Modest Expectations – Thaddeus Stevens

Shirley Shackleton is one of those inconvenient people whom governments just wish would go away – in her case she is a reminder of a government without compassion complicit to murder if not genocide. At the Balibo Fort Hotel, there were two books for sale – hers written a decade ago – and a volume of Xanana Gusmao’s speeches.

There were three copies of the Shackleton book – “The Circle of Silence”. One at the top had been multiply caressed. So we bought the one on the bottom, which seemed the least ravaged – the cost was immaterial. It was Balibo.

Shirley Shackleton will be 90 next year and unless there is somebody to take up her crusade, when inevitably she shuffles off the mortal coil, her inconvenient noise will cease. There is a son, a lawyer, a magistrate living in Perth. Maybe he will take up the crusade.

However as the personalities fade, it does not dim the enormity of what we have done as a nation to the Timorese – turned our collective head away. Yes, there have been other journalists, notably Peter Greste, imprisoned by authoritarian regimes, but he survives and to the best of my knowledge the Australian government was not complicit in his imprisonment.

The building in Balibo where the Balibo 5 were executed (Photo Sue Morey)

There is still the case of the bugging of the Timor-Leste government and this ongoing Orwellian campaign to eliminate whistle-blowers with the Press caught like the Balibo 5 in the cross-hairs of governmental suppression.

When I was President of the Students Representative Council at the University of Melbourne, ASIO came calling – that friendly invitation to come and join the party. I never crossed that threshold. It is another story. But I am sure I was not on my Pat then … and recruitment patterns now?

The only thing I can say is that presumably the same personality types are still being recruited as in my day, but now with many more toys; truly terrifying. As for me, I never looked good in a gabardine raincoat.

Balibo sunset (Photo Sue Morey)

Anti-Vaxer – Prosecute for Genocide

When I was born, it was dangerous to be a child. There were few defences against the ravages of infectious diseases. There was no penicillin. The only immunisation apart from small pox available as a young child was against diphtheria. Nobody in the wilds of anti-vaxer propaganda would ever had heard of or seen diphtheria – a paediatrician friend of mine has seen it once – it was a huge killer of children before the introduction of a vaccine. In the decade up to 1935, over 4,000 children died of the disease; mass immunisation had commenced in 1932. Between 1996 and 2005 there were no deaths, but three have been recorded since that time.

The vaccine was later combined into triple antigen, targeting whooping cough and tetanus as well.

I am an age as are my sons that we all had measles, chickenpox and mumps as children – and we were all very sick. However it was the late Gay Davidson, whose younger daughter developed a rare late complication of measles infection who brought into public view the importance of the vaccination against measles in particular. The brain goes to mush, and the beautiful vivacious child becomes a vegetable over time before dying – a horrible death. Gay Davidson was an important face in advocating immunisation against measles and in the late 1990s the immunisation rates rose in Australia, the Australian government then being a very strong proponent.

Finally, there was poliomyelitis. There was no vaccine when I was a child. I went through an epidemic when contact between schools was banned. Ice cream was banned. Children died and those who survived the disease were added to the wards of crippled children in every city of Australia; children in iron lungs; children with heavy calipers; children with all stages of disability. I was immunised first with Salk and then given Sabin. Poliomyelitis had nearly been eliminated before the antivax barbarians in their various guises have come calling.

The problem is that the community’s level of immunisation is a measure of civilisation. As the antivaxers – the health barbarians with their poisonous message – raise the level of uncertainty in the community, so will go civilisation as we know it. It is paradoxical that in a world where the diversity of safe vaccines is expanding, in so many places the level of immunisation is falling because of the uncertainty promoted by antivaxers.

I have detailed five diseases where the burden of disease has fallen dramatically because of immunisation. There were many other diseases that have yielded to vaccines. Some I faced growing up. As medical students we vaccinated one another against smallpox. This disease has been eliminated from the face of the earth. When I first went overseas, together with my passport I also had a yellow booklet showing that I had been vaccinated against smallpox and immunised against typhoid, cholera and later yellow fever.

This country has had a brilliant immunisation program since the 1990s and much of the early success of this program can be attributed to Michael Wooldridge, the then Minister for Health, as well as the indomitable Gay Davidson. Nobody has written her story. However, the program and the strategy is clearly and crisply stated up to 2024.

Yet I cannot remember it mentioned once in the recent election campaign as a signature of success.

However, in Australia the government is fixated on keeping our borders intact by keeping a few poor refugees out rather than drawing attention to the ongoing successful national immunisation plan.

The charlatan, former doctor Andrew Wakefield and his girlfriend, Elle MacPherson from their lodging in Austin Texas are demonstrating how destructive systematic antivax propaganda can be. If a government becomes timid in the face of community agitation as it has done on fluoridation, then this country should watch out, especially if these antivaxers start infiltrating the political grass roots.

I have lived in this other universe when there are few antivaxers –yes it was a universe where there was an antivax element who believed if you were vaccinated with cow pox you would grow horns, but why were there so few antivaxers? Vaccines apart from smallpox were new. Since there were no evidence-based preventative measures, the populace just accepted that it was God’s will that children should die a myriad of deaths from these diseases.

Today, in that universe antivaxers would be in their element, no vaccines – just watching children die. But of course according to the antivaxers, saving the children from autism. Today it would be what I would say is not God’s will but Genocide.

To Cook a Roo – Part 111

Charlie diversifies

Pintubi are practical. They cooked all creatures in their skin. The fat content of Australian native animals is too low for cooking on a spit. That would create a hard dry gristle and there were neither cooking containers to stew meat, nor any salt available. Furthermore getting about near naked makes retaining animal hides unnecessary.

As no salt or other flavouring was used in traditional Pintubi cooking, this was literally life lived in the raw in what they laughingly if not longingly called “before trouser time”.

