Modest Expectations – Twenty of dark chocolate

Neale Daniher

Neale Daniher is a very brave man. I admire him greatly as the epitome of all that is great about being an Australian. He fully deserves the Order of Australia recently bestowed on him; he also deserves to be invested with it as soon as practical while he can still walk.

For seven years his health has progressively deteriorated. He has motor neurone disease (MND), yet he has maintained a defiance against this progressively incurable disease.  Today, he has almost lost his ability to speak. It is a terrible disease, and I know that when I developed my own disease one of the differential diagnoses, soon discounted thankfully, was MND.

The symbol for what Daniher describes as “The Beast”, with inadvertently or not its Biblical imagery, has been the ice bucket, the ice bath, the ice pool – a plunge in order to raise funds for research.

The problem is that research into the cure for motor neurone disease is at the same level as it was when I was born. Getting nowhere substantially is not restricted to MND.  I have known researchers who have spent their lives trying to develop a malaria vaccine or find a cure for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy – to no effect. Honourable failures – the dilemma for those seeking more money for such research. That is problem personally I have in contributing money for research into this disease – poor return on investment.

Lou Gehrig

Around the time I was born, a famous baseball player died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common form of motor neurone disease. The disease was given his name, Lou Gehrig. He too was a brave man; a film starring Gary Cooper was made of his life. Lou Gehrig died about three years after the onset when he was only 37 years old in 1941.

Now 80 years on Neale Daniher, in his time a very gifted footballer whose playing days were foreshortened by knee injuries, is dying of the same disease. The onset of his disease was when he was 53. Over seven years survival is testimony to something innate.

Increasingly, auto-immunity is being ascribed as the culprit. Auto-immunity, the tendency of the body to destroy itself when the immune system goes rogue, is the battlefield. It is an area where the disease has been victorious up to now, particularly in the case of this disease, which causes the destruction of the nerve cells that control voluntary muscular movement.

There are a few inconclusive drugs and conservative measures which may prolong life; and as long as Neale Daniher remains optimistic, then his will to live deserves every support. After all, more than 2,000 people have the disease in Australia, and the total cost of therapeutic support per person averages out as $1m. Two are diagnosed every day; two die every day of the disease.

When there is no longer Neale Daniher around fighting against destiny, let us make sure those with this terrible disease do not die alone, paralysed, slowly suffocating. In other words, strengthen palliation, help strengthen family support but do not – I repeat – do not raise false hopes of a cure.

A muddy Saturday

This is a very simple story about a group of University students who, in 1958, won the Juniors Premiership in the Victorian Amateur Football League. It was a time when there was only one university in Victoria and therefore most of the teams that we played reflected the division between “town” and “gown”, even though the diversity of the team list reflected the normal cross-section of society. The only bond between us was a desire to play football and being under 19 we were consigned to the Juniors.

The two adult teams were the University Blacks and Blues, which were in the top grade and produced a number of players for the pinnacle, the then Victorian Football League (VFL) where you got paid. The other University team for those who just wanted a game was the University Reds.

There was a hierarchy; even as 18 year olds there were a few university students who just played VFL. which, in those days, had an Under 19 nursery as well. They were just too good to play amateur football. Many were in fact champions, not just making up the then “twenty”.

There also was the Victorian Football Association which headed a cascade of suburban and country teams where footballers who had had enough of the paltry returns from playing under the then Coulter Law in the VFL, left to play and/or coach a country team. These players would receive a generous wage and were often set up as the licensee of the local pub.

Then there were the “lily-whites” – the amateurs. In the University hierarchy, this was the place where the cohort of youngsters who were not drafted into the Blues and Blacks played. Some went straight into the top teams; some oscillated between the top teams and the Juniors.

Nevertheless, the Juniors won the Grand Final, and three members of our winning team climbed onto the roof of the University Union Building. They were said to be in a jolly state when they climbed up and affixed the Premiership flag. As one said later, they did not know how they managed to climb onto the roof given the ethanol haze that surrounded them. The flag was returned early the next week neatly folded and nothing more was said.

After that year, the team went their various ways, but one person stuck in my mind and obviously the minds of many of the others, who had known him better. He was a few years older than us and had played for the University team. He was always immaculately dressed, with his signature furled umbrella, given the grounds we played on barely afforded any shelter from the Melbourne winter. He was in direct contrast to the coach, Peter Kelliher, who was a knockabout fellow who acted, as all coaches do, with a mixture of encouragement and invective.

Ian Hamilton Munro was different. He was almost the pastoral adviser to the team – a very kind and compassionate man who was always around when you were injured, when you were having a lousy game. He was a counterpoint to the coach – one person I could always picture on the side lines – often a solitary spectator on a windswept oval.

Somebody suggested that, as we approached the 50th anniversary of the Premiership, the survivors of that year should meet annually for lunch. The first, in 2005, was deemed such a success that it was decided we would have one every year, so that has occurred every year, including 2020. This cohort, then in their youthful sixties when the lunches started are now in their eighties. Our coach, having had a stroke a decade before, was an infrequent participant from early into the lunch cycle.  The immaculate Ian Munro was a regular attender, until he fell victim to old age several years ago – and then he too was gone.

Such a small group, men now who are bonded by a football premiership gained so long ago and all accepting their mortality, has now decided to establish the immortality of their achievement and to honour their paterfamilias by donating a cup in his name for annual presentation by the Melbourne University Football Club for an annual match between the now two Melbourne University Juniors teams.

The cup is made from spun brass, silver-plated. It sits on a dark tallowwood plinth around which is collar of silver-plated nickel with enough space to engrave the annual winners for the next 80 years. It was made by the silversmiths and goldsmiths that make the solid gold Melbourne Cup each year for “that race which stops a nation” – the first Tuesday in November; these same trophy makers also create the trophies for the Australian Tennis Open; they are the last such company in existence in Australia.

Munners Cup

Ian Munro might have been embarrassed, like all good generous persons who give much, but never expect recognition. However, he would have liked the enamelled crossed furled umbrellas – one black, one blue – under his name on the trophy – the Munners Cup.

Even to us well aged, he was still always Munners – not Ian Hamilton Munro. However, that name is the cup’s pseudonym inscribed on the reverse side of the plinth. A simple story with hopefully a long nostalgic tail.

Morrison – A Description in One Word

What struck me was the stony-faced Prime Minister who had been persuaded by his Mate, Mat Cormann, to attend a West Coast Eagles match. The boos around the ground when he was introduced were universal. As part of a meet and greet in the morning, he had been persuaded by one of his consigliere, the irrepressible Mr Forrest, to partake in morning PT. It was a more typical photo-opportunity to show off his eminently “daggy” self.

He does not like to be booed. I notice that he has not turned up at any of the football matches in Victoria.

The other fact about the Prime Minister is that he is not that intelligent; yes, smart in the ways of the Molonglo swamp but not particularly well read or thoughtful. Like all people not blessed with any real sense of personal identity, he is totally versed in public relations, and therefore takes the temperature of his quarry – be it Liberal Party pre-selection or Australia before doing anything; hence he leads from the rear.

His problem, and his is not unique in this regard, is to have as the rule of thumb that you never have any Ministers and advisers more intelligent than he is.  The Prime Minister has succeeded in that endeavour, with one exception. That is the recently departed German-Belgian-West Australian, a chameleon of great skill, Mathias Cormann. There is a genus of politician who, when the master rings a bell, will argue without any shame but on cue that black is white – and too many do it persuasively, all the time knowing where the career escalator is located. Cormann has shown himself to be such an engaging man.

Morrison does not brook dissent; he just cannot take it. Part of this is explained by his reliance on a Christian belief system that does not take criticism easily. Much of the Pentecostal beliefs are couched in uncompromising, simple terms, which require no thought but a belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is a Book where the ambiguities of the authors have been reduced to cartoons. His father was one such believer, and here is a person who has been coached in what some would say is a heretical belief system.

Morrison’s trip overseas has been not unexpectedly revealing. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, gently chided him about his aggression in relation to China; and even in the matter of mask wearing he seemed to guide our uncertain Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has been hoping to amble the world stage but having been relegated to a landing slot at an airport distant from the G7 meeting it should have warned him at the start. There are no better people than the Poms in insulting one and then being able to smooth it over once everybody recognises that the insult was deliberate, if nuanced.  The perfect word for British diplomacy – nuance!

The daggy “Scomo” image which he believes is the basis of his rural popularity – in Queensland and New South Wales – seems not to have translated as well into International Prime Minister. Here is a guy who not only threw himself at the feet of Trump but has an old friend with connections with the dark side of the web – one of those peddling those conspiratorial beliefs, which are so much of the Trump madness.

If he were to have someone close who is visionary, with ideas that he could sample, then he may not be in his current predicament – and if he did not have an adviser called Stewart.

Biden has proved not to be the doddering front man that some of us wrongly feared, but at the centre of some hard-nosed advisers, who probably worry that Morrison is a security risk – hence the intrusion of Johnson into the Biden-Morrison meeting. It would be a problem for our relations if his words “ritual sex abuse” get wide currency in the corridors of the White House. Can Biden trust that anything he says to Morrison will not appear somewhere as an unacceptable comment?

When Howard extracted special treatment in the Kyoto Protocols for our fossil emissions, the United States owed us for our support in the Bush War Coalition of the Willing; Biden owes Morrison nothing.

In relation to the domestic scene, obviously if your Government’s handout to Big Business is essentially little more than to further enrich, then the recipients of such largesse have every reason to support the current regime. It is not an unusual situation when both sides of politics are compromised, but there is a limit which the community, however rendered compliant by the Virus, will tolerate. Australia sliding into plutocracy is not a pleasant sight.

It is also helpful for Morrison that the Murdoch newspapers’ unceasingly support him, bolstering him in a constituency of flag wavers for fossil fuels and where the environment is being progressively degraded by climate denialists.  For the moment these Murdocistas are spooking the rest of the community.

However, this strange remnant from the Trump days has found the world stage somewhat guarded. As one would have expected, he was greeted in France with all the warmth that the appalling submarine contract with the French can muster. Whatever he may think privately, Macron has been polite; it will be interesting to see if he speaks to Morrison through an interpreter – or in English.  If the first, and from afar hard to know, Macron is maintaining distance so that any communications between the two can be properly interpreted, n’est-ce pas.

Another problem for Morrison is that not all the electorates in Australia are obsessed with maintaining coal mining. There are certain electorates in Queensland and NSW where urgent steps must be taken to transfer the workforce to other industries, not to bolster coal which has to be phased out if the world is to survive beyond the end of this century.

Unfortunately, Australia has a Prime Minister who is only concerned with his re-election, and his only response to climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions is an underlined word “technology” – as if Technology is a God like Baal to be worshipped not defined. Here a throng of happy clapping followers with arms outstretched towards this Solution and repeating over and over again, “Technology. For thine is the Answer.”

Maybe I’ll wake up and blame all this on something I ate.

Aduhelm 

“I had no sense of where to turn for help, support, or even how to express the diagnosis with family, friends or co-workers. I was lost and crept further inward. There is no single handbook one can read to prepare; each journey is different, each course of the disease takes different, meandering turns—no two are alike, the experts will tell you, an observation that is clearly numbing in so many ways.”

The drug is called Aduhelm. It has just been given the all-clear by America’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be prescribed for people with early Alzheimer’s dementia. As one correspondent said, for many people Alzheimer’s disease has passed through the early stage of memory loss and is not recognised until the cognitive abilities have declined significantly.

The quote above is from Mary, the wife of a journalist, Greg O’Brien who has written On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, which follows his own decline from the early onset of the disease. Her cry is clear; and there is no wonder that those families where there is Alzheimer’s disease in their midst want a cure. No wonder that news of a drug with any prospect for improvement will generate clamour for its availability – now.

Much of the excitement generated by this drug is that it is the first since 2003 to show any promise and it has cleared a path through the FDA, not without controversy, which resulted in some members of the committee overseeing its approval resigning in protest. The method of approval has also instilled a feeling of uneasiness in this blogger.

The drug is supposed to attack amyloid-beta, the protein which appears in the nerve tangle of the Alzheimer brain. However, nobody really can say whether it is the amyloid deposits which cause the disease or whether they are waste, the result of a process which leaves this protein functionally inert in the brain. Amyloid disease is one of those differential diagnoses for unexplained disease which my generation of doctors grew to know about and recognised with its distinct histological appearance on staining.

The problem is this drug, which is defined as an amyloid-beta-directed antibody reducing the number of plaques of amyloid, is that the benefits are minimal against its downside.

This is where the drug company, Biogen, which is set to make a “motza”, begins what I call the drug company gavotte. Immaculately arrayed in elaborate steps the gavotte dancers move around in intricate steps, a spectacle of elegant circles, arms waving, legs crossing, all to produce a mannered tableau.

Even the drug company’s paid expert, in a beautifully executed twirl, said the drug “potentially prolongs patients’ independence by several months, even a few years, as demonstrated in long-term study”. She said it is a “stepping stone for our next advances” gracefully executing a series of fluttering steps.

The consumer is transported into a trance, ignoring any side-effects, asking the government to make it universally available. Biogen proposes a charge of USD4,312 per infusion “for a patient of average weight”, or USD56,000 per year.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, in a somewhat bizarre statement, has said Aduhelm should cost no more than USD8,300 per year, given the “insufficient” evidence supporting its benefits in clinical trials.

Dancing the gavotte …

Biogen has defended its pricing strategy, noting that the U.S. dishes out about USD600 billion in direct and indirect costs for the disease that affects roughly six million Americans. Now that is a beautiful sideways gavotte movement by the drug company.

Biogen plans to target between one to two million patients with early onset symptoms, executives said last week. The company, generous to a fault, says it won’t raise the price over the next four years.

It should be noted that this drug can only be given as an infusion in a healthcare facility; and then there are the side effects of brain swelling and bleeding, all factors to be integrated into the patient’s health status, a patient status which is directed only one way – down.

When the gavotte is transferred to Australia, it will be greeted by a solid history of successful lobbying for drugs of questionable benefits. First, there is the special pleading, which is always highly personal as one would expect. Ron Walker, the flamboyant businessman, was an influential example of this in his quest to have an experimental drug, Keytruda included for the treatment of melanoma, of which he was a sufferer. His influence on the then Minister saw the placement of this drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for his particular indication at a per patient cost of $4,500 every three weeks for two years.

He achieved his goal; he died in 2018 with the benefit of an average life expectancy increase of 12 months over the cheaper chemotherapy. Not sure about the quality of that life extension. Nevertheless, the drug can now be prescribed to other cancer patients following the largesse of the current Minister, who provides a taxpayer subsidy of $120,000 annually per patient so entitled. Has Ron Walker’s intervention been cost-effective – or just costly?

The drug companies and their shareholders have a different requirement – profit at all costs. Lobbyists hang round drug companies like flies round questionable food, as one of my less than kind associates has said, ever ready to help with selling the product whatever its effectiveness; whatever its cost to the community.

Objectivity is the casualty. Hopefully, the Aduhelm saga will not get to his level, but sometimes I wonder whether governments have lost their sense of smell.

However, the cry from the wife still echoes. Yet will her husband, the author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, take Aduhelm?

My mind drifts back to Neale Daniher, and the need to ensure that while we wait for a cure the palliative services are not ignored, nor the family, and most importantly, that even the person with lowest profile dies with someone holding his or her hand.

Mouse Whisper

In recognition of my friend from Dalarna, Kyrkomus, I am reminded of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, who sometimes got it wrong. He said that potatoes were poisonous, because he noted that the vegetable was related to deadly nightshade. However, the first woman inducted in 1748 into the Swedish Academy in Sciences, Countess Eva Ekeblad, was so recognised by showing that potatoes were essential in the manufacture of wig powder, and more importantly that cool liquor, aquavit.

Skol!

Countess Eva Ekeblad

Modest Expectation – An Apple Once in Paris

Just to put Australia’s lack of flexibility into context, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been prioritised for vaccinating the population Moderna, as reported below, seems to be leading the pack. Where are we, Mr Morrison? Are you across what is happening, and if you have recently done a deal with Moderna has this advance been factored into the deal? AstraZeneca technology is apparently increasingly obsolete in the face of such coronavirus vaccines.

I remember a different time, when the polio vaccines first came to Australia. I was first injected with the Salk vaccine and then, when the Sabin vaccine arrived, it was able to be administered easily orally because it was a live attenuated virus; the Salk vaccine was quickly jettisoned. But then Australia avoided  political furore; we relied on the medical evidence not the share portfolios of various people in influential places .

Also, Prime Minister there is one statistic which you use to justify the continued use of hotels for quarantine – your “99.99 per cent effective at protecting the community against COVID-19” mantra. However, when the air flows are mixed and internal, the problem of cross infection exists, whereas in the case of the Howard Springs facility the air flow is to the outside, with little or no chance of a compromised airflow. Thank God it is only that tiny percentage, Prime Minister. That causes enough chaos as we are now seeing in Victoria, without tempting Fate any further. This is where the use of data only shows what a catastrophic situation it would be if the effectiveness was any lower.

But let’s hear what the CEO of Moderna, based as it is in the Boston area, had to say about its advance, as reported in The Boston Globe, and draw your own conclusions.

Moderna’s chief executive on Wednesday discussed the biotech’s progress in developing a booster shot against COVID-19 variants, saying the company hopes to have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on one of three booster strategies by the end of the summer or early fall.

Stéphane Bancel said Moderna is working on three different options for a single-dose booster shot against variants of concern: the current vaccine, a new variant-specific vaccine, and a 50/50 mix of the two.

Moderna last week shared early study results that showed its first two options — the current vaccine at half the dosage and a shot of its reworked vaccine — both appeared to raise antibody levels against variants that first emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Bancel said the company is expecting to receive data on the third booster strategy in the coming weeks.

“And then we’ll work with the FDA to get the safe and effective variant-specific booster to the American people as fast as we can,” he added.

The data showed that Moderna’s current vaccine “looks good” in protecting against variants, Bancel said, but the reworked vaccine tailored to fight off newer strains of the virus “looks stronger” against the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

Bancel said it’s “not impossible” that a booster could be ready for the fall for people who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in December 2020 or early January, especially for high-risk groups.

