Modest Expectations – Joasaph 1

Writing a blog over the Easter weekend, I realised this year has brought together three religions – Easter, Passover and Ramadan.  Once, Good Friday was a closed holiday for Christians. You vaguely knew the Jews had a festival about that time. Ramadan? Who had heard of Ramadan!

I was born into a Christian country. No multiculturalism in this Australia – and that went for the Aboriginal people as well.

In my mind, from when I was a child, it was a day of mourning. You ate fish, which was generally South African cod, that orange smoked hake which, when poached, provided a ritual assault on your taste buds. You stayed at home after church. It was a day bereft of any jollification.

I remember I once went to a vigil at midnight at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, which is the nearest Anglican Church in Melbourne to liturgically resemble the Roman Catholic Church. It is a beautiful church tucked away on the fringes of East Melbourne and Fitzroy. I went there on impulse near midnight on Maundy Thursday, on my way home when I was living in East Melbourne. I was walking alone and feeling somewhat hollow.

The church was dark with guttering candles. In the indigo darkness, I could make out a number of shadows praying and in the poor light I could distinguish one young woman, who was deeply bowed and obviously upset. I kneeled some way from her in the row of pews behind, but she maintained the expression. She did not sob, nor utter a sound. It seemed that she had been consumed by the moment of a figure with a crown of thorns weighed under the Cross he bore. In the darkness it was the only time I felt I was a bystander, watching somebody consumed, almost living the event in her mind. I stood up and left. The hollowness had not left me; I did not sleep well for the remainder of the night.

Now, years on, Good Friday is the first day of a holiday with hot cross buns and very little religion. The Crucifixion story is too grim, and any media coverage is minimal amid the flush of sporting events and other recreational activities around some Easter leporine vermin encased in chocolate.

This Easter, the airlines certainly injected a bit of pain on the road to the airline seat, maybe invoking the need to have the crowning thorn of too few staff to handle the crowd. How beautifully the airlines converted the departure lounges to a road trudging towards a new Golgotha.

Maundy Money

Maundy is the Thursday before Easter and celebrates the day of the Last Supper; “maundy” refers to Jesus’ commandment to the disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you.” Maundy is a corruption of the Latin for command – “mando” – which incidentally also means “chew” – hence the lower jaw – mandible – and thus another association with the Last Supper. Jesus was actually celebrating the Seder, the ritual meal in which the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is celebrated by Jews marking the start of Passover.

Maundy Thursday follows a giving of alms to the poor, a practice commenced by King John. The nature of the alms has changed, settling for these coins given by the British sovereign to the “deserving poor” in a number of sets equivalent to the age of the monarch in each year. In 1902 Edward had just succeeded his mother and was 60 years old, and while that number was distributed at the Royal Maundy service, a great many more sets were minted – and therefore the value of a set, in good order has varied, but currently it is around AUS$250 for a 1902 set.

Although the coins are ensconced in an impressive case, mine is probably one of the surplus issue. As far as I can ascertain, it was given to my mother by a well-heeled lady called Mrs Wynne, for whom my mother was companion for several years. All very lavender scented and chintz.

My mother acquired some of the woman’s memorabilia, but the Maundy money seems to be the only remaining legacy. I vaguely remember my mother talking about her retiring finally to Bribie Island in Queensland, but my mother never visited her, although they may have corresponded.

The Member for Grayndler

Edward Grayndler

Edward Grayndler seemed to have been a reasonably competent if conservative union bureaucrat within the AWU, as it emerged from the Shearers strike of 1890. He opposed World War 1 conscription, but this opposition to Billy Hughes did not seem to harm his relationship with successive conservative governments. For most of his later life he was a member of the NSW Upper House, and the only impression he seems to have left was on the cushioned seat of the legislature. 

His legacy – an electorate named after himself. But for how long, given there is a whole conga-line of present prime ministers from NSW who, as part of their requiem, will have electorates named after each of them in NSW. In the offing, once interred, are Keating, Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. NSW will have at least five newly-named electorates over the next 30 years or so – if the planet lasts that long.

And Anthony Albanese, the current member for Grayndler?

I live in the electorate and have just received a technicolour brochure spruiking the life of the Honourable Albanese. I have never seen him, but as somebody said about being polled by Gallup, the man himself replied that you would be more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightning. To which the other said that she had been struck by lightning.  Well, it may happen – I may meet my local member, but I’m probably more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightning.

The problem with Albanese is that he, as he proclaims in his brochure, has been in Federal Parliament for 26 years, and yet one may ask what has he done, what is his legacy? Turn to the brochure. He has provided an effective voice – bit of nonsense, worthy of Morrison. So, we read on … the tear-jerked deprived background is wearing a bit thin, as is the fact that he went to university before entering the political web to perfect the spin which seems to be Albanese – the Brochure.

When people say they do not know him, are they really saying that he has never done anything, never had an original thought in his life and moved round the web because he did not offend anybody, married another member of the web, procreated, divorced? Just an ordinary bloke from the suburbs.

But no, he wants the electorate to think of him as exceptional – deputy to Rudd – he, the first Minister for Infrastructure.  “In the depth of the Global Financial Crisis, Labor knew that Australia needed to build its way to recovery.” Pause. And so?

Then the drumroll – the achievement – supporting our craft brewers, no less.  Set out in his brochure, he points out that he actually introduced a Private Members Bill to reform excise tax, and in his own words “end discrimination”. Reducing excise on grog is somewhat at odds with his first week of campaigning which concentrated on health matters.

The first health thought bubble – the idea of having a registered nurse 24/7 in all nursing homes. This would require six registered nurses as a practical minimum for each nursing home; and in the current environment such a number is just not feasible – at least not immediately, despite the announcement that he, Albanese, will create thousands of university and TAFE places (although this was an afterthought to the GP emergency clinic idea). Where is the work experience for such a huge number, even if training could be rapidly expanded to cope?

Then this revival of the community health clinic, the variation of a general practitioner clinic attached to the emergency department. There is an underlying fallacy in this approach, which I shall expand on separately, but the Labor Party has received poor advice. The policy then only suggests 50 such clinics across Australia, hardly a generalisable policy in any event. This area, to those without experience in the field, may pass muster, but only in the nature of “Penguin Book Policy” that I mentioned in an earlier blog as the moniker for uninformed policy announcements.

What really put Albanese at a disadvantage with people who were looking for a viable alternative to Morrison was, on the first day of the campaign, the gigantic stumble in not knowing either the unemployment rate and, more disastrously in my view the cash rate, which has not changed for 17 months from 0.1 per cent. It did not get any better from there and makes one wonder, given the history from Beazley onwards, where does the Labor Party go for its models of leadership?

As I write this blog on Easter Sunday, maybe Albanese will start to rise to the task; and the proposal for an Integrity Commission is a very good place for him to start.

One thing he should remember is to pick on the topic where the Government is vulnerable and then hammer it. Add a pinch of climate change and the country being held to ransom by the very wealthy “oligarchs”, whose wealth has been tied up in fossil fuels, and the formula becomes stronger. However, whether Albanese can dispense this prescription will unfold over the next little while.

A Fraying Health Policy

The Labor policy to set up a stream of 50 general practitioner clinics to “treat patients needing urgent care including for broken bones, minor burns and stitches for cuts” is the same old policy under a different name – remember the investment in such community health clinics – the one stop shop. The pilot for general practice under the reign of Nicola Roxon was in Cootamundra, where the local general practitioner convinced the government to invest in a one stop shop clinic, next to the hospital. It has not been mentioned in the new Labor party policy and when I looked at the practice today, they still had six doctors and a general practice registrar. It seemed a conventional general practice and the waiting time to see the doctor seems to be currently two weeks – and no weekend work. So much for the pilot program.

When I devised the “Murray to the Mountains” intern training program in North-East Victoria early in the last decade, I planned that each intern would spend 20 weeks in general practice in their first year, and the practices were linked to the local hospital, where they would be confronted with emergencies as well as consolidating their medical, surgical and emergency terms at the local regional hospital. As many of the regional specialists visited these general practice health services, this model enabled the interns to gain even more experience. There were none of these extravagant waiting times to see a doctor and weekends were covered.

After all, an intern should be able to resuscitate and stabilise a patient with a medical or surgical emergency until they patient can be transferred to the appropriate medical service. The visiting geriatrician was able to take them around the nursing home to teach them how to treat the chronically ill.

Internship is a time for developing the experience and skills in how to deal with emergencies and incorporate the skills learned early into the doctor’s practice. Needless to say, being able to work with other health professionals, as distinct from just telling everyone what to do, is a skill which the interns learn in such a program. Many of the overseas trained male doctors had problems with women being considered equal and that was an issue confronted. On the other hand, after one of the specialists asked an intern why he was not eating, this led to a regionwide program to understand Ramadan among the non-Muslim health professionals to avoid such a question in the future.

A policy which assumes that a form of community health centre can relieve the hospitals of the burden of small surgical procedures is naïve in the extreme, given what has failed in the past. The more realistic demand is to ensure that all general practitioners have a basic set of skills to deal with emergencies (hence the program to ensure the interns have equal exposure to all basic skills).

The “Murray to the Mountains” Intern Training Program is ongoing, with checks and balances regularly set which eliminate that I-will-scratch-your-back-if you-scratch-mine mindset, which needs weeding out periodically from general practice. In other words, if you have an organised practice, as many do have, you can roster any of the doctors to cope with any emergency that arises, and be assured of a similar basic skill set. In the unlikely case of needing more, you will have a second on call. In the end, there will always be the unpredictable disaster, when you need everybody to help, but be assured that each person is able to be the frontline response in such a situation. It is a matter of priority in such situations.

Whatever you call it, community practice is medicine practised by a group with a patient catchment that the doctors themselves accept as reasonable. The service must be assured for 24/7. The problem is that these days one person practices are just non-viable, because in addition to struggling to provide essential locum cover when required, they fail to deal with the basic challenges of practice which I enunciated years ago – social dislocation, professional isolation, community tolerance and succession planning.

In most areas, professional succession planning is completely ignored or done badly. The thought of retirement in many cases is always a situation which doctors hate to confront until too late.

