamps to welcome your return.

Oh, by the way, when you are hob-nobbing with the Adanis, tell them we exported coal from Sydney to India in 1799. It will inform how important your electorate has been in defining the genesis of Coal as an invaluable Export -and you as a reaper in the Carbon field, its representative.

Anti-Vaxxer – Prosecute for Genocide Part 2

According to a 2018 report by Complementary Medicines Australia, the country’s complementary medicines industry made $4.9b in revenue last year — including $2.77b in vitamin and dietary supplements — and is expected to grow by another $2b over the next five years.

Just a casual comment to indicate how much porcaria Australians are pouring into their bodies every year. What I find disgusting are the advertisements which show the happy family images loading up their shopping baskets with this stuff – as though a healthy young family needs it – and some of these naturopathic fanatics have the hide to fill their children up with these drugs while at the time perniciously undermining of the community’s health status, trying to claim that vaccination is harmful. Anti-vaxxers have been allowed to roam in this community.

We should take a leaf out of the Samoan legislative book, and prosecute and jail those who would willfully promote ant-vaccination messages and promote rubbish substitutes. To kick this matter along a letter will be sent to each politician in Australia, asking the simple question of whether they support vaccination or not. It will made very clear that a non-response will be taken as a “no”; and the results will then be published, so that at the next elections these enemies of the welfare of our children can be identified and dealt with at the ballot box – at least in the first instance. Legislation will follow.

Telling it how it is

Below is a note received from my private health fund. It is clear and needs to be read against the outpourings of the Grattan Institute.

I read the comment of one journalist the other day, who describes herself as “senior”. She reckons that she does not need all that private health insurance stuff – you know cataract, hip surgery and that unfamiliar set of lesions called “grab bag”. She boasts that she is fit and into marathon running. The association between long-distance running and knee and hip injury is still in dispute.

The problem is that the attitude being promoted by such comments constitutes an attack on community rating. Once community rating is destroyed, then life is a lottery as you enter the realms of catastrophic insurance and you being rated on your individual profile. You are laid bare – no community rating to protect you; warts and all, literally.

The other factor, which has had a disastrous effect on the health system, are all the cost shifting antics of the States, to which the health fund attests below. And even more outrageous, the diversion of money destined under the Commonwealth-State funding agreements being diverted to uses other than the health portfolio.

Anyway, in the meantime, read what is said by a health fund, which is not set up to make obscene profits to be repatriated offshore, but one where the membership is put first. Surprising, you say, but it does occur.

It can be a distressing time when you are admitted to a public hospital emergency department due to an accident or unexpected illness. 

Together with seeking medical care, you will be faced with another decision – do I use my private health insurance policy or Medicare to cover my admission?

What does it mean to be a private patient in a public hospital? 

To be privately covered in a public hospital means your private health insurance policy with us is covering your admission, rather than Medicare.  The admission costs can include your accommodation, theatre and medical fees. 

There are genuine and appropriate reasons to receive treatment as a private patient in a public hospital. However, its increasing prevalence in recent years has raised concern around the reliance of public hospital funding on private health insurance, and the impact this is having on premiums.

You may be approached by administrative hospital staff. Roles have developed within public hospitals and these staff, called patient or client liaisons, are responsible for signing up private patient’s health funds. There has been recent criticism made of the tactics used by these staff, so it is important you have the facts to make your own choice if you are approached: 

There is no obligation to use your private health insurance 

If you are eligible for Medicare benefits, you can choose to be covered as a public patient and all medically necessary inpatient costs will be covered by Medicare. You have a right to be a public patient, even if you have private health insurance, and this should not affect the level of clinical care you receive. 

The hospital may offer additional ‘perks’ if you choose to be a private patient.

Public hospitals are known to offer additional benefits to patients who choose to use their private health insurance, including free Wi-Fi, food vouchers or parking discounts. Information about being a private patient in a public hospital can be hard to find and varies between hospitals; particularly in regards to more important benefits such as guaranteeing choice of doctor, access to single rooms and specialised follow-up care. It is important to ensure you are receiving the right benefits by using your private health insurance. 

You could have out-of-pocket costs if you use your private health insurance. Your policy with us will apply to your admission if you choose to be a private patient in a public hospital. This means, you may be required to pay any excess, and the doctor who treats you may charge a gap for their services, above what Medicare and the health fund will cover. It is important to remember that if you are covered by our basic policy, no matter how it is promoted, any exclusions or restrictions of your policy will apply, so you may not be covered for the services you require.

Using your private health insurance can affect premiums. It has been reported that growth in private patient admissions in public hospitals has contributed to approximately 0.5% per annum increase to premiums over the past five years. This means, private health insurance premiums can be contributing to services that could be receiving public funding paid through taxes.

It is important to remember you have a choice when deciding how you will be covered for services in any private or public hospital.  

Be informed, be equipped with the right questions, and know your rights as a patient.

Amen.

Mouse Whisper

Some years ago, when Aleppo was still a beautiful place, an Australian senator was reported in The Weekend Australian as saying

“Syria is a country that has been a bastard state for nearly forty years.” However it should have read: “Syria has been a Baathist state for nearly forty years. The Australian regrets any embarrassment caused by the error.”

Sadly, no need to correct the statement these days.

Souk of Aleppo

Modest expectations – Temperature

There has been a great amount of strategic mucking around in the Northern Atlantic and the question of whether climate change had made the north-west passage navigable for most of the year has been troubling among others the Canadian security boffins. After all, there are many competing claims for the Arctic.

The Canadians … and the Danes claiming Hans Island

However, one of the most bizarre events was when the Canadians sent a helicopter to a speck called Hans Island, which lies in the stretch of water between Ellesmere Island and Greenland separating the Arctic Ocean from Baffin Bay. Canada disputes ownership of the rock with Denmark and after the Danes had raised their flag on the rock in 2002, the Canadians came back in 2005 and planted a windproof Canadian flag which promptly fell over. However the Danish flag was removed and returned to the Danish ambassador in Ottawa. There was Danish outrage, and immediate consideration was given to the dispatch of a destroyer, complete with not only the Danish flag but also a bottle or two of Danish schnapps.

The dispute is still raging with the Canadians retaliating with Canadian rye whiskey to complement the Canadian flag. The issue of course is definition of fishing and sea floor mining rights.

It is understood that the puffins, being very clever birds, have difficulty leaving the island now that they have learnt to open the bottles.

But as the Chinese have shown, you do not want to leave your rocks unattended and then complain about any unexpected consequence.

Confucius was a very wise man

It is somewhat ironic to see the SMH headlines screaming about Chinese infiltration when snugly lying within the paper was “China Watch”. It is like finding a copy of “Watchtower” in the Book of Common Prayer.

I glanced through the contents, and there was a piece about one of the many minorities. In this case it was about the sea gypsies or Tanka people who were resettled on the Fujian coast in Southern China. I always shudder at the word “resettlement” and who was the architect of the resettlement? It was none other that Xi Jinping, then the deputy secretary of the Communist Party in Fujian where he honed his political skills with minority groups over 17 years, as instanced by moving the Tanka people onshore. Much better for their life style onshore, rather than honour the centuries of tradition living on the sea. Sound familiar?

