Modest expectations – Parrot

I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well. I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”  

The antidote for such anxieties?

 Religion is the opium of the People.

 You get good Marx for that solution. 

The safety valve

I never thought when I was challenged to write a blog, which I’m sure among the cacophonies of ideas and opinions may be read by one or two, looking for a murine apparatus and getting the spelling wrong. However, the blog is a safety valve. It allows one to shower cyberspace with words – and since cyberspace is self cleaning then you do not pollute but leave, in one’s own mind, priceless gems hanging like lanterns lighting humanity as they get swallowed by the uroboros.

However as the twilight glimmers, one of the only facilities left to me now is writing. Assuming that this is my skill, I am writing as if there is no tomorrow so that there is a legacy for what it is worth. I always listened to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America every week when he was alive; there was always a reason for saying what he did. The book of his travel around America when he was a young man inspired me to see as much as I could, since that axiom that one is a long time dead rings so true – despite one’s affirmation of life everlasting in the Apostolic Creed. The problem is that these Creeds were hatched when 40 years was the life expectancy; thus before one realised the horror of old age and being cast into the Life Everlasting nursing home.

Rockchoppers revisited – A Weapon of Mass Destruction

I read Rockchoppers just after it was released in 1982. It was written by a Roman Catholic priest, Edmund Campion and in the wake of what I thought was the awakening of the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II and with it the growth of the worker-priest movement. It was a brilliant book.

Chartres Cathedral Rose Window

His description of Chartres cathedral – there is none better. To stand, kneel whatever your stance in Chartres Cathedral the cathedral is, the nearest I myself have ever felt of being in a divine presence. Edmund Campion put my inchoate thoughts in print elegantly, compellingly. He quotes those stirring words of Fulbert, one of the Bishops of Chartres.

We are as dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. We can see more and farther than they, not because we have keener eyesight or because we are taller than they, but because we are raised up and held aloft by their grandeur. 

Yet as I clear my library of books accumulated over more than half a century, I wonder how Campion feels today about his Church beset by a tidal wave of child molestation, unacknowledged children of priests and the indefensible maintenance of the seal of confession in cases of child rape, the non recognition of woman as priests, the hurt and harm to so many of the flock over which these men in frocks and silly hats have presided. Shepherds they ain’t, although they do carry a crosier – representing the shape of a crook.

Corpus Christi College in Victoria, a seminary, has been revealed as a cesspool breeding pederasts. On re-reading his book, Campion is very chatty about his early life, except for the time he spent in the Manly seminary studying for the priesthood. He dismisses it in a few lines – “for years I would have nightmares that I was back inside those walls”. That is all, and his book then pursues the doctrinal-political pathway of a man whose beliefs are in line with those of the worker priest at a time when Santamaria was in ascendency. Yet he must have known about the increasing social dysfunctionality of the Church – he is too astute and sensitive not to have known.

However, this week watching these Roman Catholic apologists wheeled out for the courteous Lisa Millar and Geraldine Doogue to interview, there are the masks of geniality that are difficult to challenge, especially if you have been conditioned since childhood with a sense of guilt. You can never be rude to the Church. The Church would never send in the current Archbishop of Melbourne for interview as the public relations front – just get a good ol’ empathetic face of a Father Brown understudy with a purple vest to pour on the paternal charm.

This is the Roman Catholic Church in delay, delay and delay mode; the creed of Catholicism, as it is with many religions, is secrecy and rearguard. The description of church architecture to over the centuries as described by Campion designed to increasingly separate the congregation for the priest to enhance the impenetrable secrecy should be standard reading as should be his antidote in Chartres.

Personally I am pessimistic and the Campion book holds the clue of why that is. Within all religion there is a reactionary group fearful of change which intelligent unscrupulous populists like Santamaria can exploit, as he did through the DLP before it was effectively destroyed in the 1974 Federal election.

However, it is not only the conservative Roman Catholics, but also in Newt Gingrich’s cleverly exploitation in harnessing the political clout of the evangelical Christian movement in 1990s. There are two forces – fear and the authoritarian personality, which oppose the forces that Campion wanted unleashed to liberalise the Catholic church. Therefore, to protect the base the traditionalists are prepared – if not to condone the despicable behaviour outlined above – then to look the other way or throw a blanket of sophistry over it.

Richmond – A Reflected Glow

I am not a Richmond supporter. However, I easily could have been if the kids on the corner of the street where I lived when I was five had not been Essendon supporters. Deeply impressionable, I became a passionate Essendon supporter, a support that was transferred to my sons and their children.

Michael Egan, Major of Richmond

However, my great grandfather, Michael Egan was Mayor of Richmond in the early 1870s and there is even a street named after him in Richmond. He distinguished himself by biffing another councillor who dared to disagree with him, but many of his other achievements as a councillor have been lost when at some time later the Council records were incinerated – some say suspiciously.

Michael Egan made a fortune with a wood yard, initially at the end of Rowena Parade and then transferred to Punt Road, where the Yarra River was convenient for transporting the wood. Anyway most of the wood ended up in the goldfield diggings, and when the great Crash of the 1890s came, I was always told that he survived because his money was in the Bank of NSW.

During the 1970s I frequented the Vaucluse Hotel in Richmond where we had monthly meetings, and this was time when the licensee, Graeme Richmond, was one of the geniuses behind that golden period when Richmond was last a powerhouse football team; and mine wasn’t. However, despite the horror of the period I did not change my colour from red sash to yellow.

Then Kevin Sheedy came along, a Richmond champion footballer as coach of Essendon in 1981. I thought Sheedy a dirty player and remembered him breaking Des Tuddenham’s leg, another ferocious footballer of that era, who had gone to Essendon as playing coach from Collingwood.

