Modest Expectations – Dominican Republic

“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

Strike me lucky, Blue, did you hear that? They are at it again – the Coalition of the Willing has now changed its name to a self-preened great Aukus. Yes, I know the Great Auk has joined the Dodo, but the word here is Aukus. Remember the name! And no cracks about Noah’s Aukus.

The great AUK – now extinct

I’ve a friend who has been associated with the Senior Service since he was 19 years old. I asked him a simple question – why does Australia need submarines? He thought it was a good question, and he answered in conventional terms, that he thought Xi had the same expansionist propensity that the Japanese military had before the Second World War. I said to him it sounded like a version of the yellow peril coming from the North.

My friend made the observation that the French contract was rubbish, and the Adelaide shipyards were just not up to the requirements. From my point of view, having heard from a variety of sources, Master Pyne will have a lot to answer for this in relation to his involvement, apart from any fiduciary gain, just to shore up a few South Australian Parliamentary seats for the Liberal Party! Any objective assessment would have concluded how poor were the underlying assumptions, an impression reinforced by knowing of the recent involvement of Jane Halton as a consultant.

Yet five years ago Australia had entered into a contract – ill-formed, ill-thought through – but did the Australian Government confront the French with its concerns? Probably not. If so, why now go behind the back of the French government?

Nevertheless, the cackhanded way in which Morrison has responded to being hoodwinked into the nuclear submarine imbroglio is par for the course. That was compounded by the gratuitous insult by an American President, who knows of Morrison’s failed bet on Trump. Biden seems unable to bring himself to utter his name.

Despised by Biden. Morrison has also pissed off the French (and probably the EU as well) and the Chinese. The rest of Asia is looking askance, especially when they also see Boris, the dishevelled spectre of the playing fields of Eton College, in the mix. The question may rightly be asked – why are the British meddling in the Pacific since they do not even have any British Overseas Territory tax havens in the Pacific to defend?

Nevertheless, Morrison is following in the traditions of the recent past Australian Prime Ministers where, despite the trumpet blast about the number of members of the Coalition of the Willing (apart from a Danish contingent of about 50 troops), only Australia and Great Britain made any sizeable military contribution to America’s ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan.

The French refused to join, although it had previously committed 17,000 troops to the Gulf War in 1991.  And who can forget Menzies’ embarrassing involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 where, by Jove, those “gyppos” needed to be taught a thing or two. At that time the French joined the British in tickling Menzies’ vanity.

According to my source, the Americans will probably flog Australia the Virginia class nuclear submarine.  At what cost? A lot is the best estimate, and just re-emphasises the non-answer to my initial question, when Australia has a small navy, minuscular compared to both China and the USA.

This Virginia class submarine, with a crew of about 135 sailors, can carry up to 24 torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The boat’s top underwater speed is about 25 knots (46km) per hour. The submarine has an advantage, namely the reactor plant will not require refuelling during the ship’s lifetime. But the question remains of what will the life time look like if it takes 20 years to build this fleet. It does not make sense.

Just look at the logistics. From laying down plans to final commissioning seems to take about six to seven years; but General Dynamics already has a backlog, with the boondoggle being a tasty supplement to maintain the money flow to the American armaments industry in, say, 20 years’ time. Needless to say, these submarines will be built in the USA, not Australia. There are just so many subsidiary suppliers of equipment to make Australian involvement in the manufacture impossible.

There are a few other queries, especially as the life of a submariner is not one which is immensely popular with the younger generation. Long periods of time next to a nuclear reactor underwater is not the most enticing job prospect, given the amount of time needed to ensure that the person recruited has the ability to remain sane in a closed underwater environment. So how is this to be answered?

The alternative is to invest in smaller unmanned submarines, more suitable for our shallow coastal waters. These are being built by Boeing and, according to my source, may be the future. They are cheaper; and nobody cries over the sinking of an unmanned drone.

The observations from my friend seem very sound, especially as he is concerned with our defence; not some vain manoeuvre to spend a great amount of funding on a project where the competition is already set between the two heavyweights. The Chinese are investing in more and more nuclear submarines.

Deployment of nuclear submarines confronting the Chinese in the South China sea should be left to the Americans – and the Japanese. In the undersea domain, the increase in Japan’s submarine force is highly regarded throughout Asia, and even America’s anti-submarine warfare operators struggle to track Japan’s modern fleet of super-quiet non-nuclear submarines. Note the comment about the stealthiness. This was a major criticism of the French submarines ordered by Australia, which apparently are so noisy one can hear La Marseillaise anywhere if the enemy wishes to tune in.

Even Taiwan is building new submarines. Paradoxically, there are some suggestions, one of which is that the Americans are seeking to reduce their nuclear submarine fleet. This may give some clue as to the US interest; and hence sloughing a few off to Australia – obviously at the right price whether for outright sale or some form of lend-lease – to shorten the period from 20 years to a much more “acceptable” timeframe. These alternatives may have more currency now the possibility of such has been denied by a former US Secretary for the Navy.

Sometime in the future there may be six nuclear submarines under an Australian ensign; an expenditure which could have been spent on a more mobile unmanned underwater navy, able to have quick deployment around the vulnerable coast of north-west Australia demonstrated so clearly when the Japanese attacked there, as well as Darwin in 1942. I wonder still whether this “sometime in the future” scenario will ever eventuate, but I certainly won’t be around to see it.

I do not weep for the French. In the 1990s, when President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine within The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, I coordinated with Saatchi a protest against the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Mururoa Atoll. This protest involved colleagues from New Zealand and other South Pacific constituencies. I also well remember the callous bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by the French in Auckland Harbour in 1985. It should be noted that the French last withdrew its ambassador from Canberra in 1995, after Australia had withdrawn our ambassador from France two months earlier.

Given all this, I am sure that Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will be unhappy about Australia gratuitously poking around underwater in the archipelago, knowing that there are already a number of nuclear submarines close by, if not in disputed territorial waters.

The other diplomatic problem for Australia is that the last thing the South Pacific nations will want is a nuclear reactor with a boxing kangaroo motif berthed in their harbours, which reinforces that point about the unattractiveness of the submariner’s life.

But then, will this whole extravaganza ever occur?

To boost or not to boost 

An advisory panel, independent of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), has voted to recommend administering Pfizer vaccine booster doses to people over 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19. The shots would be given at least six months after the original two shots.

The panel had earlier voted against a broader proposal from Pfizer to make booster shots available for people 16 and older. However, the FDA is not bound to accept the recommendation.

What is important is that Israel and USA have evidence for the efficacy of boosters, and it seems that six months is an indicative time for a booster dose of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The need for a booster for AZ vaccine is less clear. What is known is that the AZ vaccine is a “slow burner”, and immunity levels build over time, especially when the dosing period is stretched. Currently the gap between first and second doses is between eight and 12 weeks which gives an optimal immune response.

For the third booster dose, it may be preferable to give a different brand of vaccine than the one used for the first two shots. This is specifically mentioned for the AZ vaccine. This would be positive news for those Australians over 65, who have been denied access to the Pfizer vaccine for their initial inoculation.

Booster shots are subject to speculation as to efficacy, but both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are lined up seeking FDA approval. There is a suggestion that the Moderna booster requirement may be half the initial inoculation shot and, given the arrival of Moderna vaccine into this country, such information is relevant.

What is important is for the Government to develop a national approach to boosters, assuming that Australia will follow the FDA decisions, and moreover Israeli experience. In other words, let us not get caught up in the no man’s land of indecision; the Government failed comprehensively in relation to vaccines – they cannot afford to fail again.

The debate still centres on the level of vaccination and applauding the great response of Australians to be vaccinated once the vaccine hesitancy was  overcome. I for one, was in that cohort, and masked my hesitancy by taking the advice to space the influenza and COVID-19 vaccines. As I wrote in an April blog:

The other one, given the problems with the rollout, if I was able to secure a first dose, how long shall I have to wait for the second dose, and then more importantly, for the booster? It does not seem clear to me, whether (or more optimistically, when that will occur). That is why the J&J vaccine appeals to me more because it is single dose; but will it ever be registered in Australia? Questions, questions everywhere, but only opinions to imbibe. That is my reaction as an elderly consumer eligible for the injection. I am confused, and so will hold back. In the Australian climate it seems the best option is to wait and see.

I hope that same indecision does not dog mixed vaccine boosters, but at least if Pfizer is approved for boosters it can be used potentially across all of those over the age of 65 years. In retrospect, my comment in relation to the J&J vaccine seems have been a good bet. Although there were production difficulties, it is said that the second injection provides near to 100 per cent protection.

In any event, the matter of boosters should not be let slip in the way other matters have been mismanaged, because if boosters prove successful, then a six-monthly cycle hopefully can be converted to a minimum one year with further tweaking of the vaccine. This would then cement the booster added into the influenza vaccination cycle, with the possibility of a combined flu-COVID vaccine. This is in the future, but the matter of boosters must be part of the conversation now.

There is one distraction, if it can be called that. Why should Australia be applying for boosters when the undeveloped world is largely unvaccinated? Australia cannot take responsibility for the world. Yet if Australia accepts public health responsibility for our neighbours, the level should be clearly defined; and once it is clearly defined then these nations should be incorporated so their level of access is the same as ours.Yet at the same time those nations should accept the same level of responsibility as us.  Every society has got its “whack jobs”, every society has its level of ignorance, but public health responsibility is universal just as taboos are universal. It is all about the acceptable mix of persuasion and coercion.

Sweden Calling

I read the article by James Baillieu in Crikey extolling the virtues of the Swedish approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.  After reading it, I am sorry to miss articles on the benefits of the “English moat usage in repelling the Virus” or the “Cumulative benefit of monocle use when taking ivermectin.”

But I joke, my Lord, when such an authoritative source as yourself waxes lyrical on Sweden and its approach to the Virus. I appreciate you attribute your expertise on Sweden to your genetic pool.

My Swedish friend, a distinguished doctor from the Karolinska, who unhappily has not had been afforded the wisdom of working for seven years for McKinseys, which has been so much on show in its advice to that other McKinsey genius, Master of the Hunt, Greg.

I took the liberty, my lord, of forwarding your Epistle to The Nation of Crikey to my Swedish friend.

My friend, having read the Epistle has replied (sic):

Outcome measures obviously differ vastly whether you are a potential pub client locked (at home) or a frail elderly  person with the sword of Damocles sharpened above you. 

Australia is to be congratulated having saved so far ca 50,000 lives (compared to similar countries including Sweden)

It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1% death rate is negligible. The figure is also off by a factor of 10 in developed countries.  I strongly disagree.  

However there are other costs, lives not lived, children not schooled, economic problems to evaluate also before a total score can be tallied. 

To me it seems that Australia 

  1. Was lucky to be able to close borders
  2. Enforce lockdowns that saved many lives
  3.  School closures may not have been evidenced (i.e not been objectively assessed).
  4. Lockdowns only work for short times during which extensive vaccination must occur lest the disease take hold again savagely which is now occurring (in Sweden). 

We are now in Sweden following Denmark in repealing nearly all Covid restrictions, hoping fervently that our vaccination rate is ultimately sufficient.

(Consider) that there are groups in society both more exposed and sadly neither accepting vaccination nor being reached by the information, which is also as clear as it was more than a year ago when the typical Covid patient(in Sweden) was an immigrant taxi driver.  

Subsequently, he informed me that the architect of the Swedish approach, Tegnall is showing signs of stress. Baillieu labels Tegnall as independent; no he’s not – he is a civil servant. Baillieu maybe means “maverick”. Perhaps if Tegnall resigns, “maverick” becomes “martyr” in Baillieu language.

