Modest Expectations – Arthur Phillip

This is my 88th blog. I have not missed a week – and the sequential naming of the Modest Expectations to reflect that number in some way. 1988 – the Bicentenary of this Nation was quite a year. I received funding from the Commonwealth Department of Health to write a book where I asked a number of health professionals how and why they were there in Australia in 1988, at the time of the Bicentenary. It was called “Portraits in Australian Health” – not a particularly riveting title.

However, what I wanted to see in their recounting of their lives was why at that point of Australia’s history, they were where they were. The backdrop to each of the lives of those interviewed was Australia.

This idea was expanded by the BBC in 2004 where they identified celebrities and took them through their genealogical paces with a predictable chorus of “gosh” and “unbelievable” and “who would know?” as each of the atavistic eggs was unscrambled. All beautifully orchestrated.  By and large the people chosen were performers, who could act the part of the stunned inheritors of their family helix.

I suspect that the budget for these TV shows is generous, because it showed that people are curious about other people. “Celebrity” gossip is the fare of the magazines which concentrate on a vague representation of the truth. The BBC, as did I, actually did research!

My concept was relatively simple: sit the person down and let him or her talk. Some I had known before; others only by reputation and I tried to achieve some sort of balance. A few I regret using; others were incredibly important in tracing the path of the reason for their being health professionals and providing “a tapestry” for the 200 years.

However, in retrospect there were at least two major omissions in people from certain categories. There is no dentist in the book; the person I had singled out, because of his long family association with the profession declined to be interviewed; he died not so long after of cancer. That was the only rejection that I remember.

The other omission which, if I could I would rectify, was an Aboriginal person with a health background. On reflection, I should have asked Naomi Mayers, who was the Chief Executive Officer of the Redfern Aboriginal Service. Much later I had lunch with her and a number of Aboriginal people in Redfern and even then I had no inkling of her link to the Aboriginal singing group, the Sapphires. But I didn’t identify her and I regret it.

However, as I found as I met more and more Aboriginals, there was a rich cultural heritage, much of which was hidden from whitefellas. I have always been sceptical of the historical importance of bush tucker, which has acquired a following among well-heeled whitefellas. Much of the tucker available would hardly merit a feed, so tiny are the individual berry, fruit and the other flavouring agents.

However, what I have found very interesting and have met on various occasions were ngangkeri, the medicine men. When I was often visiting Wilcannia in the early 90s, I heard about the kadaitcha men who were still around. However, that was all, and after all “the feathered foot” left no trace; so how would a whitefella find out more. It was all intriguing and the more I was accepted the less I knew.

The Aboriginal society is “many nations” – after all, look at the difference in the culture across the nation. The problem is that in the confected restoration of Aboriginal culture, the diverse nature of the culture has been increasingly homogenised. That cannot be criticised as it recognises that the Aboriginal culture is not static; and given the improvement in communication and educational opportunities it is unsurprising that the Aboriginal is becoming less and less regionally distinctive. Having said this there will always be nests of such traditional culture.

The conundrum for such communities is how to preserve culture against the predatory nature of a culture of booze, fast foods , “black milk” and all the churning of this faddish instant googled-eyed Facebook age – yet not denying progress.

It would be a challenge now to find the Aboriginal health professional who would fit easily into a portrait of Australian health. In 1988, it was only four years since the first Aboriginal doctor graduated.

Charlie Perkins

Charlie Perkins

I was thinking about the first time I met Charlie. It was obviously in 1973, and up until that time, all I had heard about him was that he participated in the Freedom Ride to confront rural NSW concerning Aboriginal rights. To the urban Australian living in comfortable suburbia, Aboriginals were invisible.

As I child I remember receiving Church Missionary Society pamphlets about all those nice little Aboriginal children running around in Roper River Mission – so happy to be one of God’s lambkins. It was all so foreign, and the first time I saw real, live Aboriginal children was years later when I went with my parents to Central Australia. Part of the tour was a visit to the then Lutheran Hermannsberg Mission. We white children eyed off the Aboriginal children, who did likewise and giggled at this awkward bunch of kids from down south.  Nobody encouraged us to mix and eventually we got back on the bus and left. There were also the blackfella children in the settlements along the old Ghan route which then wound through the floodplain country and terminated in Alice Springs.

I remember I insisted in Alice Springs that my parents buy me a black ten-gallon stockman’s hat, and even though I have a large “scone”, the hat came down over my ears. My other purchase caused all sorts of bother, and when it was brought home it had its own “cordon sanitaire” because the ochre covering this large bowl was very thick and had never been fixed, so if you touched it, the ochre always stained your hands. Eventually the bowl disappeared from the house – as did the hat.

Hermannsberg Mission

However, there were several episodes of the ABC lunchtime serial “Blue Hills”, which have remained with me. These concerned a storyline where Aboriginal Heritage would lead to “a throwback” situation which meant that apparently white parents with Aboriginal blood could be confronted with a “piccaninny” child. Then, as the serial progressed, what relief – Aboriginal heritage was diluted – absorbed – assimilated – and joy of joy – no return to the noble savage. Well, that was the gist of the serial story and reflected the attitude of Australian suburbia superficially encased by a white picket fence of normality.

There were three films that I remember in my early childhood leading into teenage years. All had a variable effect on the development of my attitudes towards Aboriginal people. After all, I grew up in a world dismissive of our landlords. The 1947 film Bush Christmas starred a 12 year old Aboriginal boy from Woorabinda in Queensland, Neza Saunders, who showed how to eat a witchetty grub. At that moment, I wanted one to eat. A gourmet meal of witchetty grubs sadly still remains on my to do list.

The film Pinky explored the plight of the light-coloured black American in a 1949 film of the same name. I remember in the context of a society which, despite the pious comments of my schoolteacher, remained at its base racist. We, as children because we grew up in a homogeneous culture, did not have the basic experience to question. However, for me, it instilled in me a sense of unease, the word “miscegenation” still unknown to me.

This unease was reinforced by Jedda, a film where the central tragedy of the Aboriginal was played out in Charles Chauvel melodrama. Jedda was such a beautiful young image for myself, a teenage boy. Years later I went to Utopia, an Alyawarre settlement on the Andover Highway. As an Alyawarre woman, she had grown up there and later had a troubled relationship with the community.  I did speak to her on the telephone but she was away when I stayed in Utopia.

It was still a long time from Jedda before I was to run across Charlie Perkins. I do not know why but we had an immediate empathy. One problem I had noted was that Aboriginal reticence meant that you had to learn to speak through the silences. As one of my Aboriginal brothers would say, the non-verbal conversations with the various vocal clicks was difficult for whitefellas so used to voice communications. The other manifestation that was clear from a growing association with Aboriginal people was if a particular government meeting was thought irrelevant, the Aboriginal representative just did not turn up, but as the Aboriginals have come in from the fringe that dynamic changed. Aboriginal people can recognise tokenism.

In 1973 in Parliament House it was demonstrated very clearly that here was a nation wrestling with the Menzies’ legacy and in particular the engagement in Vietnam. Whitlam terminated Australian involvement, and both he and the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Snedden visited China that year. Snedden was privately concerned with the lack of involvement with Aboriginal People, since even though the 1967 referendum was an overwhelming affirmation of Aboriginal rights that was not easily translated into a workable outcome for our society.

Aboriginal tent embassy

Charlie Perkins, when he was young, had this busy enthusiasm about him. Snedden suggested that I might try and talk to him. The easiest way to talk to him was around the campfire which the Aboriginals had started outside Parliament House. We got on well from the start and spent a lot of time yarning around the fire. To me it was symbolic of establishing an understanding, and Charlie was appreciative that somebody from the Opposition had bothered to brave the fireside. It did not take long for the message to come back from one of the Nats who had seen me with Charlie around the fire saying: “Who’s that Communist working for Snedden?” The other occasion that I well remember was walking with Charlie across King’s Hall one evening, when Mick Young with Eric Walsh came up and said to Charlie without acknowledging me, “You coming to dinner, Charlie?” Charlie shot back, “No, I’m going to have a meal with Jack Best.” These are in the order of things inconsequential. Both Charlie and I wanted a better world and we threw out ideas, most of which drifted off in the camp fire smoke.

So did we, drifted away from one another. Much later when I met him when he was a senior public servant, he seemed to have lost much of this zest for life, but then that happens when you become a fully-fledged bureaucrat.

However, he was also fighting renal failure.

I read Pat Turner’s Charlie Perkins Oration this year, and even though I am not sure I agree with everything she said, she was right in saying that Charlie – the Charlie I knew – never backed down. Yet he showed a willingness to engage in all sides of politics. Later I was to have quite a bit to do with Congress, the Aboriginal Health Service which grew out his early activity in Alice Springs. It is a pity Charlie died while still a relatively young man, succumbing to one of the sequelae of that most deadly infections to Aboriginal people – the streptococcal bacteria.

Conquering that scourge of Aboriginal people still remains. It is not the only one.

Charlie to my mind was the first person who taught me the etiquette of equality of the whitefella in the eyes of the Aboriginal person.  I never attained the level that we could have called each other “brother”, but he enriched my life. Aboriginals were not a cute fringe eating witchety grubs, playing in mission dirt or conforming to a stereotype imposed on them.

Thanks, Charlie for being around when you were – brief as it was. However, you opened up a new perspective for me, and in so doing enriched my life in so many ways.

John Kitzhaber Concludes – A New Model for the Nation

Dr John Kitzhaber

A financially sustainable system designed for value and health can take many forms, but it must include five core elements:

  1. Universal coverage;
  2. Defined benefits;
  3. Assumption of risk by providers and accountability for quality and outcomes;
  4. Capped total cost of care through a global budget indexed to a sustainable growth rate; and
  5. Cost prevention by addressing the social determinants of health.

Here is one example. Starting with our current public-private financing structure, modify the three large insurance pools that currently define the US healthcare system.

  • Pool 1: To achieve universal coverage (element 1), restore the ACA individual mandate but ensure that people have affordable health plans in which to enrol. Expand Medicaid eligibility to include the 28 million people who are currently uninsured or create a new, affordable, publicly subsidized option to offer them. At the same time, move Pool 1 to a CCO-like capitated model that encompasses elements 2 through 5. If coverage in the individual market is unaffordable, those below a certain income level (e.g. 450 percent of the federal poverty level) could buy into Pool 1 with income-based cost sharing, which would make universal coverage more feasible. This is particularly important today as millions of people are losing their employment-based coverage and moving to Medicaid or the individual market.
  • Pool 2: Because Original Medicare is still paid through fee-for-service, the program must be moved to a capitated model. One approach would be to create incentives to enrol in a Medicare Advantage Plan (most of which are already capitated) and change the Medicare Advantage Plans that are still fee-for-service to capitated models that meet elements 2 through 4. Because reimbursement would now be based on managing cost and improving health, Medicare Advantage Plans would better incentivize providers to view their patients as a whole through, for example, nutrition counselling or working with social services for safe housing, thereby meeting element 5.
  • Pool 3: Allow the remaining markets—employer-sponsored medium and large group and self-insured markets—to operate as they do today, negotiating prices with health plans and using their market power to insist on capitated risk contracts with provider networks. The public sector price negotiations outlined below would provide a benchmark, giving employers additional leverage in negotiating prices in the commercial market. This advantage should be amplified by forming new partnerships with Unions

Continue the transformation by using the consolidated purchasing power of Pools 1 and 2 to negotiate one set of prices for both pools. This would include not only what providers are paid per beneficiary (risk-adjusted according to each beneficiary’s expected care needs) but also prescription drugs, medical devices, laboratory services, imaging, and all the other niche business models that have been established under the fee-for-service model to maximize revenue. This kind of price negotiation is what most large private employers (making up the majority of Pool 3) do today. Public payers should follow suit by using the consolidated purchasing power of the public sector—which is footing an ever-larger part of the bill—to get the best price and value for the United States of America community. If the public sector were so inclined, it would also be possible to both negotiate limits on individuals’ out-of-pocket expenses and ensure there are no caps on annual or lifetime benefits.

The result would be a new system of universal coverage built on our current public-private financing structure. With the majority of Americans in some form of capitated risk model, this new system (1) reduces the total cost of care through price negotiations, a global budget indexed to a sustainable growth rate, and provider accountability for quality outcomes; (2) preserves consumer choice and allows current insurers to compete for Pools 1 and 2 in a restructured market; and (3) delivers more and more value and health because it requires strategic, long-term, effective investments in the social determinants of health.

This is merely one way to design a new, health-focused, financially sustainable system. There are others. My objective here is not to advocate for the example I have just outlined here, but rather to spark a new debate that will lead to a better system. Instead of being constrained by what currently exists, we need to start with our objective, agree on essential elements, and then let the contours of the new system emerge. Long-term, this will serve us better than starting with a plan that may not meet the criteria needed to achieve our goal. For example, while both Medicare for All and a public option are ways to achieve universal coverage (element 1), neither directly addresses the total cost of care (elements 3 and 4) or focuses on increasing investment in the social determinants of health (element 5). Surely, we can imagine linking the total cost of medical care to a sustainable growth rate within the next few years. Then we can work backward to create a health system that meets the objectives of Democrats by expanding coverage and improving health and meets the objectives of Republicans by reducing the rate of medical inflation through fiscal discipline and responsibility.

COVID-19 and the Urgency of Now  

As the healthcare system has become ever more dependent on public debt, its financial underpinnings have become inexorably linked to the capacity of the government to borrow. That capacity has been suddenly and dramatically diminished by COVID-19 and by the business closures and high unemployment resulting from efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

To prevent a complete collapse of the economy, there has been a massive federal intervention to keep credit flowing and to provide loan guarantees and direct payments to businesses and individuals. America will have to spend at least $5 trillion this year alone to sustain our economic infrastructure and to support its unemployed. This will leave us with an unprecedented budget deficit and a national debt approaching $28 trillion—with little or no capacity to absorb the 60 percent growth in health care spending that is projected by 2028 (from $3.7 to $6.2 trillion), especially when prices for medical goods and services are projected to account for 43 percent of that growth.

The pandemic is forcing us into an era of dramatic constraints on the public resources allocated to the healthcare system. Neither the government nor private-sector employers can afford the current system anymore, given the economic losses that both employers and individuals have experienced since February and the massive amount of public debt that has been accumulated just to hold our economy together. At the same time, those parts of the healthcare system that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 are those most dependent on fee-for-service reimbursement, which exposes the basic flaw in a business model that depends on volume, regardless of the value of the services rendered.

This economic crisis means that, for the first time, the economic interests of workers, employers, the government, and many parts of the healthcare sector are aligned. The time to transform the system is now. We have crossed the Rubicon, and there is no going back. We can either watch our current system unravel, with millions more losing coverage and ever-widening income inequality, or we can work together to design a system that helps stabilize our economy and better serves the needs of the American people.

The Role of Unions

This is the moment for more states, facing huge general fund shortfalls, to move to a CCO-like care model for Medicaid, and for Congress, facing staggering debt, to create incentives for Medicare beneficiaries to enrol in a Medicare Advantage Plan and to move that program to a fully capitated model in which providers assume risk for quality and outcomes. Health professionals should be vocal advocates for both of these changes—and that advocacy should be backed up by the strength of the union movement to bring this model to the commercial market. This will require forging new alliances at the bargaining table between Unions and payers—both public and private.

Coverage of the cost of healthcare is, of course, part of the total compensation package, which means that in collective bargaining, wages are often pitted against health benefits. For public employees, general fund appropriations for healthcare compete not only with general funds for wages but also for essentials like increasing nurse staffing ratios, reducing class sizes, and investing in housing and other social determinants of health. The traditional goal in bargaining over healthcare is to reduce, to the greatest extent possible, out-of-pocket costs for Union members (which is very important).

The problem is that focusing only on this aspect of the total compensation package—without questioning the cost structure, quality, or efficiency of the care being purchased—suppresses wage growth. Without aggressively challenging the cost structure and value of the healthcare being purchased, the dollars spent on rising premiums flow into a system that redistributes them upward, taking money from the pockets of working Americans to enrich the profits of large corporations and wealthy individuals (further exacerbating income inequality).

A CCO-like model would be better because it caps the total cost of care without sacrificing quality and it realizes savings to invest in the social determinants of health—including wages. Particularly for workers making minimum wage or close to it, income is a primary driver of health.

Employees and employers have a shared economic interest in reducing the rate of medical inflation and in focusing on value and health. Providers, for the first time, now have an economic interest in changing the payment model from fee-for-service to capitated because this is the only way they can survive in an era that no longer can sustain debt financing. From the standpoint of the Labour movement, CCO-like models could result in increased wages, better staffing ratios, and more funding for education and other services that are critical to making our society more just.

This need for greater social investment must  emphasized. Reducing the total cost of care will assist all working Americans (not just those with union representation) because it will make not only their wages go further but also relieve them of the anxiety of not knowing whether the next illness will push them into bankruptcy. And it will give us, at last, the ability to address the conditions of injustice that underlie disease.

Let’s Begin Now!

Creating a new system with the five core elements will take time. But there is much we must do quickly. Because the economic consequences of the pandemic—particularly the increase in unemployment, with its associated loss of workplace-based coverage—are driving us toward Pool 1 (Medicaid, the uninsured, and the ACA marketplace), this is the logical place to start.