Now this Sheedy had come to Essendon as coach, and there was a perverse satisfaction in him losing five out of the first six games as coach such that he contemplated putting on the boots and coming back as a playing coach.

Then the Sheedy era blossomed. Essendon won 15 games in succession until it lost the very last game of the season to Geelong to Geelong and subsequently the 1981 elimination final. In three years though, Sheedy achieved his first premiership with my team – the first since 1965 – and during this time it turned out that Sheedy had been an Essendon supporter as a kid.

The tide was turning. Sheedy in my eyes now had been a fearless, uncompromising player, who brought the best out of his players instilling that intense fearlessness, of which the current Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick, as one of his protégés was a beneficiary.

One day Sheedy had also stopped to play cricket with my sons who were practising on one of those malthoid wickets in Yarra Park close to the Richmond Cricket Ground. How good was that for two teenage boys forever devoted to the Essendon red and black! Richmond and Essendon were thus forever closely intertwined.

However, even before Sheedy was appointed, I did make amends in relation to the yellow and black when in 1979 I moved to Balmain – Richmond on the Parramatta River as I called it – and became a very strong rugby league supporter of the then Balmain Tigers.

Balmain colours were orange and black. But what is there in a different shade of colour?

But then that is another story. 

Trudeau or Scheer. Scheer who?

It’s colder; they play ice hockey more; their bacon is really ham; and their obsession with maple syrup products borders on unhealthy. So penned a BBC reporter in an introduction to an article about the Canadian versus American political system.

The Canadians go to the polls on 21 October with 338 ridings up for grabs. Next week, the leaders of the various parties face the media in a Quebec venue – one in English –the other in French before audiences presumably who can understand “pollyspeak” in two languages.

There seem to be six parties in the electoral campaign, although two of the parties have two and one member each – the Greens, two on the Vancouver islands and a one-man party led by a LePen-like character who holds a Quebec seat. This leaves the left-of-centre New Democratic Party under its leader, Jagmeet Singh, struggling to repeat its 2015 successes. The Bloc Québécois Leader, Yves-François Blanchet, seems more secure and concentrates on the francophone areas, and it is the loyalty of his constituency that will probably determine whether Trudeau can wrest seats and be re-elected.

Trudeau thus will have to win seats in Quebec, an aim helped by the fact that the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, who represents a riding in Saskatchewan, does not speak French well.

Saskatchewan

However, the end result of the election should be interesting. We Australians pay scant attention to Canadian politics, only mentioning briefly Justin Trudeau’s travails, when he had been embarrassed by his appearance in blackface on several occasions when young, well before politics beckoned. These antics have been portrayed by the right-wing media as though they were a mortal sin. However, given the rise of social media and the tendency apparently to trade intimate and potentially embarrassing images, maybe this minor transgression by Trudeau will be magnified in future elections for aspiring politicians as the “sins of the past” are paraded as “weapons of mass destruction”.

What is important about our future relations with Canada is that both countries for their size and GDP have substantial pension/superannuation funds, with the potential for investment. An example of this is the joint arrangement announced in August between Australian Super, Australia’s largest industry superannuation fund, and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, Canada’s largest single-profession pension plan, to invest $1 billion each in the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) of India’s Master Fund.

Then this week, Webster Ltd, Australia’s monopoly grower of walnuts, signed a deal for an AUD854 million takeover, yet to be ratified, by PSP Investments, Canada’s huge public service pension fund. The same fund has funded the Hewitt Cattle Company to expand its holdings in the Northern Territory. PSP Investments also owns 25 per cent of the NorthConnex tunnel, 25 per cent of the Westlink M7 toll road, 33 per cent of the rail freight company, Pacific National and a large slice of BAI Communications – in political terms all highly strategic.

The problem with the two countries is that in addition to being far away from one another, they traditionally excel in different sports (unlike other countries in the British Commonwealth). So the two countries exist in parallel. Any communication between Morrison and Trudeau one can guess has been minimal; perhaps if Scheer becomes Prime Minister there will be more evidence of shared vision in a common adulation of Trump, given the way their political careers have slid forward.

Politicians are great followers and perhaps the investment profiles of the large superannuation/pension funds of each country may guide them to pool their common interests so there is a potential third force in this increasingly polarised world.

And one great advantage Canada has over Australia is the lack of the Murdoch shadow. It should be noted that James Murdoch has purchased a property in a remote part of British Columbia, but then does he count? After all, he has been caught providing funding for democratic aspirants for the U.S. Presidency.

Mouse whisper

Mentioning “Boof”. It may have been 2010 … with apologies to A.A. Milne.

Scott Scott Morrison Morrison whether a matter for glee,

Took great care of his bear, though he was forty-three.

Scott Scott said to the Rupert: “Rupert, ” he said, said he.

“Don’t ever go up to the top of the town if you don’t go up with me …

and look what happened – Scott2 Morrison2 has another bear called Lachlan.

Modest Expectations – Julia

Looking at this young woman Greta Thunberg, her face contorted with rage, one has to ask what is the next step?

Rosa Luxemburg’s comment may be relevant and somewhat re-assuring:

The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.

Yet what happened to Rosa Luxemburg, who is one of my admired people, as is Dietrich Bonhoffer? She was killed by the Freicorps in 1919, as was Bonhoeffer – hanged by the sons of the Friekorps at Flossenburg in 1945. They both spoke their mind. They challenged the equivalent to today’s violent alt-right. Both had a form of courage, I wonder whether I could ever emulate; probably not.