Cooking in the skin must happen right away and before the blood congeals so no road kill gone stiff! Not once in six years eating the cooked-in-skin earth oven food did I crunch on any stones!  

The niftiest cooking trick I saw was that used for the delicious rumiya (sand goanna) a white meat that tastes much like chicken. Averaging about 40cm long they are abundant and easiest to catch in spring when they start new burrows in the sandy earth. They live mainly on ants and insects having neither the ghastly infectious bite of the large carrion eating goannas nor a gamey smell. By pushing the hind legs hard into the abdomen the contents of the sand goanna’s gut are forcefully excreted so they don’t need to be cut open. To cook, the skin is scorched to remove the outer layer, which would otherwise ruin the flavour, before it is placed under the ashes for about 10 minutes. The meat is mostly in the tail and there’s some fat attached to the skin and at the loins. The 10ml steel bore pump rod I always had was sought after by the goanna hunters who used it to probe sand goanna tunnels so that you follow the hole by probing from the surface instead of laboriously digging deep along a tunnel that can be seven metres long. 

Plant “tucker” was far less plentiful but some was so excellent that it could not be improved by any flavourings. In the spring, the pungana bean, which was shown to me, was my favourite. Growing like giant acacia pods on a three meter high shrub and similar in appearance to snake beans, the long pods are cooked in a minute on a burning clump of grass, the green soya sized beans with a flick of bright yellow tastes like corn.

Rumiya and plains bustard (about a turkey sized bird) were tasty cooked in the earth fire pit and much better than food from my tucker box a few weeks after the last trip to town. I only ate feral cat once, cooked by Minyina and the horrific look of that fore half of scorched cat passed to me dripping juices with the charred skin peeled back over canine teeth was unappetising. However, I was hungry enough and it all stayed down which is more than I can say for the last time I had ample helpings of kangaroo in 1984, three years on from the cooking lesson at Tjiterong. (To be continued)

Mouse Whisper

To cap off this blog of culinary delights, I was talking to this Pangolin at the international arrivals at the Wood’s Point airport who told me that one is permitted to bring a kilogram of civet coffee back into Australia without having to declare it. Apparently it makes the best “Catpoo-cino” and yes, that’s what they call it!

 

Modest Expectations – Bakers

Tony Walker’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald this Monday could not have come at a more opportune time.

His questioning of whether it is the policymakers driving policy or the country spooks and their ideological soul mates in the country’s so-called security establishment amplified by the Murdoch press? That of course begs the question in which of the Murdoch beasts do the utterances fit?

One Australian problem is the number of authoritarian personalities who seem to worm their way into senior positions in the public service. When coupled with a lack of sense of humour and a tincture of paranoia, we have created the cadre, their foreheads labelled “security, spies, spooks”. The reason you do not see the label is because these men value “invisibility” – until recently.

Most of these senior bureaucrats are highly intelligent people, far smarter than their political masters. There is a great amount of academic twinkling among this group, although this is not necessarily represented by any real common sense.

One of the dumbest things is to forget the maxim – the greater the controversy, the less the autonomy of action.   Then compound that truism by harassing a member of parliament. In this case the senator is a former submariner who unsurprisingly does not like being coerced.

The only way the authoritarian can counter the controversy-autonomy axis is to persuade the pollies to pass legislation to suppress free speech even further. However, given our authoritarian’s Campanian heritage, if he comes calling again late at night the senator may recognise that Neapolitan heritage by greeting him with “Va fa Napoli.” That should end the conversation abruptly.

Balibo 

I went to Balibo last week.

Balibo is a town in the mountains of Timor-Leste near the Indonesian border.

Balibo is where five journalists, Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Kiwi Gary Cunningham and British nationals, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, were murdered by the Indonesian military on 16 October 1975. We know them as the Balibo 5. I had met Greig Cunningham, Gary’s brother, when he ran a restaurant in Hawthorn. That was over 20 years ago. It had taken that time for me to come to Balibo. I have the film, but have never been able to watch it.

In the centre of Balibo is the Flag House, named for the Australian flag painted by Greg Shackleton on the side of the house, and renovated by the Victorian Government and others almost a decade ago. The photographs of these Balibo 5 plus Roger East, another Australian journalist murdered in Dili later that year when he came looking for the Balibo 5, hang on the wall.

Confronted with the ghostly blue photographs of these young men in the Flag House, who are my contemporaries, I broke down and cried uncontrollably.

I was ashamed of myself for my inaction, and yet the tears were those of both shame and anger. Alippio, our Timorese guide, plays a grainy film, which opens with Shackleton the day before his murder reporting from Maliana, a township down the road, alerting the viewer to the imminent Indonesian invasion. The film moves on to the likes of Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer pompously poncing about, in effect dismissing the Timorese and siding with the Indonesians.

The role played by our senior diplomats in Indonesia was equally disgraceful. Dripping with their diplomatic superiority, these diplomats may as well as been employed by the Indonesians. Deciding whether they would ask for Tanqueray or Bombay gin while the Indonesians murdered 200,000 Timorese is an indictment of our lack of care for our neighbours.

Last year, an Australian Parliamentary delegation visited Timor-Leste for five days. The Balibo 5 get scant mention.

One of the members of the delegation was Senator Patrick who has been shown by his recent exchanges with the Secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Michael Pezzullo, to be a staunch advocate of freedom of speech. Therefore the ghastly suppression of this right by the murders of the Balibo 5 and Roger East should not have escaped him.

There was a fear in the upper Australian echelons in 1974/75 that an independent Timor would become a communist state once the Portuguese left; the Indonesians had massacred their own communists a decade earlier, and the “reds under the bed” complex of the right wing security establishment in Australia allowed the slaughter of the Timorese. Australia thus was complicit in genocide, where the Balibo 5 killings were “collateral damage”.