“When we have that data [on the third booster strategy] in the clinic, we will pick which one we’ll take for authorization,” Bancel said. “We’re hoping that toward the end of the summer or early fall, we should be able, if the data is good, to have authorization for a boost to be used in the fall to protect all of us so that we can have a good fall and a next good winter.”

Bancel also said the company is working with federal officials to test “the mixing of vaccines,” ensuring that regardless of which vaccine a person initially received, it will be safe for them to get Moderna’s booster shot.

“We shared last Wednesday news that the Moderna vaccine in the 12 to 17 years of age has 96 percent efficacy,” Bancel said. “The safety profile is like what we saw for the adults, and we’re working with the FDA to get the vaccine authorized as soon as we can.”

Moderna is continuing to study its vaccine for children 6 months to 11 years old, Bancel said, and that data is expected to take a few more months.

“We have to go very slow down in age to ensure the safety of the children,” Bancel said. “And we’re also starting at the lower dose, because given their lower weight, we might need to lower the dose for children. But for the teens, it will be the exact same dose, which will help the distribution of a vaccine.”

And also….

Under the heading “Breaking Alert”, The Boston Globe publishes the ongoing COVID-19 situation. An example is reprinted below.

The death toll from confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 19 to 17,413, the Department of Public Health reported Monday. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 281, bringing the total to 657,119.

The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered rose by 25,904 to 7,168,399, state officials reported.

As the population of Massachusetts is about 6.3 million, and about 20 per cent are under 15, it means that many of the residents are being given their second injection of an mRNA vaccine.

Every day, the NYT has a comprehensive list of the data down to county level. Where can you obtain such data published daily in Australia, in relation to vaccination?

Casey Briggs, Master of Clarity

When the pandemic was rife in Australia we could follow its course every day with the ABC’s Casey Briggs, whose clear informative manner showed Mr Briggs as The Master of Mathematics; to which he could as well have added The Master of Clarity.

He could report vaccination levels in the same manner on a daily manner if the data were available.

Only criminal idiots would want to the fiddle the supply demand relationship by manipulating the data for so-called political advantage.

You may never recover

This is the only comment I shall make about the Princes. I sympathise deeply and know that probably their relationship, in whichever way it existed after their mother was killed, may one day be repaired to the extent that they do remain civil towards one another.  I suspect the attitudes of their wives in this is vitally important.

A loving mother taken from teenage sons in the presence of an inadequate father – undoubtedly a good man but because of his own stunted upbringing with an inability to show compassion – is very familiar.

Genuine compassion is something one recognises when you yourself lack it. People may try and manufacture compassion, but fail because it is an inherent attribute, just like a sense of humour. Most of those who are afflicted with the combination of loss of a loving mother, the inability to ever come to terms with the wakening nightmare of your last glimpse of her, coupled with the attempts by the remaining father to fill the void and failing, who then eventually gives up, marries again and gradually become to you an irrelevance.  Onwards into an adulthood for which you are ill prepared and then you have to muddle through life in a cloud of unforgiveness, episodic self-pity and destructive fury.

A Sisyphean existence?

Occasionally, in among the circumstance of life with a variable dollop of pomp added, you may do something worthwhile. But for what? Your other life upon which the flashlight is never dimmed, wherever you try to escape, always haunts. For those for whom compassion does not pay, there is a delight in having all your trespasses laid bare, yet as those who trespass against you seek justification in hypocritical comment only, which encourages you to further trespass. A Sisyphean existence?

Alas, poor Harry, I knew him well.

Is anybody listening?

The three articles on China published last week in the AFR are almost like the last hurrah from one of the most insightful and level-headed journalists still living. Max Suich is one of those people who has lived a long and varied life; and his reflections on the current state of play in China draws upon his own views and those of a number of his contemporaries, and their apprehension about the course of current Sino-Australian relations.

This trilogy commences with reference to the world conditions when the AFR was started 70 years ago. It was not long after that I was on a cargo boat in the South China Sea in sight of one of the disputed islands of Matsu and Quemoy, tiny National Chinese outposts close to the mainland and Communist China. It was a time when the Chiang Kai-shek regime in the island of Formosa was seen as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations.  How fanciful that appears now, but then as we crossed the South China Sea, we were buzzed by American Starfighters which swooped out of the clouds and came over the ship just above mast height – twice.

Bloody hell, was it necessary to demonstrate to a small ship carrying wool and grain to Japan how powerful America was? The power equation certainly has shifted over the past decades in the Southern China Sea. American planes intimidating ships close to the Chinese shore in 2021 – I don’t think so – unless America was on war footing.

As for Australia: The conclusion is that while we dramatically changed our approach, we did not define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it. Nor did we thoroughly review alternative options. We elevated anger about Chinese activities in Australia and latent ministerial hostility towards China, turning threadbare slogans into policy. Traditional measured, thoughtful policy-making in an area of such great importance is lost.

Thus spake Suich. He sets out his conclusion succinctly and directly on the first page of his trilogy. He then spends much of the rest justifying the conclusion, which is more a thesis. He had come to that conclusion as the anti-Chinese forces in this country were emboldened by Trump’s antics. No matter how Turnbull may want to re-write history he should share the opprobrium which Max dishes out.

We have no hedge – we are “all the way with the USA” but what if the USA is not there? How does our military, naval and air force stack up, in the face of an aggressive China? Not much, is his assessment. Australia is vulnerable especially, as he pointed out, Pine Gap would be an early target for any Sino-American conflict. Therefore, whether or not America proved to be a steadfast ally, part of any war strategy in this part of the World would be to knock out Pine Gap, inevitably leading Australia being locked into the conflict.

Max Suich has dissected the Australian government approach into three phases, “push back, call out, out in front”. The three stage approach typifies a crude approach to the reality where the right wing infiltrate in the intelligence always inflates the danger in order to maintain their relevance to government. Max quoted one still serving official – “without Trump the hawks would not have the mode to develop their own insane line that we had no choice but to divert trade flows and supply chains.”

As he goes on to write, the John Howard approach twenty years ago “we don’t have to choose” between America and China has been dumped, but echoing experienced advice there was no way that Australia, with its limited defence forces, could possibly back up its bellicose rhetoric. In fact, as Turnbull has written in his recent opus, Australia has to be careful where its warships sail in Asian waters because there is no doubt that the Chinese are watching. The Americans may have the power to extricate a ship which ventures too close, but Australia by itself does not.

Nevertheless, paranoia is fanned by the idea that the Chinese government is penetrating the Australia community and in particular the Chinese diaspora. Such investigation of this has only yielded Sam Dastyari who, despite his indiscretion, still seems to be involved in the sensitive vaccine rollout. There was all that flurry around Gladys Liu, the Coalition member for Chisholm, because of her apparent ties in China, but that seems to have dropped off the intelligence schedule and is not mentioned by Max anywhere in the article.

The Government seems not to be bothered by the experience of South Korea where, earlier in the last decade, it experienced a Chinese trade freeze. Yet for all the bravado, the articles note three forces operating currently in our dealings with China. The alienation from China has been aggravated, as he points out, by the circumstances of the COVID-19 virus first being seen in Wuhan and the subsequent lack of co-operation by the Chinese in the investigation of its genesis, where one of the major cheerleaders for the investigation has been Australia.

The first force is the feeling of being abandoned, and if one delves into the history of the ANZUS pact, it was constructed originally against the wishes of the State Department in Washington – the nightmare of “Washington not picking up the phone.”   Then the rise of Xi Jin Ping, who has disturbed the comfortable trading arrangement that some Australians had built up with various Chinese businesses. The impression of a free enterprise economy able to exist under a one-party system was brought to a halt by Xi .

Max recognises that Xi’s assertiveness and his expansionary vision for China as a truly Pacific maritime power was another impetus for the rise  in Australia of the intelligence community influence and their political hawks on both sides of the parliamentary aisles. Any moderating influence of DFAT is seemingly ignored and Max quotes Foreign Minister Payne going it alone on the Wuhan inspectors seeking answers on the Wuhan connection with the virus, and particularly whether the virus escaped from a laboratory there.

He doesn’t attempt to analyse Xi’s character, because being pragmatic, Max recognises Xi is what he is, and nothing will change him. However, this is not to say that defining his strengths and weaknesses is not more than a parlour game. Remember XI was a princeling forced to eat dirt – he understands how the game “Go” unravels. In this game, there is a need to understand its length. Xi does not intend losing; he has tasted the soil. As someone said to me, he doesn’t care about the niceties.

Max says that the breakdown of our government’s foreign policy development process and its supplanting by the security and intelligence services and their vociferous supported is a main driver of Australian government attitude.

I know there is a younger brigade of Australians who have repeatedly dealt with the Chinese and who believe that Obama’s soft position towards China would have been reflected in the present Biden administration. However, free of Obama, these so-called liberals have adopted a hard line almost indistinguishable from that of the Trumpers. In this narrative, Obama is the villain.

As Max said, we took more risks than we should; we could have been adroit. This is the position of “former senior officials who lament the lack, still, of policy making and disciplined public language about China, that weighs up options and employs some subtlety and seriously considers the risks of war.”

One source, Paul Dib, compares the situation to the 1930s where the risks set off by territorial confrontation were ever present, in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the meantime, Australia then lived in bliss, ostensibly under the wing of the British Empire. Now it is the USA to continue to shield us, but the hawks are everywhere so that his conclusion of this need to follow the USA is “a bleak but realistic view…if the hawks of Washington and Beijing are not stifled, if compromise is rebuffed, war will be the consequence, a disaster for Taiwan and the combatants and a disaster for the rich and growing economies of our region.”

China is not complicated as suggested in the article – the World exists at the whim of Xi Jin Ping.

His adversaries are varied; have we ever really looked into the eyes of these hawks of ours – these eyes exhibiting uncertain bravado and fear?

These are not the fanatics which drove the agenda of the 1930s but more the muddle-headed wombats who took us into the Vietnam war. This time, the War will not be an away game.

I do not want the prospect, if I survive, of stumbling through the rubble which was once Sydney. Everybody, look carefully at Gaza and that was only an 11 day’s conflict.

Thank you, Max for encouraging me to write this critique.

 A Prickly Situation

My eye was caught by an article in the NYT this week. It concerned the poaching of rare species of cacti from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and them being found smuggled into Italy.

The Atacama Desert is not particularly large compared to other deserts, but it is a remarkable ecological structure. There is an area where it has not rained for about 500 years; there is another part where the largest copper mine in the world is located.

Licancabùr

As we looked out from our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama in this patch of green, the dominant view rising high from the desert was Licancabùr, the volcanic cone rising high above the desert. The volcano is very close straddling the Bolivian and Chilean border, and as you near it, sulphur is mined on its slopes. Sulphur – ah, the whiff of hell, but here the winds tend to cart the smell away.

This desert has historically been an area of dispute between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It was called the Saltpetre War, and ostensibly it was about Bolivia retaining access to the Pacific Ocean but, as the name implies, it was a battle over the nitrite deposits used in both fertilisers and explosives. Chile won that war, which has enabled that country to exploit the mineral rich Atacama and, since discovered, also the site of substantial lithium deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama is in an altiplano pocket of the desert, the remnants of the Andes, which mean one is strolling and riding around at 2, 408 metres. The highest point we reached were the Geysers del Tatio which lie at 4,330 metres, a large cauldron of boiling water where there are signs in English and Spanish warning for you not to get too close to the edge of the multiple pools. The sudden spurts of boiling waters and steam at such an altitude are very impressive. There are no fences; you are able to freely wander. At least one tourist did step too close apparently and ended up boiled in one of the pools.

Even though we were only 14 kilometres from the Bolivian border we skipped walking up the volcano which tops 5,920 m. For comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2,200 m high.

This area of the Atacama altiplano is very diverse. What with the geysers, and flamingos standing in salt water at an alkaline PH of 10 and eating the crustacea out of the brine. These tiny marine life determine the flamingoes’ colour. Every desert has “bad lands” of rocks and gulches. Here Atacama has its red rock folded into buttes and jagged cliffs. They were thought to mimic valleys on the moon rather than a scenario from a Hollywood Western.

Here I found myself rooted, unable to move, halfway up one of these hills, on a goat track not one-person wide, winding itself to the peak. I have always suffered from vertigo, and stupidly I looked back and down. The cheerful chatter ceased. There is nothing more debilitating than being stuck like that, with feet in the shifting sand unable to move. Here, feminine resolve came to the forefront to uproot the fear – women on either side of me giving me their hands, encouraging me onwards.

We stop on the way in stone cottage villages where the construction of the houses would not have changed since Inca times. One of these villages called Machuca had about ten houses, was situated at 4,000 metres but still had its church perched on the hill above the houses. This is subsistence living. Guanacos can live at that high altitude and like their relatives, camels, will drink salty water, but like the vicuñas are not domesticated. The flightless rheas dot the landscape, not venturing close.

It was an enthralling landscape and the hospitality overall was great, the only blemish being locked in a poorly ventilated minibus with an English family for three hours as we went back to Antofagasta to catch the plane back to Santiago, but they probably had the same feelings towards us – a little more Albion disdain. Having sprawled across the front rows they objected to us wanting the windows being open. Not even my wife’s imitation of Shrek’s donkey colleague amused them.

But you see what is pointed out to you or what you are looking for, and in the desert, on this trip I failed to appreciate the flora.  In the Atacama are some of the rarest and most intricate cacti. I suppose I should have been interested given the use of cactus wood to make the doors of the cottages.

Now there is an increasing market for those unnoticed cacti.  The cacti of the Atacama are special. A year after the robbery from the Atacama happened, the NYT has reported on a cactus “heist”. This had been uncovered in Northern Italy.  Most of the stolen plants, many over a hundred years old, had been taken from the Atacama.

As the NYT said in the article:

Cactuses and other succulents are hot business today. They have become the darlings of social media, promoted by indoor plant influencers for their outlandish looks and minimal care requirements. The pandemic only increased their popularity, with shops struggling to keep some species in stock.

The average hipster’s cactus collection will include only common species propagated in nurseries. But for some specialist collectors — who tend to be middle-aged or older men — the hobby is much more serious.

“A lot of what drives the interest and passion for these plants is their uniqueness and rarity.”

Atacama cacti

Of course, that is the problem. People with too much money, bored by their hedonism, looking for something different and in this instance, something requiring little maintenance. Perfect!

There is a line to be drawn between appreciation and acquisition. I have never been a xerophile, and in fact cacti watching has always been low on my attention span. Having written that, cacti can be striking. I wrote a piece one winter in Arizona called “Snow on the Saguaro”. Seeing those majestic cacti, their branches smothered in white, reflects how severe the winter was we were then traversing.  While we marvelled and I wrote this, there was no passion to dig up all these cacti and transport them Los Angeles to become a prop for silver tinsel and light. A silly notion, but no more silly than digging up the cacti in the Atacama for them to be festooned on balconies of the palazzi of Milan.

One wonders how many of those who buy plants illicitly taken, really appreciate them, or do they just want to have something nobody else has.

Anyway, this story had a better end than most of these robberies. As has been reported:

844 cactuses made the return journey to Chile. Around 100 others had died, and 84 stayed in Milan for study.

Mr. Cattabriga (responsible for apprehending the shipments which had first passed through easier EU custom controls in Romania and Greece) has been making daily video calls to try to ensure the plants are being properly cared for while they are in quarantine. According to Bernardo Martínez Aguilera, head of the forest inspection department at Chile’s National Forest Corporation, the final goal “is that the majority of these individuals return to their natural environment, which they never should have left.”

Rules have been introduced among cacti lovers not to purchase the seeds for such exotica, on the grounds that if these cacti are allegedly propagated, it provides a cover for the poachers’ lack of provenance. A worldwide problem but this is a salutary tale. The answer is always the same – curbing the poor attracted by the cash, harvesting the cacti and a cohort of wealthy humans who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with rapacious middlemen who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with greasy paws.

Mouse Whisper

Is it an unnoticed cultural cringe? The Swans are a Sydney Australian Football team, which was transplanted from Melbourne where they were known as the South Melbourne Football Club. The colours are red and white which earned them the early nickname of “The Bloods’. But somehow, presumably because South Melbourne was originally a marsh from which the Albert Park Lake was carved, the idea of calling the team by the name “Swans” was floated. But the white swan, whether cob or pen, is not an Australian; it’s a Pom!

Black swans are as Australians as Vegemite. If the club wanted to call itself the Swans, it should have adopted black. I am surprised that my indigenous brothers played with colours and name which reflected colonial attitudes. Especially as there are only black swans on the Albert Park Lake.

Imagine the Sydney Swans changing to a black and red strip. What would they say at Essendon?

And don’t me started on the St George Illawarra Rugby League colours taken from the St George Cross which I believe has some relationship to an island off Europe.

Dragons – yes, they have relation to Australia – water dragons can be seen all over Sydney in nurseries.

By the way, the native animal of NSW is the platypus and the bird kookaburra, but a Major Mitchell cockatoo has all the elements of red (if actually pink) and white. But barracking for the platypi, the Kookas (or Burras or the Cockatoos) – could be very authentic like the Eels.

My preference. Come on The Majors.

 

 

Modest Expectations – Biden & Boehner

Here I am still writing a blog over two years from one I started inter alia with a eulogy of Jacinda Ardern, which caused some ruction among my acquaintances. I use the word “eulogy” because I was seen as being over complimentary. Yet in retrospect, given the revelations which have come out about the predatory behaviour embedded in the contemporary political scene, she has emerged as an exemplar of how a female political staffer can become Prime Minister – and not only become Prime Minister but also be prepared to hand over the reins to her then deputy, Winston Peters, while she had a baby.

Now the self-confidence that exuded coupled with the compassion and leadership she has shown in the face of the tragedy of volcano eruption and mass shooting have been so heartfelt. But I better not lay my comments about Jacinta Ardern on with a trowel; otherwise others may wonder aloud why I am still Mr Starry-eyes. Maybe it is because she does not wear a baseball cap – well not often. It also helps if instinctively you know how and when to smile and how and when to grieve.

A Woman in White

The question always arises – am I responding to an illusion? The quote below is elegant in the way it describes such a reaction.

In the novel’s famed opening scene, art teacher Walter Hartright is walking back to London on a desolate street around midnight “when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.”

