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 – Time Passages

I was given the latest biography of Governor Macquarie last year for my birthday. Of the cast of so-called British invaders, Arthur Philip and Lachlan Macquarie have stood out for their positive effect on the early colonial settlement.

Both men stood above the graft and corruption of a community of rogues that sat round the rum barrel and who had already destroyed one Governor in Bligh.

I named the Oration that the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine (AFPHM) holds annually after William Redfern, who Macquarie recognised for his skills in health, although he had arrived in Sydney as a convict. Again, Macquarie promoted Francis Greenway, the convict architect – one of his early assignments was to supervise the renovation of the dilapidated Sydney Hospital.

Governor Macquarie, especially in his early years, was both energetic and innovative. Unsurprisingly the then Sydney establishment, having destroyed his predecessor, progressively undermined him using tactics that have persisted until the present day.

Remember, the Tall Poppy syndrome had its genesis in the early NSW colony.

Macquarie was not particularly well in 1820 near the end of his Governorship when he entertained the Russian mariners, who turned up in Sydney for repairs and replenishment after sailing in the Antarctic.

Von Bellinghausen’s Vostok

The two Russian ships, the Vostok and Mirinyi were under the command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellinghausen, one the greatest Russian explorers. He had served in both the Russian and British Navy, which suggests that he was at least competent in English. He had circumnavigated the world between 1803 and 1806. When he berthed his ships in Sydney in mid-1820 he and his crew were then partially through circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent. His expedition has been described as “one of the greatest Antarctic expeditions on record, well worthy of being placed beside that of Cook.

There is no record of the consumption of vodka, rum and Scotch but Macquarie’s hospitality was not mirrored when a Russian ship, Amerika visited in both 1832 and 1835. The press reports reflected the fear of a Russian invasion, which was heightened later during the Crimean War.

And in the latter part of the century when the Russians visited again in 1882, the Melbourne Age editor, David Syme, was duped into believing that Britain and Russia were about to go to war when there were three Russian warships in Port Philip Bay, and their commander Admiral Aslangegoff was ensconced in the Menzies Hotel.

It is reported that the Admiral rebuffed all invitations, even though in Melbourne there was an honorary Russian consul, James Damyon who, judging by his mansion in Glenferrie, probably could have accommodated the Admiral. Melbourne, then extremely wealthy, certainly had its moments. The suggestion of an imminent war was refuted from London and the whole episode was found to be a hoax.

Australia escaped what occurred in Africa, where the European nations subdivided the Continent during the nineteenth century – at great cost to the indigenous people. This had been happening earlier with Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British colonial invasions, but in the nineteenth century they were joined by French, German, Belgian and finally Italian interests. Even the Danish had briefly ventured into Africa and hence there was a land grab of massive proportions with subjugation and dispossession of the indigenous people.

Our continent remained a British settlement even though there were many European nations plus the Americans and later the Japanese roaming around the Pacific looking for plots of land on which to plant a flag.

Broome Cemetery

Yet around Broome, there are Aboriginal people with Japanese names; in Darwin Chinese names, but most Aboriginal people have a white fella name indicating some European ancestry. I have West Coast Irish ancestry, but my name is that of the British invaders into Ireland. I suppose we could go about rejecting these names, and I don’t know whether any of the Premier of Queensland’s ancestors were on any of the Russian ships. At some time, we are all invaders with different reasons – it is what makes up that mess which is Us.

The point is that Australia escaped being hacked about by European countries. It is not inconceivable that the Dutch could have colonised the West; the French Tasmania, and, given the evidence of the stranded Mahogany ship, the Portuguese in Western Victoria.

Therefore, Australia was left to the British, and those crucial years in the late 18th century were lost to other potential colonisers. That homogeneous colonisation assisted us becoming a nation.

Yet in 2020 this minuscular coronavirus has enabled those populist chancers who control some of their States, who seem to view their fellow Australians from other States as contagion, full rein to destroy the integrity of the country.

I have lived in the majority of States. I accept what Daniel Andrews has done with Victoria; I understand why the NSW Premier has acted as she has done with the NSW Border with Victoria – both Andrews and Berejiklian are reasonable people – however reasonable is not perfection. But the others – what a bunch of chancers, so far out their depth that they think that they are walking on water when they are in fact drowning.

The most depressing sight is that of Morrison changing the pillowslips when the whole structure of Australia is quaking from the foundations upward and threatening to disintegrate.

A Hundred Kilometres South of Louth

This happened when we were driving a clapped-out rental car back from Adelaide to Sydney and somehow we had strayed onto the road along the Darling River from Wilcannia to Bourke. It was a beautiful day, and we decided to go a different way home.

There are a couple of watering spots on the way to Bourke. Tilpa (population three) with a war memorial to Breaker Morant is one. The pub at Tilpa is a corrugated iron shed with a veranda. When we arrived that day, it was rocking and rolling with pig shooters. The noise could be heard from across the road, where we parked the car.

Tilpa Pub

We were thirsty – so I walked into the bar. As soon as I put my foot on the bar floor, all eyes turned towards me and everybody stopped talking. Eyes and silence followed me to the bar. I resisted asking for two chardonnays, and asked for two schooners of light beer.

“Cans do?” the barman broke the silence.

“Yep.”

I put a ten dollar note on the bar, and said “Keep the change.’

“Not enough.”

I added another ten dollar note, picked up the cans, and weaved my way out of the bar. The ripple of disdain was noticeable from some of those who looked me up and down. There was barely any movement to make a path for me. Once I was out of the bar, the noise resumed. I had given them a butt for their collective feeling of superiority. Cans of light. “Girlie” beer! What would you expect from a joker like that!

This silence is also found in Ireland. Walk into a bar in a rural pub there, and you learn the sound of silence. Make sure that there are enough distracted locals in the bar- otherwise you may find yourself in a conversation.

Xenophobia can only go so far, but as you’ll find out it does need a throng to flourish.

However, there was a rock at Tilpa, which seemed to mark the junction of two tracks. It was a bit heavy, but we wrestled it into the car boot. It now lies in the front garden at home, a reminder of Tilpa, a large sandstone not alone but surrounded in the garden by rocks from around the world. These rocks remind us of where we have travelled. Tilpa, the rock, seems happy here. No xenophobia between the rocks and not forgetting the neighbourly Russian sage growing in the crevices.

Spotlight on the Gig Economy

The gig economy gets its name from each piece of work being akin to an individual ‘gig’ – well so they say.

I remember a gig as a little seat between two very large wheels being drawn by Dobbin. The gig is also has been quoted as a deprecatory term for a “flighty girl” and subsequently indicated anything, which whirls, or is dangerous or unpredictable. The horse-drawn gig always suggests instability, but one got a good view.

Therefore, when I was whirling around in part-time work to keep myself financially alive, I participated in what was the gig economy without it being named as such. As I mentioned once before, I rode the back of a security van with a loaded pistol in my pocket and no idea how to use it. Up front were a couple of firemen earning a few quid on their days off. They were the blokes who actually carried the payroll. For my part, squashed among the payroll tins, I never worked out whether my employment was recorded – probably not but I did use my real name.

However, that was not my most interesting gig. I was asked whether I would like to run one of the spotlights at the Water Follies, an American outfit, which came to Australia in the summer over a number of years. They performed on the Kooyong Tennis Centre Court.

First, I had to learn to operate the spotlights. The spotlight was formed by the carbon cathode and anode sparking and burning at some extraordinary temperature inside a metal box into which a window was inserted so you see the two carbon electrodes. This was important because the worst thing possible was for the anode to burn out before intermission. So there was an optimal distance between the two carbon electrodes, a knack that had to be learned, as was making sure that the spotlight was a circle. Also, I could not compromise the integrity of the circle of light by allowing the electrode shadows to intrude into it. That was also a knack, and if that was not mastered then I would not be given more work.

The divers

The spotlight had various coloured filters and a shutter to block out the light. This was used when the spotlights had to be doused when the Water Follies’ divers were doing their routines and when they mucked up, the spotlight workers were blamed by the announcer for dazzling the divers. For the first time I learnt that truth can be alternative reality. Our spotlights were always shuttered during the diving segment.

