Modest Expectations – Oxen Rest

Pick up your palliasse on boarding …

I thought I would relate a story from India when we were about to board the train from New Delhi to Himachal Pradesh. It was a cold winter’s night, and my wife pointed out a puppy shivering on the platform. It had been a difficult night for her, because we had been assigned what was called “first class” but in fact the compartment involved palliasses and drunken fellow travellers. My wife in all innocence had boarded the train, and suddenly found that this was far removed from our interpretation of “first class”. She was lucky to escape, and by a mixture of aggression and cajolery, I was able to change our tickets to sleeper class. This was the actual first class, and one of the advantages was that this carriage had a carriage attendant. Because of the need for the change in our ticketing, we were among the last to board the train.

My wife mentioned to the carriage attendant that there had been a “poor little dog freezing on the platform” (it was, after all, midwinter and 3.00 am), and I had gone into the normal over-reaction of a doctor, “don’t touch the dog, rabies … blah, blah, blah”. Oblivious to my warning, she pointed it out to the carriage attendant. We then went to our compartment. The train was pulling out from the station, and my wife scanned the platform. The puppy was not there; she hoped it had scampered off to find a warmer place.

The journey was well underway when the carriage attendant appeared and beckoned us to come to his den at the end of the carriage. There, nestling on a blanket in a box, was the little dog. The carriage attendant had heeded my wife’s implicit wish and rescued the little dog.

The “Kalka Mail” from Howrah to Kalka, via Delhi

But that was not all, some days later, when we were returning from Himachal Pradesh, we boarded the train for New Delhi. Same carriage. Same smiling carriage attendant. Same little dog, still in his comfortable box. He was one of the most well travelled dogs – having been to Kolkata and back. He still seemed very happy. He did not have rabies. On reflection, I was the one who had been frothing at the mouth. My wife had authored an example of the goodness of some our fellow humans. It is a nice story to start off this blog. 

Blind in One Eye, Horatio. You are Kidding Me!

China is the largest trade partner of a long and growing list of countries. Very few have the wealth and natural resources that protected Australia, the “lucky” country. Even so, many are studying the lessons of Australia’s escape from China’s grip”. The Economist 27 May

It may be strange heading for this observation, which takes its inspiration from Donald Horne’s inspired observation about Australia as “the lucky country”. This succinct note at the end of an article entitled “Lucky for Some” conceals a resource rich Australia, which is rotting under a mixture of hedonism, hypocrisy, and just plain greed.

This long, drawn-out, high risk defamation case brought by Roberts-Smith strikes at the cabal which has been allowed to get away with massive expenditure on a War Memorial. Against this the Brereton Report  has found evidence of 39 murders of civilians and prisoners by (or at the instruction of) members of the Australian special forces. The full Report findings have yet to be to be released.

War Memorial, under re-construction

Coupled with unnecessarily expensive alteration to an already ugly building, the Canberra War Memorial should instead be modest in keeping with remembering the dead but not glorifying war – and certainly not turning it into a defence force theme park funded by us mug taxpayers. Given the extravagant eulogising of Roberts-Smith in the War Memorial display, the protected defence force officer species has now given the Parliament a headache.

Anybody lost in war games is an unnecessary life lost. Australia, like most countries, rationalises loss of life and the attendant destruction in a quasi-religious model where remembrance and grief are locked together with a sprinkle of selflessness, heroism and a fizz of “mateship”. It is a curious brew which has also underpinned this relentless pursuit of the original Olympic ideal in warpaint – higher, faster, stronger – essentially an expression of the male hormone overlay of civilisation; without the recently added Olympic ideal of “together”, a concession to the need to contain an aggressive interpretation of the three exhortations.

The Chair of the Council of the War Memorial is Kim Beasley. I generally agree with Paul Keating’s assessment of people, but I have always wondered why he had a high regard for the current Chair, while others considered him as a militaristic boofhead nicknamed “Bomber Beazley” when he was Minister of Defence.

The problem is that the ill-considered action of the ageing Kerry Stokes in bankrolling Roberts-Smith’s defamation action has exposed the underbelly of warfare. Over the years, politicians on both sides of politics become enthralled with the toys of war, egged on by senior officers who have learned the art of “obsequious control” over their political masters, whatever their persuasion. Greeting visiting overseas dignitaries with rows of soldiers or archaically-dressed soldiers on horses; gun carriages for the dead monarch – what is it all about? A population being groomed for war?

It is interesting how many of the senior officers have done a stint in the United States, where inevitably they would have been flattered, if not groomed into the world of expensive weapons labelled “born in the USA”.

I remember as a young boy when I was present at some of the family afternoon “soirees”, being brought along by my father as an appendage. Here were the blokes who had been to the war and may have been wrestling with their demons – and now were drinking too much Scotch and regaling one another with wartime anecdotes. They would mention unpopular officers allegedly where the troops shot them in the back when out on the patrol; but they generally reserved their disdain for coloured people in all their derogatory verbiage. I remember one anecdote which was of no consequence except it happened while this particular bloke was serving on New Ireland and could not contain his hilarity when he told the gathering about this native who happened to be sitting under a coconut tree when a coconut had fallen on his head, splitting it open. He could not stop laughing, until the next dark anecdote.

I was socialised with a diet of Boy’s Own heroics.  Yet as a small boy I witnessed that many who served and witnessed war at close quarters never talked about it. I had never experienced the horrors of a war where the civilian population was the target, where the most vulnerable were targeted – genocide was a term yet to be firmly established in the vocabulary. I then had never heard of Guernica, where Germany and her allies wiped out the civilian population, a technique they were busily perfecting in preparation for World subjugation, that in fact had been first trialled in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) between 1904 and 1908. We were socialised in believing that war was a test of manhood, almost a jolly affair offering the then rare opportunity for an overseas trip and where atrocities are airbrushed away.

I have lived with a succession of wars, some having more or less effect on my way of life – but the older I have got the more I have marvelled at the underlying bullying aspect of war. Murder the defenceless to win the war. I am not a pacifist, but once my country has gone to war, it always seemed at the sound of a distant drum, the more the casualties mount up, ultimately for nothing.

Stored for future exhibitions, perhaps

There is no Memorial to the Unknown Child or Mother … only to the Unknown Soldier – in brackets, male. The toys and their sophistication and cost increases.  The industry attracts a species of vermin who call themselves “consultant” – only because they have been previously participants – officers, bureaucrats, politicians, once on the inside but with their heads now in the money trough, occasionally raising their heads to vomit the privileged information gleaned over the years. Years of “schmoozing”, networking, social engagements, bribery have oiled the world of the “defence consultant”. Contracts are handed out, contracts are padded, and up to this point it has been a cosy atmosphere.

But now the Roberts-Smith ill-fated defamation case has blown a hole in this closed world of privilege. The politicians on each side do not know what to do. So many of them, still unashamed, raise their heads out of the trough. Their mates still in positions of influence, those with perspicacity do not want the whole closely-knit world to unravel, yet they know that they cannot initiate many more cover-ups. Not that they will not try.

The litany of misdemeanours of the ruling elite, both Labor and Coalition, as epitomised by the mutual giggling display of Marles and Pyne, illustrates a festering political garbage dump, the stench of which will not be quenched by any diversionary nosegay. What this country needs is a cathartic dose of the Cromwells.

Montana Skies

In 1999 I went to the University of Washington. Although based in Seattle at the time, it also provided medical teaching to undergraduates based, in addition to Washington State, in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, hence the name WWAMI. As I intended visiting Montana in the late Spring of 2005, I asked Dawn De Witt, who had been recruited as the Dean of the Rural Clinical School and Professor and Foundation Chair of Rural Medical Education based in Shepparton (to give her full title) for advice as to where I should go. I had first met Dawn when she was an academic specialist physician at the University of Washington in Seattle. She had a deep interest in education and she was approached by the then Dean of Medicine, Richard Larkins, at the University of Melbourne to take the post. She also had a special attachment to Montana as she had honeymooned there in the Glacier National Park in the far North of the State and spreading across the border into British Columbia.