Baillieu trumpets zero deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden. On 17 September alone, there were 22 new reported deaths and 1,009 new reported cases; then on 22 September, 19 deaths. What a callous statement by Baillieu saying “Sweden’s COVID death toll of 0.14% of the population was nearly all people who had a short time to live.” 14,000 people about to die on his say-so. As my friend wrote: It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1%(sic) death rate is negligible.

While its economy may be showing signs of recovery, Swedish sources still say there is significant uncertainty. It’s possible that restrictions to curb the spread of infection will tighten again in autumn if cases rise, and this would impact economic growth.

Over the course of next year, employment growth is predicted to slow down further as GDP increases more slowly, but the number of employed people will still increase. Many businesses are looking for skilled workers again. A total of 190,000 people in Sweden have now been without a job for over a year. It seems a sober assessment of the current Swedish situation complementing my friend’s comments. Not a small hit, as Baillieu asserts.

Demonstrators on the steps of the Shrine, Melbourne

I don’t like what is occurring with the Virus unsuppressed in both Melbourne and Sydney, but when an over-privileged graduate of the Melbourne Establishment has a childish tantrum disguised as an objective assessment then I too, a product of the same environment, feel deeply ashamed.

What nonsense his final words: “Restore our rights and freedoms. Stop harming our children and instead protect them.”

I hope he was not wandering along the Westgate Freeway protesting this lack of Freedoms with all the irresponsible.

My great grandfather did not lose his money in the Depression of the 1890s in which the Baillieu family was a prominent player; the consequences of the Depression still affect Melbourne to this day. My great grandfather did not have much time for the Baillieus either.

John Shelby Spong

Spong sounds as if came from the world of Spike Milligan.

Bishop John Spong

Yet John Shelby Spong was a very, very serious influence. Some may say that Spong flaunted once-controversial views, but now many have become mainstream.  At times I wonder why I retain my Anglicanism, until I am reminded of Spong. I have been fortunate in knowing some great Anglican priests, but it is hard to live in the Sydney diocese which has all but abandoned people like Spong in its literal Bible interpretation and acquired intolerance of anybody not in its own image – seemingly not that of the Trinity anyway.

Yet one statement in the obituary prompted me to seek further information, and that was the statement about Judas Iscariot. He is so vilified, and yet in an excellent article on the iconography by Dr Felicity Harley relating to Judas, the early church was much more forgiving of Judas and his suicide. The reader is explicitly told that he had remorse; and there is no condemnation of Judas in his choice to take his own life in the way that he does. Rather, in recording the suicide Matthew allows guilt to pass from Judas to the Jewish leaders who ignore Judas’s confession and his atoning gesture and are thereby rendered guilty.

Later he was further vilified for that act in addition to his betrayal of Christ, and by the time of the medieval church the Hanged Judas had been consigned to the darkest parts the Inferno.

It is testimony to Spong that even in death, his obituary has made me think, in any areas I thought very much cut and dried.

I am indebted to this lightly edited obituary from The Washington Post, which I doubt will get much currency in Australia.

Long one of the most liberal voices among the nation’s Episcopalians, Bishop Spong has died at the age of 90.

In 1989, while he was bishop in Newark, N.J., he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Robert Williams.

Though the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian priest, had been ordained a decade earlier, Bishop Spong drew national attention by sending letters inviting all the church’s bishops — many of whom opposed his actions — to attend the ordination of Williams that December.

“Christian moral standards have changed quite dramatically,” Bishop Spong told The New York Times before the ordination. “We had slavery in a Christian nation. We had oppressed women. I think that our world is more Christ-like when it’s open to all of God’s children.”

And he added: “We believe that the Church needs to be honest. We have gay priests in every diocese.”

The author of more than two dozen books, Bishop Spong questioned some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines while over the years he had often taught and lectured at Harvard Divinity School.

“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, said; “What he truly came to understand is doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing so.”

“In so many ways,” she added, “he was ahead of the church.”

Nine months after Bishop Spong ordained Williams, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to pass a resolution affirming that it is “inappropriate” to ordain a practicing homosexual.

“The way the church treats its gay and lesbian members,” Bishop Spong said afterward, “strains the very fabric of my life by tearing it between my loyalty to Jesus Christ, who made a habit of embracing the outcast, and my loyalty to a church that historically has rejected Blacks, women and gays.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 16, 1931, John Shelby Spong was raised in fundamentalist churches amid those whose values were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

When he was young, he was taught that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men, and whites were superior to people of color.

His father, a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when John was 12, told him he should always say “sir” and “ma’am” to his elders, so long as they were not Black.

Bishop Spong later said the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons.

In 1998, for example, he criticized LGBTQ opponents as “uninformed religious people who buttress their attitude with appeals to a literal understanding of the Bible. This same mentality has marked every debate about every new insight that has arisen in the Western world over the last 600 years. It is a tired, threadbare argument that has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”

He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1952 and received a master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988. In 1990, he married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark archdiocese who went on to edit his work.  He was survived by his wife, five children and six grandchildren. He had a sister, who also has outlived him.

Before he became a bishop in New Jersey, he served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped, he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building.

As the civil rights movement progressed, Bishop Spong found himself preaching to Black and white congregations alike, and said he worked to shed what he called the “residual racism” of his upbringing.

“I happen to believe that God’s image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect … And the Black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.

He later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in the mid-1970s, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop, has recently called Bishop Spong “a prophet”, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question.”

“I stand on his shoulders,” Robinson added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct — he did it because he believed it was the Gospel.”

After publishing “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity,” Spong spoke with the Globe in 1994 about parts of Christianity he was challenging.

Neither Judas Iscariot nor a betrayal by one of the 12 apostles was mentioned in early parts of the New Testament, he said.

“Judas was a creation of the Christian Church, which sought to shift blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews,” he said.

In his 2005 book “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love,” Bishop Spong wrote:

“I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it.”

He did not say Amen. Others may.

There’s a Tree in the House

I was looking at an old repeat of Grand Designs in Australia where the owners erected a huge tree trunk as a centrepiece of their house in the tropical bush south of Darwin. It was a huge endeavour.

Trees, in the house …

By chance, at the same time, we received a short message from a renter of our property in Tasmania, which read in part; “Thank you so much for a wonderful stay in your holiday house. Our young boys absolutely loved the trees in the house.”

I had watched this installation of the tree trunk in the Northern Territory house, and yet did not immediately associate with the three massive blackwood trunks which support our house together with the trunk of a King Billy pine, which was the only old wood.

The blackwood poles were green at the time of construction and this is shown by some splitting in the poles , but the house is nearly 30 years old and seemingly that is now stabilised. The simple observation of children entering the property for the first time, full of wonderment at something we just take for granted; for them the house may be a fugue of interwoven wood. But from ageing eyes like mine, you only see what you don’t see.

Mouse Whisper

In Italy, May 1 is known is “Festa dei Lavatori”. It is a day of little work, also known in Italian as “la toiletta”. In southern England on the same day, there is a little known ceremony heralding the harvest of the first honeycomb. It is known as “Bee Day”.

Modest Expectations – Lopez Nunes

Consider this summer’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. All those attending were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. Anyone unvaccinated was required to wear masks throughout, even though the festival was outdoors. And those attending were asked to accept a “Lollapalooza Fan Health Pledge” promising they had not tested positive or been exposed to covid within two weeks or experienced any covid symptoms within 48 hours. The result? Of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attended the festival, only a few hundred have subsequently tested positive — and it is unclear whether any of them were infected at Lollapalooza.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve learned that outdoor gatherings are reasonably safe — it’s the indoor activities that invariably follow that are deadly. At Sturgis, (the annual pilgrimage to this tiny town in South Dakota for motorcycle enthusiasts) it is unlikely that the outdoor bike rallies were a problem. Most of the spread likely happened in the evenings, when people crowded into bars and restaurants, most unvaccinated, all unmasked. Large gatherings that work on keeping indoor spaces safe through vaccinations, masking, ventilation and other techniques can keep the entire gathering safer. 

Over the past year, every time we have tried to defy the virus by scorning precautions, the virus has won, and people have suffered and died: significant outbreaks, a lot of hospitalizations, too many deaths. Large gatherings like rallies, festivals and fairs are the biggest test of what our society can do in a pandemic.

The simple interpretation of the large outbreak after Sturgis is that big gatherings are just not possible during a pandemic. But that is the wrong lesson. It’s important for Americans to find ways to come together. So we should ask how we can make gatherings safer. 

Here, the pandemic playbook is straightforward: Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed.

None of these are difficult to achieve. And none of them should be particularly inconvenient. If we do all that, we can safely get back to the things we love and the events that bring us together, like music festivals, concerts and motorcycle rallies. From The Washington Post

On the way to Sturgis to catch a dose of COVID

The Sturgis motor bike rally attracts, over a 10-day period in August, about 500,000 people, all unvaccinated, all maskless, all completely ignoring any anti-viral precautions. I remember last year the forlorn image of the lone nurse at the empty COVID-19 testing station at Sturgis.

Sturgis is a small town in sparsely populated Mead County of that State; perhaps the nearest equivalent in Australia might be the annual gathering of ute owners and their vehicles in Deniliquin.

One difference is the Deni Ute Muster, as it is called, attracts only about 25,000 with up to one hundred utes, and it has been cancelled this year, as it was last year – out of respect for the lethal nature of the Virus.

Small town where, when the crowd arrives and leaves, in this case in Sturgis the number of COVID-19 cases shot up. There have been variable estimates of the extent of the spread engineered by the Sturgis participants and the numbers range up to 266,000. But given the reliability of the data, just use the word “substantial” – as good as any semi-quantitative measure.

While that irresponsible Governor of South Dakota rides around pillion at such a festival, herself vaccinated (not in evidence) but maskless (in evidence) what does one expect from a country one spit away from the sinkhole.

In 1788, Sydney was all we had

One matter is evident in the lead up to the election. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition come from the same state, and not only that, but also from suburban Sydney. There is resentment building against NSW; and that is unsurprising given what a target Berejiklian has made for herself, and which may intensify once the shadow cast by ICAC may challenge her “ermine saviour” image promoted by the AFR and subsequently universally lampooned. Again, she is a product of suburban Sydney schooling in North Ryde, and her deputy’s stronghold is in Queanbeyan, which may as well be a de facto suburb of Canberra; moreover, conventional suburbia.

I have lived half my life in Victoria and the other half in New South Wales.  I also have been lucky enough to travel widely around Australia during my working life. I remember having to work in Queensland, and that feeling of being labelled a “Mexican”, which I soon shed; but on the other hand if the Queenslanders don’t like you (which is the politician’s lot) it is hard to shed the sombrero.

I have seen images of Albanese in Queensland and he doesn’t exactly look in place there; whereas Morrison fits the bill (Queensland has a hearty dose of evangelical happy clappers like himself) at least in the country areas. The number of billboards in rural Queensland telling one that “Jesus saves”, would encourage anybody to open a bank account.

As if a prescient sign, a former Albanese sidekick has been booted from his position as Mayor of the Inner West Council, suffering the ignominy of not being able to finish his term in December, when a new council will be elected.

“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” the kicker line began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.” 

I remember this quote about Bill Shorten. It doesn’t get much currency these days.

I am not a great fan of Shorten. From my sources in Melbourne flow streams of negativity. His rise to the leadership was not a pathway which personally I would have taken, but he got there, with all his “zinger” arrogance clearly demonstrating a complete lack of sense of humour in the process. A very unlovely image over seven years, and he lost the election.