Everything was manual, and during the intermission I had to replace the anode and given the heat being generated I needed gloves and a tool to remove and replace the anode. My employer did not provide any. Thus, I used heavy gardening gloves and long nosed pliers from the family toolbox.

The other thing I learnt on my first night was how far I had to trudge up the stands and how far the drop was behind my seat next to the spotlight. In those days, thank God, heights did not worry me.

How did I learn the trade? On the job. I worked around the spotlights in the Princess Theatre and I estimate that, as a side benefit, if you call it that, I saw “Kismet” 32 times. Yet I never tired of hearing Hayes Gordon singing “A fool sat beneath an Olive Tree…” Later I could have added or “perched above the Centre Court at Kooyong when the wind was blowing and I had forgotten my sweater”.

Hayes Gordon, the “Kismet” lead, was of that genre of baritones who always appear larger than life. Even though he had been proscribed and hence virtually exiled from his home USA by McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) he never lost his genial front and the twinkle in his eye – great memories of him. He would have been 100 this year.

There was definitely one benefit of the job. The Kooyong railway station near the Courts was on my train line – eight stations from home. That was very useful because in those days very few of us had cars. 

If it has e- before the technology, it must be e-good?

Sooner or later, the trials of e-scooters will end and a decision will be made. Not all hyped technologies succeed: the much-vaunted Segway is ceasing production.

The same fate probably awaits some of the many electric personal transport devices on sale.

In the meantime, it may well be battles over policy that matter most. Pavements, cycle lanes and roads are ‘all up for grabs’ as streets are reshaped in the post-lockdown world.

Whether e-scooters and other small electric vehicles are allowed to share this planned cycling infrastructure could be pivotal. Scooter companies want it. Others aren’t so sure.

When I read this, I was incredulous. Weren’t these vehicles toys? But then I do remember when Segways were being spruiked from 2002 onwards as an answer to negotiating the traffic. Now production ceasing, the company has switched to making electric scooters.

What I find interesting about the rise in electric car manufacture is a concomitant rise in concern for the waste produced by this technology and how to remove it safely without further polluting the environment.

After all, previous transport technology never factored in the pollution and waste. Even with the horse, the streets were covered in excrement. In addition to its look and smell, it was one the major sources for tetanus bacteria. The best example of what it must have been like is around Central Park in New York where the horse-drawn carriages congregate.

The other technologies – whether it be the steam engine of the locomotive or the internal combustion engines of cars and trucks or the jet engines scarring the troposphere where most of the carbon dioxide is lodged – have waste products that have belatedly not only been recognised but also been the subject of investigation into its removal.

For instance, it took 80 years before lead was removed from petrol in Australia, even though the toxicity of lead was well-known.

I do not pretend to know much about the technology that is driving the cost and efficiency improvements in electric car manufacture. However, it seems clear that electric cars are set to replace the older technologies. The time scale will be driven by concerns over climate change and the need to travel – and the economics

Somewhat encouraging is that unlike previous technologies, concern is being shown over what you do with the pollution and waste left until well after the actual technology was developed.

The metallurgical aspects of battery technology are driven by the availability of the vital metals. In this case all roads lead to China, with its near monopoly on rare-earth production.

The commonly-mentioned elements are cobalt, lithium and nickel. Most of the cobalt comes from the laughingly described Democratic Republic of Congo under hideous artisanal conditions employing child labour. Costs of extraction are low but pollution high. Most of the big cobalt mines are owned by the Chinese and the biggest refiner of cobalt is China. The car manufacturers realise this and with an eye to the consumer, other more ethical sources of cobalt are being investigated. For instance, BMW has been negotiating with Australian producers. While Australia’s supplies of cobalt are dwarfed by the Congo’s reserves, they are nevertheless substantial.

Lithium is mentioned as an essential metal in electric vehicle batteries but the use and improvement in the use of lithium is dependent on consistent supplies of cobalt. Other metals, palladium and nickel, are mentioned in the production of these batteries, but always there is the mention of the rare earths – 17 elements which are classified as lanthanides. Here China clearly dominates, and which of the rare earths is preferred in electric car batteries is kept as secret as KFC’s “secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices”.

Coal and petroleum were single substances – easily identified and subject to sub-classification. Uncomplicated; even our future Prime Minister was able to identify coal for all his Parliamentary colleagues. However, he might struggle to distinguish an ingot of samarium from one of terbium, if these are relevant. He could be excused because the battery producers do not publicly identify any particular rare earth.

The production of the electric car battery which will enable the electric car to travel from Sydney to Perth, averaging a little below the speed limit and yet not weighing the equivalent of a Leopard tank, with perhaps only a need to charge the battery every 1,000 kilometres (the newest batteries guarantee 800 kilometres), is very tempting – even for Mr Musk. The distribution of charging stations is vital, and their placement will require much tactical thought.

Since the nature of the battery and the interdependence between metals means that the cost and pollutant side-effects need to be factored in, the question of what to do with waste, not only of the metal ore production but also of waste disposal, looms large. It is being suggested that, given the scarcity of some of these metals, there will be a strong incentive for recycling – pyrometallurgy being one such means, good for cobalt but not for lithium. There is no one technology that suits all.

However, what is heartening is the level of debate about minimising pollution and finding the best way to deal with waste, starting now when the electric-powered car is emerging from its infancy.

It will be interesting to see how Australia’s policy makers cope, given the rash of sustainability policies being announced, none of which encompass electric vehicles, and given the activity around this area, I would have thought should be a worthy investment.

My friend is not so sure. He constantly is assailed by a trail of spruiking, detailing how quickly the electric battery grail is advancing. To him, it reinforces his belief that the technology is far from settled. I would have thought that it is an incentive for Australian investment. I cannot understand why Australia wants to invest in areas that have been shown to have no future – like carbon capture – or have a limited future like gas; and yet ignore the electric battery, which does have a future. Yet the technology is far from settled. Getting it right would presumably provide a return on the investment. Just give it a timeline.

Death of an Orchid

We had a bumper year growing orchids this year. As the orchids wilt and die, one was left on my desk. The three sepals have already shriveled into umber, the veins once green have changed to brown lines. One leaf remains defiantly that soft green still with veins of green, but death is coming as the very tip of the leaf has that telltale umber shade.

The central column remains strong and the colour of the labellum still has its flamboyant attractiveness, which invited many suitors to pollinate. It still has that glorious magenta lip with the colour dissolving into a flecked trail for the suitor to follow into its interior. The anther cap is dying faster, but then it has always been an accessory. Her companion orchid on the stem stills survives in the vase with its bodyguard of lavender spears, young and attractive but soon themselves to die, keeling over, not retaining the regal exit of the orchid flower.

The orchid flower will be allowed to die gradually on a comfortable place on my desk – not trampled on a garden path or left to rot in a garden pot. Dear orchid, I shall watch over you – your nobility in dying will be respected, that I guarantee.

Mouse Whisper

I was combing my whiskers when I detected him talking, perhaps to me. He had just pushed himself away from the screen. He was not happy. However I worry myself when in this world so many of my brothers and sisters exist in camps labelled “medical research”. 

I thought this is one thing the Virus would have killed, if the “Me too” movement had not got in first. But, no. The next James Bond movie is due for release in November. It still stars Daniel Craig. “No time to Die” is the title. I would have thought it is the time for these films to die. The idea of having James Bond converted to a colored woman heroine is both illogical and laughable. It was bad enough to see the Queen of England complicit. Judi Dench should be ashamed of her appearances and in so doing condoning the primal underpinnings of those films in which she appeared.

James Bond, the figment of a decaying order on the cusp of irrelevance, even when the first Bond film was released, with its campy Sean Connery and its good ol’ sexist escapism and overlay of technological gimmickry. Over the decades the films have gradually transformed into a series of sado-masochism panegyrics.

Torture in our democratic society is not escapism. Yet the Bond films seem to wallow in it and in so doing assist in deadening society to the atrocities being committed all over the world, often in the name of democracy. The problem is that the torturers seem never to be bought to justice. They just fade away into the background knowing there will be no retribution.

We thus are helpless enough without filmed torture being exploited to pay for somebody’s yacht on the Mediterranean.