He turns to see “the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to toe in white garments …”

“’Is that the road to London?’” she asks.

The encounter is both unexpected and cinematic. The dark deserted road, coupled with the late hour contrasts vividly with the light touch of the extraordinarily dressed woman and her mundane question.

No; the woman in question in this excerpt is not Christine Holgate coming home from a Parliamentary ordeal, but the woman who gives the name to Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel “The Woman in White”, some say the first mystery novel. Her name, Anne Catherick, a woman dressed so by her mother, but it is a different way of looking at the one subject – a woman dressed in white.  Beware what you wish for, even when wafting as a Friday AFR supplement apparition, who was once a Premier of a State of Australia. Was it is meant to create an illusion like Anne Catherick?

Order Arms!

During the Vietnam War, there was an increased requirement for doctors. My relationship with military activity ended when I left school and, among the many wonderfully mindless activities I left behind, was the cadet corps for which, despite my years of faithful service, I was never rewarded with promotion.

My friend and I bore scars of our service. On our uniform sleeves – mine with crossed flags to signal my devotion to the signal corps – and my friend’s, who was also a crack shot and had crossed rifles in recognition of his membership of the school shooting team. The school even then had a rifle range on the top of one of the buildings – long since gone.

But perhaps if my early love for the military camaraderie had not been dampened, who knows where Sousa would have taken me. At the annual cadet camp my friend and I tried to implement that camaraderie by inviting some of our fellow cadets who, unlike us were distinguished with stripes of authority, to share our gin in the methylated spirits bottle. Our invitation was met with undue hostility. We were not to know they were militant abstainers. The problem was we had no chevrons to be stripped from our sleeves, so long-term punishment was limited; and the matter was settled within the tent. I still remember being hit from behind and the rifle butt on my neck.

When it came to national service, which persisted into the late 1950s, I was excluded because of my calcanea vera which, in common parlance, translated as very flat feet. All my life, if I walked long distances or had jobs which required my standing on my feet for many hours, the spasticity and consequential pain particularly of my peroneal muscles and tendons and the small extensor muscles on the dorsum of the foot was intense. The pain was often incapacitating for a day or more, and the only antidote I found very late in life was R.M. Williams boots. Surgery was excluded very early.

My friends came back, but apart from the “Nasho” anecdotes very few continued with any association with armed forces. A number of the medical students committed themselves to the various armed services in order to pay for their tuition but also to provide 1,500 pounds tax free a year until they finished their course.

On graduation, they would be promoted to Naval lieutenant or equivalent and in return after their intern year they were expected to give four years of service. My father, who had strong links with armed service through his work in the Repatriation Department as a doctor and somebody who spent both pre-war and later during World War 11 as an officer in “the wavy navy” was keen that I join the Navy. His attention to polishing his handmade shoes I could never emulate; so that fantasy drifted away.

However, during the 1960s, with two kids and a wife also involved in post-graduate study, money was tight. I was working in the Monash Department of Medicine at the then Prince Henry’s Hospital in St Kilda Rd Melbourne, which was conveniently located next to Victoria Barracks. Out of the blue, a doctor with strong links with the medical corps whom I remember as Colonel Hogan, asked whether I would do some of morning sick parades at the Barracks. This led to more work undertaking the annual medical examination of the ranks, there and elsewhere in Victoria.  Then, as the ballot came in for Vietnam recruitment, I was asked to undertake the medical examinations of the conscripts.

I had kept my opinions very much to myself, but I was personally devastated by the 1966 khaki election where the Coalition achieved a landslide as they played “jingo bells” all night. It is why I find this continual beating of the tom-toms of war even now so appalling. Apparently Vietnam has not been lesson enough, witnessing a generation of damaged men and women who emerged from that conflict and initially without the plaudits of a substantial number of their own generation, who instead protested in the streets.

Yet here was even the opportunity to examine young men who had been conscripted by the roll of a roulette wheel to fight in a foreign land for what proved to be vacuous objectives. I did not hide my distaste but nor did I volunteer my opposition on a street corner.  The fact that my step-mother shared the secretary role of the Australia-China Society with Myra Roper at that time and that she and my father went to and were lionised in China several times during the course of the 1960s did not affect my job with the army.

We were a strange bunch, who used to gather several nights a week to examine each bunch of conscripts. Two doctors were teamed, one older and one younger who did not know one another beyond vicarious professional association. Nevertheless, there were times when I was rostered alone to undertake the recruit examinations. One night when alone I had about ten young blokes, all of whom failed my medical examination. My strictness on ensuring fitness to die perhaps swayed some of the decisions that evening. It was such a calamity that such a number were unfit, but it passed without comment from above. Incidentally we were asked not to say anything beyond that required to elicit symptoms, but if a significant disease was discovered then all one could say was that the potential recruit should go and see his local doctor.

The ability to detect mental illness was very limited and the illness had to be florid. This was the case when I was confronted by a restless young man walking up and down the corridor who insisted he wanted a gun so he “could kill some commies”.  When I found he had an eyeball tattooed on each buttock, I regretfully failed him by writing “atypical strabismus” on his form, thus avoiding an essay on his obvious mental troubles. These examinations did not give us leeway to highlight mental health problems; I hoped that the local medical doctor, if he ever saw one, recognised that the young man had a serious problem.

At the other end of this medical cocoon was the recruit who turned up, complete with caftan, beads and sandals, a flower child in all ways. He stood defiantly with his principled stance, refusing to be examined. Fortunately, the only doctors left that evening were a few of the younger ones, who knew one another and thus were never rostered to work together. This defiance was an exceptional situation. The older doctors left us to sort out this problem.

Thus, we did have an advantage of youth in that we did not pull out the “I’m a doctor; you’ll do as I say” line. We just negotiated and as the night wore on, he knew that we would wait him out. He wanted some exposure as the “victim” being taken away, but as my fellow doctor said, “Look, we all want to go home. Just get up on the couch and let us do a quick examination”. For us, it was about the minimal set of words which should have given him the hint, if he had listened, that we were going to fail him. After some more tedious palaver, he consented to a limited examination.

We did not have to examine far – only needed a stethoscope on his chest. Listening to his heart, he had a very loud “machinery murmur”; all that trouble he had put us through. There was no way he could pass his medical examination; in fact, he needed to see a cardiac specialist.  He had got his exemption.

Realising that all was not well, his attitude changed from truculence to fear – poor bugger – as he saw us discussing the finding – but all we were permitted to say was that he should go and see his local doctor as soon as possible. Even here we were not even allowed to tell him he had failed, even after such close contact. “Just don’t delay, but go home – and good luck”.

A Catalyst

Nick Coatsworth is an unusual doctor.  He has an impressive career inter alia working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from 2004 in Congo-Brazzaville, the Republic of Chad, and the Darfur region of Sudan. Before becoming President of MSF Australia in 2010-11. I have never met him, but during my professional career, I have met a couple of doctors with his easy confidence and natural charisma with the underlying skill to match. “This man ain’t no desk jockey,” as they say. However, this past  week he has shown perfect political timing. The boyish grin has been replaced by the serious “defender of the Faith”.

I think he is a beacon, despite being the face that tried to flog the COVID-19 App, which was such a dud, and which I thought might have precipitated him moving out of the Department. He was truly handed the Australian “sandwich”. There are two ways such involvement can be interpreted, apart from bad judgement – of which we were all guilty of at one time or another. The first is that he genuinely believed; and/or he was the epitome of the loyal public servant.

The Toblerone Zone – 1942

There is such uncertainty about the government. This is a government once applauded for its suppression of the Virus. Now, its success is being assailed. Words like “hermit kingdom” and “gilded cage” are bandied about. But the polls suggest that Australians support border closure. There is another metaphor for the current situation “Switzerland in 1942” – a neutral country surrounded by ongoing war.

Australia has been inured to defending the borders. Against the “boat people”, we have an enduring policy of making asylum seekers very unwelcome and thus over more than 20 years of border closure and the construction of basic facilities offshore, in PNG or Nauru and countries like Cambodia which took money for not much of anything. However, it fuelled the flame that has never fully died of “White Australia”.

Stripping all the self-interest away, there are distinct matters that face the Government linked to the changing times –

  • The intertwining of political and scientific speak – the prize example is “herd immunity”. Ask a politician to define it; I remember when the late Senator Button asked the then Minister for Science a question with notice along the lines of “what was the relationship between an inch and a centimetre?” The Minister could not answer. Here are the key words – “without notice” – to which I would add, “without understanding”. Senator Pattison, in his cameo appearance on Q&A this week, has shown in his responses that this lack of understanding has persisted in the plush red of the Senate.
  • the efficacy and uptake of the various vaccines. The Government bet on the AstraZeneca vaccine where controversy seems to have engendered the hesitancy beloved by the anti-vaxxers. Unfortunately the chance to obliterate that hesitancy by providing a choice of vaccines has not been an option. Choice is important provided there is a similar proven efficacy. As for anti-vaxxers – they are not hesitant – they are clear about their opposition.
  • the prevention of community spread and the fact that there has been an attitudinal and behavioural change towards hygiene – masks are one example. There is a developing phenomenon of living with the virus as vaccination rolls out; the images of Australian intensive care units and dying patients have been removed from the media screens to be replaced by images of India. Nevertheless, so long as the health services are not compromised within Australia, then the government has eased restrictions locally. After all, there are few politicians who want to be unpopular, and in many countries this loosening of the restrictions is very much ad hoc and often premature.
  • the construction of dedicated quarantine facilities for incoming travellers, where it seems there is no plan beyond expansion of the current Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.
  • the agitation for Australian border opening. Now the Genie is well and truly out of the bottle as the business groups are beginning not only to agitate but also, as one influential person initially showed by her disdain for the collateral damage of lives lost, to question what might be an “acceptable” level of deaths from COVID that would accompany open borders. “Death at the Australian Open” would be a title for a crime novel; or schadenfreude.

The Coatsworth message was at its heart very authoritarian. All the seers, laureate prophets, tea leaf examiners, bird augers, and hand washing experts should be sidelined, and the only collective voice should be those who have to articulate and implement the policy.

It could be a long shot, it but sounds by his oratory that Coatsworth is submitting his application, and the one image I have of him is a very thoughtful guy, but one who when he makes up his mind that’s it! He may be able to accomplish this huge Medusa head task, especially as he has a track record of leadership. Good to give him a go.

On second thoughts, maybe the application should be for Prime Minister.

Reformation – COVID1517

The Clown at 95 

In Danville, the boy spent a lot of time at the movies. Fifteen cents bought a ticket to the Palace to see westerns, Bela Lugosi’s latest or slapstick comedies with Buster Keaton, the moody pratfall master, and Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel, the British-born comic with the bow tie and bowler, was a particular favourite and he would practice his routines. Years later, after his own rise, he tracked down the reclusive Laurel and visited him at home. When Laurel died in 1965, he delivered his eulogy with a tearful Keaton sitting in the front row. “God bless all clowns,” he said, delivering his hero’s favourite poem, “The Clown’s Prayer.” “Who star in the world with laughter,/ Who ring the rafters with flying jest,/ Who make the world spin merry on its way.”

A year later, he did the same at Keaton’s funeral. 

Dick & Mary

I could not resist putting this extract into my blog. The “he” is Dick Van Dyke, now 95 but in amazingly good fettle, an actor to whom I have never paid that much attention. His show “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with his co-star Mary Tyler Moore was always somewhere in the background wherever there was a television set in a house. The times I watched it, it was a combination of slapstick towards us, the audience; yet an underlying sexual attraction between him and Moore. Otherwise, it was just conventional American sitcom.

I knew he was very tall, and that he was always fresh-faced youthfulness disguising a man who was both an alcoholic and smoked too much. Yet, teetotal but still chewing nicotine gum, he now looks remarkably fit and ever broadly smiling, his signature.

I was fascinated by the reference to Stan Laurel, and the fact that as a relatively unknown actor he gave the eulogy to Laurel at his 1965 funeral, where another famous comic, the deadpan Buster Keaton, was sitting in the front row. Keaton died a year later and again Van Dyke was the eulogist at the funeral. Before his death, Keaton gave Van Dyke one of his most valued possessions – a set of billiard cues – which Van Dyke still possesses.

These names mean very little today, but in their day, each was huge at the box office. Comedian Stan Laurel was one part of the Laurel and Hardy duo. Stan Laurel was in fact English born, in Ulverston in Cumbria, where a statue of the two has been erected.

All very interesting along the pathway of nasturtium trivia, but what caught my eye was that there is a Clown’s Prayer which, in abridged form, is somewhat different from that quoted above, says:

As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more cheer than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so indifferent, that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child, or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them happy, and forget momentarily, all the unpleasantness in their lives. And in my final moment, may I hear You whisper: “When you made My people smile, you made Me”.

Clown’s service, Hackney

It did not take much further research to find out that there is a Holy Trinity Church in Hackney in the London East End which is known as the Clown’s Church, because every year there is a service in February to celebrate the life of Joe Grimaldi, the first archetypical clown to use the white-face makeup and the term “Here we go again”. Since 1967, the congregation has been permitted to dress as clowns. Notwithstanding, the most recent vicar is not only a chaplain to the Queen, but she has been made the Suffragan Bishop for Dover (which means she hangs out in Canterbury Cathedral).

I have travelled a long way from Mr Van Dyke, unless he has performed at one of the Clown services – but then meandering, as I say, plucking the nasturtiums as I go is one of the features of blog writing. And I refrain from suggesting a new form of opening prayer for Parliament – but the words of the prayer belie the title the Clown. More I think of Pagliacco.

Mouse Whisper

In many places of worship my image has been carved under many a pew.

I as a mouse may be one thing, even venerated. Mice in plague proportions overrunning and destroying the world are another. Mice showed the way in demonstrating the efficacy of penicillin, and you humans have benefited mightily by our sacrifice. Ask Howard Florey who also said that humans were 500 times the size of a mouse.

You as a human may be one thing and you too may be venerated. But humans overrunning and destroying the world are another.

It is just a matter of how the plague is controlled, especially when all who are running around don’t acknowledge that they can be a plague within their world of Horizons.

Modest Expectations – Cheers Bar

Cheers Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Divine Light of the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganesh

Here we Go Again

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

Throwing money at medical workforce problems has never worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Woman Scorned

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

Liz Cheney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

Modest Expectations – Stumps

After another 100 days I hope the world will have the same hope in Biden that it does now after the first 100 days.  Having survived the four years of President Trump with all his mimicry of Batman’s enemies, it is good to have Bruce Wayne alias Joe Biden back.  Sorry, so sorry I mistook your disguise as the doddering anziano, but your treatment of Anita Hill can never be disguised or forgiven because you begat Clarence Thomas, one of the great catastrophes of modern America.

Sometimes He gets it Right

Anonymouse

It was May and then June last year that this Blog started to advocate for custom built quarantine facilities. One of the Blog’s mates thought it would be too expensive, and in any event the hotel industry had near empty facilities desperately in search of customers, so hotel quarantine was born. People returning from overseas fitted the bill for the missing customers, but viral outbreaks from these hotels have sporadically occurred. However, use of such facilities has also produced lessons – all of which can be applied to the adaptation of or construction of bespoke quarantine facilities in each State near ports of entry.

The Federal Government seems to be able to wrap its collective mind around all sorts of spending needs – defence spending seems to be a bottomless pit with an endless time frame.  However, when the matter of defence is against an invisible foe, with so many tricks in its RNA, then Government seems not able to grasp the enormity of the problem and has sat on its hands for 12 months now apparently wishing it would all go away. COVID-19 will persist, with no idea when it will be conquered. At the same time, the social links between countries will be irrevocably changed.

Quarantine facilities require their own expertise and one of the various expertises needed is to ensure the rapid construction with best practice observed. That is why hard-nosed visionaries such as the Wagners in Queensland who were asked by that Government to prepare a plan, should be taken seriously; their Toowoomba airport venture should be sufficient proof as to their competence and ingenuity.

But in true Australian style, Government asks for a report. Jane Halton’s report was adequate in that she articulated the obvious – a national quarantine capacity – although it’s hard to see that recommendation, together with a collection of documentation, to be worth the alleged $118,000 it cost. The Report nevertheless provides the weasel words for the Government to ignore the positive parts of the report.  For instance, the Halton pronouncement set out such a situation for the “Commonwealth Weasel”.

States and Territories should now consider their hotel quarantine operations in line with the features of good practice and make adjustments where necessary to meet these baselines. Noting issues about scalability and the specialised nature of the workforce required to implement hotel quarantine, States and Territories should also investigate establishing standing arrangements with AUSMAT in the event of the need to scale up operations quickly.

Stripping out the verbiage, of which there is plenty, the recommendation is to get a national system of quarantine, with agreed standards and scalable capacity.  Too much to ask that our Federal and State Governments behave like grownups and just do this? The Federal Government’s admissions about quarantine in relation to returnees from India demonstrate the scale of the problem.

How long ago did Halton write her report? 

Concept village – mining, quarantine …

The Inglenooks of Age

When I was a young doctor, elderly patients who presented in hospital, with apparently uninteresting symptoms and signs, besides being old, were called “old sloughs”. Now I have reached that “old slough” age, it just confirms how offensive that description was. Even then I recoiled from the dismissive way hospitals were places where these patients were admitted. Care was a secondary consideration. Therefore, old people when there was considered nothing more could be done, were left in a bed with minimal attention until they could be moved to a geriatric hospital, which was one step before the nursing home.

One case stood out when I was reviewing some of these older people in hospital. It was at a time before the specialty of geriatrics had been carved away from general medicine and general practice. In Victoria there were geriatric hospitals; later I received a more detailed insight into such care when I had to run the rehabilitation unit at one of the large teaching hospitals in Melbourne and later still spent time reviewing facilities when I was responsible for certain sectors of community aged care.

I stopped at the bed of an elderly lady who had been classified as suffering from dementia. I reviewed her charts and there, on her drug charts, was a nightly dose of Relaxa-tabs. She had been taking these for years and the order seemed not to have been changed. Naturally, with the dose prescribed, she would sleep, but I was taken aback by the quantity.