But back to Thunberg. What is her next step? She has confronted her Armageddon in a unique way. Yet her following may yet be ephemeral. How many of those who demonstrated last week believe that when the Sun rises tomorrow it will incinerate our Planet in a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Greta Thunberg, in her speech, was full of venom. She is confronting a world that is full of hatred stirred up by the newly-minted demagogues. She is no longer a schoolgirl; to these demagogues she is a revolutionary – a dangerous person. Sweden has a history of assassination. Remember Olof Palme. His killer has never been caught. I do hope Greta has good security.

The Man of Coal gets a Shiny Coating

The Prime Minister has come out of his visit to the United States with a new moniker – a Man of Titanium.

Titanium Man

Whether that sticks depends on whether the various spin doctors see any value in ridicule or defence emphasising the properties of titanium. Who knows? However, what else? Maybe some trivial contribution to Trump’s Mars Venture, a couple of speeches, opening a Pratt factory in Ohio in front of what looked liked a bikie convention. Wandering around the United States Morrison, despite all the flattery and pomp, presented a marginalised world figure.

Meanwhile, as well as the speech at the UN climate summit, Jacinda Ardern has given a headline speech at the UN Secretary General’s climate action summit private sector forum. She has been pushing her initiative, the Christchurch call to block extremism on the social media outlet; she has met with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube and Brad Smith, president of Microsoft.

Her aim was to cement the Christchurch Call, during a roundtable with the tech companies including Microsoft, Google/Youtube, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. Maybe the call will become an echo, but in our terms with the new crisis response protocol and the preparedness of Google to test it later this year, she’s giving it a red hot go – and what’s more, she is very relevant to what is occurring in the world.

She may not have been able to feast on Dover sole and apple charlotte with such luminaries as the Honorable Rudy Giuliani or the Honorable Katherine Henderson the other night, but Trump wanted to speak to her and it should be noted that Trump suddenly made time to drop by the Climate Summit – no show without Punch.

By contrast, our Prime Minister didn’t entrance everybody with his talk to the United Nations this week.

However, Morrison is not the tosser that some like to portray. I was thinking about what his next move with Ms Liu will be now that he has the Chinese well offside, and there seems to be some pushback by the Victorian Liberals.

Looking though the guest list for his dinner with Trump there was no Arthur Sinodinos – maybe a bit odd. But when the Niblick from North Shore who was at the dinner, comes home, he will be replaced by an envoy not tarnished by a Trump association; hopefully Sinodinos will be somebody who will be amenable to the Democrats. Just an errant thought chipped out of a cranial bunker.

Stop mucking about

One of the problems the health system faces is how to manage the aged person when their chronic condition develops into an impairment that requires varying levels of ongoing care, particularly institutional care. The health care system is faced with paying for custodial care – and preferably not in high-cost, state-managed acute hospital beds.

To the central Commonwealth agencies the imperative is to keep the aged brain and limbs working, for the forecast is that unless this is done there will not be enough people working to sustain the economy without extensive immigration.

This imperative to keep us working is an ironic outcome, given that the Commonwealth allowed the development of a superannuation scheme that required its own employees to retire on the eve of their 55th birthday. Under the terms of the scheme it was not worth working beyond that age. Moreover, there were financial penalties if you did.

That scheme has been retired, along with a lot of 55 year old public servants, but it illustrates a shift in thinking. It is not that long ago that the futurist chatter was about an increase in leisure time and the expectation of retiring to a recreational middle age. Given the imminent workforce problems, that is not an option for government planners. Therefore the workforce has to be healthy if it is to prolong its usefulness. After all, healthy life expectation starts from intra-uterine life.

The fact is that we have the technology to prolong existence. Whether that existence translates into the kind of life a person would care to be encased is a matter of personal value judgment. To many, though, the primacy of the individual is a societal norm.

So what about this question of an aged care health benefit under Medicare? The Commonwealth already has the power to legislate for a sickness benefit. Also, the Constitution picks out, in addition to the doctors and dentists, benefits for hospital care and pharmaceuticals.

In all the discussions of the Commonwealth’s powers, it was only the passage of the 1946 amendment that enabled the Commonwealth to intervene directly in health financing.

It then created successively the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (1950), the Pensioner Medical Service (1951), the Hospital Benefits Scheme (1952) and finally the Medical Benefits Scheme (1953).

It might be argued that the Pensioner Medical Service was an embryonic attempt at an Aged Health Benefits Scheme. But it was a very limited attempt, restricted to some services provided by general practitioners to eligible pensioners and their dependants.

The matter of Commonwealth powers is relation to health was one of the terms of reference in the first major review of the Constitution established in 1927.

In its report two years later the Royal Commission, which undertook the review, revealed a strong difference of opinion on where responsibility should lie. The majority view supported a “softly, softly” approach, which would have health as a Commonwealth power but well fettered by the states and even local government.

What emerged strongly in the report was a recognition of the strong sense of co-operation between the Commonwealth and the States. But here the discussion was about quarantine and the promotion of public health. The fact that co-operation had failed under the “stress of epidemics” of smallpox in 1913, influenza in 1919, and plague in 1921, was seen by the Royal Commission as the reason for even more co-operation between the various governments, not less!

In fact, the Commonwealth Department of Health was created as a result of the influenza epidemic and problems arising from the return of large numbers of troops from the First World War. From the national approach to episodes, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Swine Flu epidemic are evidence that co-operation in this area has continued to the present.

But health financing is another matter. It is interesting to note that when the Constitution was next comprehensively reviewed in 1959, health was not mentioned in the deliberations. The Constitutional amendments of 1946 had resulted in the changes welcomed when the world was experiencing the advent of the “wonder drug” era. The cost of the health system was not a political issue.