Ian Fleming

 

 

 

 

Modest Expectations – Round & Round

There was much hype surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Olympic Games with the spruiking by the ABC of their biopic, Freeman. Given the cloying, hagiographic way many of these biopics are constructed around sporting celebrities, one might have anticipated a certain predictability with a treacly voiceover. Therefore, I planned to give it a miss.

However, the television was tuned to the ABC during the Sunday night meal and it was just left on. I started watching with the eye of the sceptic prepared to switch it off. I did not. It was a fine depiction of an extraordinary woman.

I must say that at a time where the world is devoid of genuine heroes and heroines (if that word is still allowed) Cathy Freeman stands out. Running 400 metres faster than anybody else in the world was the centrepiece, but in relation to the woman herself it is, in the end, incidental.

Yet without this extraordinary talent, she would have been yet another unrecognised good person, one of those who form the spine that anchors this country. She is Indigenous. It marks her out. She provides that sense of grace that was so well emphasised by the beautiful unnamed Bangarra dancer, and as with Cathy Freeman, grace is so natural – more than just a physical attribute.

This artistic portrayal, far from complicating the vision of Freeman winning and thus being a source of distraction, made me realise that this was more than just an expression of the filmmaker’s sensitivity, it demonstrated something rare in the Australian psyche – a genuine unsentimental view of what grace under pressure is all about.

Freeman engendered on that night a sense of optimism in a country which wallows in its veneration of failure – Burke and Wills, Gallipoli and Fromelles immediately springing to mind.

Now, two decades on, she has remained the same determined person dedicated to doing good without constantly reminding us of it – that was one message that I took from this biopic.

Thick as a Plantain

Queensland is a different world, to a point. When I was first exposed to the public service in Queensland, I was amazed to see and feel how centralised the system is. It so closely approximated attitudes in the Victorian public service, which I experienced when I had worked there, that I felt quite at home.

The authoritarian personality dominates the centralised mentality of Queensland public servants. It was almost to a level that paper clip distribution in a Camooweal government office depends on the signature of the Departmental head in Brisbane.

When the authoritarian personality is combined with a healthy dose of xenophobia and lack of intellectual integrity it perfectly describes Pauline Hansen. Yet such a perception of her underpins a preparedness of Queenslanders to elect her – time and again.

Her tearful retreat whenever she is under political fire relies on a cynical appeal to an undercurrent of paternalism. If she were a man, she could not hide behind a veil of crocodile tears. The extraordinary performance of the Queensland Premier last week accusing the Prime Minister of bullying when he was making a perfectly reasonable request shows that in Queensland the Hansen playbook is very adaptable – in this case by the Premier herself.

Then there is her chief health officer, Dr Jeanette Young who, according to the Premier, apparently is running the State – at least in health and in border exemption. She does not have any public health qualifications despite having been in the job for 15 years.

This is the same Jeanette Young who, during the swine flu scare of 2009, advocated for Queenslanders to stock up on food – in essence stirring up panic buying. Well, Queenslanders, there has been another outbreak of swine flu in China, which has been kept quiet. China has just banned pork imports from Germany because also has been the emergence of swine flu there.

Dr Young is unyielding – to a point.

The Premier and her minions may want to blame Peter Dutton for everything, and the Hanks imbroglio allows the State government to spread some of the topsoil, but Dutton cannot be blamed for allowing the polo-playing McLachlan with his flock from descending on Queensland (and a variety of other well-shod Victorians) to serve out their quarantine in the comfort of a resort. If the Premier is to be believed, this is the handiwork of Jeanette Young, who makes the decisions to allow special access. However, in so allowing it, this seems to contravene everything the resolute Jeanette Young says she stands for.

Yet Jeanette Young is not averse to the quavering voice when under media scrutiny. After all the health plausibility of many of her decisions is inversely related to the political expediency. At least with Daniel Andrews, he has now learned that public health considerations must have a scientific basis; and is following a course. He is in for the long term. Sounds familiar. Perhaps he has observed the Chinese devotion to the long term solution at close quarters.

Dr Young has recently acquired a deputy, Dr Sonya Bennett, who has worked in the Royal Australian Navy before joining the Queensland Department of Health to oversee public health three years ago. Given the propensity of professionals in the armed forces to collect post-graduate certificates and diplomas, Dr Bennett has acquired appropriate public health qualifications. She has the credibility of sitting on a government committee to oversee communicable diseases, and presumably is assisting in the flow of exemptions.

However, in the end Queensland with in all its authoritarian rigidity has to find a way out of its completely illogical stance of border closure that demands a rate of community transmission that is absurdly low before the drawbridge is lowered. In a population of 8.129 million, NSW is reporting around five cases a day – that’s 1 per 1,625,800. Maybe the election will do the trick – one way or the other, if Australia can wait that long.

But, Jeanette, batten down the hatches, swine flu may be coming again and Australia needs a unified strategy to deal with a new swine flu outbreak – apart from advocacy of panic buying. Time to start behaving like a country.

But, you know, it is Queensland and do they know how to bend a banana!

The little sparrow 

Having discussed Cathy Freeman, this vignette of another inspiring woman may help ease reaction to the writings immediately above. Sarah L. was a young English doctor when she met me in the corridor of the hospital. She looked so small; even childlike and yet when I met her at Doomadgee, I soon found out her resilience belied her appearance.

Doomadgee is mainly an Aboriginal settlement in the Queensland Gulf country and has had its moments with a police station under siege and Aboriginal riots. The problem with this settlement is that it is the meeting place of various mobs, and in such clusters, there are always underlying tensions, even when there is no violence between rival mobs.

When she greeted me, she apologised for saying she was a little tired. The previous evening, she had been called out to triage a serious vehicle roll-over, and given that nobody wears seat belts, there was a variety of serious injuries. She had to work out the priority in treatment and who needed to be evacuated to Mount Isa or to the coast. They had all survived.

She also wanted to set up an evidence-based treatment for scabies, which was endemic in the community. Scabies is caused by mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), which burrow into folds of skin, are found in children’s hair – and often, in the severest form, the scabies lesions are inter alia infected by streptococcus pyogenes. Scabies spread by contact and older people tend to be “super-spreaders”. There are a number of treatments that work, but they require compliance. She wanted to test ivermectin, which can be administered orally and used topically.

Scabies

Ivermectin’s parent drug was discovered in Japan in the 1970s and was first used in1981. It is the essential agent for two global disease elimination campaigns that will hopefully rid the world of both onchocerciasis and filariasis. These diseases affect the lives of many millions of poor and disadvantaged throughout the tropics. Ivermectin is also effective against mite (scabies) and lice (crabs or pubic lice) infestation. It has a very wide use against parasitic infestation, but for the use proposed by this young doctor there were still unknown elements.

The attack on scabies means ridding the home of the mites and, for instance, the habit of sleeping with dogs, which occurs in Aboriginal communities, can facilitate the spread. The young doctor, who had paediatric training, wanted to clear the children in the community of scabies.

I was impressed by her enthusiasm, and her approach reflected my ideal public health physician – able to have clinical expertise and yet wanting to set up a trial to see what would best suit her community.

This week, I tracked her down to see what happened. Yes, she successfully eradicated scabies, but that was so long ago.

She was pregnant at the time I met her in Doomadgee, and subsequently she had a second child. They all moved to the Coast. Her professional career was interrupted by a couple of major car accidents – one on Magnetic Island and one in Townsville – after she left Doomadgee. She took a long time to recover, and has been left with residual loss of vision in her left eye. She is now practising at Townsville Aboriginal Health Service.

To me, she was an exemplar of a doctor working in a remote community who was able to cope with emergencies but yet with the curiosity and determination of the public health physician. She epitomised the very best of medical practice, but her experience also demonstrated the lack of sustainability of a health system built on the individual worth without there being succession planning. That is a major problem that has bedevilled medical practice, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Before I made contact with her this week, while reflecting on Doomadgee, it reminded me of looking out of the train window and seeing two women tending a colourful beautiful garden alongside the train platform. Then the train moved on, and I did not have a return ticket.

However, on this occasion, I knew the name of the woman and when she rang me back, the voice was still so familiar. It was still the bright, breezy Sarah.