Relaxa-tabs contained bromine and so, out of curiosity, I ordered a serum bromine. When the result came back it showed her serum bromine was at toxic levels and clearly explained her apparent dementia.

The tablets were stopped at the time of the test, and once the serum level was known treatment was instituted to flush the bromine out of her system. Over the next fortnight her mental state improved to such an extent that I cannot remember whether she went home directly or had a staged return to a more normal living. The demented state cleared – I know that much.

To me it was a salutary lesson in labels, especially now I am of that age. Bromine in not the problem it was in the past as it has been removed from reputable pharmaceuticals. I have read that in the USA it is licensed to be added to the water supply of naval ships and oil rigs, as in addition to having sedative properties, it also allegedly dampens the male libido. I grew up, myth or not, believing that bromine was added to the tea of soldiers for such an effect.

You can have as many government inquiries into aged care as you like, but society has passed you by when you strike 80. The elderly with money can have their care softened by the cushioning effect of their money. I had an aunt who lived for her last years in a very plush nursing home, but even in that home, it was evident how many of the staff were recent immigrants, particularly from the Philippines and Nepal.

Yet neglect remains the headline for much that goes on in the aged care sector. The stories on the one hand of the Greek Orthodox Church demanding its nursing homes pay a tithe so the archbishop can have a wardrobe of fancy raiment or, on the other hand, of nursing home owners who live lavish lifestyles, complete with the signature matching yellow Lamborghinis, running nursing homes with minimum standards of care. I well remember the whole fiasco of Bronwyn Bishop’s stewardship 20 years ago when she was the Minister responsible for defending the use of kerosene baths in nursing homes Nothing much has changed, except perhaps the kerosene.

The exploitative areas of the nursing home industry should be shut down. When Governments crab away from such a drastic solution, they tacitly agree that the immensity of the problem of nursing home care requires not only more but also better trained resources in a coordinated environment and regulatory unification between the sectors – and Governments keep saying that, but effectively do nothing about solving the problem. It is ridiculous for the Commonwealth to be running the aged care sector and the States the public hospitals, when it should be the one sector.

As indicated above, I have been involved at various times of my professional career with the aged care sector, and it is a no brainer. There should be a single system, because age is a continual wave eventually crashing on the shores of death.  At present, the method of distribution of health care is via aged care packages, depending on the funding source floating on the top of the wave. Quality is incidental.

There is a philosophy with certain government sources of shovelling out the cash – job done – but what about quality and outcome? To some bureaucrats that requires actual work, collection of data and, given the reigning politicians suppress as much information as possible, they may argue what is the point?

Political announcements are all about input and the immeasurable glorious future where the recipients of such input are chewing lotus leaves – or their gums. Who needs data, especially when this is the third or fourth time the same announcement of government largesse has been made? To make the point, sometimes irony is the best way to highlight the problem, especially when the government itself is the very epitome of irony when it says, “We are taking the matter very seriously.”

The other public problem is the lack of an articulate advocate for reform on behalf of aged care residents. If you look at the vast array of those who appear on the media, there are none who regularly appear when the topic moves onto the way to actually improve the lot of the aged. The last woman of consequence to appear regularly on a panel show and make an impact by clearly showing that age was not automatically the gateway to dementia was Margaret Scott, the Tasmanian poet, who was a regular guest on Good News Week in the 1990s.

It is mainly a variety of social workers and health professionals who are some way away from being aged, often well skilled in the vocabulary of “shock and horror show”, but stopping short of doing anything.

There is the vaudeville act that the ABC has twice arranged by mixing the very old with the very young. This concept was aired first on the BBC and, given the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC have been venturing into perilous territory, but it is assumed everybody involved has been “dry cleaned”. The concept is very interesting, but not just as sporadic entertainment. After all, grandparents looking after their grandchildren has been around for a long time, just ask the Indigenous community. I am just not aware of any program which seriously looks at the benefit of those arrangements long term and whether a program such as the ABC is airing is demonstrating anything sustainable or generalisable.

There is also that myth about 70 being the new 50. However, it is illusionary. The general improvement in the welfare of the community has improved. Too many in the years after the “new 50” start to die in a manner not befitting of a reborn generation 20 years younger.

The problem with age is invalidism and the daily humiliations that accompany it. I am reminded of the words of a young woman with motor neurone disease who said she most feared the time she could not wipe her bottom – to her this represented a turning point. Don’t just be appalled about the frail and elderly dealing with such daily humiliations. Demand that every politician spend a week or two in community service looking after the aged and contemplating their own probable destination before they can pontificate about the problems of aged care. Although perhaps their pensions will be such that their choices will be much easier in the future.

The Drums are beating

This past weekend, Essential Quality came fourth in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Louisville is the city in the middle of this blue grass country and Bourbon distilleries.

Essential Quality

As the NYT has reported, pre-race talk among the racing fraternity was all about what Sheikh Mohammed’ al-Maktoum’s money has accomplished, and the fact that the same group completely ignored the international human rights scandal over the Sheikh’s role in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa, one of his daughters.

But others are speaking up. A group of human rights lawyers and students at the University of Louisville filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to bar Sheikh Mohammed and thus Essential Quality from the Derby.

“The Horse Racing Commission must also use its authority to end his involvement in Kentucky horse racing, at least until Princess Latifa is free of captivity,” the complaint document insisted. The Kentucky Racing Commission went for the long blue grass; after all, the pervasive influence of the UAE ruler who pays the wages of a large segment of the racing industry not only in Kentucky but also across the world. In Australia where the racing industry has a disproportionate influence, one can only cringe when one hears our equine commentators falling over themselves to address “His Highness”.

Two weeks ago a panel of United Nations human rights experts, including members of a panel that deal with forced disappearances and violence against women, asked Dubai for proof that Sheikha Latifa was still alive and called for her immediate release.

Evidence of life and assurances regarding her well-being are urgently required,” the U.N. analysts said. In recent years, videos have of Sheikha Latifa, saying she was imprisoned in a Dubai palace and afraid for her life. In a 2018 video she said, “her father only cares about himself and his ego.” In an ominous premonition, “I’m making this video because it could be the last video I make,” she said. She was last seen at a meal hosted by her father that the former Irish President and erstwhile defender of human rights, Mrs Mary Robinson attended. She later said she had been tricked into attending. Yet her excuses sounded lame in a report of the matter in the Irish Examiner when, in her attempt to rationalise the woman’s dire situation, she was reported to have said Sheika Latifa was said to have a bipolar disorder. I would say it was the least of the Sheika’s worries.

As widely reported, Sheikha Latifa hasn’t been seen in public since an attempt to escape in March 2018, when her Finnish personal trainer and a former French soldier joined forces to smuggle the Sheika aboard a boat, which was later boarded by armed Emirati commandos in Indian waters. Sheikha Latifa and her personal trainer, Tiina Jauhiainen, were captured at gunpoint, sedated and returned to Dubai, with Ms Jauhiainen released after a fortnight. No mention is made of the French soldier’s fate.

This is not the first time Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of female family members generated outrage. Last year in Britain a judge found that he had abducted another daughter, Shamsa, off the streets of Cambridge in the UK in 2000, flew her by helicopter to France and then returned her to Dubai.

In addition, his youngest wife, Princess Haya, Mrs Robinson’s mate, has also left Dubai fearing for her life after she was subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment.

But then the Sheikh has 30 children from six wives. Given the attention being shown to women’s right in Australia, who will be the first to issue an invitation for Princess Latifa to visit Australia – if she hasn’t been killed already by Godolphin Blue.

Godolphin Blue

Tasmania – the place where it counts

Each of five electorates are called divisions. Each division has approximately the same number of electors. Voting for the House of Assembly is by a form of proportional representation using the single transferable vote (STV), known as the Hare-Clark electoral system. By having multiple members for each division, the voting intentions of the electors are more closely represented in the House of Assembly.

Since 1998, the quota for election in each division, after distribution of preferences, has been 16.7% (one-sixth). Under the preferential proportional voting system in place, the lowest-polling candidates are eliminated, and their votes distributed as preferences to the remaining candidates. If a candidate achieves a quota, their surplus votes are redistributed as preferences.

I was once elected to office by a similar system.

In this election Premier Gutwein in his Bass division nearly achieved three quotas. That is the way to do it, because once you reach the required number of votes, the surplus cascades to your fellow party members. If the level of this popularity for Gutwein had been translated across the other four division, he would have won in a landslide.

That is not how Tasmania works. Like Gaul, Tasmania is divided into three parts. Hobart in the south, Launceston in the north, and a conglomerate of towns on the north-west and west coast.

Hobart spreads westwards along the Derwent is a different constituency to Bass. Divided into Clark, where the Liberals struggled to gain a second seat and Franklin, where the Liberal and Labor Party gained two seats and Greens one, the electoral picture is far different in the other three constituencies of Lyons, Braddon and the Gutwein fortress of Bass.

Launceston, the overwhelming population centre of Bass, in fact is a much smaller electorate in geographical terms than the other two northern electorates.  Yet it does include Flinders Island, where the Islanders are the closest living remnant of an Aboriginal race despite some residual controversy, where its purity left with the death of Truganini in 1878.

Devonport is the largest town in the north-west electorate of Braddon, but this electorate has a number of settlements ranging along the coast (plus King Island) and then extending down the Murchison Highway to the “mineral shield” settlements of Rosebery, Zeehan and Queenstown and the fishing and tourist settlement of Strahan lying as it does on Macquarie Harbour, the third largest in Australia, larger than Sydney Harbour.

Within Braddon are some of most extraordinary examples of untouched temperate rain forests, despite the efforts of successive Governments to destroy it in the name of jobs. Here, in one the most magnificent wilderness areas, despite a strong working class population the electorate is strongly Liberal – the heartland of Morrison populism. The Greens are the foe. Yet the south-west is the State’s unique flora and fauna Treasury.

South-west wilderness

Lyons, also a Liberal State electorally, is an amoeboid electorate which spreads its pseudopods from the east coast through the Midlands into  Sheffield, a trendy watering hole just 22 kilometres south of Devonport which lies within Braddon on the north coast. Federally it has a Labor party member but in this State election it voted for the Liberal Party, a crossover trend which occurs in Tasmania; as does the number of Independent members of both State and Federal Parliament, which is not difficult to understand given how strong private politics are in Tasmania.

Last Saturday was the first time I had been in Tasmania when the State election had been held. The gracious concession speech of the Labor leader and the gruff laconic acceptance speech of the Premier contrasted with the predictable loquacity of the Greens leader given a post-election microphone. She unfortunately provided a strident tirade, and before turning her off, I had thought politics at the top here was refreshingly different. Not so.

For a population of about 550,000 with one in four of the population living in Hobart, it has 57 Federal and State politicians; and between 200 and 300 local councillors in the 29 municipalities (it was 79 when I first visited Tasmania).

Tasmania is grossly over-governed. Under the Australian constitution it is guaranteed five seats in the House of Representatives; and as with the US Senate each State has the same number, apart from the ACT and the Northern Territory.

Comparing Wyoming with a population slightly larger than Tasmania’s, it sends only one elected representative to Congress (out of 535). By contrast, Tasmania sends five elected members to the House of Representatives (out of 151).

Therefore, Federal Government policy towards Tasmania has traditionally been to fill the begging bowl and a tree not chopped down or a river not dammed or native species not exterminated have dogged policy considerations to the detriment of the State. It is private politics in its purest form. Take the health system: if Hobart gets A, Launceston and Burnie will want A too.  It is the root cause of so much of Tasmanian problems – the inability to live with one another.

I was just perusing The Advocate, the paper of the north west. The number of football teams in the area is extraordinary, and as I have written elsewhere the antagonism between towns is often reflected on the football field and the closer the towns are to one another, the greater the antagonism and failure to work together. Thus, in terms of rationalising resources, this part of the State presents a problem in getting agreement to any public policy.

My contribution to this private politics, since I am a ratepayer, is the following ; first the gorse along the Zeehan-Strahan road needs to be eradicated before it consumes Tasmania, just as Queensland was threatened by the prickly pear infestation before the introduction of cactoblastis beetle. The other problem with gorse is that below its impenetrable prickly greenery it stores all its dead wood which can act as a fire accelerant.

Peruvian goat herder

Peruvian goat herders have been used in the USA to oversee goats which eat noxious weeds. Paradoxically if you do burn the gorse, then four to five years’ worth of goats feeding on it will eliminate gorse. Andean Peruvians are said to be the most reliable goat herders; apart from which, having a goat herd in the area will provide an industry and something for tourism. However, don’t let the goats become feral otherwise it’s another cane toad.

Secondly is to upgrade the Strahan airport to a level where it can receive planes as big as a 737. The latter is unlikely in the short term even thought it could be used for tourism in the south-west and would certainly open up the tourist market, especially with a rental car franchise. The longer term consideration is with climate change – inevitably the forests will dry out, and therefore there is a need on the west coast of Tasmania for the airstrip to be upgraded so water tankers can land instead of being based in Launceston or Hobart. For those with short memories, no one seriously believed the rainforest of the south coast of New South Wales could burn the way it did.

Then thirdly, more a suggestion than a demand, there is another industry which I find it strange that the Liberal Government has not promoted and that is dedicated quarantine facilities. I would not advocate Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, once a prison, but a properly constructed quarantine facility in Tasmania is certainly closer to Australia than Christmas Island.

Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour

But then the success of private politics depends on how determined and how committed one is for the long game. I wonder how well this is translated into the future administration of Tasmania.

Mouse Whisper

An unguarded comment?

As one of his colleagues recently remembered:

“30 years ago today, the wonderful C… H… died. Fabulous economist & mentor with unlimited time to talk. Friday drinks in his office often included Pichon Lalande, Lynch Bages & Chateau Talbot as he mulled over the next additions to his cellar. Great man; greatly missed.”

Different time – wrong look. Yet the connoisseur of lotus cuisine continues to be the role model for the current Canberra Elite.

Modest Expectations – Box Hill to Port Melbourne

You know if a line was drawn from the Perth GPO to the Sydney GPO to represent the history of the Earth, reptiles would appear in Canberra and intelligent human life would evolve in Balmain Author Craig Cormick then calculating in the Federal Department of Science Set Square.

More than just a Nuance 

Below is a lightly edited extract from The Boston Globe last week. Maybe it is the foretaste of more irritating daleks on benches and mantelpieces with stupid names ostensibly doing my bidding, but who knows.

There’s nothing subtle about Microsoft’s US $19.7 billion, all-cash acquisition of Burlington-based Nuance Communications. It’s a bold statement that Microsoft intends to be the dominant provider of speech-based artificial intelligence systems to the world’s biggest enterprises, particularly in health care.

This acquisition is Microsoft’s biggest since the company paid $26 billion in 2016 to acquire the business-oriented social network LinkedIn. Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion

Nuance, which employs around 7,100 people worldwide, is famous for its artificial-intelligence software that enables computers to recognize human speech. These days, plenty of companies make similar software for consumers. In fact, Apple’s Siri voice system was based on Nuance technology.

Amazon, Google, and even Microsoft have all built their own speech software and virtual assistants for mainstream users. Nuance also used to dabble in consumer markets. But in recent years, the company has specialized in enterprise-grade AI software that understands the meanings behind words, with a particular focus on medical applications.

Today, Nuance makes software smart enough to automatically generate medical records, assist doctors in their diagnoses, and refill patients’ prescriptions. And demand for such software is likely to surge, as millions worldwide replace face-to-face doctor visits with online and remote health care — a process accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The acquisition will enable Microsoft to tap a global health care market worth $500 billion per year, it has been predicted.

And that could be just the beginning. Nuance also makes an array of intelligent programs for customer service and security applications. It makes software that can accurately figure out what a caller wants, even if they don’t use exactly the right words. It even makes a product for financial services companies that can identify fraudulent callers pretending to be someone else. The software can spot crooks not only by analysing their tone of voice, but by tracking which words they use.

And now Microsoft will be able to market all of these capabilities worldwide.

Nuance had net income of $28 million on revenue of $1.48 billion for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, compared to a net loss of $12.2 million for the previous year.

It has been pointed out that Microsoft’s success with Nuance is by no means assured. IBM’s Watson Health initiative has also tried to apply AI technologies to health care but earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that IBM is considering a sale of the business, which generates annual revenue of $1 billion, but no profits.

Nuance’s artificial-intelligence products are more advanced than IBM’s. Still, doctors and hospitals are often slow to embrace new technology, no matter how good it is because the health care industry itself is a very conservative industry.

The Nuance acquisition is expected to close later this year.

I can’t wait!

Digger’s Rest is now in Oxfordshire

It is interesting that Murdoch’s star is setting in every country apart from his old Digger’s Rest in “my beloved Australia” but, as Google will show, it’s in Oxfordshire.

The migration of News Corporation from Australia to Delaware in 2004 for reincorporation was seen at the time to be ambiguous. While News Corp asserted that the re-incorporation would enhance shareholder value, critics of the proposal claimed that its real purpose was to strengthen managerial power vis-à-vis shareholder power. Now assuming that the move has been the cornerstone of Murdoch family control, presumably it would not have escaped the President’s notice that Murdoch has nestled in his state where the Democrats have massive majorities in both Houses. Far be it from somebody in far off Australia to suggest that the Delaware legislature would be contemplating their version of a “poison pill” to make this old Oxfordshire squire’s life a little harder, but the White House does not seem to have a welcome mat out for Murdoch and Son.

I doubt if Boris Johnson owes the same Squire any favours. either, but Rupert has had this serpentine way of intruding into the political boudoirs of the rich and famous. Boris realises that if you watch the eye movements of a snake, you can very much know when it is about to strike. Pandering to a snake is not the best way to run a government, nevertheless as one source has written:

It may seem extraordinary that the worship of the serpent should ever have been introduced into the world, and it must appear still more remarkable that it should almost universally have prevailed. As mankind are said to have been ruined through the influence of this being, we could little expect that it would, of all other objects, have been adopted as the most sacred and salutary symbol, and rendered the chief object of adoration. Yet so we find it to have been, for in most of the ancient rites there is some allusion to it.

Some of the more uncharitable among us might believe that above is a perfect description of “Dear Rupert” at work. It is worthy to note that ophiolatreia, the worship of snakes, apparently burns out in the colder climes, when the snake is no longer seen an influential symbol.

