Modest Expectations – Powder River

Ukhaa Khudag mine, one of at least 15 coal mines in Mongolia

Friedland chairs Toronto stock exchange-listed miner Ivanhoe Mines which owns 79% of South Gobi Energy Resources which currently achieves the most export sales out of the Mongolian coal producers.

The tax on mining profits in Mongolia was 25% compared to Australia’s proposed 30% mining tax, Friedland said.

Mongolia had a clear advantage in that it neighboured (sic) its Chinese customers. 

“They’re closer to China than your lucky island.” Friedland told the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum last week.

Australia-listed Hunnu Coal is busy advancing several promising Mongolian thermal and coking coal projects with minimal start-up costs.

Wood can see some shocks ahead for Australia’s leading export industry.

“I think Australia is going to find it hard to compete with coal 600 kilometres from Beijing with labour at tenth of the price. Mongolia has a highly supportive government and has abolished the stupid taxes Australia is now contemplating. Australia has got some problems.” 

He noted some other advantages of mining coal in Mongolia. “Australian mines are getting deeper and older. The easy, cheaper coal is gone. These deposits in Mongolia are open cut from surface – they haven’t even been developed yet, the best years are still coming.”

The Mongolian government is working hard to expand the coal industry and announced major railway investment plans last month.

Wood said one of the plans was a link from the giant Tavan Tolgoi coking coal field in the South Gobi province, where Hunnu Coal has projects, all the way up to northern Mongolia where it can link up to Russia’s Tran Siberian railway line. 

From there, the coal is railed out for export through Vladivostok port on the east coast of Russia. 

“That’s a very short boat ride to Korea and Japan,” Wood said.

He said the Koreans, Japanese and Russians were keen to invest in Mongolian rail.

Wood said the Japanese and Koreans were extremely keen to get access to Mongolian coal “so it’s not just about China; Mongolian coal will be seaborne and that is a real threat to Australia.” 

“That’s why Friedland is saying these things. 

“These things aren’t going to happen next month, they are not going to happen next year but people are making investment decisions in Queensland based upon five to ten years.

“In five to ten years they will be competing against Mongolian coal well and truly.” 

In the light of the recent announcements about Mongolia supplying coal to China, perhaps it would be useful to refresh the Australian Government’s recall of this article that appeared in Mining of 9 August 2010 when the coking and thermal coal deposits were being opened up in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

While there is Australian investment in mining in that country, this assessment was given by the Canadian/American billionaire, Robert Friedland. He had then invested heavily in Mongolian coal, as now he is investing in gold and nickel in Australia. His parents were Holocaust survivors and Friedland from a young man has moved with shakers. For instance, as a student he managed an apple orchard in Oregon, where Steve Jobs, a friend would come to work at weekends – that “small enterprise’s” name came from that Jobs’ experience. Friedland himself is undoubtedly smart and well-connected.

Matthew Wood is Australian and was trained as a geologist with qualifications in mineral economics. At the time of this 2010 article he owned Hunnu Coal, but sold it two years later to Hong Kong interests. He has kept up his mining interests in Mongolia so much so that he was recently awarded the Order of the Polar Star, the highest award which the Mongolian government gives to non-Mongolians.

Hey, Prime Minister, when you held up that lump of coal in Parliament, were you sure it was Australian?

Peterborough, Coorey and the Goyder Line

Phillip Coorey has a very spare entry about his early life in his published biography. However, on radio recently he revealed that he was bought up in Peterborough in South Australia. He rattled off a few not very convincing reminiscences to the effect that, as a lad, he may have been committed to a life on the header there.

What he did mention was Goyder’s Line. Surprisingly, the radio interviewer seemed not to have heard of Goyder’s Line. This is a line drawn across a map of South Australia by George Goyder, the then state surveyor, who meticulously drew this imaginary line from just north of Ceduna to just north of Pinnaroo on the border with Victoria in the early 1860s.

Above the line, the land was unsuitable for long term cropping; below the line it was suitable for cropping. His findings were greeted with the normal sceptical response, even when recognition of the line was drafted into legislation. A few good rainfall years turned scepticism into scorn and the Act was soon repealed. Then the normal series of drought years followed, validating Goyder’s observations, and the Act reinstated.

If you drive north of Goyder’s line, there are the results of the scorn on view, ruined sandstone houses of those who knew better.  The land along the Flinders Range is littered with evidence of how correct Goyder was.

Ruins of a farmhouse, near the Flinders Ranges

An interesting observation when driving south is that fords across the many water courses are replaced by bridges, starting just north of Goyder’s Line; a significant reminder of the more reliable rainfall south of the Goyder?

Peterborough almost straddles the line – so cropping occurs for now. In any event Peterborough has another claim to fame besides Mr Coorey. It is where there is one of the two horse abattoirs in Australia. A horse abattoir differs from a knackery in that it produces horse meat suitable for export, mostly to Europe.

Goyder’s Line is the drought line. No other State has such a meticulously worked out differentiation of this arid land into its cropping and grazing potential.

As was reported:  “George got on his horse and rode 3200 km east to west across the colony. Finally, in 1865, Goyder submitted his report and map to the state government.

Goyder used old rainfall guides and changes in vegetation to produce his report. He noted that mallee scrub, which needs a higher rainfall, dominated in the south while saltbush which can exist on far less moisture was the main vegetation in the north. With his report showing that north of the line was drier and the south wetter, he discouraged farmers from planting crops north of his line, as he considered this land only suitable for grazing.”

Goyder’s Line thus remains. Thirty kilometres north of Peterborough is a ghost town called Dawson. It was set up in defiance of Goyder’s finding. It remains as a testimony to those who gambled their livelihood against the empirical evidence; and lost.

Peterborough survives as an outwardly prosperous town for now, but there is the ever-present threat of a shift of Goyder’s Line away from Peterborough because of climatic change.

Irrigation has enabled the Riverland to prosper above Goyder’s Line; and technology has been used to crop above Goyder’s Line, but it remains as a concrete reminder of scientific integrity.

Australia has produced an array of substantial scientists, whose renown does not rely on being puffed up by that bane of civilisation – the public relations spinning arachnoids. Goyder was one such scientist.

The night I danced with Nikki Savva

1970s Darwin

It was a time before Cyclone Tracey, and the Travelodge was the most prominent feature of Darwin. We were there campaigning for the LCP in the Northern Territory election, which resulted in the LCP winning 17 out of the 19 seats. The remaining two went to independents; Labor’s strategy left them with no seats. How much our visit to Darwin influenced the result is not clear. After all, there were no Aboriginal candidates in any of the electorates. All the candidates were Territorians, aka “whitefellas”.

In this bubble at the Travelodge that evening, there was much jollification, and I remember at one stage dancing with a young reporter from The Australian, Nikki Savva. It is a funny thing that memory of this brief encounter has stuck in my mind when other memories of that night have dissolved.

Eventually, I drifted off to my room staggering along with my colleague. He had the room opposite. It was a different image when I awoke next morning.  The door of the room opposite was wide open. The room was empty. The room was now a wreck – it looked as it had been trashed, but when I walked across the corridor, I smelt the aftermath of a fire. The walls were covered with soot – there had been some water damage.

Blearily I went back to my room. It never occurred to me until later that I had not been evacuated. I had slept through the ruckus and nobody had thought to wake me. Such considerations came later when I learnt that my colleague had lit his mattress and was found in a smoke-filled bathroom, completely disorientated. His rescuer was a journalist travelling with the team. The fire brigade had been called, but I slept on. This was not the last time I slept though an awkward situation, nor that I escaped being burnt to death. Sometimes as the memory grew distant, in one of my rational moments, I believe that there is a force which determined that my time was not up – not then.

What was so different from today? There was no report in the media, although everyone knew but nobody talked about it – nobody wrote it.

I never knew who paid for the damage. It did not come across my desk.

Somehow I doubt whether that would be allowed to go unnoticed today.

However, so much has changed, but old habits die hard for me not acknowledging by name those who were in that burning room that night.

But I do remember Nikki Savva – a brief encounter and I doubt whether we have ever spoken since, such were our different career pathways. However, I enjoy her insights – and sometimes I agree with her, for what it is worth.

The charred Letter

In a slightly different mode, after the 1974 election I went to Snedden and said that the Liberal Party should have a Tasmanian strategy, since all the five House of Representatives seats were held by Labor, but were very winnable given that the number of electors is relatively small and local issues dominate. Labor was vulnerable if Whitlam’s lack of empathy for Tasmania could be countered. In fact, Lance Barnard being Whitlam’s deputy and a Tasmanian gave a certain sheen to Whitlam in the eyes of Tasmanians.

When Barnard retired from the seat of Bass not long after Fraser replaced Snedden, little or no credence was given to Snedden’s campaign to highlight that being distinct from the Whitlam haughtiness, Snedden cared for Tasmanian problems. There was even a shadow ministerial portfolio which Snedden gave to Bob Ellicott. It was pure populist politics.

As history showed, a retired army officer called Kevin Newman, well connected by marrying into a northern Tasmanian establishment family, won in a landslide. Many of the sage journalists identified it as a turning point in the eventual electoral demolition of Whitlam.

That is the background to this response the office received after letters seeking their priorities were sent to each of the Councils in Tasmania, which in those days numbered 79. This meant that some of the municipalities were formed when the populations of some was far greater than now.

Ruins of hotel, Linda Valley, Gormanston

I was reminded of one response when driving through Gormanston on the shoulder between Mount Lyell and Mount Owen before the Murchison highway plunges down to Queenstown. Where once copper miners lived near the mine the municipality no longer exists. Now almost a ghost town, but back in 1974, it was a separate municipality. Many replies to the letters were received, but about six months after, a reply was received from the Warden of Gormanston apologising for the lateness, but the Council offices had been burnt down. The letter was written on decent note paper, but it confirmed the Warden’s excuse. The edges of the letter were severely charred.

Snow Gums

Some years ago, we were driving around Tierra del Fuego and on a bare hill there were these blanched fallen tree trunks, resembling the bones of long lost creatures. When I asked about them, my guide said that there had been a great fire about 50 years before, and in the harsh conditions of the island, trees had never grown back.

Snow gums after bushfire

I remember a few years after a bushfire at Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps, had destroyed a great number of snow gums. They were whitened reminders among a blackened landscape slowly recovering. However, snow gums take 50 years to grow again, and before the fire there had been a huge stand of these beautiful trees. Now there are bleached reminders of nature’s revenge.

Near Mt Arrowsmith on the Tasmanian West Coast snow gums abound. They have one of most beautiful trunks of any of the eucalypts, along with leopard gums and salmon gums, not to mention the ghost gums of Central Australia. The trunks have dove grey and fawn markings against an essentially creamy white trunk. Bark is added decoration, lightly suspended from some the trunks, for snow gums are the contortionists of the eucalypt world, tossing themselves into bizarre shapes, but always maintaining their delicate beauty.

The road near Mount Arrowsmith is where the Murchison Highway is liable to be closed by snowfalls in winter, and it is here that a bushfire has left its signature. The bush has been reduced to a picket of black sticks where the only regeneration is blackberry bushes and bracken. It showed how long it had been since we had travelled the road from Hobart. Normally, we come down to the West Coast from Devonport – at least before COVID-19 closed off Tasmania. It showed how long it had been since we had driven from the south, because Hobart is further away than the northern Tasmanian cities.

I always believed that the West Coast of Tasmania was immune from bushfires because of its high rainfall, but in January 2016 there were multiple storms without much rain, but with a large number of lightning strikes which resulted in the West Coast burning in patches. Most the fires were concentrated in the northwest corner, but 1.2 per cent of the wilderness area was burnt. My belief that rainforest and moss lands would contain such a fire was disabused by the findings of an Inquiry. When the weather was dry, and today as I write this the temperature is 32oC in Strahan, then “all bets are off”. The West Coast of Tasmania will burn.