This was probably done for a strategic reason. Fujian is a sub-tropical province lying opposite Taiwan. Cleanse the water and give a clear line of sight to the rebellious “’province”. Yet Fujian itself is underdeveloped and quaint, the birthplace of oolong tea, soya sauce and a fermented fish sauce called kê-tsiap, which over the centuries with the addition of tomatoes became an Anglo-American national delicacy called ketchup with no residual relationship to its Chinese antecedent.

However, as I flicked through this insert, what attracted me as well was the announcement that the Sea Dragon 2, China’s new ice breaker was making its maiden voyage to the Antarctic base at Zhongsan, which is close to Australia Davis Station on the continental Antarctic mass; and also to Chang-cheng (“Great Wall”) located near the Chilean station on otherwise uninhabited King George Island in the South Shetlands. The crew complement was announced as containing scientists and support staff. Built in Shanghai, the vessel is 122.5 metres long and capable of sailing 37,000 kilometres in a single voyage. Moreover, China is already building a third.

Australia is building its new icebreaker in Romania named “Nyuna” (the Tasmanian aboriginal word for “Southern Lights”) due for delayed delivery next year. This icebreaker is longer, wider, and has twice the displacement of the Chinese vessel. It is supposed to have a life of 30 years. One wonders incidentally what ice sheets will be like in that time.

However, it was clear from incidents in 2013 when both the first generation Chinese and Australian icebreakers had difficulties in accessing a Russian ship stuck in the Antarctic ice that they needed vessels with improved capabilities.

Most of icebreaker activity has been confined to the Arctic region. After years of indecision, the U.S. government has issued a contract for the U.S. Coast Guard’s three new heavy icebreaker in decades, the first be delivered in 2024. As one source commented, “These ships are absolutely critical to the United States’ continued ability to conduct operations in ice-filled waters, especially in the increasingly strategic Arctic region.”

There was no mention of the Antarctic region because in the 60th year of the Antarctic treaty, the sacrosanctity of the Antarctic remains in place where everybody makes no territorial claims while agreeing to work together in spheres of scientific influence. This situation is in place until 2048 – neither mining nor militarization, even if contemplated, being allowed until that year.

However, like Japanese whaling for ostensibly research purposes and the self-regulated tourist pollution, the fact that the Chinese are already planning a third icebreaker, which will give them a distinct tactical advantage in navigating the Antarctic, the word “research” can be used to cover any number of deceptions.

Given the Chinese activities in the South Chinese Sea, there are many uninhabited places in the Southern Ocean, some of which come under the Antarctic treaty and some not. However, it will only take one nation to throw a rock into the Southern Ocean – and whether it will be noticed in the storms that rack that part of the world, who knows.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Russians have 41 icebreakers and have just launched the first of three combination icebreaker warships complete with cruise missiles and of course a landing area for helicopters. The Arctic has no treaty to protect it and much jostling for sovereignty over the resources, especially now the waterways are more accessible because of climate change.

The Chinese I’m sure will be watching. They are always in for the long haul. The “China Watch” provides a useful insight into the thinking, even if we Australian readers may think it a bit of Sino-“puff”, remember “puff” is followed by the dragon – the magic dragon.

The new plague – the online anti-vax ‘influencer’

Guest blogger: Janine Sargeant#

A new plague is sweeping the world and we seem powerless to stop it. This is the epidemic of online anti-vaxxer ‘influencers’ whose commentary influences people to not protect their children from preventable disease; these ‘influencers’ should hang their heads in shame.

At a time when Samoa is struggling to deal with a shocking measles epidemic, this hasn’t stopped those who peddle nonsensical cures for measles from spruiking their wares. As of today, more than 60 have died, over 50 of these are children aged less than four. There have been more than 4,000 measles cases in Samoa’s population of around 200,000 since the outbreak began about seven weeks ago.

Measles is the most infectious disease and it has spread through much of the developed world this year. In developed countries there has been comparatively little loss of human life; New Zealand recently suffered its worst epidemic of measles in 20 years – 2,000 people were infected, but there were no deaths.

However, Samoa has been another story. Measles travelled from New Zealand to Samoa where the population had very low vaccination rates; WHO estimated Samoa’s total population immunity to be as low as 30-40%. Samoa’s health service was not equipped to deal with an epidemic.

In response to nursing error that resulted in two deaths in 2018, (the guilty nurses now serving five year prison terms) the immunisation program was shut down for months and was slow to recommence, and the anti-vaxxers leveraged off this medical error. Samoa’s vaccination rate plummeted.

A perfect storm – the Samoan population had no chance to resist and those who paid the price were the youngest and most vulnerable of the population who had no say in whether they should be vaccinated or not.

Anti-vaxxer advocates were proposing vitamins and alkaline water cures instead of the vaccine; but the prize goes to Samoan-Australian online influencer, Taylor Winterstein, who is reported as “liken(ing) the new mandatory vaccination regime (in Samoa to combat the outbreak) to Nazi Germany.” There’s been plenty of angry responders in the Australian media to that fatuous comment.

Winterstein’s husband is a Samoan-born rugby league player, who after stints with Manly and Penrith is now in France – not back to his native country to apologise for his wife’s behaviour. 

But back to Mrs Winterstein … let’s look a little further into this person’s medical and public health qualifications: well, she has none. However, as a self-described “Integrative Nutrition Health Coach” she is unqualified but adept in self-promotion and encouraging her “followers” to part with money to hear about the dangers of vaccinating children. 

Mrs Winterstein is quoted as saying: “The amount of NRL players and their partners who consciously choose NOT to vaccinate would seriously surprise you”. Well, she does mention the name of the pregnant wife of a Titans player – nobody else, but perhaps she should name names.

For my part I would strongly encourage all NRL players and their wives to publicly support vaccinating their and our community’s children from an entirely preventable disease that has caused so many deaths and continues to do so.

And let’s not forget those who suffer terrible long-term post-measles conditions such as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) – one for Mrs Winterstein and her ilk to look up. This causes a terrible, lingering death, brain gradually reduced to “porridge”.  

Mrs Winterstein, my anger is palpable. Perhaps if young parents see what happens to their children with this post-measles neurological complication, they may think again and defy your “influence” and head for the clinic. 

What are “influencers” in the online psyche? They are individuals with the power to affect purchase decisions because of their authority, knowledge, position or relationship with their audience. They drive traffic and sales to a product or service based on their recommendations. All very commercial; time to remind these “influencers” that this authority and power comes with very real responsibility and if you stray into public health and medicine, just remember that you should also do no harm. 

What is her solution? Black rice, which can be bought at the supermarket and which she sells at a substantial price premium.

Mrs Winterstein, you intended to go to Samoa with a pocketful of rice to give a workshop when there was one family in Samoa – their three very small children were all taken by this measles outbreak. Did they heed your advice? 

The Samoan Government has now arrested a “traditional healer” who has been telling people to not vaccinate their children.  His “traditional healing” that involved the use of somewhat non-traditional bottled vitamins, was facilitated by Mrs Winterstein’s “influencing”.  A recent post by Mrs Winterstein now says her family is coming under attack from media outlets around the world and she’s the target of a witch hunt – well that might just be the problem of being in the business of promoting eye of newt, toe of frog … and charms of powerful trouble*.