The Parliamentary delegation last year did visit Balibo and were photographed beside the memorial and then presumably they went up the hill to the Balibo Fort Hotel, where a large RSL flag is pinned up over the bar, a reminder that Australian troops had also served and lost their lives there in both East and West Timor during World War 2 in 1941/42.

However, given how brief their trip was, did they stay and see the sunset, the spectacular mountainous view, overlooking the tropical vegetation where the Balibo road winds, a boneshaking series of craters amid islands of asphalt. From the hotel garden one can see the sea stretching to the horizon, a strait separating Timor from the Indonesian island of Alor, the contours of which were lost in the intensity of a red sunset.

The mean age of the Timorese is 17.5 years. There are thus few old people evident in the population. Not surprising since 40 per cent are 15 years or younger. Our young driver, Jonias has nine siblings. His father was one of the Fretilin, and the photograph shows an impressive white bearded elderly man. There is a photograph of his father being embraced by Xanana Gusmao. Jonias refers to him as Xanana in reverential terms.

When you visit the museum in Dili you can see the fatigues and berets, the symbols of the Fretilin resistance – and reminders of the former repression – the dark cells, the yard with the high concrete walls where the Timorese were shot. But this is not Cuba; if resentment of Australia is there I did not feel it personally. Everybody was friendly and helpful – spontaneous gestures. No begging.

My most lasting memory was in Balibo, of this old white man sitting in a truck watching a bevy of school children walk by and then on seeing this old man, they turn and wave and smile and then turn back and do it again to see if he has responded. They made even that old man smile and return their waves.

So much to love about Timor-Leste; it is a place where Australia should spend more time. Despite everything, it is not a failed nation. The Parliamentary delegation spent one day in Balibo. It made me wonder whether that passionate defender of human rights, the Honourable Evans, you had ever done so. Even now as an old man like the man in the truck above, you should do so – perhaps as a penitent.

Many journalists have reported on conquering the arduous Kokoda trail to honour those who saved our Australia from Japanese invasion. Perhaps the same journalists may consider walking the road from the border town of Motain up the mountain to Balibo each year on 16 October, the day the Balibo 5 died. The finishing line would be the Flag House, so impressively renovated on the initiatives of the then Premier, Steve Bracks and his comrades from Victorian government, business and the voluntary sector. Such a yearly pilgrimage would constantly remind us all of the importance of having a fearless media refusing to buckle in the face of government pressure. There was no higher price than that which these journalists paid in defence of that freedom. And to reach Balibo in time for the magnificent sunset, what more would those young men have asked as a remembrance of them.

How to cook a kangaroo – part 11

The recollections of Charlie continue

“You see him, Murra Hook (arm hook), narrata (that way) him is one for that mob,” Henry whispered while pointing to a stand of mulga. “Wea,” (nothing) I replied. Henry gestured for the rifle, which I handed to him.

When he aimed I could just make out the head and shoulders of a roo perhaps 80 metres away. Henry fired and the roo seemed to drop.

“Rungu marlu!” (The roo is hit) exclaimed Tony and they all ran over to the spot while I followed in the ute. The roo was finished off with a blow to the back on its head with the rifle butt. “Hey, easy with the rifle” I called out to Henry. As Alan and Tony loaded this huge male red onto the tray, I got a whiff of its pungent odour. The roo was taken to a clear area, where Pinta-Pinta was pointing to the ground with glee and telling the younger fellas, “Warru mandjila katti” (get firewood).

A dish was dug out in the dry sandy ground and wood from two dead mulga trees was placed over it and set alight. While a chase was irresistible for the dog, Danger, he had reasonably good manners around a fresh kill. So I let him loose and he just displayed a puppy-like excitement darting about, sniffing the carcass and rolling in its scent. Meanwhile fresh green branches were placed on the ground nearby as a kind of makeshift tablecloth on which to prepare the carcass. I noticed the chest of the roo was sticky with muck it had applied from I don’t know where and was the source of the odour. The tail was cut off about a hand width from its anus so that it would not bleed much. This is also why a fresh kill is always clubbed and not shot again or stabbed to death. Pinta-Pinta talked to his son about correct procedure while he whittled a short mulga stick about as long as a table knife blade sharpened at both ends. Henry cut a same length line through the skin of the roo’s belly.

All the internal organs of the roo were pulled out onto the ground sheet of leaves. Multiple conversations went on, reporting on observations about the condition of the organs and content of the stomach and bowel some of which Tony and Henry translated for me. Pinta-Pinta sang softly. I had seen wallaby stomachs on the East Coast before, teeming with thin white worms among the green grass in the stomach, but roos like this one are rarely infested. With the bile and stomach discarded, most of the remaining organs were pushed back into the abdomen.

The abdominal skin cut was closed with Pinta-Pinta’s sharpened stick skewering the skin flaps held together and the white bowel tube was wound around the stick in a figure of 8 tie sealing the organs in the abdomen. With the fire still flaming, the carcass and tail was thrown on and turned for half a minute so that the fur was charred black. It was then taken off the fire and all the charred fur scraped off leaving it hairless, so that it can be cooked in its skin without the burnt fur stench ruining the taste on the meat.

Within about 15 minutes the fire had died down and the hot ashes were pushed aside for the roo to be placed in the pit and covered with the embers and scorching dust. The tail was buried in ashes beside it. Meanwhile an entree was had with the small intestine grilled on top of the ashes at the edge of the pyre for eight minutes. This intestinal fat so it works as a grill. The roo was cooked for an hour and tested periodically for heat by waving an arm over it.

What I learned from the Pintupi is that the dry earth oven will only burn the food cooked within if more wood is added after the initial burn. On the other hand, if the ground is damp two fires are required one to dry the earth the second to cook. I also learned that potatoes can be cooked in their skins perfectly under the ashes with no foil needed to prevent charred skin.