Community tolerance is the ability to integrate with the local community while maintaining professional integrity. When everybody knows everybody else, privacy is very difficult to maintain, but a medical record is not something for the parish noticeboard. Professional isolation is one area which has been addressed, but social dislocation (as I defined it, where the spouse or partner refuses to come with you or where you need to send the offspring off to school) is a matter of the family choice, which may not accord with the practice objectives. And do not underestimate the fear of rural life for those who had not had the opportunity to be socialised by stints with country relatives as a child.

I have experienced medical care in a remote part of Tasmania. I needed the visit from a paramedic, not a doctor, at four in the morning. The paramedic had to come from a neighbouring town. He was quicker in responding than was the case with a similar call in Sydney, where the paramedic came from another suburb. What would a community health service along the ephemeral good-feel media announcement done for me – in a word nothing – at least not at 4.00 am as the paramedic did.

Albanese’s follow up thought that there be 20,000 new university places and extra TAFE places does nothing to reassure … at best it would take around 4-5 years for non-medical graduates and 6-7 years for medical graduates to be available for such clinics. Yet another workforce issue.

The problem with these announcements is that they are ill thought out, and the money ends up in some entrepreneur’s pocket – close to the political party promoting the policy bubble.  Sound familiar, mate?

Tell me where I can charge the electric car

I want somebody to tell me when electric cars will be available. In the doggerel; this year, next year, sometime, never. “Never” seems to be the winner. Everybody says that, according to the populace at large, climate change is of overwhelming importance.

As somebody for whom a car has been a utilitarian means of going from one point to other, the rise of the electric car has been of interest.

Electric car sales in Australia only represent 0.78% of new cars, compared to Norway at 75% and the world average of 4.2%.

Our car is diesel. It is a Citroen C4, been reliable and for somebody who is disabled, surprisingly friendly. Nevertheless, it runs on diesel fuel and, at some time in the near future, we shall have to change to an electric car. When we enquire from the car dealers, they say there is no incentive for the car manufacturers to import cars into Australia. In fact, there were plans to dump fossil fuel driven cars in Australia because of the Government’s reluctant climate policy. Given Australia has no car industry, a casualty of globalisation, we are prisoners of fortune.

My interest was stimulated by an article in the Boston Globe, which canvassed the effect of the electric car in Massachusetts with its population of 7 million people. In America, they are still expensive in relation to the fossil fuelled cars; and importantly they estimate that they have only a quarter of the approximately 20,000 charging sites that are needed – for a population concentrated and about a quarter of our own population.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that fast charging cannot be done domestically, the required voltage is too great. Then there is a need to ensure that the electric car one buys is equipped with a plug for fast charging. There are about 300 fast charging stations in Australia, but some can only be used for Tesla cars at present. Given that it takes half an hour to charge a car, even using a fast charger, there is just no incentive for Australians to buy electric cars. It will need a massive investment, and nobody is prepared to invest in such a venture.

In Massachusetts, there are several legislative proposals designed to ease the financial stress of buying an EV for Massachusetts residents. One bill would expand the current state rebates for electric cars and extend them to used cars. Another would create more incentives for low- and moderate-income households, authorise more funding for the state’s rebate program, and expand the public charging infrastructure.

Tell me I’m wrong, but here we go again throwing money away on a Commonwealth Games and an Olympic Games – our politicians can’t get out of the “bread and circuses” routine; for them the end point is being able to view the circus from the emperor’s box sipping champagne and munching canapés.

It really is a bit pathetic; building one sporting venue after another when Australia needs to seriously address climate change – and the electrification of our cars, trucks and buses is just one of the priorities to accommodate this need. This is a nation with a trillion-dollar debt, financing an indulgent yet flimsy infrastructure so a few of one’s mates can own expensive jets, buy huge boats to cruise The Mediterranean and when the day is done, après-ski at Aspen.

Reminds me of the late Peter Sarstedt song “Where do you go to my Lovely” … could be the anthem of this country as it flounces towards oblivion.

God what were they thinking – Shock Horror

Who would have thought? There is the photo taken of me peering through the sunflowers outside florista just before tucking into a lunch of passatelli – a form of ragú – washed down with a Piedmontese red. Drinking such a wine reminded us that we had come into one of the smallest self-governing republics in the world and reputedly the oldest, being founded in 301 AD. This was San Marino, wedged between the regions of Emilio Romagna and Marche, a leisurely drive from our favourite city in Italy, Ravenna. After Nauru, it is the smallest Republic on Earth.

San Marino

Like many of these tiny European countries it exists on rocky outcrop and has survived all the vicissitudes over the centuries of a city-state weathering the ambitions of the Borgias, the imperial dreams of Napoleon and a brief occupation by the German army during World War II. One of the souvenirs is to have a San Marino euro, even although it is not part of the EU.

The republic has just appointed as one of its two Captain Regents, Paolo Rondelli.  A true Sammarinese, he is the first openly gay Head of State. There are openly gay heads of government in Ireland, Luxembourg, Serbia, and Iceland, but no Head of State.

Australia has a way to go – Morrison and Hurley do not exactly fill the bill of the first openly gay Prime Minister and Governor General in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nevertheless, as a head of government, Don Dunstan, as South Australian Premier from the late 1960s, was way ahead of the field of legislators in the Gay Stakes. Pity the Labor Party do not have anyone of that calibre now.

Mouse Whisper

I read this exchange as I trawled through the eek-mail to find this exchange: 

Well J 

Indeed surströmming has a very special stink, most portraits of consumers include a clothes peg on their nostrils. 

The fermented stench is reserved for closed groups and needs booze in quantity as well as a special mood.  Not possible to serve in restaurants if you want to keep your other customers 

Cheers 

 M

Earlier:

M

“To the Swedes, there are few odours more delectable than the scent of surströmming…to most non-Swedes there are probably few odours more repulsive.”

This was in April 9 copy of The Economist page 64. I can’t remember this on any Swedish menu – I associate this with Iceland.

J

Dressed for dinner …

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

When this blog was commenced 133 weeks ago, it was a different world. I didn’t expect that I would create a rod for my back by labelling each blog with a numerical connection to the name of the blog without being repetitive. When I started the blog, it was just by way of a scrapbook of ideas, and I was lucky to have a number of guest writers. They provided some leavening given that writing on a weekly basis is a serious business. One person caught in the middle of a pandemic with an irregular shuttered existence has a challenge to report usefully when the country’s leadership has been so uneven and where the principle of uncertainty has played into disturbance of the collective mind where the enemy is never “a tangible there” but “an intangible everywhere”.

I remember reading Erving Goffman on “Asylum” and “Stigma” when I was a young man. These books elaborated the concept of total institutions and the relationship between the inmates and those in supervisory positions of the inmates.

Goffman’s “total institutions” concept can be traced back to the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656 by Louis XIV. Once an arsenal, a rest home for war veterans, and several hospitals, the Hôpital Général served as a house of confinement for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, prisoners and the insane – those who sought assistance and those who were sent there by royal or judicial decree. In the space of several months, one out of every hundred inhabitants of Paris would find themselves confined in these institutions indiscriminately.

Australia is in various stages of lockdown; a euphemistic way of describing imprisonment–lite.

Goffman set out his rules for the game. How relevant are they to our current society after such a period of intermittent lockdowns?

Goffman’s inmate is subject to three rule sets. The first are “house rules”, which should be “relatively” explicit both prescriptively and proscriptively.

In exchange, secondly there are clearly defined rewards and privileges for obedience. Bound up with this system is the nature of release. The third element is the nature of punishment, when the rules are broken.

Does Goffman give any clue as to how the inmate should respond? No, he does not. His analysis of various responses to lockdown is well catalogued whether monastery or mental hospital. The concept of a prolonged imprisonment was not seen as the consequence when the Virus first appeared early last year. Then a selection of politicians from both sides of politics participated in light-hearted advertisements to encourage hand washing. It was as though it was similar to the mood at the outbreak of WW1 when the early prediction was of the conflict being over by Christmas 1914.

With imprisonment, the length of sentence is known; in the asylum, this is less certain, when translated to a whole community locked down.

In the early phase of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists and the anarchists, the libertarian-authoritarians and anti-vaxxers were yet to form their confederacy.  Rather it was the doomsayers. After initial hesitation, a strong advocacy time for improved hygiene, social distancing leading on to community isolation and, belatedly, masks  and hope improved the compliance of the community.

Unfortunately, Trump and the mad assortment of the above consolidated the COVID nonsense. It should not be forgotten that this activity was unconsciously aided and abetted by elements of the research community scrabbling for funding and prepared to participate in studies, on, for instance, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The race for a useful vaccine commenced. Over the previous 20 years, there had been much preliminary research on vaccines into these viruses, which was translated into an accelerated pathway for developing an effective vaccine. The nature of the coronavirus, with its chameleon quality, presented a problem, but the value of the previous work became clear with the mRNA vaccines demonstrating efficacy and able to have an accelerated introduction this year.

Last year showed the impressive use of the lockdown – but turning much of Australia into a prison until the Virus was apparently conquered. Unfortunately, the Virus changed into a more virulent form.

The Federal Government refused to develop dedicated quarantine facilities and if it were not from some robust medical advice, a nascent mixture of the above toxic creatures some of which already existed within the Parliament  exhibited the same Trumpian irresponsibility which plunged the World into the pandemic crisis.

The successful suppression of the Virus lulled Australia into a period of self-satisfaction, not recognising that armistice is necessarily unconditional surrender.

The problem has been that, despite enhanced vaccination, the second wave lockdown in NSW has not been as effective once the Delta variant got into the community. The delay in Berejiklian’s response let the Virus loose. It reached Victoria before any lockdown measures were in place. Even the swift lockdown there was insufficient, and the lack of compliance in Victoria has been poor in traditional working class areas, when the Federal government failed to restore sufficient income support to offset not being able to go to work.

“House rules” had not been explicitly stated to the effect that, if the virus appeared again, you, the community would be imprisoned again even when you had been granted both the privileges of vaccination and some income support. The first round had generated sufficient anger, assuaged by Job Keeper and Job Seeker; a second lockdown term in both NSW and Victoria (and the ACT) was not brief, there was little income support and the severity of the lockdown varied according to the particular whim of the government.

However, this lockdown has been resisted by a group of “ex-prisoners” who have set up an urban guerrilla operation designed not only to burn down “the prison” but also to institute a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution. The State has no way of collecting these guerrillas who have become carriers of the virus, the frontline shock troops for the Virus, except by reacting to the rioters. The more strident they become the more the resentment builds up in the rest of the community, made worse because of no improvement. At the same time, the Murdoch media has inflamed the situation by encouraging this resentment without advocating a solution.