Letter from Victoria

I was talking to a friend of mine in Victoria. He is a consultant geriatrician, one of the best. He is also a member of a nursing home board.

In this State of unmitigated residential care disaster, in this nursing home there have been no cases of the coronavirus, in either residents or staff. He prefaces his comments by saying that luck is always a factor. Nevertheless, what they did from the outset was to ban visitors, allow only essential trades people into the facility and ensured that on arrival the staff had a temperature check and were quizzed on whether there was any sign of COVID-19 disease. Then, all staff appropriately attired themselves, and strict protocols were observed.

I asked how the residents coped with this degree of lock up – and he said they hated it, one saying she preferred to be dead rather than endure such conditions. So it is not just a case of expressions of pious statements about “loved ones” whenever a person in their nineties dies, but perhaps in the eyes of the departed, death was a joyous event. The problem is that it is one technology we have not mastered, that of polling the dead.

Apropos, I asked about Zoom and other means of distanced face-to-face communication. His view was that for the elderly it was no substitute for physical contact.

He made a further comment that it seems that in these institutionalised care environments, aerosol rather droplet spread is the major means of transmission. He cited a case where a particular residential facility was coronavirus free in the morning and by the evening two-thirds of the people were coronavirus positive.

After talking to him, I re-read the Newmarch Report, which shows that if you bring in a competent team that knows what it is doing then you get to the same situation that my friend describes. But it is far from a perfect situation.

I wonder whether the central agencies or the private operators have worked out how much it would cost to comply with the 20 recommendations of that Report.

The Commonwealth government, with an incompetent Minister, is still relying on the private sector, with its record of putting profit before care increasingly being shown to be scandalous. The fact that some Victorian aged care facilities delayed the release of dozens of deaths which were then added to the daily tallies has not been adequately explained, but hopefully the answer is not deceit .

My friend said that government-run and not-for-profit facilities were better in his view. Yet Newmarch is operated by Anglicare, an offshoot of the Anglican Church, and seems to have belied that generalisation as does the apparent gouging of the contaminated St Basil’s Home in Fawkner, a northern suburb of Melbourne, by the Greek Orthodox Diocese.

However, mimicking the home environment but being able to maintain infection control at a level where the coronavirus will be repelled at the door remains a challenge, organisationally and financially.

I know that if and when the time came for me to go into a nursing home, it will be a one-way street. Thus I want to go into a place where my family at least has the choice of visiting me. I do not want to go into an institution, which is kitted out as an intensive care unit, so that I become a delayed statistic dying in a labyrinth of tubes, with a card on my big toe labelled “a loved one”. “Loved One” is becoming the modern day substitute for the black rimmed Hallmark bereavement card.

Coronavirus is an accelerant, and if you are old and contract the Virus, but survive the buggery of being on a ventilator in an actual intensive care unit, you can then become a photo opportunity for the evening news, before dying unnoticed a few weeks later. Is that what I would want – is it anything anybody wants?

Federally-Operated Quarantine Facilities

The comment has been made to me that government building a series of quarantine facilities would very expensive. The problem is that there is no evidence of long term thinking beyond the immediate combat with the current coronavirus. We have the spectacle of the President of the United States denying climate change, a feeling echoed by members of the Australian Government. There is a suggestion that swine flu outbreaks are now reappearing in China and Germany complicating the world disease profile.

Coronavirus infections are out of control in many places throughout the world, where incidence and number of deaths are the indices to measure spread and severity. Yet, unexpressed is the level of morbidity, which at present can be classified at short to medium term. I have yet to see whether the impact of morbidity on the world economy and burden of disease has been assessed. Probably, it could be argued that we are only seeing six-month data.

Our ancestors recognised the need for quarantine facilities but often located them in harsh settings. However, being in a necessarily isolated environment need not be harsh.

It seems that both the Northern Territory and Kristina Keneally among an increasing number of others, myself included, are advocating for discrete quarantine facilities. However the Australian government, with its attachment to private enterprise, appears to prefer to maintain the fiction that hotel quarantine can work in the long term. Frankly as the economy improves and the hotels are required, planning for these facilities should occur now rather than in the usual ad hoc manner. More importantly, we need to get quarantine out of the major population centres, and we need to find an affordable quarantine solution if Australia is to re-enter the international community and not completely destroy tourism for the foreseeable future, particularly if a successful vaccine is not found in the next 12 months.

Howard Springs quarantine facility

In relation to a particular operational Northern Territory facility, the comment is that to get to it “…drive south-east from Darwin Airport for 30 minutes and you will arrive at an old mining camp – the Manigurr-ma Village for fly-in, fly-out natural gas workers. Until recently, this complex was abandoned. Today, it is perhaps the most popular travel destination for Melbourne escapees.”

In other words, facilities do already exist, and it seems a tolerable spot to spend 14 days, especially if the facility is airconditioned. In my last blog, I suggested the Northern Territory as the site for quarantine and singled out Katherine. Creating a so-called bubble around Katherine would allow the possibility of visits to Katherine Gorge, increasing the tolerance levels for incarceration. However, creativity is never a recognised expertise of public service.

Now the Northern Territory First Minister has been re-elected, he can act with more freedom, notwithstanding section 49 of the Northern Territory Self Government Act. This mirrors terms of Section 92 of the Constitution in protecting movement across border. As one constitutional expert has said: “It means the NT is in the same position as a state.” However, the Northern Territory exists under law enacted by the Australian parliament, and is not recognised in the Constitution as a State.

The experience with the repatriation of Australians from Wuhan should have given the few long term planners in government a clue of how to handle quarantine. The Northern Territory is an ideal place. Over time, flight schedules can accommodate the need for incoming quarantine.

The other destination for the Wuhan evacuees, Christmas Island, is to Australia what French Guiana is to France – a place to send people to be forgotten at a great cost, but inconvenient for large scale quarantine.

Kristina Keneally took a direct stance recently when she suggested that the Federal government could provide a set of quarantine resources if they are establish any form of international tourism. Repatriating the clamouring Australians provides a pool of people to test how best to allow people coming from COVID-19 endemic areas to return – or come to Australia.

The model exists in the successful evacuation from Wuhan.

Build or adapt facilities in Northern Australia to enable people to be quarantined for 14 days.

Gradually close down hotel quarantine, as international restrictions are eased but, in the light of the Government’s announcement this week that incoming passenger numbers will be increased, those states and territories that have taken a back seat in hosting quarantine can take some of the load – the ACT is a case in point, with its newly-constructed international airport; there are suitable sites in the ACT – much land around the Fairbairn RAAF base.

However, long term it is undesirable to use hotel facilities, which are not dedicated health facilities, for such a purpose. Thus there is a reason to establish a health-tourism forum so that people in each sector are brought together to develop a common language.

As with any facility designed to attract tourists to this country, each person presenting at a border should have the equivalent of the yellow card – when we needed to show evidence of smallpox vaccination, inoculation against typhoid, cholera – and still yellow fever.

Remember that yellow, even in this world of digital communication, remains the colour of the letter Q – hence quarantine. Data should provide evidence of the time of testing, a temperature check at departure and arrival and a checklist of symptomatology. As a parenthetic comment, the ability to test olfaction may become an important additional marker.

The longer there are no organised quarantine facilities the more policy will be at the mercy of ad hoc arrangements. Quarantine facilities that are recognised and organised with appropriate staff will provide a Security Blanket for the politicians, who are increasingly terrified of opening their borders – and in general Australia.

When we wanted to deal with those poor benighted asylum seekers, we were not at a loss for ingenious methods of inflicting as much misery on them without descending into actual torture. Also, can anybody realise how much hilarity and champagne cork popping there was in the Cambodian government when we wanted to “rehome” some of these asylum seekers.

However, the asylum seekers were at the end of a line of misery, and despite the compassionate cohort of advocates their plight means little to the vast majority of Australians.

By contrast, quarantine, well organised with a border force replete with replacement masks of compassion and a health work force working in conjunction with the tourist industry in all its manifestations would seem to be a simple concept to put an end to the ad hoc actions and the unmitigated xenophobia that some of our governments have developed.