Equally unlovely men have had a second chance, but in so doing, they regulated their outer coating – spots and stripes are changed accordingly. When he was young, Shorten’s essential meanness was hidden behind a youthful face and a shock of hair. I doubt whether he has changed that much, but he is intelligent, far more than the current Prime Minister and his essential meanness of spirit could carry the Labor Party to victory, given that image of NSW being the teacher’s pet and that totally inept performance of his fellow Victorian, Frydenberg, who has continually attacked his own State.

Shorten does not have to be Bob Hope with devastating one liners; he needs to convert his meanness into an image of resilience and show compassion. The baby kissing “aw-shucks” image is not Shorten; leave that to Morrison and his baseball cap.

These are hard times. Once, there was a hard time in Northern Tasmania. I was not close enough to the Beaconsfield mine disaster to know how Shorten was perceived locally at the time – whether a sincerely concerned union official or a silver-tailed blow-in – courtesy of Dick Pratt’s private plane. But he was there on the spot, not in Hawaii. Shorten’s intuitive response was one of being seen there.

Man of the people, Beaconsfield

Smart people always learn; and Shorten is smart. Howard learnt; he had the same propensity of shifting alliances – a polite way of putting it. After all, it was said Shorten was in his element in Beaconsfield given his expertise in undermining. This facet of his way up the pole of influence will always dog him; but being likened to a rodent ultimately did not impede Howard’s rise to Prime Ministership, where he did a reasonable job. He was fortunate to have Tim Fisher as his Deputy – both, may I add, New South Welshmen but at least Tim’s electorate bordered Victoria. This a luxury Morrison does not have.

The Australian government is not the plaything of New South Wales politics. Premier Andrews summed up the resentment “I signed up to a national plan to vaccinate the country, not a plan to vaccinate Sydney.” Note Andrews did not say NSW; he said Sydney.

The Lodge, Canberra

Andrews embodied a bitterness which is palpable around Australia. There is no better symbolism than Morrison going home to Sydney every weekend. He is a Sydneysider; he is not an Australian. The Lodge is where the Prime Minister of Australia resides. The problem is that, as Keating first demonstrated, it is too easy for a Sydney-based Prime Minister to use Kirribilli House as the main residence, not the Lodge. However, Canberra was constructed to symbolise the Australian Federation, not some form of extended Sydney papacy because of the accident of the first settlement, Port Jackson, where Arthur Phillip stuck the Union Jack.

The Prime Minister should test his popularity in Victoria for a start. Victoria gets a new seat at the next Federal election – a safe Labor seat named after Bob Hawke; and the recent redistribution makes the seat of Chisholm even more marginal for the Liberal Party. Especially if it is recommended as an electoral issue that Kirribilli House be opened up for the nation or sold, in order to dispense with the notion that the Federal Government is just an extension of NSW politics. After all, Kirribilli was acquired in 1919 by another NSW-based Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, to prevent the site being redeveloped.

Only since 1956 has it been the place where the Prime Minister could entertain, but not live. However, since the end of 1991 Australia has had NSW-based Prime Ministers except for the Rudd/Gillard six-year era – in other words, over a 30 year period we have had a NSW Prime Minister for 25 of those, and thus surreptitiously turning Kirribilli into the Prime Ministerial residence is outrageous. Canberra was created for that purpose, and the Lodge is the official residence of the Prime Minister, not an apartment when Parliament is sitting. Moreover, it has been recently renovated at a cost of $9m.

What a choice, with the wife and kids with a residence overlooking the Harbour, the Government being seen as not disrupting the children’s schooling.  One can see how that resonates in the community – Big Daddy.

Then no matter what, the lights will continue to burn brightly in Kirribilli, with comfy fireside chats with the NSW Premier, especially if the two share the same political affiliation – and the children are playing around at his feet.

Kiribilli-by-sea

Do we really want Albanese to continue this dubious NSW tradition?

You know, the rest of Australia can go hang but Daddy is always home for dinner – and close to Hillsong on Sundays.

Wilcannia on the Darling River

“Jack Best, you should know better.”

The woman, a Barkinji elder, had been looking at me strangely for a few minutes as I was talking. I stopped, sheepish as a naughty child.

I realised that what I was saying was trespassing into woman’s business.

That was the way.  I was openly admonished. I should have recognised her initial non-verbal scolding.  Aboriginal people are very good on non-verbal communication; the more you work with them, the more you learn how to respond appropriately.

Yet in this instance, it demonstrated that she recognised as a whitefella that I had been trusted by the local Aboriginal population, and my action was not ignorance borne of lack of knowledge; but it had been my unthinking chatter when I had wandered into women’s business by describing something I had seen.

As I said, she was a Barkinji elder, her people fine-boned Aboriginals whose land lies along the Darling River.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Wilcannia when I was working in the Far West of NSW. Whether I had any long term impact, perhaps but I doubt it. Nevertheless, I remember a time when the myth was abroad implying that Wilcannia was a dangerous place where you would not want to stop. I never had that feeling.  Yet it has always been very easy to criticise Wilcannia because the town depends on Government funding, one way or another. For a period, there was an attempt to introduce the building trades, complete with a bricklaying machine. Not a success.

Wilcannia is a very circumscribed community. Once a port on the Darling River, it now has a very important place in Australia’s heritage, both for Aboriginal people and whitefellas. Whitefellas still lived in the town – when I was there one white nun was still resident in the convent.

There was a very involved white family who had a substantial property on the Darling River, just north of Wilcannia – a beautiful property. When the Darling River is not a dry creek bed or a stream discoloured by algal blooms, it is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and a property being on the river had a grandstand view, employing an apt sporting cliché, one of those that riddle our language.

Wilcannia is at a junction of roads going in all directions – the conventional access east-west  via the Barrier Highway; or north along the Darling to Bourke – a rough route through Tilpa and Louth. South, you turn off the Barrier highway and go down through the Manara Hills to Ivanhoe, where I once got off the Indian Pacific at 3am in order to be given a lift back to Wilcannia. Also, I once drove the 800 kilometres from Wilcannia to Melbourne on a Saturday in a Ford Laser without power steering.

Notwithstanding, Wilcannia is a self-contained Aboriginal community, with its buildings reflecting the whitefella heritage. The buildings were constructed of the distinctive cream sandstone from the now overgrown quarry  just out of town. Wilcannia stone has a distinctive cerise streak running through it.

Whitefella heritage

Now Wilcannia is in the middle of the pandemic and, given how circumscribed the community is, it is not surprising that once the Virus arrived there, most of the community were liable to become infected. The vaccination caravan arrived, and while there is a local hospital, there has been no local doctor, although there was someone in the past, who was a bit of a “Doc Holliday”.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) provided a clinic several times a week. The local nursing staff were hard-bitten but a generous lot; they had to be because there was a regular client group, who would turn up at all hours of the day or night. While the RFDS was there to pick up emergency cases; there also was always the chance of a woman unexpectedly turning up in labour at the hospital, well into the second stage, since ante-natal care for many of the Indigenous population is under-utilised.

What I find somewhat ironic with the pandemic and the resistance to a dedicated quarantine facility by the NSW Government is the provision of motor homes and tents in Wilcannia to isolate the infected. This is an expensive way of providing a dedicated facility; and it seems to have escaped the media’s attention to ask why hasn’t the Government been able to produce the same facilities for the infected burghers of the west and south-west of Sydney – early in the outbreak? The pundits would suggest the cost would be prohibitive and nobody would be prepared to dedicate the golf courses, for instance, for this use for the pandemic duration for such a facility.

But why should there be such a positive act of discrimination towards one community and not elsewhere in NSW?    All irony aside, what happens in Wilcannia will be instructive if NSW Health have the wit to engage in the community long term. Why? Because one way or another the whole Wilcannia community will either be vaccinated, be infected or a mixture of both.

Being an isolated community, it would be interesting to see how long the immunity lasts and whether there are differences between those vaccinated and those naturally infected. The problem is the level of trust that the Barkinji give to us whitefellas. I spent many years there on and off as I said, but always recognised how conditional trust is.

My closest contact is dead. He was one of several blackfellas with whom I developed that level of trust; but that was a long time ago. Nevertheless, we did develop a blueprint – an understanding. The lesson for me was that Wilcannia provided an insight into a community caught on the edge of whitefella civilisation. Yet that took years to obtain.

The Ghost of Al Grassby

I was going to give Albanese-bashing a break, but he cannot save himself. The topic was  Australian multi-culture and how his Party had been the centre of multi-cultural advocacy. He instanced Al Grassby as being a promotor of multi-culturism, when a member of Parliament. Al Grassby initially received a great deal of favourable coverage because of his colourful self-portrayal. This face of the Griffith Calabrian N’drangeta was hidden for many years, and it was a very unfavourable way of supporting the candidature of Kristina Keneally to the Lower House to mention Grassby in any way.

Kristina Keneally

I agree with Paul Keating that she is an acquisition in the Lower House, not the least for having a sharp mind and being articulate at the same time. She leaves some of the dummies who apparently are Ministers in her wake.

It is unsurprising in his enthusiasm for multi-culturism that Albanese failed to mention the exploits of those two multi-cultural warriors, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, prominent bugbears that Keneally “cut off at the pass”.

I am sure Ms Keneally remembers those two examples of Australian multi-culturism during her nightmare Premiership, as she ploughs into her new electorate-in-waiting.

Nevertheless, if she inherits the Home Affairs portfolio under a Labor Government, her experience will be very useful in dealing with a guy called Pezzullo.

King Penguins on the bookshelf

King Penguins were a delightful series of books produced as one of the inspirations of Alan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. He borrowed the concept from a small German publisher, Insel-Verlag.

Alan Lane started the publication of Penguin books in 1936, where he reprinted books in characteristic pocket editions.

In 1939, the first in this series of King Penguins – “British Birds” appeared.

As Lane said himself: “The aim of the King Penguin is different. These have not been planned to coincide with the public’s growing appreciation of art, but rather to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes of special projects.”  Unless you sample these books, that description is less than informative.

The first book had a pale green cover, with brown solid edges with white streaks between each brick, like ribbons of mortar. The full title British Birds on Lake, River and Stream lies over an inked cartoon of a kingfisher.  There were 16 colour plates taken from John Gould’s massive collection of Birds of Great Britain, which extended to seven volumes. In a one shilling crown octavo pocket size book, the King Penguin is an elegant sampler, beautifully presented, of often esoteric subjects. The introductory description of this first one acknowledged  how Gould spent several years in Australia and prepared a 600 plate Birds of Australia and is regarded as the Father of Australian ornithology.

Seventy-six King Penguins and 20 years later, the last King Penguin was published. The subject matter – the Sculpture of the Parthenon. While I enjoyed the British bird book, I’m not big on the Parthenon. But that is the quirky diversity of this set. As recounted in an earlier blog, I used the 1950 King Penguin, Romney Marsh, as a guide to find the various churches deep in this reclaimed Kent marshland.

I now have a complete King Penguin set, the collection of which was started by my father. My father bought Penguin books by the bookcase – adding to his collection every month. Not only Penguins but Pelicans, which were essentially the non-fiction counterpart.  Penguins typically had an orange colour (unless crime, which had a green cover; biography royal blue; travel/adventure crimson). The Pelicans were sky blue in colour and were published from 1937 to 1990. Along the way, when the Penguin Classics were issued, my father never missed one; King Penguins were different. He bought those when he was interested in the subject matter.