Is there one?

In the post WWII community, democracies have paradoxically increased the number incarcerated. Now, what about the vaccine refuseniks and those infected. Prisons are acceptable for the first, but what of the second? Bespoke quarantine arrangements – infectious diseases sanitoria – all linked to a healthy outcome, may be acceptable. But for God’s sake, do not use the words “lock hospitals” or “concentration camps”.

However, all such facilities must have a degree of humanity; but all imply selective isolation.  Our society will have to develop a system of temporary standardised isolation facilities, where those infected are well treated but there is suitable surveillance. Otherwise, as has been shown, this, and future viruses, will spread like wildfire, vaccination or not such facilities need to be integrated into the health system.

Opening up the community becomes a meaningless term while a significant group in the community remains defiant, refusing vaccination, and in fact enhancing the pandemic, replete with the images once invoked by Erving Goffman.  

A small endeavour 

This is the story about how the pandemic has disrupted a small program in Malawi – but first, the background.

Mustapha drove us in the Toyota Land Cruiser from Majete, in the south of Malawi, to Pumulani on Lake Malawi.  It took seven hours, during which time we left the wildlife reserve for a front row seat of rural Malawi and then, contrasting that view, with that of the commercial hub of Blantyre with its profusion of modern buildings, cars and men in suits and ties. Blantyre is the toilet break stopover. Even the posh hotel does not have sufficient toilet paper and the spare toilet paper had been left in the truck. To paraphrase the saying about chooks: “don’t count your rolls until they are attached”.

Mustapha is a Sunni Moslem. He prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and his food is halal. He is a ranger at the wildlife reserve and lives three hours away in a village where he goes home for four days a month. Home is a two-room brick house with separate cooking and washing facilities. In the language of the Chichewa people, he is bambo; his wife mai and they have two ana – one is four years; the other, a ten month old baby. Both are boys.

Most of the rangers are Christian; his village is mixed, like his workplace.  This is reflected in the countryside through which we pass, where church and mosque co-exist in the one village. The Muslim influence spread from the north under Arab influence and there are concentrations of Muslims along the Lake. However, Malawians are predominantly Christian.

The camp we have left lies on the Shire River, which we cross twice more on our trip across Malawi. The riverbank is lined by elephant grass but behind this natural stockade are cultivated rows of corn and squares of green vegetable garden – maize, beans, tomato plants, sweet potatoes and onions are common crops – the abundance of these vegetables is evident in the markets of the various townships we pass through.

Outside Blantyre, rural Malawi is people walking – women and children, water containers or packages on their heads; children in brightly coloured uniforms straggling home from school.  Rural Malawi is also oxcarts being driven and bicycles, mostly ridden by men. Bicycles are loaded down with charcoal or straw-coloured thatching grass or wooden staves. Bags of charcoals standing like sentinels abut the road, ready for sale. Stooks of thatching grass also line the roadside for sale.

Police roadblocks are everywhere, but only once are we asked where we are going.

As we go further north and towards the central Malawi plain the country becomes drier. Baobab trees appear in profusion. Flashes of yellow, red and pink signify the profusion of bougainvillea. It vaguely resembles the Australian Kimberley with the rocky outcrops, the red earth and vegetation dominated by acacia interspersed by villages with signature mango trees. Here lies the difference between this part of Malawi and the Kimberley.

The Kimberley is sparsely populated, unlike Malawi where the villages tumble against one another so that walking between villages is feasible. So much of the traffic is pedestrian, despite two large buses destined for Lilongwe passing us at a breakneck speed. There are minibuses and mitolos clustered in the larger townships overloading themselves with people and goods. We pass a bicycle, one of many, a youth hunched over the handlebars. The message on his violet T-shirt is memorable: “Jesus is my hero.”

Surprisingly at no stage have we seen evidence of the major cash crop of Malawi, tobacco. Hereby hangs another dilemma that Malawi faces. Malawi is recognised as the source of superior tobacco. Yet increasingly in the Western world tobacco is a pariah crop. World opinion is closing in on tobacco usage because of its undeniable link with cancer and a host of other diseases.  It is a matter which cannot be swept as cigarette ash under the carpet of government inertia worldwide.

We reach our destination after seven hours. Lake Malawi extends for 500 kilometres and we’re at the southern end. It looks like a giant sea and it is little wonder that the early Australian explorers, aware of what was happening in Africa, searched for an inland sea. In parts the Lake is 400 m deep and 52 km wide. The Shire River is the only river that flows out of Lake Malawi, joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The Lake extends north to the Tanzanian border; and a small part lies within the Mozambican border. This is the Southern end of the Great Rift Valley, where the tectonic plates are inching apart. The Great Rift Valley runs from Mozambique, through the Lake, to Tanzania, where it splits into two.

The Eastern flank runs through Kenya and the West through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, before joining again in Ethiopia, running into and along the Red Sea, turning northward to end in the far reaches of Syria. I cannot help thinking that the Great Rift Valley is a metaphor for Africa – a tectonic plate moving its 48 component countries apart. Perhaps the metaphor is too cute and exaggerated, but it is surprising nobody seems to have traversed these jagged faults to find, in documentary terms, the “Real Africa” to see how long the rift really is. Michael Palin has crisscrossed the world; Stephen Fry has landed glancing blows in encompassing the 50 states of America; and David Attenborough has “terrorised” the fauna in his “pan-world”exploration of why and who and what we are.

Life is tranquil – so different from the above intrepid world travellers. The only excitement is the female baboon bounding towards me across the patio and seizing my morning tea biscuits. One into the mouth; and knowing that she has the advantage of surprise, seizing a second. The plate clatters onto the tiles and breaks into pieces. She has gone, chased by the staff.

I sit as a speck on the edge of this enormous freshwater pond. We are eating fish – the chambo – a white-fleshed, elegant tasting fish – drawn from the lake. We sailed around in a dhow and watched the fish eagles circling and the silent men in their canoes, each searching for fish. We sailed past a pod of hippopotami lounging just off the shoreline. A ribbon of villages lines the beach. They could be on a desert island. Except that when the dhow heads back to shore there is this rocky escarpment so reminiscent of north-west Australia.

But there is another facet of the camp where we are staying. They are acting as protection for a dozen albino children living in the nearby villages – the eldest being 18. Albinos are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, slaughtered, and dismembered for their body parts. The superstition in several East African countries that possession of albino remains will provide luck is a grotesque reflection on our human condition; and in the last two years before we went 18 children had been reported killed in Malawi. The real number? Who knows! Family members have been known to be complicit in such barbarity.

We rightly worry about rhinoceros being killed for a lump of inert keratin; we should also express our abhorrence of this human trade for what – a person with a congenital lack of melanin pigment.

There are practical requirements for albinos living in this part of Africa, beside expressing outrage – sunscreen, UV protective clothing, sun hats, sunglasses – and there is a need for eye testing facilities.

The camp where we stayed had set up a project to support albino children in three local villages; this involved their staff and also donations from guests from time to time.  Easy to just hand over some notes and move on, however we decided to become involved in the longer term by providing bulk supplies of sunscreen and sun protective gear that was not easy to obtain in Malawi and other East African countries. However, that plan struck a snag early on – the cost of getting a large amount of sunscreen from Australia to Malawi was prohibitive – $40 to post just one litre and more than three months on the road! A different solution was needed and no assistance was forthcoming from courier companies.

For a number of years one of us had been going to Africa each year so instead of sending supplies, I took packages with me – with more than 50 kgs of sunscreen and 50 pairs of sunglasses.  This was still cheaper for me to take it and pay for a return flight from Johannesburg to Malawi (including a night in Lilongwe) than to freight the stuff from Australia! I would give it to a contact in Malawi who delivered it to the camp from where it was then distributed. Customs in Malawi were bemused by the exercise, seemingly concerned I was planning to set up shop there and long discussions were usually involved with the customs officers about the exercise.

However, COVID put paid to those plans. By the time I can get another large supply to Malawi it will likely be three to four years since the last delivery without outside assistance, just one of the many impacts of COVID on African people. The health devastation wrought by COVID upon African countries and the lack of vaccines for all but a small percentage of the population makes me so sad, given for someone like myself who loves southern Africa and its people.  For the many local people who have relied on tourism for their livelihoods, the sudden and extended cessation of travel to African countries has left many struggling to survive.

Affluent western countries may now be opening up for travel but the acute shortage of COVID vaccines across Africa means day to day living as well as tourism will not return to anything like normal for years.

Armenians in Ireland

I was intrigued when seeing the Armenian Cross, the so-call khachkar, which are still being constructed in that country. I thought how much these khachkars resembled the Celtic cross, particularly the high crosses. Apparently there were Armenian monks in Ireland in around the 8th century, refugees from Islam. The two High Crosses, one at Durrow in Co Offaly and the other at Muiredach in Co Lough are suggestive of the traditional Armenian khachkars.

Ruins of Rahan Church

The one at Durrow is close to the village of Rahan, where there was a monastery dating from the 5th century. The first monastery was established in the 5th century BCE and then extended 100 years later by St Carthage. The site consists of two churches and the ruin of a mediaeval tower house, and therefore existed four centuries before the Armenians are said to have come.

The Armenians may have been housed in the monastery. The Armenian churches have pointed domes to mimic the cone of Mt Ararat, and high vaulting with the height of the church matching the length of the church. There is enough remaining of the Rahan church to strongly hint at the association. The stonework and pitched roof line resemble that of contemporary 9th century surviving Armenian architecture. The other association which may have relevance is that it is known Charlemagne used Armenians as his architects.

However, so much is lost in speculation as the dots joining them have been pulverised in the passage of unrecorded time.

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

What is going on in Australian politics in terms of corruption is as old as the First Fleet. Gary Sturgess, while Director-General of the Premier’s Office, was once the genius behind Nick Greiner who, as Premier, introduced the Bill creating the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) when Premier in 1988 (sic):

In recent years, in New South Wales we have seen: a Minister of the Crown gaoled for bribery; an inquiry into a second, and indeed a third, former Minister for alleged corruption; the former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate gaoled for perverting the course of justice; a former Commissioner of Police in the courts on a criminal charge; the former Deputy Commissioner of Police charged with bribery; a series of investigations and court cases involving judicial figures including a High Court Judge; and a disturbing number of dismissals, retirements and convictions of senior police officers for offences involving corrupt conduct… No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in New South Wales.