When I undertook my exploration of the feasibility of rural clinical schools in Australia in 1999, following Seattle I had visited the campuses in Spokane and in Pullman, just across the border from the Idaho campus in Moscow (pronounced mos-COW). Idaho is a State in two parts. There is a well-forested area north of the divide where the coastal rain falls, while the southern part of Idaho is a dry altiplano where Boise, the capital, is located. Idaho was far less wealthy than Washington, and this difference was reflected in the two campuses.

I had wanted then to go to Montana, but ran out of time. Alaska was a long way away and Montana and Wyoming could wait. Montana was visited six years later.  By that time the rural clinical program in Australia was in full swing.

On Dawn’s recommendation, one of the local doctors, Ted Scofield, invited us to stay in the small town of Livingston, close to Yosemite and to its massive backdrop of the Rockies. After all, Montana is the land where the wide glacier-cut valleys do in fact reach for for the sky. I realise that beauty can indeed be muted, in shadows cast, grasslands understated – mostly a wide emptiness.

On arrival we were whisked away to watch his daughter play softball against a team in the neighbouring township of Tall Timbers. Tall Timbers, we were informed, had a champion softball team, as they proved that afternoon. Tall Timbers had achieved its brief period of fame when Robert Redford played the lead role in the film Horse Whisperer, which was filmed there.

Livingston remains a series of images of what I had imagined would be a grasslands town, windswept as one would expect of town lying at 1,400 metres above sea level. The buildings dating back to the late nineteenth century were close to the Yellowstone River, which actually ran through the Scofield property where we stayed. At one stage, we tried to have a picnic on the Yellowstone River, but we were defeated by the mosquitos, which were both very large and very assiduous, if that is a euphemism for bloodthirsty.

The looming “Crazies”

The property overlooked the dramatic Crazies, the Crazy Mountains.  Spanning a distance of 32 kms from the Yellowstone River to the pinnacle of Crazy Peak, the terrain rises more than 2,100 metres. The reason for the name of the mountains is obscure; it may be their position. They seemed not to be where the mountains should be, as they lie separate from the Rockies themselves. Nevertheless, the scenery waking up in the morning was in a word – “different”. OK – breathtaking!

Ted was one of the WWAMI teachers, but at that time there were no students in the practice. Nevertheless, we undertook a number of ward rounds at the hospital. He had completed his undergraduate degree at Kalamazoo College, Michigan, then went on to graduate from medical school at Saint Louis in 1979. Given that the population is around 8,000 Livingston seemed to have very adequate medical facilities, but as I have since found out, the area is very popular with many prominent actors and moneyed people who had properties around the town. There is a word to describe those rural areas that do not have a problem recruiting doctors –“resources rich”. Useful to be near ski resorts and in the case of Ted Scofield, hunting. Ted was a keen hunter and his house was festooned with trophies, and on our last morning, we had homemade elk sausages for breakfast.


The Scofields and their children and mother were “Wee Frees”. This segment of the Presbyterian Church traces its roots to 1843 and the struggle of the Scottish church to remain “free” from State interference. In fact they live at the extreme end of the evangelical Protestants, and predictably are against the cultural reforms of same-sex marriage and access to abortion, believing the literal interpretation of the Bible. As we were guests, we steered clear of any discussion, but took part in their mealtime, where everybody held hands while Ted said grace before each meal. Not quite Little House on the Prairie, but where piety is mixed with blood sports. It was a time when Bush was President and the Iraqi war was in full swing, but again not a topic for discussion given that we soon realised that our beliefs were very far apart

They were very hospitable. For instance, they were teetotal, but stocked low alcohol beer which they offered us. We gave a presentation on Australia to the health centre and hospital staff – a slide show centred on a recitation of Dorothea McKellar’s poem “My Country”. It seemed to be well received; they had little knowledge of Australia and our own open spaces.

We did not talk much about teaching because on the ward rounds he was very much the conventional doctor, where teaching was not an easy fit. The traditional country rural medical practitioner is a solitary person, used to treating patients without question. In one instance, I did question the treatment, and he took it in good grace, demonstrating to me more flexibility than I had observed up to that time.

In the end, I do not know what I thought. As I write this reflection, I realise that I learnt more than if I had been involved in conflict. Far apart we may have been in belief, I learnt more than I thought in my sojourn in Livingston without only saying “Dr Scofield, I presume.”

Laura Vall

When I was learning Brazilian Portuguese, one of the more relaxing and attractive ways learning this form of Portuguese was to watch a bossa nova video performed by NOVA, whose lead singer was Laura Vall.

Laura Vall

NOVA’s tagline is Born in Brazil, Made in LA. Laura Vall is from Barcelona but moved to LA. Here she had set up this Group with Mike Papagni, a bossa nova and jazz quartet, back in 2011. The quartet with her as the vocalist are David Irelan (guitar), Thomas Hjorth (bass), and Mike Papagni (drums). Since then, they’ve been performing around Los Angeles and I found them and her on YouTube. The signature bossa nova song is The Girl from Ipanema, written in 1962 by Antonio Carlos Jobim with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. The singer generally associated with the song was Astrud Gilberto. The Sinatra interpretation is well-known, admittedly at odds with the original lyrics it nevertheless has a certain charm, given he was singing alongside Jobim, the latter accompanying him in Brazilian Portuguese.

In the Portuguese version, the lyrics employ two words for girl, while the title uses “garota” a third word for girl but not used in the song itself. The girl from Ipanema is variously “menina” or “moça”.  When I watch her singing the song she was the epitome of all of these plus an element of the vagabond in English – in Portuguese it has a more direct meaning shorn of the street-wise imputation that it has in English.

Whether singing with microphone as her only prop or when shaking a ganza, Vall’s movements are minimal yet sensuous, her voice clarion clear, her voice with a touch of defiance, if not ferocity. Her Brazilian Portuguese is impeccable. To me she is also a beautiful woman. Her accompanying musicians are understated but a perfect backdrop, yet all playing against unspectacular background room – no flashy cut aways to Ipanema beach or elsewhere. Just a beautiful singer in a Los Angeles studio with a great backing trio. The ongoing encouragement to continue learning Portuguese – admittedly now with little practical reason, except to keep the brain active – and listening to Laura Vall.

She is a worthy successor to Astrud Gilberto, who died this week.

Astrud Gilberto

The Withered Spring

All over Eastern Massachusetts it’s the same story, with azaleas, forsythia, rhododendrons, and their colleagues underperforming. Where there should be flowers and joy, we have mere leaves, bare stems — and self-doubt.

The disappointing spring bloom is all the more painful because it comes against a backdrop of climate change — not the fault of any one gardener, but rather the collective action of the human species.

Last summer’s drought, the historic arctic blast in early February, the wild swings in temperature — they’re all contributing to the lacklustre Spring.

An eloquent observation in The Boston Globe, which imparts the same message that Rachel Carson made almost two generations ago when she wrote of a countryside before the chemical onslaught, including the now banned DDT.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them.

Rachel Carson wrote these words in 1962. How goes the ingenuity of us humans to escape the disasters we create?

Mouse Whisper

Ever thought about the three blind mice? The “three blind mice” were the Oxford Martyrs, all Bishops and supporters of the short-lived Queen, Lady Jane Grey. (The Liz Truss nine-day monarch equivalent). Their names were Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, accused of plotting against the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII. They were tried for heresy in 1555.

Before they were burned at the stake, Latimer was heard to say: Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.

Strange how “play the man” now has such a different connotation.