It is a wake-up call, especially as trading off an irreplaceable flora against a lean-to shed built by someone secretly growing marijuana and which can – and probably will – be easily rebuilt seems to be a no brainer.  Those entrusted with fire control need to make decisions based on the greater good – saving endangered irreplaceable flora makes a lot more sense than sacrificing it to save a couple of sheds.

Here in the south-west of Tasmania preservation of the environment is paramount. The human population is small, but if the wilderness was destroyed in a bushfire, it does not have the ability to regenerate quickly – if at all. The indigenous pines grow slowly – that is why when you look at a fully grown Huon Pine, or King Billy Pine you are looking back at a thousand years; some romantics say that the forests are little changed from when dinosaurs walked.

Gorse invades the West Coast of Tasmania

There are different priorities, because it is not only lightning strikes and man-made hazard reduction that can destroy the irreplaceable but also the disgraceful lack of attention that the Tasmanian government pays to the invasion of blackberry, bracken and particularly gorse, all together already creating a monument to West Coast neglect. A northern hemisphere native, gorse is a noxious weed here and a major fire hazard.

Look at the scene in the South-West four years after the fire. Just forgotten. It could be the harbinger of things to come.

Reflections on Matthias

Matthias Cormann is on the road again, metaphorically speaking. One of the pursuits which engages those trivia-centred people is to name five famous Belgians; and then for the master class five famous Walloons and five famous Flems. Matthias is neither of these. He was born of working class parents in the sliver of the country bordering Germany, which is naturally German speaking. Here the border has moved between the two countries depending on the political situation. He lived very close to the German border and his obvious affinity for Germany rather than the country of his birth is shown by his middle order award in 2018 from the German government for advancement of relations between Australia and Germany.

Cormann studied law and learnt Flemish at the first and French at the second university. He then went on an exchange Erasmus scholarship to Norwich, in the course of which he learnt English – all before he was 24 years of age. All that is on public record, together with his pursuit of a young woman to Perth.

Rejected, he went back to Belgium, but the second coming was very soon after. It seems an impetuous action, but then he was only 25. His quick eye obviously saw better opportunities in Western Australia rather than the country of his birth. Whether, as a member of small minority in a country riven by tribal strife where, in the job market, these tribal allegiances are translated into patronage, from which he was excluded, one can only speculate. However, if he is a serious contender for the OECD job, you can be assured there will be a rake going through the reasons for his flight from Belgium.

His adeptness at negotiating the political shoals in Australian politics were probably helped by a deferential mien which, as he rose up through the ranks, was retained as a courteous demeanour of appearing to listen. Perhaps having a very good grasp of where he was going and where he resides on the ladder of political influence was equally important.

He has no ideology; and that helps when some of your colleagues show moronic shrillness. However, his accent has been a useful weapon, when in others it could have been scorned. The accent is like a blade of steel – it gives him authority, even when he has blathered on and on, not answering questions as is his irritating wont.

Now he is trying his array of tricks on the world stage. Whether he survives the first cull is problematical given the Prime Ministerial aroma on this stage. Being a political chimney sweep covered in coal dust is not the image for selection for the OECD position. If Cormann presents a green visage to the members of the OECD, he needs to measure that against his welcome back into Australia, where his backers essentially have been the mining business community. Even a modern-day Metternich has limits to dissemblage.

However, what he may be angling for is the Australian ambassadorship to the OECD. The current incumbent could easily be recalled and there would be Matthias, like Banquo’s ghost, to haunt the new boss of the OECD – and incidentally polish his credentials on the world stage. Just a possibility. 

Mouse Whisper

Kristi Noem sounds like the name of a Christmas elf or a doughnut; but she is in fact the Governor of South Dakota.

She was recently in Casa Blanca, where she was surprised by her bruised hero, Heel Spur. She did not have time to express her adoration before he looked at her contemptously and turning to the pianist snarled: “You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it, Uncle Sam!”

Uncle Sam commenced playing, wistfully singing “You must dismember this…”

Tears formed in her eyes, “Oh, Heel, you know we’ll always have Pierre.”

Pierre, capital of South Dakota

 

Modest Expectations – Derby Day in Walla Walla

State Capital West Virginia

It was late in the day some years ago and we had just driven past the capital of West Virginia, Charleston. The golden capital strikingly stood above the low-level smog which was layered over the city itself. Here we were in the Alleghenies, a 640 kms portion of the Appalachia, a rich source of coal. Here pitched battles were once fought between the miners and the mine owners – called the coal wars. The reason lay in the fact that during this period more miners were killed here in accidents than were lost by the US armed forces in World War 1.

West Virginia had been carved from Virginia in 1863 during the American Civil War, partially because the West Virginians did not follow most of Virginia which seceded at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Yet the electoral base and its Democrat traditions lay in its workers, radical by American unionism standards, reinforced by the memories of the coal wars.

I wondered, as we approached the entrance to this property with its imposing edifice, whether it was a hotel where we could stay for the night. I drove in and the colonnaded entrance suggested that perhaps I had inadvertently driven into a private estate. However, I got out of the car, in jeans and all, and entered the building in all innocence to enquire what was this place.

The Greenbrier

The man behind the reception desk looked me up and down and said, “Sir, this is The Greenbrier.”

As I learnt very quickly, The Greenbrier was the place where Presidents stayed, and I found out there were references to them as far back as Polk and Tyler. I thought the car parking space for the resident golf professional at the time, Sam Snead, said it all. This was a comfortable Republican enclave in the heart of what was a poverty-stricken mining area. I remembered once, on a flight north in Australia, there was a dishevelled guy sitting next to me. We got talking, although I had difficulty understanding him; he turned out to be a miner going up to the coal mines in Queensland. He was from West Virginia, and his mumbled English was full of archaic constructions and words that meant nothing – it was a dialect probably based on 17th or 18th century English. In the end, in the light aircraft, the noise of the plane made it impossible to talk and we lapsed into silence.

But back to The Greenbrier. The Government had built a huge bunker at the hotel during the height of the Cold War, which had the capacity to house the whole of the Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. The facility had long been decommissioned by the time we had stayed. I believe I was punished for my disrespectful comment as the room assigned was so far from the main building that it almost collided with the fence and was well behind the bunker. Still, they allowed us into the dining room.

However, before that could occur, the reception desk clerk had said, “If you wish to dine in, sir, you will need a jacket.”

“No worries.” I had a jacket – a blazer in fact.

A key was pushed towards me. The Greenbrier had welcomed us, after a fashion. Menofregismo as the Italians would say.

West Virginia has always been reliably Democrat, but now no more.  The three Congress members are all Republicans; only one of the two senators is a Democrat and over 50 per cent of the time he voted with or for Trump, even in the impeachment he was only one who crossed over from his Democrats for Trump.

From being reliably Democrat, now West Virginia is almost the most Republican State if judged by the vote for Trump here recently – all changed in a decade! Biden received less than 30 per cent.

The use of coal is rapidly dying, so it would be a useful exercise for the Biden Government to determine how to restructure the West Virginian economy to phase out coal. It is more difficult than just bribing the mine owners to provide the semblance of work by keeping uneconomic mines open. However, it probably would be just as cheap for the Government to bypass the owners and pay the miners a living wage disguised as a redundancy package or employ them to resuscitate the once pristine landscape mined over the past 150 years.

After all, the wealthy and influential were prepared to invest in an opulent playground here, including the Congress shelter bunker. Notwithstanding that it had been decommissioned well before we stayed, here was further evidence of the very essence of privilege in one of the poorest parts of the country.

The latter part of the last century and into this, first as governor and then as Senator, Jay Rockefeller, the great-grandson of John D Rockefeller, as a Democrat (unusual because the rest of the family were solidly Republican) won most of his elections by huge margins. There is little doubt that during his long association with West Virginia he and the coal industry were on very good terms – for most of the time. However, towards his retirement, he began to realise the impact of coal on climate. Two years before his retirement, in 2012, he made in the following statement:

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too. 

Here in Australia the problem is that fear has gripped Joel Fitzgibbon, not any constructive thought. His livelihood lounging on the plush red seats of Parliament House is threatened. Forget about climate, but then there are unions agitating for retention of coal mining, and the power of the unions depends on these miners coughing up subscriptions – but for what? As with the car industry, government subsidy for the uneconomic only ends up improving the bottom line of the big foreign-owned companies.

The slick Monsieur Perrottet wants to restore his stained escutcheon by expanding the coal industry in NSW to pay off a short-term debt and in so doing leaving an incalculable environmental debt for generations of Australians; the feathery Premier just keeps talking to see if she can break the world record for not taking a breath. There is some in government with a contrary idea of how to lessen the coal dependency, despite export prices for both coking and thermal coal are being maintained.

Yet there is fear of divesting away from coal. This has been aggravated by the electoral results in Queensland, and by the “near-death experience” of Fitzgibbon in his seat of Hunter. The other NSW coal seats did not seem to mirror the same extreme behaviour.

There is another problem, and that is the Fly-in-Fly-Out miners. This expanding cohort should not be confused in the arguments over the hearts and minds of the local coal miners.

As one local Mount Isa correspondent has written:

The issue of Fly In Fly Out did not get much of a look-in in the federal election, perhaps because it is mainly seen as a state issue.

FIFO is convenient for workers who want to live by the coast but still enjoy high-paid jobs in remote locations.

It is also convenient for companies who have better control over their staff and their movements whether it be on chartered flights, mining camps or buses.

But it is a terrible deal for places like Mount Isa and the towns of North West Queensland which get all of the downsides of a large mining operation on their doorstep but few of the benefits.

Yes I understand that airports, motels, pubs and clubs, and the like do well out of a transient workforce but other businesses not so well.

The wear and tear of mining operations on roads and other facilities is a cost borne by those communities. And only this morning did I hear a speaker at a MineX breakfast talk about the need for a local work force because without that “we have no social licence to operate”.

The Queensland government recognised the issue with the Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities Act introduced last year to ban 100% FIFO mining near towns like Mount Isa and Cloncurry.

However, companies can get around this simply by posting one staff member locally which meets the wording of the act but not the intent.”

Balmain coal miners

Great is it not; with one selfish self-centred politician intent on contaminating the narrative of moving away from coal.  A leader, if one can term Albanese that, should have called him out immediately.  Or do I do Mr Albanese a disservice. Maybe he really wants to see the Balmain coal mines re-opened in his electorate.  Fitzgibbon can’t have it all his own way. After all, my late neighbour used to tell me that, as a boy, he would go around the corner to the coal dump and bring coal home for the stove and the fire. It was said that Balmain was then quite a sooty turn to behold.

As a 40-year resident, I remember seeing the entrance to the mine.   After all, to that smooth genius, Monsieur Perrottet, reopening the mine shafts under the Harbour would bring lots of “coal hard cash” and so convenient – or not. And what a jape – reopening a coal mine in a Green electorate. Problem is that is where Perrottet and his fellow travellers want to scar Australia, the wildlife do not vote. However, in Balmain, I am assured that Monsieur would find a different form of wildlife – one that rumbles around the suburb in their Land Cruisers looking for anybody with a lump coal in their political pocket. After all, Monsieur wants to demolish the White Bay Power Station – perhaps a new location for an underground coal mine.

But I stray from my West Virginian narrative – at least I have a narrative.

While America looks away.

I was rummaging through my old magazines and I came across a copy of a Harper’s dated August 1999, in which there is an article where two journalists were assigned to report on Cyprus – flipping a coin to determine which of them travelled to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the other to the Republic of Cyprus. As the lead-in to that article, it was stated; “Cyprus remains partitioned, a case study in how ethnic hatred perpetuates itself but perhaps also a manual on how peace can be sustained in places like Kosovo”.

It was nearly 20 years later that my friend and I walked across the Green Zone that separated the two sides of the divided Nicosia, the major city of Cyprus.

There is something strange walking across what is essentially the line where battle formally ended.  A few peacekeepers wearing blue berets are moving around inside the buildings and the only sound is a radio blaring out modern pop. There is nobody to block our crossing through the rubble strewn street, only a strange sense of abandonment, although you know eyes are watching you in the CCTV cameras slung along your pathway. Passing from one side to the other met with little interference from the Cypriot or Turkish side.