The most urgent coverage problem is for those who are not offered or have lost workplace-based coverage and whose income is too high for Medicaid (above 138 percent of the federal poverty level) but too low to afford the individual market. These struggling individuals are joined by a growing number of underinsured Americans who are technically covered by employer-sponsored plans but face copayments and deductibles so high that for all practical purposes they are uninsured. People of color—particularly Black, Hispanic, and Native American people—make up disproportionate numbers of both of these groups.

The state of Oregon offers an illustration of both the problem and the opportunity. By the end of April, 266,600 Oregonians had lost their jobs (an unemployment rate of 14.2 percent). An estimated 215,800 of these people will be eligible for Medicaid, 20,500 will move to the ACA exchanges, and 30,300 will remain uninsured.20 Because Medicaid is entirely financed with public resources and the ACA exchanges are heavily subsidized with public dollars, this amounts to a dramatic increase in public sector financing of healthcare. In terms of the healthcare model proposed in this essay, Oregon’s Pool 1 is expected to increase from 34.9 percent to 41.3 percent of the state’s population over a few months.

Furthermore, if 80 percent of those who lack health coverage in Oregon made use of coverage for which they are currently eligible—Medicaid or the subsidies available through the ACA marketplace—the number of Oregonians who are uninsured would drop from almost 250,000 to 34,000 (from 6.2 percent to < 1 percent). The only obstacle is the total cost of care.

Since states are facing enormous budget deficits and the federal government is facing a looming debt crisis, it is imperative that shifts toward public financing be accompanied by effective mechanisms to reduce the total cost of care through global budgets (indexed to a sustainable growth rate, with providers at risk for quality and outcomes). At the same time, such global budgets are now more appealing to many hospitals and primary care practices because of the sharp loss of revenue among those with fee-for-service models.

Mouse Whisper

I know we were all keen on Amy Klobucher, when she seemed to be the most articulate candidate back in those days when the Democratic race was like the first at Rosehill. She dropped out, and although considered as Biden’s running mate, she missed out here also to Kamala Harris.

However, the most final reason for her not getting the nod was:

She’s from Minnesota!

In explanation, no Minnesotan has ever made President, and such a judgement tends to stick once voiced. At least Barcelona is not in Minnesota.

Modest Expectations – Derby Day in Walla Walla

State Capital West Virginia

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

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

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

The Greenbrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one local Mount Isa correspondent has written:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balmain coal miners

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

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

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

While America looks away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kitzhaber continues his analysis of the US health system…

Dr John Kitzhaber

Public Resources

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

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

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

The National Debt

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

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

Income Inequality

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

Health versus Health Care

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

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

Confronting the Total Cost of Care

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

and

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

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

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

How the Debate Is Framed

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

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

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

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

Cost-Shifting Strategies

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

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

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

To be concluded

Mouse Whisper

Out of an abundance of caution

ex abundanti cautela

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Orwell

Orwell wrote this book in the year the reverse of 1984 – 1948.

Orwell’s book “Homage to Catalonia” is the one of the best books I’ve ever read. Orwell otherwise was a miserable person – perspicacious but miserable. “The Clergyman’s Daughter” typifies his style of claustrophobic writing.

1984 was not that sort of year.  I cannot forget any day in April when the clock struck thirteen.

It was just another normal year of people being beastly to one another. Afghanistan was already the definition of insolvability. Reagan won, Hawke won, Essendon Football Club won – in that ascending order of importance for me.

The year started with my being in India. I started my particular passage to India a few days before New Year when I had flown into Bombay at a time before it changed its name to Mumbai. The overwhelming sensation was how crowded the airport was. I was going on to Delhi and learnt not to make any assumptions about that country.

I had assumed that I would be going to Delhi where I would be staying before going on to Lucknow for The Indian Medical Organisation Conference, which was held from 28 December each year. The assumption I made was that I would be flying domestically as my ticket said Air India.

When I negotiated my passage to the domestic airport, I was informed there that I was flying on an international flight, which went from the international terminal. Yes, it was destined to fly to Delhi, but then on to Moscow and then Manchester. Thus, I had to retrace my passage back to the international airport. It was night; the weather could have been better, but it had the effect of accelerating my acclimatisation to the subcontinental idiosyncrasies.

I don’t remember very much about my flight except they had both piroshki and vodka on the flight and there was more than a sprinkling of Russian speakers.

The hotel in Delhi, when I reached it, in the early morning was adequate, about two stars in modern day classification. The second lesson I had learnt by the time I arrived at Lucknow was to go with the flow. The Conference organisers had booked my accommodation, which was more in the “fallen star category”. I took one look, did not unpack and moved at my own expense to Clark’s, which was then the best available hotel in Lucknow.

Yet I did take time to visit the site of the Black Hole.

In India, there were times you could play the “sahib” card but that was not one of them. The learning curve was to prove steep. From wondering why the hell I was there, over a month I came to love India. Nevertheless, it took me almost 40 years to return. I had a number of excuses, but underneath, I just didn’t want to be disappointed that second time around. Frankly, on return to Australia I basked in the raised eyebrows and the questioning faces when I told them where I had been. I suppose they believed India to be the repository of Westerners in beads, sandals and designer rags. I did not fit the bill; moreover, I should have said I loathed it.

After all, had not India undone the Beatles? The film of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India was released later in 1984, and I confess I spent too much of the time watching this luxuriantly filmed epic trying to identify the scenic backdrop.

Lucknow

In Lucknow the most memorable occasion was a conversation with a Brahmin doctor and his attitude. He both knew Indira Gandhi and hated her to the extent of saying that she should be killed. She too was a Brahmin and here I was in Uttar Pradesh, their home territory; among the fragrant roses of Lucknow, I listened to his tirade. Every time I tried to steer the conversation onto the Indian health service, he brought me back to the Prime Minister and her faults as he saw them.

Whether he was serious or not, it was a prescient exchange. On October 31 later that year she was assassinated by her Sikh guards, apparently as a revenge for the attacks she ordered on Amritsar earlier in the year. The reprisals following her assassination saw 20,000 Sikhs killed.

Sitting in the wintry sunshine in Lucknow, I did not realise the extent of the anti-Indira undercurrent. However, while I was in Lucknow, meanwhile my partner who had come separately was fending off the marauders in Madras, barricading her hotel room. That was her welcome to India. Then later there was the delay getting from Madras to Delhi, where there was a complete lack of information about her flight details, until when I was just about to lose the plot, she appeared.

Yet after all the tumult, it was a great month for us, travelling as far north as Simla and as far south as Nagercoil. India has this overpowering diversity. We travelled in all classes on various trains, save on the roof. The overriding lesson with a wry smile – best to go in pairs, one to create the space, the other to watch the bags. Really a commentary on life rather than just on India. 

An American Nightmare

This is the last week of the campaign and the lesser of two Halloween warlocks is leading the polls. Yes, the plagiarist, promoter of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by his disgraceful prejudiced handling of Anita Hall’s evidence in the leadup to the Thomas confirmation, his touchy-feely approach to women verging on the gropey, and the almost complete vacuity of his machine politician mind behind the smile.

And yet if I were American, I would vote for Biden.

Trump is unhinged (as I have said before) and his periods of lucidity are becoming fewer and fewer. However, there is enough commentary and associated evidence to show he is totally unfit for government for me to need to say anything more.

There was a theory among the leading business people in the early thirties in Germany that they could control the Austrian house painter. They were so wrong, except that many of them a dozen years later climbed out of the wreckage of Germany to consolidate their fortunes post-war.

However, the hopes of the side are probably those Republicans behind the Lincoln project. They are prepared to sacrifice a Republican President for Biden knowing that the latter won’t do much beyond trying to bring the country together. It will be the difficult task after the Trump dislocation, and the Lincoln Guys doubt whether Biden has the fortitude. They know him well given that he has being hanging around Capitol Hill for over forty years. He as President, essentially if he fumbles, may give the Lincoln Republicans time to find a suitable Republican in their own image.

Trump will build a militia if given a second term either directly or by way of the National Guard. His operatives have already penetrated police forces, who have been able to obtain military style weapons by confected fear being whipped up against the unseen – cynically “a fear of the darkie”. When he has done that, Trump will be able to dump the rag tag bearded motorcyclists draped in confederate uniforms. They are the equivalent of the Nazi “Brown shirts” – and when the Brown Shirts were seen as an undisciplined nuisance, they were cowered in the Night of the Long Knives – and this American bunch do not have the leadership quality of an Ernst Roehm.

They also realise that Trump will continue to stack the judiciary, so it becomes an extension of himself – lackeys without any regard for the separation of powers. Even before that is done if faced with a hostile Congress, he will endeavour to cower this remnant of democracy – and burning of the Reichstag provides the play book. That is the horrific scenario if transferred to the White House burning down.

Biden on the other hand, should he win in a spirit of unity and solidarity, may appoint “Lincoln Republicans” to his Cabinet. Then there is always the fact that, at the end of his term, should he win the next election, President Biden will be 86. As such, re-election in 2024 would put him into Mugabe territory in relation to age. However, well before that his mental capacity will be under close scrutiny. COVID-19 has been a blessing for him because it has given him the opportunity of a low – almost subterranean – profile and to conceal the wisps of that.

Nevertheless, when the expectations are low, then breaking the mould and actually doing something positive is liable to be received more rapturously rather than if his profile had higher expectation. This is exemplified by the visceral hatred in Middle America towards the Clintons, who had come into office with high expectations. One never wants fallen idols, especially if shown to be hypocritical. Cupidity, among many other Clinton failings, does not work well in communities that prize thriftiness and hard work.

Trump has never been the Fallen Idol because he has skirted the problem of us mere mortals bound by a set of Commandments. He has been deified by his followers and just like the pagan gods he has freed himself of any moral restraints. He has created his own reality where his sins are just an accepted part of the framework of his Reality.

Next week it will be interesting whether this Reality comes back to Earth, and as with the gods he is transmogrified into a beast, bird or plant – hopefully not the Lyre Bird.

The Return to the City

One rule I have always had is to try to live close to the hospital, health service, department or office where I worked. At the start of my career and at the end of my career I spent a considerable time away from home. However, even in those jobs, my accommodation was close to work.

The times I have driven against the morning and afternoon traffic; and wondered if the “trade off” of living in suburbia would be worth it. For years the conventional wisdom has been that you herd the workers into the centre of the city, but nobody had factored in the bloody mindedness of it all. Sit in a car for an hour plus and then at the end of the day, sit for another hour to return.

The first response to the above comment is to say that I have been lucky to be afforded the luxury of not having to travel far to work.

Nevertheless, living once in a rat infested flat where the final decision to leave was because of the staircase had been converted into a waterfall when it rained, because of a repeated failure by the landlord to fix the roof, was hardly an example of inner urban luxury. However, that flat was close to work. Admittedly I do not cope well when sitting in traffic, and that problem has become more acute with age.

The solution has always been to avoid the peak hour period, which is extending as congestion not only with automobile traffic but also with public transport increases.

My first year of being an intern in Box Hill hospital meant separation from my then wife, who went home to her family to prepare for our first child; my second postgraduate year saw me in Geelong, employed at the hospital and commuting which was not easy, but at least I didn’t have to drive through endless traffic.

Even though I have led a nomadic existence, I have avoided that relentless, repetitive, endless and ultimately soul-destroying life in the urban gridlock or on public transport.

COVID-19 has taught society two lessons. The first is hygiene. Before this virus, many people with upper respiratory infections would turn up in the workplace ensuring the spread of, in most cases the virus – colds and influenza were accepted as part of the fabric of modern life. This is the first year that so far I have been clear of “the dreaded lurgie”.  Once I contract an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) it means four weeks at least of the virus giving me a belting.  I still have a residual cough from my last attack in 2017.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, did we use sanitisers? No. Did we even wash our hands regularly? Perhaps. In this last category, health professionals were no better than any other.  My wife, who has always used hand sanitiser and washed her hands, is a constant reminder of my failings!

In the public setting, appearing to have a respiratory infection with associated coughing, sneezing and spluttering has become as socially unacceptable as smoking. The spectre of lockdown should dampen any recidivism.

This then leads to the second lesson – the workplace. Somewhat naively I prepared a list in a blog, which pre-supposed an ultimate return to the previous CBD workplace, admittedly sanitised but tellingly through the perspective of the boss. As the pandemic extended, more and more have adapted to working from home, even though this has meant career impinging on domesticity.

People are adapting to this so-called remote workplace. The technology improving connectivity effectively supports remote working. Travelling into the city for language lessons has given way to Zoom at home. There has not been any alteration in the learning process, just finding a parking space in a part of the city where even over a year increasing restrictions are so evident. Not having to worry about that is a relief and reduces the need and the stress of travel.

The problem for employers who are wanting their workforce to return is that many employees have adapted to working from home, now that technology is making it more than feasible and, whether it is genuine or a convenience, they ‘may not feel safe returning to work’. The resistance and the measures use to abort this social change will be interesting, because the so-called Big End of town (Culo grande) of town has been resisted.

The problem is that when there are unpalatable, unexpected changes: for instance, big investment in palatial offices so there is need for opera glasses when you enter the chief executive officer’s office, the board room with a view where the cabinets overflow with expensive alcohol and butler service, and those cosily expensive nearby city restaurants where you can avoid hoi-polloi, all the time being chauffeured around to avoid the CBD bustle. Is that reason enough for a return to the old pre-COVID-19 order?

Having written this, it is important to say what others will not because they fear reprisals for bringing out into the open the arrogant and selfish element of business, as described above and which has been accentuated by their integrity stumble.  The rise of the rent-seeker class with associated dodgy practices does not like the disappearance of the CBD – not that it will stop pressure on government to bail them out.

Already you have the governmental business advisers led by Mr Powers wanting to convert the CBD into quarantine facilities – and then at what price!

There are probably other very legitimate reasons for calls for a return to the CBD. These are not restricted to the owners of such properties, where the medium term future is challenged. I am sceptical of the NSW Treasurer, who has presided over a litany of alleged corruption, appearing to coerce workers back into the CBD. No reason, just coercion. However, it would be ironic if a so-called free market government would adopt a “soviet” approach to look after their mates, especially given the track record of his Department in coercing workers to return to the CBD.

Many of the reasons for such a return advanced in a recent forum on return to the “old order” seem illogical – as though just herding people into a large office building will stimulate the economy.   No, it is a very threadbare plea smacking of self-interest in the absence of evidence.

One businessman at the same forum said,

My single biggest asset – and it’s daylight between this and the second biggest asset – is my people, and if we push people beyond where they’re comfortable going, we’ll lose people,” he said

‘There was logic to calls for people to return to CBD offices but in the technology space he was up against companies that had told their staff they can work from home forever.

“So, the moment I say you have to come to the office, that is a condition of employment and it’s five days a week, I’m actually at a competitive disadvantage for talent.

This speaker is the type of person whose future ingenuity in enticing people to work for him should be tracked. Will this chap abandon the CBD or not?

Creation of incentives to entice a return to the CBD may not be dissimilar to policy initiatives trying to entice health professionals to rural areas. It may behove those who want people back in the CBD to look at what has and has not worked in ensuring people obey what some elements of government policy say should work. Perhaps somebody should ask Barnaby Joyce about the success of his dragooning of public servants to the Armidale or was it Tamworth CBD?  His was a centrifugal piece of government indulgence; whereas it seems that centripetal forces to the CBD are now more fashionable.

As for Monsieur Perrottet, the Treasurer of NSW and member for Epping, 24 kilometres from the CBD, may seek comment from his constituents on compulsion, government by dominican fiat and his gaudy use of public money.

ABCQ – Morris of Muttaburra

I was impressed by the reported comment of the ABC’s Director News, Analysis & Investigations, Gaven Morris. Central Queensland should be a focus of the ABC’s attention, he opined, rather than just concentrating on the needs of the inner urban elites, who apparently are all lefties like Mr V’landys to name one of my neighbours. He definitely is “elite” and “inner urban” but I doubt a “leftie”. Maybe I am now “inner urban” but not leftie enough to drink Bollinger out of a Fabian Society mug and definitely not “elite. So who are the object of the Morris criticism?

Muttaburrasaurus

Assuming Mr Morris can be a man of precision, he would be talking of Muttaburra – the geographical centre of Queensland and, being seriously thought of by the Queensland Premier, should she survive tomorrow, as altering the emblem of that State.  Muttaburra after all is the home of the Muttaburra Dinosaur – and how appealing, a dinosaur lodging at the centre of Queensland as its emblem.

Muttaburra is a little north of Longreach, where we spent a very pleasant evening among the “outer urban elite” congregated at the Longreach Club, some time ago, before it was burnt down. I have marvelled at the nearby Jericho where all the major streets are named after scientists; Aramac is where they had a lock on the rugby trophy because of their New Zealand shearers; and Barcaldine, the crucible of  the AWU where, under the famous ghost gum – the Tree of Knowledge – the shearers’ strike was hatched; the tree had not yet been so cruelly poisoned.

Now what is this audience you are trying to attract from these disparate community, Mr Morris? After all, Landline is a magnificent reconciliation for those of us in your inner urban bubble. Then “Back Roads” has been a popular social commentary of life in country towns.  It is a pity you have not shared the same sort of delights I have experienced in your Central Queensland away from the coastal fringe.

Take the gem fields near the appropriately named town of Emerald. After a meeting there, I have stayed once in nearby Sapphire, where I spent the night in the nursing post because that was the only accommodation available. The next morning I was woken up by the senior nurse’s partner, who then proceeded to drink a bottle of milk – about half of which was whisky – presumably to ward off the DTs.