Modest Expectations – Leicester City

This disturbing commentary is taken from a media release from the Lincoln Project, a virulent anti-Trump Republican-leaning group. In their own write:

Our job at The Lincoln Project – and the task for all of us in the pro-democracy movement – is to give President Biden air cover. Not split the vote. We know exactly who we have to target to reinforce the pro-democracy message. We did it in 2020 and we won 17 races with it in 2022.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Below is a sample of the media releases with which the Lincoln Project is bombarding the potentially “swing” voters. To me, it is reality wrapped up in a scare campaign. Not sure that Biden can go the distance; he needs a better Vice-President. I’m a big fan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. She has withstood threats to her life by the Trump riff-raff and has both the intellectual capacity and toughness to be President. And she would come with the tag of being “under-rated”. Huge plus, especially when you are dealing with such an exploitive narcissist as Trump. By the way, where is Melania – and for that matter young Barron?

Fascinating and completely disturbing media release from the Lincoln Project:

Putin just listed 500 new targets for Russian sanctions. In short, it’s his enemies list, a collection of people who Putin wants the world to know he personally despises. 

But here’s where it gets scary. Some of the names listed are at the top of Trump’s enemies list too.

  1. Letitia James, the New York state attorney general who is suing Trump for fraud. 
  2. Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State and recipient of Trump’s “perfect call.”
  3. Michael Myrd, the Capitol Police officer who shot MAGA martyr Ashli Babbitt. 

What do those people have to do with Russian foreign policy? They haven’t been vocal commentators on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have no expertise or role in US-Russian relations. 

The only conceivable explanation is that Putin is sending a loud and clear message to Trump: Your enemies are mine and I want to see you back in The White House in 2024.

Putin’s clear message got me thinking about the ad campaign we ran last year. It was a hard- hitting and critical message that reminded voters that the party of Reagan is now the party of Putin. That’s why MAGA Republicans are so desperate to cut off aid to Ukraine. It’s why Trump has openly praised the murderous dictator in the past. And that reason is why Putin and Trump share the same exact enemies list.

There is a dangerous connection between MAGA and Putin’s authoritarian regime. It truly can’t be overstated, and I can assure you that we’ll continue to work to remind voters of this fact. 


Ceviche is one of my favourite fish dishes. I have always associated it with Brazil, but it is actually Peruvian.

I had my best ceviche one morning in Manaus, under what turned out to be strained circumstances for which I was to blame – ultimately. We had flown into Manaus from Sao Paulo late the night before. Manaus, located on the Amazon River approximately the same distance to the Peru border as it is to the mouth of the Amazon River, is the only place where there is bridge over the Amazon, linking it to Iranduba on the other side. In 2010, Brazil built a two-mile-long cable-stayed bridge connecting the two cities. Except that technically it does not cross the main course of the Amazon; it crosses the Rio Negro, the Amazon’s largest tributary.

Manaus is so isolated that there is only one viable road link, as told to us in 2019 – and that was to Venezuela about 3,000 kms away. There had been a road to Rhodonia, but that road was now impassable.

Just a “small” pirarucu

The fish which was used in the ceviche that morning was a white fish. I wasn’t familiar with the fish, but the marinade was very well balanced, subtle, yet where lime juice predominated. The fish was the pirarucu, the biggest freshwater fish in the world, a carnivorous lover of catfish and known to leap out of the water to take an unsuspecting small bird. The flesh is somewhat like cod to taste and, in each carcass, there is a great amount of flesh, given the fish is three metres long and 220 kilograms in weight.  There was a stuffed specimen strung up in the market in Manaus – very impressive, just to press the point.

My memorable meetings with fish have always been associated with another matter completely extraneous to consumption. For instance, my most well remembered Dover sole meal, where the fish covered the whole plate, was served to me in a Cambridge hotel overlooking the Backs. While we were having this meal, Stephen Hawking was wheeled by.

In this case in Manaus, it was as I reached into my pocket searching for my wallet, to discover it was not there. Here in mid-morning having had this brunch of fish, I immediately froze. My room was not far away. I went back and searched – no sign. My companion then did her own search. The staff were notified; they came and turned the room upside down. Still no wallet. At this point I was staring down a difficult path, given we had to board the riverboat mid-afternoon.

I had brought a raft of papers to look over while I had the time. I turned over the pages and there, in the middle of the pages was the wallet. My companion and the hotel staff on the surface were very forgiving; underneath their collective mood would have been different.

The fish meal was very good, and I turned my face to the tropical garden. The tropical plants are not judgemental, good when one is totally embarrassed.

Narendra Modi

Ship breaking in Gujurat, home of Mr Modi
Not Gujurat …

In 1978, Modi received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the School of Open Learning (SOL) at the University of Delhi, graduating with a third class honour. Five years later, in 1983, he received a Master of Arts degree in political science from Gujarat University, graduating with a first class as an external distance learning student. There is a controversy surrounding his educational qualification. SOL said it did not have any data of students who received a BA degree in 1978. Jayantibhai Patel, a former political science professor of Gujarat University, claimed that the subjects listed in Modi’s MA degree were not offered by the university when Modi was studying there.Wikipedia

Probably even a couple of years ago, most Australians would not be able to name the Indian Prime Minister, but no more. Our Prime Minister has been complicit in raising Modi’s profile by accompanying him on the Modi vahana on that strange trip around the ground on the opening day of the fourth cricket Test in Ahmedabad. One could be bemused by the two countries entering into a defence pact. I cannot imagine Australian forces patrolling the India-Chinese border or assisting in the suppression of Kashmiri’s democratic right to vote with the potential of confrontation with Pakistan.

Albanese realises that although Indian prosperity is continually rising, creating potential markets for Australian trade, there are two areas where India has a visual effect on the everyday Australian. One is obviously cricket, where the Indian premier League (IPL) provides Australian cricketers and, by association, international cricket a financial lifeline. Cricket without India would have difficulty surviving in its current form. Secondly, more importantly for Albanese, is the Indian diaspora in Australia. There are about 750,000 Indians born in India who are living overwhelmingly (70 per cent) in Victoria and New South Wales. Over 17 per cent of those living in the seat of Parramatta, where Harris Park has become the signature suburb for the diaspora, are Indian born.

While Modi was travelling overseas, culminating in the visit to Australia, his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was roundly beaten in the Karnataka State elections. As reported by The Economist, Modi addressed 19 public rallies and six road shows in Karnataka, which has had an average annual growth rate of eight per cent over the decade. In the end, this State of 68 million people was the only southern state under BJP control, and now it has lost heavily, retaining only 66 seats in an Assembly of 225 seats. The National Party had won an absolute majority; the Gandhis were back in power.

Modi had come up through Gujarat politics, a person born into one of the lower castes (the oil-burners), whereas the Congress Party Gandhis are brahmins, not necessarily popular among their fellow brahmins, but with that ultimate illusion of a “born-to-rule” caste.

Modi is a tiny figure, but his big head gives the impression of a bigger man. To govern such a sprawling diverse country for nearly a decade is remarkable. Many of his moves reflect an authoritarian personality, like so many of our leaders. Why do so many of them have to embellish their academic performance, as Modi has done. Perhaps, it just validates the thesis of social scientist Harold Lasswell that most politicians proceed from a basis of insecurity and low self-esteem. Therefore, without getting too much into the land of psycho-politics, tiny men in politics with an underlying inferiority complex can be a dangerous package.

Nevertheless, the smart money is transferring its interest from China to India. China is being left to the politicians and the public servants to salvage what they can from the selective bans on certain Australian produce. How that turns out will be carefully watched by those who have maintained a “watching brief” on mainland China. The Chinese fixation about Taiwan and the unpredictable gaoling of overseas nationals makes even the experienced China hands very wary.


Although India is notoriously protectionist, with its potential market of over one billion, it is attractive. Try buying an imported bottle of wine – or spirits for that matter – in India and marvel at the cost.  Currently, somewhat at odds with the calls to reduce fossil fuel exports, coal is the major Australian export, and the controversial entry of India into mining in Australia has been its response. At present with the flush of Modi-Albanese interactions, who knows where it will ultimately lead. One outcome for certain is that there will be more Indians migrating to Australia. The reverse? Well, I could live happily in Kerala for most of the year.