Doing the rhumba

Yet there is a band of contrarians. I can categorically deny that Hillsong has invited any of them, their many fraternal Pentecostal mates in the Appalachian Mountains, to come to Australia with their rhumba of rattlesnakes. They follow the dictum as expressed in Mark 16:18 which says, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”.

Unfortunately, like many a tabloid newspaper, one verse can always be taken out of context.  Being bitten by a snake, according to these believers in the literal translation of the verse, has resulted in many a pastoral death among these Hill people, with the pastors being particular sacrifices. As He may have said “Mark my words!”

But then again Rupert’s version of the rhumba may have caused enough political demise for us not to need any spiritual injection from the Pentecostalist hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.

We Australians are all that is left of the “downsized” Rupert global injection room retreat.  Poor us. Son Lachlan has moved back to Australia. Really, do we deserve that?  Remember how his brilliance has shone previously in the Australian business world. 

Andrew Peacock – Not a Bad Bloke

I saw Andrew Peacock at close quarters when we were both active and ambitious young men. Most people go through life without the privilege that he had and indeed cultivated. He went to a private school, where he coveted being Captain of the School and where he sustained a rivalry for the post with Tony Staley, later to be a less successful politician in same Party. In the end neither of them attained Captain of the School. The captain was a quiet studious chap who played the piano well.

Peacock and Hawke

Peacock avoided student politics, while Staley was my successor as President of the Student Representative Council. However, Peacock was along a different trail. After a preliminary tilt at Federal politics unsuccessfully challenging Jim Cairns then inherited the retiring Prime Minister Menzies’ seat of Kooyong, with the appropriate blessing of the incumbent.

Peacock was well suited to the then Liberal Party, especially in Victoria where noblesse oblige played a large part, and he himself was mildly centrist in his views. Nevertheless, there were limits. I well remember the debate in Parliament on abortion, where the Liberal Party then in Opposition were universally supportive, to a man and the few women, of the anti-abortionists. When the matter came to a vote in the House of Representatives Peacock theatrically stood up as though to vote for its legalisation against the wishes of the Party, looked around at the back bench and realised that nobody was following – and promptly sat down.

Peacock performed one particularly lasting service during his relatively short stint as Minister for External Territories in 1972. He befriended the charismatic Michael Somare. Peacock was refreshingly modern, as had followed a series of Ministers who still looked on that emerging nation of Papua New Guinea as a place for the continuation of patrol officer paternalism. Together he and Somare cemented the foundations which led to Papua-New Guinea. The relationship since has not been easy, but Peacock ensured with Somare that it would be ordered and peaceful. That is his legacy, and all the stuff about him being a “ Treasure” will dissolve with the attendant crocodile tears.

Peacock and I fell out, after a savage speech I made directed at what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as some of his actions. Like many things I have done, I probably regret it, but what does it matter when one old man reflects on the legacy of another old man now gone and who lived most of his last 20 years in Texas. Perhaps his $2.5bn mishap in the Gold Coast hedge fund accelerated that exit.

I believe if he had been given the opportunity Peacock would have made a good Prime Minister, but as he was never one for detail, he would have needed very good staff work. However, he knew how to handle his colleagues, except for Howard. In the end I believe he also got tired of having to deal with Howard, who was assiduous whereas he was not. In effect he was outlasted, even though there were a few interim Party leaders between him hanging up his political boots and Howard eventually gaining complete control of the Liberal Party.

After he left Parliament having never made Prime Minister, the zeal of public life with which he had pursued this Grail probably deserted him as he drifted into the cocktail circuit of diplomacy and mixing with other world “treasures”.  Howard was shrewd enough to offer him an official sinecure for such a pursuit. I hope Peacock was happy, because he wasn’t a bad bloke.

Nevertheless, as a wise associate of mine with a dry sense of humour said: “Only children, especially boys, should have ‘only child’ stamped on their foreheads to warn people.”  Maybe that would have been a better epitaph for Andrew.

The Shambles is not only a street in York

I have always been a great supporter of the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. However, I understand that at present there are insufficient people with the appropriate qualifications to keep the facility open. Why? Because so many of the regulars are committed to trying to staunch the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG.

Not enough resources. Is it time for that Morrisonian war footing?

Should this war footing the Prime Minister is trumpeting concentrate the attention of Australians – mobilising the country – get rid of all frippery – world surf carnivals and the like, and then truly putting the whole country into vaccination khaki.  Does he really mean to emulate John Curtin?

Or Prime Minister, are you just trying to run this country as though we are in the middle of a Mortein ad?

No social distancing at this ritual

The increasingly erratic Prime Minister has been essentially advocating tossing away the hard-earned gains of lock down and border closure by advocating home quarantine and people being able to in effect freely travel into the pandemic areas, because allegedly some Liberal Party donor has a villa in Tuscany and/or his Hillsong mates want to import singing and clapping in viral bags from all over the world for some Convention. Somebody may have seen the success of such religious festivals in India in spreading the Virus and want to emulate these by mass baptisms in the Hawkesbury River or some such spectacular event where social distancing is perceived as a heathen ritual.

It is slowly becoming clearer about the efficacy of vaccinations, and unfortunately it seems that the Australian Government has plumped for the inferior, if cheaper vaccine. When I see only poor old John Skerrett wearing the pelt of scapegoat, assuring the Australian public about how well the Australian vaccination world is, you know the politicians have lengthened their bargepoles.

Australia has done a remarkable job in suppressing the virus, in preventing variants from gaining a hold and allowing us to live a normal life.

Therefore, for Australians, the words “war footing” either jar or are ignored. What is needed is for the Federal Government to assume its constitutional responsibility and not “tar baby” the States. It should prepare mass vaccination facilities and train enough vaccinators so that when supplies of vaccine become available, they can be manned immediately so the program can start. Part-time vaccinators, trained and ready, should have similar entitlements as if they were a uniformed force reserve, ready to present to their particular vaccine centre when called up. The vaccinations will require military precision.

The question of which vaccine needs to be resolved. Transparency is essential. Thus, as a start, it is important to know how many politicians hold shares in AstraZeneca or CSL or, for that matter, in any suppliers of essential goods. That should be done immediately. Let us get some real transparency into the decision making. Then repeat the justification for such vaccines, slowly identifying also all the consultants, their role and achievements, if any.

Then, continue with the AstraZeneca vaccine for all those over 65 – first and second injection.  As with America, weekly totals are placed on public view. If the AstraZeneca can be modified to one injection, that option should be pursued. You are dealing with many elderly people and one injection is easier to remember than two.

It seems that Pfizer and Moderna technology is far superior, and now that they can be stored in a conventional refrigerator without fear of interruption of the cold chain integrity, supplies must be obtained, and a definite timetable set. The new public relations scenario is roping poor old John Shine in for speculation on whether Australia will get into the business of manufacturing the effective mRNA vaccines somewhere sometime in the future. I don’t say it cannot be done, but a timetable for completion and distribution needs to be calculated. In the interim, McKinsey continues to be financially enhanced.

The Prime Minister should be gagged unless his utterances can be confirmed to be true by an independent panel headed by Norman Swan or his equivalent in order to regain lost political credibility.

The unknowns are gradually becoming clear. There will be a need for booster injections to counter the viral variants beyond the first one; there will be a real necessity for Australia to improve its home-based technology. The advances that Pfizer have apparently achieved in reducing the age at which children can be injected should be monitored closely. Increasingly, being unvaccinated at all ages will be a risk when our world opens up to that villa in Tuscany.

That villa in Tuscany …

Razors – how the land scrape has changed

In my whole life the longest time I have ever gone without a shave after I reached the “age of the bristle” has been three days. That occurred at Easter 1958 which fell in the first week of April that year.  I was induced by two fellow medical students to go on a camping trip in the high plains area of Victoria.

I had never been camping before, and instead of a sleeping bag I had an old eiderdown, which proved to be a very comfortable substitute – we were lucky it didn’t rain.  The nights were very cold in the high country – the Porepunkah caravan park and the Bruthen tip. I am sure the eiderdown did not conform to the kit of a conventional camper. I forgot to take a razor.

Since that time razor technology has changed to such an extent that the ritual of yesterday with badger brush, to mix the shaving soap in a custom made Wedgewood porcelain bowl for a lather prior to the application of the razor was not a two minute exercise. That was a morning ritual, and many of the professionals in my father’s and grandfather’s generation paid a visit to the barber in the morning before work for a shave, complete with hot towels and all the fragrances that substituted for our modern deodorants – underarm and elsewhere. Presumably a presiding judge never wanted to appear as a Norman Gunston figure – but it would have done wonders for court humour.

When I started to shave, I used to have to screw the razor into the so-called safety razor which took no account of a wrinkly face; you need to tighten the skin to avoid the inevitable cuts as the razor encountered adolescent pimples underneath the softened lathered face. This whole process was interrupted by constantly having to run the shaver under water to remove the facial hair. Often this was not a pretty sight.

The electric razor followed. This was an apparent advance, but it came with a pre-shave conditioner and an aftershave lotion, most of which smelt like a French bordello – well, an imagined French bordello.  Brut was the champion odour. Old Spice was equally repugnant.  Aramis too was another turnoff among the few young women who ventured near. The problem with the electric razor is that despite the hype, it never gave a close shave; to such an extent that I was accused of presenting for a final year obstetric oral examination as an unshaven and untidy “colt from Carlton”. I well remember I was wearing a very expensive pale grey suit, and these days such a facial presentation would have been considered fashionable. Apparently, I lost marks for neatness, which was the way the senior medical profession operated in those days, especially when they thought one had the mien of a rebel and needed to be sent to an eastern suburban Siberia as an intern.

Facial salvation eventually came with the modern disposable razor, which has been constantly tweaked so that one can shave without any of the former ritual, although it does help to wet your face. And the time taken? Well, if you can’t do it in under two minutes, you must have latent narcissist tendencies trapped by your vision in the mirror of your post-shaven purity.

Seriously, we forget the time saved by the modern razors, and as long as one does not use the same one more than 24 times, then it gives the facies a very close approximation to a member of human race, unlike those who bury their jaws in home grown hedges.

Mouse Whisper

The Minister for Cultural Correctness, Admiral of the Swift, Pedro Dutônão has a issued a twerking ban on the Dill Squadron. Twiggy and his sidetwiglet ScãoMão have been severely reprimanded for their inappropriate antics before the start of the Collingwood clash with the West Coast Eagles. The Admiral was reported as saying that the crowd reaction of booing one of these perpetrators was completely justifiable in view of that earlier disgraceful mass action. The Admiral went on to regret any hurt that may have been caused to any Australian viewing the original performance but failed to mention the level of reparations due to the Australian community.

Modest Expectations – Tunisia

Carnarvon WA

Some years ago I wrote a short story about a serial killer who is killed by a woman who has cause for vengeance, but lulls the killer into a false state of security. Set against a background of Carnarvon and Gascoyne Junction, the killer is a very good looking man, who carefully grooms himself – and the woman, his killer, the impossibly beautiful woman. Prey becomes the stalker. It was part of a series of short stories that I wrote after a trip to the Kimberley, before it became a tourist destination. Whether allegorical or not, it has given me the thought that the woman was a journalist who acted as bait to trap the predator into revealing himself. But maybe that is another story – the journalist who endures contumely as the girlfriend so that her probings cause the sociopath to betray himself in front of his peers.

Rape is an act of violence and control. The violence is given a context -sexual assault. However, if the police were informed that a serial killer was loose, there would not be any hesitation. But violent rape, a close relative of murder, seems to invoke legal hesitation. The Federal Parliament situation needs a change in behaviour to complement attitudinal change to stop the disgusting spectacle.

The refuge for this situation about “Pick the Minister”; the betting firms would have been running a book, except there were too many in the know for any realistic odds on who it was. The accused cabinet minister was known to a large number of people, but the name was withheld until Wednesday. “After all, why should I acknowledge something which did not allegedly occur in 1988, and anyway I was different person then. I am now a Cabinet minister!” Not quite the actual words finally uttered but consistent with the eventual lachrymose performance.

Twitter has been alive about the non-allegations in relation to this Cabinet Minister. Disgusting is a mild way to put some of them, but if they are true, the highest level of disgust should be accorded to the now Cabinet Minister.

However, truth in this case is an elusive beast, especially when waiting in the wings of your staged performance is one of the best defamation lawyers in the country.

Given the seriousness of the case, before I knew his name, I would have thought it timely for the Prime Minister to consult with the Attorney-General. He is, after all, the senior judicial officer in Australia, and the Prime Minister was faced with a systemic problem of law enforcement penetrating even his Cabinet. I reflected in an earlier draft that the Attorney-General hopefully will have a solution to the problem. How ironic!

The problem is that the government is in denial, the more the cover up, the more people exposed with inside knowledge; it is just the sort of scenario that any sociopath would delight in. Sociopaths lie. Along the primrose pathway that such men have trodden to get to where they are now, there may well be a number of dark areas from which somebody could emerge, or not. At present, many of such dark areas seem to be coming to light.

It was inevitable as the uproar increased, that this person would be named under Parliamentary privilege. As I wrote early in the week, my hope was that it would be a male who outed him, preferably being the accused himself. Christian Porter has done that. He recognised to his credit that the problem is that if this non-naming had gone on much longer, with increasingly everybody knowing he was the accused, then the Parliament itself becomes a protector of this man and hence compromised. Therefore, someone would have named him in Parliament.

My view has always been to tackle the negative quickly; fallout is inevitable. So what better action than to excise the poison by now setting up an independent inquiry. In particular, for the Prime Minister, if unresolved, the situation becomes a form of political hemlock.

The one matter that troubles me is that a female senator who should know better has resurfaced a claim against a senior Labor member. Unless she knows something others don’t know, why has she surfaced with an old allegation which actually was reviewed by the police and refuted. Just now! Why?  Surely this woman would not indulge in an infantile diversionary tactic?  Porter in his appearance before the Press then sympathised with Shorten’s plight. So much for Senator Henderson.

There is something in the culture among the Liberal Party women which seems to be toxic to the furtherance of gender equality. I have known many, and some, like former Senator Judith Troeth, were exemplary, but they were closed down; the pressure of being cooped up in Parliament House is not that much different from boarding school bullying.

Christian Porter – no matter how the imbroglio is sliced and however innocent ,while in public life he will be a target, especially in the year of Grace Tame.

Blue Book

Just in case you have not seen the blue book Growing a Strong and Resilient Regional Australia which was published with the Budget papers, it starts optimistically.  “Australia’s regions – despite all that’s been thrown at them, are not only still standing but are on the cusp of a great future.”

I am not going to parse the whole report, but even this first sentence, with its recourse to a metaphorical flourish, begs a number of questions.

Even one sentence. It seems “regions” mean any place outside the capital cities, as though the capital cities are apparently a separate entity; in fact they are a diversity held together by being the seat of a government.

The next sentence provides a crude definition of what Australia is beyond the capital cities, and I have always disputed the integrity of a “Capital” as if it is a walled city with a peasantry milling around outside.

I recognised when reporting to Government on rural health that there was “inner rural” and “outer rural”. I had never thought of subdividing coastal settlements in that way. On reflection, coastal settlement has been shown after the bush fires last year as having specific characteristics, particularly in relation to accessibility. When I made this classification, I did it on the basis of an urban development which sprawls and engulfs what were autonomous mostly rural settlements.

I once identified a ring of what broadly could be identified as similar settlements about 100 kilometres from Melbourne in which there was a substantial number of procedural general practitioners who lived in or near the township. As urbanisation approached, the general practitioners became progressively deskilled; the practices became “lock-up” since the doctors no longer lived in the community; after hours care was the locum wasteland and the community ill, a referred burden to the nearest big hospital with an emergency department.

The other comment I would make was that during the time of my investigation, I set myself an exercise to drive from Colac to Warragul. All of the towns along the way were about the same distance from Melbourne, along highways which radiated from Melbourne. If you followed these radial roads, accessibility to the cities was manageable. When I drove the circumferential routes between the towns to assess the accessibility of each to the other, it was more tortuous, but the roads were asphalted until I drove into the Great Dividing Range. Here the road became gravel and the accessibility factor showed how isolated this area was, even to Melbourne, remembering my approximate route at all times was equidistant from the Centre of Melbourne. This inaccessibility was later so clearly shown up in the 2009 bushfires which spread across outer Melbourne, and where the problem of accessibility proved to be catastrophic.

Tackling infrastructure challenges is being able to differentiate communities of interest and then attend to them appropriately. I have always believed that in Australia local governments are the best surrogate, unless otherwise demonstrated, for consultation. I once instructed the bureaucrats under my aegis to visit every municipality in Victoria to get their views on an initiative with which I had been entrusted. There then were 210 municipalities and only one refused to meet with us to discuss the initiative. My bureaucrats were put in a position where they could explain to people who did not know much about the proposed investment, who were then mostly male and who had no idea about the importance of early childhood education.

I have been involved in working closely with communities for most of my career. I enjoy it because I enjoy the diversity of Australia. It has meant that there are very few areas of settlement in Australia that I have not been to in my long public service.

However, it is an attitude which has set me against Bureaucracy.

This limitation of Bureaucracy is shown clearly in this Blue book of Government largesse apportioned essentially by Ministerial portfolio. There are thus multiple pots of government money without any reference to one another or any indication what the expected end product will be.

This addendum to the budget papers requires close reading, because the document is drafted as if the Federal Government is the Cornucopia and Minister McCormack the Goddess, Abundantia.

To me, this is the McCormack pork barrel. Reading the Ministerial statement, you can almost smell the crackling.  However, it can be argued that aroma is less pronounced than that of the Sports Rorts.  Special interest groups want something; one of the specialties of any portfolio that the National Party holds is the titration of funding against the electoral advantage.

Moreover, Berejiklian has given the practice her benediction last November. “All governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour. The term pork barrelling is common parlance. It is not something that I know the community is comfortable with. If that’s the accusation made on this occasion …. then I’m happy to accept that commentary. It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time by every government.”

God knows, why she contaminated her defiance with “unfortunately”? Joke!