Pulled out of the fire and back onto the leafy “tablecloth”, the roo was cut between the hind legs and a billy can used to collect the hot blood, which had boiled inside to help cook the meat. Young fellas are thought best suited to drink this tonic and Tony, Alan and Frankie went for it on this day.

The meat was half raw with a strong gamey smell, too much for me to have more than a couple of mouthfuls. I was happy to take some tail, which is less gamey and though tougher, is not so raw and had some fat. The dog was given some rib bones. Yet had the roo not being cooked in its juices and skin it would have been too tough to chew and contain quartz grains that crack teeth.

Before cooking the roo, Pinta-Pinta had removed its Achilles tendons, used for binding barbs on spears. After the meal we went to the creek, shovelled about a ton of gravel onto the tray, returned to the fireplace to pick up Pinta-Pinta and his son, Matthew, with the meat. They were indeed happy hunters that returned to Kintore and their meat warmed their welcome.

I still had misgivings about the death of such a magnificent animal merely to fill a few stomachs but my feeling was different from that of the Pintupi people, who never seem to experience such sentimental thoughts about the natural world. They live too close to it. (To be continued)

For those who do not know Charlie McMahon and the reference to him as Murra Hook is that the lower part of his arm was blown off due to an accident when he was a young fella. Charlie has a prosthesis with a hook attachment, which he uses with great facility.

The facility of age

A couple of weeks ago something happened that had never happened to me before. I was in Elizabeth Street near the Flinders Street station in Melbourne when I needed to go to the toilet urgently. No public toilet was immediately accessible when I needed one. The problem with age is that a tranquil reservoir in a nanosecond can become a raging torrent threatening to breach the cystic defences. In medical terms it is called “urgency” – and when combined with irritable bowel syndrome as this was, can present as an emergency; but easily solved if you can find a toilet.

I went into a Japanese restaurant expecting that they would understand my plight. First one then another Japanese lady barred my way – “no customer; no use toilet”. I said that I would buy something but had to use the toilet first; in fact I became so exasperated I said I would buy the (expletive deleted) shop.

Fortunately a young male employee intervened and allowed me the use the toilet. When I came out, he explained that he had a non-customer, who had smoked in the toilet. I wasn’t sure of the relevance but thanked him and left relieved. The staff knew I had been there and lined the way out. I had remonstrated but not touched anybody; pushed anybody aside.

However, it brought home to me that in the design of cities there must be sufficient accessible public toilets designed for an ageing population. Having them underground and locking them up is hardly a definition of accessibility.

In the UK for instance the number of public toilets is decreasing, apparently because of the local authorities’ belief that public toilets are cesspools of unsavoury behaviour. That perception can be solved by a combination of appropriate supervision and modern technology.

In the United States if it were not for the fast food outlets there would be few if any accessible public toilets.

Urban planners have to realise that in designing pedestrian malls in cities complete with images of promenading slim figurines amid trees looking like puff balls, these figurine humanoids may not need toilets, but we humans do. This is an ageing Australia and toilets become an important public service. Local government wants to turn streets into pedestrian malls and one site suggested is this Elizabeth Street. The Arcadian world of the local government dreamers and their courtier planners needs to include accessible toilets.

Mouse Whisper 

Ratbag repeated comments she made to me in the cyber room of the Noccundra pub about the time of 50th anniversary of the Balibo 5 murders in 2015.

Even after all these years, the memory of these murders remains fresh and clear. In 1975, there were no faxes, mobile phones, internet and emails. Sitting in a shack on a ridgeline in a third world country, you really were alone and very very isolated.

Strange but I still feel alone and very isolated, even though Ratbag is a very wise murine valise.

Modest Expectations Doze

Welcome to the 12th edition of The Best Mouse Tap. For the first time we have two guest bloggers who introduce some interesting diversity:  traditional bush cooking and why Australia’s Pacific aid should be built on ferries, together with your weekly dose of politics.  Guest Editor: The Pangolin

How to Cook a Kangaroo – Part 1

Recollections of Charlie

I saw first hand how desert aborigines cook kangaroo at a place called Tjiterong, 500 km due west of Alice Springs, where the east west running MacDonnell Ranges begin to peter out to a series of red quartzite hills rising to about 50 metres above the surrounding plains with the water runoff making for the relatively lush arid mulga and native grass land that can support the red kangaroo of the inland.

To the north the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts are the lands of the Warlpiri, Pintubi and Mardu respectively while the south has the Great Victoria and Gibson Deserts of the Pitjantjatjara, Ngatajara and too many others to mention here. Precisely it is the meridian 129’ which forms the border of WA and NT; funny how Australian borders follow post-enlightenment Cartesian geometry devoid of the human history goings-on that usually define boundaries.

In my travels I was gratified to learn that the desert clans occupying about a third of the Australian continent are not as diverse as the 50-odd different ‘tribes’ illustrated on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) map. They all have the same kinship names like Tjpangarti, Nampitjinpa from the Great Australian Bight to the Kimberley with the same core words like marlu (kangaroo) warru (fire) and watti (man).

This is background. What I write about Pintubi is based on my experience and may be contrary to the ethnographic record.

We were at Tjiterong to get a truck tray load of gravel to make concrete splash pads beneath the taps on the water pipeline being made for the new community of Kintore. With me was Henry Tjapaltjarri – about my then age 30, Tony Tjupurrula about 15, a son of the fearsome Freddy West Tjakamarra, jovial Pinta Pinta (meaning butterfly) with his child Matthew. Adam “King Kong” Gibson who had the manly stature of his father the noble Yala Yala Gibson Tjungarrayi, and the “poor bugger” Frankie Tjungarrayi who everyone called Tjina Bompa owing to his awkward spastic walk and mental disorder.