Once we were across then there was the question of transport. We did not have to wait long before a taxi pulled up and took us to Kyrenia, a seaside town on the Turkish side where we had a pleasant seafood lunch. The taxi driver said he would return, and he did, punctually. The only noticeable difference from one side to the other was the appearance of mosques; the cars still drive on the left, irrespective of which side of the green lines one drives.

Cyprus is the only place outside the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland in Europe where there is a remnant link to the previous British occupation – driving on the left hand side of the road.

In 1878 Cyprus entered the British Empire under rather unusual circumstances. The Ottoman Empire had just been at war with Russia and were very much in danger of losing control of their capital Constantinople. The British intervened in the crisis on the side of the Ottoman Turks by sending a fleet to intimidate the Russians. The Ottoman Sultan was so thankful for the British intervention that he granted the control of the island of Cyprus to Queen Victoria. This lasted until 1960 when independence was gained. Throughout the 1950s a Greek terrorist group EOKA, under a former Nazi collaborator George Grivas, exacted a price on British occupation, a killing spree of British soldiers and Turkish Cypriots in the main.

The British still retain armed forces bases there on territory that was ceded to the United Kingdom on independence. That means that slivers of Cyprus remain British soil.

While there was a myth abroad that the Turkish and Greek Cypriot relations had been harmonious before the invasion but after Independence, that was far from the truth. The Green Zone actually began a line drawn by the British in 1963 because of strife between the two.

By 1974, the treatment of the Turkish Cypriots was bad enough for Turkey to intervene, and it did not take that long for the Greek Cypriots to quickly sue for peace. This led to fragmented jurisdictions, separated by a UN peace force which have, since the ceasefire, patrolled the Green Zone that extends across the island, cutting through Nicosia as mentioned above.

There the line has remained intact despite regular exchange of obscenities, rock throwing, and the more serious “cocking and pointing”.

When the Harper’s article was written there was very limited access across the border. The two journalists met once, face to face, for coffee in Pyla, a small fishing village within the Green Zone.

There may have been calm when we visited, but there was residual bitterness. We were there at a time before Erdogan came on the scene with all his populist fury. However, he probably recognises what one Greek Cypriot soldier said when asked whether he would retaliate: “No,” he said smiling, “We are careful not to provoke them, because we are the weaker side.” 

Erdogan must know that and after the defeat of Armenia recently, he may be tempted to have a “go” at Cyprus.

Apart from the increased access across the Green Zone, since the 1999 Harper’s article was written, another phenomenon has occurred. It was first evident when I picked up the menu at the hotel in Limassol where we were staying. The menu was not only in Greek and English but also in Russian. The Russians have made a large investment in Cyprus – either with or without Putin’s collusion. Who would know the extent of each?

Now there is a cohort of Russians who have not only invested in property but also have bought Cyprus passports, a practice contrary to EU rules. Under pressure from the EU, Cyprus has now withdrawn that permission to buy into the Republic. Unlike Armenia, Cyprus is a member of the EU, but the Russian passports have not been cancelled.

However, would that matter given that America is now  distracted and if the Turkish Cypriot grievances are inflamed by Erdogan, how would the Republic respond? Seek Greek support? It was not there in 1974.   Would it be now?

The European Union?  Does the EU want to go to war with Turkey, a member of NATO? After all, it was NATO bombing of Serbian held positions and a USA-brokered peace which, in the 1990s, ended that perennial obsession of the Serbs to dominate the Balkans.

This is different political chemistry, and one without a strong America, with a lame-duck President with Russian connections still at the helm. Cyprus has inhospitable mountainous areas. Don’t we know it? We got lost in the wilds of Cyprus, and only worked our way out by pointing the car down the mountains, but at least there was a track to follow.

So military conquest of Cyprus is not just a case of rolling up to seaside resorts like Limassol and Paphos in Turkish tanks. The mountains are perfect for guerrilla warfare.

So-called Russian peacekeepers could already be there to help – and themselves – as they have done in Armenia. They might be there to welcome the invading Turks.

As for the sovereign British bases, maybe Boris would let the Russians have them. After all, he could say it is part of his Brexit plan. Hopefully no one would write, as Queen Mary did with “Calais”, that Cyprus will be written on his heart.

Nevertheless, it should not be ignored that the Russians doing the Trump

Presidency have built up a seasoned defence force, which has honed its skills in Syria and elsewhere. Why not Cyprus? Why not indeed!

John Kitzhaber continues his analysis of the US health system…

Dr John Kitzhaber

Public Resources

We need to understand the central role of public dollars in our healthcare system. Healthcare is the only economic sector that produces goods and services which none of its customers can afford. This system only works because the cost of medical care for individuals is heavily subsidized with public resources. This happens directly through public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. It also happens indirectly through the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and through the public subsidies in the individual insurance market established through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As a result, about 90 percent of Americans depend on public subsidies to help them cover the cost of their care—all except the 28 million Americans who remain uninsured. These people are not eligible for a public subsidy themselves, but through their taxes they help subsidize the cost of healthcare for everyone else. This egregious situation reflects the systemic inequality that exists not only in our healthcare system but also across our whole society.

Thus, the central issue in the healthcare debate involves the allocation of public resources, which represent a kind of fiscal commons. They are shared resources raised from society as a whole—and they should be allocated in a way that benefits all of us, not just some of us.

The National Debt

We also need to recognize that our healthcare system is increasingly financed with debt. Why? Because public resources are finite and Congress is borrowing ever more money to pay for existing programs and services—including health care. This fact is reflected in the congressional budget deficit and in our national debt. The national debt is the accumulation of years of budget deficits and represents the amount of money that has been borrowed to cover the difference between congressional spending and the tax revenue available to pay for it. Since healthcare now accounts for over 28 percent of the federal budget not spent on interest—and is projected to grow to 33 percent by 2028—it has become a major driver of the national debt.

This means that as the population ages and the cost of care continues to rise, the economic viability of the healthcare system will increasingly depend on borrowing money—and on the capacity of the federal government to absorb more debt. If the capacity to borrow is constrained, the financial underpinnings of the healthcare system begin to unravel. Since COVID-19 has created exactly this constraint on borrowing, a healthcare financing crisis that was on the horizon is now at our door.

Income Inequality

Furthermore, a growing share of the money borrowed to prop up our medical system is not being used to expand coverage. Instead, it is enriching the profits of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Let me be very clear: our current healthcare system is increasing income inequality through a process called rent seeking. This occurs when powerful stakeholders manipulate public policy to increase their own wealth without the creation of new wealth (i.e. they take more of the pie without making the pie bigger). For example, when the pharmaceutical industry convinced Congress to prohibit the government from negotiating drug prices for the 60 million Americans on Medicare, it distorted the market by putting the power in the sellers’ hands to set whatever prices they wish. After many news stories about “big pharma”, more people have become aware of concerns with drug prices. What seems to be less well known is just how profitable medical insurance is: in 2019, the seven largest for-profit insurers had combined revenue of over $900 billion and profits of $35.6 billion, a 66 percent increase over 2018.The result of the rent seeking that is evident throughout the health care industry is lower disposable income for the individuals who have to pay those inflated prices, increased profits for the companies, and wider income inequality.

Health versus Health Care

Finally, we need to recognize that the goal of the healthcare system should be to keep people healthy, not just to finance medical care. In other words, it needs to address the social determinants of health—access to healthy food and clean water, safe housing, a reliable living wage, family and community stability, and more—which have a far greater impact than medical care on the health of both individuals and communities. Yet the ever-increasing cost of care compromises our ability to invest in these things.

Today, healthcare providers and the system have different goals. While most care providers are trying to enhance people’s health, they nevertheless work in a system where the incentives are to increase profits and redistribute more wealth to the wealthy.

Confronting the Total Cost of Care

Improving health requires a financially sustainable system that ensures that all Americans have timely access to effective medical care

and

that makes long-term investments in the social determinants of health. To achieve these dual goals requires five core elements:

  1. Universal coverage;
  2. A defined set of benefits;
  3. A delivery system that assumes risk and accountability for quality and outcomes;
  4. A global budget indexed to a sustainable rate of growth; and
  5. A cost prevention strategy that allocates some of the savings to addressing the social determinants of health. A system that incorporates these elements can take many forms, but without all five we cannot achieve our goal of improving health in a financially sustainable way.

There are two primary obstacles keeping us from moving toward a new system focused on value and health: the way the debate has been framed, and the cost-shifting strategies that—until the pandemic—allowed us to avoid the growing discrepancy between the cost of the system and our ability to pay for it.

How the Debate Is Framed

For decades, the national healthcare debate has been paralysed largely because neither Democrats nor Republicans have seriously challenged the underlying healthcare business model—the debate has been over what level of funding to provide. The current business model is built around fee-for-service reimbursement. The more they do, the more they get paid. Since the fees paid for medical services usually are not linked in a meaningful way to a positive health outcome for the person receiving the care, the system incentives are aligned with maximizing revenue rather than maximizing health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) attempted to move away from this model with incentives to participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs), which are networks of providers that shared in savings if they delivered care more efficiently (called upside risk). The problem is that the ACOs were not required to assume any significant degree of downside risk, in which they had to refund a payer if the actual costs of care exceeded a financial benchmark. Furthermore, the ACA did not take on the rent seeking (transferring wealth to the wealthy) that accounts for so much of the cost in the system. As a consequence, the cost of health care grew from $2.6 trillion in 2010 to $3.6 trillion in 2019.

In the wake of the ACA, both major political parties have continued to debate only the extent to which we should fund the system, creating a false choice between cost and access. This false choice is reflected in the Republican view that the cost of health care is unsustainable and must be constrained, and in the Democrat view that any reduction in spending will reduce access. Both sides are right, if they remain wedded to the current business model.

Republican proposals to “repeal and replace” the ACA would simply reduce the public subsidies in the current business model, increasing the number of uninsured Americans and exacerbating the inequity that already exists. Democrat efforts to expand coverage through proposals like “Medicare for All” would significantly increase public subsidies but within the same inflationary fee-for-service business model, adding to the burden of debt that future generations will have to pay. To put it another way, Republican proposals increase inequity and harm people today; Democrat proposals increase the debt and harm people tomorrow.

Cost-Shifting Strategies

Framing the debate in this way allows legislative bodies to avoid directly addressing the cost of care by simply shifting that cost somewhere else, a strategy used by other third-party payers (insurance companies and employers). As the total cost of care increases, instead of seeking to reduce it, these payers take actions that shift the cost to individuals, who cannot afford it, or to future generations. Here are the most common cost-shifting strategies:

  • Reducing eligibility, cutting benefits, and/or raising co-payments and deductibles—all of which shift costs to individuals;
  • Reducing provider reimbursement, which may result in efforts by providers to avoid caring for those who cannot pay and/or lead to increased fees by providers when they are caring for people who are insured; and
  • Increasing debt-financed public subsidies, which shifts the burden to our children and grandchildren.

Importantly, none of these cost-shifting strategies reduce the total cost of care, which is the central structural problem in our system. Before COVID-19, we were able to rely on these strategies, particularly debt-financed public subsidies, to avoid the difficult choices necessary for a solution. But given the economic crisis we face now, we must directly confront the total cost of care. Fortunately, this gives us the opportunity to pursue new strategies that both redesign the current hyperinflationary business model and invest in those things that have the greatest impact on health and well-being.

To be concluded

Mouse Whisper

Out of an abundance of caution

ex abundanti cautela

In law, describes someone taking precautions against a very remote contingency. “One might wear a belt in addition to braces ex abundanti cautela”. In banking, a loan in which the collateral is more than the loan itself. Also, the basis for the term “an abundance of caution” employed by United States President Barack Obama to explain why the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts had to re-administer the Presidential oath of office, and again in reference to terrorist threats.

In reference to Chief Justice Roberts, who flubbed it the first time, Obama recognised the deep conspiracy and made him do it again – correctly. Our authority is the impeccable, Il pagliacco Guiliani.