The charge sheet Greiner listed was long.  Later, Greiner was himself a casualty, when supporting one of his Ministers. These actions were referred to the newly-formed ICAC and he resigned when the four independent parliamentarians would not support him.  He was replaced by John Fahey.

What sticks in the craw is the outrage that this Government body, which has done its homework obviously painstakingly and interviewed the former Premier, should be pilloried. The former Premier knows that the game is up, because if ICAC had got it wrong, well somebody as well-versed as her would have invoked the “force field” with anecdotes of the poor little migrant, who has triumphed against the odds.

The concealment of the Deal, which the politicians want to shovel under the carpet, using privacy as the cleaning agent, was not helped by the ambivalent response from Mark Dreyfus. He, the Shadow Federal Attorney-General on one hand indicated that an incoming Labor government would introduce a meaningful ICAC. Yet on the other hand he had the qualification suggesting that there should be more secrecy to enshroud the preliminary investigation, aka “wriggle room”, which suggests that there are a number of sidelong glances towards certain colleagues, given the Labor Party itself is not “squeaky clean”.

Yet recently I received in the mail one of those unsolicited letters sent to his “million closest friends” from Albanese. The letter announced in bold that “An Albanese Labor Government will establish a powerful transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.” There was no detail, but it seemed more robust than the utterance of Dreyfus. One favourable Dreyfus action was that unlike some of his other Labor colleagues, he did not fall for the trap of effusively praising a disgraced departing Premier.

I suspect Berejiklian has no other life apart from politics; she was coddled by the media, unlike Julia Gillard. It should be remembered that Niki Savva conducted a relentless war against Gillard in the media, with that deadly efficiency women have when they want to bring down another woman. Berejiklian had none of that criticism; she “ascended” to the top unlike the messy way Gillard did.

The requirement for a National ICAC will be advanced if the next election produces a raft of intelligent independents not bound to the mindless obedience that the factional system of both parties imposes. The need for robust debate should be freed from those politicians, often influential, who have been compromised, as has been clearly shown by this Federal Government’s record of thinly-veiled corruption.

Has somebody lost the lock on the Pandora’s Box?

Pandora with her box

It seems that there is a virus of resignation sweeping the NSW Parliament. The one thing I admired in John Barilaro’s resignation was his refusal to criticise ICAC, because the reasons for his resignation are still unclear.

His comment was most unlike that of his Federal National leader, Barnaby Joyce who has likened ICAC to the Spanish Inquisition. I am surprised that Barnaby believes ICAC is thus run by Dominicans obsessed with Jewish and Muslim apostasy.  The Spanish connection on the other hand seems to have formed an important part of Mr Perrottet’s life through his membership of Opus Dei, which was the brainchild of Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest with close links to Franco’s rule. Therefore, if one believes Joyce, Dominic Perrottet with his Spanish connection should be a strong supporter of ICAC.

And you think I’m being ironic!

As well, for those interested in what happens to seats vacated by NSW Premiers requiring a by-election, the Liberals should remember when they picked up Premier Wran’s seat of Bass Hill in 1986. Narrow victory it may have been, but there was a 22 per cent swing. Yet the Labor Party does not seem to have the appetite for such a course in relation to Gladys’ seat; but nevertheless the Liberal Party should call a by-election as soon as possible to stymie any independent candidature.

Now NSW is faced with a trifecta of by-elections, and the more politicians protest about an organisation dedicated to rooting out corruption, the more they lose whatever shred of trust remains within the community,

Yet Jesuit-trained Barnaby can’t shut up. His antics remind me of that old joke (and here I am indebted to The Guardian) about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian gospel and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.

The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.

Really, you don’t say, Barnaby was taught by the Jesuits. Perhaps he only heard the words, “light” and “fuse” – and made the wrong connection.

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, if you enjoy the spookier things in life. There are more than a few scary tales on our October roster, including Edith Wharton’s own selection of her best ghost stories, a new paperback of the Edward Gorey-illustrated edition of the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, and another selection of supernatural stories from our friends at Notting Hill Editions. Below you’ll find some fun, spine-tingling readings, as well as a peek inside the latest title in the New York Review Comics series and a little bit of the story behind the cover of Mr. Beethoven, Paul Griffiths’s inventive novel about the eponymous composer.

If you are a local or visiting New York City this weekend, consider coming by the NYRB booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be at booth 12 for Children’s Day on Saturday, October 2, and at booth 405 and 406 for the Main Day on Sunday, October 3. We will be selling books and, on the Main Day, giving copies of The New York Review of Books away. We would love to see you there. 

— An email received from the New York Review of Books.

Sorry.  Hope to see you next year; but thanks for the invitation. Saturday and Sunday were a bit cloudy, otherwise the weather in this past week has been a bit variable – rain and all, but New York is New York, Virus or Not!

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

If the reply is no, you, the investigative journalist should then approach his brother who is Dean of Warrane College and ask what is its policy in relation to the wearing of the cilice.

I would be mortified if any of you, the fourth estate, dared to ask, but may do so; but Morrison is not a valid reply.

Mouse Whisper

It is acceptable for the political leader to stand before his or her constituency to make a sweeping gesture and say “I have a vision for the country…”

Often it would be more truthful if the same political leader would rather have said, “I have a hallucination for the country…”

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…

Modest Expectations – Geneva & Adelaide

The sight of our Prime Minister flailing around, without the wit and with deep-seated prejudices inherited in his childhood, reflects the fact that he is increasingly paralysed by the culture over which he presides. The problem with cultural change is that it takes time, and frequently depends on brutal decisions, not the least of which is to confront the problem head-on and cut away the diseased part.

Taking a medical analogy, once the doctor finds the abscess, it is drained. If the abscesses are miliary, then a general remedy is needed, and even then the disease may overwhelm the system.

All I know is the diseased process of our parliamentary government is not going to be solved by a laying on of hands or an outburst of political glossolalia.

The immediate response of sections of the Liberal Party is to introduce female quotas into the preselection process. Does the preselection procedures in the past give you reason to believe that this system will produce candidates that live within the Bell curve of normal women? And if you decide to select women who lie at least at the extremities of that curve are you sure that their idiosyncratic ways will benefit the community at large and not the tiny, skewed population that preselected them?

Extraordinary women may add colour and may play an important role, but the expectation for all women parliamentarians is that they will generally care and have an innate compassion and respect for other women. The current crop of female Liberal Party politicians (or for that matter National Party) in Canberra do not seem to have these qualities.

Catherine Cusack

There is one female politician in the Liberal Party who has seemed an exception. She is a NSW State politician, Catherine Cusack. She and her husband Chris Crawford represent that remnant of the Liberal Party that used to participate in the then Australian Institute of Political Science, in its latter glory days when it ran a summer school in Canberra and its Board had members from both major political parties. Gough Whitlam unveiled his Medibank initiative at one of the Summer schools, such was their influence. They were able to discuss policy in terms of the financial and social implications.  However, whenever Catherine Cusack has put forward genuinely liberal solutions, particularly in relation to conservation issues, she has been demoted, slapped down and unsupported by her colleagues, especially when attacked by the National Party.

Now she has called out the Prime Minister for his behaviour. Is this a single utterance of frustration and will she vanish back into the background of women who wear shapeless clothing, and have a bow in their hair to recognise their traditional inferiority at the time of the “rapture” – their role being in actually tending the hearth?

Cusack has issued herself with a challenge – that is to maintain her very important confrontational position. Otherwise, she will be dismissed as a remnant of a Liberal Party that, in the eyes of the current crop of her colleagues, never existed.

Meanwhile, Morrison recycles his bevy of outliers under the wing of Marise Payne, herself the invisible woman.

I was only 22

Rico Marley walked into a grocery store in midtown Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon carrying a guitar bag.

He headed for the men’s room, the authorities said, where he strapped on a bulletproof vest. He then donned a jacket, its pockets full of ammunition, and placed two loaded handguns in a left front pocket and two other loaded handguns in a right front pocket. In the guitar bag, he carried a 12-gauge shotgun, an AR-15 military-style rifle and a black ski mask.

Rico Marley’s weapons

Then he walked out into the store.

Police, tipped off by an alarmed shopper in the bathroom, soon stopped him. But the incident, just three miles from the site of one of the shootings last week that left eight people dead and coming two days after a man stormed a grocery store in Boulder, Colo, and killed 10, sent new waves of unease throughout greater Atlanta and also raised nationwide fears of copycat crimes.

It is stated that when the mass shooting season starts, then there is generally a series of massacres, and increasingly it seems that the supermarkets are the killing venues, whereas in the past it was schools.

This report in the NYT is unusual, instead of reporting a massacre, it provided details of the disturbed man before he could kill the innocents – his activities being seen by an observant guy who legitimately wanted to use the toilet; no, not a security guard, not a police officer, not anybody employed to guard the community. One can surmise that the alert was raised early in that the armed gunman was apprehended before he was able to effect mayhem.

In isolation, the 22 year old coloured, poorly educated gunman had a criminal record with relatively minor petty theft – a young man with a troubled mind.  It is only newsworthy in that the potential killer was apprehended before the shooting, given that in Georgia, one does not have to conceal one’s weapons. In other words, a casual passerby in a country inured to gun violence may have shrugged seeing a fellow men’s room user donning a flak jacket as just a “normal” incident. In fact, when the observer informed the store attendant of what he had seen, the attendant was initially indeed very casual, but fortunately the vital call for police was made.

Last year in the USA there were about 20,000 gun-related murders and an almost equal number of individuals who committed suicide using a firearm. This was an increase overall, and the rise was attributed to being one endpoint of domestic violence.

On the other hand, mass shootings were absent, even though they constitute only about one per cent in most years. The reason for this is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools were closed, there were fewer public gatherings.  The whole nation was plunged into collective misery so that those potentially homicidal aggrieved were absorbed into the wider community or, as stated above, violence was absorbed within domestic situations.

When the gun control advocates try to define solutions, they rely on the few small-scale attempts to ameliorate the situation, but unless Americans believe that their gun culture is unacceptable and women at all levels of society are considered equal in mutual respect, everything is for nought.