Pinta Pinta was the elder, aged perhaps 37, spoke little English and had met “white fellas” in about 1965 when the western Pintubi were induced by declining numbers and an easier life to move to missions and government run settlements. The hole through his septum marked him as an enthusiast for traditional lore. Circumcision and some chest scars and maybe a front tooth knocked out (as Henry had) were the initiation pain for manhood but only the keen went for having a hot kangaroo bone pierce their septum. I had seen in general company how Pinta Pinta had the kind of face that smiled easily, was not taken too seriously in general company, and so lived up to his name “butterfly”, but with the men at ceremony he was accorded great respect saying a lot with great enthusiasm. He also was ngangkarri (medicine spirit).

Well before the creek, Pinta Pinta and Henry simultaneously sighted a pair of red roos that bounded off. The hunt was on. We had to stop to tie up my dog Danger who would have bolted after them and to get my 22 magnum rifle from behind the Land Cruiser seat and then ride on the back tray with the rest of the crew. Finding the roo track Henry drove at a good pace till he sighted the roos again and accelerated after them. Holding onto the ute tray bar with my hook arm and the loaded rifle in my good hand was fraught to say the least. The ute swerved between mulga trees and crunching over dead fallen ones with exposed spiked mace-like roots that looked like they would impale a tyre at any moment. Staying on board with loaded gun was difficult enough, let alone taking a shot and it seemed that Henry was intent on running the roo down with the bull bar anyway. But I started to worry less about a crash as it became apparent Henry was an exceptional off road driver, way better than me and the HJ 45 diesel Land Cruiser was the hardiest 4 x 4 ever made. There was no chance of shooting anything in the rumble of the chase and I lowered myself to squat on the “ute” tray to wait hopefully for the end to the mad chase.

Frankie, Tony and Allan were having the time of their lives shouting out suggestions on tactics and direction. There were perhaps six roos in the mob and we would lose sight of a couple only to find another lot again in the thin mulga. After about 15 minutes it became calm as Henry slowed to driving steady and slow, taking wide sweeps of the terrain then pulled up, diesel engine idling “clunk clunk.” There was something there judging by the talking, quiet but eager up front, and “hush hush” tone of the fellas on the back of the ute with me. (to be continued)

Charlie McMahon is the bush polymath, leading exponent of didgeridoo, inventor of the Didgeribone and co-founder of internationally acclaimed band Gondwanaland. 

Safer ferries for the Pacific islands:  A politically valuable aid export opportunity in Oceania

Neil Baird

The very obvious fact that Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose the Solomon Islands as his first destination following his re-election last month confirmed the importance of our Pacific island neighbours in the minds of many aware Australians.

Numerous recent ferry tragedies in Indonesia, the DR Congo and Hungary (reported dramatically in The Australian) and, earlier last year, another in Kiribati, the second in nine years in that tiny country, reminded me of the obvious opportunity that exists for Australia to contribute to the elimination of such distressing events.

In mid-2018, I wrote to the then Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, outlining the following proposal. I received no reply from her but I am not discouraged. I continue to believe that it is an excellent and very practical idea.

Our overseas aid organisation, AUSAID, is involved with numerous assistance programmes in many of the “Happy isles of Oceania”, as Paul Theroux ironically called them. I’m sure that many of them are very worthy. However, from my observation of some of them, I note that most of the money involved, apart from the usual large slice that goes to Canberra, is spent beyond both the islands themselves and Australia. I suspect that Toyota, for example, is a major beneficiary of our aid.

While, rather than being “happy”, many of the isles of Oceania and to our “near north” appear more likely to be as impoverished and dysfunctional as Kiribati unfortunately is. And, worse, most of the aid programs aimed at them appear to be “finger in the dyke” exercises of little lasting economic benefit. I am sure we could do much better.

All of Oceania is extremely archipelagic in terms of geography. In other words, the only practical way to get around is by boat, more specifically by ferry. Here lies a major problem. Many of the ferries operated in such countries are unsafe. Indeed, over the past fifteen years there have been at least five significant fatal ferry accidents in the Oceania region and many, many more in south and east Asia that we know about. In Oceania alone, those accidents have resulted in more than 500 fatalities, a big slice of the small local populations. In Asia, of course, the toll is dramatically higher.

There are three main causes of those safety deficiencies. They are all, obviously, driven by poverty. The islanders cannot afford to buy and maintain safe vessels or to have them competently crewed.

We will probably never really know precisely why the most recent (2018) Kiribati tragedy occurred but, given the similarity of the vessels concerned and their common ownership, with that in the last such event in 2009, it is a fair bet that an unsafe, badly maintained, overloaded, incompetently crewed vessel proceeded to sea in unsuitable conditions. Most such accidents in developing countries occur for one or more of those human error based reasons. The numerous Indonesian disasters of the past twelve months will undoubtedly prove to have had similar causes.

From my travels and observation in the area, as well as the recorded facts, I have learnt that such problems are endemic. I also know that far superior solutions to the latest Fijian one are readily available in Australia. To explain: a Fijian company recently purchased a more than 65 year old monohull Ro-Pax ferry from BC Ferries of Canada. Can you imagine buying a 65 year old aircraft? That ferry was designed for the sheltered waters of British Columbia, not the trade wind exposed seas of Fiji. It also happened to be un-saleable in North America because it is riddled with asbestos. However, it was cheap. So too were the Princess Ashika and Rabaul Queen that sank in 2009 and 2012 in Tonga and PNG respectively, with at least 400 fatalities between them. It is rumoured that the same Fijian company has tried to purchase a further two similar vessels from Canada!

Therein lies part of the problem; the others are maintenance and crew training. All are areas where Australia has considerable expertise and resources. We are renowned for designing, building and maintaining safe, economical ferries, mostly catamarans. We also have a number of excellent maritime training organisations including the Australian Maritime Academy and the Australian Maritime College.

So, we do have excellent potential solutions. But, as obviously the islanders cannot afford to purchase Australian vessels and training themselves, that gap must be bridged by aid. Such aid would benefit both the islanders and the Australian maritime industry, rather than Toyota. I raised this suggestion early last year at a regional maritime safety conference in Port Moresby. It was warmly welcomed by the maritime safety authority directors of all the Pacific island nations who participated.