I looked at the proposed Blue Book largesse in regard to “post- bushfires.” A couple of line items attracted my interest. The first among all the grants was $31million allocated specifically to apple growers to “help re-establish” apple orchards, with an individual maximum of $120,000 per hectare to be allocated over one financial year. This is very generous, even if the tree planting is concentrated. It should be recognised that apples and pears are grown together, so there is a definitional problem as only apple growers are mentioned as eligible. There were three apple growing areas affected – Adelaide Hills, Bilpin and Batlow – the last of which lies within the Wagga Wagga State electorate.

From reports there was some damage to the orchards, but that damage seemed to be minor; one producer with 200,000 trees at Batlow lost less than 5,000.

Then about six months after the bushfire in 2020, an industry source reported” … some are choosing to let crops rot on their trees rather than accept farmgate prices set by the big supermarkets at as little as 90 cents per kilogram for a fruit that costs at least $2 a kilogram to produce.

At the same time, Australians are eating 12 per cent fewer apples since 2015; apple exports have fallen 19 per cent since 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Then there’s the drought and its impact on the size and number of apples produced. Australian farmers grew 14 per cent fewer tonnes last year compared to 2017”.

There was no mention of bushfires. So, I’m only on P17 of this 189 page Blue Book, but I wonder what the hell is going on. Turn the page and there is the second line item of interest – Pratt received $10m for his Tumut paper mill.

The problem is that nobody tries to develop a picture where government financing will produce any lasting benefit for Australia. There are pots of money to tap into if one knows one’s way around Canberra.

This is a form of central planning perverted to become a gigantic slush fund; Australia has been blessed indeed as the Land of the Cornucopia – but then I have never watched the Hunger Games. 

Over there; Just not yet.

This country has been spectacularly successful at suppressing the Virus, but the problem with success is complacency, when all about have succumbed to the Virus through political pigheadedness in the main plus a basic lack of discipline when confronted with a universal enemy. Given the number of disaster and alien films, excluding “Contagion”, it is ironic in this case that the invader is unseen. The whole axiom-out of sight; out of mind – should be remembered.

Australia has dealt with this change of circumstances after an uncertain start, by locking the country away from the rest of the world. To get into Castle Australis is difficult, but there are still normative judgements about who can enter the country or cannot, although it seems to be common practice to insist on 14 days quarantine. The fact, like so many other things in this public-relations’ obsessed country, we were faced with border closures ostensibly due to health concerns but clearly political considerations. At the outset, it was understandable that restriction in movement should be uniformly applied, but it was not. This stemmed from a basic mistrust in the Commonwealth Government. Here there was pressure from the Prime Minister’s business circle not to impose restrictions, which would have led to a US-style situation. If sources are to be believed, it was a very close thing. After all, Morrison found an unsanitary affinity with Trump.

However, once they were imposed and the longer they went, border closures became a political weapon more than a health reason. When border closures clearly became a complete nonsense, at least Berekjlian, who, from many of her actions has often showed herself to be a rolled-gold guaranteed “dropkick”, was so right. Once it was clear from the NSW public health response that the COVID-19 cases could be gathered into clusters, then as she reasoned rightly, why indulge in group punishment by closing borders indiscriminately.

However, it has bred in the populace more than a risk adverse sentiment –fear – especially as the spectre of lockdown is constantly held over it.

For many years Australians have been used to being able to holiday both at home and overseas. As someone old enough to have grown up when overseas travel was a luxury and generally linked to overseas employment, it is a return to the old days of my youth.

I was one of those who went overseas in 1971, admittedly for the second time, 14 years after my first. Then, apart from a couple of years, I went overseas at least once each year until last year. In 2020, the Virus intervened. Now there is an uncertain future for overseas travel; the success Australia has had in ridding itself from the Virus has made most Australians value a COVID-19-free environment at the expense of overseas tourism.

Vaccination has introduced a new variable, but the vaccines development has been accelerated in a way that the mid-term to long term effect is yet unknown. The community knows that hygiene, masks and isolation (social distancing), works. However, community compliance is a factor which has been one of the reasons for the Australian success.

Within the borders the sense in confidence of moving about is growing, but the country has endured a harrowing time to see what works. Therefore, tourism will only return on the back of a confident people – confident that it can occur within a world where the virus is controlled.

The only way that this border issue can be addressed in the short term is for Australia and New Zealand to open up their orders to strictly Trans-Tasman Travel, and work from there. After all, there is confidence building so that the States do not instinctively close their borders. The Governments are increasingly confident that they can control clusters into hot spots.

Look at the situation in New Zealand – one case in Auckland and the city goes into lockdown. Therefore the “outbreak fear” level approximates that here in Australia, unlike the USA where any fall in the prevalence of the Virus is almost invariably followed by a premature relaxation of restrictions.  As was reported this week in the Washington Post the downward trend in new coronavirus infections had plateaued, perhaps because officials relaxed public health restrictions too soon and more contagious virus variants were becoming more widespread. Experts say a vigorous vaccination effort is key to stamping them out.”

Australia and New Zealand should bite the bullet and enter into an arrangement whereby people can travel between the two countries, leaving details of their destination on arrival. Thus, mutual trust needs to exist, otherwise both countries will be caught in a Western Australian bind of unreasoned defiance, which fortunately is abating as the Premier sees electoral victory this month.

Then we can move into the Pacific to help our neighbours who need our tourism but need to attain the same public health level as Australia and New Zealand. It is a wondrous thing to think that a Virus can assure a common effective response beginning in the Pacific. But then I am always the romantic, believing that advances come the quality of the response to adversity. Australia needs a different government I’m afraid.

In the Pink

Anonymouse

What does it take to get Sydneysiders to flock to the Blue Mountains? Well, me at least. I was thinking as I drove around the rim of the Blue Mountains what an impossible terrain it is, but without its escarpments and jagged pinnacles there would not be the unparalled views. I could be excused for thinking that when William Wentworth, one of three adventurers who first crossed the Blue Mountains to stand on one of pinnacles, the landscape below revealing what Thomas Mitchell later called Australia Felix, confessed that “his love of Australia was the ‘master passion’ of his life.” I could only agree. Yet here was plain the devastating effect of the bushfires which spread though the area early last year and left in their wake a bare blackened landscape.

Yet Australia Felix is never far away. I had gone looking for nature’s compensation for the terrible destruction, a special tapestry of tiny pink and white flowers. For a few short weeks, a year after devastating bushfires in the Blue Mountains and other areas of eastern Australia, the bush has regenerated and a profusion of pink flannel flowers has appeared.

These tiny flowers appear only rarely. Known as bushfire ephemerals, they are regenerated by fire, followed by good rain. It requires specific climatic conditions for seed stored in the soil to germinate. It is thought the plants germinate in response to bushfire smoke, rather than heat. The smoke-derived chemical karrikinolide is the active ingredient that triggers the plants’ emergence. Other plants with a similar activation after bushfires include grasstrees, or Xanthorrhoea, that send up flowering spears, and Gymea lilies. I saw the rebirthed grass trees, but alas no Gymea lilies.

The current bloom is spectacular, with pink flowers woven among the blackened banksias over these large tracts of shallow, skeletal mountain soils.

With their complicated rosy centre of tiny florets and hairy white bracts, rather than petals, they resemble a daisy, but are actually in the same family as carrots, parsley and celery. They are similar to the common flannel flower but are considerably smaller and have a distinct pink hue.

Pink flannel flowers are a mixed blessing – without fire, they remain dormant. See them while you can, hopefully it is many years before they can appear again. I wonder whether Wentworth ever saw them. I doubt it.

Mouse Whisper

Neera Tanden, a professional Democrat and President Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, fought her way to the threshold of the White House, only to be swatted at by senators who claimed that her appetite for partisan conflict — on Twitter, specifically — disqualifies her from holding that much power. The same fighting that got her here, in other words, now threatens to sink her. 

“Just to mention a few of the thousands of negative public statements,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), speaking with the steady monotone of a not-mad-but-disappointed dad, “you wrote that Susan Collins is ‘the worst,’ that Tom Cotton is a ‘fraud,’ that vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz.”

It is an interesting commentary on a feisty intelligent woman, who has raised a swag of money for her Center for American Progress (CAP). She has been a Hilary Clinton sidekick, but it is not only the above Republicans who have been the target of her venom. That honour resides with Bernie Sanders, and at one stage it is alleged that Tanen assaulted the person who later became Sanders’ Campaign Manager. The reason was that Ms Tanen did not like his question directed at Hilary at a CAP forum.

By the way, among her considerable set of donors for the CAP is Mark Zuckerberg who is recorded as giving about US$700,000 in 2018. She certainly is thus a lady not for turning, but her fate will be interesting because she will almost certainly fail to get the nomination for the Cabinet job.

Needless to say the President has withdrawn her nomination later this week.

Neera Tanden

Modest Expectations – Earthquake in Hunter Street

I arrived at the Melbourne apartment having come down from Sydney on Wednesday 25th November. The desk calendar said May. I had not been here since then?

The Virus has wreaked havoc and it is time to reflect given that I have been writing my blog continuously during this time. Hence, once written, always there.

There have been two major disasters – one was the Ruby Princess. Some say the targets to whom I assigned blame were wrong. There is always the fall guy, and people have told me who it is.

Given the Premier seems to be wrestling with disclosing her misdemeanours, she is trying to deflect an increasing number of embarrassing disclosures by filibustering. The “poor little me” melodrama is becoming increasingly tiresome, but people should listen to her fellow Armenian, Mr Aznavourian sing “She”:

She may be the face I can’t forget

A trace of pleasure or regret

May be my Treasurer

The price I have to pay.

Increasingly her NSW constituents may begin to agree with her fellow Armenian’s summation. Obviously, the Queensland Premier may agree as she has used poor Gladys as a punching bag; the State of Origin biff has extended to the two government leaders.

Anyway, the Queensland Premier has her own idiosyncrasies, apart from Jeanette Young, including her insistence on being called “Palashay” and not the original Ukrainian “Palastchuk”. Perhaps it was this Slavonic heritage that loved the sound of Dr Young’s continual “nyet”. Who would know?

Border closures were initially effective as was confining people’s movements, but after a while it became a symbol of secession – even puerile schoolyard spats. It should be noted that if Andrews had not given it credibility by supporting Morrison’s “National Cabinet”, it would have floundered. In any event Morrison has shown little trustworthiness.

Lockdown had a novelty value as Insiders showed with their amusing washing troubadours way back in March and Daniel Emmet continued the fun with his banishment of the Virus to the sound of “Nessun Dorma”.

However, it progressed from a romp when Peter Dutton came back from the USA with the Virus and it was reported that his senior colleagues immediately panicked until they were quietened down by Dr Paul Kelly. However, the lavage jolliness had given away to a sense of vulnerability, albeit fear.

What has happened is that the State governments took the matter very seriously and closed the borders. It is a difficult area to manage because not opening borders can lead to two outcomes, as has been shown over the succeeding months. The first is that despite the Commonwealth having the quarantine power it was virtually ignored by the State Governments – except in one area – the actual meaning of “pandemic”.

However, in one way, the Commonwealth listened to the health experts, and those like Brendan Murphy, who was appointed Head of the Federal Health Department, listened to the health experts in his own team – Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth. There were myriad others with varying levels of health expertise, but apart from a number of superficial missteps, Murphy listened to the right voices and the distilled Health advice prevailed over Murdoch and his fellow Ignorants, most of whom could understood the share market but not much else.

In the end, apart from the tourist industry and interference with social communication, the real effect of border closure was magnified by the closure of the NSW / Victorian border. One of the worst happenings is to continually go into lockdowns, then open the borders, then go into lock down again – on and on heightening confusion. I am not a fan of hotels being used as quarantine facilities because in the end all are porous. This is the nature of the beast, especially when you impose imprisonment without accompanying health expertise, and then find out you did not have the expertise anyway. This occurred in Victoria and Daniel Andrews assumed control, locked the State down, imported the contact tracing expertise from NSW, where it had saved the Armenian bacon, and while all about were behaving badly Andrews gradually, over 112 days, bullied Victoria into compliance. It was a terrible time for those in the State but demonstration of the discipline needed to eliminate the virus that is raging everywhere else in the world, apart from selected areas in the South Pacific.

In the end, the strategy had its effect. It suppressed the Virus, and in the case of Victoria probably eliminated it. As a result, woe betide any tennis player who comes to Australia with a cavalier attitude. He or she will be faced with a battle-hardened population who are not going to allow a set of “celebrities” to import the Virus. The message is plain.  Get it into your heads, nobody is going to breach security again and bring in your own tidal wave of infection.

What Andrews showed was courage under fire from the Murdoch media and an Opposition who, if their actions were seditious rather than serious criticism, should be facing charges. He showed that once a lockdown is imposed, and his State embarked on a recovery plan, he had to get it right and not backtrack. That drifting in the political breezes is happening all over the world, in and out of lockdown with political rather than the resolute application of health priorities being uppermost . Under the recklessness of the Mad Trump or the hubris of the Swede Tegnall, people die, people clog up the health system and, as with any arterial blockage, the end result is death to the blocked area.  Andrews showed the way by eliminating the blockage and should be overwhelmingly elected Australian of the Year.

South Australia has since had a similar outbreak in hotel quarantine, and the lockdown was far shorter and the epidemiological weapons used had been improved across Australia since March. As this blog goes to posting, NSW has just had a breach in hotel quarantine.

Underlying all the political action is that there will be a viable vaccine available soon. There seem to be plans upon plans for distribution of an untested product.

There are two questions that seem to be consumed by the cacophony of the public relations spin. What are the side effects and can I die from the cure? How long does the immunity last? You see, I grew up in a world where we had injections before we went overseas, and they did not grant life-long immunity. You had to get injected for cholera and typhoid each time you went overseas – and the latter gave me a nasty local reaction. I’d been through it at that time, bearing my vaccination card, when overseas travel was a far smaller sector than in the modern world.

This whole area is complicated by the Head of Qantas saying that you would not be able to board an aircraft unvaccinated. Forced to take an unproven vaccine? Where is the duty of care? The world of business is treading a perilous pathway.

Finally, one thing I would say is that the media is braying about how well our political leaders have stood up in the recent polls. Did the polls award Morrison the Lodge in 2019?  Did the polls accurately reflect the votes in the recent US elections. Let’s face it. Polls stink.

Ah yes, but this is the poll I like. It says I am popular. The politician preens. It says that people think of me as a perfumed gardenia. Beware, gardenias die very quickly and leave a stench not a perfume. But then I am given another gardenia, and it’s alright, isn’t it?

Why not a Summit at ShaTin?

The Chinese are insulting us. The Prime Minister armed with his Pentecostal shield fights back. The Chinese are trying to strangle our industries. The Chinese have taken over Hong Kong completely. Dissidents are being locked up.

Sha Tin race course

But it is not all bad. There is still horse racing in Hong Kong – whether at Happy Valley on the Island or Sha Tin in the New Territories with Australian-bred horses, Australian-bred trainers, Australian-bred jockeys and even Australian-bred stewards. All their antics are broadcast by Channel 7 in the interests of Sino-Australian recognition of our long association with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Chair of the Club is Phillip Chen Nan-Tok. He seems to be well connected, having been a senior executive of the Swire Group and of various property developments in Hong Kong and on the Mainland.

It is all unreal. Munchkin-like barrier attendants. The race commentary and in between race commentary is all very English, although the race-caller is obviously Antipodean; he does not have the languid style of the British race-caller or the unintelligible brogue of an Irish counterpart. There he is describing Australian horses galloping around these racetracks with not a whiff of tear gas or the young rioting against Mainland repression.

The betting brings Hong Kong plenty of money – and not an Australian boycott in sight. I wonder therefore if the Chinese will be at the Australian horse sales in the New Year.

Bliss

My son gave me “Abraham Lincoln” – which coincidentally was reprinted in 1939, the year of my birth. This book was written by William Thayer, an American educator, who was born during the American Civil War.

Lincoln

The book details a mob response to the death of President Lincoln in very graphic terms:

“In some localities the grief expressed itself in the form of vengeance. It assumed that form early on Saturday morning in the city of New York. Armed men gathered in the streets threatening speedy death to disloyal citizens. Their numbers rapidly increased, until fifty thousand assembled in Wall Street Exchange, bearing aloft a portable gallows, and swearing summary vengeance upon the first rebel sympathizer who dared to speak. One thoughtless fellow remarked that ‘Lincoln ought to have been shot long ago’; and he was struck dead instantly. The grieved and vengeful crowd seethed towards the office of the World, a disloyal paper, with mutterings of violence on their lips. It seemed scarcely possible to prevent violent demonstration. A bloody scene appeared to be imminent. At that critical moment a portly man, of commanding physique and voice, appeared upon the balcony of the City Hall, from which telegrams were read to the people, and raising his right hand to invoke silence, he exclaimed, in clear and sonorous tones:-

‘Fellow-citizens, – Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies! Justice and judgement are the habitation of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow-citizens! God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives!’

The effect of this serious address was magical. The raging populace subsided into repose. A hushed silence pervaded the vast assembly, when the voice of the speaker ceased, as if they had listened to a messenger from the skies. The change was marvellous. The speaker was General James A. Garfield, who became President sixteen years afterwards, and was shot by an assassin four months later! How strange that the inhabitants of that metropolis, who listened to the gifted statesman so gladly, April 14th, 1865, should be shocked by the news of his assassination on July 2nd, 1881!”

There are two stories in this excerpt from the book. The one directly showing that in times of crisis America always seems to unearth a saviour. Garfield’s ability to quell the mob reaction restored a degree of order into what was one of the most provocative acts imaginable to incite mob revenge – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

James Garfield had been a major-general in the Union forces while still in his 30s and had seen action in some of the major American Civil War battles such as Shiloh while still a young man. He may have been described as portly in the above excerpt, but he was only 34, and “portly” is not a word I would normally associate with a person of that age.

Garfield

Moreover, as with Lincoln, Garfield was born in a log cabin – Lincoln in Kentucky, Garfield in Ohio – both Republicans, both with progressive social agendas.

When Garfield was shot, he had a doctor called “Doctor Willard Bliss” foisted on him. Doctor was actually his first name and in most of the description of this man, he is known as “D W Bliss”. Bliss was a rogue, in that he ran away under fire at the Battle of Bull Run, and then claimed that he participated in a great victory. He faced prison for stealing Army equipment but was helped to evade conviction by his political contacts.  He took the opportunity of an association with Lincoln’s son to spruik a false cancer cure.