Having inherited these, I thought I must try and obtain the full set. The first and easiest option was to buy a full set, and now on eBay to buy a full set the buyer needs about US$1,000. For me, when such international trading entrepôt to tap did not exist, they were much harder to access; it was the thrill of the chase and over about five years, mostly in small secondhand bookshops in England, a complete set was achieved. Some are in better condition than others, but it was the joy of discovery – and inching towards the full set.

Magic Books of Mexico

When the last one was collected,  in my case Popular Art in Britain, my feeling of elation at having achieved the goal quickly became followed by a sense bordering on melancholia. What next? An achievement which will not materially change anything.

Yet recently I have found out about another one which I don’t have. That was the one reprinted for the Olympics Games in 1968, “Magic Books of Mexico”. My collector melancholy has lifted – if only temporarily.

The next venue?

The Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, with “one-third to one-half” of the total going to military contracts, according to a newly released report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

According to the report, which outlines the corporate beneficiaries of post-9/11 Pentagon spending, one-quarter to one-third of all contracts in recent years have been awarded to just five major corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman – From The Boston Globe

After Afghanistan and Vietnam and Korea, coming to a venue near you – 1955, 1975, 2021; or another way 1951, 1965, 2001 – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. To feed the above corporations, will the next conflict be the real Armageddon – or just 40 years devoted to an exercise in the Defence of Freedom as well as feeding the maw of the above named corporations?

The blood of Afghanistan is barely dry on the American escutcheon before there is more feeding of the maw, with the proposal to infect Australia with nuclear submarine technology. The beneficiary of this Thursday’s announcement? General Dynamics. Will anybody ever learn?

The Waste Land has never seemed more relevant.

This decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings.

And for chapel, substitute mosque, synagogue, temple or whatever suits your prayer.

Mouse Whisper

How do you make an Armenian cross?

Mention the word accountability!

Or else hire yourself a good carver of khachkars (sounds like a guttural version of cash cow), an example below with the characteristic cross of the Armenian Apostolic Church. If you want to see the eclectic nature of the Christian Church, just wander into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church territory is carved up between six Christian sects so that the Chapel of Saint Helena is a 12th-century Armenian church contained on the lower level. All mine!

As a paw note, I acknowledge my uncle Charles Arnamousian, for this information.

A khachkar

Modest Expectations – A Rock in Utah

On the 9-10 May 2001, the House of Representatives met in Melbourne to celebrate the Centenary of Federation Commemorative Sittings. Twenty years on, only five of those who were sitting as Members that day are still members of Parliament.

One is Kevin Andrews, a somewhat desiccated hangover in the Coalition, who is about to be consigned to “feather duster” status, after an undistinguished 30 years in Parliament and after losing preselection.

Warren Entsch and Bob Katter are from the wilds of Northern Queensland. Both have been able to ensure election without regard to any political affiliation. Katter is part of a dynasty, and both have fiefdoms. Intervention in any issue of national importance is incidental; neither is in a position to be national leader; and indeed, do not want to be so. They both want influence of their own choosing, even as they have become old men.

The other two who were there that day? Antony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. Each has represented inner Sydney electorates for the Australian Labor Party for that period of time; in fact Albanese was elected in 1996 and Plibersek 1998. Frankly, I thought there would be more than just five, but these latter two are still very relevant to Australia as we move towards 2030.

Yet what have they done to move the needle towards ensuring a better life for Australia?

When Whitlam came to power in 1972, he gave Australia a mighty jolt. He had foreshadowed significant change during the vindictive years of McMahon and the alcohol-stained Gorton incumbency. “It’s Time” rang around Australia.

So dangerous was Whitlam to the bunyip aristocracy that eventually, with the connivance of the Royal household and the American security service, a coup was engineered in 1975 which led to Whitlam being sacked by a drunken popinjay called Kerr, dripping in the lard of an antique post and aided and abetted shamefully by the then Chief Justice Barwick.

However, the people showed very clearly that they were tired of Whitlam.  I was a spectator in these exciting times because, whatever could be said of these years, Australia threw off its bunyip ossification.

What followed was instructive, and the fact that the current government is as bad as it has ever been has given me cause to reflect. The decade post-Whitlam saw some of the most important policy made at a national level which brought us from a narrow Poujardist, sectarian-ridden country to one where the economy and the social structures bloomed – until this past decade.

Howard, for all his conservatism and his unconscious comic talent, strangely was the last remnant of that age, during which the mood of the country reverted to that previous xenophobic jingoistic time.

Malcolm Fraser came to power in 1975 in a landslide, which could be interpreted as a rejection of progress, and he was then successively re-elected until he was voted out in 1983. Fraser was a “curate’s egg”. For instance, his approach to economic reform was that of nineteenth century Victorian protectionism. His attitudes here with the morning-suited Eggleton whispering in his ear, set back our progress a decade.

However, despite the whisperings, he did make a number of decisions that can be attributed to his government having worthwhile impacts. I have tried to think of what Albanese and Plibersek have accomplished given that they have held ministerial positions and been in Cabinet over the past decade.

The reason I am musing about this was the discovery of an article in the Guardian Weekly written 13 years ago. The title “Harpoons Down – Australia’s Last Whaling“. The last whaling hunt happened in 1978. The last whaling station was at “Cheynes Beach” near Albany, a city on the southwestern coast of Australia. It was closed that year. At the time, there was a great deal of concern expressed as to the fallout in that community; the normal talk about the loss of jobs and of a city under stress given its isolated location.

Cheynes Beach whaling station near Albany

I remember visiting the station six years earlier when it was fully operational. When we arrived, the whales were being cut into huge slices. We weren’t worried about the smell. There is a lot of blood, but my children eagerly touched the body of the closest whale carcass.

My sons haven’t forgotten that experience since. People may abhor the slaughter of whales – whaling was so much part of our heritage as watching them has become today. My sons had grown up spending their holidays in Port Fairy, in a rubble walled stone cottage built in 1848. Port Fairy, together with other settlements on Victoria’s southern coast and the offshore islands of Tasmania, owed much of their origin to whaling. The cottage was named for Ben Bowyers, himself a whaler, who built it.

In April 1979 Malcolm Fraser pledged his government’s “total commitment to protect the whale”.  It was said that he was heavily influenced by his daughter, Phoebe. Nevertheless, a total ban on whaling in Australia and the development of policy for the protection of whales further afield in international waters followed. For this, Fraser could claim that he had achieved a major change in Australian policy and attitudes.

The cessation of whaling did not convert Albany into a ghost town. I think of an ongoing prosperous city today when, across the Continent, there are coal mines dotted all along coastal New South Wales. Yet Albanese and Plibersek, if not cowering under the assault of the coal mining industry and their union collaborators, are certainly not indicating a co-ordinated program to reduce coal mining either.

That is the worrying problem. That if Australia is faced with ridding itself of a corrupt government prolonging the moral desert, do we need a timid alternative with a blank record dedicating itself for minimising change, thus retaining a compromised bureaucracy with a carousel of consultants looting the country? Moreover, where is the plan to rid the coastal strip from the Illawarra to the Hunter of coal mining? After all, I am old enough to remember the despoliation of the beaches in the same area near Newcastle by sand mining and the bleat about loss of jobs. No sand mining in the Myall Lakes now. Loss of jobs? Not that you ever know whether these sand miners were ever reduced to penury.

Do we trust a government led by any NSW politician of any political colour? When last in power in this State, the ALP government was full of corruption, as we the community are being reminded as we watch the fall out still be played out in the courts.

More spine, Albo. Dig up the “goat tracks”, as Eddie Obeid so colourfully described the trail of lobbyists and hucksters wandering to and around the Parliamentary Executive Offices!

Additionally, a small piece of advice, get yourself or at least one of your trusted lieutenants to become fluent in Health as Neal Blewett did. The lack of appreciation that Health has a separate language leaves any politician such as Plibersek at a disadvantage. Certainly it did when she was Minister.

When I met her some years ago it was clear that she and her advisers spoke a form of Health creole. However then, speaking fluent Health was not as critical as it is today, especially in the misinterpretation of the meaning of vaccine percentages.

The Mystery of Jane Halton

Vaccine advances, including the remarkable success of mRNA technology, made it possible to develop jabs for a previously unknown pathogen in less than a year, rather than the decade or more it would traditionally take. But as much as we improved, the delivery of vaccines still took far too long. In the future, our goal must be to roll out vaccines in just 100 days. This goal, first articulated by CEPI, has been adopted and championed by the UK Government as part of its G7 Presidency. Achieving it could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars should we face another pandemic threat. – Richard Hatchett – June 2021

Richard Hatchett is the Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Oslo-based organisation formed in 2017. The following blurb, even suitably abridged, sets out the objectives:

CEPI works to advance vaccines against emerging infectious diseases…and establishes investigational vaccine stockpiles.

CEPI also funds new and innovative platform technologies with the potential to accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines.

CEPI is working with partners across the world on the development and manufacturing of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 and is seeking US$2 billion from global donors to carry out this plan. 

Australia has given CEPI a relatively small amount of $13million (half of which has already been provided) towards the $2billion. In addition to governments, notably the UK, the Gates and Wellcome Foundations have each given $100 million.

Richard Hatchett has had a remarkable career and it is outlined most relevantly in a recent book by the prolific Michael Lewis titled “The Premonition – A Pandemic Story”.  In short, Lewis focuses on a group of scientists and doctors who spent years trying to ensure America was prepared for a deadly pandemic. A medically-trained epidemiologist, Hatchett is first mentioned in the book as having being recruited by one Rajeev Venkayya, a relatively junior medical graduate himself part of a group planning for governmental response to pandemics.

Serendipity is often but not invariably associated with momentous change. Dr Venkayya arrived at the Bush White House at a time when Bush, as described in the book, was “pissed”. Bush had been at the helm when 9/11 occurred; there had been the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina – and he did not know what to do. In fact, my personal memory from afar at the time of 9/11 was of the dazed, uncomprehending look on Bush’s face when he was interrupted reading a story to pre-schoolers, to be told of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Yet there, in this book “The Premonition”, it was said that in the summer of 2005, Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak and the devastation wrought. The book influenced Bush to such an extent that he wanted a plan to prevent this happening again. Bush had had many plans pushed his way on a number of matters, a number of which yielded catastrophic situations occurring, for instance, in Afghanistan.

Yet this proved different.

At the time in 2005 we had the outbreak of avian flu H5N1, and dire predictions of massive loss of human life, which never eventuated. Yet in the previous two years, the world had got its first spread of the SARS coronavirus, the forerunner of the COVID-19 virus.

Bush listened to Dr Vekayya, who wrote down a sketchy plan – 12 pages “which amounted less to a plan than a plan to have a plan”.  Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to spend on this three-part pandemic sketch plan, and Congress gave it to him. It was an insight into how Bush governed by instinct but, on this occasion, he was mostly right. Yet the business of getting a policy into place, which was little more than vaccinate and isolate, proved very difficult, given that it crossed the influential Centres for Disease Control (CDC) way of thinking.

To the Vekayya group another doctor was recruited, Carlton Mercer. He came from the Veterans Administration and over time this little-known figure became, with Hatchett, the vanguard for turning the Vekayya sketch into a defined course of action, namely when a pandemic appeared imminent, in the absence of a vaccine it was to go quickly and hard in locking down the community, close schools and social distance people from one other. The problem with people who genuinely drive change is that there is always the research/medical establishment prepared to cast aspersions. In this case, this was the CDC.

When Obama came to power, he stopped listening to these Bush appointees and their accumulated experience. He was bolstered in 2009 by predicted dire consequences of the swine flu pandemic – caused by another influenza virus H1N1 – that did not eventuate. Mexico had followed their guidelines; so what! America did not; and nothing much happened.