In other words, we are all powerless unless those who make the laws, makes the law. For me, if I were in power in Australia, I would limit the arms being made available to police forces. They are not a militia – not a paramilitary force. When did the police change from a “service” to a “force”? They do not need armoured vehicles and tear gas to protect the community. All police forces should be restricted in the colour they use, so they do not resemble a posh group of “bikies”. Try pink as the colour for their uniforms – why do they have to dress in black or midnight blue?  Get rid of the “aviators”. Be more selective in the range of ironmongery with which they adorn their uniforms. It would be such a change to see police showing compassion, on a regular basis, rather than presented as a novelty.

Another consideration would be to extend the principles of averment to all cases involving crimes of a sexual nature. I would turn the whole matter of proof over to the alleged assailant to prove he or she did not do it. Presumption of innocence in these cases does not work, first because of the trauma of the episode being cast out of the memory bank and then the unappetising prospect of ongoing harassment, being carried out in a court of law by an essentially misogynistic legal profession. Well, Gentlemen you only have to disprove that which has been so averred.

A consumer’s view of vaccination – albeit with the disadvantage of a medical degree

But infectious-disease experts are worried the pace needs to be faster to reach the high levels of immunity needed to slow the virus, especially as more transmissible variants spread throughout the country. To reach the level of protection needed, about 80 percent of the population has to be immunised, meaning that about 260 million people need to get vaccinated. That would require 3 million to 3.5 million shots being administered each day until April 30.

The Washington Post concludes an optimistic article about the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in health workers with a muted warning. America has not embraced the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which has been the subject of a number of caveats resulting in the temporary halt to its use in a number of countries. When these questions are answered and the world-wide juggernaut resumes, with the difficulties that entails to get momentum, another caveat is issued, currently surrounding some of the mutant strains of the virus and the ineffectiveness of that vaccine against these strains.

At the same time in Australia a great number of people who are not doctors are spruiking the virus vaccines, as if there were no doubt about their efficacy, their availability and the “Jab Program” being on time. As a result, there is the unedifying spectacle of political squabbling, and I as a customer has given up trying to make an appointment. The general practice phones are always busy; in fact, the general practitioners are not geared for mass vaccinations.

Again, I am told that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Centigrade, and given the shemozzle for a consumer, how can I be assured that the cold chain integrity has been assured? The questions then begin to flood out – for instance, how long will immunity last?

Clinical trials suggest that vaccine-induced protection should last a minimum of about three months. That does not mean protective immunity will expire after 90 days; it may last longer. However, that is still one unanswered question.

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

I am very pro-vaccination, and unless it is caught up in this COVID mess I intend to get my inoculation against the flu as soon as possible My only worry is that the puerile political agendas will get in the way of the program, lending ammunition for the anti-vaxxers.

And a final question. Who was the bright spark who suggested “Jab”, with all the violent connotations of the word? It is more correctly “inoculation” or “vaccination” – injected into the muscle. “Jab” is variously to poke or thrust abruptly as jabbing a knife into a body; to stab or pierce as in jabbed the steak with a fork; or lastly to punch somebody with short straight blows.

I, the frightened old person, seeing a uniformed person with a syringe saying that “I am going to jab you – just a little jab – it won’t hurt you.” Violence follows me at the point of a needle.

I thus remain a watcher. There are just too many unknowns.

It may be raining here, but this just came from the Boston Globe

Workers at a Baltimore plant manufacturing two coronavirus vaccines accidentally conflated the vaccines’ ingredients several weeks ago, ruining about 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and forcing regulators to delay authorization of the plant’s production lines.

It does not affect Johnson & Johnson doses that are currently being delivered and used nationwide. All those doses were produced in the Netherlands, where operations have been fully approved by federal regulators.

But all further shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — projected to total tens of millions of doses in the next month — were supposed to come from the massive Baltimore plant.

Those shipments are now in question while the quality control issues are sorted out, according to people familiar with the matter.

Federal officials still expect to have enough doses to meet President Biden’s commitment to provide enough vaccine by the end of May to immunize every adult. The two other federally authorized manufacturers, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are continuing to deliver as expected.

Pfizer is shipping its doses ahead of schedule, and Moderna is on the verge of winning approval to deliver vials of vaccine packed with up to 15 doses instead of 10, further boosting the nation’s stock.

It is a pity Biden was not President a year earlier – when I was at my most skeptical – he seemed so ill equipped. But that is the nature of pontificatory error. It can be lost in the cushions of mea cathedra.  I shall wait until his Presidency reaches 100 days before deciding the nature of my humble pie.

Food and Drink for the Memory

This past week has been a time of eating out in Melbourne – almost the first indulgence as such since the Virus struck last year.

There were two occasions during the week, when I experienced two tastes that reminded me of a couple of meals – one about a decade ago in New York and one in Manaus in 2019.

The first was when I asked for a gin martini in this restaurant near the Jolimont station. The best martini I have ever drunk was in the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Ave on the west side. We had ambled into this place, not knowing that it originally housed Pierpont Morgan’s and found that there was a restaurant situated in the middle of a library.

The ornate chamber was lined with bookcases and the filtered light gave us a gauze covering. Now I thought this is going to be one of those tea cake places with delicate cups of Assam tea and dainty neatly-shaved cucumber sandwiches. No way, the only cucumber was infused into the martini. Cucumber and martini when balanced is a superb drink. It is still my benchmark as the best martini I have ever tasted. It helps if you have a cucumber infused gin at the outset.

Some years ago I managed to corner the only remaining bottles of Gordon’s cucumber gin in the distinctive green-labelled bottles available in Australia. It seems that the only gin now available with a passing nuance of cucumber is the Scottish gin, Hendricks. So was I surprised when I ordered the martini last week, and the only gin I recognised was Hendricks, not being familiar with all these boutique gins popping up all over the place.

I was thus pleasantly surprised when the Hendrick’s martini was presented to me with a generous ribbon of cucumber in what could have passed for a sherry glass. Immediately I thought I was being short changed, and yet the martini was brilliantly balanced to highlight the cucumber infusion. There was one shortcoming, with which I confronted the martinista, and that was water in the martini. It is a bit of a conceit to pour you a gin straight from the freezer in the glass wetted with dry vermouth, in so doing limiting the water content and in a commercial world increasing the cost. The other problem is that gin watered down or inferior gin coming out of the freezer half frozen is not a good look for the martinista.

But back to the Morgan – we had the meal, but as we knew nothing about the place, we left without looking around this ornate building. It was just another place to have a feed. Pity we missed the Gutenberg Bible and the only remaining first edition of Paradise Lost. Mr Morgan had a great deal of money.

The other memory last week was when ordering kingfish ceviche at a Spanish restaurant in Richmond. It brought back memories of that morning in Manaus two years ago when I remembered the ceviche I had ordered. As background, we had arrived there around 2am after a five-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro and gone straight to bed.

In the mid morning, we had woken up to one of those overcast tropical humid days. It had been raining. Food was being served on the same level as our room in an open eating area overlooking the courtyard. It is somewhat disconcerting arriving into a city so far up the Amazon, knowing that we had to board the ship to take us up the river in a few hours, but not knowing quite when.

The only option was to have a meal, before being scheduled to be picked up. There was a tropical fruit collection to start. Ceviche was on the menu, in big white chunks marinated in a lemon marinade with red onions. The fish used in Manaus was tambaqui, an Amazon freshwater fish with a passing resemblance to the piranha; tambaqui has been overfished, and its future depends now on aquaculture.

It was a very memorable feast upon the ceviche. Nevertheless, we have moved on, as we do, even though this blog is somewhat wistful for a world that has gone.

Maundy Thursday – The Lavage of Feet

As I finish this blog in preparation for it being published, tomorrow is Good Friday. Now, it is the night that Judas Betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. When I was younger, attending a midnight vigil, where the whole church is draped in black, was one of my most compelling involvements. As a Christian, I was brought up with a belief that this was the one day of the year that we should collectively mourn with the day completely closed. However, this religious quirk has been the victim of multi-culturalism; it is no longer a national expression. However, for someone who was brought up to believe in the sanctity of this day, I cannot help being uncomfortable with this change.

Maundy Thursday as the name is thus described, is the day when Jesus after the Passover supper washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of his humility.  The British Monarchy has its own interpretation of acknowledgement of the poor. Rather than washing feet, the Queen hands out Maundy money, with the number of coin sets equal by gender; the actual number determined by the age of the monarch – in 2021, 94 sets for women and 94 sets for men.

1902 Maundy money

I have a 1902 Maundy money set featuring Edward VII – a silver one penny, twopenny, threepence and fourpence laid out on blue velvet in a small red box. Given the size of the coins, it literally is a miracle that this small box given to my mother, who had nursed this very widely-travelled lady who gave her these coins, has survived intact.  I remember seeing it first as a very small boy.

As my Cypriot doctor friend said: “Jesus is the reason for the season”. Especially appropriate comment, given I don’t remember any rabbits hopping around the Cross with baskets of eggs.

Mouse Whisper

President Biden pledged to have 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered by the end of his first 100 days in office. That’s double the goal he set in December and reached earlier this month before his 60th day in office. 

The mausmeister, who was so critical of Biden in the lead up to the election, grudgingly backing him to win, is holding back judgement, but has been pleasantly surprised. However, he was worried when the President stumbled three times on Air Force One stairs. He will have to realise rather than trying to appear decades younger by jauntily approaching the red carpet, that his behaviour will need to be modified. Fortunately, the last steps up to the plane entrance showed no evidence of a barked shin – no sign of limping. Good sign, but as my mausmeister found out, never be ashamed to use a cane – or hold onto the railing.

Modest Expectations – Blue Balloons

There is a Bartleby cartouche in the latest issue of The Economist in which “loneliness” as one specific fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is the central point.

The actual Bartleby is the hero, if that is the word, for the main character in a short story written by Herman Melville. Bartleby is a scrivener who, after a promising start in an office, ever after replies “I would prefer not to” when asked to perform a task. There thus is a progressive decline of this person who increasingly does nothing until ultimately, he dies of starvation.

In the midst of a pandemic, loneliness appears to be an appropriate topic, even though the current columnist concealed behind this non-de-plume is a journalist who has won awards for his ability to communicate, and who previously wrote the Buttonwood column in the same journal. Buttonwood was alleged to be the plane tree under which 24 gentlemen signed an agreement in 1792 which led to the establishment of the New York Stock Exchange. Hardly loneliness.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is the way society in all its forms copes with solitude. Solitude is not loneliness. Yet loneliness is a by-product of solitude when it is enforced. Solitude is the monk in the cell where solitude is voluntary. Loneliness is the prisoner in solitary confinement where the outside world is through a grate high on the wall.