So what has happened since?

John Deeble

As the late John Deeble, one of the architects of first the Medibank scheme of universal care (1974) and then Medicare (1983), identified over 30 years ago, from 1972 onwards the average wage level of public hospital employees started to rise far faster than both average weekly earnings and medical practitioner incomes. The impetus for this was, in his words, “a compulsory arbitration system which takes almost no account of the ability to pay and was completely unaffected by financing arrangements”.

A number of strategies have been employed to try to contain the cost of the health system since this trend became very apparent in the early 1980s. But in the end, when the smoke clears from any round of Commonwealth-State conversations on health, the problems foreshadowed in tailoring a health care system to projected demographic changes will persist. Yet near the end of the Howard era, there was an explosion of Medicare benefits, expansion of the Medicare Safety Net and the reintroduction of the private health insurance rebate.

One wonders, then, whether it would be best if there were some consolidation of the power of the Commonwealth, such that it assumed complete control of aged health care and, by implication, total control of health. Alternatively, should the Commonwealth simply retire from health care? This debate has achieved currency periodically, although with the number of reviews, which have been entered into from Rudd to Morrison, the debate has become rather muted waiting for the deliberations of these committees. The time that the Robinson Review has been allowed to meander needs to be curtailed as I mentioned before; and who knows where the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, constituted at the beginning of the year and due to release an interim report at the end of October, will end up.

There remains a need to stimulate discussion on how best to address the issue of providing for an aged health care benefit.

At first blush, advocacy of such a benefit would appear to be for “health care” after age 65. Any person, whether in the guise of “patient”, “client” or just plain “consumer”, would have the discretion to use that government-funded benefit how he or she thinks fit.

Such a libertarian solution is immediately hedged with all the provisos that abound in that “dark and pessimistic world we inhabit” – a state of affairs we might expect if we listen to those who try to ensure that any freedom of action is hung on a line of conditional discretion for our own protection.

This is the dilemma: the tug-of-war between freedom to do what you want and the imposition of the fiat of “what is good for you”.

And so the level of knowledge about the various courses of action that are available becomes crucial when determining the outcome of this tug-of-war in relation to the individual complaint.

It is the power of asymmetric knowledge. The provider has knowledge, which the consumer generally does not.

Constitutionally, the Commonwealth may have the power to establish an aged care benefit which could, for instance, be just a redefinition of the power to set “sickness benefits” (which is mentioned in the 1946 amendment).

The fact that so few referenda are passed is testament to the conservatism of the electorate. But it also indicates that the same electorate takes change seriously.

There have been four referenda since the one in 1946. The consequences? Aboriginal people have been given the right to vote; price and income control has not been conceded to the Commonwealth Government; and the Republic has been denied. A number of constitutional anomalies were clarified in the 1977 referendum.

The financing of aged health care is another major issue.

The prospect of a referendum will draw out the vested interests, to be tested in the glow of debate. And that is the point! It is the vested interest who may feel that such a debate would not be fruitful because it is too hard to change the system. But in the end it would be academic. Referenda are expensive, and in the current economic climate seen as a luxury; nor would the cession of powers attract much interest.

But if one level of government does not at least have the unequivocal power for health care of the aged then the proposition of a consolidated benefit for aged care will never be tested. The optometric scheme was introduced in 1974, and the sleight of hand used to assure Constitutionality was to deem the optometrist service as “medical”. In any event, the Commonwealth was providing a fixed benefit for a limited range of services. The optometrist had to accept the benefit amount.

This is very different from the medical benefit, where the benefit is the Government’s contribution to the overall medical fee, which remains at the discretion of the doctor. The Commonwealth has progressively tried to cap the Medicare expenditures and at the same time maintain the gap payments at an accepted level; hence the expanded Medicare safety net and bulk billing provisions, which are increasingly working less well and there is a rising concern between benefit and actual fee proceduralists, in particular, charge. Given his craving for publicity maybe it could be called the Teo effect after the cavalier neurosurgeon of the same name.

The language of the majority opinion in the 1929 Royal Commission report still resonates as a challenge to this nation to consolidate the health power in that sense of co-operation, which has been apparent in public health matters since Federation.

So let us play with the theme – directing the whole of our approach to health care, from conception onwards, towards conferring an aged care health benefit – but under a single power conferred by the Constitution. However, if the definition of “sickness benefit” is expanded then it may enable the benefit scheme to be extended to those health professionals that the current language of the Constitution excludes. There is for instance no provision for “a nursing fee for Medicare benefit”, unless you pursue the optometrist option – and I doubt whether either doctor or nurses would be happy that nursing services being deemed “medical” to attract a patient benefit

If that can be done without a referendum, there will be much saving of time and expense. But there is no doubt that referenda and the prospects thereof do focus the collective community mind.

Mouse Whisper

I love the story about an Australian bushranger called Charles Rutherford who was illiterate and lurked around the Lower Darling in the early nineteenth century. When he robbed a coach, he asked the passengers to read out the value of each cheque that he intended taking. Talk about honour among thieves. But there was more. He used to take his captives to a near-by hotel for drinks and lunch at which Rutherford, presided gun in hand.

Modest expectations – Duckworth

We may be in our lounge room in Sydney or in a hotel room overlooking the Iguaçu Falls in Brazil, but there is a timeless quality surrounding mass murder in the United States. The latest atrocity was in El Paso. There is Fox television glued to nothingness – just the front of a supermarket. It is like an Andy Warhol movie. However the commentary tries to make up for the lack of action by repeating the same nothingness in that urgent tone of expectancy. Later there are clips of law enforcement officers rugged up like escapees from a video program. You know the video violence which is attracting million of dollars of sponsorship so that the male youth of the world can be warriors without the pain but with the smell of vicarious power.