And Shannelle, the wife of the Titans player, you would have given birth by now – get your child vaccinated, please.

*with thanks to Mr Shakespeare from many ages ago.

#Among other things, Janine Sargeant is a Master of Public Health

How much are we paying these jokers?

In such circumstances, monetary policy needs to be accommodative. Low interest rates are acting to support borrowing and spending. While the recent changes to some lending rates for housing will reduce this support slightly, overall conditions are still quite accommodative. Credit growth has increased a little over recent months, with credit provided by intermediaries to businesses picking up. Growth in lending to investors in the housing market has eased. Supervisory measures are helping to contain risks that may arise from the housing market. 

There are further signs of a turnaround in established housing markets. This is especially so in Sydney and Melbourne, but prices in some other markets have also increased recently. In contrast, new dwelling activity is still declining and growth in housing credit remains low. Demand for credit by investors is subdued and credit conditions, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, remain tight. Mortgage rates are at record lows and there is strong competition for borrowers of high credit quality.

The easing of monetary policy this year is supporting employment and income growth in Australia and a return of inflation to the medium-term target range. The lower cash rate has put downward pressure on the exchange rate, which is supporting activity across a range of industries. It has also boosted asset prices, which in time should lead to increased spending, including on residential construction. Lower mortgage rates are also boosting aggregate household disposable income which, in time, will boost household spending.

The pace of growth in dwelling prices has moderated in Melbourne and Sydney over recent months and has remained mostly subdued in other cities. In other asset markets, prices for commercial property have been supported by lower long-term interest rates, while equity prices have moved in parallel with developments in global markets. The Australian dollar is adjusting to the significant declines in key commodity prices. 

Such are the public releases from the Reserve Bank Board. Two of the above paragraphs are from the latest report; and two from a report from 2015 when now Emeritus Sheriff Stevens was in the saddle. Then to give it extra emphasis I have mixed them up so each two-paragraph excerpt has one from Sheriff Lowe and the other the benefit of Emeritus Sheriff Stevens’ wisdom.

I asked someone wise in the world of finance what he thought of the following quote:

The genius of the recent administrations has been to transfer inflation to the stock market – that is to the prices of stocks and bonds instead of to the price of labour and production. Real wages are lower than they were in 1964 (written in 2005). 

He missed the bracketed attribution, and thought the quote referred to the current situation, whereas it was a prescient comment made in 2005 before the GFC. He agreed with the sentiment. Nothing has changed, he admitted.

As the excerpts from the RBA writing show, there is not much new thinking going on there, but what would one expect of a Board, with the Governor, the Deputy Governor, and Secretary of the Treasury being committed public servants that inhabit the Morrison self-described bubble; another who has lived in that curious chimera of public servant and multiple company directorships, three representatives of big business, a highly placed investment banker, and an academic with close links to the Anglican Church, which has been described as big business on its knees.

The problem with this economic and morally stagnant Australia is that the people making decisions enjoy the benefits of that stagnation. Neither political party dares to throw a stone into the fen where the water has stopped flowing and the fragrant algae of our political system, which thrives on stagnation, is hiding the poison that is killing Australia. Soon the beautiful fen with its wondrous fauna and flora will become an irreversible cesspool full of the tailings of illusionary productivity.

Which of the current Board would suggest that a wealth tax, a large increase in funding providing for education and health care systems and climate change proofing action, should get an airing rather than just allow this country to sink into an algae infested sink hole. From the sidelines one could imagine all the myriad rent seekers and mercantilists scrambling to get out of the hole while the ordinary Australian drowns in debt.

What is needed is to build the new political movement, which defines ‘the honest toiler” centre, which looks after the wellbeing of the nation rather just that of self-absorbed politicians. Development of this concept is just the shorthand for a series of future blogs, to assist in stirring the pool, clearing the algae and starting the water flowing.

After all, I do not want my grandchildren growing up in an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

Mouse Whisper

Talking of Danish schnapps or its other Scandinavian name aquavit, Finns are known for their taciturnity. So when a Swede and a Finn sat down to a glass of aquavit, the Swede said “Skol” the Finn said nothing, and they drank the philtre. This ritual was repeated five times the Swede said “Skol” on each occasion and the Finn said nothing. So they drank on, refilling their glasses on the way.

Aquavit for two

However, on the seventh occasion the Swede again said “Skol” and this time the Finn burst out, “The trouble with you Swedes you talk too much,” and drained his glass.

They say alcohol loosens the tongue.

Modest Expectations – Adelaide

I used to listen to his Letters from America – clever oral essays – the British gentleman reflecting on the mores of the day from his study in America. The author was Alistair Cooke, a remarkable figure in his adopted country, who wrote his observations in his weekly epistle until just before his death in 2004.

He had been in America since the early 1930s as a correspondent, but at the heart he was a film critic, and moreover mixing with the “stars”. One of the films he wrote about accepted the doomsday hypothesis of the last survivors of planetary nuclear war. The film was Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach” adapted from an eponymous novel by a British expatriate who went under the non-de-plume, Neville Shute.

Melbourne was the chosen site for the film, and I remember being in the school quadrangle when Gregory Peck turned up with his son, presumably to enrol in the school while he made the film. I was struck by how much presence Gregory Peck had, without creating any fuss – just dad taking his son to school which, in 1958 was somewhat unusual, but I suppose my dad took me to school on my first day. In fact on reflection he did, found me being bullied by a future archdeacon and had me learn to box as a consequence.

Ava Gardner’s comment on Melbourne was cutting – she thought it a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world. After all, Melbourne pubs closed at six o’clock begetting the six o’clock swill where large glasses called “pots” were lined up to be consumed in the half-hour of grace before the doors were locked. Restaurants were sparse, and any place where you could drink required that alcohol to be bought in a brown paper bag and taken off the table if not drunk by nine o’clock. Men drank beer; women were segregated in the hotel lounge and God, it was not done to have a woman in the front bar. Women of refinement drank sherry; and Scotch whisky was the drink of the “top end of town”. Then, wine was consumed by the bohemian fringe of this apocalyptic maledom, as Ava Gardner viewed it.

In his review of the film, published in the Guardian 17 December 1959, about which Cooke is positive – “a story…as clean and unsentimental as a skull.” However, on the imagery reflecting on the future, Cooke is pessimistic. He quotes the collective wisdom of three think tanks to write:

They agree in approximate terms that nuclear war in the next decade is more likely than not. They warn us that the military decline of the United States in the short span of fifteen years has left it open to a devastating attack; that the disarmament at the United Nations and Geneva may blind the United States to the possibility that the Soviet union with a clear superiority in the arms’ race will use it to blackmail or attack its major opponent without warning. 

Neville Shute, the author, subscribed to the mutual annihilation theory rather than the above, (which seemed in accord with that of Cooke) since it mirrored the mindset of the late 1950s and 60s before the Vietnam War monopolised the headlines.