Solitude you can deal with on your own terms. Often, I used to go for walks alone because in solitude there is space. Night time was always a good time. I controlled those strolls in what I did; where I went; what I avoided.

Yet it is night time when loneliness is most prevalent. In daytime there are social and business contacts complemented by family; and for those without family then there were night time activities – bars, theatre, nightclubs, gambling. At least before the pandemic. Lockdowns and curfew changed that with the advance of the Virus and enforced self-isolation has aggravated the sense of loneliness. After all, being alone and sober and awake at three am – the witching hour – is a complete test of loneliness.

I have written before of the image of the politician, the man and less commonly the woman, alone in the staged photograph. This image is interpreted as a sign of strength, until you realise that behind that camera lens is a mob, ready to engulf “the person alone” who is paradoxically the centre of attention, even when the photographic image would ask you to believe otherwise.

Now that I spend many hours in “retirement”, is it solitude or loneliness when the phones have stopped ringing and there are days when nobody calls? It must be difficult when you go into a gated community for the aged where you have no companions, except the fell sergeant. Increasingly your friends and acquaintances have gone with him – and thus it’s a lonely crowd.

But real loneliness is when your partner walks out on you, becomes demented or dies.  Loneliness thus is when you have no control, when you realise power has been taken from you, a situation which leads you to the conclusion that life eventually will become intolerable. Pandemic or not, there is an inevitability with age that once lost, societal relevance is never regained without help.

In a pandemic, there need to be ways in which loneliness can be ameliorated.  The Bartleby column provides some limp commentary. Technology does provide some relief, but there is always going to be an artificiality whenever any of one’s senses is blocked, as they are by technology. You can see and hear using texting, zooming, phoning or whatever. But you have no sense of the proprioceptive influence of the whole person with whom you are interreacting remotely.  So, when the technology is switched off, then you are alone. Normally proprioception is considered an introspective sense, like one navigating a dark room, and knowing that it is your head which bumps the ceiling not your foot.

But what I call proprioceptive influence is how you react when you meet anybody. You immediately sense the space that person inhabits and how it is affecting you. Crucially this interaction depends on face to-face contact. Zoom can cut that sense right out. You also enter into that artificial world of constant texting to convince yourself you are not alone, until no-one responds.

In doing so ever more frantically, loneliness is enhanced. The external proprioceptive influences are lost. Once the stimulus of this external proprioception is lost, then one is at first lonely and then like Bartleby – some may say profoundly depressed until death relieves the pain of loneliness.

Brisbane West – A Quirk of Nature

Below is part of an email I wrote to a friend on January 25. Having been there on a number of occasions, I canvassed the use of Toowoomba (Wellcamp) as a site for quarantine.

The Wellcamp airport facility at Toowoomba is impressive. The Brisbane Lord Mayor Quirk lived up to his surname when he objected to it being called Brisbane West. Don’t know why?

Wellcamp Airport

A quarantine facility here is very feasible, constructed at this airport which is surrounded by plenty of broad acres; the transfer time from the spacious terminal to the potential facility is negligible. It was ludicrous to hear one of those cossetted commentors on the ABC this week saying that the dangers of being cloistered in cars with others for hours, travelling to hypothetical remote facilities beyond some black stump or two. She must have been watching too much of “Back Roads”.

The Wagner brothers, who built the Wellcamp airport without subsidy, represent the very best – honest and tough, as Alan Jones found out.  It is a pity that when the Prime Minister went to Queensland recently, it seemed mostly to go to Katter’s demesne.  I hope Morrison understands that politics in Queensland is dynastic. The Premier herself is a prime example. In Kennedy, Robbie Katter is next in line, outwardly different from his father but still just as canny. John McVeigh recently stepped down as the local member for Groom, a seat his father Tom held until 1988. Pity the Prime Minister did not take in Toowoomba during that last trip. As I wrote:

To me the fact that our health system is operating well, where there is no need for vaccines, must be beneficial to the business community. Everybody wants the magic bullet, but it does not exist, except in very rare circumstances and then admittedly it changes society – take antibiotics for instance. But on the other hand, we are far from conquering cancer, but that has been factored into our daily life, and you would know as an economist. We have cancer centres, and there is thus some degree of certainty, which is bolstered by such measures as “five year survival rates”. I would not put a lot of faith in the vaccines until I know whether they work or not. Yes, they say governments have thrown a lot of money at it, but that does not necessarily provide a solution to a virus which can rapidly mutate. 

Do what we are doing? Keep it out of the country is the first response. If the vaccine works, good. But like the ill-fated App which was supposed to locate the infected, don’t bet your house on its efficacy.

Sorry about the cruises and the overseas trips. I remember my father went back to England in 1919 and then apart from the War did not go overseas until 1953. My mother never did. I do not know what your father and mother’s experience was.  The world did not come to an end, but as I remember it, travelling was expensive, especially by plane – and perilous.  When I first went overseas in 1956, I had smallpox, typhoid (which gave you a painful arm and was not very effective) and cholera vaccinations. I think it was the year we all had our Sabin. Apart from that we had triple antigen as children. Therefore, we will have to adapt to a fortress nation, just as we did between 1939-45.

Business will adapt, as I said above, to there being no magic bullet. There are always going to be smarties on the stock market, but presumably with ongoing exchanges as you and I are having, information (in the health sector) becomes less asymmetric because of such exchanges. 

What Australia needs are dedicated quarantine facilities in just the same way as we have emergency services. I advocated for them in an August Blogs (No76 & 78). We have ambulance services although less than 10 per cent of their time is spent on emergency work. But we need them standing by. Thus, there will be a great deal of downtime, but at least quarantine facilities will be dedicated, and not be non-purpose-built hotels. In the short term, because government is not faced with capital costs, they will continue to use hotels, but the Queenslanders have the solution borrowed from the NT – disused mining camps kept in good nick. If Victoria had these, it would not be going through the trauma of the tennis “bratology”.

The next argument used will be that no health professionals will want to go to them. I battled this furphy for 10 years setting up the rural clinical schools, and they have been hugely successful. Students now want to go. Therefore, following the success of clinical schools, put incentives like specialist research facilities alongside the quarantine facilities, even drug manufacturing facilities. Rural Australia has plenty of space.

Take the concept of Toowoomba being one such area. Ever been to the Wagner privately built airport? It can take the biggest air freighters, because the idea was to export beef and other livestock from there without needing to go to the coast. International planes could easily be diverted there. Exmouth is another where, when they left, the Yanks left fully operational hospital facilities. God knows whether they have been maintained. 

From the outset of the pandemic, I have always advocated permanent dedicated quarantine facilities and if this had been the original intention Australia would have been spared all the problems that inappropriate hotel quarantine has caused. The Wagners of Toowoomba have now proposed they build a large quarantine facility adjacent to the Toowoomba airport, with accommodation and facilities for staff and testing. International flights can land there and quarantining passengers would be in the facility within minutes.

While there is a reluctance to admit the original hotel quarantine had more to do with the economics of the hotel industry, hotels have been adapted, at a cost, to having a quarantine role. Having said that, I have never seen a unit cost of an average hotel stay compared with that of the Howard Springs facility, which seemed perfectly adequate for the first tranche of evacuees from Wuhan.

When I raised this idea at the time with a former Departmental head, he said that the cost of building from scratch would be daunting. However, as I replied, they would provide more protection than of couple of unusable submarines which may never be constructed, at the cost of how many millions, or billions? 

And from The Boston Globe at the weekend…

The 66 per cent global effectiveness rate for the one-shot vaccine fell significantly short of the performances of the two-shot vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that the FDA cleared for emergency use in December. Those vaccines prevented more than 90 percent of coronavirus cases in large trials, a remarkable showing considering that they were the first to successfully use new synthetic messenger RNA technology.

Dr. Dan Barouch, who runs the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel, which developed different technology for the (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine, said the pandemic has evolved, with the emergence of more resistant variants, in particular a worrisome South African strain that was detected in the United States for the first time last week.

Several vaccine experts agreed and highlighted a particularly encouraging finding in Johnson & Johnson’s announcement last week: The one-shot vaccine was highly protective against the worst cases of COVID-19. Worldwide, the shot prevented 85 percent of severe cases, and none of the vaccinated people needed hospitalization or died from COVID-19.

Dr Fauci acknowledged last week that public health officials will likely face a “messaging challenge” to persuade people to take a vaccine that prevented 66 percent of symptomatic cases compared with roughly 95 percent.

But, he said, “If you can prevent severe disease in a high percentage of individuals [as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did], that will alleviate so much of the stress and human suffering and death.”

He and other officials also said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would likely get lower efficacy results now, given the emergence of the South African strain, which appears to be more resistant to immunization.

The FDA said last summer that a vaccine that was safe and at least 50 percent effective would likely be cleared for use. The annual flu vaccine is typically 40 to 60 percent effective at preventing influenza cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.(CDC)

The Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine relies on a design that Barouch pioneered nearly 20 years ago for two experimental vaccines that have shown promise against HIV and Zika, and a third vaccine that won approval from the European Union in July to prevent Ebola.

A Trojan Horse

It uses a harmless and relatively rare cold virus, adenovirus serotype 26 ― or Ad26 ― as a Trojan horse to deliver part of the distinctive spike protein on the coronavirus surface into cells to trigger an immune response without making people sick.

Despite its lower performance in preventing all COVID-19 cases, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has major advantages over its Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna rivals. By requiring only one shot, it would simplify and speed the vaccine campaign. In addition, it is stable at refrigerated temperatures, unlike the other vaccines, which must be frozen at ultracold temperatures when shipped and stored before use.

The FDA cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 11 and the Moderna vaccine a week later. But their rollout has been frustratingly slow and cumbersome, and public health officials want more vaccines from other drug makers to bolster the supply. As of Thursday, the government has distributed more than 57.4 million vaccine doses, and 27.9 million people have had one or more shots, according to the CDC.

Dr Eric Rubin, (the editor -in-chief New England Journal of Medicine and member of the FDA advisory panel), said Thursday that “it’s been frustrating how long it’s taken to roll out vaccines, but if everything were perfect and we had a perfect distribution system, we’d run out of vaccines really fast. We just don’t have enough supply.”