It does not matter how many are killed in El Paso. The more killed or maimed the better the news story. After all the Gilroy incident in California only resulted in three deaths, hardly worth recording. Now there are a score or more dead in this Texas border town. The social media graphics start to trickle in – the snaps of bodies, the picture of the supposed offending AK rifle – it is only a matter of time before the loony manifesto of the perpetrator will turn upon social media. This delusionary detritus of humanity who wants to be recognised – the profile of a young white male consumed by his own self-loathing egged on by a society where hate is increasingly the norm.

Then hours later, we have the tawdry spectacle led by the Texan governor praising the law enforcement officers’ quick response. Six minutes. In the meantime two score or more are shot dead or wounded. Then from these officials comes the outpouring of pious platitudes about prayers and “hug your family”. After the Governor, the Mayor and so on in a paean of self-congratulations where tragedy is a backdrop to self-aggrandisement, telling us nothing except the “shooter was disarmed and is now in custody”. Not a word about gun control from anyone – not a word. Just everyone wants to be re-elected.

And a macabre copycat dessert occurs not long after – Dayton Ohio.

And somewhere in the distance one hears a presidential bleat about change in the rules – and then predictably welshes on what he has promised to do.

The Real Amazon

One of the problems with any short-term visit, you only scrape the surface. It is a four-hour flight to get from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to Manaus. That is for starters and the South American airlines are very basic, jammed into the small Airbus. Manaus is the starting point for a five-day trip up the Amazon. Really the Iberostar does not travel far – 100 kilometres at the most, up a river, which is nearly 7,000 kilometres in length, arising in the Peruvian Andes and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, where its water is still fresh.

Pink River Dolphin in the Amazon

Living in a big country as we do, immensity of land mass for Australians is nothing new although a river which is twenty-three kilometres across in some places makes one realise that Brazil is a serious bulwark against global warming – for now. This huge river is the jungle artery – endless jungle traced with tributaries of the Rio Enorme. There is a very occasional settlement; so different from the port of Manaus which is a mixture of modernity and of a long past. With two million people it is a significant Amazonian presence. Yet this lively port still has the overtones of a pre-container ship existence.

Unlike Australia where 25 million people occupy the country, Brazil has 220 million people. The cultural heritage is a roll call of European countries, but there also is a large population of black people, the descendants of a massive importation of West Africans, as slaves, in Brazil’s early years. After all, the Portuguese were the first major European colonisers after the Romans. Today there seems to be sensitivity to these past wrongs as the word for black shuffles between “preto” and “negro”.

Then there are native Amazonian Indians, which the current government seems intent on strangling – little settlements where currently every body looks healthy, but who knows with this current President, a man with the mien of warthog.

The Portuguese language may seem to us the most insignificant of the Romantic languages, on a par with Romanian. After all it is only spoken in Portugal and in a few former Portuguese colonies, including Timor- Leste close to home. However, one of the former colonies is Brazil, potentially a major power in killing this planet if the current government deforests the Amazon Basin, a gargantuan task given that Australia could be swallowed up in it. However, do not underestimate the madness of the human race.

If you are going to travel there, while it still exists, it is useful to have a working knowledge of Portuguese. It is not an easy language as the pronunciation is confounding.

The Brazilians appreciate you attempting to speak the language, and knowing even a few words opens up many of the cultural links. However, when you are a tourist, who is not a backpacker as my son was years ago in Brazil and was robbed, we live in the comfort zone of care. Luckily thus we have been looked after well.

However, the downside is alleviated if you learn some Portuguese before you embark on such a trip on the Amazon.

And the currency “real(s) is pronounced “hay-il”or in the plural “hay-eesh”. Get it?

Uruguay – the place where the Italians colonised

Now everybody knows that Uruguay is the place where man for man, they have the most successful futebol team in the world. I say man for man as the game for women is just stirring.

Uruguay is not large. It has been described as a thumbprint between Brazil and Argentina. Consider, it has a population of just over 3 million and just over a million of them live in Montevideo and just over 300,000 live in condominiums in two of its suburbs overlooking the River Plate. For an Australian comparison, Tasmania is about 40 per cent the size of Uruguay

Not that the River Plate is a river, it is an estuary which defines the limits of the country to the south, and as you drive along coast, the meeting of the Plate and the Atlantic Ocean is not as clear today as it apparently can be – the sea is all too civilised where the waves are mere frills on the rocky coast line here.

Beaches of Uruguay

This is a country where it is increasingly the beach resort for wealthy South Americans, and where such wealth is denoted by high fences around large estates. It is interesting to note that the Uruguayans have strengthened by consolidating their money laundering laws as of last year.

The Uruguayan law establishes “that certain high-level public officials, such as the president and vice president of the Republic, national senators and representatives, ministers and under-secretaries of State, general secretariat directors at ministries, directors of autonomous entities, decentralized services, non-State public entities and holders of any political or trust position cannot be shareholders, ultimate beneficiaries or have any relationship with commercial companies domiciled in no- or low-tax jurisdictions while holding public office.” The devil is in the detail of this last proviso, and one of the ingredients of this small state is that the ruling elite is not corrupt.

Elections are underway and billboards for candidates dot the landscape. The biggest billboard high on one of the condominiums simply has Luis in huge letters, apparently the presidential candidate for the white party, the support base of which is rural and moderately conservative. This party together with the red party which is central and the ruling left wing Popular Front are striving for the run off, assuming the unlikely results of one candidate getting over 50 per cent in the first round. All very civilised.

