Modest Expectations Septimus

Jeff Kennett recognised during a trip to New York that the colour yellow stood out in the visual spectrum. He had seen the New York taxis were all yellow and they stood out somewhat better than the various muted colours of the taxis in Melbourne at that time. So he decreed the yellow taxi for Melbourne.

Clive Palmer has recognised his party’s colour stands out like wattle in springtime.

Mr Palmer is a clever man. The hoarding owners know that and make him produce the cash before they agree to display his message.

On the hoardings Mr Palmer’s image appears to be photo-shopped so he looks much lighter and younger than he actually is – he is a very heavy gentleman and sometimes when he was captured asleep in Parliament, I wondered whether he had Pickwickian Syndrome named after the fat boy in that Dickens novel who was always falling asleep.

But while the heavyweight Mr Palmer is barely on view in person in this campaign, his messages are there: “Fast Trains”, “More Wages”, “Cheaper Energy”, “Free Cake” and they have apparently resonated with some in the electorate. Clive has perceived the end stage of the information revolution; photo-shopped images and two word policies. “Clive Palmer” itself is a policy.

Mr Palmer has been underestimated. His Chinese partners have found that out. His nickel workers have found that out – shimmering generosity followed by real famine. It is now up to the Australian electorate not to overestimate Mr Palmer.

And remember! Yellow is also the colour used for biohazard warnings.

The Psychopathology of Politics

I once toyed with going to Yale to undertake a doctorate in the psychopathology of politics. It was the early 1970s and I had come under the influence of Alan Davies, the then Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne. “Foo”, as he was affectionately called, continued to influence much of my thinking in this area, and enabled me to write about it, getting some currency in the 1970s when I was considered to be “someone of promise”.

I didn’t go to Yale, but my interest in politics remained. I have two aphorisms that have stood the test of time: “all politicians proceed from a basis of low self-esteem” and “politics is the systematic organisation of hatreds”. The first is attributed to Harold Lasswell, a major American political theorist, and the second to one of that political Adams family which yielded two American Presidents.

However in the potpourri of personal politics where the pathology lurks, it is the ability to see yourself through the eyes of the viewer, which is a saving grace. Jacinda Ardern has that skill. She is an art gallery of images; so many images she is able to project and yet remain that singular woman I described in an earlier blog.

On the other hand, one thing about Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t have the intuitive sense of image that Ardern has. If I were his adviser, every time I saw him jogging I would tell him to jog away from the media lens. Or if he insists in exercising to find a medium in which he does not look like a duck, paddling along, paradoxically without a bill. Watching him jogging, it’s hard not to expect him to quack. But then again when you’ve got a critic like Murdoch, who presumably was not called “Boof” for nothing at Geelong Grammar, then your jogging gait is only a small irritant.

Morrison understands this image aspect of politics much better than Shorten. Whether his “aw shucks” approach has worked, we will find out in about a week’s time if the independents don’t cruel the pitch. Morrison abandons images that don’t work, like his “happy clapper” church routine. He is the ultimate pragmatist. Research obviously is telling him that the baseball cap is working. Remember Turnbull venturing into Queensland with his brand new Akubra? He was referred to as “that tent peg” – wide hat thin body.

You don’t want your audience laughing at you; only with you. This is another aphorism and one of perspicacity in being able to tell the difference.

Of Australian politicians, Penny Wong is wonderfully deft in a way that is not Ardern, yet from the same school; those who can stand outside themselves and see their image as others do. Her minimalist approach to herself is extremely effective. 

Dental Benefits

Stephen Duckett, well remembered in a past life as the Raider of the Lost Cookie Jar, has instigated a discussion on one of the most neglected areas of Australian politics – establishing a national dental health scheme. There was a somewhat insipid yet positive response from Shorten but as far as I can see nothing from the Liberal Coalition.

The paper is timely and whether you agree with the detail or not, it is important. However, it is 67 pages long and I don’t intend to critique it – rather it is useful to emphasise a few points and place the accent on different areas.

First of all, let us say that the advocacy for a dental benefits scheme, along with a medical and pharmaceutical scheme, has never had a champion in the Australian parliament. In fact I cannot establish whether there has ever been a dentist in the Australian Parliament.

After the Constitutional amendment in the 1946 referendum, the ubiquitous Earle Page, (a rural medical practitioner in his own right) championed the adoption of a national medical scheme, which was established in 1953, and massively updated following the Nimmo Report in 1969 with first Medibank and then Medicare.

Yet government policy has been silent on a universal dental policy. First of all, organised dentistry was opposed to it as they saw it as unnecessary government intervention in affairs of the mouth.

However, there are a number of matters that need to be addressed before the detailed question of coverage and affordability can be considered.