Well, let’s see!

O Panda Alaranjado

I don’t see how we get through to the January 20, 2021 inauguration day without bloodshed.  Ever since James Adams succeeded George Washington in 1797, there has been a peaceful transition of power in this country from one president to the next. I fear that after 223 years we are about to tarnish that record.

So has been written to me by an American lawmaker.

Everybody has been setting out a scenario that this increasingly unhinged person with his band of acolytes could inflict on the USA if he loses.

The following is one is taken from the playbook of the Bavarian house painter, he could contrive to see the White House burnt down, and then invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807. “In all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in all respect.”

Burning the White House, 1814

Not that it was an insurrection but British troops did burn down the White House in 1814. So there is a precedent, if not a president.

Mouse whisper

One Australian politician who answers to Julian the Lesser has made a statement that more Australian have seen Berlin than Bundaberg. Bundaberg has 93,000 people.

Is Julian the Lesser suggesting that:

  • people who live in Bundaberg are blind
  • there are more people than that to take our breath away.

All in all, a rum statement.

Out of breath

 

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 – Gary Indiana

Two years ago, my general practitioner suggested I should be vaccinated against shingles. My wife had been afflicted with shingles on her leg, which had for a time gone undiagnosed because it was in an unusual place, and while irritating had been bearable. Shingles or herpes zoster is thought to be the result of the varicella virus, the cause of chicken pox, lying dormant in the nervous system breaking out along a particular nerve and its distribution, thus creating the mayhem of the clinical manifestation of shingles. Because of the way the distribution can occur on the body, it derives its name from “cingulum”, the Latin word for belt.

I had never contemplated being vaccinated against shingles, and given that I was suffering from an autoimmune disease I was wary when it was suggested I be inoculated.

However, I was assured the vaccine was safe, even for a person such as myself. I checked with my rheumatologist and he agreed that that it would not be a problem. Contracting shingles at my age was one reason for being inoculated, and since 70-79 seems to be the optimal age for injection of the vaccine, it has been made free by Government. Given that the cost was otherwise $280 the free inoculation created an added incentive.

In the words of Government: “A live attenuated vaccine against herpes zoster (Zostavax) was licensed in Australia in 2006. The vaccine contains approximately 14 times more attenuated varicella zoster virus (Oka strain) than the licensed chickenpox vaccines – this higher concentration is needed to produce a T-cell boosting response.” 

I had observed people with shingles. It does not kill you, but I would prefer to avoid it. I agreed to have the vaccine, not only because my two doctors agreed I should – even one that did not guarantee the same level of immunity in everyone – but also because the vaccine had been available for a sufficient time to show it was safe.

The shingles vaccine has had a very low uptake, even in people who can access it for free. There is apparently another vaccine against herpes zoster, which is said to be more effective, but its distributor has yet to convince Government it should be licensed.

The reason I have written this is that I am very committed to vaccination in children. I have seen the unspeakable tragedy of a young girl who died of a rare complication of measles. To me it is criminal for parents to deny their child vaccination against so many diseases, which in previous generations killed and maimed.

Thus, I am strongly in favour of vaccination – where vaccination is proven efficacious and safe – and where the science is not being pressured by either political hysteria or the hubris of research scientists of being there first, irrespective of the rules of scientific research – one of which is to do no harm.

I am resistant to this bonfire of expectations fueled by the media and the public relation outfits employed by these research institutes and universities, with or without Big Pharma.

My problem is that if a COVID-19 vaccine is prematurely released without all the safeguards being observed, then I shall not be vaccinated. If this is a response from one who is strongly pro-vaccination, what a field day the anti-vaxxers will have if the vaccine against the coronavirus is not only a dud but also kills people because it has not been given the appropriate time to be shown that it works in all respects.

Having said that, I remember that when the Salk vaccine was made available for poliomyelitis we lined up for injection; yet within a short time Sabin vaccine was found to be better – and so we all returned for a spoon of the oral vaccine. This oral vaccine and its ease of administration has facilitated the almost worldwide elimination of polio. Salk vaccine has become historic.

Some duds like the COVID-19 phone app don’t matter that much, but getting this vaccine wrong, when there are so many aspirants in the field as though it were akin to a sporting event, to me is not the right look. The chances are that the one that is the first to be released is the most likely to be the biggest and most dangerous dud.

By Jingo

The COVID-19 fallout from the Sturgis biker’s festival is becoming apparent. For the past 80 years, the Sturgis biker festival has been held around Sturgis, the biggest city in Meade county South Dakota. Located in the Black Hills made famous in song and near Mount Rushmore located in the next county of Pennington, this 10-day festival of the motorcycle is characterized by the three T’s – tribalism, tattoos and Trump.

Welcome to Sturgis

The sponsors reflect so much the audience: Coca Cola, Jack Daniels, Budweiser, South Dakota Beef Council, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Harley Davidson are prominent.

This year, Willie Nelson and ZZ Tops gave it a miss, but there was still a line up of country and western and heavy metal music to entertain as they pitched their caravans at the Happy Hoel Campground.

There they were: 250, 000 people over 10 days, cheek by manifold; jowl by leathers. No masks, hand sanitisers little used; social distancing, a bad joke. The Governor of South Dakota, a strident COVID-skeptic Republican rancher, who rejoices in the name of Kristi Noem, attended to encourage the lack of discipline and label their actions a defence of freedom.

Now the bikes have gone from Sturgis and Meade county is experiencing a striking increase in the number of cases – Meade, at a rate over the past seven days of 64 per 100,000 and for a population of 25,000 – 18 a day. There has been at least one death already, that of a Minnesota bikie. Patrons of tattoo parlours and bars in Sturgis were reported as being already infectious.

The surrounding counties have shown increased rates – even the sparsely populated Perkins county, which has the distinction of being the county seat of Bison, which is the farthest anywhere from a McDonalds outlet in Continental USA.

A nurse waiting for people to arrive to be tested for COVID-19 in Sturgis, SD

This remote part of the state is next to Harding county, which voted 90 per cent for Trump but has no cases of COVID-19 recorded. A triumph – or in this tiny community has anyone actually been tested? This is poor white America, where the only coloured people are remnant native Americans. The major ancestral links are Norwegian and German, and after all, it is all a hoax, as the President would say.

Yet the number of cases is rising elsewhere in surrounding States associated with the ten days in Sturgis “bike-in” is rising; as the Washington Post states” 61% of all US counties are reported as having been visited by a Sturgis rallygoer” and in the absence of contract tracing, the number of cases will be a mystery.

However, while Trump is in the White House, the Virus will continue to have a field day – not just at Sturgis but at other different venues decked with American flags with Make America Great Again scrawled across them, guns at the ready. And the Virus is still winning.

At last count, at least 300 symptomatic cases have emerged from Sturgis, but how meaningful is that number with a population reluctant to be tested, the number of asymptomatic bikers – and in public health data, knowing the denominator is all important.

Quaranta giorni?

Katherine, NT

When I used to go to Katherine in the Northern Territory I was always impressed by the Wurli Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service. It was then being run by Marion Scrymgour who later became a free-range politician across the Northern Territory firmament. However, the quality of aboriginal health services, as I found out, is very dependent on the strength of the directors and continuity, as often the governing bodies changes from one family to another with disruptive effects. These services are essentially nine to five exercises, which caused some resentment with the hospital staff, who were rostered on a 24-hour basis. After hours was the time when Aboriginal people often came for emergency treatment.

However, the Katherine I remember was one where the Aboriginal Health Service was utilised by the wives of the RAAF servicemen for their pregnancies and theirs and their children’s health needs. Defence force rules excluded them from the medical services available at the Tindal RAAF base.

The medical services available at Tindal RAAF base were quarantined for servicemen and servicewomen. When I asked the medical staff whether they interacted with the local health service, I was surprised by their level of uninterest. They were effectively quarantining themselves, living as they did on the RAAF base. One never saw people in uniform participating in the community.

The Katherine situation provides a potential model. The hunt for a vaccine is a distraction – what Australia has to prepare is for an ongoing war, the wartime field hospital model becomes relevant.