Just a quote dripping with irony, it has become the favourite phrase of the month, and it seems that is how one formally approaches the Virus, but you must be in full evening dress with all medals displayed (sic).

For we mice it is more that we’re “Out of our barn dance our Cat’s in”.

Modest Expectations – Windy Bears

Blinman is the highest settlement in South Australia at 610metres. It has a pub and one of the distinguishing features of this area is that it sells locally-made ice cream – well, not actually made in the Flinders Ranges but in a little town in this mid north area of the State – in Laura.

The Flinders Ranges were named after Matthew Flinders who, together with his cat Trim, were the first Europeans to see the Range when he anchored his boat in Spencer Gulf near present day Port Augusta, and his name was given to the Range by Governor Gawler in 1839.

Wilpena Pound is an ancient caldera in the Southern part of the Flinders Ranges. It is one of the few places which was still on my bucket list of places I hadn’t been in this vast country. The name had stuck in my mind since I read that the famous New Zealand soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa had performed here in an open-air concert – with the all kit and caboodle of an accompanying symphony orchestra.

Within the National Park now owned by the local indigenous people, the resort is surrounded by hills and the bush crowds in upon you. Ring throated green parrots are cavorting on the terrace as I am setting down my thoughts.

Six weeks earlier the area had been flooded and there is still evidence of water damaged roads. Most of the bush that had been washed along with the floodwaters had been cleared away, but the road signs still warned of flood damage and the unmade roads into the interior of the range had yet to be graded. There are plenty of hikes, which I could have done in the past, but there is still much to see.

 

The Flinders Ranges themselves are not that high, but they have a certain majesty. There is the huge Arkaroola Rock; there are the hills which are swirls of pink accentuated in the afternoon sun. A hill pokes out from the pink diorama as though it is a sand dune not rock. There is the Great Wall of China atop, in American usage, a butte. Nature had constructed what appears to be a dry-stone wall, which meanders up and across these flat-topped hills. Other peaks are jagged, saw toothed. This has been a playground for Mother Nature to experiment in form and texture. After all, to the local Aboriginal people this is the land of the Rainbow Serpent.

Throughout the ranges on the road north to Blinman, the dominant tree is the native cypress and, because of the recent rain, they are growing amid a greenery which has coalesced with the salt bush. There is also the mauve of Paterson’s Curse, which has been let loose by the rain and, as I have written before, it can look beautiful. However, as Baudelaire once wrote, at the heart of great beauty resides evil. I always think of those words when I see this imported weed coating the landscape.

Tiny Blinman has a general store, which was closed, but fortunately the pub offered the ice cream. There was once copper mining here, and the woman at the door informs us that the tour of the mine is full. She gives me some tiny pieces of malachite as compensation. I tell her my great-grandfather, when he first came to Australia, took his family south of the Flinders Range to Kapunda, where the first commercial mine in Australia had been opened in 1842. This mine also yielded copper but has long been closed. I had been there many years ago and already gathered pieces of souvenir ore from the mine tailings.

The view from Stoke’s Hill Lookout is of a red ochre expanse dotted with salt bush. Here the greenery has not penetrated and my whole vision was one that Fred Williams may have seen and painted. After all, the Flinders Ranges was inspiration for Hans Heysen also. He painted many a vibrant gum tree landscape. Although the native cypress are dominant, there are stands of several major eucalypts throughout the Ranges. There is the Southern Flinders Mallee, which grow on the rocky slopes, but along the river-beds are the imposing river red gums beloved of Heysen.

The Big Tree, Orrooroo

The largest of these eucalypts is celebrated in the small settlement of Orroroo, south of the Flinders Ranges, where the eponymously named tree is said to be over 500 years old. It has a trunk circumference of 10 metres and no fork in the trunk until six metres up.  It is a very healthy tree, but it is by no means the only tree of similar size and in the forecourt of our accommodation, there is a tree that is not much smaller. In the reception is a huge red gum counter made from a tree that had fallen over. Part of the massive trunk had been salvaged but the rest, despite protests, was cut up into firewood, the desecration often perpetuated by government-paid foresters.

Hawker is at the southern apex of the Flinders Range, a small settlement but with an enormous tyre service. This is an ominous warning of travel on the unmade roads that penetrate the Range. While we refuelled there, we were surrounded by an exhaust of leather clad motorcycle riders, most of whom were old enough to be directly inspired by Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper in Easy Rider. This is “easy riding” in the Outback, even though the sense of hair flowing the wind is now “kerbed” by a helmet.

The road to the west of the range proceeds north to Parachilna, with a pub and an official population of three. The pub is managed by a young couple who have fled there to escape the Virus, and here gained employment. This Prairie Hotel is a well-known watering spot to where once a railway ran, but no more.

The hotel is deceptive. From the outside it is a normal pub with the corrugated iron roof slung over the walls to provide protection from the sun. However, it is different from the normal desert hostelry in not being a reservoir for stubbie holders, fridge magnets, car stickers, and sexist T-shirts in a dungeon-like public bar. Inside it is tastefully decorated, light and airy.  There is a wide array of quality, mostly Aboriginal, art on display for sale. It is also the general store, sells other Aboriginal-designed artefacts, has good accommodation, the place for a good feed at breakfast and dinner; and being a pub, a wide range of grog. A bottle of my favourite Hendricks gin peeps out of a well-stocked spirits selection. Over the road from the hotel there is the budget accommodation in the form of dongas, ship containers with a portal of entry. Without air conditioning in the middle of summer, they would be like being in a microwave.

The paved road now goes a long way north and last year was extended to Marree (once the cattle railhead) to try and help those “grey nomads” dragging their caravans. Thus, Parachilna is now not a terminus but a welcome stop on the way north into the desert. For us, given how late in the day it is, this was our turning point from where we drove back, bathed in the late afternoon sun.

Adam Goodes mob – The Adnyamathanha

Terence and Josephine Coulthard, in the words of the front cover, compiled a Culture and Language Book on the Adnyamathanha people. These are local Indigenous Guardians of the Flinders Range – the long title means Rock (Adnya) People (Mathanha). The book runs to 450 pages and serves as a dictionary – the written form of the oral language – painstakingly described.

Adnyamathanha flag

These people have a flag (pictured) which combines the blue diagonal canton as representing sky and the Blue Rock people. The brown represents the land and the Red Rock people. The saucepan star formation is the men’s story line; the seven sisters the women’s story line. The circle with the radiating white lines is Ikara (Wilpena Pound) and the symbol for the whole Adnyamathanha community. Thinking about the complexity in the cultural attachments to the land we now recognise as Australia, such a flag should be looked at in a national context. It is a proud flag; this is not the flag of the downtrodden.

This strength was exemplified by us being invited to come to the launch of the book under the river red gums, where Terence sang and played the guitar, where the mob had come  and now sat under the trees and the children ran free the aboriginal kids weren’t running around, they sat with their parents. There was a lot of talk, everybody seemed to have a word to say, including the local member for Stuart with a long Dutch name.

We purchased both the book and the flag.

John Kitzhaber – His Thoughts

Below is a the first of a multipart series by Dr John Kitzhaber, former Democratic Governor of Oregon and the author of the Oregon Health Plan. I have known Dr Kitzhaber for a long time and he has agreed to his essay being reprinted in my blog. It provides an insight into the thinking of someone whom President-elect Biden may tap for ideas. Over to Governor Kitzhaber…

Dr John Kitzhaber

“I started practicing emergency medicine when I was 27 years old, and I still remember the vulnerability of the people who came to see me. They were sick or injured, frightened, and asking for help. They didn’t know me, and yet they put their trust in me. I did everything in my power to help them and yet, even then, I sometimes failed.

As an emergency doctor, being unable to save a life was devastating. The walk across the hall to the small room where family and friends waited always felt like a long hopeless journey. Yet while this poignant intersection of compassion and mortality is difficult, it is that very compassion, and the humility and caring involved, that drew many of us into healthcare in the first place.

Today, much of that compassion is being stripped away. Early in my career, in the 1970s, we had time to build the kind of personal relationships with our patients that often contributed as much to their health and well-being as the medical treatments we prescribed. Sadly, the space in which to cultivate these deeper relationships seems to be slipping away—lost to an electronic medical record that is as much about billing as about caring, and to an impersonal corporate structure that prioritizes revenue generation over a deeper understanding of the social and economic circumstances that contribute to illness.

I became a doctor to improve people’s health and well-being, not just to treat their medical conditions. I soon realized, however, that in many cases I was treating the medical complications of social problems. I was trained to treat the medical conditions, which I did to the best of my ability; but afterwards, my patients returned to the same social conditions that had brought them into the hospital in the first place. I eventually realized that our healthcare system is designed not to support wellness but rather to profit from illness. While most healthcare providers certainly don’t approach caring for people that way, the underlying business model does.

Serving in public office while still practicing medicine gave me another insight: the realization that the more money we spend on healthcare, the less is available for housing, nutrition, education, or other things that are critical to health and well-being. Since first running for the Oregon legislature in 1978, I have spent 26 years as a representative, as a senator, and as governor trying to develop a new model—one built on the recognition that health is the product of many factors, only one of which is medical care.

In 2012, in the depths of the Great Recession, Oregon established such a model: coordinated care organizations (CCOs) for our Medicaid recipients. The CCOs don’t just treat illness; they cultivate health by addressing not only physical, mental, and dental care but also related needs such as safe housing, transportation, and fresh, affordable food. CCOs have also demonstrated that it is possible to expand coverage and reduce the rate of medical inflation while improving quality and health outcomes. Now, with the deep recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, it is time to scale this kind of model up for the whole nation. My primary aim with this article is to offer one way in which we might achieve that goal.

From Cost and Coverage to Value and Health

For decades, the healthcare debate throughout the United States has focused almost entirely on coverage—on how to pay for access to the current system—rather than on health. What is missing is a consideration of value, which in this context means that the purpose of the system is not simply to finance and deliver medical care but rather to improve and maintain health. Indeed, the things that have the greatest impact on health across the lifespan are healthy pregnancies, decent housing, good nutrition, stable families, education, steady jobs with adequate wages, safe communities, and other “social determinants of health”; in contrast, the healthcare system itself plays a relatively minor part.

Ironically, since the cost of medical care consumes 18 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), our current healthcare system actually undermines our ability to invest in children, families, housing, economic opportunity, and the many other key social factors important to health and well-being. This is a primary reason why the United States does not compare favourably in terms of health statistics with nations that choose to spend far more on the social determinants and far less on the healthcare system.

If we could reduce our healthcare spending from 18 to 12 percent of GDP (which is the average spent by most other industrialized nations), we would free up over one trillion dollars a year to invest in the things that contribute more to health. Such a reduction in spending might seem impossible, but successful examples of how to bring down the total cost of care do exist, including Oregon’s CCOs. Under these care models, providers receive a global budget to provide quality care with good outcomes for a defined population; if the global budget is exceeded in any given year, the providers are at financial risk for the difference. These care models change the system’s incentives from rewarding sickness to rewarding wellness—and they work. Because they focus on improving health, they prevent illnesses and thereby reduce costs without sacrificing quality.

Effectively addressing the access, value, and cost issues in our healthcare system is one of the most important domestic challenges we face as a nation. Doing so, however, requires both a clear-eyed assessment of what this system has become and the courage to challenge that system. The global pandemic, with its profound economic and social consequences, has brought into clear focus the urgent need for a new model more aligned with caring, compassion, and the goal of improving the health of our nation. And no one is more qualified to lead that effort than the people who have dedicated their lives to the healthcare profession.

COVID-19 and Our Legacy of Inequity

In 1882, the newly formed Populist Party wrote in its platform, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.” Now, over 125 years later, these words aptly describe our current social and economic conditions and how little progress we have made in terms of social justice and equal opportunity. The novel coronavirus has exposed anew the inequities and the linked class and race divisions within our society, problems that have been with us since before our nation’s founding, almost always churning just below the surface, visible only indirectly when we examine disparities like disproportionately lagging health and education outcomes for chronically under-resourced— often racially or ethnically segregated—communities. Especially in the past few decades, these inequities have been masked by debt-financed economic growth that has prevented us from mustering the political will and societal solidarity necessary to address them.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the depth of these disparities, or the extent to which social justice has been eroded, than the US healthcare system. It is a massive corporate enterprise that now consumes nearly one-fifth of our GDP, a huge employer that is increasingly dependent on public debt for its financial stability, and a major driver of income inequality. The pandemic has cast these inequities and contradictions into stark relief.