COVID-19 was yet to come.

Richard Hatchett in 2017 ended up running CEPI, which was a critical position as related in the book, because it was able to redirect substantial funding in the development of vaccines, particularly Moderna and AstroZeneca, when the pandemic struck and the Virus was isolated. Funding was also provided by CEPI to the University of Queensland for its ultimately failed vaccine. Considering the hype surrounding this group, perhaps more reliance was placed on its success than should have been. In any event, it left Australia with very few vaccine paddles, later in 2020. At that time Australia was basking in its success of suppression of the Virus.

Since leaving the advisory role to a President who had stopped listening to him, Richard Hatchett has been very active nevertheless.

The mystery of Jane Halton? Given her position as Chair of CEPI, which she is always flaunting, the question has been asked as to why she did not influence Australia in its acquisition of vaccines by Australia in 2020, given the directions being taken by CEPI, given the obvious international standing of the CEPI CEO, Richard Hatchett. I would have thought she would have told the Government what to do, as is her wont. She certainly should have known about the efficacy of the various vaccines under development around the world, including that of the University of Queensland, and the need to stockpile a range of vaccines, not just one.

Very strange, almost as mysterious as why she is the Chair of CEPI in the first place.

Sprod 

A drawing of a Grecian urn. The athlete on the urn being offered a laurel wreath. The caption – “no thanks I’ll take the money.”

The children on the beach watching a Punch and Judy show. The sign against the beach stage read “Now in its 290th year”.

An exercise in whimsy.

George Napier Sprod was an Australian cartoonist who, for much of his working life after the Second World War, worked in England. A cartoonist who signed himself Sprod? Who would believe the name was not just a humorous pseudonym? But George Napier Sprod was indeed born in South Australia.

As has been written elsewhere, in 1938 at the age 19, George Sprod left home without notice. He had decided to ride his bike along the Murray River en route to Sydney. He got as far as Hay before selling his bike and continuing by train. Once in Sydney he set up residence in Kings Cross and started freelancing as a cartoonist and working as a street photographer.

World War II intervened. He joined up, became a gunner, was sent to Singapore, was captured and then was a POW in Changi until the end of the War. During that time he teamed up with Ronald Searle and the two of them edited a paper called “Exile”. It must have been difficult for the Japanese to comprehend, given their distinctive styles. Searle in fact had a marked effect on the Sprod development

After the War he went back to Australia, worked for a time on the Packer papers, the Daily Telegraph and Womans Weekly, found out he was not a political cartoonist and went to England, where he hit paydirt, particularly with then Punch Editor, Malcolm Muggeridge.

In the “Introduction” to a collection of Sprod cartoons, mostly ones that had appeared in Punch, published in 1956 under the title “Chips off a Shoulder”, Malcolm Muggeridge described Sprod’s drawings as very funny, with a gusto, an earthiness. “The inherent absurdity of human life positively pleases him, and his bold and uproarious situations convey this pleasure. I would say he was in no tradition at all, but just Sprod.

Muggeridge, later on the Introduction, opined on why Australia produced and nurtured more humorous artists than anywhere else. He suggested it may have been the harshness of life and the vastness of Australia, which elicited the wry smile as the readiest and most natural response, as Muggeridge so elegantly puts it. Muggeridge mentions a number of Australian cartoonists, but lumped David Low in with them. Low, probably the most acclaimed political cartoonist of them, was a New Zealander, who did work for eight years in Sydney before spending the rest of this life cartooning in England.

Just before I left running the community health program in Victoria, one of my nursing team, as an impromptu gesture presented me with a first edition of “Chips off a Shoulder”. The year was 1979, the book having been published two decades before. On the fly leaf, she had written my initials and under these the words “A sense of humour” and then below at the foot of the page “Best wishes, always” followed by a long dash. I remember once she did ask what I would like as an epitaph. I don’t remember how this matter came up, but I remember my response, “I tried”.

It is funny what you treasure and would never sell. After I left the job, I never saw her again. Her name was Beryl.

But then I never went searching for Sprod, who by that time had retreated from England back to Australia because of some messy domestic relationship there. He died in Marrickville in 2003, I know that much and that he did go on to publish a number of other books of cartoons.

Where has All the Influenza Gone?

Influenza is very much part of the discussion swirling around the COVID-19 discussions. Reference is continually being made to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and reference is made to the fact that people have died of influenza in the past and we did not lock down Australia.

One can speculate about this. My view is that the Australian community has become used to the winter appearance of the virus, and there was always at the outset of “the flu season”, the Australian representative of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference on Influenza appearing to warn us of its dangers.  Australia was thus well placed. Scientists at the Centre in Melbourne—one of six such centres globally—faced an imprecise predictive process because of the variability of the various strains. This explained the vaccine’s varying effectiveness year to year as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (CSL) tried to make the most effective vaccine to counter this shifty virus.

Thus, there is a yearly vaccine, and there were established rituals. Those working in the health sector were encouraged to be vaccinated, and each health centre, generally as part of infection control, provided a systematic approach. In any event the prevalence of influenza waned as the country emerged from winter.

People died, and in fact up to 2020, every year from 2014 onwards the number of people who died increased, almost reaching 1,000 a year – until 2020 when the number dropped to 36, and then this year nil. The average age of death was 88, and hence influenza mortality was conventionally believed to be confined to the very old.

This year the community was advised to space its influenza and COVID-19 injections. I had the influenza injection first, when it became available. This I did because early in the year the COVID-19 virus seemed suppressed and the Delta variant had yet to emerge as the scourge it has become. So, in my case, “vaccine hesitancy” was an artefact, because of the expert advice to space the injections.

There is much speculation about why this apparent extinction of influenza mortality has occurred. The first is that it is only a lull in the disease progression and it will come roaring back with enhanced infectivity. Others suggest that the measures taken in regard to the current pandemic, such as social distancing, better hygiene and school closures have contributed.

Whatever the core reason for the current situation of zero mortality, the course of the influenza virus should be closely monitored but, from this unexpected effect, it does suggest that the hard approach is working.

In 1918 the community was hit by the influenza pandemic which, some say, never really went away. It just became attenuated; but there have been pandemic years. I remember the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 because I ended up in Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. There have been outbreaks since, all caused by descendants of the Spanish flu virus, generally milder and seasonally self-limited. In summary, seasonal influenza has tended to kill the oldest and youngest in a society but has been less virulent since the 1918 pandemic – roughly half of those who died were men and women in their 20s and 30s, in the prime of their lives.

Why does the community not get so worried about influenza? First, I suggest it is because of its predictability. This is reflected clearly by the ritual of flu vaccine injections. Yet have the measure that have been put in place over the past two years fatally suppressed the flu virus? An open question.

Secondly, the coronavirus is different. The common cold is a coronavirus; the conventional wisdom – we don’t die of the common cold. But this is different, and the world was unprepared for this relative of such a mild disease to rear up and become a dangerous lethal virus, initially with no vaccine and then, as if in response to the emergence of vaccines, the more dangerous delta variant appeared.

Influenza has a predictability; this virus has not, especially as the messaging changes almost daily. These changes have increased the uncertainty, whereas the rules to deal with pandemics from a pure public health context have always been simple and unequivocal, with perhaps the added use of masks. Social distancing, school closure, restriction of all movement, personal hygiene, use of hand sanitiser, the importance of the reproduction factor – all well known.

Thirdly, another difference compared with influenza is the way this current pandemic has been handled in Australia. This is the politicisation with the inability of politicians not to interfere. The failure occurs when politicians panic, want instant solutions, unfortunately showing both ignorance and weakness at the same time. Politicians always seem to know better, especially when it interferes with business and political donors.

Ignore the public health rules, as is happening at present in NSW, and how long will it be before it is not only Afghani seeking refugee status in States with low rates of infection. One person, being a proponent of the “Let it rip” school of dealing with the Virus, said to me that he wanted to leave the country. Don’t worry. Currently, NSW is the place for you.

Mouse Whisper

Michael Kirby is an illustrious man of the people. He is known to deliver newspapers. Yet he has 30 honorary doctorates – quite a collection. There are 23 from Australian universities. Shame on the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland. You are real laggards. But has anybody else got more honorary doctorates than our Michael K?

What a fancy dress party Michael, the Thespian, can stage. But why the number?  I suppose it is because some people collect stamps; others, like Michael, collect Tudor caps.

My mausmeister has fond but distant memories of him and that other colourful figure of Sydney University politics, the late Vincent John Flynn. He remembers the things which were said about him by those two worthies during those halcyon days of student politics, not to his face, but after he had left a meeting early.

You see Flynn had inter alia currency issues; and so does Michael. Different form of currency; different definition. Both defined by spotlight, one avoidance of it, the other always searching for it.

Modest Expectations – Geometric Progression

I rarely post on Facebook, but I feel compelled to comment on the large number of unvaccinated people there are. Many think that is awful. But the more I have thought about it, the more I conclude it may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in several centuries.

Those who choose not to vaccinate are, and will continue to be, the vast majority of those who contract COVID-19, as well as the majority of those who die. While I feel sorry for the friends and families of those people, in the long term that may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in a long time.

By weeding out the dumbest of our people, the average intelligence of our race will clearly improve!! So look on the bright side—the human race will be better off in the long term with the dumbest of our people being the largest bloc of deaths!!!

So wrote my American mate.

It demonstrates that the ferocity, which is consuming American society, being played out between those in favour of vaccination and the antivaxxers. Thinking about this invective I am reminded that my forebears survived the Black Death. But so did those of everyone who is living at present, even the progenitors of the anti-vaxxers. On this basis, some of these survivors proliferated, so stupidity is never totally extinguished.

Do I disapprove of anything sent above? Well, I do think the multiple exclamation marks are a bit over the top.

Seriously, despite the robustness of the comments, I genuinely worry about any suggestion of eugenics, for whatever reason, even in the case of America given the action of the disgusting Trump in dumbing down the community over the past four years and dismissing the seriousness of this pandemic.

Tales from the South Seas

South Sea Islanders have always seemed to me to get the rough end of the pineapple, as it were.  This mob is largely confined to the sugar growing areas of Queensland. Mostly, they have been ignored, despite the appalling way their ancestors were treated. Their forefathers were the victims of blackbirding, the trade in men mostly, from modern day Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, who were kidnapped, transported to Queensland and northern NSW, where they cut sugar cane.

South Sea Islander flag

Most were repatriated in the early years of our Federation, but a number remained – the actual figure being a subject of conjecture. From a peak of 60,000, the estimate now is about 5,000 although how rubbery that figure is, who knows.

When South Sea Islander leaders, Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott, died, politicians, the media and the wider community labelled both as Indigenous activists and gave no recognition to their South Sea Islander heritage.

Later, on other hand, when Dr Bonita Mabo died, she was widely recognised as a leading Australian South Sea Islander activist, also involved in Indigenous activism.

Therefore, the recent very public apology by the Mayor of Bundaberg, Jack Dempsey, to the South Sea Islanders reinforced the success of the Islanders over the last generation or two in educating their fellow Australians about their existence.

Australia flies both the Aboriginal and Torres Islander flags widely, but who recognises the South Sea islander flag? The argument may be that they are an insignificant number, but then if you apply that rule, the Aboriginal population and even more so the Torres Strait Islanders would be similarly considered given their respectively small percentages of the whole population.

The root problem goes back to the 1975 report of Australian Law Reform Commission where South Sea Islanders’ claims for recognition were dismissed contemptuously.