For instance, one major air field was located during World War 2 outside Tocumwal, a township on the Victorian border in southern New Wales. Near the airfield was a RAAF hospital which had 240 beds and 34 doctors and nurses. Built in 1942, dismantled in 1949. In other words the precedent exists for facilities, which worked well when they were needed.

Not only at Katherine, where a RAAF base remains, and airstrips capable of taking commercial airliners, but there are also numerous other, now disused air strips in the Northern Territory. These could be habilitated to take modern airliners so that overseas visitors could be all lodged for an initial quarantine period in Northern Australia.

As I have said before, hotels are not structured to be quarantine facilities, and it is time to end the practice. It was a short-term proposition that also provided income for the hotels. The hotel standards varied from the barely adequate to the disastrous and their use should be ended.

The solution was shown when the first groups were evacuated from Wuhan and were sent to facilities in Darwin and Christmas Island, more the set up one would expect from quarantine facilities, and which apparently worked well.

However, that success was never followed up with an ordered plan to construct quarantine facilities. Instead Australia has the spectacle of fragmentation, because States close the borders, and because of its populist appeal, there is just no coherent plan for opening them.

The situation is made worse when cynical exemptions are made, such as the Queensland Premier has done with the AFL; she does not appear to recognise how destructive her behaviour is for the Federal system as a whole.

So interstate xenophobia has to be countered. Premier Andrews in Victoria is empirically developing a plan of how to control the virus. The first measure of trusting people to do the right thing did not work, especially when there are economic imperatives.

He has been able to enforce “police state” conditions with a high level of compliance. The mechanism for this seems to be working. In a world where instant gratification is everything, where else in the World has the Andrews method with his methodical unflustered approach worked?

Here there is the head of the government appearing every day on television with his experts, all of them very media savvy, either intuitively or learnt.   Anybody who is not, irrespective of intrinsic worthiness, is ruthlessly discarded.

What has happened in Victoria will form part of the text of what not do, just as the excellent report on the Newmarch affair and to a lesser degree the report on the Ruby Princess, where there is unfinished business, have done.

Public health matters are now and for the foreseeable future linked to a healthy economy, and irrespective of the puerile bleating of those who do not want to acknowledge this fact, it should underpin every policy from hereon in. Public health theory should not only be confined to health professionals, but should be included in the curriculum of all emergency services at least.

Politicians should learn to spell “epidemiology” for a start.

The greater the understanding of epidemiology, coupled with a preparedness to learn from mistakes, will accelerate the opening up of AustraIia to the world.

Therefore, when quarantine facilities are to be considered let us hope the other state politicians do not treat the concept as though it were a nuclear waste facility or a high security prison. In fact it creates both immediate and ongoing jobs at a time when unemployment has ballooned.

The obvious method would be to round up all those waiting to come back to Australia and put them through a process of repatriation which could be used to test what is best practice as of now. The use of the Darwin facilities that seemed to work so well for those returning from Wuhan could be the template for the whole of Northern Australia.

There is a need to titrate  quarantine requirements. Thus those clamouring for repatriation could be a useful test case – in other words in return for their passage, they would be regarded as if they were incoming tourists and for the point of the exercise treated as such – I prefer not to use the word “guinea pigs”. It is nevertheless potentially a win-win situation for all.

New defined quarantine arrangements in Northern Australia would provide a place where the people from overseas, especially those places classified as hot spots, are bought for the obligatory quarantine time – this is essential for the rebirth of tourism and, for a government that does not want to kill off tourism for years with a $3,000 bill on entry to Australia. Instead an affordable quarantine option should be developed through empirical testing.

The test case would enable each step to be monitored from the time the person presents for repatriation, is allocated a point of departure, tested for the coronavirus and then followed the whole away back to Australia and beyond the quarantine period until they are allowed home. The point of departure should be determined on the basis of the maximum impact on repatriation and those participating must understand that they are governed by strict rules with which they must comply.

Having advocated this solution, I have not seen any data that has come from the initial government initiatives in relation to Wuhan as to its cost efficacy. However it is obvious that hotel-based quarantine at the cost currently levied is not the answer for either returning Australians or if we are to open up for tourism and business travel. This is an impost Australia cannot afford.

However, one thing we do not want is a return to the divisions of the 1890s when the Federation was forming rather than now where the Federation could fracture. Some of our local politicians, who should know better, are rehearsing the same attitudes which nearly scuttled the Federation. These fracture lines have never been resolved and threaten to become a separate epidemic in themselves.

A Memorable Concert

Frank Sinatra was one of those myths that America sometimes does well. In real life he was never the image that he projected through his tunes. He was the little insecure guy lost, seeking redemption though love. He was the inheritor of the troubadour tradition. He sang well.

Yet it was his role of Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” that represented a form of heroism in the face of extreme bullying, which I had observed at school, but from which I was, for the most part, immune.

After he married Ava Gardner, she got him that role which energised his lagging career. By the time he came to Melbourne in 1959, he was back on top. Many people more expert than I in such things, believe it was his best performance – ever. He did not often sing with small groups. His backing quintet in Melbourne was led by that extraordinary vibraphonist, Red Norvo. Then there were a number of virtuosos – and none better than the chap with the goatee beard and the thinning hair, once russet.

The venue was the West Melbourne Stadium, then in an industrial part of Melbourne. It was a cavernous building, also known as the “House of Stoush” and many memorable fights were staged there. Forgotten men like Elley Bennett, Vic Patrick, Micky Tollis, Jack Hassen – they all fought there. There also the American, Chief Little Wolf, whose real name was Ventura Tennario, the most memorable of the wrestlers who strutted their stuff on Ringside Wrestling.

That night, 1st April 1959 I was there with my then girlfriend. I had secured tickets though my contacts then with the Princess theatre, where I had learned to become a spotlight operator.

Sinatra did not like Australians much, particularly the press. At the time, it was two years since his marriage to Ava Gardner had ended in a Mexican divorce. Yet the reason he came to Australia was to follow her, as he done years before when she was filming Mogambo in Africa, after which he had tried to commit suicide.

In 1959 she was in Melbourne filming “On the Beach”, the Stanley Kramer film about the end of the world. She has been wrongly attributed as saying that Melbourne was a most appropriate place for this to be filmed.

It was a time when Melbourne had six o’clock closing of hotels and if you wanted to drink in a restaurant, grog was banned after a certain time. Thus, the number of brown paper bags under tables containing bottles of wines or beer, with the bag owners drinking out of teacups, represented our sophisticated café society.

So the exotica of Hollywood in Melbourne were diversion. Star spotting was a pastime. I had accidently seen Gregory Peck, one of the stars of the film, with his son walking down the steps of my old school, where he was temporarily enrolling his son.

Hollywood comes to Melbourne

But here we were in the bleachers, Frank Sinatra, a distant speck. At one point there was a minor commotion. My companion said that somebody had arrived and she thought it was a woman. From then on Sinatra’s style changed. He had drawn laughter before when, while singing “I’ve got you under my skin”, he interrupted himself to say: “take your hand off that broad.” The audience laughed – the kid from Hoboken had brought his American swagger.

Yet after the commotion of the entrance had died down, he started to sing songs such as “Angel Eyes” and “All the Way” and “One for my Baby” culminating in “All of Me”. He was singing for one person, and we were the collective witnesses.

It was low key, fluid and yet so intense – passion, which I only realised, when I listened many years later to the recording of that night, why some think it was his most complete expression of his talent.

The person who had entered and had sat in the front row was Ava Gardner.

Then he went back to America, and there is no record of his attempting suicide again. They never married again. He apparently cried many years later when he found out Ava Gardner had died, an alcoholic recluse.

For one night my friend and I high, almost in the Stadium rafters, were almost literally flies on the wall observing a myth – or maybe the myth of the eternity of human relationships.

Mouse Whisper

How so very different!

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. 

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his acceptance speech of for Democratic renomination for President in Philadelphia in 1936.

Fast forward…

“Always remember they are coming after me because I am fighting for you. That is what is happening. And it has been going from before I even got elected. And remember this, they spied on my campaign and they got caught. Let’s see now what happens.” 

Donald John Trump in his acceptance speech for Republican renomination for President in 2020 on the White House lawn.