We see the difficulty nonmedical essential workers have had in obtaining adequate health protections, often resulting in significantly higher rates of infection. These are people in low-wage positions—often with minimal or no sick leave or insurance—working in grocery stores, warehouses, factories, and food and agricultural production sites. We also see that Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 in dramatically disproportionate numbers—deaths attributable to the structural inequities in our society that make Black people and other people of colour more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, and to live near major sources of health-endangering pollutants and far from health facilities and grocery stores. These are issues we urgently need to address.

At the same time, the pandemic has for the first time brought the economic interests of those who pay for, consume, and provide healthcare into clear alignment. This gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the current system by demanding value as well as universal coverage and by constraining the total cost of care.”

To be continued next week.

 What a Village

After such an above sober analysis…

The votes for the US President have been counted and, as predicted, Trump is behaving as he always has, and in so doing disgracing all American democratic traditions.

Joe Biden has won. I have not thought much of him, but now that he is on the brink of Presidency, he needs his critics – of which I am not even a speck in importance of one of these – to give him a chance.

Trump is exhibiting the sure signs of dementia. People are now openly saying he is lying and the media is by and large turning him off. The pathetic lies are obvious, but is he confabulating? There are these long blanks in his mental processes which he fills with babble. This is associated with early dementia. Therefore, with his face the colour of a tomato, which even make up cannot hide suggests a visit to an independent medical panel would be wise.

Nancy Pelosi is 80; Joe Biden is on the cusp of 78; Mitch McConnell is 78 and unquestionably the most unhealthy seems to be Donald Trump, who is only is 74. He has had a dose of the Virus and refused to heed its danger.  Instead of convalescence he embarked on a frantic schedule in which he encouraged his adoring crowd to gather into a feed lot for the Virus. He demonstrated how the President’s power must be reviewed, as the Senate has done in the past, to clip presidential authority. Trump has shown how susceptible a nation can be to bullying, even when this is limited to four years.

There is an increasing adage that 70 years is the new 50, but believe me, 80 is the new 80. Something happens between 70 and 80 in many people, and that is why it is hard to detect how well they would handle the “next four years”. Retention of physical and mental health in individuals begins to become more of a lottery. Therefore, both Pelosi and McConnell should be watched for any slippage, but in politics that is an inconvenient comment.

I do not fear of being called ageist, because I am in the same age group. Biden still shows he can jog to the President-elect’s podium, but he called upon Obama to assist in maintaining a sense of mental resilience. I had made the comment earlier that Biden would give away to an Obama restoration. I made the comment that this may be stopped in its tracks by Michelle Obama. Obama’s oratory over the last few weeks helped solidify African-American voting intentions in these closing weeks.

Kamala Harris is 56 years old and Mike Pence is 61. Whether having endured years of Trump, Pence might retire in Indiana to try and cure the PTSD engendered by four years at “Don’s Party”, with any thoughts of a future Presidency probably snuffed out. However, the future of Kamala Harris will determine whether that divide in America painted red will ever accept under any circumstances a woman, especially if Biden should die or be incapacitated over the next four years.

In short, there is much that could be added without rehashing that which has already been said. What in the end were the most significant conclusions for me?

  • America elected a woman Vice-President.
  • Trump scored 72 million votes.
  • COVID-19 has affected three per cent of the population and O.8 per cent of the population have died up to this point. Does anybody out of that 72 million in the imitation of a self-obsessed narcissistic ex-President really care about such a small group of “losers”? Is America that callous?

Mouse Whisper

Not Anywhere

            Not Delaware

                          But Somewhere

                                     Wilmington South Australia

The Worshipful Company of South Australian Field Mouse Grain Handlers have asked me to invite you Sir to open the Wilmington Night Rodeo on January 23 next. I understand to perform this important role you will have re-schedule a minor ceremony in Washington to be with us. However how could you afford to miss having the finest tucker at Rusti Kate’s Feed Lot after a trip through the Puppet Museum, which I understand as a fine array of your predecessor’s marionettes.

Respectfully

Wilmington, South Australia

Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

The Orange Toddler she calls him. She, our American friend, agrees that the vaccine should be tested, but the chosen vaccine should first be provided to the Great Leader. He has spruiked it – he must be made invincible. To mark the occasion in the Oval Office he must be surrounded by adoring people wearing white coats, but definitely without masks, unless made by his beloved daughter. There will be commemorative syringes for all.

That will give the American people confidence; he to bare his arm for America; the test as no other test has been seen by anybody; and then to cap it off, perhaps a couple of days, maybe a week later, who knows – the flock of white coats will be reassembled while COVID-19 is directly injected into the OT. Then he will turn, give the syringe with the Presidential seal to an adoring fan, saying that there has not been anybody ever, perhaps with the exception of Jesus Christ himself, who has done so much for America, to make it great.

No, you’re dreaming. That won’t happen because he says he has a deformity of his body, which precludes injection – too much Ancient Orange.

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

How predictable, the sanctimonious Hunt, the Minister for Health egged on by the Prime Minister, trying to blame Premier Andrews for the ills of Victoria, including the failed nursing home system. Nevertheless, a small history lesson is probably useful to dispel some of  the information about Daniel Andrews.

The problem with Victoria is that for years now it has not had a Department of Health but a “Department of Social Reform”, reflecting a social service bias at the expense of public health. Health is hospitals – full stop. That was the conventional wisdom.

The Heads of the Department have traditionally not been medically qualified. The structure of the Health Department was separated into Health, Hospitals and Mental Health, then unified for a time under a doctor, Gad Trevaks, when he chaired the then Health Commission.

That was the last time, and the real source of the decline in public health was due to Premier Kennett and his agent John Paterson, who effectively destroyed any remnant of public health considerations in the State. At the same time regulations have been loosened and, as one insider has said, food regulation and the lack of public health surveillance of food safety will be another problem that Premier Andrews will have to confront at some time.

Thus public health was in a woeful state even before the minions in the Victorian Treasury insisted on so-called “efficiency gains”, which is just a way of reducing public funding.

Then there was the case of a former chief health officer who was largely invisible during the time of his appointment and nobody seemed to care. Raina McIntyre, an outspoken epidemiologist, has commented wryly: “… such a minimalist system can get by during the good times but will be exposed in the pandemic”.

As Andrews has emphasised, this is an area where political point scoring is pernicious. It is more laughable than pernicious to hear the NSW Premier saying that she has a public health department, which “was second to none”, when the Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, who is responsible for public health, was lucky to keep her job after the Ruby Princess and Newmarch House debacles.

After all, she has been in the job for 12 years, and was an inheritor, as were her public health colleagues, of the work done by Dr Sue Morey when she was Chief Health Officer. Dr Morey not only supervised the introduction of the contact tracing system but also enabled the public health medical officers to be recognised as medical specialists. As a result, in relationship to Victoria the public health doctors in NSW are far better remunerated. Many of those NSW public health doctors were trained by Dr Morey, who had gained formal public health training, resulting in a Master of Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1980. She set in place the public health system that is now being described as the Australian “gold standard”; it did not appear overnight. It is after all only a tool and it demands competence in its usage.

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

To me the Macquarie Marshes have always been one of the important bellwethers as to the health of the Murray Darling region. I have read much about them, but until this week had never visited. The marshes are located on the Macquarie River and lie some two hundred kilometres north-west of Dubbo, between Warren and Carinda.

To put them into context, the Marshes are an extensive wetland system covering more than 150,000 hectares, and the nature reserve covers 18,500 hectares of it. It is recognised as a Wetland of International Importance (but not by the NSW government). Most of the Marshes are in fact on private land.

The Marshes are arbitrarily subdivided into the northern and southern segment. There is more water in the latter. Importantly at present there is water in the marshes and there is abundant bird life. Black and white magpie geese swoop low as coots, ducks and a swan glide across one of the many lakes. The signs of the Marshes having periodically dried up are evident in the dead reeds where fires have wrought irreparable damage when there was no water. Across the water cormorants perch on the dead trunk, silent witnesses to the dying marshes.

Yet another sign of the degradation of the Marshes is the yellow rape mustard weed growing wild throughout the marsh areas that still are more or less dry.

The ultimate sustainability of these Marshes, even now after heavy rains have returned water there, is dictated by the cotton industry. The huge broad acres of black soil being prepared for planting near Warren attest to the nature of the enemy.

Originally it was the building of the Burrendong and Windamere Dams in the 1960s and 1880s respectively, which had diverted the wetland water to irrigation, and in so doing challenged the future of the Marshes.

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

We stop where the water is running across the track – 100 metres wide and from the flood post at a level of about 0.4 metres. A large 4WD lurching into a hole and then struggling out only to sink again in the running water before blundering through set the tone for the crossing. We did not attempt to cross, but had lunch at the edge of the stream. Another 4WD stopped on the other side had released a bunch of kids who set out their beach towels on the track and took advantage of a swimming opportunity.

A couple of ATVs containing a number of boisterous teenagers went by, charging into the water. They knew where to go, they clung to the right side next to the fence line. There were no holes on that side – no problems – across and gone with all round waves to those of us left behind. “Local kids”, the weathered face who appeared at the car window said.

He was a seasoned farmer who had stopped with his family, and came across to see who “these foreigners” were. He ran shorthorn Hereford cattle on a property north of Carinda – a place where he said the best cotton in the world could be grown. He was on an afternoon drive with his daughter who had brought visitors from Norway to see the Marshes.

However, the problem is that Warren always took the bulk of the water, and thus Carinda – 140kms further north – hardly received enough water to sow a crop – maybe once in ten years, despite its capacity to produce premium cotton.

His attitude is a microcosm of the problem of Murray Darling River planning. Nobody agrees. It is a free for all, with each person, each municipality, having no consideration for the people of the catchment as a whole. Why should they? Their role model – their various governments seem hell bent on fracturing the Federation. Why not add compromising the nation’s water to a deteriorating concern for country?

The Pub in the Scrub

It is but a speck on the map between Condobolin and Tullamore. Here there is a typical two-storied, corrugated iron roofed country hotel, with a bright orange tiled façade. It luxuriates in the soubriquet of The Pub in the Scrub. Its name, which also is the name of this hamlet, is Fifield. The hamlet is empty, apart from a murder of crows having a convention in the main street and a ute parked against the kerb in front of the pub.

Near the geographic centre of NSW, Fifield is surrounded by blazing yellow broad acres of canola. It was once the site for alluvial exploration for platinum and there is a sign nearby pointing to a place called Platina.

Fifield’s car graveyards

However, Fifield is a graveyard for car bodies. They are everywhere. There is an old barn, unusually with a chimney but now ramshackle, despite the incongruous new solar panels on the roof. Acres of car bodies behind the building are spread on the other side of the main road, the whole extent of which is hidden by trees. The fact there was a newish bright yellow Ford in front of the barn seems to confirm that the building was occupied.

The oval was covered in cape weed; there was once a tennis court, now overgrown, but with its net still in place and the rusted gate still visible. A disused wooden church on the corner with a handwritten sign which says “St Dymphna”, who can identified as the Lily of Ireland, the patron saint of mental illness.

However, on the road as you enter town there is a bright black and yellow sign exhorting the passing motorist not to dump rubbish – or else. Unless of course, it’s your car.

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

When I used to walk close to my old home among the trees which dotted the sloping land that had been preserved around the Melbourne Cricket Ground, I would come across a canoe tree where, before whitefella settlement, the Wurrundjeri people had carved a canoe from the bark.