We have numerous naval architects and ship builders for whom the design and construction of simple, strong, safe, low-maintenance and comparatively cheap ferries would be straight-forward. Our maritime schools are already training islanders, just not enough of them. We already supply many of the island nations with Pacific Patrol Boats and their trained crews. Why not do something similar with ferries? An aid programme based on the Pacific Patrol Boat template would be simple to implement. Ferries would be much cheaper than patrol boats and, arguably, more effective. For the same money as we spend on patrol boats we could supply many more ferries.

Australian-built 35m catamaran – an ideal ferry for Pacific island operations

I realise that the patrol boats have their uses. They have improved the island nations’ incomes by ensuring the payment of fishing access fees and they have rescued lost fishermen and helped in disaster relief operations. However, new safe ferries could help prevent significant loss of life and also assist in rescues, poacher pursuit and disaster relief. A Pacific Ferry Programme could be developed using the patrol boat programme as a model although, hopefully, with less chaotic and expensive Canberra input.

Rather than funding cultural centres and basket weaving classes that have little or no economic or social benefit, how about we renew our aid programme focus to something more practical and valuable? Something, co-incidentally, that has more direct benefit to Australia and not Japan, China or Korea?

Neil Baird PhD is non-executive Chairman of Baird Maritime, a leading global maritime trade publisher. Neil has expert knowledge on fatal ferry accidents, their causes and how to prevent them. He is a former chairman of the World Ocean Council and the Australian Marine Environment Protection Association; a director of the Australian Shipbuilders Association; a member of the Domestic Ferry Safety Committee of INTERFERRY, the international association of ferry owners; and co-convenor of that organisation’s FerrySafe programme, sponsored by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

Chisholm – My last rumination on the Lessons from 2019 Election

I grew up the electorate of Chisholm as it is now. It was outer suburban, white and Anglo-Celtic. When I first voted it was Bruce, then a safe Coalition seat. Over the years as the population has grown, electoral boundaries have shifted and Bruce a long way away in suburban terms, from where I first voted, to Dandenong.

The biggest population centre in Chisholm, Box Hill, has grown to be a major transport hub and the whole immediate area around the train station resembles a suburban Chinatown.

In the last election in 2016, Julia Banks won the seat against the swing to the Labor party unexpectedly. Her Greek heritage never seemed to be raised as her reason for her election although there is a sizeable population of Greek heritage in the community.

This time the two major parties pitted two women of Chinese extraction against one another. The Liberal Party held the seat although there have been rumblings about a poster in Mandarin, which it is alleged gave the impression that it came from the Australian Electoral Commission, ostensibly favouring the Coalition candidate. There is no accompanying English translation.

What was not emphasised was that the redistribution of the electorate favoured the Coalition to the same degree almost as much as the final margin. In other words, although a marginal seat, it was notionally distributed to more a Liberal seat. There was a swing to Labor of 2.2 per cent – close but no cigar!

The psephologists will be at work trying to work the Chinese voting pattern. However, the controversial poster started me wondering about the local Chinese language newspapers. I cannot remember any of the mainstream press regularly summarising the stories which appear in Mandarin and any commentary and opinion which accompanies any reports.

There is increasing academic activity in determining how the Chinese population receive their media. A survey of 500 people of Chinese extraction was undertaken by an UTS academic, who stated the following summary of his findings:

Our findings suggest that to reach the majority of Australia’s Mandarin-speaking media consumers, stories need to be:

  • picked up by local Chinese-language digital media outlets
  • delivered via a WeChat public subscription account (which individuals access using a mobile phone app)
  • directly relevant to the interests of Chinese migrant communities.

I can read the English version of the Chinese government opinion if I want to, but I have no idea whether the Mandarin version says the same thing.

Not that I am paranoid but the election poster written in Mandarin without any English version I find disturbing if it purports to represent AEC policy. There was no translation readily available on election day, and in a way I am surprised the AEC did not order its removal, even though the AEC is widely reported as having said the posters had been properly authorised, no laws had been breached and anyway the AEC didn’t “own the colour purple”.

Everybody bangs on about a multicultural society, but for better or for worse English is our national language, and therefore it becomes a matter of judgement how far we press for English sub-titles in public matters.

In a free and open society English is most spoken and read, and society should conform to this language as the major form of public communication. This is not to denigrate maintaining cultural diversity in private, the need for interpreters, and public displays of multi-cultural harmony.

In summary, matters of public importance should be clearly displayed in English. Thus, the Chisholm poster should be subject to a formal review so we can get our rules clear. In so doing clear advice can be provided to countries who may be tempted to bypass the English language in order to seek an advantage, even if it is only a poster in the colours of the AEC on election day.

Mouse Whisper

My learned friend has queried polling and the voting patterns among voters of Chinese extraction. Before the Bennelong by-election in 2017, Bennelong was said to be the most “Chinese” Federal electorate, and the Fairfax media reported:

An online poll of the Chinese community seen on Monday by Fairfax Media indicates Labor’s candidate, former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, holds a large lead over the Liberals’ John Alexander, drawing 66 per cent of the votes.

The ongoing poll is being circulated on the popular Chinese social media app WeChat by Sing Tao Daily, the largest Chinese newspaper in Sydney, and ends on Thursday.”

In fact, John Alexander retained the seat 55 to 45 per cent at the by-election. The Chinese must be different, some say in defence of the poll. Which leg do you want to pull?

Nevertheless, this disparity may say something, but then I am only a mouse with a murine brain. Does that not say something about polls? You know the ones that repeatedly put one radio performer at the top of the radio ratings in Sydney – and how many polls did the Federal Coalition lose in a row? As I said, all too much for my murine brain to handle.