Having had dinner the previous night at Rubyvale in a log hut defined as a restaurant, and then later that morning undertaking a tour of the gem fields, it was all a distinct experience. In Rubyvale we were enveloped in a cone of silence until it was realised we were there with a trusted local. This led me to be invited to experience sapphire mining firsthand. I remembered being lowered in what was narrow tin can with one of the sides cut away. I did not measure the depth, but it was probably ten to fifteen feet – maybe more.  Just hold onto the rope was the call from above. Down in the mine there was just an empty tunnel, not even a mining pick in sight.

Later I roamed the bush to places called Divine and Tomahawk, white fella gunyahs where the fossickers would vanish. Incongruously there was a public telephone at Divine. I learnt one of the local wardens had had his thumb blasted off  there by one of “Australia’s 10 Most Wanted”. They said the warden later went mad, but maybe I was confusing wardens.

Like everything in these gem fields, (around Sapphire there is no opal), but in opal fields outside Queensland – Lightning Ridge, in particular, Andamooka, and White Cliffs, (Coober Pedy I have yet to visit and Quilpie I have written about before in this blog) it is best to accept people as you see them and not to ask questions. Just go with the flow, accept the apocryphal and listen to the ABC and thus make Mr Morris happy.

Mouse Whisper 

I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing the fixtures in advance flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.

George Orwell – Road to Wigan Pier 1937.

Sound familiar? Publishing the football fixtures was important for gambling, centred as that was around the Pools in pre-war Great Britain.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Modest Expectations – The Hawke has Landed

After managing the responses to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the White Island volcano and a pandemic — not to mention the birth of her first child — (Jacinda Ardern) has become a global standard-bearer for a progressive politics that defines itself as compassionate and competent in crisis.

So spoke the New York Times after Jacinda Ahern’s landslide election win last Saturday. Let’s face it, she was a refreshing breeze at a time when there had been some dodgy females hogging the headlines in Australia.  I get sick and tired of the mantra that women do not get a fair go. These women have demonstrated that they are no different from men. The one qualification is that I have never seen women politicians flogging stuff out of their parliamentary office. However, Darryl Maguire is not on his pat as a male if the species in running a two-dollar store out of his parliamentary office

The current problem is that having convenient attacks of amnesia seems to be the most valued commodity in public life whether it be female or male.

In my first blog, which I wrote 83 weeks ago before all that was recounted above occurred, I wrote: “Yet Jacinda Ardern gives me hope. Her words – her demeanour of grace, compassion, resolve, her ability to call out the bully – the courage of making herself a target for all the “unspeakables”. She is indeed a paragon.”

However, there is a squad of chaps who do not like her. I was criticised for blind adoration. Yet one of her great assets is a supportive partner, a person with presumably “selective” adoration.

The brutality of politics is reflected in that her hapless opponent was nick-named “Crusher”, and yet the woman seemed to revel in being called that.

Now the New Zealand election is out of the way, there is the opportunity for our horse-drawn politicians to recognise – as the rest of the world has done – what a contemporary and significant stateswoman she is. She has been the equivalent of a wartime leader in her approach to disasters which would have defeated a lesser person.

The laughable attacks on her last week by an alleged apologist for the Australian security service and the political remnant of Mary Knoll makes one ashamed to admit to the same nationality as those other elderly jokers.

Now, Ardern can get down to work to try and transfer her qualities into the deeply corrupt Australian society. I thought I would never say that we could ever learn from a Kiwi.

As one commentator has written, the liquidity has caused a surge in real estate market prices in New Zealand, particularly Auckland.  Hopefully, this will encourage her to abandon the KiwiBuild scheme, which seems to be a remnant of “Rogernomics”, and spend the money directly on much-needed social housing.

Improved contact, whatever you call it, with Australia is also essential. How the two countries deal with the South Pacific and the incursions from the Northern Hemisphere countries will be a critical test. However, before that there will be wool.

All that superficial crap highlighting tearful family reunions around “the bubble” hides the fact, which I noticed driving around NSW this week, that there are a lot of sheep that need to be shorn. With a shortfall in our shearing workforce, Australia needs shearers. The shortfall is generally made up by 500 New Zealand shearers. Until the TransTasman bubble was developed in the last couple of weeks, there was a deterrent in the high price New Zealand shearers had to pay for working in Australia, with their own fares and quarantine arrangements estimated at A$10,000.

A gun shearer can earn $150,000 in Australia if they average 200 sheep a day. New Zealand shearers are considered high quality and readily employed by shearing contractors so it should be attractive for them to work in Australia, especially now they are able to enter Australia freely.

Let’s hope that we adapt now to developing a better collective arrangement, instead of a perpetual Bledisloe Cup attitude between the two countries. It is time in the aftermath of COVID-19 to lay down our scrums and get to work. I am sure Ardern is up for the challenge. Not sure about the Australian Prime Minister, but then November 3 may change him – or not.

It Could be a Lot of Rot

There is extensive fruit and vegetable picking work available in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates about 140,000 people are employed in this industry every year. In fact, many people travel the country working the ‘harvest trail’ which sees them in employment all year round. This is because they know when and where the harvests are and move from one harvest to the next.  

For many years, I worked in North-east Victoria right in the heart of the orchards and fruit picking. I witnessed changes in the industry during my time.

There is no doubt one of the most tranquil moments is walking along the lines of pear and apple tree with the emerging fruit. There is a calmness in the ordered lines of greenery and the rilled earth and grass along which you walk.

It was sad to see the tree pulling, which left that Acadian stroll of my first years an empty paddock.

During that time there were changes in the industry. The rise of the farmers’ market meant that there was a new appreciation of fresh fruit. The decline of canned fruit as a major component of the Australian diet meant that apricots had already fallen out of favour with the orchardists before I arrived there. The cling peaches beloved of the canners are far from being the best eating variety.

The then chair of the local health service came from a line of orchardists and the family enterprise was a major economic driver in the town, together with tourism and the now defunct milk processor. His view of the workforce was that he had the itinerant pickers who worked from harvest to harvest. They came year after year – fruit picking generally commenced in November with cherries and apricots, but the major fruit were first, the stone fruit – nectarines and peaches followed by pears and apples until late April to early May.

This was a separate cohort from those employed to pick grapes as the region is a substantial wine producer with the grape picking reaching a peak in February.

My expert friend was not particularly positive about backpackers, because they would come and leave after a few days. The problem is that the media generally turn up on day one rather than, say, day 70 to photograph the “happy campers”. The attrition rate was high, he said. The orchardists need a steady work force not a group of young people flitting from place to place.

When I was young I myself did a variety of vacation jobs – working in a wool store, reading electric light meters, working as a storeman, a guard on armoured cars, gardening, pathology laboratory assistant, working as a clerk among first and second war veterans in the then Repatriation department, spotlight worker. There may be others that I forget, but I know I never went fruit picking, which I regret.

One of the strengths of working in these jobs is you learned the vernacular of being an Australian worker, essentially at a time when unionism was strong. This was important when you were a doctor and your patients were essentially working class, as those of my father were.

There is a growing complexity in the horticultural industry, because one business model does not necessarily encompass the whole of horticultural harvesting.

Some politicians who undertook compulsory national service (or more likely received an exemption) in a different era now champion putting “these young blighters” to work in some sort of revived “Nasho”. However, there will be some smart young person, who will see a place for a scheme which harnesses the workforce in the gig economy to perform this kind of work.  Yet the politicians have allowed a generation of young workers to be pushed into the gig economy, whether they wanted to be there or not, and now may be the time for those in the gig economy to organise themselves – they have the means to do so.

It is a fallacy to believe that the young are not entrepreneurs.

Given the appropriate incentives they could develop business models for efficient fruit picking or for that matter the whole area of horticulture.

In forming the business plan, there are a number of hurdles to address. How do you marshal a workforce with tertiary aspirations, yet where the vacation coincides in substantial part with the fruit-picking season; and yet where the delights of the flesh and the necessity to work are in conflict.

Fruit picking as a business exercise should not be left to the labour contract companies, which the COVID-19 pandemic has shown to be both predatory and incompetent.

Fruit picking as a youthful enterprise, with the instincts of a co-operative work force, requires consideration in that balance between government subsidy and impost on one’s future career. Therefore, the business must ask the question of how much and whether in the end it fills the gap between the two.

The female and male workforce, price, availability, reliability, capacity needs to be assessed and negotiated. In the end are there enough young people prepared to pick fruit effectively and efficiently?

There are a number of reservations, and that is the sustainability of the industry, and because it is so varied and seasonal to develop the flexibility. I remember my orchardist friend pulled a substantial number of trees and replaced them with freezing storage units, because there was a significant demand for such facilities. That was business.

Tastes change.

When I was young, one of the treats was having snow apples. They grew in cold climates and I last had them about 15 years ago; they were growing in a vineyard in the Victorian Pyrenees. Once grown commercially, they suffered from a lack of reliability and resilience, which gave them a short season and besides, they did not store well.

For the growers, profitability is aided if the need for manual harvesting is removed. One industry which has completely removed the need for manual labour is the sugar cane industry. That has occurred in my lifetime.

Almond Trees

As another instance, the number of almond trees that have appeared where once there was only a dried fruit industry along the Murray river has meant that with the rise of the almond and with mechanisation of their harvesting there is no need for a labour force. Similarly, just outside Leeton there is huge acreage being given over to walnut trees. Again, no manual harvesting.  It highlights the need for a workforce that is both agile and responsive.

I know if I were younger and had lived in a “horticulture”, I may have tackled this task, but I am not. Still, it is a challenge because, as I said, tastes change. I remember when I was reviewing a small health service on the Victorian border, I innocently mentioned that I was growing pomegranates. The response I elicited was somewhat comical. The man was about to invest in “serious” pomegranate tree planting. It was a time when Australia had just discovered the delights of the pomegranate, and he immediately thought I was there to “case” the place for pomegranate investment rather than reviewing the health service. When I said I was only planting a couple in my back garden in Sydney, he visibly relaxed.

As an epilogue, pomegranates must be removed from the tree using clippers or secateurs, from March to May. The stem of the tree is strong and thick; fruit cannot be pulled from the tree without damaging the fruit and/or tree. There are no mechanical harvesters. Some of the growers have small acreage and have banded together to form de facto co-operatives to avoid employing pickers. However, as the southern hemisphere only supplies one per cent of the world’s production, the potential should be large for out-of-season export to the northern hemisphere. Ramping up production will require a workforce to pick the pomegranates as they are not the easiest to harvest.

Over to you guys.

մոգ pronounced mog

Armenia

Armenians, it was once said to me, are the shrewdest business people after the Bengalis. Armenians can weave beautiful intricate carpets. Armenians have been Turkish punching bags. Armenians, if nothing else, are survivors. One of my favourite songs is linked to that great Armenian troubadour Charles Aznavour. The song? “She”.

She, Gladys Berejiklian, also has strong and proud Armenian heritage, clear in the retention of her surname. She has cultivated an image of saintliness trying to emulate the many Armenian saints within the Armenian Orthodox Church that as reported she attends regularly.

My encounter with Gladys was when she was the newly-elected member for Willoughby. She came to a dinner where I was the guest of honour. She was late and was brought along by the host of the dinner to be introduced to me. Before that could occur, she saw somebody who must have been so important that she was totally discourteous and totally ignored me, despite being brought to specifically meet me.

I was surprised but then the Italian have a word for it –menefregismo. The barista not looking at you as he pushes the coffee in your direction while talking to a mate at the bar is an example. When it is combined with furbo, which has many interpretations but suggests a person on the make, then it perfectly described Berekjikian that night – except she is a furba to acknowledge her gender. After all – fare la furba – is to jump the queue.

Despite that first impression, if I thought about her which was not often in the intervening period, she seemed superficially to be assiduous and competent.

This year, however, you could not get away from her, because of the series of incidents. I noticed a characteristic, which underpins her authority. She can talk for long periods without saying: “um” or “ah” or any hint of hesitation. It was a trait that I remember a certain English teacher trying to instil into us boys, and for years, there was a BBC radio show called “Just a Minute” where the panellists were given a subject and had to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition – a variation of not saying “um or “ah”.

It became clear that even when she was very wrong, as with the Ruby Princess, this ability to talk without hesitation gave her an air of authority and her escape hatch from admitting error.

It is amazing how a one trick pony has gone so far, but it may be argued when coupled with that of her immaculate conceived persona that she has been very important to her Party when underneath her feet is a swamp of indeterminate depth inhabited by all sorts of creatures, those that grate and those that appal.

The immaculate sparkle has gone. Yet one of her Ministers, in a stumbling defence, said she was married to NSW. Needless to say, how that could be interpreted in the current soap opera obviously escaped him.

At least, NSW has been spared that agonisingly ambiguous statement of the politician under stress: “I am going nowhere.”

I await the first hint of hesitation in her voice, but maybe that occurred with Kyle Sandilands. Then some may be said to have standards which do not include parsing his utterances and her replies.

I have to admit she did sign the gift I received at the dinner and still treasure – a magnificent book on Aboriginal Art.

Chloroquine studies are alive and well in Parkville

There is still one study in Australia into whether taking hydroxychloroquine can help prevent health care workers getting COVID-19 in the first place. And the jury is still out on that one.

What an interesting take by the intrepid Paul Barry. He had spent extensive time in his “Media Watch” two weeks ago bagging that comedy duo, Bolt and Dean, for their advocacy of the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

I expressed concerns months ago that funding had been provided to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) to test the prophylactic use of this drug for health workers. The hypothesis I thought threadbare, and subsequently, the evidence against its use has become overwhelming. Barry interviewed Steven Tong from The Doherty Institute who had stopped a trial on the drug’s usage, and used the word “rubbish” in defining the further investigation in the use of the drug.

Even Donald Trump has disavowed its usage, and Barry played an excerpt of recent footage of the President to back up that contention.

So why his curious form of words suggesting that health workers are a separate entity, otherwise why in Barry’s words is the jury out, when he had just demonstrated that the jury had well and truly delivered the verdict of it having not only no effect but also potentially dangerous.

I sent an email to Mr Barry, but he seems to have learnt from his usual quarry of spivs. Just ignore and hope I would go away. However, over my long life in which I have been exposed to many journalists – their worse outcome is to lose objectivity and begin to be believe in their self-beatification.

For the record, I’ve published below my last letter to WEHI, after I had a very swift response to my first letter. Note that I have had no response in the interim 3 months plus, when much has happened to further discredit the use of the drug.

The problem is this drug can potentially kill, for what? WEHI had assembled a cheer squad asserting the worthiness of this study. I was assured that the funding was totally derived from government, although WEHI had admitted accepting money for COVID-19 from a Chinese company, which has been under governmental investigation for business malfeasance.

I made sure that copies of my correspondence were sent to both Brendan Murphy and Anne Kelso, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NHMRC. Needless to say, they have shown no interest.

I have published that letter, unabridged below. I hope that community and peer pressure will stop this pointless exercise. I canvassed the study with certain sources outside the WEHI claque, and one comment was telling – how concerned he was in the decay of a once great Institute. Not my view as yet.

Perhaps, Mr Barry, you could clarify further why you made that comment, when you were so definite in criticising it elsewhere in you program. Have you an undeclared link with WEHI? Unfortunately I don’t have my own “Media Watch” to keep you up to the mark.

I’m sorry, but at this stage, I am disappointed. Below, my last letter of 27 June 2020 to Prof Doug Hilton AO, Director, WEHI:

Dear Professor Hilton,

Thank you for your very prompt email. Your direct response in relation to the source of funding for the study is instructional for those who obfuscate, however unintentional.

I am very sympathetic to the plight of research institutions in raising funds, but raising expectations, as you would realise, is two-edged. I am somewhat concerned by some of the reports emanating about putative cures because there is already a scepticism in the community about science, which has led the dark fringes of society exploiting anti-science attitudes in the community. This situation is always aggravated when expectations fall short.

You are very disappointed by my linking the Trump support for hydroxychloroquine, but the message received is as equally important as that sent. I do not question that Pellegrini and Wicks had constructed a hypothesis, but its construction when there is already controversy as to its use obviously raises question of whether the publicity created did not play a part in the government making available funding.

I’m alarmed, as you must be, by the apparent renewed support by Trump for its usage even after the FDA’s July warning on its safe use, on the advice provided by Dr Stella Immanuel, whose other ideas are bizarre to give the most generous interpretation. Given how increasingly difficult the situation is becoming you may wish to reconsider the WEHI position, given any association with this Dr Immanuel’s idea would not benefit WEHI.

It is for you as Director to determine its priority in the overall research program if MRFF funding had not been made available. That the availability of funding was not influenced by political considerations, at the time when hydroxychloroquine as a cure was being so widely promoted, was at the tie partially answered in your response.

I note that the study is subject to interim analysis and look forward to its release.

I note that the study has rheumatologists and other lines of support, I am not sure whether my requests have been answered so that I am not personally reassured, in particular concerning the safety of the study. However, for the time being I shall accept your assurances.

In relation to your final paragraph, I have read your annual reports and periodic bulletins – and I understand you have had some spectacular results that have resulted in profitable collaboration with the private sector. However, may I make a couple of points: you refer to my being a medical doctor, but I also suffer from a chronic autoimmune disease, and therefore mine is not a detached interest.

Also in relation to the therapeutic effect of hydroxychloroquine, as I have written elsewhere, the drug was essential in treating the malaria that I contracted in Madagascar over 30 years ago. It was a nasty experience; fortunately I have never had a second attack. But that was malaria, a recognised use for hydroxychloroquine!