However, when Khrushchev engineered the Cuban missile crisis and failed, that was it – one episode of blackmail and the Russians withdrew to its reality. Competition with the United States in hindsight was illusory once the Americans got serious. However, it was not until Reagan called the Russians’ bluff and thus three decades later the Russian empire was in ruin.

Now we have Putin, the arch illusionist, at it again. Russia has divested itself of land, but they have been mindful that maintaining a number of satraps is important. Garrisoning countries is a costly exercise for a country with a GDP not much bigger than Australia’s. This time he wields his power by bullying his neighbours, which provides occupational therapy for his armed forces whether they be in the Ukraine or the Caucasus. Up to this time he has not manufactured a reason to march across Lithuania so that that exclave of Kaliningrad can be re-united with Mother Russia; but if he thought he could get away with it, who knows.

However, this illusion of the powerful strutting дуче also depends on his manipulation of Trump. Maybe I am only dazzled by the illusion of an image of a marionette with golden hair, on a wire, being paraded before a worldwide audience.

However, Prince Andrew was not the only person to be seen in the company of Mr Epstein – a figure who, in death, increasingly resembles The Tar Baby.

I wonder what Mr Cooke would have thought of this scenario which, in another context from the film “On the Beach”, could end up in mutual annihilation.

Another Alister – Another Time

There was another Alister, whom I admired greatly. His name was Alister Brass. “Alister” has a protean number of ways of being spelled.

Alister was the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia for a period in the mid 1980s – not only a doctor, a journalist, a war correspondent, but also a man of great innovation and integrity. He was lost prematurely to AIDS.

He did not have to adorn his ego with citations and references to his own achievements. He did not have the basic insecurity that often accompanies this display, and not to put a fine point on it, he viewed being editor as a full-time occupation, not a part-time bauble.

The Nobel laureate, Dr Barry Marshall wrote a telling piece about how Alister Brass helped him, reporting on self-administration of Helicobacter pylori to himself as part of fulfilling Koch’s postulates to prove that the bacillus caused peptic ulcer. Alister Brass had seen the original paper that Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had published in 1984 in The Lancet. Brass had encouraged Marshall to write an article for the MJA, which was duly submitted to “scrupulous referees” (Marshall’s words), who demanded a re-write and the final published article in 1985 became very influential in the recognition of Marshall and Warren’s work by a sceptical worldwide audience.

Marshall could not have been more clear about the value of Alister Brass’ role, as all great editors have, in ensuring the work, which eventually brought Marshall and Warren the Nobel Prize, was scrupulously refereed and then published. As Marshall himself concluded years later Re-reading that paper every few years, I am impressed by how far the MJA Editor was ‘sticking his neck out’ in allowing me to publish a hypothesis as to the cause of peptic ulcer. It was a further 5 years before journals allowed the word ‘cure’ to appear in articles about duodenal ulcer, and almost a decade before mainstream United States journals could accept it as proven.

Be that as it may, the point should be clearly made that two people who were outside the conventional medical establishment at that time (they were in Perth during the period of the research), Marshall and Warren, were nowhere near the major beneficiaries of medical research funding – Victoria or NSW.

The rush to citations as a sign of pumping out research papers has recently been criticised by the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. He mentions the “salami-slicing techniques” whereby, why have one paper when you could have three out of one piece of research? Then there is the multiple authorship where those who seem to be at the top-end of frequent flyer points appear on an article to which their input is negligible. I believe the citations record tallies over 5,000 authors. The emergence of a plethora of non peer-reviewed journals offering to publish articles in return for money, has just added to the proposition that “citations” are being discredited as a valid measurement of scientific worth.

Marshall and Warren were a temporary antidote to the accusation that so much of this form of research is trivial. The question remains: should the community reward funding submissions that emphasise process (of which parading a wealth of citations is one criterion and that insidious “proven track record” is another) rather than an outcome bestowing a tangible benefit on the community?

It is a pity that Alister Brass’s life was cut short, because we would not have to be reminded of the Journal’s worth by some obscure measurement. It would have been self-evident. He would clearly have made the above question irrelevant through the way he extracted the very best from authors and researchers in the same way Ingelfinger and Relman as Editors defined The New England Journal of Medicine.

A load of old cobblers

I sit and cobble at slippers and shoon, From the rise of sun to the set of moon; Cobble and cobble as best I may, Cobble all night and cobble all day.

In 1982 I invited David Owen, then at the height of his political powers, to give the address at the 50th anniversary of the Australian Institute of Political Science*.  Named in his honour, Sir Norman Cowper attended this inaugural Oration. Sir Norman had been among the founders of the Institute, although that is another story.  Dr Owen charged the Institute nothing. I was able to wrangle a first-class airfare London to Sydney return out of Qantas (in the days before business class and Irish parsimony).

These days politicians, after their retirements, have a habit of charging large amounts of money to perform while they garner a luscious pension for which we all pay. The current Treasurer, Minister Frydenberg, now aged 48, will in all probability be no exception. No need to retrain good ol’ Josh after the age of 60, except to identify the location of the amenities cabinet in whichever ambassadorship he has been awarded and later on retrained on how he stores his cash when there will be no banks left we can trust.

Politicians advocating this course for the elderly should not do so unless they are also serious about being role models, insisting on retiring on modest pensions and seeking retraining. Otherwise they could be subject to ridicule with a restive population calling for the re-introduction of the pillory.

Perhaps Abbot could resume his religious calling and be retrained as a Pentecostal minister; my favourite rent-seeker, Christopher Pyne because of his fixer obsession being retrained on reaching 60 as a paper hanger. However I jest – but if you think about it further, why not? Also, perhaps the word for this breed is “train” rather than “retrain”.

At my 70th birthday I was chirpy enough for people to exclaim that 70 was the new 50. It is seductive to believe that aphorism. However, when Frydenberg exhorts the elderly to retrain the answer is for what – and what time will be required for this mythical retraining and then, assuming anyone, anywhere would consider hiring this retrained person, one may only be able literally to work for a few years. Even though the average living age may have crept up to over 80, this increase in quantity cannot be necessarily equated to quality and ergo capacity to work.

Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner from 2011-2016, used to bemoan the fact that there was age discrimination in Australia. Well, thank you for borrowing my pocket watch and telling me what I already know – if you’re over 40 and wanting a job, good luck. What did she do in her five years there? But then she was followed by another “retrained politician”, Dr Kay Paterson – and there is silence broken only by the chirping of crickets when the question is asked, what have you actually done to solve the problem of age discrimination for older Australians looking for work?

So what is the Frydenburg retraining all about? I worked until I was 75 years, and the only retraining I needed was to cope with my disease over my last 15 months, when I was deprived of independent living. However, with a carer for whom no government assistance was sought, I was enabled to ease into retirement. I had a few part-time “hangovers” from my previous jobs, which provided employment for another 18 months. Thus I was well into my 77th year when I finally finished.

Therefore it may be more about convincing employers of the worth of retaining the employees on, say, a contract for three to five years. On the other hand, I do not believe that the economy should be burdened with unproductive ageing staff. I can say that because – in the terms of the Italian calibration of age – I am about to pass from vecchio to anziano. 