Canoe trees were probably more common than have been found, but civilisation has a way of destroying heritage. Maybe many trees so used for canoes, shields, coolamons and other artefacts just did not survive. After all, before the whitefella came with his tree-felling prowess, there would have been open forest where the city now stands. Not surprisingly the river red gum with its stout trunk was a favourite source of bark. Bark was plentiful. Bark was the only resource they had for their canoes as there is no evidence that the dugout canoe of their Northern Australian brothers ever percolated south.

Yet the bark canoe was obviously important given the number of rivers and watercourses that flowed around and through the land which whitefellas labelled Melbourne. It is surprising so many of the trees survived so close to the centre of Melbourne

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

This reflection on tree carving was at the forefront of my mind when we visited the grave of Yuranigh. His grave lies a few kilometres east of Molong, a central west NSW town just off the highway to Orange.

The directions are well marked, the track is stony clay, there is a gate and a cattle grid, and then a short drive where old gnarled yellow box gums hold sway over a weed infested paddock. This is where Yuranigh is buried. Little is known about this Wiradjeri man except that he accompanied Thomas Mitchell to the Gulf of Carpentaria on one of Mitchell’s explorations.

Mitchell thought so much of this man that when Yuranigh died when still a young man, Mitchell paid for his grave and a marble headstone commemorating Yuranigh. It is apparently recognised as the one site in Australia where European and Aboriginal burial traditions coincide.

Around the area where Yuranigh is buried are carved trees, sinuous dendroglyphs etched into the heart of the trees – complex cuts given the tools that would have been used. The most prominent one of these is a stump protected from the weather, an extraordinary example of Wiradjeri art. It had lain for years on the ground, before being raised and now supported in a concrete base

There is another tree close by where the artwork can be viewed through a slit in the tree – the carving lying within the tree. There are four trees that define the corners of the gravesite, but some have defiantly repaired themselves and in so doing smothered the artwork.

We were alone at the site. Despite the complexity of what we were witnessing – an intertwined image where we could see original Wiradjeri work in all its complexity but only guessing as to meaning not only of the carving but also its placement in relation to Yuranigh’s burial place, I realise I know so very little.

Yuranigh grave site

Yes, I understand Mitchell’s tribute. That’s how we whitefellas celebrate dying in a world of grey – the compromise between white and black in our monuments and headstones. But the trees are not confected – they are real. In blackfella eyes Yuranigh obviously was a great Aboriginal man; the carvings denote respect. Otherwise who would take such care? “Sorry business” is such an important part of Aboriginal life.

John is not the Name

When I go to a bank or any other place where the interaction is usually with a younger generation, far younger than my “silent generation”, I find being addressed by my Christian name jarring to say the least. I quickly correct them on most occasions.

After all we have a surname for a reason, whether derived by being the “son of “, colour (white, black, brown), profession (fletcher, butcher, smith), location (London, Birmingham, Kent).

I come from a generation when every male at least addressed each other by “surname”. However, within the family and friends circle, we were called by our Christian names.

I find calling elderly people by their first name, as if they are children, unsettling. I would object to a stray carer that I have never seen before, calling me by first name. Using “John” jars just because they have seen that on some of my documentation, because those who know me call me “Jack”. Address me by my surname please.

Having thus aggressively put my point of view, my cousin told me a salutary story about his uncle. His uncle Jack went to get a job on the wharves.

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

“Look, feller, on these wharves we deal in surnames. What’s your surname?”

“Honey.”

“Well, Jack, it is …!” came the immediate reply.

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

It is about 40 years since we were in Mudgee. We came to the inaugural Mudgee Wine Festival. It was a spur of the moment decision. I asked her. She said yes. Now years later, the trip was not so romantic; you know, she said as we were driving there, “We came here in 1980. Have you been to Mudgee since?” I had travelled widely around this part of NSW and for a time I often visited Dubbo, spent time at Bathurst, found some delightful antiques at Molong and had been to Glen Davis on more than one occasion – but Mudgee?

Forty years ago, Mudgee wines were dismissed with the label “Mudgee Mud.” Give something a bad name and I doubt whether even after exposure of the wine at the Festival was sufficient for me to ever buy some. It was still very indifferent wine.

Ulan coal mine

The dinner was an uproarious affair, as one of the guys who was a geologist had mapped the coal deposits around Ulan and was making or had made a financial bonanza out of his assiduous tracking of the coal deposits around those areas. At the time of the dinner he had secured the lease over the tail of the deposit. Forty years ago, coal as they said was king, and who had heard of climate change effects!

At the end of the night, we blokes had all got along so well, and there was so much bonhomie, that everybody was shickered. Out in the car park all the blokes got into the driver’s seats and the wives, who were by and large sober, were consigned to the passenger seats. There was one exception – the young lady whom I eventually was to marry years later – insisted on driving. Just as well.

The next morning I awoke, nursing a damaged head. We had stayed down the road at Kandos, famous for its limestone quarrying. Mudgee had been booked out. As we were leaving the motel owner noted that I was a doctor.

“Oh”, she cooed, “ We would love to have a young white doctor here in Kandos.”

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

On the menu at the Italian restaurant in Griffith, it was stated that one could dine “al fresco”. Sounds authentic – just as the names of any the pastas or “il cotoletta Milanese” were authentic italiano.

The term al fresco is unknown in Italy. If you want to dine outside (fuori) or in the open (all’aperto”), you will be directed to that leafy courtyard.

Thus, il cameriere will scratch il sua testa if you say “al fresco”. He may misunderstand and instead bring you acqua fresca – cold water.

all’aperto!

Modest Expectations – It’s Time

Two weeks ago, it was horror stories coming from Victoria about people being locked up in tower public housing blocks, and I expressed a concern as to whether locking people up in tower blocks should not be accompanied by a warning about the risk of fires and how this would be managed if the buildings were to go into lockdown. In fact a number of residents were evacuated to hotel quarantine.

It seems that threat has abated in the public mind in the face of the rising horror stories of the private nursing homes and the circumstances whereby the residents are caught up in the rising tide of community transmission.

This involved families, staff and “persons unknown” unwittingly spreading the virus to a group of our elderly population incarcerated in a system where financial profit is paramount and the operational arrangements seem far from being able to combat a pandemic. However the problem, while systemic, is not only rampant in certain postcodes and not in others but also completely contained within the private sector.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, tries to be measured, never raising his voice and refusing to apportion blame to any sector of the population when it is probably plain to himself when reviewing the data that certain sections of the population are more susceptible to “amoral familism”, which I have mention previously. That one of the biggest outbreaks is in an aged care facility linked to the Greek Orthodox community has not elicited as yet any finger pointing in the community is testimony to his control of the situation.

The problem with “amoral familism”, which is not limited to a Greek village upbringing, is that it promotes the mindless protection of the family unit above all – the State can go hang. It is the product of an upbringing where the education levels are low and unfortunately the society in which many of the people have grown up is male-dominated and authoritarian, and often where sanctions are not enforced by the gentle remonstrations of the reasonable man, as Andrews is. Ignorance of English does not help.

Therefore, when it seems nobody is watching this group, even when COVID-19 positive, it is unsurprising if these people do not heed warnings. If I were isolated in a foreign village with no knowledge of the language, could or would I heed any warning?

Hence not having the language would be an excuse if the individual were an isolate. However, it would be rare for this to occur. Spokespersons for particular communities bob up all the time. Instead of ensuring that these potential “purveyors of death” are quarantined, these spokespersons seem just to offer a variety of excuses; they did not understand, they did know that what they were doing was criminal and the excuses flow on and on.

Andrews has a difficult job, because if he names the miscreants then he runs the problem of stigmatising whole communities for the sins of the few. Andrews also knows that these “hotspots” are in his electoral bailiwick, but given that many of the Labor parliamentarians in these electorates have migrant backgrounds, you would think that the Premier should not have to bear the full load. Some of the political actions are somewhat like those gossamer Green parliamentarians posturing in front of the locked-down housing towers, full of sound and fury, as is common with Greens, signifying nothing.

So it is easier to implement rules that disadvantage the Victorian community, moving to the second-highest category of restrictions – Stage 4. Unlike America, most Victorians know more about the Virus than they did in March when it first came to notice and are thus better able to run relatively normal lives, while appreciating the need for social distancing, hand washing and now masks. Most people have shown that they are prepared to work within increasing limits – as shown by the imposition of masks, which has been almost universally accepted.

The percentage of self-serving exhibitionists and just plain “wackos” seem to be mercifully small, but having identified themselves they could form a nucleus of inmates of the quarantine facilities that I have advocated should be constructed where those who are invited in serve a true “quarantine” period – that is, 40 days and nights. They would be joined by those deliberately flouting the government directives. After all, each of those COVID-19 positive individuals roaming the streets in a wilful manner is a “potential murderer”. Harsh words, but think about the logic. Who actually killed grandpa and grandma in the nursing home?

The other problem with Victoria is that it has always lagged behind NSW in its investment in public health, particularly in contact tracing. Victoria has been known to have under-resourced public health training for years.

That advance goes back to the work of Dr Sue Morey who, under the Head of the NSW Department of Health the late Bernie Amos, set up a comprehensive program in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Many of the current senior cohort of the NSW public heath physicians, as does the State of NSW, benefited from the program Morey established and owes her a very great debt.

The inability to find out the source of all the cases occurring in Melbourne also relies on people telling the truth and not incriminating themselves for whatever reason. Having said that, the present inquiry presumably is expected to reveal the chain of infection from case zero.

Those three young women flaunting and flouting through three States, refusing to co-operate, destroying their mobile phones and probably denying they are Nigerian are just extreme examples.

However, as with criminal activity the more the rest of the community is law-abiding, the more time there is for policing the extreme cases. As with vaccination, there is a reliance on having a high proportion of the community vaccinated – the vaccinated group provide a buffer for the unvaccinated.

There is also another “wee” problem that may be overlooked when the pandemic is distracting attention. The Ministerial retinue has returned from America. Like those who have flouted the pandemic in Melbourne, the government has not offered any advice on their whereabouts. However, the “cat may be out of the bag” when a so-called “consular officer” returning from overseas turned up in Maroochydore and then Toowoomba yesterday with a dose of COVID-19. Coincidence?

Apparently, “not actually a Consular officer” quibbled DFAT, but he was still carrying a diplomatic passport or the equivalent. The arrogance of holders of red and green passports knows no bounds, but at least the Queensland Premier has called this exemption out; however there is no mention of the whereabouts of the two Ministers. Again, there are exemptions for the few.

Clive Palmer – The Rose of Bulgaria or a Dangerous Furbo? 

I think that this son of Bulgaria, alleged owner of property in Sofia, and expert in its national sport of Split Squat has been wrongly characterised. Here in the damask fields of the Rose Valley of northern Bulgaria they talk of nothing else – but Clive.

He is up to all his Bulgarian tricks again. He has a case before the High Court challenging the Western Australian Government’s right to the close its borders.

His arguments are based around section 102 of the Australian Constitution, which states:

On the imposition of uniform duties of customs, trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free. But notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, goods imported before the imposition of uniform duties of customs into any State, or into any Colony which, whilst the goods remain therein, becomes a State, shall, on thence passing into another State within two years after the imposition of such duties, be liable to any duty chargeable on the importation of such goods into the Commonwealth, less any duty paid in respect of the goods on their importation.

Most of the words in this section relate to the immediate transitional arrangement following the enactment of the Constitution in 1901 but the key clause has centred on what States can or cannot do about imposing barriers between themselves. Legal arguments have waged about what it all means and many lawyers have had their waistcoats filigreed in gold as a result.

The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, probably as a proper lawyer had the normal reflex. Since there is a challenge to the Constitution, therefore the Australian Government must take an interest. This is such a fundamental issue. Does State border closure present a challenge to the Federation if unilateral action is taken by a State to close the borders? Does Clive Palmer provide a challenge to the Australian Constitution?

The Federal Government was emboldened by the initial encouragement of the Prime Minister to keep supporting the Palmer initiative. There, in the background, would be the normal cheer group that thinks supporting Clive’s challenge a “jolly jape”. These are parliamentarians gathered together under the standard of a skunk-like animal with adolescent behavior rituals and bearing aloft an icon of Christopher Pyne. They can’t help irritating the Australian community from their seats of privileged opulence.