From your response you are far from the “the simple protein chemist” as you describe yourself. Your response is impeccably drafted, apart from your use of “principle”. My principal committee I assure you was principled.

My kind regards

Jack Best

As someone said, the first death of a health worker in this study will see a scattering of support for the study, which would test even the best “Outback ringer” to catch.

Watch this space.

Mouse Whisper

Hickory Dickory Dock

The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,”.

“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.” …

“But the reality is that the President careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored Covid. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this. And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don’t think the way he’s led through Covid has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”

The author of these statements?  Senator Bernie Sanders? Any other Democrat?

No, it was the junior Republican senator for Nebraska, the anti-abortion, anti-Affordable Care Act, pro-gun, anti-impeachment Senator Bill Sasse.

Yes, he may have said it in a whisper, but let me say it was a courageous whisper across the Pawnee National Grasslands of Nebraska.

Senator Bill Sasse

Modest Expectations – David Owen and Norman Cowper

For those who want to follow the sordid details of the former Member for Wagga Wagga, Mr Darryl Maguire’s shenanigans while he was a Liberal Party member of the NSW Parliament there is plenty in the media about his questioning before the ICAC that I need not repeat, including his close relationship with the Premier.

However, when his conduct forced his resignation from Parliament, at the 2018 by-election, Joe McGirr was elected. Joe was then easily re-elected at the 2019 poll. Joe is an Independent, and first challenged Maguire in 2011 with his major policy to upgrade the local hospital. He achieved a swing against the entrenched member Maguire who was, at that stage, the Liberal Party Whip; the miasma had yet to rise and cloud his parliamentary career.  Joe had not stood in 2015.

Joe McGirr

Joe McGirr has a strong ALP connection and his great-uncle was Premier of NSW. His grandfather was Minister of Health in NSW when James Dooley was Premier. Joe is resolutely independent and has resisted blandishments to join any Party.

Joe McGirr came to Wagga Wagga as a junior doctor and remained there, undertaking a number of roles. He is married to Kerin Fielding, the first female orthopaedic surgeon in NSW (and only the third in Australia in what is very much a male club). They have four adult children.

Dr Fielding is a cordon bleu cook, and she and Joe have a retreat in the south of France, which unfortunately I have not savoured.

Over a period of time I have had contact with Joe, as I undertook a number of jobs in Wagga Wagga, and I encountered him from the time he was a young doctor on the way up. During the time when the first rural clinical school was being planned in Albury and Wagga Wagga, which had its moments because of the traditional rivalry between the two cities, Joe was always eager to assist. It was unsurprising when he became Associate Dean of the then new Notre Dame Medical School.

Joe has been reported as saying that: “My views on social justice were formed by the Jesuits during my education, with the Jesuit approach linking justice to action and love. I have seen through my work, many areas of rural disadvantage that create problems for the whole of society as well as those directly affected. Social justice is an important part of our medical program and should be a part of every doctors calling.”

This view on social justice has been translated across into his diligence in parliamentary life.

With Joe, you know what you’ll get.  Brutally honest, in a sea where there so much parliamentary squalor, just look at whom he replaced. A premier swain, no less – and high on the Dodge.

The problem with anybody who runs as an independent for parliament in a country electorate, it helps if you have local “cred”; for Joe it counted for a little at the first tilt, but not enough.

He persisted.

When I have advocated for an Integrity Party, sometimes you wonder if you talking to an empty stadium. However, Joe McGirr is a very useful role model for future candidates, even if he is an avowed Independent.

Oh, by the way, his first major electoral policy has been accomplished.  And there is more – the local Wagga Wagga hospital has reached stage 3 of its redevelopment.

A Casual Comment which the Conservatives will probably ignore – for the time being

Barry Goldwater

In 1995, Barry Goldwater warned the GOP that they would rue the day they welcomed the religious right into the party.

It is a pity it took him until he was 85 years old to say that.

However, maybe an Australian somebody of a similar age in the appropriate part of the Australian spectrum will have the guts to say that – because in the end ignoring the Goldwater axiom will savage the credibility of genuine conservatives.

David Owen visits

In 1982, the Australian Institute of Political Science (AIPS) reached its fiftieth anniversary. The Institute published the Australian Quarterly and held annual Summer Schools where people from all sides of the political spectrum used to gather to mingle socially and discuss matters politic.

The pioneering Cowper Family crest

Norman Cowper was one of the founders of the Institute. Of the pioneer families five – the Cowpers (arrived 1809), the Streets (1822), the Stephens (1824), the Windeyers (1828) and the Fairfaxes (1838) have produced representatives, prominent in public life, over the succeeding four or five generations.

Thus Norman Cowper, a lawyer in one of the biggest Sydney law firms, was hardly a radical. However, in the 1930s he was very concerned with the rise of fascism, as he was of communism. In founding the AIPS in 1932, he saw it as a bastion for the political centre where the reasonable left and right could converse across the policy divide. Therefore, the Board and contributors represented both sides of the political spectrum – then United Australia Party and the Australian Labor Party. Gough Whitlam used the Summer School to test some of his policies in the years running up to the 1972 election.

While the AIPS was Sydney-centric, it had a Melbourne Committee. However, it was not until I moved to Sydney that I was asked to join the AIPS Board. The Institute survived on modest grants from some of the large companies and the proceeds of the Summer School. However, by the 1980s as politics became more ideologically driven and coverage of politics in the media expanded, the influence of the AIPS began to decline.

Although we did not know it at the time, the fiftieth celebration was the last hurrah for the bipartisan flavour that the Institute had attempted to inject into public debate. I was entrusted with organising the anniversary.

Norman Cowper was 86 at the time, and everybody wanted him to be there. The family was enthusiastic and so it was important that the anniversary honoured him. However, I had the disadvantage of being a newcomer to the Board, essentially an outsider who had to work around the sensitivity of a Board that had known better times. The sun was setting on what the Institute had been constructed to be, a bulwark against the extremes in politics.

David Owen

At the time of the celebration it was before the Falklands war, Thatcher was on the nose and Reagan was still to make his impact. I thought that it would be an idea to have speakers from each of the decades. David Owen, as co-founder of the newly-created Social Democratic Party, provided a model of the centre. He was a doctor, and he was friendly with a prominent English surgeon who I had met the previous year. I was able to enlist his support in having David Owen accept the invitation.

Unlike speakers today, David Owen did not charge for his attendance and through my contacts, a first-class airfare was arranged gratis; that left the Institute to pay for his accommodation.

I had the idea of having a relevant speaker for each of the decades from the foundation of the AIPS to describe what was happening in terms of the politics and policy.

The speakers were Nugget Coombs, Bill Snedden, John Button, Anne Summers and Patrick Cook, with Max Walsh as the Master of Ceremonies. The talks, including the inaugural Cowper Oration given by David Owen, were scattered across the dinner which was held at the University of Sydney.

In addition, I persuaded the guys at Movietone, who had their archives in Balmain at the time, to put together a traditional newsreel, together with the highlights of 50 years. So it was a jampacked evening. Anne Summers was a great help in getting the program together, particularly persuading Nuggets Coombs to reminisce on the 30s and Patrick Cook to round up the speakers’ list.

I remember asking Paul Keating whether he would attend, but anybody – no matter who they were who deserted the Labor Party – was a “rat”. David Owen had been elected as Labor Party member for Plymouth Devonport and was part of the “Gang of Four” that had broken away from the Labor Party in 1981, and at the time of the Oration he was very much the flavour.

We were both doctors. We spent an interesting week together, and he told me that he had not had a better “minder”, but I said I had done it before – and had learnt a great deal about being the essential shadow. He gave me one piece of advice which has been imprinted in my memory ever since – never be caught in the soggy political centre.

I’m not sure whether he followed his own advice.  My view is that the centre is not definable; it shifts around like the Magnetic Poles.

Later I was to become the Chair of the AIPS and suffered an attack from the right to take it over. This time, the Centre proved not to be soggy, and the attack from the Victorian right was defeated. I learnt a lesson – if you naively believe that a centrist political position has a future you need resilience and deep pockets – and wait until the stench from the political miasma becomes too much, even for the most complacent, and the community pleads for a climate change.

Re-setting the cuckoo clock

Guest Blogger:  Janine Sargeant AM Master of Public Health

“No general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, shall be inflicted upon the population on account of the acts of individuals for which they cannot be regarded as jointly and severally responsible.” So says the 1949 Geneva Convention.

No wonder Victorians, and Melburnians in particular, are sick of both lockdowns and being treated as pariahs judging by the statements from the smaller States. This is particularly the case for the border communities. NSW fares little better when it comes to treatment by these other states, but at least has avoided the harsh Melbourne lockdown. Yes, group punishment is alive and well here in “good ol’ democratic Australia”.

Premier Palaszczuk is the stand-out serial offender here. Anxious to present herself to her electorate as the defender of Queensland against the “marauding plague” from the south, her offensive comments about locked down Melburnians have just added to their misery.

When the Queensland border opens up to the plague-ridden southerners they could be forgiven for rejecting her blandishments to come and spend their hard-earned money in this Mendicant State of the North. Opening day: likely to be just after the election. Surprise; surprise. The fact that her fellow Queenslander, Pauline Hanson is the prime practitioner of xenophobia, she as the inheritor of the Barcaldine tradition should be bloody well ashamed of following the Hanson line. The Deputy Premier, Stephen Miles has exhibited arrogance verging on boorishness in his contempt for the southerners.

Palaszczuk and Miles shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which their endless ill-considered commentary about not wanting those “diseased” southerners in Queensland has made the past three months even worse (apart from the purveyors of football games and others she has exempted). Don’t underestimate the impact of the longest, toughest shutdown in the world on the mental health of those in its midst.

And what is the latest advice from those who apparently encouraged hoarding of food to combat the swine flu epidemic? There is a rumour about gunships on the Brisbane River to repel invaders from the south although this one is difficult to confirm.

28 days of no community acquired cases and then, after a couple of weeks, NSW has three cases of unknown origin, 48 hours to find the origin or else!  Or else what?

Queensland re-sets its cuckoo clock on the border re-opening. Now it seems it is community transmission of unknown origin; talk about moving the AFL goalposts.

The current outbreak in Shepparton again demonstrates the challenges this country is facing, particularly when individuals think guidelines don’t apply to them.  It highlights again that public health in every state must have strong contact tracing and clear directions in relation to targeted testing and expanded self-isolation. There is no excuse for this not to be the case; the health departments have had months to get this right. Contact tracing will allow all states to keep outbreaks suppressed – and there will be outbreaks.

But not to cynically use disease for a blatantly political exercise.

Thus, memo to you Premier (for the moment) Palaszczuk – having no COVID cases when your State is hermetically sealed doesn’t get you any prize; the real test is when the country opens up, which it must do. So, where is the agreed national plan to safely open Australia’s open borders in which you are participating? Where is the plan for affordable quarantine to bring business travellers and tourists back? Or do you plan to lock out the world until it can demonstrate 28 days without community transmission?  Good luck with that one.

Memo to those other Premiers, Gutwein, Marshall and McGowan, read the memo to Palaszczuk and take a memo yourselves; the fact that you might be keeping your borders closed, or you dream up bizarre rules like the current one about not lingering in Mildura for petrol or taking a comfort stop at the side of the road as you drive through from NSW to SA (via the main road at the north west of Victoria) if you want to avoid 14 days quarantine, your actions are seriously dividing a country that is struggling and needs to be pulling together.

A bit of advice to the fiefdoms, look up “mendicant state” and remember that Australia is one economy but the larger State economies support the smaller ones. It is about time the Prime Minister rounds up the Premiers and directs some mature thought about Australia behaving like an adult nation – not a collection of infants in the playpen they rule for the moment.

Bud Wiser

Driving along we had just crossed the Lachlan River on the road through Darby Falls, beyond a line of trees there it was in a field behind a gate sardonically labelled “Railway Crossing.”

It was a Budd railcar – still recognisable – a silver cigar-shaped carriage sitting out in the middle of this field.

In 1950, the first of three Budd diesel powered rail cars was bought by Commonwealth Railways for use in the Iron triangle of South Australia.  I remember being on one of its first trips between Port Pirie and Port Augusta. For a young boy, this gleaming motor train with its rippling silver stainless steel frame shouted “I’m American” and resembled the Pullman cars that were featured in American films and magazines at the time, albeit without a locomotive. It was very exciting. I almost thought I would see a man in a peaked cap and appropriate livery there to assist us onto the car. In the American films of the time they were always black men. This was well before Afro-American replaced the subservient descriptions of the slave state.

Three rail cars were shipped to South Australia, manufactured by the Budd Rail Company in Philadelphia. The rail cars were said to be able to attain speeds of 90 mph, and I remember that day in May 1951 climbing aboard, and finding myself hit by cold air. Air conditioning is taken as a given in today’s world, but not in 1951.

There were two compartments, originally with the luxury of padded seating for forty-nine and forty-one respectively, buffet facilities being fitted still enabled 70 people to be accommodated.

The reason I was on this train was that it was the link service which enabled us to join the “Ghan”, the train originally named after Afghan camel drivers that worked across the Territory. The train travelled between Port Augusta and Alice Springs. The contrast between the slick Budd railcar and the venerable steam train labelled the “Ghan” was amazing as though one was climbing back into a past century. In those days, the “Ghan” wended its way through the Flinders Ranges and then North through the desert, but through that part of the Simpson desert which was liable to flash flooding.

The rail cars because they were swift and relatively noiseless and ran on the unfenced railway also had a propensity of striking wildlife, in particular kangaroos.  Twice on level crossings the rail car tangled with trucks, and on one of these occasions the rail car driver was killed.

Four of the cars were built under licence in Australia for NSW railways later, but by the 1990s all the rail cars had been retired.

One obviously ended up on this property, but it only shows there is always something around to remind you that you have been on this planet far too long.

Roger Dunn

He was my oldest friend, but our pathways deviated far away from one another. It was in the past few years when these now old men re-started the relationship we had at school. Some of the magic which is deep friendship remained. Roger was a successful scriptwriter for shows like Bellbird, The Sullivans, Homicide. He was a great watcher of human frailty, even though probably a bit too much was seen through the bottom of a wine glass.

He was not a bad artist and learnt part of his trade from John Brack who, for a time, was our art teacher. The ever-alert Roger noted that Brack had a separate room into which he would vanish, often with a young lady; in the romantic parlance of Dunn at the time this room was dedicated to our teacher’s trysts. I was too naïve to notice. After all, ours was a boys’ school.

Anyway, Brack found time to do a pen and ink caricature of Roger which now has pride of place at the school.

I penned this piece below which Roger’s eldest son, Lachlan read at his funeral last week.

Name?

Roger McLeod Dunn, Sir

Two small boys stand forever captured in navy blue shorts and butcher blue shirts, unbuttoned blazers; but not forgetting the cap on head. From home to school and cheering events, the cap jammed on head was the essential ingredient for everyday living.

Two small boys living close to the same railway line. Trains thundering past – a mutual lifeline to wild distant lands of Kooyong, Darling and Jordanville.

Two small boys joined by their love of words. Once they both entered a competition at school – one with delicate touch described the feathery fairy penguin; the other wrote about the awkward grumpy cassowary. The boy with the light touch won, the youngest ever winner of that prize.

The two boys endured that school; had a friendship held together by that love of literature where even in daytime they both could see the stars.

Vale good friend. The fairy penguins will be dancing with you.

And you? John Barton Best, Sir.

Mouse Whisper

The guy from Old Man Gunyah Creek said as the vehicle passed by the hill, the afternoon sun casting a sheen on its purplish-blue colour: “You know,” gesturing towards the hill, “It is always a matter of perspective. Some call it the Riverina bluebell, while others – Paterson’s curse.”

Having been in England in early spring where bluebells dot the country often in the dappled shade of trees with their new foliage, it is a sight immortalised on many a painted teacup. From a distance, you might gain a similar impression as you drive through the Australian countryside, especially where the weed may be seen growing in gullies shaded by gum trees.

Obviously, Jane Paterson thought so when she bought cuttings back from Blighty in the 1880s to plant in her garden on the family property. She did not think it a weed.

Then the weed escaped. Mrs Paterson’s name is not recorded among our female pioneer heroines.

For Australian farmers who have experienced the spread through much of the East Coast and Tasmania, it is Paterson’s curse. It can be used as fodder, by animals with a rumen, but it caused consternation by those driving by when they saw a number of horses in a large patch seemingly feeding on it. It can kill horses.

However, as a footnote there is a suggestion it was not her fault -well not totally. The number of phenotypes found here are greater than found in Blighty; but sorry that does not let her off the hook.

Somebody had to be the first. Oh, I remember it is success which has many authors, but then I remember – the weed has another name. Salvation Jane.

Jane, Paterson or Bluebell

Modest Expectations – Telephone Pole on Ardmona

Fillet of a fenny snake;
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

I must be living in a parallel universe.  Nobody has commented how much like Wonderland it all is. Illness with Trump becomes a circus act.

Two lines of people in white coats troop down the stairs of the Walter Reed Hospital. In my many years I have never seen doctors emerge from a hospital as if they are members of a marching band who have forgotten their high stepping band major twirling a baton.

At that stage, I wondered who was looking after the President – he was conducting a photo-op to convince everybody he was working; yet he looked ill. So, I presume the crew of that little masterpiece he was filming were physicians who doubled as camera crew.