Jokes aside, “working” and “ageing” provide a complex situation. I have had to deal with people who should have long since retired, and increasingly they had presented a hazard. It becomes a very difficult situation especially if they have accolades from their careers, which suddenly become more important to them when their livelihood and relevance are threatened.

I have one advantage. I have my marbles and I can look back over the past 20 years during which Treasury has put out a number of papers on this matter of ageing and the workforce – for what effect?

Just giving more benefits for a relatively small but vocal segment of the ageing population without the bother of setting up retraining scenarios, with only a marginal chance of success.

The “Golden Age” index is touted as a benchmark, but the index age range is 55-64. Fifty-five is a ludicrous age to retire, but was the basis of many public service plans with penalties imposed for working beyond that age. As a result, there has been the growth of so-called consultant work – doing what you were doing before, but at a higher rate of remuneration to top up that indexed pension, and stimulating the rise of the rent-seeker class.

Minister Frydenberg, can I hand you the last?

The Victorian TAFE sector says it takes a year to train to become a cobbler aka shoemaker. Another way of being the life and sole of the party when and if you get to 70!

*Now the Australian Institute of Policy and Science

Jesus the Leader

Now a rather sad case of a man when a post-graduate student who, when he was a student at the US Army War College, wrote a dissertation on Jesus Christ the Leader.

He described the Jesus model of leadership as love. His first criterion was that leaders traditionally sat at the top of the pile and issued orders, while Jesus “inverted the pyramid” and “he got down in the trenches and served the troops”. The rest of the “Jesus the Leader” dissertation proceeded from this statement.

Fast-forward 15 years and now Major General Gregg Martin faces his Jesus moment when as,

“The president of the National Defense University stepped down from his post last week following reports of an ongoing investigation into a poor command climate at the Defense Department-operated institution.

Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin officially relinquished the job last Monday…the move was approved by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey… Gen. Martin said he believed this was the right time for a new leader to guide the institution as NDU continued to prepare leaders for the challenges facing the U.S. Military.  

Martin was reported as having unilaterally ordered a series of sweeping structural changes at NDU without consulting its tenured faculty and other academic leaders, and that he threatened to fire anyone who challenged his plans. Martin responded that he was indeed seeking “transformational” change within the university, but that his comments were misinterpreted.”

Hardly a sign of mutual affection, but as Martin had written in his dissertation, “Jesus religiously took time away by himself, plug into his eternal power source – God’s Word – and recharge his battery. When things get extremely hectic, it may be time to consider taking an afternoon to play golf.”

Jesus thanks you for that advice. Some people may define the golf links as a wilderness but I think,

General, you are advising the wrong chap.

Jesus is the Palestinian chap on the right hand side.

In turn, Martin has languished in his own Pentagon wilderness for the past five years.

Mouse Whisper

Chevron ran an advertisement bemoaning the fact the United States reserves of natural gas were small compared to Russia, Iran and Qatar. In fact the United States and Turkmenistan vie for fourth place. This ranking has not interfered with the fact that the United States is the largest producer of natural gas ahead of Russia.

On contemplating this Chevron advertisement where ostensibly the message is that the USA has a smaller supply of one commodity than “shock horror” Russia and Iran, it struck my murine mind that how it was playing upon the fragile ego of the American people. Trump has also exploited the same fragility in his “Make America Great” mantra. Augmenting it with red dew drops of “Russia with Love” has led Trump supporters to wear T-shirts which say “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat”. You mean better be Stalin than Roosevelt?   I am really now mus confusus. People so insecure in themselves that they would compromise their country’s security. Maybe they should have a portrait of Benedict Arnold on their T-shirt as well.

Benedict Arnold

 

 

 

 

 

What Trump supporters are wearing this Fall.

Modest Expectations – Qin Shi Huang

So Donald had gone to the Walter Reed Hospital, the betting given his track record is that he may have been stented and sent back to the White House where there is probably the equivalent of a coronary care unit on site; but not in sight. It was recorded that a year ago his coronary artery calcium had been rising and was indexed at 133, which puts him the range of risking a heart attack within 3-5 years. But with a man who is so addicted to the sunny side of his street, we can only speculate about this particular episode. But from afar he does not appear well, a point I mentioned in my blog on 17 May this year.

Ironic that this news would come in the same week that that the Kooyong Papillon has been fluttering about retraining us elderly to avoid the poubelle of old age.

More about that next week, but really are we surprised?

An Apologia of Academics

In response to my comment on the creation of exotic names for senior positions, a former academic drew my attention to another university, which has gone for the Latin dictionary.

This particular university has appointed scientia professors, presumably on the basis that scientia being the Latin word for knowledge, those without that appellation are sine scientia – or in the vulgate of the Quad, dumbo professors.

Earlier in the year, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians wasted everybody’s time with a series of motions put to an Extraordinary General Meeting to form a cohort of what were to be called ‘Respected Fellows”.

One young female Fellow stood up and asked whether passage of this motion to set up this exclusive group would mean that all those who did not gain entry to the RF club were not respected. Same logic as the above comment about “scientia”.

Although this was a unsubtle way of interfering with the democratic processes by setting up a junta, it was soundly defeated. At least the College gave its Fellows the choice of whether they wanted this nonsense.

What is it all about? Is it only vanity? As I indicated in my comment in the last blog, I think this title escalation is a ridiculous affectation, and affectation is always a perfect subject for satire.

At the heart of all this titular mumbo-jumbo, it is probably about privilege – and privilege in this world of ours is one getting somewhere because one has been inducted into such an elite. It is very seductive to be enticed onto a ladder of privilege where ultimately the reward is the laurel accolade of smugness. Probably in about 400 CE, one would have found that there were a number of laurel wreaths strewn among the ruins of Rome.

Impartiality – the silent partner in Democracy

I have never met the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith. When you read his curriculum vitae, he has all the characteristics of the modern politician growing up through a variety of politicians’ offices before being rewarded with a safe seat, which he plodded through in his initial years. However, he became Speaker of the House of Representatives after the demise of the unfortunate Bronwyn Bishop.

I knew Bill Snedden very well and one of his wishes was that after his speakership, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, the speaker, once elected to the role, would be immune from challenge in the House and generally challenge at the election. Snedden was concerned that the Speaker role be seen as even-handed, and having witnessed one of Whitlam’s crueller acts – the public humiliation of Jim Cope, which led to his resignation as Speaker, Snedden was determined to advocate some protection for the position.

When he resigned after the defeat of Fraser Government in 1983, he regretted that he had not another term to pursue the reform, yet he followed his own dictum that the Speaker on resignation as Speaker should exit Parliament immediately. He said inter alia “…under the Westminster convention, when the Speaker leaves the chair he leaves the House. I think this is right. This Westminster practice has been firmly in place all this century and considerations of which I have spoken have led to its acceptance. I have weighed this principle against other considerations, both political and personal. I have concluded that the Westminster practice is correct and, pursuant to it, I intend to leave the Parliament and will resign forthwith.”

Needless to say his wish did not come to pass and the Speakers have come and gone until Tony Smith was elected in the wake of Bronwyn Bishop’s disastrous stewardship. The Speaker’s standing as an impartial chair was severely compromised by her antics, and only compounded by Gillard’s previous ill-advised manipulation to have Peter Slipper installed as Speaker.