Modest expectations Jiminy

In the Weekend NYT, there was a thought-provoking article saying we now have a great way in Instagram of recording aphorisms – the one-liners, deep philosophical verbal gestures. Jean Crispin writes:

“This should be the golden age of the aphorism. Constrained as we all are by time, attention and social media platform character limits, when we pull out our smartphones and stare into their illuminated fields, we can take in only so much. Shouldn’t those words be perfectly chosen to vibrate with hidden meanings?”

An aphorism has a way of bending you to its hidden truth, changing your way of thinking not with a 20-page document of well-reasoned arguments, but with just a sentence or two.”

I have two responses – one is that an Instagram is a vehicle for one line vanity press – “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” Mostly, the answer is no! In fact, given the weight of encouragement her opinion may give, I would introduce a Crispin Licence to Practise in her golden age.

The other is a question: “Have you ever read an anthology of aphorisms.” It is eye-glazingly boring unless you want to filch one and then pass it off as your own cleverness.

However Chris Brook, later in this blog, makes a very valid point, if obliquely. The name “blog” implies stodge as if we are working our way up a muddy hill. However, as Brook points out, the blog is a very good place to set up a conversation as long it remains coherent.

A blog is a modern cartouche. Not only does it name the author who is trying to explicate an eternal truth but also in itself it is self-contained. As I am writing, I glance up and see the front wall of our house; it is a variegated set of bricks that have been put together to cohere. Not exactly the wall of a Pharoah’s tomb, but the wall of brick cartouches is a sufficient metaphor for policy by cartouche aka blog. Thus, the blog can be used to build a policy wall, which Chris Brook is doing incrementally with his health policy contributions.

Napoleon Bonaparte, when he saw the ancient Egyptian way of hieroglyphic messaging, thought it looked like a gun cartridge, hence the name “cartouche”. I am sure he would have had a less viscous name for “blog”, perhaps “L’araignée boisée” abbreviated to “abois”.

A Memo to Me Mate the Minister for Minerals

Change is something that can take a long time. Therefore it is useful to live long enough to see change happen and then see the society change, especially when you yourself started on the wrong side of history.

By this I mean I started smoking when I found a half empty packet of brown Capstan in the train on the way home one night when I was 17 years old and from then on I smoked until I was 40, when I gave up. I have never had a cigarette since. But back then tobacco usage was pervasive. I owned several pipes so that tobacco could give me gravitas. They didn’t.

One of my memories is being in the emergency department during my internship. We used to light one cigarette from the butt of the last one. Many of the senior doctors smoked and we were corralled into the room at the end of the ward so that he, the senior doctor, could have a smoke (never “she” then) while he taught. The Medical Journal of Australia had until recently then been accepting advertisements from cigarette companies. My father, who was a doctor smoked cigarettes and more often Cuban cigars. He died in 1970 – he had a heart attack. It was Tobacco that helped get him.

It was Richard Doll who, with his colleagues in Oxford, identified the link between lung cancer and cigarettes from the late 1940s. He authored an article on doctors’ smoking habits in 1954. This whole public health investigation was not on the political radar, and even when it was there was a reluctance to interfere given how much cigarette money was sponsoring so many activities, including political parties.

Like many of my contemporaries in the health industry, I had one particularly uncomfortable moment on the way to weaning myself from cigarettes. I happened to be in the office of one of Jimmy Carter’s advisers. I asked whether he would mind me smoking, pulling out a packet of Gaulois. He looked at the packet and suggested that they were worst cigarette to smoke from a lung cancer point of view. Needless to say the rest of the conversation could have been better.

However, it was three years before I abruptly stopped. By that time I was working for the AMA, but there was no overt pressure for me to stop. I just decided one day it was a dirty habit. I just smelt. Cigarette ash like coal dust was a pollutant. So I went cold turkey. I surprised myself and never smoked again. And one of these days, we as nation will have to go cold turkey on coal, before it is too late.

The only contribution I have made to policy in this area of tobacco happened one day in the early 1980s during my time at the AMA. I was rung up by a friend who was then on his way up the bureaucratic ladder, who asked what I thought about indexing the excise on tobacco products. I said great idea – and QED, it came to pass.

However, far more importantly, community behaviour has changed in Australia. The smoker is very much a pariah in public places – the array of butts on the windy corners of the city reinforce the image of the uncaring polluter.

One wonders how long it will be for those who hold up a lump of coal in Parliament proudly, to be like the young doctor in the emergency department lighting a cigarette amid an atmosphere of tobacco smoke, and change. Hopefully it will not take 17 years.

One cigarette executive once said of me that I was a hypocrite in my attitude to smoking. No, I said, as our coal-fired politicians and their minions hopefully may eventually recognise, they will eventually become as I did over the matter of cigarettes – a penitent.

Not to everyone’s Taste

When I went to the Baltic States a little time ago I visited many churches. I climbed the Hill of Crosses in Northern Lithuania. My visual cortex is an attic stacked with images of Christ the Child and Christ the Man. These are not my image of Christ nor indeed of my God the Father who dominates those below as if some Jovian presence as though Heaven is at the top of a religious escalator. As for the Holy Spirit as some wraith dodging in and out of my cerebral inglenooks … really?

Hill of Crosses

I therefore cannot conjure a visual image of the Trinity. I do not have the capacity to do so. They are not Three clustered on a Throne. I am thus left with my other known senses to provide me with some reference point by which I can relate to the Trinity.

I cannot touch Them, although in some worlds people seem to believe in the supernatural. Whether that is some kinaesthetic experience where God in various forms intrudes is again beyond my ability to fathom.

I cannot hear God. It is not that I am deaf, but I have not had the experience of having auditory communication, although I may have missed it – by not having paid enough attention, not being able to break the code or simply not knowing the language.