For the size of country, Uruguay has a long coastline and a substantial border with Brazil. Argentina is just across the River Plate, two and half-hours will take one there by ferry. They have to tread carefully and although their international trade is denominated in US dollars, there is always currency instability in the area. Last week the Argentinian peso fell dramatically in response to the presidential elections and the return of Peronistas. There will be an inevitable effect on Uruguay.

Uruguay is a land of beaches and a summer that is not dissimilar to ours. Resorts line the River Plate; the expectation is to overlook the River Plate in the east and the mouth of the River Plate and the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

But this is also an agricultural country. Being next to Argentina the expectation is for beef cattle, and although, it is an important part of the economy, Uruguay is more diversified.

Driving through the countryside either east or west from Montevideo could be the western district of Victoria – just scattered population amid rolling countryside without a mountain in sight.

Uruguay farmland

Here our car passes through the potato growing area. There are dairy cows on either side of the double carriageway. All sorts of cheese are freely available to buy by the side of the road, as are apples and mandarins. On the side of one the undulating landscape is a large spread of canola. Soya beans and rice are big exports. However, the biggest export is probably wood chips, and plantations of eucalypts are also a prominent feature of the countryside.

Cannabis Medicinal

Cannabis is now a legal product in Uruguay – for registered Uruguayans. Shops openly market the weed and the associated paraphernalia. However, hemp as such is not grown here, and these cannabis outlets rely on Asian imports of hemp. The colourful backpack prominently states that it was made in Nepal, and given the loosening of restrictions in this part of South America, those with the inclination or need for this substance may start wandering across the Pacific.

The only useful quirk is that if you pay your bill by credit card you get a 15 per cent plus discount. Covers the tip anyway!

Colonia

Uruguay will never see many Australian tourists because it is so similar to Australia apart from Spanish/Portuguese heritage, particularly evident in the city of Colonia. But it is a long way to go for quaintness – unless you are thinking of having a quiet life away from scrutiny in this country.

And if you want to get away from Alan Jones… 

A Case to Answer

Mentioning this individual, even in Buenos Aires you cannot get away from the poisonous splinters that break off from this individual when anybody displeases him. Making a comment inciting the Australian Prime Minister to murder the New Zealand Prime Minister by shoving a sock down her throat is so disgusting it is amazing that it has not caused this individual to be charged. One of the characteristics of women who have socks thrust down their throat is that they die terrible deaths where the sock down the throat is accompanied by mutilation and unspeakable depravity.

By saying that it was a re-interpretation of a saying “put a sock in it” as an excuse fails on two grounds. The first is that it is an admonition for someone to use a sock to put in “it” however defined. The term is not applied to inciting attack by a third party. Here Jones defined “it” as the New Zealand Prime Minister’s throat, and he was not saying that she put the sock down her own throat. He was inciting the Australian Prime Minister to do so.

To say that the Prime minister was disappointed shows how much this popinjay inspires fear. Instead, if I had been in Morrison’s socks, I would have sought legal advice on the offence of inciting a crime. Such an action as I understand it has also been legislated in the Crimes Prevention Act 1916 (NSW) (‘the Act’) and s11.4 of the Criminal Code 1995. The Act is extremely brief, and therefore it should not be difficult to get an opinion. There are also specific offences within the Crimes Act 1900 that include ‘inciting’ as an element of the offence – murder (s26), suicide (s31C) and sexual assaults (s80G). Nobody – just nobody – even this person, has the right I would have thought to ask me to kill the New Zealand Prime Minister.

The reason is that I would have not been just “disappointed” – I would have seen if criminal charges were warranted, and that course of action remains open to the Australian Prime Minister.

Withdrawal of sponsorship for his program is tacit disgust by his money trail. Although don’t forget that they signed up to advertise on his program in the first place …

Yet this sponsor displeasure and the outraged responses in social media starkly contrast with the attitude and behaviour of Jones’ employer. A slap on his sock is his retribution.

And sending a sock to Costello? If that is true, what form of pointless “smart-arsery” is that? This man Jones should have his day in court if the legal advice confirms he has a case to answer.

Mouse Whisper

Heard from a pulpit in Petersham:

In Portuguese, the word for share is dividir. Thinking about that word, sharing is indeed dividing, but not with a sense of equity. The problem is that “divide” has come to be a synonym for the meanness of the human spirit.

Modest Expectations – The Dark Blue

When you read this I shall be far away, floating down the Amazon where the piranhas are actually fish. One of the diseases of the Americas that gets very little airplay is Chagas disease, named for the Brazilian doctor, Carlos Justiniano Ribeiro Chagas. With the globalisation of disease, which is impervious to political shenanigans, cases are turning up in Australia. However, while it has the acute manifestation of any infectious diseases, it is the long-term insidious effects on the cardiovascular system.

Trypanosoma cruzi

It is said that Charles Darwin picked up Chagas disease as a young man when he was “Beagling” his way around South America. It would explain why an outgoing young adventurer increasingly became a reclusive invalid as he grew older, never again venturing from Great Britain.

Chagas disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a protozoa which is carried by a particular bug, commonly called the ‘kissing bug’, so called because of how it cuddles up to you, sucking your blood and letting the protozoa bug into the blood stream. There are drugs to treat the trypanosoma but the course is long and hazardous as one may be strewn with complications.

However, given its insidious nature and that the fact that when backpacking it is romantic to sleep under thatch or in adobe, remember to have that mosquito net, however inconvenient it may be, and a good amount of insect repellent.

The Lancet has said in a sobering statement: “Chagas disease has been considered a neglected disease, without fully effective drug treatment to avoid the chronic stage.