Modest Expectations – The Falangist Tear

There is an interesting reaction to Premier Andrews. Victoria has been a gigantic COVID-19 stuff up – in Australian terms. There is a group of well-heeled Victorians that has been discomforted by him. Andrews generally has been popular but has not acted in the conventional manner in which politicians are expected to behave.

John Brumby, his ALP predecessor, was an Old Melburnian, a product of Melbourne Grammar School and he showed it! Brumby was abrasive as his predecessor Steve Bracks was genial. Although also ALP, Bracks found that Melbourne conservatism fitted him well; he a well worn sports jacket and moleskins metaphor after those tumultuous years of Jeff Kennett’s brattishness.

After all, the first things the Melburnian, rather than those who live in Melbourne, will ask you is where did you go to school. School is such an important stigma in the life of a Melburnian. After all, I am a three generation Melburnian – but without the ultimate stigma, namely to be a member of the eponymously named Club. But of the Cricket Club, I plead guilty, although I did ask forgiveness by conforming to the Biblical utterance: “Greater love hath no man but to lay down his Lady’s Ticket for his wife.” Yes, a full member had one Lady’s ticket; and I even remember there was a time when there were members of the Cricket Club who had two Lady’s tickets – one for the mistress presumably.

However, Daniel Andrews is refreshingly different – a country boy with an outer Melbourne constituency, accused of being beholden to the Unions and hence to those who live in Melbourne and Victoria – but not beholden to the Melburnians.

Perhaps it is true and that allegiance with its factional arithmetic has left him with a mess of incompetents holding ministerial portfolios.

I met Daniel Andrews when he was a young politician first appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health. He was so deferential for a politician to someone who, after all, was a substantial nothing; he even gave me his mobile phone number. I never followed it up. Later, when he was Health Minister, he appointed me to a Committee as his Ministerial representative, but at a distance and with a friendly acknowledgement – and with no emolument, as Gough was used to say: “What is the emolument, comrade?”

However, I have only focused on Andrews’ performance since the COVID-19 catastrophe. It is not until it is in your own yard that you realise the consequences; long gone are the happy scenes of politicians washing their hands on ABC TV.

Here you have a group of people who have spread the Virus throughout Melbourne and, to an extent regionally, along a trail of incompetence. Years of promoting sycophants, yes people, drongos, paying them peanuts with an occasional cashew in all walks of life, are coming home to roost.

So day-by-day Andrews is doing penance – taking on the sins of his Ministry and his Bureaucracy. He has gone beyond the 40 days and 40 nights. After all, he has been accused of being a control freak. Ergo, it is all his fault. Perhaps he has created the intellectual and social Sahara beneath him, but fortunately with a few notable oases that I have mentioned before.

Andrews may see vindication in his actions. The number of those with the Virus will reduce; the Canberra Pharisees may see what he is doing and stop the blame game and start to mimic him.

We should be thinking about what is an acceptable level of sufferers – elimination does not work: see New Zealand and Queensland. The States that are running the elimination line if they want to send their people spare should look at the Melbourne lesson. Australia has to derive a strategy along the lines of NSW, which has a very efficient contact tracing system to quench the outbreaks while they remain small.

In the long term social distancing will not work unless it is enforced by the spectre of those exposed being put into “bespoke” quarantine facilities. You cannot close down the country for political gain – health yes; political whim no – and ultimately no amount of dressing the political in the cloak of health will disguise the fact that approaching elections appear to be influencing states’ lockdown strategies.

Hand hygiene – the sight of sanitisers everywhere will have an effect, but just like those running the traffic lights there will always be those who won’t use them.

Group punishment does not work forever in a democratic society. A masked society – even if temporary and focused, I do not think so. Yet how long should Victoria live in a world of anonymity? Facial expression and unmuffled voice is the essence of humanity. It will eventually wear down even in the most civilised democratic society.

The Ruby Princess, Newmarch and this Victorian disaster should provide a lesson, and whether the remedy is that the Premier has to scapegoat himself each day as Daniel Andrews is doing, so be it.

After the Ruby Princess fiasco, the sackings could have been done, clinically and quickly, because it was an obvious failure of the public health area, because they were well informed. Incompetence. Only recently has the NSW Premier said she was sorry. Her minions have survived, and some seem to have learnt, as judged by their improved performance.

Politicians and the media were dazzled by the Carnival cruise ships’ management over a decade – the media was sucked in despite the clear evidence of its litany of disasters here and elsewhere. Now, anybody for a Ruby Princess experience? Where are those marvelling media who took that glass of sherry, those cocktails, on the shimmering deck of hidden squalor?

Victoria has been different. Public health expertise on offer was ignored. The Ruby Princess had already demonstrated what failure of public health brings. It seemed to have had no effect on Victoria.

In Victoria there was just basic public health ignorance.

Retribution is coming in Victoria, but may Andrews have the strength to stay the course and ensure that Victoria’s disgracefully inadequate public health system is brought to the level that paradoxically NSW has always had due to the previous work of Dr Sue Morey.

Andrews is all that stands between a Victorian society on the brink – a society that will increasingly be impatient for a scapegoat or two. However, nailing Andrews to the Cross is not the solution. He needs ongoing support. The length of this lockdown occurring is a severe imposition, especially when there is loss of income on top of “cabin fever”.

Andrew’s ongoing resilience is the key. He is showing that canniness by appearing to be defeated when absorbing the shock horror of his request for a twelve months emergency extension. He will settle for six months – what he really wanted and give his opponents an apparent win. That will mean he is not the only one who owns the six months extension. It is an old ruse when you are confident in your own skin and you do “ deference in defeat” so well.

What is happening in Victoria is important as a lesson for any government when the Virus escapes into the community and spreads to nursing homes in particular. The Coates Inquiry, if she joins the dots, will be able to accurately chart the remedies. Hopefully Andrews will have stared down the Virus by that time.

Nevertheless, the outbreak of COVID-19 in correctional centres in Queensland is worrying, and its containment will test the Queensland public health arrangements. Again, prisons have been shown to be a hotspot in the USA. Quoting the NYT:

The number of deaths in state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centers — which stood at 1,002 on Tuesday morning — has increased by about 40 per cent during the past six weeks, according to the database. There have been nearly 160,000 infections among prisoners and guards.

The actual number of deaths is almost certainly higher because jails and prisons perform limited testing on inmates, including many facilities that decline to test prisoners who die after exhibiting symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

… Prisoners are infected at a rate more than five times the nation’s overall rate. The death rate of inmates is also higher than the national rate — 39 deaths per 100,000 compared to 29 deaths per 100,000.

Let’s hope that Queensland is spared the disastrous effects of the Virus, in this case being let loose in the correctional system, despite the fact that there may some people in the Southern States with a repressed sense of schadenfreude should the Virus spread in Queensland.

The Saturday Evening Post

The Saturday Evening Post is always associated with Benjamin Franklin, even though he was well and truly dead by the time it was first published in 1821. The two shared Philadelphia. Moreover, Philadelphia was the capital of the fledging United States between 1790 and 1800. The Saturday Evening Post used the portrait of Benjamin Franklin often, which gave the magazine presence – America without The Saturday Evening Post was unthinkable at the time I grew up.

Not that I grew up in the United States. I did not even go to America until 1971, when the magazine was then in severe decline. Yet I remember The Saturday Evening Post well. My father used to subscribe to it; my mother to the Ladies’ Home Journal, even though there were severe currency restrictions on Australians buying US dollars. The journals were always about two months late, because they came by sea. However, it mattered little because it was, apart from American films and the occasional entertainer and the war brides coming back to see their families, to my parents contact with American lifestyle.

My mother had just one of these “war-bride” friends with whom she regularly corresponded. Nan, her friend, had met and married a US air force officer named Bob Daggett during the War and followed him to America. Our family album was full of pictures of the wedding, where my mother was her matron of honour, a quaint term for a married bridesmaid.

A Norman Rockwell cover

Both of these journals were the mainstay of Middle America. The portraits by Norman Rockwell were the mainstay of the Post covers. Rockwell’s ability to depict life in America as a contemporary tapestry, alternating whimsy with pathos, was extraordinary.