The Speaker’s role needs a person with a firm grip on the rules, but also common sense and a sense of humour and above all a person who exhibits impartiality.

One of Whitlam’s less desirable acts was his lack of defence of the then Speaker, Jim Cope. Cope’s “crime” was naming a Minister, Clyde Cameron. Whitlam failed to support him and Cope immediately resigned, barely holding back his tears. Later Cameron realized the gravity of what he had instigated and apologised to Jim Cope.

However, although Cope was visibly distressed, when the time came to elect his replacement and Giles, a Liberal party member was selected by the Opposition to contest the ballot against Labor’s choice, Gordon Scholes, a voice was heard clearly calling out in the House “How do you spell Giles?” It was Jim Cope. His sense of humour never deserted him.

Jim Cope was a good Speaker with only a hint of partiality.

Moving onwards to Tony Smith, Smith’s conduct in the House has been so impeccable that at the last election, he was elected unopposed, and in fact his nomination was seconded by the Member for Caldwell, a Labor MP who glowed as she seconded his nomination.

That is an important first step, but although it would be impossible to know definitely, his performance as Speaker has kept control of the proceedings so that mostly the feet are out of the gutter and if not he has ensured that they are lifted back onto the pavement. That is his immense value to Australia at a time when there is much partisan hatred in the air.

He does not attend the Liberal Party Room, which even Snedden did on occasions. That is another step towards achieving what Snedden fervently wished. Smith is loathe to use his casting vote. I have not read whether he subscribes to Denison’s rule laid down by that Speaker of the House of Commons.

Then he does not seem to flaunt the not inconsiderable perks of office, and while Snedden was the last speaker to dress in full regalia, Smith’s gravitas proceeds without having to dress up to emphasise this.

The main drawback to an independent speaker underneath all the constitutional bluster is that, unlike the British situation where one seat more or less doesn’t matter generally, in Australia each seat is at a premium. However, having looked at Smith’s seat of Casey, it is buffered by two Liberal-held seats where the suburbs bordering on his electorate if redistributed into his electorate (as probably will happen eventually )would be unlikely to change it from being a Liberal seat. Therefore, Smith is in a safe seat and unlikely to be defeated any time soon, which buys time if the notion of an impartial Speaker immune from political challenge is seen as a necessity for Australian democracy to be maintained.

I fear that installing a partisan clown in the Chair may be one tipping point for civil unrest.

I may overstate the point, but one cannot underestimate Tony Smith’s role in sustaining our democracy.

Yet the resulting conundrum of the unchallenged member is that it would effectively disenfranchise the voters in his electorate. It would be interesting to ask them whether they would pay the price for having such a person as the Speaker as their Member.

The Media & Private Health Insurance 

Guest blogger:  Terry Stubberfield FRACP*

Sometimes you just have to say something and not just grumble into your breakfast cereal about the latest media commentary.

Thus this response was prompted by Ross Gittin’s recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (30.10.19) – “Funds cling on for dear half-life” – complete with image of grasping skeletal X-ray hand. This article made a number of claims without any supporting data.  

Gittins stated that patients are experiencing “huge out of pocket costs that they were not expecting”. Yet at the same time it is interesting to note that in the June 2019 quarter report from the Australian Prudential Regulatory Agency (APRA) the average out of pocket cost per service/episode for private hospital care for the quarter was reported as $314.51, compared with the cost for the June 2018 quarter of $308.73.

For consultant physicians 86.8% of medical services in the Private Hospitals attracted no Private Health Insurance (PHI) payment; by comparison, if you look back three years to June 2016, it was 85.3%. In other words more patients are paying no gap.  Furthermore, that payment for a consultant physician/specialist service was no more than $25, irrespective of how funded. Consultant physicians indeed having the lowest gap payment, of any medical group, if calculated as a percentage of the service cost, i.e. 1%.

In discussing the cost of the private health insurance industry Ross Gittins has concentrated on medical services. Reviewing the June 2019 quarter data provided by APRA the total funds paid by PHI during that quarter for selected areas were:

  • Medical Services $603m  
  • Accommodation and Nursing $2,789m
  • Prosthesis $543m#
  • Dental $697m
  • Optical $204m 
  • Physiotherapy $112m 
  • Chiropractic $77m.

The summary of the June 2019 quarter data presented by APRA states: “medical benefits paid per service … does not mean medical services overall decreased or increased in cost”. 

So medical services are just one piece of the puzzle.

Ross Gittins’ article simply jumps on the populist wagon where over-paid specialist doctors are the cause of the PHI sector’s woes when the data above raises serious questions about escalating costs elsewhere in the health system.

Mr Gittins also falls victim to the common error of lumping all medical specialists under one umbrella when there are multiple specialist groups: consultant physicians and consultant paediatricians for instance are those medical specialists whose expertise is predominantly cognitive; they manage the most complex conditions often for the life of the patient – adult and paediatric – on referral from general practitioners and other specialists. This referral system is one of the strengths of Australia’s health care system.

The APRA report doesn’t comment on “medical specialists” as if they are homogenous group, but appropriately deals with the different medical specialties separately.

In a speech given by Peter Kolhagen, APRA’s Senior Manager, Policy Development, to the Health Insurance Summit 2019, he questioned the health insurance funds for their tardy response to the impact of a range of issues and changes the delivery of health care in Australia – including regulatory and health demands. APRA appears to not single out medical specialists as the root cause of all the problems for private health insurance in Australia.

Gittins however uses surgery as a proxy for all medical specialists, which reflects his basic lack of understanding. Hence his final thought bubble in the Sydney Morning Herald article claims medical specialists are promoting private over public hospital care in order to line their pockets and that if there was not a private hospital system, “…they’d (specialists) do far more of their operations in the public system, probably doing more operations in total than they did before (to counter the huge drop in their incomes)”.

This is disturbing, simplistic and displays little understanding of the delivery of hospital care in Australia. The resources required to provide additional inpatient services to replace the current private hospital services, would be considerable,

Just add the annual recurring expenditure currently provided to private hospital care, (according to PHI data, of around $15 billion),

Then add the cost of infrastructure required and additional nursing and hospital medical staff required to provide much of the day to day health assessment, organisation and implementation of care.

Analysis of health care in Australia is a useful exercise, given that health care represents a significant proportion of government expenditure. However, Australians should not be inflicted with simplistic commentary that can only result in misleading the readers who rely on commentators like Gittins to give them useful and accurate information.

# A real growth increase of >10% in the past decade and I thank Stephen Duckett from the Grattan Institute for this information – and a matter which is obviously concerning enough for the Government to launch a separate inquiry into this increase in the cost of prostheses.

*Dr Terry Stubberfield is a consultant paediatrician practising in a regional Victorian city. He is President-elect of the Australian Association of Consultant Physicians.

A Royal Wave through a Crack in the Door

The door ajar; the recognisable face; the smile; the object of the smile a young lady with long hair, her face concealed; the furtive but practised royal wave; the door shuts; the young lady gone. New York wakes for another day.

I wondered where Prince Andrew Albert Christian Edward had been. I cannot remember in fact seeing him on television, except during his matrimonial tussles and briefly as a Falkland War hero.