Australian figures on its prevalence are scanty, but undoubtedly it is there as I noted above. After all, disease is a free market.

I shall keep reminding myself of that as the Amazon drifts by. 

Setting down Bores

Charlie McMahon continues his reminisces …

We took the smoothest route via Papunya but that was still a rough corrugated dirt road for 600 of the 750 km drive. There was one lane of good tarred bitumen up the middle of the road so that you drove half on the dirt shoulder when either overtaking or accommodating oncoming traffic.

Near the Mount Zeil plain we came up to overtake a fully loaded “3 dog” road train doing about 90 kmph to our 100. I reckoned it looked safe enough to overtake with the road ahead dead straight. The truckie was not likely to go half on the shoulder to ease our passage and I indicated my intention to pass with high beam flashes and came up beside the road train driving entirely on the shoulder, which slowed us a bit. I was going OK till about a quarter away from passing the road train, a huge hump appeared on the edge of the shoulder, a blasted drainage gully that the dust swirled up by the road train had obscured. I slowed but still hit it at speed. Up and over we went with the load and fellas on the back bounced around. Danger barked, shouts of dismay and Henry with me in the front woke from his snooze looked back and “oh-ho jingiles, lucky one, Murra Hook. They all there still” was all he said. We barrelled on and made to pass the road train again. The truckie congratulated us with the road train horn blaring. “More better I drive ilta” (true questioningly) Henry said. So he took over at the Papunya turn off. Had Henry been driving he would have seen the bump long before I did and we drove on into the night without incident to camp at the halfway point west of Mt Liebig.

On the way the next day we found Freddy West and his family of six camped 100 km before Kiwirrkurra at the Moying Bore near Tjiterong. They were there as an expression of his eagerness to move to Kiwirrkurra, his traditional land. He waved us over, offering a billy of warm sweet tea and put his son Nicholas on board telling him ‘work karriantjku’ (go work with them). Nicholas had been in a lot of trouble sniffing petrol, breaking into places at Kintore – his ability with locks astonished everyone for a child with zero formal education.

On arrival our Kiwirrkurra camp appeared pretty much as we had left it, though the Vinnie’s bag of clothes had been dragged about. “Lotta myall dog been here”, Charlie reckoned and there was much discussion about tracks the crew saw as they gave the place the once over and the first timers showed elation at being on ancestral ground, old hands pointing to and naming places near and distant.

Danger, the dog, got a good sniff of some scent and bolted off not to be seen again till dark. I took a quick shower and said to Henry “you’re next” as well as suggesting to Charlie that since he had been sitting next to Henry for two days he would do well to have one too. I dried off beside the fire as the crew had started. I got out the scabies oil for Henry. As Aboriginals do, he showers with his clothes on. Whether he was shy or just efficient I didn’t bother to ask but handed him fresh clothes from the Vinnie’s bag.

August was perfect work weather. After about two weeks we were well into the job with the four 1x2sq metre-footing holes for the windmill tower legs dug with crowbar and shovel. The John Deer tractor had a bucket and ripper, good for pipeline trenching, and a trailer for carting water and aggregate but without a backhoe for deep holes. The fairly soft soil of Kiwirrkurra made digging easier, which was one of the reasons for choosing the place, so the proper job pit dunny was finished in three days. It was a design called the Blair Ventilated Pit Toilet, shown to me by Steve Pattman at the Centre for Appropriate Technology.

To briefly describe it, a 2 x 2 meter mesh reinforced concrete slab is poured with an off centre “crap hole”, another near the edge for a vent pipe and left to set while the hole is dug 1.8 metres or more deep. The slab is dragged over the hole and the shelter fastened to it with the vent pipe painted dark running up the exterior of the sunny sidewall. An insect mesh cap goes on top of the vent pipe. The dunny building has a hall type entrance to darken the inside so that when you look down into the “crap hole” there’s a circle of light on the bottom of the pit from the vent pipe. Any flies that enter invariably seek the light to leave and drawn by the draft up the sun warmed vent pipe, get stopped at the mesh. Walla! An odourless fly trap and having a proper dunny was a treat for in two years work at Kintore I had to do with a shallow trench – there was always too much to do and the quartz rock subsoil would have been a very hard dunny pit to dig.

We did not listen to the radio so the outside world mattered little. We worked every day and no one bothered with the time or names of days. Sometimes in the evening we turned on the Codan SSB radio tuned into a frequency used by locals, so that the crew would have great fun telling other clans away of the new place they were building. I heard amazing tales of doings in life out there in the days they laughingly called ‘before trouser time’. They would mix up dreaming stories with actual ones and I gave up asking ‘ilta’ (true) ‘did it really happen’ after realising they were often unsure themselves of what was myth and what wasn’t. The young fellas liked to hear Henry’s take on things and looking at the moon one night he asked me to confirm the moon trips “Tjpangarti (my skin name) true int it, some white fella been longa moon, been leave house and car there too”. We cooked and ate together. A coil of black one-inch pipe on the roof of the half walled shed we had built gave us the luxury of warm showers. It pleased me to see the crew (except for Charlie) use them fully dressed so body and clothes got washed in one go. Bathing was not an option for desert people and living around a fire tends to cure or cover their bodies with smoke.

The missing Horse

One reads brochures about Slovenia and they all say you can get horse and foal meat in some of the restaurants. Intriguing, I thought.

Slovenia is a tiny country nestling between Croatia, Italy and Austria, with the Alps forming a crescentic barrier in the north. In the south, Slovenia has a narrow coastline on the Adriatic Sea, with Trieste nearby.