I am sure that Rugby League fans would dispute this, given that one of the greatest Rugby League players ever was Mal Meninga, himself of South Sea Islander heritage. He is not the only one.

In my 2017 book I wrote about the experiences of a young Philip Morey, when he had worked on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga between 1932 and 1934. Here he had encountered a man who had been taken to Queensland as a youth who, after 40 years, returned to his village on Erromanga. The exchange between the young Australian and the old native needs no further commentary. It is nevertheless instructive. The extract starts with Morey asking a question while the old man was harvesting his plot of sweet potato.

The Sheep of Erromanga – Messages from the Martyrs Isle, Jack Best

“What was life here like when you were a small boy?” 

The dreaminess reappeared in the old man’s cadence. “Son, that was a long, long time ago.” The dreaminess vanished as quickly as it had come and edginess came into his voice. “I was less than twenty years old when the boat took me to Queensland. It was not even Australia then — just a group of colonies where you white men wanted me to make you some money. And I did. You know, I cut cedar and kauri for a shilling a hundred foot. I even worked on cattle stations.”

The old man drew a circle in the dirt.

“The pay wasn’t much, but I made enough money to rent fifteen acres and a farm in Northern New South Wales — on the Clarence. Married a white woman.” He stopped.

Philip thought he expected a question about mixed marriage, but miscegenation did not trouble Philip. He had read too much French literature to share the English fear of mixing skin colours. The French were very much more tolerant. He wondered whether there was a Creole culture in this strangely governed group of islands. 

Philip was quiet as he pondered this old fellow who had lived forty years among white people and who, after twenty years back on the island of his birth, could still speak fluent English. He had lived and worked under white men’s rule in a white man’s house with a white woman as his wife. He had seen and enjoyed the comforts and pains of civilization. Now he was living in a dirty and dilapidated old native hut wearing a dented old hat and a dirty threadbare loincloth.

He thought, so much for forty years in Australia!

The old man turned as if he felt Philip’s final thought as a laceration. 

“Son, civilization is not only in the eye of the white man.” His clouded eyes belied the directness, the clarity of the comment.

“You know what made me come home?” The old man continued without waiting for any acknowledgement. “I had learned enough about the way you white men handle your riches — you are always selling that lie to others to make even more for yourselves. I found out what civilization was all about. I lived as a white man — I saved and then I gambled money that I had earned on making money that would come without me earning it. What do you call it? Dividends? Interest? It has taken a long time for me to forget the words of deceit.” 

Philip thought that the way he said “deceit”, with his teeth clenched, was an expression of repugnance at a life he had once tried to embrace. 

“I lost my money,” the old man continued. “Any money I had got over that first twenty years went in the 1891 bank crash. Lost my farm, lost my living — lost my wife. Went back to the cane fields. But that life is for a young man, and my back started to give out. In the end, in my last ten years in your newly created country, I made enough to live on, but when I came home I left every penny in there — in your Australia.

What this man did not say, because there is no record of him having any children, was when the descendent of the first wave of South Sea islanders was repatriated, many of them were the product of mixed marriages, particularly with Aboriginal women. They suffered discrimination from the locals, who were of Melanesian stock. Strange world. Nevertheless, when I visited the Torres Strait, the comment was made that Torres Strait Islanders discriminated against those who lived on Horn Island, who were predominantly Aboriginal.

During World War 11 for instance, as an example of interracial discrimination, it was reported that while only earning one-third pay compared to whites, Torres Strait Islanders were compensated at a higher rate than Aboriginal soldiers. The Australian army viewed Torres Strait soldiers equal in combat with white soldiers, while they considered Aboriginal soldiers to be liabilities.

The experience the Erromanga man had in Australia from his first-hand account does not mention any discrimination – only that he lost all his money and his wife, and yet had returned home, content with obvious wisdom gained.

Captain Robert Towns

Nevertheless, even today, one matter rankles with me. At a time when the world is dishonouring slave traders, there is no move to change the name of Townsville away from one of the most notorious slave traders of the South Pacific, Robert Towns. He was British born and now is buried on Castle Hill. There has been some protest, but that has been ignored. Just imagine if Towns had been associated with an Aboriginal massacre.

I suppose it is a part of the Australian diaspora that we have a large regional city named for a mass murderer.

On what was the Vanuatu National Day, the last word should go Waskam Davis, whose forebears came from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. In response to the apology from the Bundaberg Mayor, she said: “We’ve grown up watching this struggle for recognition, and also working alongside our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander families for greater recognition, greater inclusion, better outcomes for our collective communities”. 

Well, they could start by renaming Townsville. After all, we were once New Holland.

God, I am sick of these people

One source has suggested that vaccine supply logistics has been a form of a Ponzi scheme, although in this case there was a lot of smoke and mirrors about non-existent stores of vaccines or those sitting, waiting to be validated, coupled with much encouragement to “book a vaccination”. 

Such a comment displays a dangerous lack of confidence in Government.

Soldiers are joining police on the streets to ensure compliance, which has been sadly lacking in those suburbs where there has been a high immigrant population.  Those who have used their migrant groups to establish their petty satraps in local government, these so-called community leaders, have failed to accept the responsibility of both reassuring the population and reinforcing the compliance message. These community leaders should be accompanying the police and the soldiers in walking the streets, instead of braying from the sidelines.  Instead of explaining that Australia is at war with a Virus, which has killed or maimed millions of people across the World, and that this involves everyone making hard decisions about their lives in the short term, these so-called community leaders are selling this confected tripe that these people have fled from war torn countries and these immigrants will be totally blown out of their minds if they see soldiers on their streets.

Why are they doing this? Why are they sabotaging the State Government?

There are a number of reasons. I would hate to say that it is easy to whinge and in effect do bugger all. After all, do people go into local government primarily to help others?

There is a lack of leadership. The face of a Prime Minister who acts like a Cheshire cat with that very distinctive smirk, but whose default button is the media release and blame shifting.

Then there is the Premier, who is completely hapless, talks too much, has had a pet albatross called Darryl still bobbing around in this ocean of discontent, and an expertise in document shredding to list some of her achievements.  Perhaps I have missed something but there is nothing Churchillian in her desperation.  Her default button is “on the best medical advice”.

Therefore, the blame is shifted onto Kerry Chant who has shown, as I have said previously, remarkable resilience. However, everybody has his or her breaking point, especially if the contact tracing system, however well organised, is being overwhelmed.

It should be recognised that one positive outcome in NSW has been the QR code, originally devised in Japan in 1994, which was introduced after a month-long trial in Dubbo last year.

All Ministers of Health should be ensuring that the rest of the health system is working, and there are worrying signs. The problem is that all health bureaucracies are steeped in people who may know the regulations, but as I have written before, “health” is a separate language. In time, bureaucrats learn to speak “pidgin” health. While the NSW Health Minister is suitably authoritarian, he gives the impression he is not across his portfolio despite being the Minister for four years.

The key quality of a strong health minister is being able to speak fluent Health, as this is the major defence against the central agencies always wanting to trim the health budget. The problem for health ministers is that on most occasions the central agencies “plant” their own bureaucrat in the health portfolio to do their bidding. As an example, you don’t have to look past Jane Halton when she was Secretary of the Commonwealth Health Department.

As for the current Federal Minister of Health, he has presided over a failed app, a failed social marketing advertising strategy and a collection of mates getting jobs in relation to the failed logistics of distribution of the vaccine. The result is that there has been a series of poor decisions in choosing vaccines, a disjointed rollout of vaccines and, in regard the aged care portfolio, just a schemozzle when, with little additional effort, the workforce could have been vaccinated at the time of the vaccination of the residents. It does not help when the general in charge of the vaccine distribution looks as if he is about to cry at any moment.

There are so many opinions flying about that it is time to call a halt. Instead of this so-called national cabinet as seeming to be an exercise in shoring up fiefdoms and ensuring every political leader has their own pet scapegoat, it is time for political games to stop for the good of Australia.

As an example of this is the numbers flying about from the modellers about the percentage of those vaccinated which will enable Australia to move through the putative phases. The Doherty mob were asked by Government to provide an indicative figure to minimise lockdown. Fair enough – clear direction. But it seemed to let loose a storm of academic babble.  It is time for the academics to stop thinking this pandemic is a research conference.  The problem in a world of imperfect information is to know what to believe, leaving a confused community which eventually stops listening.

The country needs now:

  • A national contact tracing system. Here I agree with Stephen Duckett’s opinion piece in the SMH. Those of both NSW and Victoria have been tested. The initially woeful Victorian system was rectified; the NSW system has been resilient. If we had a national system, then it would signal that the Federation lives. Those who are starting to question the NSW system must recognise that if enough stress is put on a system, it will break. It needs continual engineering not scapegoating.
  • Custom made quarantine facilities, along the lines of Howard Springs, where there have been no recorded breaches, are essential. Its success was evident from the very start with the repatriation from Wuhan. Of course, whenever the profit motives intrude, as they did with the hotel quarantine, disaster follows, and thus the decision to look after one sector may end with the whole business sector compromised. The absurdity of continuing to talk about building them while doing virtually nothing is breathtaking. Endless useless contracts have been given to consultants over the past year; if the private sector as epitomised by the Wagner Brothers had been contracted to construct quarantine facilities they would have been in operation months ago.
  • The logistics of timely supply of testing materials and vaccines needs to be properly organised so it isn’t used as a conduit to just give taxpayers’ money to mates. Maybe somebody should take a lesson from Essington Lewis’ playbook from World War 11. If we had these turkeys in charge then, each State would have raised its own militia and Tasmanians would be making sake instead of gin.
  • The evidence of the best venue/s in which to distribute the vaccine and the need to have a national disaster plan using the evidence gained from this pandemic, particularly in the use of masks and hand sanitiser.
  • The QR code system, which has been an example of success, should be made uniform and compulsory across Australia. The communication strategy, the failure to acknowledge the app dud, and instead of subjecting the whole community communication strategy to public scrutiny, it will be buried from scrutiny to the overall national detriment. There have been some spectacular successes in social marketing campaigns in the past. Remember the success of the NSW anti-drink driving campaign orchestrated by the incomparable John Bevins.
  • Recognition of the danger of the lockdown and border closures where there is no uniform national control by the Federal Government. Say NSW decides to loosen all restrictions a lá Boris, in conflict with the other States with harsher restrictions, then there is the potential for community chaos and a fractured Federation presided over by an impotent Federal government. The actions of the West Australian Premier in particular fill me with a sense of foreboding; Australia does not need a re-enactment of the 1890s.

One of the great successes Wooldridge had when he was Commonwealth Minister of Health was improving the vaccine rate across Australia. I recognise he has had a chequered history since he left that job, but it has not stopped him from advising Hunt, particularly in the way the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme can be nuanced.

I wonder whether he would agree with “jab” as part of the politician’s lexicon, and if there is hesitancy, the best place to test this in schools is to make it compulsory for all children, say at 12, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Once you introduce a program into schools, then it is a perfect road to eradication – rubella and polio are prime examples, or have the current policymakers forgotten about those scourges? Such a decision would reinforce some of the calls to redirect inoculation to the young.

In the interim, give the residue of children aged between 12 and 18 the vaccine. It is only a matter of organisation to get them all vaccinated – and incidentally a good way to identify those among the parents who are avowed anti-vaxxers and those who are just hesitant.

While it has been admirable that the Government has concentrated on the elderly, the assumption being we are the most vulnerable, and therefore vaccination is a community anodyne for not clogging the acute hospitals with the most unproductive sector of the community, particularly applying to the intensive care units. Any COVID-19 patient admitted to hospital can spread the nightmare.