When I use to pore over the magazine as a small boy, before they were thrown out, it was seeing another culture, a far wealthier culture with stuff just not available to Australians at the time. I wished I could paint like Rockwell.

Then the Post went into decline. However before it did, after my mother died in 1956, our subscriptions to these magazines died with her. After all, the arrival of the Ladies Home Journal each month just reinforced my father’s loss and my father had eventually gone to America in 1957, and fulfilled the ambition anyway.

But The Saturday Evening Post still exists – a two monthly publication. The publication is not for the millennials, even though the ubiquitous “Coles spruiker”, Curtis Stone bobs up with recipes for barbecued turkey burgers with homemade pickles and grilled corn on the cob with parsley and garlic brown butter.

The advertisements are for rechargeable hearing aids, plush recliners, the Zoomer wheel chair, betterWoman bladder control tablets. There is a concentration on health and lifestyle in the content but with a very strong nostalgic sense for an America that probably never was.

Yet among the detritus of the most recent issue was one article detailing the decisions of one lady who decided that her ongoing renal dialysis was really too much. The dialysis for this 60 year old lady was accompanied by an increasing number of savage complications. So she broached the subject of stopping the dialysis with her doctor. The author of the article was then a medical student and her report of the exchange between doctor and patient is written in simple direct prose.

When you stop dialysis, one of the most common things that happens … you can have difficulty breathing… so I will give medicines to help prevent any gasping or difficulty breathing you might have.”

“Good, I don’t … want … to suffocate. I don’t … want pain.”

The doctor quickly re-assured her that kidney failure generally doesn’t cause pain, and pain, and death would arrive only after loss of consciousness.

“Kidney failure,” he told her gently, “could be a merciful way to die.”

I had never seen this type of doctoring before. 

These medical reassurances struck a responsive chord with myself. I don’t want to suffocate; I don’t want to die in pain. Nobody does, but many do.

Later on in the article, the author notes the woman did become unconscious three days later, her family encircled the bed, singing and tying balloons on her bed posts, she dying apparently at peace, but those last few minutes – who would know what is happening, but she was not gasping for breath nor grimacing in pain.

This article carries a message that in a world which prides Self above all else, there is this other World of genuine care – a world that you wish to see in every nursing home, every place where the aged are cared for, and not the shemozzle that it is today.

Norman Rockwell ‘Saying Grace’

As of today in the USA, 40 per cent of deaths from the Virus have been elderly people in nursing homes and other residential facilities. 420,000 have been infected; 70,000 have died – but how many without suffocating or in pain? And dying all alone, apart from that life-giving technology which for them had come up short.

Strange how this recent copy of The Saturday Evening Post evokes so much reflection.

July 5, 1969, thus he wrote

A young assistant professor in zoology at the University of California at Berkeley named Richard Dawkins wrote a detailed letter to The Times. It was published on June 5, 1969. I have reproduced it in part because it provides a troubling picture of an America that basically does not seem to have changed. He wrote it at a time when the Vietnam War was at its height, and across the world the previous year there had been an outpouring against the War from young people, particularly those at universities, which had met with fierce resistance from the Authorities.

In 1969 Nixon had recently been elected to the White House, replacing the hapless Johnson. Ronald Reagan was in his Californian Governor’s office in Sacramento. Despite the carnage in Vietnam, the Americans were not winning the War. That was plain, yet Nixon was watching, contemplating, calculating like Kissinger – men whose blood was colder than Lake Baikal – to carpet bomb Vietnam.

Winter ice, Lake Baikal, Russia

Documentaries of the time, which have recently been revived on Australian television, show how much wanton damage had been done and yet how vulnerable the Americans were. There were Vietcong in the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon. Unthinkable.

I remember the time well. I still remember my own involvement, my own reactions, my numbness that had followed the 1966 landslide victory that Holt achieved. Yet I went about my postgraduate study unscathed.

Yet it is somewhat ironic to see a former very conservative Thatcherite Conservative, Michael Portillo, languidly travelling by train through Vietnam 40 years after the War, enjoying its hospitality, enjoying the sights of what is a beautiful country, no signs of war, and “Don’t mention the War”.

The renewal and the resilience of these Vietnamese people after such physical destruction of their country contrasts with the mental destruction of America, where the aftermath stills lingers like a toxic cloud, fanned by Trump and his followers.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington

One thing, which struck me as I read Dawkins’ letter to The Times, is how the seeds of class hostility were ignited. Young working class men drafted to fight and returning from Vietnam were vilified, spat upon by those with Ivy League credentials, who had evaded the draft, one way or the other. Resentment can be transferred from one generation to another. It is a macabre sight to see Trump, a draft dodger, a child of privilege, as the leader of these alienated, xenophobic predominantly white “midnight’s children of the Vietnam War”.

Thus on reading Dawkins I am struck with an uneasy feeling of déjà vu:

“On May 20 Berkeley became the first city in the continental United States to come under military attack from the air. An army helicopter swooped low over the campus spraying the irritant and nauseating CS gas developed for use against the Vietcong. At the same time masked soldiers blocked all but one exit from the plaza, which was the centre of the attack, making dispersal of the terrified crowd slow, and seeming to show that the gas was being used as a punishment rather than as an instrument for rapidly clearing a crowd. In any case the gas drifted all over the campus and the surrounding area, causing the hospital to put at least one respiratory patient into an iron lung, and necessitating the evacuation of children from some schools…

National Guard helicopter spraying tear gas on students and antiwar protesters in Cal’s Sproul Plaza on May 20, 1969

“What is even more ominous than that these things can occur, is that the majority of Americans seem heartily to approve. This was true over the Chicago affair, and Governor Reagan’s soaring popularity in the polls is universally attributed to his “hard line” on campus dissent. It may not be too surprising or even too worrying that the police and military should tend to favour Gestapo tactics for dealing with student rebels. What is really disturbing is that the Governor of the State can markedly improve his chances of re-election by allowing and encouraging such methods.” 

Maybe someone out there with a playbook in hand in the run up to the Presidential election has made the same observation as Dawkins did, but 50 years on – that every riot, especially if property is torched, is a vote for Trump in 2020 as it was for Reagan in 1969 and beyond, so crucial in “swing States”.

Would I lie to you?

There is always something that puzzles me about contact tracing.

Contact tracing demands a degree of honesty, and if the contact tracer comes across a group of people who habitually lie for one reason or another, especially when that group believe the police are looking over the shoulders of the contact tracers, are they going to tell you, the contact tracer, where they’ve been – to disclose their networks? Probably not.

But then part of police work is contact tracing. It is not generally linked to public health. There are rules for contact tracing when it is part of a policeman’s business, but when contact tracing is stated as being for public health purposes, it seems that the police are excluded from using that information.

However, if a “person of interest” tells a contact tracer all their links over the recent period, can the person of interest be interrogated by the police concerning the information that he/she has told the contact tracer of his/her whereabouts?

“No, says our “person of interest being interrogated”, “I have given my details to a public health person, and therefore you can ask him or her.”

However, whatever information that person has given to the contact tracer is protected and cannot be accessed. Right?

Can somebody give me some advice?

Mouse Whisper

I came across certain documents relating to my mausmeister when he was mauskind. 

Apparently this happened when he was a young, boisterous and adventurous child. His Aunt Grace lived in a large home in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. She looked after her Uncle Frank and Aunt Mildred until each died.

My mauskind wondered why the rooms down the right side of the long corridor were always locked. One day one of the doors was unlocked and the boy looked in and saw an extensive collection of architectural drawings and plans all over the room.

Before he could venture in, his Aunt said that he had to be careful because the room was inhabited by a carpet snake. Kept it there for mice … distastefully. However, carpet snakes were huge, long – pythons that could crush the unwary, Johnny.

So he never tried to go in those rooms again. He was scared of snakes.

Many years later, he mentioned it to his cousin who was much older than him.

She laughed. Aunt Grace had once taken my cousin into her confidence.

There never was any carpet snake.

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.

Modest Expectations – It’s Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hafnium (Hf)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPAL’s lightwater pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The giraffes are watching …

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

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

All Souls

All Souls, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had we had dinner in an Anachronism?

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

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

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

Mouse whisper

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

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

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