We travelled to Slovenia by car from Venice headed for Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We were told to get a vinjete before the border. This is the only way to pay the road toll in Slovenia (15 euros for a week). We were warned that the Slovenian police wait just across the border, and the fine for not having the vinjete is substantial, 300 euros.

Otherwise the passage across the border is seamless. One moment the signs are in Italian, the next in Slovene – transition from the Romantic to the Slavic.

However we are travelling in a more north-easterly direction towards the capital of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a trap for the new arrival because of its central hill; the tunnel through it, the shortcut to the north but not to the city centre, can fool even the GPS. Ljubljana is one tricky place to navigate, to coin a phrase.

The Antiq Palace Hotel turns out to be a rambling allegedly 16th century building. We are piloted to the room up stairs, via a lift, along a series of corridors bending and twisting until we are on a landing overlooking an internal courtyard. Here we are greeted with music, its source unseen. There is singing, then a horn; a violin struggling to escape; a cacophony of variable quality. Apparently there is a music school in the building on the other side of the courtyard.

The room turns out to be a suite. There is a huge dining room, a lounge area, a bedroom and a bathroom dominated by a huge spa bath. Over the bed in this white painted room was a painting which seemed to indicate that if you had difficulty with nightmares this would ensure you would get one – a weird sylvan scene.

The centre of Ljubljana has been preserved in its pre-World War One architectural attire. Its Austro-Hungarian past is evident in the two-storey houses with gabled roofs, stuccoed walls and large windows lining Ljubljanica River. One early evening when the sky was still blue and the streetlights were lit, you could be forgiven for thinking that this city was the inspiration for Magritte’s series of Dominion of Light paintings.

The problem with the food started on the first night after a meal of kranski and sauerkraut. Whether it was that or a roll I had earlier bought from a motorway food barn, I had a generous bout of food poisoning. I could not blame the horse. My first day in Slovenia thus was spent recovering, but she roamed the streets far and wide, photographing the Triple bridge and beyond.

The narrow Ključavničarska (The Locksmith) Street in the medieval part of the town, connecting Cankarjevo nabrežje (Cankar Quay) with the Mestni Trg (Town Square), contained a surprise. The central gutter was full of bronze heads about the size of billiard balls, most looking at you, as the water trickles over them. Oddball does not do them justice. These are the work of Jacov Brdar, whose work is scattered around the city. It has a Tolkien feel – with the heads looking like members of the Gollum family. They are featured above in the heading of this Blog.

In many ways, walking from bridge to bridge is a reminder of walking along the Seine in Paris, but without the cars streaking alongside.

Ljubljana and the Ljubljanica River – Photo: Janine Sargeant

The river lies just down the hill from the Antiq Hotel and acts as a magnet – so much so that until the last day we did not use the green coloured electric cars, which circle the inner city and are reserved for the disabled and the elderly and their carers. They are called “cavalier”, the name being adapted from the Slovenian for “gentleman”.

On our last night in Ljubljana we used the transport to a traditional restaurant on the outskirts of the old city – the Taverna Tatyana. It was away from the tourists and the bar was full of locals quaffing their beer. It was all brown beams and low ceilings and homely hosts, who spoke passable English. It allegedly had horse and foal on the menu. Not so. Instead they provided a Dalmatian stew and grilled pork with wild mushrooms and after the main course, the magnificent strudel. Slovenian wine is a cheap and good accompaniment as is the complimentary glass of the local honey brandy called medica.

The electric car was there promptly to take us back to the hotel – I wished I had used it more given that my ability to walk was limited –no longer able to roam far and wide. However, the bridge near the hotel was always a site of “a happening” – tonight there was a pumpkin-shaped carriage, which fitted in well with this fairy tale backdrop.

On another night the bridge provided the dance floor for a group of young people elegantly executing the tango. We watched the precisely executed movements while sitting on a granite bench, consuming a cornet of freshly roasted chestnuts.

Yet for all these fairy tale qualities, Ljubljana is a university city. Those walking past are predominantly young and fashionable. The restaurant in the riverfront, overflowing with young people, labelled itself Mexican but the food was “pancake parlour” and the service was poor; yet nobody seemed to care as they oscillated between conversation and iPhone – or just sat, concentrating on their screens, tapping away ensuring future thumb disorders as they decoded life.

The lack of transport and reliance on foot and bicycles accentuates that this is a place for youth. The elderly lady dressed all in white struggling with her bicycle was an exception. She stood out in this world where it was the young who cycled.

We did travel elsewhere – but a full description of our “Cook’s Tour” could well become a Clog. But not a sign of horse on the menu.

When I asked my adviser on Slovenian food about the “missing horse”, he looked at me and asked me whether we had gone to the Tivoli Gardens as he had suggested. Apparently horse burgers are available in the Tivoli Gardens – at least I can confront my vegetarian friends with somewhat of a clear conscience.

But as for the survival of Slovenia, a tiny remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which survived Tito and the break up of Yugoslavia with which it, I am reminded of what that wise observer of human nature, whose writing appears above, Charlie McMahon has said about small countries and survival of language: “Learning a language from a culture where the core practices are gone is really only good for that.” The Slovenes have never let their culture be destroyed, and hence they have a vibrant language with all the blossoms that that will bring.

Still, there is this matter of konjsko meso. 

Mouse Whisper

To further annoy the occasional reader of a vegan persuasion, overheard in a restaurant in Swakopmund in Namibia, after perusing the menu she was heard to say, “I think I’ll try the zebra.”

Not a laughing matter …         Photo: Janine Sargeant

To which the waiter impeccably replied ‘Black or white stripes, madam?”

No, it was not an exchange of hoarse whispers, but in fact it was true, (with apologies to Mr Brydon).