Then he is out on the streets, denying every protocol relating to the Virus, bar one, he appeared to have his lower face covered. But he is a bag of contagion, for God’s sake.  He is being driven by men in masks and white coats, but the strait jacket is nowhere to be seen.

Back in the hospital, he has a tantrum. “I wanna go home” is the insistent refrain. Back at the White House, it is plain that he is short of breath, struggling to maintain his posture. Next frame in this farce: Trump has seized the narrative from his medical staff and is now reporting his own condition. The cameras do not switch to the White House lawns to show his staff playing croquet with flamingos as mallets with Virus balls.

The head of Trump’s medical retinue is an osteopath. Sure he was titled an emergency physician, but what does that mean in the term of this guy’s experience? He demonstrated a level of inexperience, which could be attributed to nervousness or incompetence.  As has been observed, “There are innumerable examples of sycophants rising to a level of incompetence where they are finally ‘revealed’. When that happens, the kissing up no longer matters – now reality demands competence.”

The question remains: what does his osteopath know about infectious diseases? Not much.

The President is being given a weird concoction of drugs, and one of the ironies is that if this unpredictable infant negotiates the illness, then the cult worship will intensify.

Is Trump taking a calculated risk in leaving hospital and returning to the White Burrow, whilst ensuring a screen of twitters? Or have the hinges completely come away from the door?

Zigzagging all across the landscape, he knows that the media are fascinated by his serpentine movements. The media is the helpless rodent in front of the snake, mesmerised by these movements.  Perhaps more the Komodo dragon rather than snake, given that saliva is the medium for contagion, and that saliva is an ooze coating his White Burrow. So beware the Kiss of the Komodo, Ivanka.

But then young Komodos climb trees to get away from the cannibalistic adult Komodo – they, like Donald, are too heavy to climb trees.

And as a postscript question to the hapless Dr Conley, can the King Komodo still smell the hamburger and chips he is gobbling?  Or would that be too much like being a clinician to answer that? 

A future President of the USA writes to the incumbent…

It is ostensibly January 31, 1829. Martin Van Buren picks up his quill in New York and writes to President Jackson. He is alarmed. 

“The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads’. The federal government must preserve the canals for the following reasons:

One. If canal boats are supplanted by ‘railroads’, serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for the horses.

Two. Boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.

Three. Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

As you may well know, Mr. President,’railroad’ carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by ‘engines’ which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”

The problem with the letter was that it was a (in Trumpian Capitals) HOAX. Jackson had yet to be sworn in when the letter was purportedly written and no original of this letter has ever been found. Yet this example of absurdly protectionist fears, written in such a manner that it would be greeted by outrage and derision, is still given currency.  I remember hearing about the supposed letter when I was a teenager. It had been shown to me in all seriousness. I was duped. This hoax letter is still doing the rounds. How many are still duped?

I wonder whether any of the Trump sputacchiere will have currency in 200 years from now. But then, as those reading about the climate hoax on the parchment of the Murdoch past, it just may be a remnant of civilisation living in a world resembling the remains of a Texan barbecue in an ocean of blue-green algae learning to love aloes, hemlock and bitter melon by then.

An Australian Centre for Disease Control Thought Bubble

A mate of mine received this ALP splurge from the Shadow Minister of Health Bowen.

Australia went into COVID-19 unprepared. We are the only OECD country without a Centre for Disease Control. Our nation went into the coronavirus pandemic with less than one mask for every Australian in the National Medical Stockpile, an overreliance on global supply chains, and badly stretched aged and health care systems.

Future pandemics are a certainty and we can’t be left playing catch-up again. We can’t afford another Ruby Princess, or another tragic disaster in aged care. Our health, our lives and our economy depend on us getting our response to future pandemics right.

That’s why this morning, Anthony Albanese and I announced that, if elected, a future Labor Government will strengthen Australia’s response to future pandemics by establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control.

Establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control would mean that Australia will be better prepared to avoid the mistakes we’ve seen from this government so far.

This is one of the most contestable announcements that has emerged from the Opposition. I always remember one Government staffer deriding Opposition policies as “Policy by Penguin Book”. In other words, somebody thinks he has a bright idea, and then reads stuff which supports his claim without discussing it with anyone with experience for confirmation of the assertions.

What the ALP are advocating is that Australia centralise the public health to one centre, as the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA which, over the years because of good leadership up until Trump interfered with its succession planning, enabled its high academic reputation to be maintained. Now the CDC lies wounded, maybe mortally. There is no back up.

The media release says Australia went into the COVID-19 pandemic unprepared. Yet theoretically perched on a board of an international organisation dedicated to epidemic preparedness was a former head of the Federal Department of Health. This person watched while a number of abortive epidemics denoted by colourful acronyms rolled across our country.

What did she do not only heading Health but also then Finance? Emulated Sir Humphrey, if her performance on the “4 Corners” program was any guide. The “4 Corners” program seemingly was supposed to remind everybody of her grasp of the subject but instead showed how content-free she actually is.

There was no significant increase in the funding for public health under her stewardship and, at the end of her reign as the Government might have said, “we were shovel-ready to cop the Virus”.

However not to be diverted, back to the ALP announcement. Nothing wrong with that first sentence! This writer plunges on.

However, how are the OECD countries travelling? The media release says that Australia is the only OECD country out of 36 members without a Centre for Disease Control. That is a stretch. I am unaware of New Zealand having such a centre. USA with its CDC has 7.3 million COVID-19 cases, whereas the Australian total without a CDC is 27,200 and New Zealand 1,858. How does the author regard the use of the particular statistic to bolster his case for an Australian CDC?

Then the non-sequiter in the release – “few masks, an over-reliance of supply chains and a vulnerable aged care sector”. So? That is not a responsibility of a CDC.

The success of the Australian health system, despite being starved of funds for public health over the past 20 years, coinciding as it did with the Halton stewardship, was that NSW had set up a decentralised contact tracing system in the early 1990s as part of a generalised devolution of public health responsibility regionally. Hence in NSW, disasters in nursing homes and the Ruby Princess were resolved, messily but nevertheless resolved without huge numbers of cases and deaths compared to the later Victorian experience.

Even though I advocated that in NSW heads should roll because of these disasters, the basic strength of the public health system saved them. The Premier has never fully acknowledged the authors of that program – and it was certainly not Dr Chant, as she has herself acknowledged.

The Parkville Precinct

Victoria on the other hand never had an organised public health system, and the reason was that public health funding, beyond the training programs, was sacrificed on the altar of Parkville aggrandisement.

The result was that Victoria was completely ill-prepared to be able to handle the contact tracing requirements of this epidemic. What has saved Victoria is not some esoteric centre in Canberra, but a realisation by Andrews and some of the public health specialists that something had to be done to save the situation. Let’s face it – he closed down Victoria to allow the public health system to be upgraded and a de facto regional approach created.

By shutting Victoria down he enabled the street fighting with the virus to be undertaken with minimum street casualties, and the hand-to-hand combat in nursing homes where the Virus had sheltered to be contained and then has been steadily rooting it out, even though innocent people unfortunately have been caught in the “crossfire” without any protection.

A regionalised public health system has many heads and, unlike in America where CDC relevance and responsibility has been decapitated, thus is harder to destroy.

Ergo, mark for Master Bowen: D-…  A poorly thought-out essay.  Please resubmit after getting advice from somebody who knows.

Appointment with a Telegraph Pole

I was badly injured. Yet as the car which I had been driving a few minutes previously was being incinerated, I found myself laughing. I had got out of the car. I remember releasing my seatbelt and opening the door. Now I was watching the car – a rented Holden Calais burning. In the distance but coming closer I could hear bells ringing.

Charon and the River Styx

Then blank. The next picture imprinted on my memory was of opening my eyes and looking upwards into a hairy face. I did not care, if this was introduction to a hirsute Hell then so be it.

Then I heard my name being called – distant but distinct. Since I was not wearing glasses as I usually did, I had to focus. No, it was not the representative from Hades customs seeing if I was bringing anything illegal to burn, but my cousin’s son Owen.

My cousin, Margaret, and her husband Bill, lived in Shepparton at the time, and that evening I had intended to go to her 50th birthday party there. Bill was the city engineer at the time. Owen had a sister, Jill, who I do not remember playing any role in the drama.

It had been an ordinary Saturday, and I had had an uproarious lunch, with a few drinks. I assessed myself able to drive the three hours to Shepparton. The problem being June, the weather was foul, but I arrived in Shepparton at about five o’clock in the evening. Given that the party was not going to start until after eight, instead of going to the motel, I decided to go and see another mate who had a parish in a nearby town. No matter that this was the eve of the shortest day of the year and the sun had set. The rain had come again.

I did not get far, and fleetingly remembered the car aquaplaning and sliding off the road up a narrow muddy pathway.

So much for any more festivities.

Then blackness before the image of fumbling for the door handle.

Having got out of the car, I could not walk for two weeks. While I had considerable soft tissue damage, the only fracture was a rib broken by the seatbelt as I went from 100 kph to zero in a second or so.

It took me a long time to recover so I could return to work. I needed plastic surgery on my face, where my chin had imploded on the steering wheel. Fortunately, that was skilfully done, but then if you need plastic surgery for disfigurement rather than vanity, Melbourne has traditionally been the best place in Australia. So I was fortunate in more ways than one.

Now 40 years later I have extensive osteoarthritis in spine, knees and shoulders. That is the price of the impact. It is unsurprising that until I developed an autoimmune disease related to the arthritis, I coped. In the years after the accident I competed in many misnamed “fun runs”, and while finishing in the ruck, it convinced me that I had enough mobility to do so.

That I have described elsewhere.

There was one major change that I noticed about six months after the accident, but have I never talked much about it.  Probably because it is so subjective. As background, I had extensive head injuries, and the area between skull surface and the thin muscle layer, the galeal aponeurosis, was a lake of blood. This fluctuant spongy mass stayed for several weeks, but I did not have any intracranial bleeding.

I went back to work. The Italians call it garbo – it is an untranslatable Italian word, but it is the way I was treated – trying to suggest I had come back prematurely but not telling me directly; garbo. Courteous pitying, you might translate it.

My insight was such that I was oblivious to hints for a longer time in convalescence. I was never sat down by my peers and specifically challenged – and even if I had been there is always someone prepared to make allowances, and in split decisions, the benefit of the doubt generally prevails. I presume that occurred in my case, and I solved the problem by being perceived as eventually returning to “normal”.

Yet there was one  change in my personality that, unless you had followed me as a boy, adolescent and young man, you may have missed.  Before the accident, I had been prone to periods of dark depression; yet not despairing enough to be suicidal.

After that head injury, I have never again had these episodes of deep depression. At that time, there was not the same attention being paid to head injury – particularly on the sporting field.

Yet there is now an increasing reportage of traumatic injury of combat, although it has been around since Cain punched Abel.

Having mental infirmity was just a hidden phenomenon, and in an era of “stiff upper lips” as the shorthand for not showing any weakness, you did not talk about mental frailty. If you were laid out, you shook your head, got back on your feet and went back into the fray. There was never any talk about head injury, unless there was obvious loss of function.

In my case, whatever happened to my brain circuits in the crash, I emerged with a change of which I gradually became aware. I was able to cope better with setbacks. The dark moods were largely gone. Had the accident changed my circuitry? The obvious answer subjectively was “yes”. However, there was no one able to judge whether I had changed.

I am not advocating for people to improve their lot by banging their heads against walls, but what I am saying is traumatic injury is very much a lottery, and never should be ignored. Concussion is one thing, but is important in having someone who is able to detect any long-term change from head trauma, especially repeated. The problem is it takes time (and in this world who has the time or the level of care) to stop the episode ending up as a death against a telephone pole on a country road in the middle of a tempest. Some survive; some do not.

Putting Meaning into ExHume

Conditions not complied with or enforced (currently under review). State government approval conditions require 80% of ‘reservoir gas’ emissions (3.4-4 million tonnes each year) from the Gorgon facility to be captured and pumped underground (geosequestration or CCS) delivering a 40% reduction in the project’s total emissions.

Chevron received $60m in federal funding for the geosequestration project. It announced geosequestration had begun on August 8th, 2019, more than two years after production commenced. Delays were due to ‘ongoing technical problems’ and Chevron has also been accused of deliberately mismanaging the geosequestration project. No penalties were imposed by the WA government for emissions not sequestered over this period, and alternative offsets were not provided by Chevron despite State conditions requiring them in the event the geosequestration is not successful.

A review is currently underway by the WA Environmental Protection Authority to examine and clarify the intended start-date for the geosequestration condition at the request of the WA Minister for the Environment. There is no federal requirement for sequestration ….

Chevron geosequestration project

Australia has had a Carbon Capture and Storage Development Fund since 2009. These carbon technologies are supposed to trap the carbon dioxide produced by factories or fossil fuel power plants before they are emitted into the atmosphere where they contribute to global heating.

Once trapped, the greenhouse gas can then be piped into permanent underground storage facilities or sold to buyers who can use the carbon to manufacture plastics, boost greenhouse crops and as one boosting media release said even “help make fizzy drinks”.

As one insider has written, when the Australian fund was established for carbon capture in 2009, crude oil prices were just recovering from a sharp but very brief decline. Then Chevron decided on the final investment decision (FID) for Gorgon. The world was awash in natural gas then as it is now. Chevron made a decision on a projected $30bn LNG facility with a cost model in which high hydrocarbon prices would bail them out.

The cost overruns made Gorgon the most expensive LNG facility per unit cost ever of more than $50bn and the raw gas stream from the field already contains 15% CO2.

Today, carbon capture (CCUS) facilities around the world are capturing more than 35 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Apparently that is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of Ireland, whatever relevance that may be. Recent announcements and commitments have the potential to more than double current global CO2 capture capacity. But the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which charts a path towards achieving the world’s stated climate ambitions, calls for a 20-fold increase in annual CO2 capture rates from power and industrial facilities in the next decade.

Most activity seems to be taking place in Norway and the adjoining fields in the North Sea. Norway built the first large scale carbon-capture project at the Sleipner gas field in 1996, and since has been storing nearly 1 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

Against the above estimated optimal requirements, that seems small, and Norway is where carbon capture is reckoned to be the most advanced. The current situation is a long way away from the ideal, and despite government investment in the technology,

For someone trying to find out what is going on, the area is full of obfuscation. The quote from the WA Conservation Council at the head of this blog segment has not been denied. The problem is that Government uses “carbon capture” in its recent policy announcement as though it is being shown to be a settled solution. There is one facility in Australia where carbon capture is supposed to work. It is a long way away from scrutiny – the Gorgon LNG project on Barrow Island in the middle of a nature reserve.

At least one matter is to be settled and that is that this natural gas field contributes more carbon pollution than any other facility in Australia.  In addition, the fate of the Gorgon CCUS plant has been racked with problems and even now it is not fully operational while the parent Chevron facility spews out pollution.

So there is a price. Now if the technology is going somewhere, fine, but if it is just a disguised handout to help a business mate or mates, then it should classify as assisting new technologies

It is difficult to work out how much has been wasted as distinct from being spent wisely. The Morrison government has indicated it will contribute another $50 million into carbon capture and storage technology, following more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies and investment from the fossil fuel sector since the early 2000s. Teasing out how much has been contributed by either sector may provide a different figure but in the end, we mug punters foot the bill. For what?

Back in Canberra, there is a major structural problem in policy direction, and that is the country is run by a public relations man. He is spin, not substance. It has been an unfortunate trait in Australia in recent times that major political roles have been filled by people of his ilk – journalists – more interested in feeding the news cycle than doing anything to improve the lives of Australians and more generally the world.

NSW suffered from Carr; South Austalia from Rann and Australia, Abbott – although the Abbott is more an aberration and thus harder to classify as a giornalista. Wistfully we may look back when journalists who became Prime Ministers were men of substance – John Curtin and Alfred Deakin.

Added to this mix is Minister Angus Taylor who leaves a dubious trail of politics mixed with self-interest rather than any real commitment to what is one of the greatest challenges – climate change. Frankly, he is not up to the challenge. That is why I suggest that the Minister, the member of Hume should exit, lending himself to a slogan – Taylor to ExHume. In fact, he should be dismissed – no longer be in any equation.

If carbon capture was the only energy boondoggle, perhaps I would be less vehement…but it is not!

I worry about a country where policy is predicated on being generous to your mates. Still, there is always a day of reckoning.

Finally, a pertinent comment from an insider made in relation to those executives in the oil and gas industry, who form a Praetorian Guard of Mates around the Prime Minister:

“They are stuck in their ways, which worked for the past decades and made them and their shareholders very rich. Now they can’t do anything else.

According to API the average age of an employee in the oil and gas industry is 51 years, only surpassed by the average age of employees in funeral homes. The average age of the managers and decision makers in the industry is even higher. 

Right there lies the problem, in plain sight for everyone to see. The decision makers in O&G are all solid, hard-working and amply educated individuals. Sternly conservative due to a lifelong paradigm of analogous thinking such as ‘proven design’ in this once wonderful adventurous industry.”

In ten years, the current lot will mostly be dead, dripping with honours and never having to pay the price they may have inflicted. So shall I be, but is not going to deter me from encouraging Australia to sleep only when the moon is no longer red with pollution.

Mouse Whisper

The Lewis chessmen are about my size. I sat in the back stalls watching a program on this extraordinary cache of figurines, which was a Viking hoard found in the sand dunes of the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis in 1831. Most of the 93 artifacts are in the British or Scottish National Museums. When the hoard was deposited, the Outer Hebrides were colonised by Norwegian Vikings.