Another matter is the long-term morbidity, which will contribute to the cost on the system. The post-viral syndrome is protean in its manifestations and it seems that COVID-19 can be particularly severe. Then there is the murky world of the auto-immune disease, and having a chronic auto-immune disease myself, I would not flirt with the disease, with preferably having a choice of vaccine. My second injection is due tomorrow.

The overarching concern, despite much work being done in relation to SARs vaccine development in the past 15 years, none of them have had the usual level of testing that most vaccines undergo before being approved for usage. This is the baggage which Australia has, given investment in the Queensland dud and the almost exclusive Governmental preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine.  That is the risk one takes when there is urgency, and where hindsight is a wonderful attribute.

Hence, with long-term morbidity, there will always be the search for a cure. Given the nonsense in relation to bleach, zinc, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and whatever, it is still important that all treatments are not dismissed.  The example of the nucleotide, remdesivir with the associated use of cortisone has received attention and seems to have some role in the most serious cases, but there needs to be more convincing data.

Finally, one area which has remained relatively untouched in the mountain of commentary is the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It should not be forgotten in any national review. Here Australia is in a pandemic and there is the spectacle of national chemist chains peddling the usual remedies for the common cold and other respiratory complaints on national television every night. Most remedies have been shown not to work, and normally can be tolerated, but this is a pandemic, and mixed messaging needs to be eliminated – not gaily spouted on national television. The medical advice is to be COVID-19 tested if you have “the most minimal of symptoms”. Yet the advertisements are full of contradictory advice encouraging use of ineffective patent medicines that are likely to delay being tested for COVID-19.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Health Products Regulation Group needs a large shakeup. The current deputy secretary in charge, John Skerrett, is in a long line of bureaucrats who, in the words of the Health Department, contribute to the stewardship of Australia’s health system. Exactly! It was one area which, in hindsight, I should have weighed in when I had some influence in the area.

In all, public health specialists sit uneasily with business community. There are few bridges. An American view was that the public health specialists are Democrats and Business Republicans. It has been shown in the unfortunate politicisation of this pandemic, particularly in the United States.

There’s business, and then there’s seriously good business.

Victoria, with its vocal proponent Peter Doherty, is pushing ahead with plans for an mRNA research and production capacity in Australia. Of course, the race is on internationally.  After the spectacular success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Sanofi announced on June 29th that it will invest more than USD475 million a year to develop mRNA vaccines against other diseases, and much of the work will be done in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts

Sanofi is creating a vaccines mRNA Centre of Excellence that will employ 400 people both there and in Lyon, France. The French pharmaceutical firm has about 4,200 employees in Massachusetts. Sanofi hopes to have at least six potential vaccines to test in clinical trials by 2025 against a range of diseases.

While Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca both vowed to sell their vaccines on a non-profit basis during the pandemic, Moderna, which has never made a profit and has no other products on the market, decided to sell its vaccine at a profit, as did Pfizer, notwithstanding that it didn’t need the profits because of its already healthy bottom line. Last year Pfizer showed USD9.6bn in profits, before the COVID-19 vaccine. In the first three months of this year the COVID-19 vaccine delivered USD3.5bn of revenue.

And that is just the start. Like the eponymous Magic Pudding, the vaccine is expected to keep generating significant revenue, especially because of the likely need for regular booster shots, already before the FDA. Pfizer has said it expects its vaccine to generate USD26bn in revenue this year and the company has been signing supply deals with governments as far out as 2024. Nice work if you can get it.

Just an addendum

I could not agree more with Gideon Haigh’s comment made last Sunday about the nature and future of the Olympic Games, much in the same vein as I wrote about last week. The euphoria generated by the number of Australian gold medals in the first week made those who reckon that the Olympic Games is now in need of a thorough overhaul seem like the Grinch. The Games have provided a degree of fairy tale theatre for those of us caught in the lockdown.

The problem is that life has many airheads, often former Olympians who “are on the tit” directly or living a life that they once had in amongst the gaiety of the Games, not to mention the close contacts that some have made and persisted.  What do they call it?  Yes, the Olympic Family.

Apart from hubris, there is no reason for that appalling decision of the Queensland Premier to commit to the same contract which has left the IOC again wallowing in cash, when it was clearly on its knees. Here, the host city and, on this occasion because we have a drongo Federal Government prepared to cough up 50 per cent, every taxpayer in Australia will be saddled with debt. A form of neoliberal communism, you may ask. Don’t bother.

It was interesting to note that the residual Sydney Games debt is still bouncing around 20 years after the end of those Games.

The country, particularly Queensland, may come to curse Coates, who will be 82 when the Games come around – or dead.  Coates may think he has fenced his legacy, but as I said last week, in 2032 there will be a different World. Indeed, fire-fighting may have become an Olympic sport by then.

And by the way, that winner of the mens’ 100 metres the other day, from the vantage point of mia sedia in salotto, appeared to have the physiognomy of the Canadian Ben Johnson.  He certainly has made massive strides, as they say, over a short time, as distinct from the IOC. Could have been something in the tagliatelle.

Mouse Whisper

As my cousin Camundongo from Lisbon has warned me that before entering the swimming pool remember to circumflex since:

If in Maio

You want on whim

To decide to swim

Remember to wear your Maiô

Portuguese water dogs

Modest Expectations – Eleven Squared

One of our most extraordinary journeys across the USA was our drive from Los Angeles to Denver. Our first stop was at Furnace Creek. Several years before we intended to drive there, but Los Angeles was cut off by an unseasonable storm which dumped a load of snow around Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting off the route to Death Valley.

This time it was on the cusp of summer and it was about a five hour drive straight after clearing customs and picking up the hire car following the flight from Australia. The drive was a little arduous. It takes a seemingly endless time to leave LA behind. However, it was a necessity as it happened to be the last day that the resort at Furnace Creek remained open before it was due to close for summer.

Death Valley

Death Valley has always been one of the hottest places on Earth, and even then was not open over the summer months. We had time to look around and feel the dryness and the heat, but hardly the temperature being experienced at the present time. Furnace Creek, where its temperature is measured, sits at 58 metres below sea level in the Mojave Desert.

As The Washington Post noted this past week: the third massive heat wave in three weeks kicked off in the West on Friday, Death Valley, Calif., soared to a searing 130 degrees. If confirmed, it would match the highest known temperature on the planet since at least 1931, which occurred less than a year ago. Friday’s 130 degree (54.4c) reading comes after it hit 126 degrees (52.2c) on both Wednesday and Thursday. It’s predicted to reach as high as 132 (55.6c) degrees on Saturday and 130 (54.4c) on Sunday. Night time lows may stay above 100 (37.8c) until the middle of next week.

What with the Pacific Northwest temperatures last week, anybody for climate change denial? What was that about coal fired power stations now?  I’m beginning to believe that nobody who is due to shuffle off the mortal coil should be allowed to vote, so much have we stuffed up the World.

But wait, there is more; from The Boston Globe describing the wettest July on record:

Flash flood warnings, tornado alerts, heat advisories, and of course, rain, rain, and more rain. Hey, whoever’s in charge here, we’d like a refund, please. We were promised Hot Vax Summer, but instead, we’re getting a soggy slap in the face. Couples who postponed their weddings because of COVID find themselves dashing to the church amid downpours. Families gathered for overdue summer reunions are enjoying more together time than they bargained for. Restaurateurs eager to make an extra buck on outdoor dining are chasing runaway umbrellas.

I doubt if this will feature on the National Party dashboards.

Information in the Soot

Neanderthal Man

I am indebted for the inspiration for the following blog to a review in The New York Review by Tim Flannery of a book just published entitled: “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love Death and Art” by Rebecca Sykes. I have quoted from it.

Rebecca Sykes is a young Welsh palaeontologist who has spent a great amount of time in the south of France scouring the caves for signs of Neanderthal life. She is an inveterate writer and this book, which has attracted wide recognition, is her latest opus.

What I found especially interesting was the concept that soot on the cave walls can be used as a clue to age.

Fulginochronology was established three years ago as a scientific method. It is an advance in scrutinising our ancestral navel that has not been given much prominence. It involves the study of miniscule stratigraphic layers of soot on cave walls. The fossil soot build-up is a microscopic barcode printed on the walls of the cave. Each single bar line represents one specific moment of burning, around a hearth in a cave. These timelines can be read to create a chronology of events within the cave as different groups of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens came and went. The technique has been used in the Mandrin Cave in south-east France and in the El Salt caves in Eastern Spain.

Esoteric, yet important in defining the life and times of Neanderthal man and their interaction with Homo Sapiens, and the overarching question of hybridisation. It is fascinating to think that those people roaming Europe are increasingly thought to be a hybridisation of the two occurring about 40,000 years ago. The discovery of skeletons in Europe dating from that period shows all were hybrids. It is as if suddenly the hybrids took over Europe at that time.

The concept of fulginochronology intrigued. I look forward to reading the book, once our copy reaches Australia. The question I would like answered is how do these data fit into the assertion that the Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 years, in effect predating any hybridisation event. Maybe we need a bit of fulginochronology, Tim, in places like the Jenolan Caves.

The Cave of Niaux

We had always wanted to see the caves at Lascaux with gallery after gallery of images of animals, all painted in the Paleolithic period by the Magdalénians about 15,000 years ago. Sealed at some stage during this prehistoric period, they lay unknown until accidently discovered by a group of boys in 1940. Opened in 1948 to the general public, it took only 15 years before the caves needed to be closed to the public because of the damage being done by the carbon dioxide in the expired air of the tourists. There were up to 1,200 tourists coming through each day, including Picasso who, on seeing the art, said that we had not learned anything new. Thousands of years later the skills of the artists were there for all of us to see.

It is suggested that, at that time 40,000 years ago with abundance of food and the benison of tranquil weather in that period, these people had time for developing artistic talent and then marry it with a spiritual philosophy – and the appropriate alignment of such thoughts within their environment, the equivalent of the feng-shui of today’s interior decorators.

Very few people are allowed in to see the paintings, but it is one of the only shows in the world that I would use “my ticket of influence” to see, if I had one. There are at least three Lascaux facsimiles, as there is another depicting the caves of Altamira near its site in Cantabria in Northern Spain. There problem with facsimiles is that, although the reproductions may be excellent, they are not in context. The paintings are of animals, in particular bison, auroch and horse seem to dominate. The colours resemble the ochre colours of our Indigenous people and largely they are drawn using iron and manganese-based pigments. Carbon is used, but apparently not in the Lascaux paintings.

The Altamira caves were discovered in the nineteenth century, and they are almost as well known as those at Lascaux. However again, these caves were closed to the public as of 2002 for much the same reasons as at Lascaux – damage from expired carbon dioxide and the fact that opening the caves up induces changes in the temperature and the humidity so that lichen and moss overgrowth is occurring on what once were plain stone walls.  All of these factors contribute to the deterioration of the paintings.

The entrance to Niaux Cave

This is where the Niaux Cave comes into the discussion. For some reason we were actually discussing cave paintings and the frustration of not being able to see any of them. We were travelling around the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which is a long way from Lascaux but over the range in Northern Spain were the Altamiras.  We had stopped at Foix, a hilltop town and over coffee, we found out we were close to the Niaux Cave. So we drove down and there it was, a majestic entrance which would not have been out of place on the front of a cathedral, a line of steel poles guiding us down the mountainside to the entrance. As we found out the number at any one time permitted in the cave is limited, but we scraped into the afternoon quota.