The first is the matter of fluoridation. Australia has a vocal fringe group opposed to fluoridation of water. To these people, it is yet another of the many tentacles of the Giant Conspiracy. There are many rural local government areas, particularly in Queensland, that do not have fluoridated water.

It is not only the Conspiracy Theorists, but also some Big Business that wishes to thwart fluoridation. I experienced this side of the debate where a community, in a public meeting, supported fluoridation without dissent, but the largest industry in the town – Murray Goulburn, which was not present at the meeting – went direct to government to say it would not put fluoridated water in the milk products. The reason given was that the Asian market rejected fluoride in milk products.

The community decision was ignored. Business triumphed over public health. Until a separate water pipe bringing unfluoridated water was provided at taxpayers’ cost to Murray Goulburn, the children of the Victorian township of Cobram unnecessarily forwent fluoridated water for nearly a decade after the community decision.

The point is that any universal dental scheme must take into consideration the requirement for universal fluoridation in the water (with the only exemption being those communities that have the recommended level already naturally present in the water supply), and not to be prisoner to the vagaries of some local governments. This whole question of national fluoridation needs to be addressed before benefits are paid for dental treatment.

The second consideration is the Australian Constitution and the question of “what are ‘dental benefits’?” If the dentists had encouraged the provision of a dental benefit scheme from the outset, then the definition of “dental” would have been clear. However, there are a number of health professions that have “dental” in their title. Not are the least of which are “dental hygienists”. These professions with dental in their title could argue that their services should be eligible for benefits under the Australian Constitution. Unlike “medical” which has been defined, any profession with “dental” in its title could be recognised as an independent profession. For instance, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) lists dental hygienist, dental therapist and dental prosthetist.

I am a great supporter of a universal dental scheme, but I am also opposed to shovelling out money without consideration of the consequences. This will be a recurrent theme as my blogs keep piling up.

A Child Care Parable

There once was a young post-graduate student, who was pregnant. She had graduated in medicine and then there were restrictions on pregnant women being interns in hospital. Some reasons had a trace of validity, but most were the consequence of male prejudice in a male dominated profession. Her husband was newly graduated in medicine but the annual wage for an 80-100 hour week was about 1,000 pounds including his board, but not hers. She remembered escaping being machine-gunned by a low flying American plane in the war. Although a small child in the street in Ljubljana, and the plane was so low she saw the face of the pilot, who aborted his strafing run when he saw that it was a child. He was black.

She was thus of migrant parents who had been refugees from central Europe. So her upward progress had been though determination and sheer hard work. She wanted a career, but she also wanted her child to be looked after in a safe environment in which she had a role in assisting. So she started a group with friends, who initially raised funds by serving coffee and biscuits at the university theatre. Eventually she secured a premise in an old Jewish school in the inner city near the university.

Then the battle for recognition and viability started – making ends meet and battling a government department headed by conservative male bureaucrats and complicit older women, whose model was the wartime nursery. These were set up so that women were freed to work in the factories and elsewhere. After the war, it was assumed women would know their place and retire behind the white picket fence. Those who wanted careers could resort to parents or nannies.

A fire had occurred six years before in a childcare centre, in which a number of children had died. Regulations were tightened, some justified, others less so. For instance, there needed to be a dining room with spatial dimensions of ten square feet for the first ten children and then eight square feet per child after that, presumably on the basis that the more children there were the smaller they became. Really?

Attitudes hardened and the idea of providing for parents to run a co-operative was resisted. However the co-operative was formed with parents as directors and the government reluctantly provided funds to renovate and equip a centre in accord with their strict regulations.

Parents paying fixed term fees from one to five days a week solved the question of financial certainty and hence assured financial viability.

The Centre had a trained registered nurse with child and midwifery qualifications as the executive officer and a kindergarten teacher, and others trained to various skill levels, both full time and part time, meeting the requirement for one staff member per five children for infants and one for fifteen when they were at kindergarten level. I use the word “skill” because education here requires in-service training, more males, and adequate salaries. Of these aspirations, she never enticed a male onto staff. Otherwise she was very successful.

She was adamant that all the staff be trained and cared for by the executive. The turnover rate as a result was low.

She had two sons, one who went into care at six weeks. They are now in their fifties, successful in different fields, each with a working spouse and each with three children.

Her advice even now could help a government intent on bringing in a childcare scheme, free of rorts. Subsidising the for-profit sector without demonstrable parent involvement is not the right business model.

The Centre she set up is still going strong.

Mouse Whisper

Experienced at the lunch table at the Magill winery in the suburbs of Adelaide when asked whether she preferred to be called “woman” or “lady” the young waitperson responded: “established female”.