The figurine which attracted my attention was one of a Bishop, with his right hand administering benediction. With the thumb opened, in the early church, the three open digits came to represent the Trinity (The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), while the two closed digits represented the dual nature of Christ as both man and God.

However, the Bishop’s hand in one of the figurines resembled Duputyrens contracture, which is a disease predominantly of the palmar fascia, the connective tissue beneath the skin which, as it thickens, pulls the fingers into a flexed position. The disease generally affects the little and ring fingers first.

Further, it is a disease which originated in the Vikings, it is a disease which affects males and is associated – among other things – with a love of alcoholic beverages.

Just an observation, but an interesting one?

Modest Expectations – Spitzbergen

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. 

Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government.

Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Oliver Cromwell on getting rid of the Rump Parliament

Cromwell

In the first weeks of working for Bill Snedden in 1973, I remember the office in Canberra was visited by a delegation of Myall Lakes’ miners. At the time, Myall Lakes was a major source of mineral sands, the source of the then new wonder metal – titanium. They were concerned with the intention to close the mining. It seemed genuine and that they were not proxies for the mine owners since they had a union representative with them.

In their minds there was no consideration of the need to preserve the beaches and dunes that constituted part of the landscape. It was understandably all about their jobs, a familiar theme. A very relevant theme now that there is an intention to close some coal mines in the region.

Hawks Nest

I knew about the Myall Lakes at close quarters because a decade later, after the mining had been closed down, I and three others walked the colourfully named trail between Mungo Brush and Hawks Nest. It was a very varied walk through coastal rainforest before emerging upon dunes and then back into scrubland and wetlands. It was a superb if challenging walk, the last part of which was through a marsh where there were supposed to be blocks of wood forming a boardwalk. This had collapsed in places and we were forced to wade through water up to our waists, and then at the end of the walk to rid ourselves of the leeches. However, on that day, I was very much a conservationist.

The miners thus had come to Snedden as a last resort, because they had been told that even the union was not supporting the sand mining being retained. Yet this was not far from Newcastle, where the ALP is electorally entrenched.

What could we do about it?

Snedden chose to be publicly sympathetic. He realised very clearly that there is a political divide in this country, where one side saw representing its task of protecting labour, including here the role of the State, as paramount. Any support in any case would have been seen as opportunistic and fleeting, while alienating traditional supporters.

On the Liberal side, which Snedden led at the time, essentially the policies were around encouraging individual enterprise and the development of wealth, independent of the State, yet not entirely disregarding that the State had a crucial role. It provided certain services, which had been shown or were deemed better to be public enterprises. The problem with such a separation is that in a democracy, such attempts at differentiation are riddled with inconsistencies, paradox not to mention conundra.

Disaffected union members thus do not easily fit with the so-called Liberal side of politics when a basic two-party adversarial system forms the basis of this country’s democracy. The adversarial system has been distorted by the alliance of the protectors of free enterprises with the agrarian socialists who, in their purist ideological form, have been known to ally themselves with the ALP briefly.

There are other elements. The sectarian division in the ALP, which has resulted in once defenders of worker rights, albeit with more than a tincture of Roman Catholicism, separating themselves into the DLP. They crossed the political divide, were regarded as renegades by the ALP and eventually were destroyed as a Party. Elements remain as a core reactionary Falangist rump now embedded in the conservative side of politics far away from their traditional roots. Their ideological basis aligns more easily into the “new liberalism” which has evolved.

The other political party, which probably has progressed beyond the charismatic individual, is the Greens party, but there is no discounting the effect of Bob Brown on promotion of environment protection in Tasmania.

However, a proto-anarchic party, which paradoxically has blind beliefs as a substitute for reasoned policy, is doomed to irrelevance. As was shown in Western Australia hugging trees wearing a twinset and pearls does not win a constituency.

In the end, political parties which do not progress beyond the individual who sets them up or the individual who works the Senate system, primarily but not exclusively a Tasmanian phenomenon, exists so long as they exist. Who still remembers Brian Harradine and the antics he inflicted on this country to secure largesse for Tasmania? So in your lifetime, you were influential, but that Life of Brian, your legacy?

I believe very much in the definition of conservatism that to change your view can be done by persuasive evidence-based reasoning. However, such logic seems to be in short supply these days.

The problem with politics in Australia as I have written elsewhere, is that vested interests typified by the urgers, rent seekers and mercantilists on both sides of the political spectrum have emerged to distort and compromise the political process. They have one basic belief, irrespective of what side of politics they profess, and that is: “Government is an ATM. All I need to have is a password; that is a politician in my wallet”.

Vested interests squeeze out those who have a belief that the political party of choice will take account of your views, if you are a member.

It was salutary watching the 2010 documentary of the GFC debacle and how Wall Street and an array of “respected” academia were involved in almost destroying the world’s financial structures. What happened to them? Many of the perpetrators ended up not only with handsome dividends but also as faces among Obama’s trusted advisers.

Was anybody prosecuted as a result of the Wall Street shenanigans? Nope. No wonder Obama paved the way among the deprived for the ascension of a “saviour” who has avowed to clean the swamp with a broom, he himself infected by fake news and conspiratorial theories.

The Haynes Banking enquiry in this country showed the extent of our diseased society, but already the Government are unravelling the structural cures so recently put in place. Symptomatic?

Don Chipp had the right idea when he used the slogan “Keep the Bastards Honest” as his party’s brand. Unfortunately, Chipp did not have the intellectual capacity to articulate policy arising from what was a strong call for change and, most importantly, integrity.

However, 40 plus years on, with ongoing corruption so evident across the political spectrum, the demand for a “National Integrity Commission” is the perfect way in which what seemingly is a simple issue could become the centrepiece and rallying call for a national party. The issue should be attractive to most of the independent members in the House of Representatives. It seems a single issue, but it is not.

A simple single issue upon which to campaign has the potential to focus the electorate – an Integrity Commission – so much to say about how to promote such a body; so many reminders of integrity lacking in the current crop. Contemplate a party with a pristine white banner with a blue “I” one way-intersecting at right angles with a blue “I”. Maybe throw in a few stars as well.

Eureka may at last have a long term meaning.

The problem with any centrist party is that it has to have a structure, funding, and a strategy attuned to that. In an earlier blog, I suggested a Haircut Party aimed at reducing the entitlements, perks, and the overstaffing which politicians are afforded – something which would test those already within the “parliamentary tent”.

Being a member of Parliament as I identified in articles I wrote years ago when the entitlements and perks were far from what they are today had a number of challenges and bogeys. Staffers then had legitimate policy roles, rather than just harassing bureaucrats and playing puerile undergraduate one-upmanship scherzi. The individual targets such as the choleric Craig Kelly are many, but need to be franked in terms of lack of integrity.

I mention this just to assure those who do glance at this blog, that the two notions are not incompatible – a good haircut gives one a good view of integrity.

However, I am also mindful that after Cromwell died, five years after he uttered the above exhortation, the Rump resumed and needless to say, they exhumed Cromwell’s body and hanged him.

Says something for cremation – but also about embedding policy so that it has no single author.

The Spectre of Parkinsonism

The discussion about post-infective sequelae to viral infections should not surprise anybody. However, those people who carelessly disregard history should at least take notice that the possibility exists.

I had an uncle. He was a very active, successful businessman who built his father’s agency into a profitable business. He was closely involved in attracting Roger de Stoop and his Belgian enterprise in high-end fabric weaving to set up a factory in Melbourne.

However, during the 1930s as a young man my uncle contracted encephalitis lethargica, the aetiology of which has never been worked out beyond an influenza-type pathogenesis being suspected. It was also known as “sleeping sickness” because of the severe alterations in sleep patterns. Within the family, I was told that my mother helped nurse him.

In any event he seemingly recovered and was fit enough to serve in World War 2. However, in the late 1960s, he began to show neuro-psychiatric symptoms, which were initially diagnosed as “anxiety attacks” for which he was prescribed chlorpromazine. That just made him worse, and soon after he was diagnosed as having Parkinsonism, which rapidly progressed – the trembling hands, the mask face, the rigidity. It was the time that levodopa had just been introduced and to that was added the then experimental dopa decarboxylase inhibitors to try and dampen down his movement fluctuations. In hindsight, once his prior medical history was disclosed, the association with his prior disease was made.

The disease progressed and he eventually died, not the death that such a previously active man would have wanted. Nevertheless, even though I was never close to him, I have two strong contrasting memories of him. One was the uncompromising man with a fierce expression in his late forties telling me off in no uncertain terms when I was barely twenty-one – and rightly so; and the man 12 years later in a wheelchair barely able to talk. We two were alone briefly then. I got up to leave, shook his trembling hand and said good-bye. It was the only time I have ever touched anybody on the cheek; his brother, my father, had died years earlier when I was not allowed to see him until he was dead, cotton wool already stuffed in his mouth. But that needs more explanation at another time.

However, the spectre of Parkinsonism is real, especially if theoretically there was a long life ahead of you before the Virus came. I wonder whether it will be associated with a loss of smell, one of the symptoms of the Virus infection, because that may suggest an entry point into the brain along the olfactory cranial nerve, which is not only the shortest cranial nerve but also originates in the brain itself (rather than the brain stem, unlike all the other cranial nerves, except the optic nerve).

We shall see.

There is always a solution

It was a Saturday morning. The phone rang. It was my son. I was working in Broken Hill at the time and coming to visit me, he was in Mildura. He had been booked and had a ticket to travel on the Eastern Airlines Cessna 402 flight. However, he arrived in Mildura at the same time as the camera crew, with its baggage, which was about to film a Coca-Cola commercial outside Broken Hill.

The tiny settlement of Silverton outside Broken Hill had served as the image of the Australian Outback in multiple films, and the road out to the Mundi Mundi plains was the backdrop for the early Mad Max movies. The Mundi Mundi Plains are flat land stretching to the South Australian border, and sitting on a rock overlooking the plains watching the sunset makes one realise how lucky you are to be an Australian as long as it was not a set for Mad Max.

Mundi Mundi Plains

Coca-Cola was rumoured to have a set somewhere on the plains where they shot commercials, and who was this young man with a ticket to stand in the way of a commercial eulogising dark fluid which looks like haemolysed blood but a tried beloved method of stacking on calories for many generations of the world’s youth.

Anyway, son was bumped, and when he rang he presented me with the problem. There was one fight on Saturday; none on Sunday. He enquired whether there was anybody flying to Mildura that day who could pick him up for free. There wasn’t. We quickly dismissed the idea of him hiring a car to drive the 300 kilometres between the two cities. The cost would have been prohibitive for someone of his then age hiring a car under “remote” conditions. Hitchhiking: forget it.

However, there was one outfit from whom I could charter a plane and pilot. They said they could accommodate me – at a price. The pilot had to be roused and when he arrived unshaven, I ignored the fact that he drank a whole bottle of milk immediately.

All systems go.

I phoned the Mildura airport and let them know to tell my son that I was coming down to get him. I went with the pilot, who still stank of alcohol. Despite all the signs, it was uneventful; an hour down and an hour back. I cannot remember the type of small plane, but it was adequate to fit at least four. Flying to Mildura and back on a clear morning as this was before the thermals made their presence felt was diverting. It was a time when the waterholes were filled after substantial rain. When that occurs, it took about a year or more for them to dry out, if there was no more rain – and the farmers used to sow them – it was a harvest of pocket money. Generally, two harvests could be obtained. A tremendous sight.

Yes, I remember clearly this morning and these vivid spots of green, distinct from the unending blue grey of the saltbush, blending as it does into the ochre of the desert.

I always remembered this morning as one in which a potential disaster was so quickly solved – at a price. My son was given a taste of why Broken Hill is what it is – a place that everyone should see before they die. It is the essential Australian whitefella legendary Outback.

My son met Pro Hart while he was there, said he was broke, and did Pro Hart have anything he might have for free. Pro Hart probably thought he was an urger, but generously remembered he was probably the same when he was my son’s then age. The son still has the purse with the Hart dragonfly painted on one corner.

In a way, it was a variation on that wonderful “The Gods Must be Crazy”. Here the Coke bottle stayed in the plane, and bumped my son onto the tarmac. Never thought that I was a bushman or my son was a surrogate for the Coke bottle.

Andrews – a Career going North?

The future is not about his response to COVID-19. Andrews made the wrong decision, just as he narrowly avoided a similar debacle had he allowed the Grand Prix to go ahead in March. If he had done that, and it must have been a close call, Melbourne’s “first wave” may have been as bad as the second. So I hope he remembers who gave him that advice to pull out. Otherwise he would have been cactus.

The Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, recently resigned and conveniently, being a member of the Upper House, her resignation will require no by-election to fill her vacancy and thus few ripples. Depending on the media, she will become a footnote and then forgotten like so many. However, the parliamentary election of her successor may generate a platform for some of the more infantile in the Opposition.

Ultimately no matter how softened, Andrews will be tainted with the decision to hire the private contractors. Whether it was out of contempt for a Department over which he once ruled or not, Victoria was ill-prepared for a major public health emergency. The problem with Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, is that the politicians are continually being told how wonderful medicine and medical research is in Victoria and thus there is a belief that Victoria can weather all ills because of the Parkville precinct. It is more the Parkville rather than the Stockholm Syndrome. Generation after generation of politicians and business leaders have been lulled into believing this.

In this sea of self-congratulation, public health was a casualty. Now public health is very central, and what is happening clearly has been painful for those within Melbourne in particular; but are we witnessing what has to be done when the Virus calls. It is obviously shambolic elsewhere in the world where the Virus is rampaging. Does it need politicians with the resolve of Andrews and his tactical skill to control the outbreak?

Andrews tried the carrot but needed the stick to bludgeon the Virus out of the community. Victoria has surely seen a winter of discontent, but Australia faces a summer far better placed than elsewhere in the World, where the Virus has already conquered and colonised. Here the Virus is being forced into the underground – a terrorist force nevertheless, which will break out. Think ISIS; think Virus – a smaller form, but nevertheless terrorist.

Thus, the challenge for Andrews is to know when his anti-terrorist support is strong and reliable, able enough to be maintained, so that he can “declare a peace” and free his people, who are now knowing the anguish of wartime.

Are the lessons learnt in Victoria generalisable? What time is required to suppress the Virus once it is rampant? What is important is that Andrews has overseen a bungle, responded decisively, and did not cave in despite some attempts, particularly by some elements of the media intent on giving him a permanent pariah status. The legacy of these decisions is yet to be known in full; the Virus has been suppressed – but at what cost?

Reponsibility has been handpassed from Department to Department. But we all know. Of course, who caused the stuff up was the Channel-9 cameraman.

Penitents in Holy Week

In the end, scherzi aside, let’s face it, if you stand out there as the Premier has done, enduring all the slings and arrows day after day, recognise that this is an act of penance. Soon, the penitent can remove the purple drapes, forgiveness has been given? Who knows whether the electorate will give absolution. In the meantime, Victorians, you should move on. There will be no Pallas Revolution.

Mouse Whisper

“Thanks be to God,” Father Ted was breasting the bar of the Balaclava pub in Whroo when he heard.

He remembers when his mate from school, George Pell, could not travel back to Australia because of health problems.

In 2016, supported by a two page medical Report, “Cardinal Pell’s office in Rome issued a statement at the time saying his heart condition had worsened, making it unsafe for him to travel.”

In 2020, glory be, miracle of miracles, a medical report unnecessary because of such a miracle, Cardinal Pell did not issue a statement that his heart condition four years later has improved to such an extent, he was able to scuttle back to Rome on Qatar Airways.

Or perhaps the clouds of civil cases have begun to gather.

Modest Expectations – Biblical Trivia

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

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

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

Maybe Sarah Cooper will be a suitable surrogate.

Hunted? Not quite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangled by a Thread of Cotton

Birdlife in the marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sets the picture for this almost lost resource.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pub in the Scrub

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

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

Fifield’s car graveyards

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

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

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

Ah, the wonderful irony of Australia.

Yuranigh

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

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

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

Aboriginal carved tree trunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuranigh grave site

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

John is not the Name

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

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

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

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

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

He was asked his name.

“Jack,” his uncle replied.

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

“Honey.”

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

One against me.

Mudgee Mud

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

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

Ulan coal mine

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

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

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

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

Different times then, different times.

Mouse whisper

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

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

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

all’aperto!

Modest Expectations – Vince Gair

What I wrote about Biden in May holds in my view, but but for one thing…

The most disturbing vision of Biden is his rear view – essentially that of an old doddering man. Then turn him around and there is that ever-engaging smile – as if he has a giant axon inside his skull that is connected to all the facial muscles, which make him smile on cue when somebody rings the metaphorical bell. 

Biden is a plagiarist, discovery of which aborted his 1988 Presidential campaign. Plagiarism is a mixture of deceit and intellectual laziness – or underlying dumbness. This flaw resurfaced in certain dealings last year.

… Nevertheless, one positive sign that he is a good man is how he has handled grief and he has much to grieve about in his life.

America is in a mess; no matter when the change is made there is a White House reduced to the political nursery of the Baby Trump, and there will need to be someone very focused to clear out the rattles, the dolls, the bucket and spade, and other geegaws fondled and thrown around in the past four years.

I fear Biden just doesn’t have the ability – no fire, only embers. My earlier comments about him have not changed, and my support for Bloomberg would still hold had it not been for this entry of Obama into the frame.