Therefore, vaccination in America has been beset by a number of problems with open criticism by the experts, especially given how slow and complicated the rollout has been, if the above quote gives a reliable picture.

One benchmark which politicians will always grasp when justifying their decisions is the places where the rate of vaccination has worked well. Israel seems to be the shining example.

Three million one hundred thousand Israelis have been vaccinated and 1.8 million have had their second dose. It is rumoured that Israel paid Pfizer far more than other countries to receive preference; hence there have not been any questions raised over the supply line integrity. Israel is a wealthy country, well able to afford paying a premium.  Israel is also the 150th largest country in the world, and that makes lines of supply relatively short; and given that Israel seems to be on permanent war-alert, then it is reasonable to believe the bulk of the population are more disciplined and compliant without coercion.

Israel has the luxury of having apparently solved the supply chain problem and systematically collected data which have shown (in peer reviewed journals) that the vaccination is 50 per cent effective 13 to 24 days after vaccination. Nobody under 16 is being vaccinated; nor any of those who have been certified as being infected before vaccines became available. 7,000 cases had thus been previously recorded with 10 per cent having had “moderate to critical illness”. There were 307 deaths. To put all of this into perspective, Israel has a population of just over 9 million.

After vaccination in the vulnerable over 60 age group, only 531 of almost 750,000 have developed symptoms of the virus, with 38 requiring hospitalisation; there were three deaths. Not a bad interim outcome, but it is early days and there is evidence of spaces in knowledge still to be filled. The obvious question is how generalisable is the Israel experience? What gives some comfort is that the Israelis seem to have an excellent data collection.

The Churches of Romney Marsh

I have stayed on Romney Marsh and have watched the eastern sky darken across the dyked flats to Dymchurch and the Channel towards the French coast as the sun set at my back and have noticed the strange unity of sea, sky and earth that grows unnoticed at this time and place – Paul Nash 1940

John Piper knew the artist who penned the above quote well. He himself was a very prolific English artist, and besides his artwork he was known for his stained glass. Much of his work can be found in churches across England.  My starkest memory of his work is the red centrepiece in tapestry daubed with Christian symbolism and surrounded with panels of purple, green and blue which shines in all its vibrant entropy out of the gloom of the sanctuary in Chichester Cathedral. Funny word “stark” to describe a brilliant multi-coloured woven cloth; but there you are. It absolutely complements the severity of its environs.

John Piper tapestry, Chichester Cathedral

I first read the name John Piper some years ago on a King Penguin “Romney Marsh”. Even before I had laid eyes on the book, the name “Romney Marsh” conjured up a sense of mystery because it always looked so desolate. Normally to offset the bleakness, the photographs were always dotted with sturdy, white faced Romney sheep with their cream fleece.

Romney Marsh as described by Piper in words and in his sketches of the villages but particularly the churches, encouraged us to visit there. This happened to be on a characteristically windy and grey day. In the distance on the Dungeness headland are the twin grey blocks of the nuclear power stations, which were working when we there, but have since been shut down for safety reasons – temporarily until the engineers get things right. Stretching away from these blocks was this severe wasteland, and one might have expected the spectre of T.S Eliot tripping through the low undergrowth and holly bushes.

The nuclear power station was not there when John Piper prepared his book. However, there were watercolours of the circular black and white painted brick lighthouse and the keeper’s house. This was replaced in 1961 by a far higher concrete structure, so as not to be obscured by the nuclear power station. This latter one is floodlit so the birds can avoid it but the two lighthouses (one now a tourist attraction from which to see the land and sea) exist side by side, testimony to the advances in “lamp” technology over the centuries since the first was constructed.

When we there we avoided the villages (Romney was one of the Cinque Ports of which our beloved homegrown Knight of the Thistle was Warden, sandwiched as he was between Churchill and the Queen Mother). We concentrated on the churches, many of which were isolated and only accessible if we walked across the squelching terrain. For although the Marsh has long since been drained, lying as it does between shingle shores, there are still marshy reedy areas.

As is said, from most areas of the Marsh, a belfry, tower or steeple are visible, so ubiquitous are these churches. Most of the Marsh population in the eighteenth century was engaged in smuggling wool and Fuller’s earth (a form of clay used in cleaning and purifying) to France; and brandy, silk and lace from France. The churches became useful storage facilities, even extending to the use of empty stone lidded coffins. The churches were therefore a crucial link in the black economy of the time.

John Piper’s sketch of St Thomas of Canterbury, Fairfield, Romney Marsh

Our visit was a far more pedestrian in more ways than one. We chose to visit the churches where, in his book, Piper had inserted coloured plates: St Thomas of Canterbury – Fairfield, St George – Ivy Church, St Clement – Old Romney and St Mary – East Guildford. We visited some others as time permitted.

There are 27 in all, one meriting a one-line description, “fragment of a ruin, near a farm”, and others not much more. Some of the churches exhibit Norman influence and can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Many have been modified and in some cases such as St Thomas squatting as it does in the middle of a field have been restored. Otherwise, the seven-word description above indicates in this comprehensive list there are still ruined remnant churches.

Wandering around Romney Marsh is just one example of being alone in history, as it can be found in the churches. In this case, we were very lucky to have this bonus, John Piper’s comprehensive and illustrated guide.

Mouse Whisper

And now again for something completely different: what a revelation to watch a film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the life of the Indian mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His mentor at Cambridge was G.H. Hardy who, with his colleague J.E. Littlewood, were already mathematical luminaries at Cambridge when Ramanujan came there just before World War 1. The fact that these men went by initials rather than names indicated the stitched-up era in which these academics lived.

The last scene in this brilliant film shows the two men, Hardy and Littlewood – Ramanujan having just died in India of TB at the age of 32 – seeing a taxi labelled 1729 and saying, we must take that one.

This taxi number, as my master found out, was a bit of a complex mathematical licence.

In fact, the actual truth was that Hardy had once taken a cab to visit Ramanujan. When he got there, he told Ramanujan that the cab’s number, 1729, was “rather a dull one”. Ramanujan said, “No, it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as a sum of two cubes in two different ways. That is, 1729 = 1^3 + 12^3 = 9^3 + 10^3.” This number is now called the Hardy-Ramanujan number, and the smallest numbers that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in n different ways have been dubbed taxicab numbers.

I now know what the last scene in the film is about; well, sort of. Need to consult that mathematical doyen of the murine world, Bertie Rustle.

Taxicab 1729

Modest Expectations – O Come Let Us Sing

The Gracchi Brothers

I remember in my wanderings through ancient history, that I heard the aphorism the mob that creates you tears you down. From my fading memory, I believe it referred to the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius. They were Roman populists in the style of “Make Rome Great Again” populism of the second century BC, but unlike Trump they had an agenda beyond shallow slogans and self-aggrandisement. They were interested in land reform and giving slaves a better deal. It is a scenario which has been repeated through the course of human history, but I’ve always associated the saying with the Gracchi brothers, because they were both beaten to death at different times – one of them being killed by a slave and the other by a chair leg.

In a way, egged on by Trump who then went back to watch his incitement on television rather than leading the mob, as one would expect for someone intent on making himself Great, the mob attack on the Capitol had its roots with the Gracchi. That mob has unwittingly destroyed Trump. To the people who matter, those who run American golf, erasing him is the greatest death for the narcissist – the most potent way for a mob to destroy him, this coward narcissist. He even fears germs.  But the people he wanted to impress because of the control over his mob are on their way to an FBI charge sheet.

Those of us who have grown up in a democracy, even as we were born into a time when Hitler was rampaging across Europe, Stalin was quietly executing on sight anybody who disagreed with him and Franco was twisting his heel on the Spanish Republic, have watched from afar.  Since 1945, we have seen America become the tar baby in too many wars just to maintain some mythical machismo “greatness”. Trump has allowed the country to be pulled down even further.

He has no way to go, because the fate of most narcissistic unhinged populists is death by the mob that constructed them.

He should be reminded of Mussolini, hung upside down with his mistress in Milan, like a slab of meat on an abattoir hook.  Already metaphorically, they have done that. Trump’s only exit will be an ornate box, his pall bearers being those to whom he has awarded the Legion of Merit – or pardoned.

For my part I would not want to be the watcher on a cast iron balcony if Tinpot Trumpism leads to the burial of America which, despite its flaws, so epitomises the best of Democracy.

Craig Reucassel

He is a very personable man but wasted. Why? Because he is not taken seriously. After all, his bio says “comedian”.  The problem is that he presents a very important subject in a very engaging manner. He employs stunts, but the problem with a stunt is that when it is over it leaves no residue.

Mr Reucassel

Craig Reucassel is a serious person. I have no doubt about that. However, he is one of the Chasers and seen as an iconoclastic entertainer. When he pursued the Prime Minister, he was cast back in his role of one of the “Chasers”, a humorous irritant. In fact, what he did show very clearly was the authoritarian, humourless nature of the current Prime Minister, unwilling to confront without the public relations machinery. This inability to face up to people was clearly shown in his visit to Cobargo during the bushfires.  Since then, he has had to have a crafted scenario, and he uses the lectern and the microphone to project this crafted image.

It was so different from the time Reucassel confronted John Howard with a plastic axe to jokingly test the Prime Minister’s security arrangements and asked for a hug – Howard provided him with it. So different, but then Howard was not a one-dimensional man, despite those who sought to paint him one shade of grey.

But is it enough to try and demonstrate the foibles of the Prime Minister when you are outside the Court by clowning? After all, the fool was an integral part of many a mediaeval court. The fool  was an “insider”.

Reucassel should be in Parliament. He is far smarter for instance than another entertainer Peter Garrett, whose lack of intelligence and guile was soon shown up in his short parliamentary career.

Reucassel has built a reputation with his on war on waste, but eventually he will need to tackle the hard end of what we all want – the formation of a national policy and its implementation. The world cannot continue to accumulate waste. Waste management once could be sloughed off to China, but no more. The sea is now yielding our waste, and while having the annual Clean Up Australia days in March may make the community feel good, obviously the awareness created by such days has not been translated to a national change in behaviour.

I once was asked to review single-use medical equipment and report on those that would be economic to reuse. Of all the instruments that were reviewed, the re-use of only one could be justified in economic terms.  For the rest, to buy a new instrument rather than sterilise for re-use was the most economic outcome. The arguments to which government listened were economic; it was not an era where degradation of single-use instruments was a serious consideration.  It was the era of fear of “mad cow disease” and deadly unseen prions in the nervous system, which resisted conventional sterilisation procedures. Thus, re-use was surrounded by bogeys, some of which have been answered or rendered less relevant by technological advances providing alternative outcomes.