Descending into the cave with head lighting, walking along a board walk knowing that there were shadowy forms of stalagmites and stalactites strewn along the way, the sound of dripping water, squeezing through and crouching low at several points to progress, it could have been difficult, but mostly it was just a stroll.  On the walls the headlights showed a series of glyphs – what may have been signs – and some enigmatic lines of red and black dots along the opposite wall.

We came to an area where pathways crossed. Then we found we were climbing a steep rise into what we learnt later was the Salon Noir. It was about half a kilometre from the cave entrance into this pitch black area. Here we stopped and were instructed to turn out our lights. Even in the pitch black, you knew you were in a large space with a sense of high ceilings. It is strange that this feeling of space did not require vision. The group surprisingly was silent, just outlines alongside me.

Then the guide turned on the light and there were the images of a bison and ibex, lines of black on a rust tinted wall. Time was limited. Photography was prohibited. Once the light was turned out, that was that. Sure, they illuminated the salon to show how domed the chamber was – the acoustic quality of the chamber was tested.

Niaux cave painting

There was hardly time to absorb the images; if we had been in a facsimile of the chamber, we would have had more time to view the images; even be able to photograph; there would not have been the conservation restrictions. Stepping forward, we now have virtual reality technology, so in future we will probably not be restricted to one gallery, but be able to see the whole complex through the eyes of the palaeontologist, being able to stop, rewind, fast forward – see more than we did without the discomfort and cost of being on site. We could be force fed a commentary; and with such devices able to store the memory, not even have to remember. Just press a button, and there they are, remarkable images in a virtual cave

I have seen many Aboriginal rock paintings on site; they tend not to be in the depth of caves, but then again if the mining industry continues to blow them up with the connivance of government here in Australia, it just becomes an academic matter. I have been privileged to see some of these paintings, but I admit I have not trekked for days to see them if there’s been an opportunity to see them in a book, in a museum, or on film.

So why do we do it?   Why trek to some cave? For me, it is a sense of a different space, each of these spaces is unique, and the fact that where I was standing some artist a few millennia ago was viewing his or her masterpiece, but at least he or she had control of the flame to show what had been drawn for me to see. My time was limited to wonder at the genius of these drawings deep in a cave where sunlight could not reach.

Tartuffi not Tartuffe

Lockdown is tedious, but that is the strategy which has worked to curb the spread of the Virus if properly policed and where the community is compliant. It is essential, and there is no point looking for scapegoats. You can fine them; you can penalise them within the confines of society norms, which no longer believe that stocks and pillory are acceptable, but in the end lockdown is group punishment.

It was in this context and realising it was the season for them, we decided to purchase a truffle. Our prime epicurean son who unlike us lives in free range Australia agreed that the best truffles in Australia do come from Manjimup in Western Australia in a season which extends through winter to early spring.

Snuffling a truffle

So, we purchased a substantial fresh truffle which was delivered, vacuum packed, a few days after it was ordered. The package contained a note from the Truffle dog that snuffled it out of the round. As she said in her dog-eared note, Gaby warned us never to get in her way when she was hunting.

These truffles are related to those found in Périgord, and we noted that ours has fine white lines running through it, the sign of a good truffle. This morning it was time for scrambled eggs with visible slices of truffle, not the normal dark sprinkled confetti when you order any eggs allegedly with truffles in that local posh breakfast establishment.

Needless to say, the online shopping outlet had a truffle slicer for sale. Now how could one resist the temptation to buy this vital everyday requirement for the kitchen? It was a handsome, if somewhat terrifying serrated stainless steel implement. What was interesting to me was this affettatartufi in acciano inoz con manico in pallisandro (stainless steel truffle slicer with a wooden handle) was made not in China but in Italy.

Although France is associated with truffles, the most expensive ones are the white truffles found in Piedmont and Tuscany. Their prices can approach $10,000 a kilogram (whereas the Australian black Périgord truffles retail for $2,000 a kilogram). The white truffles are scarce, partially because nobody has ever been able to cultivate them. Needless to say, there is all this palaver about their smell and taste to justify the lengths to which people go to find these potato-shaped fungi.

The truffle slicer was what intrigued me to find out more, because it was made in Italy by a firm which has been in this sort of business for a long time – Sanoma Ambrogio. Perhaps I am just showing my ignorance, but then is that not the reason for pressing on – to show how much you don’t know?

Ambrogio Samona was the founder of the firm, which bears his name in reverse, which still manufactures its high quality product in Premona, a mountain municipality north of Milan. Here in the surrounding mountains iron ore has been mined for millennia, but Premona came into prominence in the Middle Ages because many of the iron workers were lured to Venice, and there was apparently an exchange between the two.

Originally settled by the Romans as a castra in the first century, but as is known the Romans were not great metallurgists and used brass in preference to iron. Steel-making was known for a very long time when the early metallurgy-minded noted that adding carbon to the smelted iron resulted in steel, albeit as a boutique process, used from the middle ages – mostly for armaments. There were Premonan artisans in the Venetian arsenal from that time onwards, making arms for battle, including sword blades. The best steel then came from southern India, and how they produced it has been lost; but in the Middle Ages there were also renowned steel makers in Damascus. The technology spread westwards.

Steel increasingly switched from being the accompaniment of war to that of the butcher and the kitchen. This firm, which provided our truffle slicer, was founded in 1863, and built up an international reputation so it has not only survived but also diversified.

Stainless steel came into use when it was found that the addition of chromium inhibited rust. Now the steel used by Sanelli has many additives, vanadium, molybdenum and others like spices in a kitchen so that the knives of Sanelli are just as much a symbol of Italian excellence as Bugatti or Versace, Gucci or Bulgari.

Amazing what you find when you read the outside of the truffle slicer box. And mark my words, this Tartuffo is not, dear Molière, a Tartuffe – it is the real thing.

The Stubbornness of Scott Morrison 

On 25 June, the AFR, the cheerleader for the Sydney business community, ran an Editorial entitled “Let’s hope NSW can hold out against lockdown”. Its opening lines were “Sydney remains on a knife edge”. Correct. Then it commends the Premier for keeping her nerve and not locking down the State, “leaving citizens to do the right thing themselves”. Then it goes on that line, “It is a proportional response, says the Editorial writer, whatever that means. This crap is in the same league as “We are taking the matter seriously.”

The Editorial accepts without much conviction that NSW has the best contact tracers on the planet, a claim made by Berejiklian to shore up her initial decision not to lock down Greater Sydney and the Illawarra. By saying that, she may not have recognised the potential damage she has done to the credibility of contact tracing as part of the armoury against the Virus.

This idea that lockdown infringes civil liberties and is Orwellian socialism as contended by the Liberal Party flakes in Victoria ignores the fact that the Virus does not read Hayek when that State was locked down. This neoliberal approach is the sort of dangerous twaddle that has accelerated the pandemic across the globe. Victoria had to deal with its outbreak before a vaccine was available. There’s no need to stir the embers of the disastrous decision making in relation to the choice and purchase of vaccine, which have resulted in the present level of vaccination in Australia. Australia just needs more, both in quantity and in diversity.

While accelerated vaccination provides a security blanket, there is no clear indication of long term efficacy of any of the vaccines. Vaccination provides a level of protection that is an important retardant in the spread of the Virus, even with its cleverness in its ability to change. The uncertainty is attested by the way the timing of the second AstraZeneca vaccine dose has been promoted; and there is no doubt that this vaccine has a noticeable level of morbidity as well as absolute contraindications.

Therefore, at this time and that needs to be stressed, the State Premiers have opted for suppression of the Virus, not the least because of the poor decisions made by the Federal Government and what some see as its indecision. However, it is more stubbornness in relinquishing positions that Prime Minister Morrison takes which probably owes itself somewhat to the rigidity of his upbringing. Maybe that is too sympathetic and just say Morrison has poor judgement.

Tracing the contacts

What worries me is that the contact tracing capacity becomes a casualty – a scapegoat for political indecision. I have been a severe critic of Kerry Chant as I thought the handling of the Ruby Princess was a disgrace and smacked of political interference. As Chief Health Officer, I assumed that she bore responsibility, but others closer to the action said it was not her fault, and she had minimal involvement.  If this was so, it was even more an indictment of  NSW Health.

A year on and implicated in a pandemic disaster, where politicians are essentially fearful of making difficult unpopular decisions, Dr Chant retains her job, with a tenacity and determination to pursue the Virus. I suspect that when her advice was for lockdown, it was ignored because of her reporting to a Premier whose neither makes  difficult decisions nor accepts responsibility when things go wrong. Worse, she had a Health Minister who, at one point, was advocating waving the white flag and saying we may have to live with the Virus, even though Australia has low levels of vaccination.

Hence the very visible presence of Kerry Chant, who could have resigned as I suggested and who would have to be blamed given the continuing scrutiny of NSW having to live with the tag of being the gold standard – a very two-edged foil when a catastrophe occurs.

Just ask Brendan Murphy, who at the beginning of the year was the hero of the pandemic, ACT Person of the Year and now the subject of rumours that the bus is being revved up for his demise. Certainly, his exposure has lessened as the Prime Minister seems to have taken over his role with a new military sidekick called Frewin and no sign of Dr Murphy. Fortunately, Paul Kelly still appears, but how much he is listened to is anybody’s guess.

Kerry Chant was given the title of NSW Woman of the Year in 2020, in effect binding her to the NSW Government and more particularly to the artful Premier. She therefore walks that narrow corridor where a person has to defend her scientific integrity while working for a Government at any moment liable to throw her whole strategy out the window.

It is the same dilemma that Fauci faced with Trump. Having to resist those who want to let the Virus coexist. “Let it rip”. Report of another minister in relation to the northern beaches lockdown that  she should take a cut in salary because the Virus had escaped is denied, but from my long experience, such reports are not magical – there is always a source. The dark art of undermining. Then there has been the unfair twittering about her wiping her eye with her mask – an instinctive reaction for which she apologised immediately – and then her crooked glasses (one arm of her spectacles inadvertently broken while she was being interrogated by the media). For God’s sake!

So here I am, championing Kerry Chant. What I fear is that everybody has limits, and I worry how close she is at that limit no matter how great her inner toughness. The contact tracing system is a vital defence mechanism, for the pursuit of the Terrorist Virus. Her devotion to the cause has revealed a steel I did not think she had.

One thing is certain is that singling NSW out as “gold standard” just because it has the same political complexion as the Federal Government, has to  stop.

All it does is invest Berejiklian with “teacher’s pet” status, so cessation hopefully will discourage the Prime Minister from continuing to plant wedges in the population. The disgraceful infantile behaviour of the Liberal Party opposition during the Victorian lockdown contrasts with the maturity of the NSW Labor Opposition response in supporting the government.

Perhaps the discussion may turn to ensuring that there is a uniform contact tracing system across the country, rightfully using NSW as a one of the models to be emulated. The problem with suggesting that quarantine and the processes surrounding it are a national responsibility comes against the stubbornness of the Prime Minister – or is it only stubbornness?

Mouse whisper

A sobering introduction from the May 25 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) editorial. 

When the IOC postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020, Japan had 865 active cases of Covid-19 against a global backdrop of 385,000 active cases. It was assumed that the pandemic would be controlled in 2021 or that vaccination would be widespread by then. Fourteen months later, Japan is in a state of emergency, with 70,000 active cases. Globally, there are 19 million active cases. Variants of concern, which may be more transmissible and more virulent than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, are circulating widely. Vaccines are available in some countries, but less than 5% of Japan’s population is vaccinated, the lowest rate among all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

I’m probably glad that I was not selected for the Rat Run. Perhaps after this Games hopefully the motto will still be Citius – Altius – Fortius, without Aegrius being added.

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.