Kamala Harris

He is still a fake, but fortunately Kamala Harris is authentic. I had not been paying enough attention to this very smart lawyer from California because I thought Biden would choose from the talented pool of Democratic women from the Midwestern States, even given that he was colour conscious. The residual influence of the Clintons would have been tested; the accident-prone Susan Rice in the forefront of Hilary’s list.

However, the Obama imago prevailed.

Biden is not adventurous and at 78 he has the habits of a lifetime printed in his electrical circuits. Prejudices such as showed in relation to Anita Hill bubble below the surface, despite all the meae culpae he has given. I never trust a plagiarist – it shows a level  of dishonesty, subterranean it may be.

However, that pales before Trump, a person whose inability to tell the truth is well documented.

When Trump immediately attacked Kamala Harris and called her “nasty” (how pathetic can you be), he starts on the eligibility nonsense that he tried to perpetuate with Barack Obama. He is now repeating the same with Kamala Harris. In so doing, he emphasises the essential similarity between the two. One is the son of a Kenyan and white American union; the other the daughter of a Jamaican and Indian union. Coincidentally both unions broke up soon after the children were born and both had an absent father.

Trump would have preferred the traditional Tobacco Road Afro-American upon which it is easier to spew racial division and hatred.

He has a pathological antipathy to Barack. He cannot stand being mocked, his inferior intellect put to the test, his demonstrable cowardice – all in all, a vicious, corrupt guttersnipe. To put it in simple terms, he cannot bully either Harris or Obama – unlike Biden whom he has shown that he can.

There are two reasons that could be conjectured as to why Biden delayed his choice. One is that he is a natural ditherer (not a good sign in a President with so much to rectify) and the second is that he simply did not want Ms Harris. One may suspect that she is the Obama surrogate. That is not to denigrate her, but it will not be too much trouble for her to “clean up” Pence – and then unleashed she will so clearly become the President-in-waiting.

Two Vice-Presidential reactions when the President became “infirm” are relevant contrasts.

Eisenhower was 67 when he had a stroke in 1957; Woodrow Wilson was 63 when he too had a stroke in 1919. Eisenhower had nearly three years to go; Wilson the best part of two years. Richard Nixon, whom Eisenhower had foisted on him and whom really did not like much, became more prominent directly in policy decisions after 1957.

Trump is 74 and has been rushed to Walter Reed Hospital at least once; Biden is 78. Both probably are testimony to the availability of health care now in modern America, for the affluent at least, particularly in the treatment of cardiac disease and high blood pressure.

Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice-President and who somewhat eerily had been the 27th Governor of Indiana (the current Vice-President Pence was the 50th), followed a different path. Again, although as with Nixon he served two terms, Marshall was disliked by Wilson and particularly by Wilson’s wife so that he was blocked from much of the day-to-day management. However, Marshall was very much his own man with seemingly a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige in refusing to take over as acting President because he feared the precedent that this action would have created.

In other words, even at an age when infirmity can strike suddenly, Biden can be tolerated because (a) Trump is so bad, probably more senile and (b) Biden has a strong deputy. However even the sight of the indecisive Biden face to face with Trump still fills me with trepidation, whereas Harris I suspect could eat Trump for breakfast and still ask for more waffles.

Is Australia prepared for the next Pandemic?

The above is the title of a paper published in April 2017 that had, as one of its authors, Brendan Murphy, whose address was given as Office of Health Protection, Australian Department of Health, Canberra.

It was published in the MJA under Perspectives and begins with the statement “infectious diseases continue to threaten global health security, despite decades of advances in hygiene, vaccination and antimicrobial therapies”. How very true!

It was a paper, which has a table of four Committees with very long names, and because they are labelled current NHMRC Centres of Excellence the assumption is that they are just that. The problem is that much of health research is encased in the gossamer of self-congratulation.

Angels dancing on a pinhead?

Much of medical research is somewhat like exquisite Chinese ceramics in the seventeenth century, refining the tools of the past to render more and complicated dexterity, but not advancing the human condition – defining how many angels you can fit on a pinhead – wonderful feats but of what utilitarian value?

The Murphy paper does not explicitly mention three people who have provided Australia with a buffer in the battle against infectious diseases.

The first was the emphasis by Michael Wooldridge, when he was Minister of Health, on raising the vaccination rates of Australia in the face of criminal behaviour by the anti-vaxxer brigade. Wooldridge had a strong base being close to Prime Minister Howard and being a member of the Expenditure Review Committee. Wooldridge retired and since then Federal Ministers for Health excluding Hunt have been an indifferent bunch in relation to their influence and interest (although at times Abbott showed he was across the portfolio).

The second was Dr Brian McNamee who, on assuming the role of CEO of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in 1990, turned it from being a “basket case” into a world leader in the development of vaccines and blood product. As a bonus CSL is now very profitable. In so doing, McNamee cultivated Australia’s research capacity. He had a keen eye for the very best.

The third is Lindsay Grayson, whose crusade for people to wash their hands has provided a springboard for the community campaign to wash their hands. Men in particular are grubs and Grayson, first in hospitals then elsewhere, demonstrated how important hand washing is in minimising cross infection. His work has resulted in modification of health professional contact with patients.

On the flip side, governments had believed infectious disease hospitals were a thing of the past, and while HIV inpatients gave some of them a prolonged life, these hospitals dedicated to what was believed to be a relic of a past age were progressively closed down.

Fairfield Hospital

As I have written elsewhere I remember in the 1950s being admitted to Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne for a week for an unspecified infection, and as was the wont of the senior doctor at the time I was prescribed chloramphenicol, which was shown to have disastrous side effects. I was in isolation – quarantined – in a dedicated infectious diseases hospital, and did not escape being dosed with chloramphenicol. Nevertheless, I was well treated by a trained staff and still alive.

The New Zealand Chief Medical Officer has used the word “bespoke” in relation to quarantine facilities, especially tailored for the individual circumstance. Fairfield Hospital was just that, until it was closed by the then Premier Kennett in 1996 as a cost cutting measure, a familiar tune when it comes to public health expenditure.

The dilemma for Government now – as part of the grand exit strategy – is whether to invest in the construction of quarantine facilities. Those opposed, generally identified as central agencies, may argue there are quarantine facilities available, which were convenient when the early evacuations from China were occurring, but Christmas Island and Darwin are not the most convenient. Far more troubling for these bureaucrats is the prospect of a vaccine at a time when there is substantial hype about its prospect of success.

There are two points to keep in mind: the vaccine is far from a done deal, and there are plenty of other viruses at a time when the Climate is changing and when technology has conditioned the mood of the population to care only about Self, surrounded by Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tik Tok or Facetime or IsolationXbox.

However, investment in facilities now may be the price that needs to be paid to reassure Australians that our status of being a country with a low COVID-19 infection rate is preserved. It may be that the price to be paid from coming from a place of high infectivity to Australia means automatic isolation.

The paper by Murphy and his co-authors sets outs a number of Committees. Despite all the apparent impressive panoply of intellectual input set out in the paper, Australia was woefully underprepared when the Virus struck and was fortunate that our distance from the source of the original infection provided a buffer. Perhaps in hindsight, what was done there is the template for quarantine facilities to be established.

For Murphy the pamphlet of 2017 becomes the reality of 2020.

Australia just cannot be placed in permanent lockdown on the whim of some set of politicians. There is a need for a finer sieve than group punishment. If there is a lesson from this Victorian debacle it is that nobody should be allowed to visit a nursing home (or a prison) for 40 days or least a significant period after returning from abroad and not developing signs of infectious disease, then so be it. That is an obvious restriction to be put on the table, but there will be others.

The development of quarantine facilities to house the infected or those potentially infected should be near airports, and the further the airport is away from a high concentration of the people the better. There are those who wish for a vaccine, but given that viruses are coming in waves – and until this Virus struck, Australia has dodged the metaphorical bullet.

To get this whole response right is not just a case of consulting laboratory scientists whose ruminations have been effectively ignored by the community until the Virus struck. I have always taken issue with the Fabian approach of pamphleteering for change. As has been clearly demonstrated by Murphy et al in their paper, until the pandemic struck, there was no impact of these matters on the politicians. Now of course the airwaves are full of these same scientists unleashed, some able to communicate well, others not. They remain background noise while those in charge of containing the pandemic continue to work on in a social Darwinian bubble shedding the useless people whilst retaining the useful.

Wartime does not have the luxury of maintaining the idiots, just because they look good in suits. In other words, even though the cacophony of those who love show-boating remains, it is refreshing to see the “survivors”, who an observer thought from the start were competent and see some that you thought were initially incompetent improving. Hence Australia is still one of the best places to live in this Time of the Virus, even with the mistakes.

The danger is that some of the Premiers who have closed borders are caught in a competition to see who can close the longest. Closing borders becomes a mindless and sadly cruel obsession.

Now setting up, in the words of the New Zealander, a bespoke set of quarantine facilities may require less money being tossed to the other politicians-needs-a-legacy projects. I am sure the War Memorial renovations could be put on hold; and the sports stadia.

An evening looking down from the loggia

Just imagine in the Second World War John Curtin advocating for Parliament House to be transformed into the Palace of Versailles. To suggest that is so ridiculous, but Australia is in a similar crisis. The above point is to make everybody think of what is more important than the long-term health of the country – a football stadium for the inheritors of Versailles looking down from their exclusive loggia quaffing champagne and eating truffled lobster – or quarantine facilities where all the components of public health and infectious disease can be concentrated. I say again, this Virus will not be the last the infectious assault. 

The solution I propose is unashamedly simple in conception but difficult in the details of implementation. I know that; unlike the following, which is barely intelligible but it is not the only vapid advice which has been published: And we might do well to remember that the wisest and most effective course of action will more often be forged in the contest of ideas than distilled from unilateral decisions untested by scrutiny and tempered by no real debate.

However, one must not get angry, rather listen to that wise local florist who noted: “when my ability to smell the rose and the eucalypt return, so will I then contemplate the frivolous.” 

Once upon a time in Lithuania

In an earlier blog, I have written in some detail about our visit to the Baltic countries. However, a few comments may be relevant now that the hidden country of Belarus has emerged from behind its curtain. What is surprising is that when we drove from Estonia to Latvia and then to Lithuania we noted that there were no mountain ranges or marshes between the three countries – just nondescript borders. Yet, there are three distinct cultures, three distinct countries. All have struggled to maintain their independence, but with the breakdown of the old Soviet Union they all achieved their independence.

In 1989, to celebrate the independence from Russia on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the people of those three countries formed a human chain stretching across all three countries from the Tikk Herman, a mediaeval Estonian fort in Tallinn, to the square in front of the Lithuanian cathedral in Vilnius.

In Vilnius, we were told that we would no longer need a visa to go to Belarus. Vilnius is close to the border and it was only a couple of hours drive to Minsk if it were not for the stringent border controls, which reflected that Belarus had never moved from its Soviet past. That was correct, we did not need a visa, but only if you flew into Minsk. It did not apply to land borders.

Belarus was once a client state of the Soviet Union and a founder member in 1945 of the United Nations as Byelorussia. Nobody talked about it and because it was translated as “White Russia” it was confused with the white Russians of the 1917 Revolution – those who opposed the Communist red Russians. So anybody who encountered the name shrugged their shoulders, “too complicated; little relevance” and turned to other matters. For Australia, there were very few migrants from there fleeing Soviet domination, unlike the Baltic Countries.

Protests in Belorussia

To most people Belarus (once Byelorussia) has meant nothing – a small landlocked nation of peat and farmlands, iron works and overflow Soviet manufacturing. To those who knew little, it was just a part of the Soviet Union, carved off, given a name, just to be another convenient rubber stamp, to provide another vote in the UN – to jump when the Soviets said so.

The Republic was not retained when the Soviet split up, and it was given its independence. However for Belarus, unlike their neighbours, this did not bring democracy.

So there was little surprise when a burly young former collective farm manager named Alexander Lukashenko seized power in 1994 and then, over time, consolidated his power over the population of nine million. While Yeltsin was there and in the early years of Putin, Lukashenko wanted to have his country re-absorbed into the new Russia, with himself as the Vice-President; that dream faded as Putin consolidated his personal power.

However, Byelorussia has its own language and while most people speak Russian, the country has certain differences. It is Slavic, but it has more than a pinch of Balt. It was an area, once Lithuanian as part of its empire with fortified towns. The Swedish army has tramped across it, as had the Poles. The people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union and in an article in the February 2000 Harper’s Magazine the author, who had decided to visit the Kurapaty Forest just North of Minsk, said:

“Shadows throughout the grove resolve themselves into crosses; the farther in you look the more crosses you see. Here lie the bodies of tens of thousands of Belarusians (estimates run from 30,000 to 900,000) who were executed by the Soviet authorities.” In the psyche of the Belarus people, this Soviet brutality has not been forgotten.

In 2000 Lukashenko, who had some pretensions to being an ice hockey player, was only 35 and had the support of the elderly and rural communities. His approach to government was well-defined as during that year (2000) four opposition leaders had simply disappeared.

But now in 2020 the population seems to have had enough. There is always a tipping point and Putin, if he invades, would be well aware of the cost of not only fighting but also garrisoning a hostile country, especially one where the President-in-exile is lodged in Lithuania. Furthermore, much of the countryside in the South and East has been contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Radioactive caesium is lodged in the soil.

Then there is the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast for Putin to think long and hard about if he moves on Belarus.

Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad, named after one of Stalin’s cronies, was formerly Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia. The oblast, the size of Northern Ireland, was annexed in the aftermath of World War II as a base at Baltiysk for the Russian navy, being its only ice-free port. The area is also essential for Russia’s ability to intercept and interfere with Allied communication networks – Russia’s spoiler.

Putin could move fast and send troops in to rescue Lukashenko, reckoning that his influence over Trump would stymie any Allied response involving Kaliningrad Oblast which, despite being heavily fortified, could be a risky proposition.

Currently Russia is separated from its exclave by both Belarus and Lithuania. An invasion of Belarus, unimpeded by Trump, could tempt Putin to demand a corridor across Lithuania in much the same way that Hitler demanded a corridor across Poland to the then Baltic free-port of Danzig, one of the precipitants for World War II in 1939. Lithuania is a member of the EU, and yet…there is this Manchurian candidate factor redux.

Fanciful? Better to call it out?

However, drawing breath and not wanting to wander into a nightmare more fitting of a video game, in which I am no expert; equally I am no expert in how to destroy the world to save a despot or two.

Mouse Whisper

Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s Vice-Presidential choice in 1984. At the time, there were many ugly rumours about the Democratic New York congresswoman relating to unpaid taxes and family links to organised crime. After all, she was of Italian extraction and from Queens at a time when the Godfather series had stereotyped Italian America – guilt by association is a favourite ploy of the media.

She decided to confront the media and answer each and every question for as long as it took – by 80 minutes she had exhausted the media and when she had finished, according to a report in the Washington Post, many of the cameramen filming applauded her.

As the Washington Post recalled this week:

There was just one critic left to deal with — the conservative columnist George Will. He had sent her roses as a sort of apology, writing in a card that, “Has anyone told you that you are cute when you’re mad?”

Ferraro called Will to thank him for the roses… But there was something she needed to say. 

“Vice-Presidents aren’t cute,” Ferraro told him. And then she hung up.

Modest Expectations – Christmas at Bethany

One of the books I dipped into when I was younger was Oblomov, an 1859 novel by Ivan Goncharov. However, I found the concept of a rich, self-indulgent slob not getting out of bed such an anathema to me that I threw the book aside.

Oblomov

Some years later I again ran across this excerpt from the novel; it is the one which is most often quoted: 

“When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next. You’re happy the day has passed and the night has come, and in your sleep you bury the tedious question of what you lived for that day and what you’re going to live for tomorrow.”

As a doctor, I became aware of the Oblomov syndrome. Oblomov’s syndrome has been formally defined as a mental disorder characterised by low cognitive function, low emotional response, flat affect, or “emotional apathy” and a generally ambivalent approach to life or when reacting to people, events, thoughts, or feelings.

A more personal comment from some character in search of identity labeled himself as a typical “Oblomov” – a weak-willed neurotic who is apathetic, lazy and parasitic, unable to work”, with those characteristics culminating in self-loathing.

The recurring metaphor is a “refusal to get out of bed”. The metaphor may be extended to remaining in pyjamas for the whole day, except for making allowance for personal hygiene. It can become a way of life as Hugh Hefner clearly and very publicly showed, but I believe this outward Oblomovian indulgence covered serious neuro-pathology in the case with Hefner.

During the last months when the country has been in various levels of “lock-down”, I found myself constantly wanting to go back to bed and remain in my pyjamas. That is my reaction, but I wonder how many others, especially those without support – and here my hypothesis says that it is a male condition and not for poor people – have been faced with this situation. However, in nursing homes does it become a less voluntary condition?

The key to combating this condition is to get out of bed, have a shower, get dressed and have breakfast. Gluttony was an obvious refuge for Oblomov so I conjure up and then dismiss the picture of myself sitting in pyjamas consuming a breakfast of thick French toast dripping with butter and maple syrup, with a side dish of bacon and a gallon of orange juice laced with champagne. This context is definitely Oblomov.

Modern technology has provided excuses for staying in bed. Television, iPhones, ubiquitous apps, the introduction of Zoom, somebody to fetch and carry – paradoxically all have made one more Oblomovian. The latter day Oblomov emotes: “Why stir out of my room? Why go outside? Why travel anywhere? Why exercise?” A torrent of questions poured forth until COVID-19 imprisoned us.