The Prime Minister has had second thoughts, hopefully not only because of the backlash in Western Australia to the Palmer challenge. It should be remembered that Palmer was born in Victoria and spent most of his formative years on the Gold Coast, where he made his first fortune in real estate. So he is not a genuine Western Australian – “he just ain’t one of them”.

If Clive wants to stir up the Sandgropers over this issue of secession, of which border closure is a subsection, then they might just take it out on the Liberal party at the next Federal election. Hence, Morrison backing away may have been because he realised that Palmer was trying to “tar baby” him.

One obvious solution is to form a pro-tem barrier away from the accepted geographical boundary. Cross-border regional arrangements are everywhere. To me, working in the Victorian border town of Cobram on the Murray River, meant that I had to cross to the NSW river town of Barooga more than once a day.

One has only to live in a border area to know that indiscriminately shutting borders is group punishment, unnecessarily unfair and at times unwittingly dangerous.

These are communities of interest, which have grown up over a century or more, where the border is just irrelevant to normal social and economic intercourse.

Therefore when this Virus is eventually contained there is work to be done in this area of “communities of interest”, so that if borders have to be closed then there is a fully developed plan that minimises the disruption and can be put into immediate effect. As has been said on more than one occasion, cross-border arrangements have diverse benefits and opportunities for managing a shared resource.

In any event should the adopted son of Bulgaria win his case in the High Court, I am sure that Western Australia could move its lockdown zone един метър inside its actual border with South Australia and Northern Territory. Clive, with your solid knowledge of Bulgarian, you would know what that means.

After all, Clive you are not the only gander in the “Gooserie”.

Hafnium (Hf)

I was browsing through an old New Scientist and came across a world map, which indicated that among a series of metals, Australia had over 50 per cent of the world’s hafnium.

According to the map legend, it was estimated that Australia had the biggest deposit of hafnium in the World. Hafnium does not occur independently in nature.

Even though predicted by Mendeleev it was not discovered until 1923 by two chemists Dirk Coster, a Dane, and George Charles de Hevesy, a Hungarian. The Dane prevailed. Hafn was the mediaeval name for Copenhagen. The Hungarian just shared the glory of having isolated this last natural occurring element.

Apparently, one of the major problems is that hafnium is tightly linked to zirconium in a ratio of 1:50, and exists in a group of three naturally occurring elements with titanium the lightest and hafnium the heaviest with an atomic number of 72. Lying between is zirconium. However, as far as can be obtained, the amount of hafnium produced is small, and until recently it was a considered a waste product, removed in the purification of zirconium. Zircons are renown as jewellery substitutes for diamonds, but zirconium has a multitude of uses, and put simply it is everywhere – its industrial use is in hardening alloys and ceramics. It is also anti-corrosive.

Recently, Hafnium has been found to have a number of amazing properties and it can be used in almost any industries where the word “advanced” is the prefix.

The special properties of Hafnium oxide have recently permitted further miniaturisation of microprocessors, enhancing processing speed while eradicating overheating problems.

Resistant to corrosion, the metal its oxide forms extreme temperatures. Consequently, hafnium is used in plasma cutting tips for welding, and is essential to the advancement of the aerospace industry. 

Added to this, hafnium carbide is one of the highest temperature resistant and hardest materials with melting point of 3,900 degrees Centigrade which potentially suitable in a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) for faster spacecraft propulsion.

So writes the hafnium enthusiast linked to the company proposing to mine a deposit south of Dubbo when extolling the element’s virtues.

Despite its global market being about 70 tonnes annually, this enthusiast predicts the demand will double by 2025, and Australia could produce 200 tonnes a year. So far I am following the trail to Hafnium.

This is a small amount given that the Dubbo mine is proposed to be an open cut operation that will extract 19.5Mt of ore a year from a 32m-deep open cut mine.

The extracted ore is crushed and further reduced in size by grinding circuit. Sulphuric acid will be used to convert the material into sulphated ore, will be leached in water and sent for solvent extraction and precipitation, and onwards the final product.

Extraction of these elements and the associated pollution is increasingly being factored into political considerations when the mining spruikers are abroad. However, there are further chemical processes to separate the hafnium from zirconium.

The technological description states it is “a liquid–liquid extractive separation between hafnium and zirconium from thiocyanic acid medium using the mixtures of diisobutyl ketone (DIBK) and di (2-ethylhexyl) phosphoric acid (P204) as the extractant was developed.”

A metallurgist could answer the question of how much this extraction method damages the environment. 

It is almost as an afterthought, that process residues are treated before dumping them into storage facilities. The disposal of residue when there is a potentially such a big hole in the Dubbo landscape is far from a throwaway line.

Water will be taken from the Macquarie River, but the amount proposed is nowhere stated. In the description of the extraction of ore no amount of water is mentioned and the description hurries onto the marvels of the proposed mine.

OPAL’s lightwater pool

There is another problem with zirconium mining – the deposits often exist with radioactive elements – thorium and uranium. Small problem with an open cut mine only a few kilometres from a regional city! I find it interesting that there has been an experimental extraction plant at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) since 2009. Hafnium is used in control rods in the nuclear reactor core.

Currently, China produces 75% of the world’s zirconium supply and hence hafnium. “China’s stranglehold on the supply chain of this material essential for advanced technology weakens the economic and political security of other nations”.

Metallurgy is one of the professions that, from the outside, smells of alchemy – there is a magical aspect to the extraction of these uncommon elements and their increasing relevance with advancing technology demanding these metallic elements with their special qualities. Then it is promoted to an essential component of our lives. Lithium has been one such metal.

However, the “green lobby” faces the whole “strategic development” lobby, where self sufficiency is increasingly important, and moving rare elements around the political game board are important chips in being able to game, with more strategic element chips than other nations. At present, China seems to have the greatest variety of these chips in the greatest quantity.

Australia has quantity in two particular chips – iron ore and coal. But that is a different game board. Given the amount of these being mined, then the impact on climate change is a constant.

However, too often the question from the local politicians when confronted with the prospect of a mine in their electorate is concern about how many jobs will be created. The Dubbo project bosses does not explicitly answer that question.

As far as one can gauge prices, the price of hafnium is in the region of USD6million a tonne; whereas zirconium is priced at USD10,000 a tonne.

To get a comparison, Australia produces 900 million tons of iron ore at about USD110 a tonne.

What progress has been made on the Dubbo mine project? In February 2020: Alkane noted that Export Finance Agency’s (EFA’s) financial support would be subject to finalisation of due diligence, acceptable financing structure and eligibility and credit requirements. As Australia’s export credit agency, EFA is mandated to support businesses, which are seeking to develop new export market. 

I have been one of those converted to the climate change lobby and I am particularly worried about the wasteful use of water in what, apart from Antarctica, is the driest continent.

I read about hafnium; the notion of there being the greatest percentage of the world’s supply in Australia has intrigued me. I have searched to find out what is its proper place in the Australian economy. Political leaders are often confronted with such decisions when they have little intrinsic knowledge of the subject.

The giraffes are watching …

However, if I were in a position to make a decision, I would be immediately worried by the massive water requirement and the fact that there would be an open cut mine where radioactive minerals are being mined close to a major regional city, the Western Plains Zoo and the Dubbo Observatory. However the dilemma is, as with all mineral extraction, how can the metal be purified with the least pollution. Unfortunately, when in doubt the large powers with a monopoly of the chips kick the game board over – and everybody loses.

Paraphrasing Einstein, who never said a truer word when he said the fourth world war will be fought with rocks, some of which may contain hafnium.

All Souls

All Souls, Oxford

I suppose being invited to dinner by Max Beloff with the academic Fellows at All Souls was an honour. Great Britain that year was sunny, and when that occurs the summer is always beautiful. Off to Oxford the three of us went one evening to have dinner.

Max Beloff was an eminent modern historian who, at that stage of his life, was tramping from one side of the political spectrum to the other. The young socialist Beloff, now in middle-age having marked time as a Liberal, was moving determinedly to the right at the time, when he invited us to dinner.

Beloff had been a Fellow since 1957, ensconced as he was in this group “at the pinnacle of British academic hierarchy”. He had attained this position much earlier than when he had pursued this neo-liberal journey, in the process setting up a private university and then later absorbing imperial honours that were piled on him by Thatcher.

When we arrived we were ushered into a reception room where pre-dinner drinks were served; I had the obligatory dry sherry as the clever repartee started. The problem with clever repartee is that it is essentially hierarchial; if the young man (it was not until 1979 that women were admitted as Fellows of All Souls) wanted to announce his presence in such exchanges, it seems dressing flamboyantly helps. The “look at me” mien serves as an entrée card.

I was well versed in the social rules of these establishments, having been an undergraduate in a residential College, which replicated much of its social mores from those of Oxford. Therefore, I shut up and only replied when spoken to by some Fellow who had not the slightest interest in whom I was.

However, the call to dinner came and there is nothing like a College refectory – long high table, paneled walls, high-backed mahogany chairs. Beloff welcomed us – the Boss thanked him. It was all so polite, but it was an experience – probably once in a lifetime. Although for them not; just three Australians to be humoured in exchange for a meal.

I was seated next to Michael Howard, the military historian and we chatted about his topic. My contribution when the Franco-Prussian War was mentioned was that I had inherited a full set of skeletal bones from my father. It was widely thought that many of the skeletons used by aspiring doctors pre-war had come from soldiers who had died in that War. They were highly prized for the muscle markings, which were very distinct on these bones. However, apart from that I cannot remember the other Fellows beside and across the table. The talk was just that – inconsequential chatter as the Fellows on either side of the table carefully updated themselves on one another, given that there was a young foreigner in their midst.

Dinner was traditional English fare, which was better than the College roast to which I been subject every night more than a decade earlier.

Once dinner was finished it was off to another room for fruit, nuts, digestive biscuits and the central cheese. The obligatory Stilton round had pride of place, and the port was passed. Then it was off to the terrace for coffee and brandy.

The night was absolutely still and balmy, the sky a curious lavender grey. Across the terrace was the impressive Codrington Library building, built in the early 18th century on the back of slavery and a sugar cane fortune amassed by a Christopher Codrington.

It highlights the problem of applying 21st century values to the funding of a building like that. The Christopher Wren sundial installed over the entrance is a spectacular reminder of the versatility of the man, and Wren himself was a Fellow.

Oh, so different from the environment of the All Souls College of Christopher Wren, outwardly becoming more sensitive to its survival after the radicalism of 1968 which threatened its existence, when it was sneered at as “a weekend home for port-drinking members of the London Establishment, grown fat on the rent of farms it owned since the Middle Ages”.

Had we had dinner in an Anachronism?

Then it was back to London. I still remember the golden glow drenching the car, and my thoughts drifted to the recently-released Joe Losey film “The Go-between” and I, projecting myself as the young man in search of a romantic interlude in the same rural saffron softness of the film.

I have often visited Oxford since, but never again had a brandy with the 42 Fellows outside on the terrace.

But then again I would have preferred to meet Julie Christie. 

Mouse whisper

A scrap of paper plastered against my mousehole. That is the problem about my mausmeister. He is always cutting out what he considers wise sayings and leaving them on sticky pieces of paper. When I scraped the piece off my “hole way”, it read:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand or more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Very sage advice; but I was thinking of putting in a new entrance to my mousehaus to make a closer access to the pantry. I’ll have to think about it now.

Modest expectations – The Forty-Niners

They come in their work clothes and their steel-capped boots, climbing on board the QantasLink plane at Devonport; or disembarking at the same airport. They are the FIFO miners who work on the ore rich West Coast of Tasmania. They have living quarters on the edge of Zeehan and in Rosebery while they are on work down the mine, since 50 per cent of the miners choose not to live permanently on site. Interestingly one per cent of Tasmanian miners are listed as working in the East Pilbara in Western Australia.