In discussing his relationship with the “unbecoming” Mr Epstein, HRH made mention of the fact that he does not sweat.

Of course, he does not, HRH perspire. Would anybody question that fact?

However that is trivialising the seriousness of the claim.

However, on that note, HRH has suggested he does not sweat because he got an overdose of adrenalin during the Falkland War. Nearly forty years later, he says that the after effects persist. Did I hear that learned gentleman at the back of the room clear his throat and was that clang another’s jaw drop? It is known that the use of other drugs such opioids can be a cause of reduced sweating, but for how long?

It is a rare condition and because of his claim it cannot be readily attributable to a congenital affliction, especially as Dad and Brother Charles are shown often perspiring freely after a chukka or two.

However his anhydrosis claim could be tested very readily, if there was enough interest in pursuing HRH.

Otherwise, Your RH, the RAF Salmon Boars are prepared to recognise your outstanding claim with a special flyover.

In fact, the interview may be the start of another crack in the house of Windsor; it recovered from the last crisis – but then the Queen was twenty-years younger – and the potential consequences are not just airbrushing away a case of serial adultery as was the case with the Diana tragedy.

Broken is the crown …

However, this not just one indulged ageing man, who disputes whether he sweats or not on the basis of a highly unlikely reason, a figure of derision, a butt for satire, but a serious challenge to the integrity of society. If guilty, then he is a high profile child trafficker. Exploitation of children is as unacceptable as slavery. That other Elizabeth queen was deeply involved in the slave trade, but there is no record of her ever regretting it. No; she did not among her many achievements invent Teflon.

Just different times; different climes, the apologists murmur. Just poor Andrew Albert Christian Edward. This episode is mere fluff on the shoulder of humankind. No it is not!

Slavery may have been the legacy of the First Elizabethan Age; it would be a pity if trafficking in children is the legacy of the Second.

Mouse Whisper

The derivation of the term for a member of the British Conservative Party comes from the Irish “tóraidhe”, (pronounced tawra) referring to a bandit. Ultimately the root verb for “tóraidhe” implies “pursuit”, hence outlaw or bandit.

In the late 17th century Whigs were those who did not want James, Duke of York, to succeed Charles II, as he was Catholic. The Duke’s sympathisers became known as Tories, and the Duke was briefly James 11, until the powers that be did a reverse brexit – more a bradit and invited the Dutch House of Orange to juice up the monarchy.

Brexit Boris the Brigand is a real alliterative tongue-roller – but Bradit Boris has a distinctive dissonance.

In the absence of a photo of Boris the Brigand, here is Boris the pirate

Modest expectations – “JH” Taylor 326

Did you pause on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November to remember?

If you did not, perhaps a line or two from Wilfrid Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 

We have not learnt have we; just forgotten?

Another Homage

The following is an unabridged reprint in part of a NYT article. I don’t normally do this but the story is so telling:

T.J. Abraham is a block of a man with a tree-trunk neck and a lantern jaw. He played football at a top Catholic high school outside Pittsburgh and then travelled downtown to Duquesne University, where he played another three years.

He was an offensive lineman back then, and he gloried in the fraternity of hit and get hit, joyfully clanking helmets. Sometimes he saw stars, sometimes he puked and so what? Get back up and get back in. “I probably got my bell rung 70 times,” he said Sunday with a crooked smile.

He always knew he would get on with life. He was a top student, and in time he became an obstetrics & gynaecology doctor, delivering so many babies, maybe 3,000, a gregarious guy who remembered birthdays and who could make a nervous expectant mother grin. He had a beautiful home and a wife and a young daughter and a teenage son. He was a son of western Pennsylvania and life was grand.

He shakes his head: Until it wasn’t.

It was about seven years ago that the now 42-year-old Abraham said he began to notice his temper flaring without reason. His memory and judgement became flickering lamps. In a panic, he began a medical trek that ended with an inconceivable diagnosis: neurodegenerative dementia.

 When I was about the same age, I had a serious car accident, which involved a wet night, my car aquaplaning on a country road, sliding up a muddy path and hitting a pole and bouncing into a dairy, as I was afterwards told. The car subsequently burst into flames, but somehow I was able to release the seat belt and scramble out of the car. I do remember standing, laughing uproariously while the sound of the oncoming ambulance was ringing in my ears. Then everything went blank until I woke up in the operating theatre.

In relation to my head, I had a severe enough head injury without internal bleeding. However, the space between the skull bone and covering galeal aponeurosis was spongy with fluid, presumably blood although to my knowledge it was never tapped. In other words, decelerating from 100 kms per hour to zero in less than a second caused a significant head injury. In my youth I had sustained head knocks playing sport, you could not avoid it if you boxed, as I did throughout school.

However, as Dr Abraham had said, having repeated head on collisions at about 50 kilometre per hour cannot be good for the brain irrespective of whether you have a helmet or not (galea as the Romans would call it). Being medical practitioners, he and I are acutely aware of changes in our mental ability; that is until we have lost the ability to be aware.

After the accident when my various injuries had healed, I made the decision without any consultation with anybody to return to work. Needless to say it was premature; I was tolerated but many later said that I was weirder then usual and obviously I had not recovered. However, unlike Dr Abraham I was on an upward spiral and at least among my peers returned to an acceptable “normal”.

I respect him greatly for admitting to his downward spiral. I hope it is arrested. I keep looking for evidence of the mental consequences of my accident; I have the evidence of the physical legacy from the accident, but my blog is my sentinel of mental decay.

However, with these equally old men vying for public office in the United States, do they get their mental abilities tested regularly? To what extent do these old men have the honesty portrayed by Dr Abraham? If Trump’s twitters are his substitute for a blog, then the content would worry me if I was an American voter – especially if one has been unfortunate enough to be able to trace the course of fronto-temporal dementia in others as I have.

If in fact we are to countenance age in itself as not being a bar to election, it does not help on the other hand when others blinded by the allure of power are not prepared to face the fact that mental deterioration may be occurring in one of its own grandees.

Thank you, Dr Abraham for being my inspiration. I wish you all the best, and that you somehow will be able to slow the process.

Justin Trudeau lives

Justin Trudeau in a season of seeming conservative supremacy retained power in Canada in the October election, albeit with a minority government. This time, he was delayed in announcing his cabinet until 20 November. He has taken a collective deep breath. After all, he lost every riding in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile back at the hand-wringing barn, as reported:

It’s true that the caucus was unified behind the idea that the party’s membership, not its elected members, should hold the leader to account. But that was where consensus ended. The meeting didn’t last seven hours because MPs were lauding the leader and his team.

Always the sign that the Conservative party leader, in this case Andrew Scheer, the member for Regina Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan, is under extreme threat. The report goes on: 

There are very real concerns among MPs from Ontario in particular, that the party will be reduced to a rump in Canada’s largest province, if major changes are not introduced…

The loss of Milton, an Ontario riding formerly held by Lisa Raitt (Deputy Opposition Leader), is seen as a harbinger by (Conservative) MPs with commuter belt constituencies who have seen their vote share dip in successive elections since 2011.