The Economist, having reported the loss of Karnataka by the BJP, says it may be a fillip for the once all-conquering Congress Party; yet the gains were stated as being at the expense of a third party, the Janata Dal (Secular). At the end of its report, The Economist stated: “there is nothing here to augur defeat for Mr Modi and his party in next year’s election.” In other words, Australia will have to live with Modi, who is 72 – young in this modern world of geriatric leaders.

As indicated above and elsewhere, I love India, especially the South. I first went to India when it was barely on the radar, with the prejudices and misconception of India on show. It was a time when there were fewer than 50,000 individuals born in India living in Australia. After the initial culture shock on arrival, India just continues to confound a Westerner like myself with its sheer beauty. You need not mention anything more than the Taj Mahal, but of course there is much more and there is enormous diversity. India imposes on the uninitiated not only by having so many people always in one’s personal space but also by the distinctive smell. This reflects not only the human factor but also inter alia the number of wandering cattle and the number of aromatic spices floating around in the urban atmosphere.

I have written about my fascination with India in my blog two years ago. It remains. It is just there is always a price in getting too close to a dictator, real and would be. It is the dilemma Australia faces, given the difficult relationship we will always have with China. Still, our country must build its resilience and no matter the country, we should be wary of alliances, which need to be thought through, especially when positioning ourselves in a bilateral Pact, a Triad (rhyming with raucous), a Quad or even rowing a Quinquereme in troubled South Pacific seas. It is not just an album of photo opportunities.

Hero of the Western World?

“I think the Liberals did unprecedented things in vilifying me, on things that were baseless, which they knew. First, we had that lowbrow Staley for years wandering around attacking me, saying I was one of the richest men in public life, that I was only in public life to enrich myself. I can only say of him: twisted in body, twisted in mind. And he was aided and abetted by Howard, who should have known better, who does know better …” Paul Keating in 2000 as reported in SMH.

There is this photograph of the Melbourne Scotch College crew of 1957. No. 3 is Andrew Peacock; no. 6 is Anthony Staley and the Stroke was Neil Courtney. All are now dead. Peacock and Staley were rivals, even at school, vying to be the Captain of School. In the end it was Neil Courtney, also a gifted musician, who was chosen. This I knew because my father worked with his father, although I cannot recollect whether we ever met. I am not sure what he did later, apart from the fact that he died about six years ago and he rowed while at the University of Melbourne. Otherwise, the records readily available to me about him are silent.

In my generation Scotch College in Melbourne produced a great number of prominent politicians, culminating in what the Italian call un uomo di sbalzi d’umore, Jeffrey Kennett as the Victorian Premier. Returning to the crew, which came second in the Head-of-the-River that year, Andrew Peacock went on to graduate in law, and never hid his political aspirations. Part of his inheritance (the born-to-rule complex) was gaining Menzies’ seat of Kooyong, having made a splash at the previous election by challenging the high-profile, left wing Jim Cairns.

Peacock lost. But his profile as the next generation leader was cemented. Peacock never received the opprobrium of being a young Australian, just too old to be included in the Vietnam draft lottery, not to serve despite his schoolboy militarism. The 1966 election cemented the Liberal Party, with Andrew Peacock having been elected in a byelection seven months before, his foot firmly planted on the political accelerator. He was well liked but, in the end, he just tired of the relentless back-stabbing antics and went elsewhere.

His rival, Anthony Staley, first came to my notice through some of my religious friends, when they mentioned this guy whose mission was to dedicate his life to being a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He undertook a law degree at the University of Melbourne and followed me as the President of the Student Representative Council in 1961. Whereas Peacock’s first wife was the daughter of a Liberal Party politician, Staley’s first wife was the daughter of the University’s Vice-Chancellor – the first of five.

I saw Staley from time to time in the 1960s, especially when I started a Master of Arts in political science part-time at the University when he was lecturer there. I remember one day we were talking on a street in Melbourne when there was an anti-Vietnam demonstration being held. We were on the fringes and the crowd started moving towards us.  I looked around. Staley was gone. I stayed. I was a bit surprised as I thought Staley had expressed great reservations about our involvement in the War.

The aim of becoming a pastor was soon tossed out of his career pathway. He was elected to Parliament at the 1970 Chisholm by-election, following the death of Wilfrid Kent Hughes. He was the Member for this electorate from 1970 to 1980 and was a low level Minister for the Capital Territory and then Minister for Post and Telecommunications until his retirement from Parliament. Thus, the two rowers of 1957 may have been reunited in the same Liberal Party boat but Staley never reached the Ministerial heights that Peacock achieved.

Staley clung to the leader, whoever that person was – but had an air of treachery, which was admired by his fellow fixers. It is a pity that being shady and duplicitous is so admired by some in the media claque. He switched from Snedden to Fraser in the period when the 1974 election intervened, and the robust Liberal Party stability of 1973 was replaced by the rise of the Party “bottom-feeders”.

Staley became the National President of the Liberal Party long after I had lost contact with him, but he apparently used his position to undermine Hewson, create the straw man Downer, before culminating his life’s work in the election of Howard who had been written off at the start of the decade. The Liberal Party Gepetto had triumphed no less!

There was one occasion in the 1990s when he and I were at some dinner where he was seated next to my wife, who had never met him before. She found his frank comments to her about his sexual exploits somewhat unusual – but then she just dismissed them as the pathetic ramblings of an ageing man with five wives on his curriculum vitae.

The problem with all these shenanigans, the stage for the ultimate progression of the Liberal Party was within the “ecology” of the Melbourne Club, where the ultimate strength of the Party lay and where they forgot about the branches. These provided the foot soldiers, ignored until they were mustered to help at election time. The cigar chomping Staley showed his contempt at one party conference by railroading a motion through to shore up the then Downer leadership. The problem is the branches in the face of a Party, whose seigneurs ignored them, enabled the rise of a different mob. This noblesse oblige just turned some party branch members into a rebellious mob, who still had the power to preselect candidates. This shift occurred during the Staley years, and how much was due to his actions others may wish to comment. The legacy of Staley with his expertise in palace intrigue may be his posthumous gift to the current leader, the hapless John Pessuto.

Mouse Whisper

I dislike the connotations of a plague of mice. This just goes against the grain.

John Wheats, our Poet Laureate, has written an ode. Wheats can never resist making rye comments.

Oats to a Threshing Churn

Now Barley Charlie

Spooning deepest darkest Congee

So to forage in the Porridge

makes one cruel eating the Gruel

where one hits the hominy Grits

or ends up with teeth and sorghums
Barley Charlie 1964

Modest Expectations – The Sole of Bond Street

As the pandemic has ploughed on, there is a new collective noun for the experts clamouring for media exposure – an irritation of epidemiologists. After more than 15 months of COVID, the endless stream of epidemiologists called upon to express opinions on television have variously inspired and annoyed, but more often have provided a confusing opinion. For me, the soft-spoken Marie-Louise McLaws, whose family motto is “Spectemur agendo” meaning “we are judged by our actions”, is one such example. Marie-Louise is probably judged by her talking head television profile and she obviously has her fans.

Nevertheless, she has made a pertinent observation as to the vulnerability of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is a matter of geography – the ease with which people can move around there as distinct from other major cities in Australia.  Others are chiming in with stochastic analysis, a fancy name to define randomness of these events. Perhaps she has been over-enthusiastic in emphasising some other differences, which probably don’t exist, but the geography argument is a strong one, and the outer suburbs of Melbourne do contain many migrant groups.

Take the Indian population, for instance; they are clustered on opposite sides of Melbourne, which is the favoured destination of Indian migrants over Sydney. If you believe the blurb, that is:

Indians living in Melbourne love:

  • living in Melbourne’s suburbs with safe, accessible transport
  • local supermarkets, Indian grocery stores and restaurants
  • Melbourne’s festivals, museums and cultural events 
  • Victoria’s world-class education system
  • dining out in Melbourne’s renowned restaurants.