Paradoxically, the Mt Lyell mine at Queenstown, the largest settlement on the West Coast, has been closed down for nearly five years. Its Indian parent company in the same period closed its copper smelter in India, but claims there is no connection between the two decisions. However, Queenstown exists as the local government centre amid denuded hills, a settlement desperately clinging to its existence. The beautiful King River, polluted for over 70 years by the mine tailings from Mount Lyell, is said will take 200 years to restore, but at least a start has been made to cover the riverside that was yellow with sulphur with sedge and other littoral plants. Over the last 20 years you can see that change.

King River gorge and Abt Railway track

It’s a bit sad to see that the old anti-climate change warrior from Tasmania, Eric Abetz remains solidly behind the coal lobby given how little coal mining contributes to the Tasmanian economy – less than 100 jobs. Eric moreover was outed for spending $3,000 on a trip to go to an Australian Mines and Metals Association conference in 2018 in Melbourne. He is reported as saying his travel was appropriate “given the undisputed importance of the sector to Tasmanians. Tasmania’s Mt Lyell mine has been the sole continuous AMMA member”, Abetz said. As the report noted as a postscript, as Eric should have known, “it was no mean feat, considering the mine had been mothballed four years before the gala dinner.”

But then Eric comes from Hobart and I wonder how often he has visited the West Coast – if ever. There is much mining – zinc, iron ore, gold, tin – but no longer from Mount Lyell. There are mines near Zeehan, Rosebery, Tullah and up on the Savage and Henty Rivers. However, if you live in Hobart, the Tasmanian West Coast may as well be on the moon.

I have been going regularly to the West Coast for more than 20 years and yet those towns look the same as they were then, except for the increase in hostel-like accommodation for the FIFO. In other words, these towns have not boomed in population as Queenstown did after the discovery of copper and silver in the late nineteenth century. The need to transport the ore resulted in Strahan on the Macquarie Harbor becoming the conduit port (again the population reached 2,000 then) and the revolutionary Abt railway was the means to transport the ore over the mountains and through the rain forest along the King River from Mount Lyell.

Strahan is now a tourist resort and the Abt Railway, which was closed in 1963, has been rebuilt as a tourist attraction. Strahan also still functions as a fishing port – crayfish and abalone – and in the harbour, salmon farming. There are the leatherwoods, the flowers of which provide the nectar for the distinctive honey found here. Even with the mining, there is still this extraordinary temperate rainforest of myrtle, native beech, sassafras, blackwood and the remnant clumps of pine unique to Tasmania – huon, king billy and celery top pine.

Because the changes in the mining industry from the stereotype beloved by those who never go to a mining town, it is difficult to imagine a settlement to have a life once mined out. But people like Abetz would throw money at Mount Lyell in the mistaken belief that it would result in more jobs, irrespective of the return. In most part the company would probably just pocket the subsidy.

As I said, there is still a healthy mining industry – the whole of the West Coast is a mineralised area, and taking just one mining industry, that of zinc mining at Rosebery (population 713) and Zeehan (population 708), it yields about a third of Australia’s output in zinc; and Australia produces about 30 per cent of the world’s zinc. Unlike coal, zinc is unlikely to be replaced because of its recognized use not only in sunscreen but more importantly in galvanizing iron and in the development of electric batteries for cars.

However even with such important mining activity, the resident population of these two mining towns on a rough calculation is equal to the number of FIFO. It should be added that 30 per cent of the zinc is recycled and here, in employment terms, the Swiss-owned smelter near Hobart at Risdon has played an integral role. The problem with mining in Tasmania is that the West Coast is the last area of untouched temperate rain forest in Australia, brought into stark relief – literally – by the bushfires along the east coast from Queensland to the Victorian border. So mining is a case of treading carefully, having learnt from Mount Lyell as an example of what not to do to the environment.

Wind turbines being placed at Granville Harbour are providing 200 jobs during construction, but for maintenance only 10. That, together with the FIFO, means that in the end it is not the technology nor the resources which provide the essence of life anywhere.

Tourism brings 300,000 to the North-West and West – people are the life blood, especially as the Macquarie Harbour boat trip and the reconstructed Abt Railway are the prime attractions, with Strahan the prime place to stay.

Oh, by the way, dear Eric, you should witness the huge wind turbines being moved down the Murchison Highway, round the corner through Zeehan and on up the road to eventually reach Granville Harbour. Wind and rain are the West Coast’s resources to be exploited, and soon the mighty wind resource of the Forties gales will be added to the Tasmanian power grid.

However, given how irrelevant coal is to the economy of Tasmania, I presume your time as a “coal war warrior” will soon be over, your task completed, but as you drive your Tonka tip truck off into a smoked filled sunset, remember your West Coast and its wonderful diversity.

The Martini

I enjoy a gin martini. My wife makes a very good martini and this blog was prompted by an article on the (alleged) best martini maker in the world opining on how to make the best martini. However the Best Martini was somewhat different from that of the expert.

First of all keep the gin in the freezer. This ensures that you’ll know if the gin has been watered down, because if it partially freezes you know there is dilution. Also if you keep the gin in the freezer, it makes the question of shaken or stirred irrelevant.

Next, “vermouth” the glass with green Noilly Prat; here there is no disagreement with yon expert, but it is a question of the amount. The Best formula calls for one in eight and then the gin from the freezer is poured into a chilled martini glass. And again in agreement, the lemon twist is the best addition to this opulent drink, but if you want to fiddle then if you must use three olives on a gold stick. Gold is important as it gives the olives a certain je ne sais pas quoi dire.

However, the problem is the cost of such a drink and the level of sobriety after two if you forsake the ice. There is no dilution if you pour straight from the freezer.

Which reminds me of that hoary old joke beloved by Latin teachers: Cassius Brutus clanks into the Vinum Bar in Rome and asks for a Martinus. The bartender responds: “surely you mean a martini?” to which Cassius Brutus said: “if I wanted two I would have ordered so”.

The best martini apart the uxorious one described above I ever had was a cucumber infused martini in New York. It was not the faintly cucumberish Hendricks, but a more full flavoured version. The nearest I could find was the Gordon’s cucumber infused gin in the green bottle, but I think I must have bought the last bottles in Australia. You garnish with a partially peeled piece of cucumber.

Have not seen any sign of the Gordon’s Green; only its seeming replacement of pink gin…only in Raffles in Singapore please, as I slightly shudder. 

Bernie Sanders Heartland

A 78 year old who has had a heart attack, who now won’t release his medical notes – bad sign, Bernie. In the information vacuum, the obvious first thought is that he has irreversibly damaged cardiac muscle and therefore a heart at risk.

Then we have a President who mysteriously disappeared into and out of the Walter Reed Hospital. Nobody knows what incantations were said while he was in the hospital. However, Trump’s cupboard is probably the most comprehensive collection of skeletons known to man or woman such that another one as the grim reaper would feel at home.

These old crocks are the marvels of modern American medicine – particularly cardiac care where investigative procedures, stenting and improvement in medication are first rate. American health care (as distinct from the system in which it exists) at its best is probably as good as you would get in the world, if you can afford it and go to wise doctors.

You see modern medicine has enabled an obese, insomniac narcissist with a poor diet and the other who looks madly stressed as if he going to blow a fuse every time he speaks, to be President of the USA.

Just as Nixon thrashed McGovern in the 1972 election, if they survive until November, Trump should win the battle, even though Sanders may appear to be a better bloke.

The other man Joe Biden is just a broad grin, which hides a mediocrity clearly demonstrated by his propensity for plagiarism. His major advantage is he seems physically fit, but old age is not a fair hand in the card game of life.

They said how poor Bloomberg was in the recent debate and how politically incorrect he had been in the past. He does not have the populist orator skills that the others have, with their confected outrage. He is old but he wears his age well without panda eyes or comb overs.

His responses where he was allowed to answer were sensible given that the moderators were appalling. He brings a sense of surety, that on the major policies he will see them through. Like many quiet men he carries a big stick, and Trump just will be no match for him, the longer the campaign goes. He knows how to deal with serial grifters like Trump, and if he secured the nomination he will drive Trump mad with his quiet probing, and as he may say if he was as vulgar to Trump – the fact is that, Trump ol’ boy, I have a bigger one than you have – war chest I mean.

But Bloomberg also is no spring chicken, although he has the gravitas that even in four years he may be able to resurrect America from its policy shambles. It is all very well to have a world economy built on gambling , even if there are fancy names for it, such as stock markets, hedge funds plus all those indices, which may as well be on a bookmaker’s chart. Of course, Bloomberg has built his empire as the steward of these goings-on.

If the Democrats come to their senses, and if Bloomberg is selected, then Pete Buttigieg should be considered for his Vice-President running mate, to test whether an openly gay married man will be acceptable to the majority of Americans. Buttigieg is smart and personable, but not this time, brother.

They who read the blog may say I’m a “typical male who has ignored the two women”. Simply put, America needs a different woman prototype to appeal to the whole electorate. Warren, with her artificial outrage would gain votes, but she suffers from a lack of sense of humour and her candidature is now on life support. The problem with the plethora of women who thought of doing a “Hilary” and have progressively dropped out is that their presence has obscured how impressive Governor Klobuchar is, but she too is in danger of disappearing.

To me on the stump if Trump and Sanders are the 2020 presidential combatants they are equally repellent, but then I do not have a vote, only an opinion. That doesn’t get you anywhere; but the prospect of candidates dying on the campaign trail is too macabre – and frankly, just a bit too close to reality. Moreover, it is not the time for old men.

They will not be around to be cheered or booed at the end of 2050 if the world is still belching the same level of pollution and progressively destroying the world that we have known, but will not live to see. The same can be said for all those old men, as well as Elizabeth Warren.

The Price of Never Being Wrong

The problem with epidemics is they thrive on ignorant national leaders, who have no idea of public health, suppressing inconvenient information. This increasing government secrecy is coupled with the modern version of the courtier castrati, people without ideas but with perfumed phrases whispering into the ear of national leaders who have lost the ability to apologise.

I once wrote a small monograph entitled “The Dilemma of the Public Health Physician” in which I attempted, as I said, “to help public health physicians to work through the situation which confronts many professionals when they are in possession of information which others perceive as ‘sensitive’ or valuable in any respect.

I went on to argue that all public health information should be freely available. The problem is that many public health physicians exist for the collection of data and not for the best way to make it available to the community. But communication skills have never been emphasised as they should be, because even over 20 years ago I wrote; “there is an increasing tendency for the political walls to be daubed with the graffiti of misinformation”.

This current epidemic will test those countries, especially China and Russia, whose leaders’ powers lie in secrecy and misinformation, to become more open. This epidemic will not be the last, given that the world with rising temperatures throughout, is increasingly becoming an incubator for exotic diseases.

Added to this viruses jumping from one species to another, mutating, being always ahead of the game … so no more pangolin penis eating in the restaurants of Asia, please. I assure you it doesn’t help virility only the possibility of a new virus – that is if the pangolin revenge is not already been enacted across the world.

On reflection am I just succumbing to daubing those political walls? Well, that is the point – public health expertise is being allowed not only to languish but to be ignored as an inconvenience. But as many politicians have found out in the past, “wishing an inconvenience would go away” is not a solution.

Having said that it seems we are fortunate in Australia not only to have the calming influence of Brendan Murphy, but also his unheralded deputy Paul Kelly who, unlike his boss, is a public health physician. Their influence on the government where there is a high level of ignorance is, and will continue to be, important. After all, as I wrote they have an imminent dilemma, which I have previously canvassed, which is when is Australia going to lift the ban on unrestricted entry into this country?

That is why the public health physician is as important as members of the police in enforcement of the basic requirements of public health, even down to all Australians washing hands as a matter of course.

Mouse whisper

I am sorry but I cannot let this recent comment by Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister, go by without applauding:

“We Finns have our sauna. And traditionally, it is where we make decisions. So now we have five women in charge, we can all go into the sauna together and make the decisions there.”

“Ei vain miehet vapauttavat kuumaa ilmaa”, says my old Finnish great-grand father mouse Aarvo.

That is the last comment he will ever make. They will be after him with birch branches.

Mickey Finn