It seems that the situation is the reverse of Australia. Here the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has released a review which, despite the verbiage, seems to be an exercise of exorcising itself of Bill Shorten. The Conservatives have not yet done that in Canada.

Queensland is to Labor as Alberta and Saskatchewan are to Trudeau. At least the ALP has seats in Queensland; Trudeau does not have a riding in either of those two provinces – no seats out of 48.

Trudeau also lost out to the Bloc Québécois in Quebec. Added to his woes, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Minister who resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet in protest against what she believed to be a cover-up engineered by Trudeau, retained her seat in Vancouver. She is a formidable native Canadian woman lawyer, with a very strong public profile.

Trudeau thus did not get it all his own way, and he literally also got a few black marks during his campaign. However despite all, his party ended up with the most seats, and he knows that the New Democratic Party (24 seats) and the Greens (possibly 4) will support him on most issues – enough for a comfortable working majority. Both these Parties have strong climate change agendas.

On the other hand the far-right party, the agenda of which would certainly have been attractive to some in the current Australian Liberal party, fared appallingly, even though the leader had held a seat in the previous Parliament, which he lost in 2019.

What is interesting is the comment about the loss of the suburban commuter vote, which is the product of a more educated electorate and which presumably will not lessen. Given there is evidence of that same shift in voting patterns occurring in the Trumpian America, this is an interesting development that the ALP should examine. For instance, the only two seats that showed a swing towards the ALP in Queensland, which virtually guaranteed Morrison’s victory, were in Brisbane and Ryan, affluent Liberal Party urban strongholds, presumably the equivalent of the “commuter vote.”

The Canadian electoral system is far different from Australia; it is non-compulsory and first past the post, traditionally thought to favour the conservative vote – but I wonder whether that would still hold true. The Canadian Senate is a far different construct from the one here in Australia. In addition, the provinces do not have the powers of the Australian States. And of course, Canada is bilingual with a strong French influence, not only in Quebec but also in parts of Ontario and the Maritime provinces.

If I were Albanese I would at least being saying “hello” to Trudeau. How Trudeau is selecting his Cabinet, due to be released on 20 November, as I noted above, would be a good topic to break the ice – which will soon be forming on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. Come skating with me, dear Albo. 

The Expert Prophesises

I found a scrap of paper, which had drifted across my desk. Dated 26 October 2016 it was written for The Australian by Robert Gottliebsen.

It starts with a definite conclusion: “Barring some totally unforeseen event, Hilary Clinton will be the 45th President of the United States.”

Then it analyses some of her policies, which if successful “may lead her to be re-elected for a second time”. How far has the world drifted from this Gottliebsen opinion piece, some may then say.

Therefore why bother reading on. As for the journalist he has to write another piece. He may hope that 13-day lag period between the 26 October piece being published and Trump’s election will be enough time for his readership to forget. He has no time to contemplate whether there was a sliver of usefulness when his first sentence is such an almighty gaffe. He probably hopes his readership would forget it.

Yet three years on it is worth reading. Gottliebsen suggests that Clinton would have concentrated on making small business work, because that is where she saw job creation – not in big business, which should be taxed more. Her policies were directed to more prompt payment by government to assure cash flow and to make to easier to operate, unlike Australia’s “bizarre anti-small business public servants (who) go out of their way to prevent small enterprises starting by blocking them getting an ABN”.

In enhancing her agenda, Gottliebsen suggested that small business would have gained a share of what he describes as “an infrastructure bonanza”. This involvement of small business provided Gottliebsen with the opportunity to state that the “Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to recognise modern-day ‘cartels’ excluding efficient small enterprises are run by unions in collaboration with their big company mates who, in turn, pay unions big sums for favourable treatment.”

The stimulus to small business by Clinton was designed to lift the minimum wage and pay other ancillary benefits, particularly health benefits – and also increase the workforce by immigration given the pool of refugees in which to dip.

What rings so true are these comments made at a time when Turnbull was resisting the Banking Royal Commission and before bodgie building construction, with widespread flammable cladding, was revealed.

It is not that those – let us not say top of town – just say those who congregate in the spring racing carnival marquees are solely to blame, but Gottliebsen was harsh about Australian business conditions, describing the alliance of big business and the unions as “blatant job-destroying corruption”.

If this is so, then what are politicians doing mingling with this mob, and moreover taking plush jobs on retirement from the same mob when the hurdy-gurdy stops playing? You rarely see these ex-politicians wandering along the streets of their erstwhile electorates asking what they can do for these people who may run small businesses, now these ‘exes’ have time on their hands and a large pension in their bank accounts. After all, small business was always good for a photo-opportunity in the electoral cycle when the politician wanted their vote.

Now what do you call a collection of lobbyists? Perhaps a trough.

Just because the prophecy was wrong does not mean the points being made by Robert Gottliebsen an age ago are not worth a little contemplation.

In fact, Thomas Phillipon, in a recently published book confirms a great deal of what Gottliebsen foresaw – at least in America. Domination by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft; fewer airlines; consolidation of hospital and pharmacy chains – all big business conglomerates at the expense of small business. And without appropriate legislation, the conglomerates swiftly become cartels -and Australia has many examples of this.

The Citation

Nicholas Talley is a man of many parts. He was the first person I came across designated “laureate professor”. I had known about the “poet laureate” and the “Nobel laureate” designations, all derived from the ancient tradition of placing a laurel/bay leaf garland on the deserving skull. But a laureate professor, what a vision!

Universities are good at diving into the Latin dictionary and coming up with flash words like “emeritus” for those who have retired and are off the payrolls. However, the emergence of retiring women academics has meant an increasing number of “emerita”, and those of us sub salis are known as “alumnus” or “alumna” – a mixed collection of whom traditionally would take the male plural “alumni”. A neuter variety would be known as an “alumnum” but the neuter plural “alumna” could be confused with the female singular.

Now universities are bestowing “laureate’’ on their deserving staff.

In any event should, in terms of consistency, these people of high office be called “laureatus” and “laureata”?

Added to the complexity is that “trees” in Latin are generally of the second declension, where most of the words are masculine, but trees although with male suffixes have the feminine gender.

And of course we come to the word bacca – which is attached to laureate also. Everybody knows presumably that they are graduating as a “laurel berry”.

The problem is that “laureate” is getting a bit common – how about Trabea professors – no worry about gender here.

Thus, hail Laureate Professor Nicholas Talley for introducing me to this topic – especially given his expertise in citations, he would know what a Trabea is. 

Mouse Whisper 

Wikipedia summarised it as well as anybody – up to a point:

The 1894 Open Championship was the 34th Open Championship, held 11–12 June at Royal St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England. J.H. Taylor won the Championship by five strokes from runner-up Douglas Rolland. This was the first Open Championship held outside Scotland.

 This was the first of five championships spread over three decades that Turner won, and in line with this blog number this first was the 34th Open. His 72-round total of 326 was the highest ever recorded to win the Open – and by five strokes!

By contrast on the same course in 1993, Greg Norman won with the lowest-ever score at that time of 267, since bettered by Hendrik Stenson with a 264 at Royal Troon in 2016.

There weren’t many horseless carriages around in 1894 either, but plenty of mashies, brassies and cleeks.