Notwithstanding that, he bobbed up as Garfield’s personal physician again on Lincoln’s son’s recommendation. He was completely disdainful of Listerian concepts in mitigating infection. It is not reported whether he ever uttered something like “fake news” or “hoax’. However, it was his complete repudiation of infection control including shoving unsterilised instruments into the President’s body in a vain attempt to find the bullet that accelerated the President’s ultimate demise.

Despite a welter of optimistic reports on the progress of the President’s condition, completely fake, Garfield died on September 16 – two months after the assassination attempt. A long pus-laden sinus was found in the President’s body at post-mortem – the track outlined where Bliss’s probe had gone.

At trial, Charles Guiteau, the would-be assassin,  said in his defence that he did not kill the President, Bliss did. Nevertheless, it was Guiteau who was convicted and hanged in January 1882.

In fact, Bliss billed the US Government for an outrageous sum for services rendered, but in the end received nothing.

Real gallows humour, because with Bliss, quackery and fake news clashed with scientific evidence. Scientific evidence and the life of a President were the victim of the Bliss cocktail.

Ambulant recognition

Simple things are often lost in the grand sweep of the disabled. One of the problems with being disabled is the lack of uniformity of public toilets, those in restaurants and also those within service stations which are the most easily accessible, unless the service station has a sign which says “Express”, which stands for “no toilets”.

The problem:

There are four essentials.

  • The toilet seat must be about 50 cm from the floor.
  • There should be a rail to hold on to when standing up.
  • There should be a handle on the inside of the door; just try getting the door open if you have only a small bolt handle and you are too weak to use it.
  • There is a need to have an ambulant toilet, the use of which should be enforced with appropriate signage in each of the male and female toilets, so the first stall can double as the ambulant toilet with appropriate adjustment in size.

I am going to name one toilet. The one at the Pheasant’s Nest Service Station which is one of last on the Hume Highway before Sydney, and therefore has a strategic importance if you do not want to be caught short on the freeway, caught in an unexpected gridlock.

The disabled toilet has been converted into a shower for interstate truck drivers and was locked. You can hold all the Royal Commissions in the World, but the recommendations often float away.

It would be very useful if there was an enforceable guide for toilets – then there may be an attempt to get uniformity, to conform to the standards, which are clearly set out if one can be bothered to read them.

In Namibia, I once flew for more than three hours in a light aircraft with a bottle for use in the emergency. The flight was from Windhoek to the Hartmann Valley in the north-west of the country, close to the Angolan border. There, alongside the airstrip in magnificent solitude, was one the cleanest flush toilets I have ever used.  That was a very good definition of “relief”. I called the toilet – Mafeking.

Hartmann Valley

Dial M for Misnomer

I had one of those “Four Weddings and a Funeral” moments recently. You know when:

Charles:  How do you do, my name is Charles.

Old man: Don’t be ridiculous, Charles died 20 years ago!

Charles: Must be a different Charles, I think.

Old man: Are you telling me I don’t know my own brother?

This day, I was in a hurry and I thought I had transcribed the phone number correctly.

I rang. A familiar voice, as I thought, answered.

“Marcus, this is father.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. My father died 40 years ago,” followed by a piece of unnecessary invective.

The receiver was slammed down.

I checked the phone number. It was that of one of my cousins who was born grumpy. His name started with “Michael” but although I see him infrequently, I know he is deaf. I could not be bothered ringing him back.

Mouse Whisper

At last, the Trapdoor has been removed and I have been able to visit Melbourne and all my mouse mates who went to Murine Grammar School. I was with a wise friend, Melchior who travels every year here with his two friends, Balthazar and Caspar. Melchior in not Australian but apparently COVID-19 immune.  As we ran along a Melbourne street, we saw this newspaper poster on the newsstand:

SMITH

BLASTS

TON

Melchior was at once fascinated since Melchior is familiar with gold. So he pondered; “Goldsmith?”

“Blasts?” explosives –

“Ton” – unusual for a goldsmith to mine his own gold?

Melchior said such was the rarity no wonder it had made news.

“Good try but not quite right, Melchior!” was all I whispered.

Modest Expectations – Nisi

Today was Melbourne Cup day. You know, the sporting event that stops a nation. Except we have just driven 800 kilometres from   Dubbo to Broken Hill. It is not the first time we have driven between the two cities, but it served as a reminder that going on a long journey with yourselves through the Outback of Australia is a reminder of our diversity. Australia prides itself on its multicultural diversity, but even to my urban eye, Australia also has great climatic diversity.

In the brochures which highlight this diversity there are always pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rain forests and beaches, Uluru and red deserts, and the Sydney Opera House. However, along a road on a hot day, diversity springs out at you if you care to look.  The subtle changes in the landscape are there. The problem of being the driver is that one drives essentially with a strip of bitumen in front of you. Traffic is increasingly sparse the further you penetrate into the country.

The thin strip of bitumen

Whenever I go on one of these trips, I say to myself that I must learn more about eucalypts. There have been multiple experts who can tell a gum tree variety just by running their eyes up and down the structure. The fragrance of Australia is breaking apart a newly picked gum leaf and smelling it. Describe the smell and you describe Australia as it has been for thousands of years.

Between Dubbo and Nyngan, there are a number of small towns. This is wheat country interspersed with natural habitat.

There is a white blanket along the sides of the road. They are tiny white everlastings that nature has gathered into posy-like clumps and then strewn through the bush.

As the soil becomes drier, everlastings give way to small clumps of salt bush dotting the landscape and foreshadowing that there is saltbush country beyond the horizon.

The scrub varies from open woodland to areas of brigalow, with the grey feathery foliage atop a black trunk, the mallees – greenery close to the ground, then clumps of native cypress, some gidgee trees. These are interspersed with the gum trees I wished I could identify.

I well remember driving from Bourke to Goodooga in the north of NSW and my companions identifying the trees as they would their relatives. The most striking of all of them was the leopard gum. Each of these trees and others reflect microclimates in each of these areas being distinct, which in turn makes the whole landscape such a diverse experience.

On our trail today, animal life is scarce – one emu, no kangaroos, a number of feral goats, no cattle and a small flock of sheep in saltbush as we neared Broken Hill.

After Nyngan it is 130 kilometres to Cobar. At Nyngan, in a unprepossessing iron shed which houses the toilets, we find that rarest of commodity, soap – and something in my wide usage of such facilities I have never seen before – paper towels, all maintained by the volunteer group that run the adjacent wool shearing shed display.

Contrast this with the stop at the MacCulloch Range wayside rest area which boasts a children’s playground, a barbecue and a long-drop toilet without toilet paper – and where the birds are conditioned to congregate around the toilet when occupied, because the outside wash basin discharges its waste water directly on the ground for the birds to drink. Here there are several plaques identifying NSW Ministers who have made the journey to unveil them – one in recognition of the completion of sealing of the road between Nyngan and the South Australian border in 1972 and the other for the creation of the children’s playground and the other facilities there! Talk about turning up for the opening of an envelope – but then the latter was Carl Scully.

However, that stopover is closer to Wilcannia than Cobar, which owes its existence to its copper mines. Then it is 260 kilometres to Wilcannia from Cobar, with no settlements in between.

Wilcannia stone

Wilcannia was once a thriving river port where boats were loaded with the wool clip and sent down the Darling River. The magnificent buildings made from the distinctive Wilcannia stone attest to a past colonial magnificence. I was once shown the quarry from which the Wilcannia stone was extracted. It was disused although stone remained under a cover of bush. The stone makes beautiful cream coloured buildings, so much in synchrony with the intense clear sunlight. Perhaps the quarry has been worked out – but the stone would still attract use for building if that is not the case.

Wilcannia is now an Aboriginal town as it has been all the 30 years since I first stayed and worked there. Here was where I learnt so much about the Barkinji people. Today in 40 degrees heat, parked in a nearly deserted main street, we watched the Melbourne Cup on a laptop.

This year travelling the route was somewhat unusual in that rain had come and turned much of the country green.  The salt bush seemed to coalesce with this greenery. The red earth still broke through, and in particular there were some areas which had not received much rain.

The last kilometres through to Broken Hill pass through a plain almost devoid of trees. While there was a rim of hills in the distance, this land was flat and green – it seemed to be a continuation of the Hay Plains to the South, which are so treeless they give an illusion of a flat earth. It is said these plains are the area which most effectively demonstrate this illusion.

At last Broken Hill nears, we turn our watches back half an hour to South Australian time. Now on all sides we see what many people describe as the engine which made Australia – the huge silver-lead-zinc deposits – after the gold rush petered out. There is no way Broken Hill can be described in one paragraph.  I’ll reserve that for another time since this one day in the Outback stands alone – yet another tincture to colour the wonderful commodity – experience.

Old Broken Hill

The Three Horsemen of Politics 

“To spend a third of life in unproductive idleness seems a dreadful waste to some people, and now and then they decide to shun the slothful practice evermore.  No one has yet succeeded. After a couple of sleepless nights they are as sleepy as anyone else, eventually become incoherent and irrational and seek the season of all natures.”

                  The last six words are stated by Lady MacBeth.

When I listened to the tirade from Minister Frydenberg demonstrating his basic ignorance of what Daniel Andrews had done, I could not believe it – coming from the mouth of someone who in all public demeanour before has shown control albeit behind a quizzical expression.

So what did this outburst signify?  Many applauded him for it. I did not. I thought the content wild and illogical. I have watched politicians over the course of 50 years. Published many years ago in the print media, but seemingly forgotten, I have been jogged to repeat what I said then.

There were three challenges for politicians that I identified.

  • Sleeplessness
  • Isolation
  • Boredom

As I wrote about sleeplessness, it seems to be a badge of honour of some politicians not to sleep. I remember that Margaret Thatcher boasted about how little sleep she needed. She ended up with dementia. When I first wrote about the deleterious effects of lack of sleep, there was not the evidence there is today about its link with Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia.

I have always likened sleeping as the time you put out the cerebral garbage.  This image seems to have been validated by scientific evidence. When one does not sleep, then the garbage in the form of amyloid or other toxins is left to accumulate in the brain.

I well remember the experiment of “the tipping cat”. Here the cat would just be allowed to fall asleep and then immediately be tipped up. This was repeated time and again, eventually turning the cat into feline paranoia.

The image of Frydenberg scribbling away and then launching into the tirade made me wonder about how much “good sleep” he is getting. From a forensic point of view it would be interesting to know what he actually scribbled, and the psi impact on the paper hopefully not reflected in the way Trump violates paper with his black signature.

So that is the first question I would ask of Frydenberg. What about your sleep?

Turning to isolation; the figure brooding, looking out the window – the Person Alone – is supposed to indicate strength and a thoughtfulness, the ability to sustain 40 days and nights in the wilderness. However, the reality is that most politicians hate isolation. My thought is that when they all moved to that new Mussolini era-architecturally inspired mausoleum called New Parliament House, to offset the innate isolation of the long corridors and the vast atria with offices designed for excessive space with the consequence of distancing themselves from us plebs, the politicians employed more and more staff. In the Old Parliament House, people lived close to one another, which in itself reduced isolation – apart from which, the place was so small no one could fit a large number of staff.

However, now politicians have to work in a building which structurally promotes isolation enhanced by the ever-increasing levels of security; then, when a pandemic appears, the frailty of those isolated is shown. When isolation is a negotiable commodity, then it can be brushed aside – but when isolation comes with compulsion to save the health of a nation, then it becomes very challenging because it is real, physically.

Because in a pandemic that’s exactly what they should happen -one isolates oneself.

Another problem with isolation is that it breeds ignorance and, when combined with sleeplessness, an inability to adapt. One of the ways to combat this is to listen, not as a public relations exercise, nor one looking for an anecdote to bolster your belief system, but as a genuine effort to discover alternative views. I always remembered the politician who said he went to meetings outside his comfort cocoon, because there was often times one comment or an idea would jolt him from his “cocoon of isolation” and make him think further. Isolation thus has a mental component.

The final component which has grown over the years to feed isolation has been this obsession with security. The activities in the Middle East have fuelled this, together with the increasingly inflammatory comments from politicians revelling in the inferno of populism. When I first entered the political scene, security was not the industry it is today. Even when there was the attempt to assassinate Arthur Caldwell, then the Leader of the Opposition, in 1966 there was no knee jerk response. Security has now become an industry – a commodity – to be traded- and alongside its growth are the vested interests. It is no doubt a contributor to isolation, but how much? One can only say that if one believes it is important to combat “the politician as an isolate” it needs to be factored into any considerations.

Then there is boredom. People believe that hustle and bustle is activity. This boredom was exemplified by the criticism of Mr Albanese’s office. It sounds like a playground with or without a sandpit. The problem is that there is not enough real work for these characters to do. They then just play endless games of “gotcha” in between their sycophantic acknowledgement of their various politician employers.  As I once wrote: “Boredom and its consequences have the effect of pushing away some people who could have been important contributors. It would disastrous if, at the centre of the political world, are solely those who delight in the entrails of boredom, and who actually revel in gossip, ritual and games.”

In the intervening period I have witnessed how true most of this is. There is no reason to believe that Frydenberg ever gets bored, but it is reason for him and others in high places to be aware that boredom breeds mischief – bouncing between venial and venal. Staff members need useful work to do and if that doesn’t exist, you don’t need them.

Therefore, if a government does not have an optimistic agenda demanding substantial policy discussion, hope is rationed and eventually boredom thrives from a lack of hope, because there is nothing to do but obfuscate, let forth tirades and generally be unpleasant. Because there is that ghost of the Cheshire cat and all it conceals, to goad. Then add sleeplessness and isolation and it becomes a toxic mixture!

Paul Collier – Lest we forget

I don’t know whether his name has been mentioned in the Disability Royal Commission. I very clearly remember meeting his mother though.

At the time I was on quixotic mission handing out voting cards at the Woodcroft booth in the seat of Mawson. Dr David Senior, a rural general practitioner friend of mine, was standing on a single issue of saving the Royal Adelaide Hospital, a perfectly good building on North Terrace, rather than have it replaced with an extravaganza further up the road. The new hospital has since been built; it has had huge commissioning problems but is a legacy to that man of impeccable judgement, Mike Rann, then Premier. This judgement was attested to by his chummy relationship with Lance Armstrong.

Then, as now, Mawson has an ALP member. The electorate is a predominantly outer suburban electorate, but also includes a significant slice of the state’s wine industry and now extends to include Kangaroo Island. Woodcroft, where I was handing out cards, was very suburban – wide streets, not many trees, the signature brick veneer homes but not McMansions.

This is where I met Paul Collier’s mother. Collier was a quadriplegic, highly qualified who, at the age of 21 had the accident which rendered him with this severe disability. This had not stopped his advocacy for the disabled and he had formed the Dignity Party. He was on top of the Party ticket for a place in the Upper House, but 11 days prior to the election, he died from a cerebral haemorrhage. His name had remained at the top of the ballot. His votes were passed on to the second person on the ticket, Kelly Vincent, a young woman with cerebral palsy, who was duly elected and served one term, and tellingly was not re-elected in 2018.  The conventional stated reason for this was the change to optional proportional voting. If so, this is an indictment of how the community viewed her candidature, not important enough to either vote for or preference her, disability and all.

But then in March 2010, I shall never forget that extraordinary woman, having just farewelled her son two days before, handing out how-to-vote cards for her dead son’s Party. I did not discuss her motives with her; she was still wrestling with the grief.  She had told me enough.

When I wrote this to Mike Steketee, a journalist I knew well then, I myself was not disabled, as I am now. Once I found out the complexity of being looked after, as I have, I recognise how difficult it all is. Frankly, I don’t know why you need a Disability Royal Commission over four years. What will it tell me in its recommendations about what should be done that I do not already know.

The labour intensity of keeping people alive is huge and thankless; one problem of medical science – from the marginally viable 22-23 weeks pre-term to the centenarian with dementia – is intent on keeping them alive at all cost.  An increasingly number of people recognise, as they do elsewhere, prolongation of life of an obsolete product is about cutting losses – but tell that to the religiously superstitious! It was reported this week that almost 50 per cent of those who have died in aged care in Australia from COVID-19 had dementia.

Society is conditioned to mourn the dead, often a self-conscious piety when it just boils down to how, in personal terms, the dead are just names. We fumble in how we express ourselves when we feel nothing. Going to funerals as a matter of form is not grief. Grief is a solitary situation, and when you lose your mother as a boy, it lives with you for the rest of your life.

Disability has been raked over. Let’s assume the cost is considerable; the modelling light on “how much” flashes “a lot”.  In these times with a government in deficit, if you want to care properly – you need a tax.

Confront the country with the figure for care for a moderately disabled person if treated individually at home or in an institution; then ask each taxpayer individually would they be prepared to pay that tax, given that around every health problem is a shell of fakery and profiteering associated with the privatisation of aged care. The Disability Royal Commission should be able to answer some of the questions underlying the statement in this paragraph.  If they have, then why the need for extension?

Apart from the here and now I faced the dilemma of how to confront disability almost 50 years ago when I was a young doctor responsible for an adult rehabilitation ward. One day in 1971 a 12-year old boy was admitted, paralysed down one side, a spontaneous event without apparent cause.

He was a bright boy and I had immediate empathy with him. I saw him every day. He came from the country, but nobody came to see him. His parents seemingly had disappeared at the onset of his medical condition when the boy was transferred to the city. It is very difficult to be child in a rehabilitation ward where most were elderly. For some reason, it was difficult to discharge him, because facilities for a child soon to become an adolescent with all that meant were poorly differentiated. Adolescent medical care as a specialty was in its early stages.

Thus, for respite on a couple of weekends with the agreement of the hospital, I took him home so he could experience family life.  Our sons were seven and five at the time.

We lived very close to the hospital. My then wife and I contemplated whether we could go further and seek to take over his future care and education. We consulted a range of heath professionals, before initiating anything. We never mentioned it to anyone – we were not adopting “a pet” to be discussed over morning coffee. The question was whether we could give him a better life, not him to be regarded as a trophy.