All conducive to a very mobile lifestyle, and there are over 56,000 Indian-born Australians in Melbourne, thus about three per cent of Melbourne’s population. Sydney has a smaller population, and it is concentrated in Harris Park and surrounding suburbs in Sydney’s west.  In this century up to 2019, Indian migration was the largest in percentage terms. People should not be coy about country of origin, especially when so many still have strong family links to a country where the virus spread has been out of control. In the midst of a pandemic, such demographic information is important.

I always remember a description of Brisbane, “If Rome was built on seven hills, Brisbane was built on seventy-seven”. Sydney by its geography is also compartmented, and this was well shown in the COVID-19 outbreak on the northern beaches of that city in December last year. This outbreak was easily contained.

However, when the infected were allowed to move around in that well known stochastic process, Brownian movement, as they were from the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess in the middle of the city with access to multiple transport links, then one could call the process, the Berekjlian, after the presiding Premier of the time. But normally it is far more challenging to move around Brisbane and Sydney than Melbourne.

In regard to accessibility, take one suburb of Melbourne, Hawthorn. There are three tram lines running through it and a railway line with at least two stations serving Hawthorn. There are also buses, and the increasing use of private buses to ferry private school children to and from school, Hawthorn and the neighbouring suburbs are a large scholastic reservoir. Added to this Melbourne is very easy to move around inside the rapidly expanding perimeter. The only barrier is the Great Dividing Range which only provides a hurdle to travel in the Dandenongs component. Otherwise, all the other sectors have major highways radiating out from Melbourne, which mean travel is easy.

In Melbourne, some talk nostalgically about living in a “village” rather than a “suburb”. I would dispute that.

At last the Federal Government, a Federal Government dominated by one Sydneysider who lives in an enclave called the Shire, has buckled to the obvious need to have a custom-built quarantine centre in Victoria close to Melbourne. Hopefully more objectivity will be applied to the tendering than much of the scandalous way the Government has gone about business over the past three years. Whether Avalon is the right place or not, it is on pre-existing Commonwealth land and relatively close to Melbourne.

I wonder though if the invaders were not “micro-marauders”, not easily identifiable, would the Governments be adopting the seemingly leisurely pace to get this centre built. Maybe photo-opportunity trips will accelerate the process. In the Northern Territory or even South to Tocumwal in NSW, one can see how quickly facilities, hospitals, airstrips and even a highway were built when the Japanese were on the horizon.

Waleed Aly has waded into the conversation, questioning the validity of singling Melbourne out. As usual he writes persuasively, but I suggest that he reinforces the point that having hotel quarantine in the middle of city with the easiest means of spread of anything, be it people or viruses, is just asking for trouble.

Black Rock, near Melbourne, 1954

He singles out Black Rock as a Melbourne suburb where lockdown was not required. This suburb and the adjoining Beaumaris were developed later from bushland. They lie beyond the terminus of both tram and bus, and therefore have some the characteristics of the Sydney northern beaches suburbs. The distinguishing feature was its isolation. The way it was isolated had a distinct elite character and elitism discourages easy movement.

Despite the intervention of Waleed, as an epidemiologist, Professor McLaws, you made a good point, but in your enthusiasm to prove a point you probably went a wee bit too far.

Scars of 56

Since my Chinese exploits are receiving some interest, here is an excerpt of a book I hope to publish later this year subtitled, “When we were not too Young”. 

Over dinner my father continued to repeat that he wanted to “see China”, whatever that meant, and the only way to “see China” from his point of view was to take the train to the border at Lo Wu and stare across into the country. However, it became clear when he asked if that were possible that, although the train might go through to Lo Wu, all the passengers had to get off the train at Fan Ling, which was about four miles inside the border. Nevertheless, we bought tickets because my father said: “…you never know”. If nothing else, he was awake to serendipitous opportunity.

He had also thought of going across to Macau, which required an overnight boat trip. Macau was then a seedy remnant of the Portuguese empire. He wondered if it would be easier to get closer to China if he went there, but when he inquired about that feasibility, he was quickly disabused. There was a lawless element there and it would not be worth being exposed as a lone traveller. I thought I heard the word “triad” mentioned in the conversation.  

So here we were about to board the train to Lo Wu. The train with the steam-driven locomotive was regulation pre-war with cracked leather seats in the carriages and the views through the windows made even greyer by the grime on the windows. 

The carriage was empty apart from ourselves.

The city straggled away into the New Territories and into a quilt of paddy fields. There were distant mountains, which my father said were probably in China. He stood up and walked along the corridor hoping to get a better view. He came back and confirmed that the mountains were on the Chinese side of the border. I am not sure how he knew but, as always, he was authoritative.

Fanling Station

The train pulled into Fan Ling and the conductor came along telling us to get off. I could feel very clearly my father’s reluctance as he stood up, and slowly climbed down onto the station. At the end of the station, there were a number of Chinese soldiers in green jackets and trousers. They did not seem to be armed but symbolized a line of demarcation between themselves and the Hong Kong constabulary, who were fitted out like London policemen acting with the departing passengers as if they were directing traffic in The Strand.

The Forbidden Land lay beyond – the view entombed in the wintry sunlight.

However, there was one person standing on the station close to the train. He was wearing a hat, scarf and gabardine raincoat. The scarf was drawn up to partially conceal his face He looked across the station and, in an Australian accent, called my father’s name. My father looked up, startled at the recognition. He did not immediately recognize the figure, who lit a cigarette, for a brief moment illuminating his bespectacled face. My father strode up the platform. They shook hands and for five minutes they engaged in what appeared to be animated conversation, my father pointing toward the Chinese border. 

I was distracted by a middle-aged Chinese man, who sidled up to me with his bicycle. In broken English, he said he would take me to the border on his bicycle. It would not cost much; and I could see what China was really like. I hesitated. My father was still in deep conversation, and I looked at the bicycle. Was he going to “dink” me? There seemed to be no other way that I could get on the bicycle, unless I hired it from him. 

I looked out over the rice fields and through the line of houses, which clustered below the station. I could make out the road running north-south which presumably went towards the border.

 “Can I take your bicycle and bring it back?”

The man with the bicycle hesitated. Then he pushed it towards me especially as he saw that I had US dollars in my hand.

“What in God’s name are you doing, John?”

The border at Lo Wu, 1950s

“I thought you wanted to go to the border.”

“On that?” My father’s face split into one of his thin-lipped smiles, which you rarely saw unless he was about to launch into an invective against somebody.

The ferocity of the “On that” seemed to frighten the man with the bicycle, as he took a step back.

“So you are seen pedaling to God knows where wearing completely inadequate gear. If you don’t freeze to death, you are liable to be either shot or captured. John, I suppose you think that all that there will be is a bit of barbed wire and smiling soldiers. Does not work that way – and the last thing I want to happen is my son dead or interned. The last thing I need,” he repeated, “is for my son to be the centre of an international incident.” 

I thought my father was a bit over the top, but I suddenly felt very cold. After all, it was winter and the threadbare trees along the road towards China bent in the wind as if derisively waving me on in my fruitless endeavour.

My father gestured towards the retreating figure on the bicycle. There was no need to wave him away. He disappeared from sight off the edge of the platform.

My father turned and looked back to see the man with whom he had been talking climb onto the train. The Chinese troops did not move. 

My father gestured. “That John is a safer way of travel, but unfortunately you need to be credentialed, as Ted is. I believe he is off to Beijing. However mark my words, I shall get over the border in the next ten years – and more than once.”

We waited for the train to come back. My father was suitably vague about who Ted was, but he worked with a friend of my father who, like Ted, had been a lawyer and, if not a Communist, certainly was a definite shade of cardinal. 

My father was always very sure of himself, but I could never fathom his politics.