I thought that since frankincense and myrrh were so important in the Nativity that perhaps there would be a particular fragrance where I may be able to smell God. To me substances that emit a smell are important to my being. In particular I love herbs in all their differentiation. The Bible is full of references to herbs, and for a moment I toyed with the ability to distil these olfactory sensations as a means of conceiving God. But then the idea was too difficult and my brain inadequate to process – at least at this point in time.

Then there is taste, and in the early hours of one Thursday morning, I realised that when I have taken the Bread and the Wine at Communion it is somehow different. I cannot express that thought any further, but taste is a very complex physiological phenomenon. Taste is itself a trinity of cranial nerves – the facial, the glossopharyngeal and the vagus.   Surely that is a coincidence!

Perhaps, just maybe, that is how God is in my head. But I am still uneasy and unsure to presume even that. But it is the only way I can sense my God.

Chris Brook on Health

Whenever the future of the Australian health system in Australia is discussed, the discussants tend to focus on their own area of special interest and to adopt the “gap filler” approach. It is the basis of incrementalism.

It seems pragmatic and sensible to target perceived areas of deficiency. Examples of this currently are:

  • universal dental care (a costly initiative if ever adopted)
  • mental health care including youth suicide ( very deserving of consideration)
  • better public information to facilitate informed decision making
  • integrated care initiatives.
  • In fact the list is endless. It is a question of priority.

Filling gaps seems to assume that all is otherwise rosy in the health care system, when of course it is not. I listed above some of the schemes. Underlying the edifices we wish to build are the fault lines.

  • Think how far dental health schemes are from universality
  • Think lack of coordination between GP type primary care and specialists
  • Think of the gulf between hospital care and any form of community based care whether specialist, general practitioner or other
  • Think cost shifting between levels of government between care settings and funders including private insurance funds, a set of pernicious behaviours raised to an art form in some jurisdictions
  • Think out of pocket costs and deliberate privatisation of services
  • Think of the difficulty for the increasing number of people with chronic and often multiple morbidities in navigating the fragmented health system.

Above all, think “systems”! Then ask why don’t we actually have one! For historic reasons we have a set of arrangements based largely on fee for service, whether Medicare, Hospital casemix funding, or Pharmaceutical Benefits scheme.

Multiple costly government attempts to engage general practitioners, with the latest being primary health care networks (PCHN), but also with practice incentives, IT incentives and without anything similar for specialists. They just have not been sensibly considered.

There are many questions about the Australian health system. For example, why is Australia’s rate of hospital admissions some two and a half times greater than virtually all other OECD countries? The answer lies solely in what Australia counts as an admission where it includes day treatments and day procedures as admissions when no actual overnight stay is involved. Once this is taken into account the Australian apparent admission rate plummets to the normal international level. Australia does this for accounting and payment purposes and it may be said that it works reasonably; but could it be better if done differently?

Many countries are far more advanced in consideration and implementation of capitation-based funding for large parts of health care, adjusted for risk using some really very good predictive tools, such as DxCG predictive for risk.

The appeal of capitation since the 1930s has grown with the birth of Health Maintenance Organisations like Kaiser Permanente. Offering an annual payment for all care should allow flexibility in the “what and where” of care including, most importantly, preventive services. It should allow tailored care for individuals and greatly facilitate navigation.

The theory may not always translate because the bogey of managed care is that it is rationing in disguise – and rationing has caused many problems notably in the USA, in particular knowing where to draw the line.

Nevertheless, capitation has its advantages, especially for the funder.

Fee for service at the extreme is a free-for-all encouraging providers to offer as many services as possible to as many people as possible, whereas capitation encourages providers to offer as few services as possible to the least number of people.

So measurement of adequacy of patient benefit must be part of any approach, being preferably outcome based, incorporating the triad of: clinical assessment, whether periodic or after a specific care; patient reported health outcome measurement, including some measure of satisfaction; and periodic functional assessment. Here elective surgery is the easiest one to reference – post-joint surgery or post spinal surgery; one functionality, the other more relief of pain.

Barriers are pervasive. The structure of the Australian Constitution originally only accorded one Federal health power – that of quarantine – and has made the Australian health system a patchwork, which is increasingly fraying around the stitches.

One blog is too short a space to go much further, so take this as just a start. Serious policy is always work-in-progress. However serial blogging over time will help, as now is a very appropriate time to take this whole policy area much further.

The rise of the zinger

I remember when the late Senator John Button, in a mischievous moment in the Senate, once asked the Minister of Science a question without notice: how many centimetres there was in an inch? The Minister did not know. Button achieved his point; he made the Minister look like an idiot. Although amusing at the time, it has not improved the quality of the politicians who have been given the science portfolio – that is when the portfolio hasn’t been abolished.

Alan Jones uses the same ploy but slightly differently. Ask a relevant question when confronting someone ideologically at odds, but unlike Jones who does his homework, the other person has not done so.

So when Jones asks one of these adversaries what is the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and that person doesn’t know, Jones goes on his victory tirade. It doesn’t matter if that person knows the answer, reality is not based on some human dot not knowing the answer.

Oh please … the zinger. Smart, but it doesn’t help when we are seriously discussing the future of Planet Earth.

The reality is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is straight lining upwards like the trajectory of a bullet into the sky. We have passed the 400 ppm mark.

If fossil-fuel burning continues at a business-as-usual rate, such that humanity exhausts the reserves over the next few centuries, CO2 will continue to rise to levels of order of 1500 ppm. Then forget about the human race. Think Venus with billowing clouds of CO2 disguising the uninhabitable planet surface below.

But Alan, you will not be around, nor shall I – but unlike you, I have descendants for whom I feel responsible.

Mouse Whisper

Three years too soon? Or don’t talk about the Polls? It was not only Newspoll. Some weeks before the election …

“Labor is comfortably ahead of the Coalition in the latest Guardian Essential Poll, and just over half of the voters in this fortnight’s sample, particularly voters under 34, worry Australia is not doing enough to address climate change.”