As one writer has said: “Throughout many hours Oblomov tries to overcome his passivity but without result. This part of the book is deeply disturbing. After many sad events, over a couple of years, Oblomov dies of cerebral hemorrhage.”

After all, in the book Oblomov stays in bed until page 131; sometimes I have wondered what page I am on.

In the final chapter, Andrei Schtoltz, Oblomov’s friend is talking:

“He came to rack and ruin—though for no apparent reason.” As he spoke Schtoltz sighed heavily. Then he added: “His intellect was equal to that of his fellow’s, his soul was as clear and as bright as glass, his disposition was kindly, and he was a gentleman to the core. Yet he—he fell.”

“Wherefore? What was the cause?”

“The cause?” re-echoed Schtoltz. “The cause was—the disease of Oblomovka.”

“The disease of Oblomovka?” queried the literary gentleman in some perplexity. “What is that?”

“Some day I will tell you. For the moment leave me to my thoughts and memories. Hereafter you shall write them down, for they might prove of value to some one.”

Is the blog after all only a symptom of modern Oblomovism – or is it therapy?

Hijacking the Narrative

John Kitzhaber

Governor John Kitzhaber is a longstanding friend of mine and a former three-term Democratic Governor of Oregon. An emergency physician by training, he was responsible for the Oregon Health Plan. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce his recent blog – which I do in part.

Portland, Oregon

… The arrival in Portland of Federal agents on the pretext of protecting Federal property – in this case the federal building which has, in fact, been defaced and damaged in recent weeks. The damage to federal property, while perpetrated by only a small subset of the protesters, provided the Trump Administration with the opening it needed to direct Acting Secretary Wolf to deploy Federal agents to Oregon, citing the Homeland Security Act as the legal justification for this action. 

A provision in this Act gives the secretary the power to deputize other Federal agents to assist the Federal Protective Service in protecting federal property, such as the courthouse in Portland. Those agents can carry firearms, and arrest, without a warrant, those they perceive as committing a crime. This action, not surprisingly, has heightened tension and increased violent confrontations in the streets. In the process, the protest movement’s emphasis on racism and injustice has been effectively replaced by a manufactured narrative of “law and order”—playing directly into the hands of the President’s re-election strategy. 

To further complicate matters, millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Oregonians will most likely lose Federal support payments next week because of inaction by Senate Republicans to extend unemployment benefits before the current support lapses. Adding to the current environment of protest and frustration, the potentially dark social consequences of panic, blame and desperation that haunt those who cannot meet their most basic needs of food and shelter and see no hope for tomorrow creates an unstable and increasingly dangerous situation. This has been made even more dangerous by increasing inflammatory rhetoric from all quarters. 

What kind of plan could help de-escalate the situation before it spirals out of control? If the protests in our state since the murder of Mr Floyd are about social justice—about putting an end to police brutality and increasing accountability and transparency in law enforcement; about ending institutional racism and addressing the inequities that exist in our state and our nation—then what we are doing right now is not working. The peaceful protest movement in Portland has been drawn into a reactive position, a defensive position, and is at risk of losing the true narrative and putting in jeopardy the very goals for which it has been so courageously fighting.

What kind of strategy can reclaim the justice narrative that holds the moral high ground, and connect the energy of the protest to tangible and measurable actions that can redress the legitimate and long-standing grievances from which that energy flows?

Possible steps in that direction could be:

1. Leaders of the peaceful protest movement—Black leaders in Portland, religious leaders, and those who love courageous but peaceful advocacy for change—call for a short moratorium on the protests for five to seven days and urge their followers and those who seek only to exercise their right to peacefully protest, not to congregate in downtown Portland during this time. This is not a call to end the protests, which must continue. It is an intentional tactical decision to separate, for a time, peaceful protesters from those who seek violence and anarchy and from increasingly provocative and confrontational actions by federal agents. This moratorium would pause the momentum of escalating violence, and stop playing into the hands of those who want to mask the racism and inequality in America with an authoritarian narrative about law and order.

2. During this moratorium, call for a summit that would include Black leaders, protest leaders committed to peaceful change, business and labor leaders, Oregon’s governor, Portland’s mayor, members of the city council, legislative leaders of both parties, the attorney general, and the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon. Given that the summit will necessarily be virtual, former President Obama might be invited to moderate. Considering the importance of this issue, and the amount of national coverage Portland has received over the past few weeks, the president would be likely to accept. This summit would seek two goals. 

First, develop an action plan for short and long-term steps and commitments to address, in intangible and measurable ways, the issues of transparency and accountability in law enforcement, and the conditions of injustice that have marred our state and our nation for far too long. Second, develop a strategy for how to resume the protests at the end of the moratorium in a way that will (a) keep the narrative focused on the conditions of injustice we are seeking to address and the actions, outcomes, and commitments developed in the summit; and (b) minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the likelihood that peaceful protests will be hijacked again by those who seek violence and anarchy.

  1. Also during the moratorium, secure a wide perimeter around the Federal buildings, perhaps deploying the Oregon National Guard for this purpose, to make it very clear that the state of Oregon is capable of and intends to protect federal property—just as it intends to protect state property and private property—thus eliminating the only legal justification the Department of Homeland Security has for sending these agents to our state in the first place. Not only would this perimeter protect Federal property, but it would also create a buffer, once the moratorium has ended, to protect peaceful protesters from violent and provocative actions taken by federal authorities—a task that should not be left solely to the courage of the “Wall of Moms”. 

The course we are now following puts control of the narrative into the hands of those who seek to further divide our state and our nation. We should not facilitate that, we should not allow it, we must take steps to prevent it. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the focus of the protest is not on the legitimacy of laws that protect public buildings and private property from vandalism and damage. The protest is and should remain, focused on racism, injustice, and inequality. We cannot allow that focus and that narrative to be co-opted by either a handful of violent protesters in Oregon or by a national strategy that seeks to fuel and exploit violence and confrontation for political gain. 

The protests of the past two months are set against the backdrop of perhaps the most challenging set of problems in our state’s history: high unemployment, a daunting budget deficit, and a public health crisis. We are only six weeks away from when Oregon public schools have traditionally opened and the uncertainly about how that will be managed has put huge additional stress on parents, children, teachers, and other school employees. The ongoing, but necessary steps to bring COVID 19 under control, including the closure of many businesses and childcare centers, has added another layer of stress and uncertainty.

At this point in time, the combined leadership of Oregon’s public, private and civic sectors—and the energy, talent, and creativity of each and every Oregonian—must be engaged, with single-minded determination, to hold our state and our communities together. Now is the time to develop and implement a five-year strategy to create the kind of change rooted in social justice that we have been unwilling or unable to make in the past; a strategy to put Oregon back on its feet and lead us—all of us—through to a brighter time. By taking back the narrative, as well as the tone and focus of the important protests going on in Portland, protest leaders can help ensure that social justice, equity, and opportunity are built into the foundation of that strategy.

Somewhere in America, during this difficult time, a state needs to demonstrate that we can weather this storm without losing our sense of community, without losing our commitment to one another, and to emerge stronger and more unified than when we began. Let’s make that state Oregon.

Since this posting, Kitzhaber has followed up. Shortly after I posted it the State negotiated a removal of the Federal agents and the Oregon State Police took over.  There was a significant easing of tensions until a few days ago but there has been violence the last two nights, not at the Federal courthouse but at the headquarters of the Portland Police Association”…

The outbreak we had to have

Some may argue, to put it in the words of the Maestro, the Victorian outbreak of the Virus is the Outbreak Australia needed to have.

NSW had been the State where incompetence and carelessness were well on display but from June, Victoria has assumed the mantle and usurped that crown well and truly.

How the Premier handles the crisis could be the template for handling any pandemic – or not. He has a dreadful set of Ministers, the product of union factionalism. His public service, which has been stripped of most of its talent, is not much help. There are exceptions such the Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and his deputy Allen Cheng.

Otherwise, the amount of intellectual integrity underpinning the Victorian approach has been woeful, and Andrews has moved, essentially groping in a policy blackness, on how best to move against a nasty hidden foe. The stress he is absorbing, particular given how weak his Health Minister is, has been extraordinary.

The lesson from the breakdown in the hotel quarantine should be clear – unvarnished or even if “coated”. This “stuff up” is just an example of giving work to your mates rather than assuring experience, trustworthiness, competence and responsibility in the contractors.

Australia is in danger of becoming a country of sunburnt baksheesh and wide brown paper bags. The sense of entitlement in some quarters of this country has grown under the guise of neoliberal narcissism – and its mantra is “only mugs work.”

The disaster is concentrated in the private nursing homes. Brendan Murphy has generally done a good job, but still remains somebody with a “tin ear”, talking about “reputational damage” that the proprietors of nursing homes have suffered, which frankly is irrelevant. There he was, presenting to a Senate Committee while the pages of the newspapers showed the owners of one or more of the affected nursing homes flaunting their yellow lamborghinis and bronzed buffness.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Government has shirked its responsibility. It has yielded to the shibboleth of “business knows best, Government should get out of people’s lives” and hence allowing self-regulation to be overseen by a group of bureaucrats waving warm lettuce leaves.

The training of the lowest level of health carers in the nursing homes is the benchmark level for adequacy and knowledge of health care. The simplest element of this knowledge and care is hygiene and hence infection control – theirs and those for whom they are caring, whether they be labelled patients, clients, customers, residents – or just people. Let us not descend to calling them “mum and pops” or “kiddies”.

However, it is not only the “lowest” levels of health carers that do not wash their hands. There are many surveys that show doctors and medical students do not routinely wash their hands – and to a lesser degree, even nurses. It would be interesting to know if the increased availability of hand sanitisers in the community may have changed habits and if there is any objective evidence that shows this is so.

The Commonwealth Government should at least be obtaining draft recommendations from its Royal Commissioners now, because the Victorian misadventure is a case study in progress and enables the Government to see what works. The Victorian misadventure is just such a fertile ground.  The Commissioners are realising that that one does not often have the opportunity to see what works or does not work “in real time”. Bugger the ivory tower – this is better than any self-serving submission. The Victorian situation is a case study in progress!

Andrews is in survival mode. However, he is all Victoria has. The predictable antics and hectoring for the sake of point scoring by a woeful set of politicians is more than unhelpful. Yet the Coates report is likely to be ugly. Already, the media watering can is nurturing the rumours.

If this next six weeks doesn’t work and with the numbers of infected people in Victoria being driven down, Andrews may be gone, subject to a Pallas coup.

Nursing home owners’ conference?

And what of the other States? What are they doing preventatively to rein in the operators of the private nursing home industry – to put a cap on the purchase of yellow Lamborghinis. Or are they behaving like “normal” governments – alternatively piously self-satisfied, sitting on their hands or putting “it on the long finger” until the community pressure becomes too great, all the while wishing the problem of the aged just disappears. Imminent elections as will be occurring in a number of states colour every policy decision.

One little measure, Commissioners Briggs and Pagono, presumably your Report will contain the amount of money the nursing home owners and shareholders contribute to the various political parties. No, of course not, not in the Terms of Reference.

All my problems come at once 

My son was on the same flight from America as Dr Higgins, in the Precovidassic era when the political dinosaurs stalked the World.

That week on March 8, CNN reported that there were more than 550 cases of the “novel coronavirus” in the USA. According to CNN at that time “around the globe, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 3,800 people and infected more than 108,000, the majority in Mainland China.”

Both men had independently acquired the then novel virus in the USA or on the flight. My son was actually No. 13 in Victoria. He went off to Box Hill Hospital when he felt mildly ill but had to battle the staff to get tested; eventually he prevailed. Despite being a journalist, he resisted publicising his plight, and went home, self isolated, tested positive and then stayed with his family in isolation for two weeks. No fuss.

Dr Higgins received more publicity, possibly because he has a famous daughter. As with my son, he had a minor upper respiratory infection and was tested. He however went back to work pending disclosure the test results for this “novel virus”. He also tested positive. Minister Mikakos weighed in and gave Dr Higgins a totally unreasonable “spray”, especially as he did not transmit the Virus! True to form, did she apologise? No, the lady was not for civilised responding.

However now Mikakos is on limited release, such has been her effect on containing the COVID-19 spread. That she is tweeting in the middle of the night is bit of a worry. I am afraid she gets no sympathy from me.

I suspect she and a number of other Ministers will resign.

She cannot be blamed for destroying the Health Department’s corporate memory and limiting the medical input in favour of advice that condemns “the medical model” (whatever that is) and fuels an environment where nobody with medical expertise would want to work. That’s the history of the Victorian Department of Health over the past decade. However, the attitude started many years before, with John Paterson and his contempt for the medical profession.

However, reviewing the Kennett legacy is not part of the current review. Kennett promoted gambling, including poker machines, as a significant contributor to the Victorian Government’s coffers. I am old enough to remember some of his disparaging comments about old people. There is no review of the spread of organised gambling and the harvest being reaped by overseas betting agencies, often at the expense of the elderly.

Although I used to like to punt and especially loved watching Winx, I question why racing has been given an exemption. City and country racing persists in Victoria and the industry seems to move seamlessly between Stages 3 and 4 Lockdowns. As one Victorian put it, “Would be a great feeling when your business is going down the toilet to turn the TV on and watch the essential horsies go around”.

However, an erudite friend of mine said: “what else is there to watch on afternoon television”. It should be noted that racing in Victoria, whether dog or horse is in the Ministerial portfolio of one Martin Pakula, who also has direct oversight of Disasters and Catastrophes.

However, the whole question of preference for sport pandering to the jocks, the whole reliance of government on gambling revenue at a time when, paradoxically, the same crowd that own the horses are often those who are wanting taxation cuts – presumably to buy more horses.

Overlaying this jock anti-intellectual climate is the cosy relationship between government and big unions (Victoria), big business (Federal) and big accounting/consulting firms (New South Wales). Queensland, with its long history of political corruption being an irritant, will have its day of reckoning as well.

The day of reckoning for the smaller States will be in the lifting of the State of Lockdown. This will be a test of shared responsibility in the face of inflammatory media that uses words like “carnage, deadliest, surge, tsunami” – any word that evokes anxiety in the community. Victoria has “stuffed up” because of a number of people, whose metaphorical heads should soon be gracing Spring Street gutters.

It is unfortunate that it is election time in various States so there is a propensity to blindly apply border restrictions, which flies in the face of Australia being a nation. Has anybody given a thought to Australia being balkanised, with Tasmania the Montenegro and the Northern Territory Kosovo?

Been there, chaps! As we headed towards the Albanian border a couple of years ago, the driver turned to me and said: “Have you got a gun?”

Having heightened the level of anxiety to a feverish level for political reasons, what will be the nationally agreed acceptable Virus levels to allow all borders to re-open, and moreover New Zealand? Elimination – that is, insisting on zero cases before opening borders is political nonsense, even in the face of there being no vaccine. Restlessness in the community increasingly will only require a minor incident before the restlessness and restrictions spills out onto the streets with the targets, the perceived virus spreaders.

Thus, agreement over what level of infection constitutes “suppression” is a priority. Once that is agreed then appropriate resources can be assigned so that Australia (and hopefully New Zealand) has one system of public health to maintain that suppression across Australia and New Zealand.

Once this relationship is tested at a government level then expansion of the initiative can be offered to other South Pacific countries. It is important in opening up trading and tourist links. As a former President of the Australasian (Australian and New Zealand) Faculty of Public Health Medicine, who advocated closer links with Pacific nations over 20 year ago working with the then Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs Gordon Bilney, I feel reasonably assured of my credentials to offer this suggestion.

As the historian Humphrey McQueen has written: “In 1915 an external menace had driven Australians together; by 1919, an internal danger revealed yet again how easy it was for Australians to stand apart. If national unity involved loyalty to the Commonwealth as an administrative machine, the Pandemic showed how little of it there was.”

McQueen is somewhat harsh on Australia since New Zealand suffered more because of the laxness of its quarantine arrangements compared to those mandated by each of the Australian States. However, the pandemic varied widely. Tasmania did not have one recorded case. Yet one major consequence was the establishment of the Department of Health in 1922 and the assumption by the Commonwealth of the quarantine power, which had lain fallow in the Constitution.

In 1936, the National Health & Medical Research Council was set up so the Chief Medical Officer had a public health forum. Early on they were faced with the 1937 polio epidemic. “The prevalence of the disease in Victoria caused concern in other States, particularly New South Wales and South Australia. Up to twenty crossings into NSW were patrolled by police. Special police were stationed at railway stations, aerodromes, bridges over the Murray River and at the wharves in Sydney to control the possibility of the infection being spread from Victoria to New South Wales. Vehicles were stopped and checked.” 

Sound familiar?

Mouse Whisper

I have always wonderd why they use the word “shrewd” to define the astute mouse, rather than just say moused mouse. I have always thought of these vagabonds sleeping or digging tunnels under hedges as our country cousins. Apparently not, even though they are characterised as “shrewd”. I find that us mice are closer to the Porcupine family than to the Shrews.

Just as well I have made that point. Some shrews have salivary poison which they inject when they bite unsuspecting prey. Thus the derivation of “shrew” can be reflected in the Swedish, Danish and Icelandic words for “cut”.

While it is a shrewdness of apes, it is a caravan of shrews. As they tunnel, shrews navigate like bats: they emit ultrasonic clicks that reflect back to their ears to create an aural picture of the surroundings up to about a metre away. So the nursery rhyme caravan of three blind mice may be in fact “shrews” – talk about giving a mouse a bad name. We mice would never run up a clock in that way.