Postscript: My father did achieve his goal and did go to China – more than once. My father died in 1970 – so it was quite a feat in the 1960s to do just that.

Burning of the Books

Endless archives

Archives are people, and not the great people, but those who otherwise would leave no trace: the workers, the immigrants, the servicemen, the public servants, and, not least, the Indigenous. Of our collecting institutions, the NAA (National Archives of Australia) is the most truly democratic — of the people, by the people, for the people.

Record keeping, furthermore, is fundamental to the protection of citizens and the prevention of harm.

In a recent article in The Australian, a pertinent excerpt is reproduced above, Gideon Haigh has almost said it all about Assistant Treasurer Stoker and her disdain for retention of the archives – hence it follows who cares about the history of the nation? Should it be reduced to dust or why not to a bonfire?

I am reminded of the Futurist movement, which had its genesis in Italy before the First World War, with its disdain for the past and its concentration on the future with an emphasis on technology, bellicosity and patriotism. It is unsurprising given its behaviour that it was closely identified with the rise of Mussolini which they supported. When I say I am reminded of, I don’t mean to say that Assistant Minister Stoker is a simulacrum of the Futurists. Some of them had original ideas in the arts, a talent that the Minister hides under a bitcoin, having dispensed with that idiomatic past, the bushel.

After all, the Nazis refined this destruction of the past with the burning of 25,000 books in Berlin on May 10th 1933 including a significant amount of the Jewish heritage in Germany. Australia is in a delicate position where there are forces which are leading this country down an authoritarian pathway, where there is no collective memory. For years, elements of the Australian Public Service are to deny that any past existed, that corporate memory was a disease not to be confused with selective amnesia – and definitely to ensure the freedom of information was a joke that never existed. The Public Service treads the path of a Futurist movement in inked soaked quills of the Executive Porcupine – or in this country – the Executive Echidna.

David Tune, a former senior bureaucrat, was commissioned in 2019 to review the state of the national archives. He submitted his findings in early 2020; over a year later his review was released, in March this year. The report recommended the government fund a seven-year program to urgently digitise at-risk materials, for a total cost of $67.7 million. “Urgently” is hardly the word to describe Minister Stoker’s response.

Stoker’s attitude unwittingly has placed, even compounded, the Government into an untenable position.  The Treasurer, given his own heritage, should be more understanding of the destructive force Stoker is unleashing.  Frydenberg should reach into his cash box and find the money for the National Archives. Maybe such money would avoid this metaphorical burning of the Archives.

Stoker by name; stoker by profession? Surely not.

Backroad on the way from Normanton

It all started when I asked Dennis whether he could lend me the 4WD for the weekend. I wanted to check out the medical services in Normanton. There was a South African doctor who recently had arrived in the town, and there had been murmurings about the quality of the services.

To get there you needed to go down the main street of Mount Isa to the Barkly Highway and on to Cloncurry and then turn left onto the Burke Development Road. In the mythology of my family, it was said that my father recently graduated in Commerce from the University of Melbourne, had the opportunity to join a fledging Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, but it would involve leaving his girlfriend in Melbourne. Love won out; and the Great Depression tested that love as my father tried to find a path through genteel poverty and not on the wing so to speak. This day we did not stop to savour the nostalgia of the job that never was.

By way of explanation, Cloncurry was where the airline flew the inaugural flying doctor service in 1928 – the first commercial flight was generally considered to have been from Longreach to Cloncurry six years earlier.

However, this day we had a five-hour drive to reach Normanton. Normanton is not on the Gulf and there is a further 70 kilometres to Karumba on the Gulf, in those days a centre for the northern prawn industry. The prawns were caught, processed and despatched to Asian destinations direct from the Gulf. Her brother had worked on the prawning trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria twenty years before. Her brother in addition to working the trawlers always loved fishing, and barramundi were the prized catch in the Gulf.


Karumba had its own link to the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services; in the late 1930s the town was a refuelling and maintenance stop for the flying boats of the Qantas Empire Airways.

Watching the sun go down sitting on the beach after 500 kilometres drive gazing out to sea evoked a feeling of thirst, and we were on the sand without beer. So we went back to the motel at Normanton, and watched the green tree frogs climb out of the umbrella holder in the middle of the table while we drank our XXXX. We were in the tropics!

The hospital was on the hill away from the township proper. We met the middle-aged doctor and his wife, immigrants from South Africa.  They were not in their comfort zone, and the wife was particularly fearful of the fact that there were “blacks” running wild in the town. They had grown up under Apartheid and I wondered why they had left South Africa. Perhaps it was to bring their children up in a predominantly “white” country. The majority of Normanton residents were Aboriginal.

Here they were, isolated from the town, with no intention to mix and looking for the earliest possible escape route. An irrational fear of dark people and an inability to identify – while courteous to us, the authoritarian attitude, albeit racist, can only be suppressed for so long. It was clearly evident in this case.

The trip enabled us to reach the Gulf in a far more pleasant way than Burke and Wills, who had slogged their way along the same route to get to the same destination but died on their way back.

There is another less comfortable route to Normanton from Mount Isa and that is via Lake Julius rather than via Cloncurry. Lake Julius is an important water supply and is a favourite picnic spot for those wanting to have some respite from the mining atmosphere of Mount Isa.

What was unexpected was coming across the small settlement of Kajabbi where, outside the Kajabbi pub, stands a cairn. This memorial in Queensland directly acknowledges the history of conflict, as one writer states, related to “the invasion of Australia by Europeans”.

Like many other plaques mounted on stone cairns, this one commemorates a centenary – 1984 was one hundred years since the slaughter of the Kalkadoon people at Battle Mountain, just southwest of this tiny speck off the beaten track. Charlie Perkins and George Thorpe, a Kalkadoon (Kalkatungka) elder, unveiled the plaque, which reads in part:

This obelisk is in memorial to the Kalkatunga tribe, who during September 1884 fought one of Australia’s historical battles of resistance against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland Native Mounted Police at a place known to-day as Battle Mountain 20 klms south west of Kajabbi.

The spirit of the Kalkatunga tribe never died at battle but remains intact and alive today within the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

Kalkatunga heritage is not the name behind the person, but the person behind the name.”

The Kalkadoon or Kalkatunga were considered elite warriors, but a group of  early whitefella settlers, in particularly one Arthur Kennedy, took it upon themselves to kill as many of this warrior tribe as they could. Battle Mountain was the major skirmish; in all, about 900 Kalkadoon were killed in this protracted war.

The cairn is modest and I remember reading its inscription, and since I had known Charlie Perkins, whose people were from Central Australia, it was significant that he had journeyed to this remote place to unveil this plaque with a local elder. He obviously held the Kalkadoon in high regard and the timing was to celebrate the founding of the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

It is sad to read that “native” mounted police were used to help quell the tribe. It was a common ploy to use Aboriginals from other areas to assist in helping the whitefellas. If you read accounts of skirmishes in Western Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal troopers were brought in from places like Tumut, hundreds of kilometres away. This usage of Aboriginal police for suppression of other Aboriginal people is a slice of Australian history which is not often ventilated.

After all it a small stone memorial in a remote hamlet on a dusty backroad, an uninviting series of dips and crests which heightened the remoteness of it all, and yet another reminder of a dark era in our history, a hundred years before when the cairn was unveiled.

Just like outside the township of Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, there is a memorial to another massacre – 50 Wirrayaraay people killed on the slopes overlooking the Myall Creek. I remember reading the last three words Ngiyani winangay genunga (we will remember them]. That atrocity more than one hundred years before. There have been more. Too many to mention here.

What prompted these memories, particularly of Kajabbi?

2021 was another centenary, that of the Tulsa massacre of black Americans in 1921. As if in response, the Washington Post printed a map of all the massacres of black Americans, which is reprinted. I wonder given I have been to other sites of aboriginal massacres, there is a similar map for this country, to remind us of some of the darker side of Australian history.