We both agreed the question was whether we could be both appropriate “foster parents” or “adopted parents”. In the end we were dissuaded; we had to cast off any incipient emotional ties. However, for a period we wondered whether we had done the wrong thing. As it turned out, we probably did the right thing – but how would you know as we did not maintain contact. We did ensure that he would be cared for in the short term and not be forgotten. No Royal Commission could have helped us then or, I suspect, now.

In hindsight, given where we both are now, it was obviously right, but then nobody will ever know what would have happened if he had become part of the family. Dwelling on such matters at an individual level gets one nowhere, except to think that Ron Sackville must have wisdom which the rest of us do not. 

Mouse Whisper

As someone who remembers the toll of the 1980s, this piece from the New York Review of Books is sobering, so much so that if a mouse could shout from the rafters and not squeak, I would say loudly:

There is a terrible fear that the toll on health care workers from COVID will have been in vain if Trump’s failure to effectively tackle the pandemic continues, if testing is not ramped up to levels that allow for identification of carriers and contact tracing, if distribution of protective equipment is not done rationally but rather through nepotism and profiteering, if experts are removed from important positions after questioning incompetent political leadership, and if reopening the economy is done haphazardly to fulfill talking points on cable TV in hopes of gaining re-election. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from the AIDS epidemic is one that came after the movie star Rock Hudson died, effectively removing the blinders that President Reagan was wearing. Reagan, a friend of Hudson, at last ceded authority to scientists like Fauci, who knew how to speak to the public about illness and create a sense of common cause, and to mobilise both the public and private sectors to triumph over a virus that had never been seen before and many believed could not be effectively combated.  AIDS arrived as a murderer; now it can be shackled. We are nowhere near that point with COVID-19.

Modest Expectations – Blood-nut Hollow

One side of my family, the Horwills, were wool combers from Devon. The industrial revolution came later to wool processing than for cotton, but by the mid 19th century, the technology had been ironed out and manual wool combing was surplus to need. Anyway, many of the family had already gone to sea, literally. There were hard times in that year; food shortages and the upheavals in Europe may have also played a part because in the mid 19th century the Horwills scattered across the New World – to America, Canada and Australia.

Another set of ancestors, the Egans, came out from Ireland about the same time. Their father had been a flour miller in Crossard, a small township in Co. Clare. They seem to have been tenant farmers. The potato famine changed their life and drove the whole family to Australia. My great-grand father went first to Kapunda on the Yorke Peninsula, where the first commercial mine to extract copper from a rich deposit happened earlier in the decade. Unsuccessful, he was attracted by the newly-found gold in Victoria and made a considerable fortune by providing timber for the mine shafts.

1848 was a time when the working classes and the nascent middle class rose up across Europe. It cannot be blamed on the industrial revolution but it was a time that the disparity between rich and poor was accentuated.

The revolution started in Sicily where the Bourbon King’s rule was challenged. There had been a savage cholera epidemic in Sicily and it seems that arbitrary arrests of a few people sparked riots in the streets of Palermo. As the rioters gained support even from the wealthy, it became a fully-fledged rebellion with the locals seizing power from the Bourbon king, who reigned from Naples.

The rebellion spread across Continental Europe and it followed a pattern of the revolutionaries seizing power and then having it taken away from them in violent conflict, with the old order in the end re-established. However revolution did not affect Great Britain, except that the Irish Question became an even greater problem with the failure of the potato crop in a country still reliant on agrarian subsistence.

The problem is that the dynasties were re-established, refurbished and restored. However, there was now an intellectual basis for the foment among the community against the ruling dynasties traditional right to power.

But after a major upheaval, whether it be famine, epidemic or war, nothing is the same. Communication and education opportunities then were improving – if unevenly. That was the nature of society: industrial progress, the urban growth, democratic advocacy, education and with improved literacy and numeracy in the working class, all were shifting unevenly.

America and the British colonies and places like Argentina had spurts of migration – no more so than America. Here in Australia it was the Celts – Irish, Scots and Welsh – looking for a better life. There were also people from the Prussian diaspora – Lutheran Germans and Wends. Jews were forced to flee Europe – universal scapegoats.

Descendents of the immigrants

The 1848 revolution was never a major source of our migration. It was the fascination with gold a few years later. The Chinese came and their immigration is entangled in these gold discoveries. It was just a coincidence that this was around 1848.

The gulf between rich and poor was growing and all 1848 had done was to seed in the enlightened of the day that industrialisation meant that workers would eventually want their share, and have a voice.

2020 is in the middle of another revolution, a communication revolution where, rather than Rothschild, Carnegie, Mellon Rockefeller, Astors of yore, it is now the Gates, Bezos, the Google Twins, Zuckerberg and the Jobs Legacy that command the riches.

Instead of workers obediently tipping their forelocks to the pageantry of the wealthy this generation is hooked into a technology that is increasingly manipulating the masses into not paying attention to this wealth and power disparity, with this communication revolution aiding and abetting this disparity.

That is until the Virus came calling.

Like the famine and the urban cesspool of exploitation, the disparity in wealth was allowed to progress until the First World War, despite some tentative gestures to improvement. That was a critical tipping point; the misnamed Spanish flu epidemic without cure, the Great Depression and then the Second World War were sequels. To trace the causal effects of each on each other is beyond the scope of one simple blog.

However, the rich now, through what their agents laughingly called government, have peddled globalisation and the free market as a means to erode the power of the people. To me that “power of the people” has always been shorthand for democracy. Rather than the information revolution devolving power to the people, the opposite has occurred and as the algorithms of control become more and more sophisticated then so will democracy become only a façade.

However, the Virus has provided an opportunity to change the system. The rage against “lockdown” confused with oppression is reflected in the race protests, people against police brutality and a superficial correction in toppling or defacing statues. But these acts are peripheral.

As post-1848 showed, the middle class eventually sided with the rich and their politician tools, frightened of the unknown and guessing they had less to lose. Outbursts were suppressed and bribes cloaked as “commitment” seduced the others. Whenever, the word “change agent” is used, it identifies the person who has made his or her life’s work to sit on committees and do nothing.

In the end, because they suffer from the same afflictions, politicians close ranks – ask them to reduce their remuneration and perks and that is the definition of the great god, Unanimity.

However, control is in the end vested in the masters of communication. Once it was the newspaper magnates, but they are being consigned to the irrelevant.

Those who want to maintain power do it through philanthropy, such as Bill Gates who is just following the game plan of the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and in this country Ian Potter – but in a way that the means of amassment is well separated from the art of giving. Philanthropy is thus a powerful force – it is a form of tithe for ongoing respectability and to have a shelter in a metaphorical Nottingham Wood (to avoid the pun as you read on).

To quote the Guardian when discussing one Andrew Forrest: “This is not to say philanthropy has no real to play in a democracy. It does. But democracies cannot allow wealthy individuals and successful organisations to use philanthropy as a substitute for paying tax. That’s no longer democracy: it is oligarchy.”

Or plutocracy.

Thus the Virus gives society the opportunity to have a levelling influence on the elite. Given that the middle class is almost as afflicted as the poor, then the chance is a return to a democratic tradition, where government stops abrogating its role to care for the people.

This pandemic has made abundantly clear that investment in public health worldwide has been woeful. When governments start privatising water, as has been done, then this compounds the risk of food security, and a stagnant pool is then a cesspool. It is thus only a matter of time before waste disposal and sewage is privatised. All the gains which were made post-1848 when there was a modicum of enlightenment and there were enough statesmen to listen may be lost to a mass of politicians grubbing around for personal gain – the primordial rent seekers of today. In fact it is time to thin the rent seekers out – some are more cancerous than others, metastasising their cells all through the governing bodies.

Rocinante and his old boss

How do we bring more balance to a Post-viral World? Where government has shown leadership, the Virus has been suppressed, incarcerated if not eliminated. To maintain such a defence force against disease, then there must be consideration of government spending and thus it becomes a search for income. Since in the flurry of neoliberalism, governments have given away most of their assets, and decreased taxation, it is not easy. Tax reform can be portrayed as Rocinante tied to a post waiting for his new boss to appear. Governments of all sides have made those who genuinely believe in overall betterment quixotic.

Increasing taxation is an obvious solution whether by simplifying the tax and removing concessions, instituting a turnover tax, raising GST in a progressive way, abolishing the poll taxes which have resulted from privatisation, reintroduction of inheritance taxes, closing tax havens and generally establishing a means by which everybody pays their fair share, rather than sheltering behind the mumbo-jumbo of the “free market’’. There are plenty of options to achieve equity.

When the threat to wellbeing is greatest and where the politicians recognise their need for expert advice, this pandemic has provided a harsh lesson. Globalisation now has an altered definition.

Rather than revert to the failures of neo-liberalism, it is time for government intervention. Social housing is an immediate target – a worthy show of government’s role. It is hard to brush aside what government has done for the homeless during the pandemic, and as such reduced the burden on the street.

However, long term assistance for these poor does not fit in with aspirational greed – yet it is where there are poor housing and working conditions that the Virus will continue to flourish. As with all crises, the rich will flee to the country. Manhattan this summer has become more of a ghost town in the wealthy areas, but come winter it may be different – and ski resorts have been shown as one place the Virus strikes the rich.

Deserted Manhattan streets

It is a pity I will not live long enough to see what this post 2020 environment brings to a world, but at least when the world locked down this year – for oh so short a time – we could see the horizon. 

Remember Quemoy and Matsu

They are called Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy is an island in the lee of the China mainland. Matsu is a group of islands to the north scattered across the South China Sea. They are administered from Taiwan and remain an oddity from the Chiang Kai-shek retreat to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist forces in 1949. When they are discussed they are always mentioned in the same breath. However they are very separated but not more so than from Taiwan.

Matsu

The Nationalist forces were able to repel the Communist forces when they tried to invade Quemoy in 1949. Yet given that Quemoy is just six kilometres from the mainland and yet 280 kilometres across the Strait to Taiwan, it is remarkable that China has not just absorbed it and the Matsu archipelago. They are just the kind of islands that the Chinese want to convert into bases. China seems to prefer to annoy other countries by taking over disputed rocks in the South China Seas and building military bases.

Yet in the 1950s Quemoy and Matsu were flashpoints in the conflict between the Americans and the Chinese, where the remnant Chiang Kai-shek “China” forces lodged on the island of Formosa.

There were two critical periods, and in one of the years when the two Chinas were not fighting – bombarding the islands and having aerial dogfights over the South China Sea, I was on a ship. The United States imposed a blockade on Chinese Ports. For any shipping in the South China Sea it was a tense situation for those who ventured there, in our case in a cargo ship called the S.S. Taiping. It was a ship of about 4,000 tonnes, transporting mainly wheat and wool, but also catering for a number of passengers. My recently widowered father was the ship’s doctor (and I was lodged in the second wireless officer cabin).

Thus the ship had to thread its way across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. One morning when I had just come up on deck I heard this screaming noise, which came with a rush, and suddenly there they were two American Star fighters swooping low just above the funnel and then as quickly disappearing as specks into the clouds. Now we were ready to watch if they came again, which they did. I could imagine that these planes had positioned themselves for a strafing run. They were over the ship and then were gone – hardly enough time to disturb those taking breakfast below.

S.S. Taiping

However, the noise of the planes – an ear-blistering scream – gave me a feeling of exhilaration. To my father and the chief officer, both of whom had experienced Japanese strafing and bombing, just shrugged their shoulders. However, it brought home to me the fact that we living in perilous times in a perilous sea.

Yet despite the posturing Taiwan seems safer now than it was when China was considerably weaker as it was in 1956. Quemoy and Matsu seemed to have dropped out of the lexicon of threats. I think that the Chinese government know the Taiwanese today are not the same force it considered invading 70 years ago. Nevertheless the rhetoric remains. It always does.

The Taiwanese have a very substantial military force of 165,000 active soldiers with another 1.2 million in reserve, compared to Australia with a similar population of 30,000 active soldiers with 13,000 in reserve. When I went there I thought their approach was very much like that of the Israelis. Survival had moved to consolidation and having a big stick helps – and the nation is not in the mood to relinquish any hard-earned gains.

The other reason I believe China would be loath to invade is for fear that the fine collection of artefacts dating back to Neolithic times now housed in the National Palace Museum could be destroyed. The Chinese have never forgotten the looting that occurred in 1860 when the Anglo-French forces entered Beijing and burnt the Summer Palaces. Many of the looted treasures ended up in France and the United Kingdom, but a substantial collection remains in Taiwan. The Chinese government would not want this Taiwan collection destroyed, even though it was stolen by Chiang Kai-shek at the time he fled the Mainland.

I was told the collection was so large that those items on display could be totally replaced for seven years before there would be any need to repeat the items on display. Some of these items are said to be among the finest Chinese artefacts and heritage is a very important consideration. Can China invade without damaging the collection? It answers its own question – no.

However, why do it? To have a war over an island to expunge some hubric stain begs that very question. Nevertheless, there are no bounds to laundering one’s own hubris if the gale is blowing in the right direction, whatever that direction is considered to be.

Picnic on Quemoy

In any case, I understand now that tourists can come across from the Mainland to picnic on Quemoy among the visitors from Taiwan. But then perhaps that is bad optics – ordinary people mingling.

There is a lesson for Australia in the Taiwan approach. While I was initially sceptical of their COVID-19 numbers, when you remember the discipline into which Taiwan has had to accustom itself to assure its survival, it is unsurprising that it should early on recognise a foreign invader, even if they cannot see it except under a microscope. 

Dreamer, sleep deep | Toiler, sleep long | Fighter, be rested now | Commander, sweet goodnight 

After my father died, my stepmother with these words headed her replies to those who had sent letters to her expressing sympathy and many reflecting on my father’s legacy. I found this reference in my personal file, and remembered that the words were the final ones of Carl Sandberg’s poem on the death of President Roosevelt.

It prompted me to purchase a copy of Sandberg’s complete works, and his elegiac words from “When Death Came April Twelve 1945”:

and there will be roses and spring blossoms

flung on the moving oblong box, emblems endless

flung from nearby, from faraway earth corners,

from frontline tanks nearing Berlin

unseen flowers of regard to the Commander,

from battle stations in the South Pacific

silent tokens saluting The Commander

Such is the contrast so clearly set out in the poem with Trump to perceive how far leadership has slipped in the United States. Would the passing of the current incumbent evoke such a response?

Yet Roosevelt presided over a country where segregation of black people and denial of civil rights was the order of the day in the then Democrat voting South – a country where in 1938 the Ku Klux Klan rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Yet a year later, because of the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, before 75,000 people Marion Anderson, the great American contralto sang at the Lincoln Memorial, a performance that is said to have inspired the young Martin Luther King to enter the struggle for real emancipation, a conflict still being played out on the streets of the American City.

For my part, I now have this copy of Carl Sandberg’s poems on my desk. Every morning I read a poem. His love of country is so evident that I realise how much I love my own country and how inadequate I am in expressing this love compared to Sandberg’s of America.

I am saddened by those who want to deface statues, which was the way of previous generations to honour mostly men of their time.

James Cook was not perfect; he trod the line between assertion and aggression. Discipline and loyalty yet are essential attributes when you are sailing in the unknown. Choice is not a discussion on the niceties of democracy when choice is between survival and death.

Graffiti is one vehicle of the ignorant. Cook does not deserve that. His images don’t deserve that. Before these furbo children of the millennium pick up their spray cans again, they should think: will you ever have the same level of curiosity, bravery and endeavour that that Yorkshire explorer had, rather than being the furtive snigger of the dark night coward wielding spray cans?

The Man from Blood-nut Hollow

I met Reg Hickey when I tutored his daughter in biochemistry. She was studying to be a health professional. The details are foggy, but I know it was not nursing. It was the year I had a job in Geelong at the Hospital, and I got on well with Reg. He was the closest to beatification in that city at the time, which also was known as Blood-nut Hollow because of Hickey having a propensity to recruit red-headed players.

Reg Hickey had coached Geelong at Australian Rules for three periods beginning in 1932 until he finally retired in 1959. I remembered him well because he coached Geelong the year they beat my team, Essendon in 1951 – a surprise victory. This victory was one of three premierships Hickey won with Geelong.

Reg then was very influential in the world of football. He secured two tickets for the 1965 Grand Final when Essendon played St Kilda. My then wife was an exquisite blonde, a doctor who had come to Australia as a refugee with her sister and parents. Born in what is now Slovenia, she could be a somewhat fiery individual.

We were shown to our seats. They were very good seats, given there were 104,000 other people at the Melbourne Cricket ground that day. The seats were three rows back from the fence.

On this occasion, I had not realised that her passion extended to the football field. At one point, the play came very close to us. There was a scuffle. One involved in this altercation was Carl Ditterich, a very tall burly St Kilda ruckman who had made a sensational debut two seasons before when he 18, With his shock of blond hair and youthful enthusiasm, you could not miss him in any crowd.

Well, my then wife did that day. Ditterich who was increasingly known for translating that enthusiasm in aggression was roughing up Essendon player Ted Fordham just in front of us. Enraged at this bullying of a smaller player, she stood up and flung an open can of “Palato”, a fizzy orange cordial drink, in Ditterich’s direction.

Palato went everywhere, but we were sitting among Essendon fans who, despite being splattered with the orange drink in accordance with Newton’s Third law of Motion, gave her a big cheer. She sat down regally as ever without acknowledging the applause. The can missed Ditterich. I cannot recall whether I wanted to stay or flee. But nothing happened. No retribution – we did not have men labelled Security in those days and police only appeared near the game to stop the crowds running onto the field of play.

Essendon went on to win the game. Fordham kicked seven goals and was named Man of the Match. I don’t know whether Carl had much of a match – how could you with visions of that young avenging doctor in the third row of the Southern Stand!

As for Mr Hickey, my life was better for knowing him, however briefly, as I moved back to Melbourne the next year.

Mouse whisper

Mice are used to long winding passages but there is always a nest in among the passages where I can always watch Nestflix.

However, I was enjoying one of G.K Chesterton’s short stories, a bit dry but still meaty, when I came across this quote:

What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre.

The priest was Father Brown. The story was The Head of Caesar.

I chewed on it for a moment. I thought how relevant the quote is today in the world outside my mouse hole.