Maybe, Senator Stoker, it may be hidden in the archives.

Mouse Whisper

My cousin, Conte Topo has a piccolino aversion to us English speakers, who think that “simpatico” means sympathetic, a bit upper case pretentious, but unfortunately for those who like to dabble in using foreign words simpatico means “nice” not “sympathetic”. The Italian word for “sympathetic” is “comprensivo”.

In contrast, saying the obvious, the Italian word for empathetic is in fact empatico, if you wish to use such a flash word.

However, empathy and sympathy often are used interchangeably but empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings.  It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering without getting under the skin. In short supply among certain Australian politicians at this time when a little sick girl is the victim.

Conte Topo

Modest Expectations – Cheers Bar

Cheers Bar

The actual address of Cheers Bar was 112½A Beacon Street, Boston – in other words I have resorted to an approximation for this week’s blog.

One of my former partners, who was a very good mathematician, said that he always judged his peers by knowing whether they knew when to approximate. I have never been numerical, but I know you can vanish along the decimal value of π and end up in a different world where sanity evaporates in the pursuit of such accuracy in this relationship of circumference to diameter of a circle. Endless fun.

One of the matters that used to irritate me was when I was seeking certain data, I was told it was unavailable because 100 per cent of the data had not been collected. In other words, the data publication had been delayed by over-zealous statisticians when 95 per cent would have been adequate – if the distribution is normal then approximation of data around the mean of the distribution is mostly likely to be good enough for policy considerations.

But this wise mathematician also told me that when coming to conclusions make sure your assumptions are clear and transparent; something unfortunately becoming less and less evident in public policy. Then, your approximations could be assessed as to validity in the pursuit of making the particular decision.

The excellent Dr Paul Kelly, the Chief Health Officer, clearly outlined the government assumptions in his critique (let us not say criticism) of the government’s reasoning in invoking the provisions of the Biosecurity Act to keep Australians in India from returning. His was calm, measured, sensible advice, which the Government, now scrambling to save face, will follow. Within this prediction, it shall become clear how accurate is the approximation of 9,000 Australians in India who require repatriation.

And so it was, when the COVID-19 infected Dutton emerged in their midst, it was fortunate that Kelly was there to quell the Cabinet hysteria.

I do not know just how the Government have guessed, estimated, approximated and predicted the number of Australians who have visited our near neighbours. After all, the assumption is that each of the verbs in the previous sentences mean approximately the same thing, but with an ascending order of assuredness in their use in media releases.

With most of Asia plunged into pandemic considerations has Mr Coates, in that tattered remnant of his imperial cloak – the Olympic Games, issued an approximation of the number of athletes that will become infected during this festival. My assumption is that he will say “none”. Just an approximation after all!

The Divine Light of the Gods

One of the interesting aspects of the spread of COVID-19 in India is the reaction it has generated in those who, one way or another, are driven to comment. The threat to put Australian citizens in prison because they want to come home and escape the virus was hysterical. The fact that some of our best cricketers were caught up in this catastrophe only complicated the situation.

Now I am not one of those who believe that the Government’s immediate midnight reaction would have not been approved by a strong segment of the population. These have remained quiet while megaphones from both left and right have given Morrison a roasting, to coin a phrase. However, what has been most confronting here has been the sight of the funeral pyres night after night on television. As somebody said, it is a vision of hell.

In India, fire is a very important symbol. Yet India was associated with the flower generation where there was always some swami in some ashram somewhere in India where mostly privileged Europeans were drawn to seek “enlightenment”, and lotus flower symbolism was everywhere.

I first had the privilege of traveling the length and breadth of India when it was a secular state. Then the Nehru-Gandhi hegemony was strong.

With the ascension of the charismatic Modi, India has been converted into a Hindu state, despite the fact that India’s Muslim population is the World’s third largest, close behind two avowed Muslim nations, Indonesia and Pakistan. Hindu intolerance is confronting. I have entered a Kali temple, one of the few not prohibited to non-Hindu people. To me Kali was a black doll monster, at the centre of a dark incense-ridden foreign place where I was both fascinated and yet repelled.

Contrast that with the elephant head Ganesh, where the myth of his head being chopped off by an enraged Shiva and that of an elephant sown on to replace the human head is just one of tales which surround the religion. Yet we have a figure of Ganesh in our home. Ganesh is a symbol of good fortune; and it gives a clue as to how pervasive Indian culture becomes once you have been and seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic was never going to bypass India, because wherever you go in India there are crowds, pressing in upon one another. Modi loves the theatre of the large crowd and given that Varanasi is his electorate we are constantly confronted with the spectacle of the crowded river Ganges. When I was first exposed to this crush of humanity, it was as overwhelming as the smell of India, which never leaves you. There is an axiom which tests the strength of any union, association or whatever you call two foreigners abroad. “One watches the bags, while the other creates the space.” It always seemed to work no matter where we were in India – and crowds.

It is easy to ascribe a national identity to India, and there is no doubt the Hindu caste system has embedded in itself a sense of entitlement – at least with some. This is pronounced whenever you deal with Indians as at some stage a sense of entitlement will bob up.

Again, as an example, I remember giving a talk to a group of health professionals, predominantly doctors. There were both male and female doctors at this meeting in a town in the very South of India. My talk was given over dinner in which we ate our curry served on banana leaves. The whole atmosphere was so authentic – down to the separation of the male and female doctors onto separate tables, including my partner.

This often overbearing regard for the place of women was one of the problems I have encountered, not only in India but also with some Indian-trained doctors here. Yet Indian men have a great reverence for their parents, and one of the most obvious examples of this are reports of the number of older Indian women in wheelchairs at airports; sons are very concerned to ensure the mother does not have to walk from the plane, but they clearly show their wonderful ability to walk when greeted by family and leaping from the wheelchair to run to the family. This atavistic reverence is reflected in the number of stories of the Indian-born Australian now caught in India.

The other is the number of small children who seemingly have been lodged in India. It is very difficult to see an infant apparently helpless against the encroaching Virus and to not elicit the reaction for someone “to get them out of there”. What is the reason for this? Could it be that the couple working full-time in Australia want a safe haven for their child’s care, and grandparents are an obvious place to park the children, even if it means leaving them in India for extended periods. Up until now that practice has gone unnoticed or unsanctioned.

The Indian-born population in Australia amounts to 455,389 or 1.9 per cent of the Australian population. The affinity for the country of birth, especially when there are close relatives in India, remains strong. However, one of the prices of being a citizen is that you also accept that some of your personal risks clash with public policy considerations. However, if one knows the risk, then one must also accept the consequence if risk translates into liability for the wrong choice.

The fact is that the Australian government has not factored in the need for a more long term sustainable quarantine capacity will inevitably mean hardship will occur to those waiting to return from overseas. Just as it is trying to contain the Virus where up to 50 per cent of incoming travellers may be infected throws this policy stumble into letters writ large. Larger and more custom-made quarantine facilities, where it is an accepted fact that when coming from most places worldwide there will be an invariable 14-day hiatus during which everyone will quarantine and be tested multiple times, with designated exceptions such as New Zealand and the island dependencies of our two countries. The volume of people needing to come here will increase with an impatient tourist industry scratching at the Government’s door.

Politicians try to fill the vacuum of uncertainty with unsubstantiated optimism (remember the vacuous Trump assertions as America died), which in this case is trying to predict the future of a disease in which the vaccine remains unproven in its long term efficacy – and long term in this situation means “a year”.

Does that prediction alter when our young politicians realise that their contemporaries in both Brazil and India are dying from the mutant strains stealthily and rapidly causing them to die unpleasantly; and be under no illusions this chameleon virus can mutate at the drop of a tartan rug.

Australia has achieved an enviable record in quarantine, even though there are obvious blemishes. Parenthetically, rabbits were one example. Eradication has been so successful that rabbits are now a luxury item on the dinner table. Nowhere else in a major country except New Zealand has achieved suppression of the Covid-19 virus to the same extent we have. However, you can never relax, as shown by our pursuit of the rabbit plague.  (I consider Taiwan a special situation being more an armed camp than a nation.)

But after the Indian tide, the biggest test will be to see how the Government handles the anticipated 1,000 travellers returning from the Toyko Games, without assuming that any will become COVID-19 positive while out of Australia. Now where will be the holding pen? Even if the team members don’t all return at the same time, there will be a significant number to be managed at any one time in quarantine.

An expanded permanent human quarantine capacity that is not a “make do” in willing hotels clearly is essential. This sector will require staffing. That means more staffing and where does that staffing come from? I have worked in rural health encompassing inter alia assuring workforce for many years.  To achieve sustainability in the workforce in a country such as ours is very difficult, especially when the policy makers are blissfully ignorant of what works because there is no readily available corporate memory nor empirical evidence of what works – just opinion and opinionation.


Here we Go Again

I have worked in rural health policy for a considerable time and it sticks in the craw when a doctor reveals his ignorance by hailing the modest injection of a rural element into the Medicare benefit for eligible patients as if it is something new. Since there has been no rebuttal, this statement just confirms that the profession has no realisation of what has occurred in the past, what has worked and what has not.

Throwing money at medical workforce problems has never worked.

Repeatedly I have outlined the challenges that face the provision of rural health, and the problem is that the structural change I assisted in bringing in through the University Departments of Rural Heath, the Rural Clinical Schools and the Rural Intern Training Program in Victoria can easily disappear if there are no champions for its continuance. This requires advocacy, not lazy policy makers, who do not care a “tuppenny tart”, as long as they seem to be doing something, even if it is a discredited strategy.  This reminds me of that New York wit, Ida Downer, who wrote “Maybe some consultant provided advice at an appropriate price in order to maintain their expensive watch vice.

There are four challenges which should be addressed in the development of any rural health policy.

  • Social dislocation – by which I mean that the spouse does not want to go there or where you have to send the children away to school. The concept of a young graduate going to a rural location and staying there for his or her professional life is increasingly a myth. The sensible response to this challenge is to accept that five years is a reasonable stint in one place.
  • Isolation – this occurs in a variety of forms, but professional isolation is one danger, even with the myriad professional development programs including online options, coupled with the availability of registrars and other doctors employed in subsidised training schemes. The sole doctor risks burnout, and one of the aims of the programs I promoted was to reduce the possibility of professional isolation.
  • Community tolerance – in country towns, especially if you are the only one, you have no privacy. Therefore, there are two options – immerse yourself and your family in the life of the town or get away from the town at weekends which, in a single doctor town, leads to all sorts of antagonisms. In other words, the way the community views its medical workforce is critical for retention.
  • Succession planning – often the hardest, because there is a push me/pull me syndrome in many country doctors. When the media spotlight is focussed on the local doctor, then if the request is not for money it is a plea for more doctors. The doctor should be planning for succession, but how many do that? Often, when the doctor is offered a doctor to assist, then the resident doctor changes direction because the fear is of another doctor impairing the incumbent’s income, which is generally a nonsensical fear unless there is deeper pathology than just basic insecurity. The successful country practices involve succession planning so there is a gradual ageing of the workforce and a balanced practice with each doctor having the general skills to provide emergency treatment but having a special skill required in the practice, such as anaesthesia and obstetrics.

Money is always an important component and I was involved in a number of Inquiries in which the level of Medicare (and before that Medibank) patient benefits was the focus. One of the misunderstandings is that doctors’ fees are set by government; the Federal governments sets the level of the patient medical benefit and when I had direct involvement generally the benefit and actual fee charged by the doctor did not have a substantial gap. That does not hold any longer, except for general practitioners for whom different policies have been implemented, such as those that encourage bulk billing. The rural doctor, whether general practitioner or specialist, nevertheless have other sources of income to supplement the income derived from Medicare Benefits.

If I were conducting a review again of the rural workforce, flying from place to place as I did in the late 1990s, I would ask the same questions to find out what was happening in relation to those four challenges outlined above. You need to stay overnight as I did, and not fly in and fly out the same day. This overnight stay can reveal the tension and the stratagems of avoidance when the simple question of more money and more resources are not automatically accepted as incontrovertible fact.

As a person who engineered one solution to rural workforce and see it being trashed after you have “left the room”, it is very sad, but as someone once said about me, my epitaph should be “He tried!” 

A Woman Scorned

I never liked her father, Vice President under Bush Junior. Not that he was unintelligent. He was, but dangerously so.  I’m sure that I do not like her politics, but then Liz Cheney is a determined woman, who has a set of principles and Trump in his disregard of such principles should be challenged and defeated.

Liz Cheney

She is the sole representative from the State with the smallest population, Wyoming. It is the one State that has one representative in Congress and two in the Senate.

Wyoming is a rich State, and the inhabitants pay no State income taxes because this is fossil fuel territory – oil, gas, and coal. To see the kilometre long coal trains traversing the Wyoming prairie is a sight not easily forgotten. Cheyenne is the capital in the southern part of the State two hours from the Colorado border and one hour from Laramie, where the University of Wyoming is located. Both lie on this altoplano dry area, and travelling across the country just after the snow melts, it is easy to see how the vegetation struggles.

But six hours away in the northern part of the State is Jackson situated at the southern end of the Jackson Hole Valley. Here the scenery is some of the most spectacular, with the Tetons jaggedly thrusting their snow-capped peaks more than 4,000 metres in the cærulean sky. Jackson epitomises the tax haven for the ultra-rich, with an average annual income of the residents being US$16 million, a place with which her father was heavily identified.  One commentator has encapsulated the Jackson conundrum.

This form of “gilded green philanthropy,” widens even further the ugly socio-economic divide, hollowing out the community and making it harder for workers to live nearby. Unable to find affordable housing in town, they are pushed all the way into the neighbouring state of Idaho, on the other side of the treacherous and steep 8,431-foot-high Teton Pass. These workers told many a harrowing story about just making up — and then down — to work in the dead of Wyoming winter.

Close by to the Tetons is the Yellowstone Park with his surface covering the subterranean turbulence, which manifests itself in bubbling pools and geysers spreading across and into both Idaho and Montana. Some have said this is where the destruction of continental America will occur with a massive explosion.

In the meantime, there is Liz Cheney, at the prime of her working life being repudiated on voices by her Republican colleagues yet receiving a standing ovation at the end of her speech to the Caucus yesterday. The explosion which she is engineering under Trump will come, if death or gaol do not supervene. Trump who requires a cosmetic shield to conceal his vacuity, his seditious behaviour and mental deterioration must maintain his profile for another four years. During that time, his support among his own age group will winnow with inevitable death.

Liz Cheney’s march to leadership of the Republican Party is now unconstrained by any faux-loyalty. I shudder though if Wyoming becomes the model for USA. Ironically, Trump tried, but his criminal streak and his narcissism saw him come up short.

Liz Cheney may succeed. In the short term I applaud her unyielding opposition to Trump, but I also remember she is the daughter of Dick Cheney, who was de facto President for eight long years.

Mouse Whisper

There is an entrancing book published recently called “Entangled Life”. Before anyone thinks this is one of those morbid novels about self-discovery, may I interject and say it is a very entertaining exploration of the world of the fungi. One insight into the truffle makes one realise that its smell has to compete against “the olfactory racket of the forest”. As the author, Merlin Sheldrake, writes “every visual disadvantage that truffles face -being entombed in the soil, difficult to spot once unearthed and visually unappealing once spotted – they make up with their smell”.

Elsewhere in the book, Merlin (how appropriate for a mycologist) describes one of the truffle experts as having olfactory flashbacks how powerful is the memory aroma of the top truffles.  But even so he admits there is still so little known about the fungus, including Truffle Mice! Boy, can we smell!