There are parliamentarians who attention-seek by performing stunts. These chaps are variously labelled “eccentric”, “lovable” and all the words you don’t want when you desire to be considered serious.

In any event Reucassel, with his intrinsic sense of the ridiculous, would make a perfect parliamentarian. Watching him he has a touch of the ironies which adds to his charm. There is one caveat, irony does not read well in Hansard – the printed word misses the inflection.

I think his ideas and objectives are correct, but he needs a legislative platform to achieve it. Time to stop the destruction of this planet being considered a big gag.  There is so much social media – too much communication static for that to be achieved by his current course of action.  It is time for him to take his message into Parliament and form the appropriate alliances – that is, if you believe that the Imitation of Trump is not the way to run this country – and eventually vote the denialists out.

I would suggest one of the New South Wales’ seats held by one of the Trump neophytes would be perfect for him, given that upending Abbott showed the way to do it. Maybe Falinski, whose seat is MacKellar, would be the way to go. Falinski is the typical Liberal Party hack toeing the party line.

As Falinski said in his maiden speech full of the pieties expected:

And so a politician is accountable to their community – I am accountable to you.

Wrong, he is beholden to his masters, never voted against any government.  He has a voting record which would please Donald Trump – he should be vulnerable to somebody with the Reucassel values. I would love to see them debate why, for instance, Falinski has inter alia disagreed recently with the proposition:

The Prime Minister to attend the House by 2 pm Tuesday 8 December to make a statement to advise the House whether Australia is speaking at the Climate Ambition Summit and table any correspondence with the summit organisers relating to whether Australia is speaking at the summit. 

This is but one example, but Falinski’s voting record is reprehensible to any person who is genuinely Liberal.

Reucassel is genuinely concerned with climate change and the world becoming a rubbish dump. He should be elected to Parliament to pursue this goal and hold the government to account.  Falinski seems unwilling to do so. Is it Mitch Falinski, or is that your second name?

Talking of which…

David Sharma, suggesting some bureaucratic mechanism to review Trump followers being bumped out of social media. Since clarified…no…not really…but all things considered…

David Sharma is a Jew, an ex-diplomat and within his electorate are both survivors of the Holocaust and the heirs to those who died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

I appreciate that January is the silly season for media releases, but before he provides more detail of his scheme, he should read this description reprinted from the Washington Post about the January 6 Insurrection – the consequences of a relentless misuse of social media by a sociopath in power.

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, writes: 

There were crosses, “Jesus Saves” signs and “Jesus 2020” flags that mimicked the design of the Trump flags…

Comfortably intermingled with Christian rhetoric and these Christian icons were explicit symbols of white supremacy. Outside the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a large wooden gallows with a bright orange noose ominously dangling from the center. These Trump supporters managed to do something the Confederate army was never able to accomplish — fly the Confederate battle flag inside the U.S. Capitol. One widely shared image showed a rioter with the Confederate flag strolling past a portrait of William H. Seward, an anti-slavery advocate and Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was seriously wounded as part of the broad assassination plot in 1865 that killed Lincoln.

At least one protester sported a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, a reference to a concentration camp where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, even as others made outlandish comparisons between Christians as victims of American society and European Jews in the Third Reich.

I wonder if David Sharma were to paraphrase the comfortable words of Prime Minister Howard by saying that the Liberal Party is a broad synagogue what would happen? I’m sure people in his Party like the Member for Hughes would offer an opinion on social media.

La Bandiera Gialla

Quarantine power is vested with the Commonwealth under the Australian Constitution. It seems such a clearly defined power that the enabling legislation beginning with the Quarantine Act (1908) has been rarely challenged. Perhaps in 1901 it was simply a matter of ensuring that ships ran up a yellow flag before entering port.

The problem was that before Federation, such as it was quarantine was the responsibility of the colonies. Enforcing quarantine costs money and while there have been epidemics before, memories are short. When COVID-19 invaded the country early last year, the public health defences were thin.  Then, using crude measures of lockdown and closure of movement including borders made sense. When in the dark, fumbling for candles and matches, it is best to make sure the doors and windows are closed. Hopefully there is enough moonlight until the sun comes up.

The other problem was that of a Federal Government being pressured by their business mentors to keep everything functioning. The decision to ensure priority be given to public health measures was touch and go; otherwise, Australia might have been placed in the same place as America and Europe are today. However, fortunately it all started in China, and given fear of the Yellow Peril lies deep in the Australian psyche, border closure initiated by Morrison, on advice, was instituted. Deep-seated prejudice led to a correct decision, but border closure should have been far more widely adopted then.

The government kept being badgered by its business mates to disregard public health, amplified by their foghorn in Alan Jones and his mates skulking in the Fox network.

Lip service was paid to social distancing, hand washing and remember the app? Before any vaccine, it was going to be the panacea. Like so much of the IT work overseen by the Department it proved to be a useless but not an unexpected piece of crap. It is fortunate that it did not interfere with the contact tracing system, where NSW in particular had a very strong system due to a previous Chief Health Officer’s foresight. Sue Morey’s work 30 years before in instituting a system saved Australia.

What turned out to be positive at the Federal level was Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth, public health physicians. Both of these doctors have a clear eye, and had both expertise and experience of the link between process and outcome.

They helped Brendan Murphy, who had been cast into an unfamiliar role as Head of the Department at the outset of a pandemic, the dimensions of which were not yet clear. He is not a public health physician, intrinsically shy and in the early days an appalling communicator but nevertheless assiduous, intelligent and with a proven administrative record and unlike his predecessor – as heads of the Health Department have been for nearly 40 years – he is a doctor.  This was a very important characteristic especially if you look closely at the performance of his predecessors, especially Jane Halton. You know, the person with her epidemiological expertise on display on the Crown Casino Board.

The problem with those who believe that Health can be administered by anybody is the same as saying you can govern Russia without speaking Russian. As “Pansy” Wright, that professor extraordinaire, said about the second year of medicine, one needed to increase one’s vocabulary by about 7,000 words in that year– such is the language of health. Well, on reflection, I suppose you could administer Russia if you had skilled interpreters and a very big knout.

Public health was in a lamentable state in Victoria, because its systems were tested and found wanting. New South Wales on the other hand had a system devised by Morey. The challenge of the infected cruise ships and outbreaks of the Virus in nursing homes showed its intrinsic systemic strength. Queensland with Jeanette Young at the helm did what Queenslanders always  do– keep it simple and authoritarian. The Queensland system has not been tested, and in the past, Young, who is not a public health physician, has been a bit of a “panic merchant” which suited the Premier just fine. However, there is always unease because both Queensland and Western Australia have to come out of lockdown sometime and have yet to gain the experience provided by Victoria and New South Wales.

South Australia has been tested and its Chief Health Officer like her Commonwealth counterpart has a clear eye, and therefore the State is fortunate. Having personally experienced recent travel around South Australia, everything being undertaken seemed eminently sensible. I have also been to Tasmania. I am not sure that the Burnie experience has been translated into policy reform; there was a degree of the sensible, but again the Premier likes to close borders

During this pandemic, Australians have shown compliance, unlike other countries which seem to delight in being unruly. When faced with public health advice translated into law, the number of those who have been defiant has dwindled. The Victorian experience, where Andrews initially presided over a disaster, ensured compliance which saved his political skin. He left the Trumpists in his wake. He discredited them here in Australia.

The problem is that Berejiklian still listens to them, and that is a real danger. She pretends to be liberal, on the left of her Party, when she may be a closet Trumpist. The images of her striding out to deliver her daily dictum and not wearing a mask when all others were doing so says it all and her disdain for her self-isolation is troubling; at times her behaviour seems at odds with the public health advice.

The institution of a so-called national cabinet which has no legal standing provides a public relations aura of cooperation, but it is a means of the Prime Minister taking credit for success while laying blame at the feet of the Premiers (with the exception of Gladys) when things go wrong.

Now, where are we?

Hardly a case of local viral transmission throughout Australia.

So why are the borders closed? This continued closure is shown in relief that some guy can go from Sydney to Broken Hill, which is about the same flying distance as from Sydney to Launceston or Sydney to the Sunshine Coast.

In other words, it is not about borders, it is about trust in the public health systems being uniform nationally. Where is the leadership here from the Federal Government?

Infections are all coming from overseas. Therefore, as the Constitution sets out, quarantine is a national not an individual State responsibility. The laws should be uniform. Everybody coming into Australia must be subject to quarantine, and at last there is some movement on my suggestion that there should dedicated facilities. I was only this week reflecting on the success of the original evacuation from Wuhan, where Howard Springs was successfully used. There is the furphy that the quarantine facilities should be located next to major teaching hospitals. If you drive between Barooga and Tocumwal in southern New South Wales, you can see a commemorative cairn to the 1,000 bed hospital which was built there during World War 2 – no major teaching hospitals there. That area would still be ideal for a dedicated quarantine facility.

Vaccination is now the go. Given that in the past coronaviruses have confounded the scientists wishing to make a vaccine against the common cold, why would devising a vaccine against this coronavirus be any easier, giving it is beginning to mutate – and there is no indication that it will stop at two. The protagonists would say that not at any time before has so much funding being flung at finding a vaccine in such a short time, when the technology is so clever if diverse.

I do not want to sound cynical, but Pfizer knows that to keep the vaccine which needs storage at minus 70 degrees means ultimately it is probably financially and administratively non-viable unless modifications can be made. The company needs to recoup its investment as soon as possible, and therefore it has to get its vaccine out as quickly as possible. How it is administered is not the company’s responsibility.

In Australia, John Skerritt, Head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), can be infuriating, but he is honest. The TGA Advisory Committee on Vaccines being chaired by Allen Cheng gives me further reassurance. Paul Kelly has shown a resilience not to buckle under political hysteria. His role in calming the Cabinet when they learnt that Dutton had returned infected from America last March was crucial; he made the Cabinet listen to science. Hopefully his authority now extends to those politicians caught trading in AstraZeneca shares.

There should be no hurry in Australia. The public health measures are in hand and seem to be working in isolating the infection now into clusters before it can spread, unlike elsewhere in the World.   The country must be sure there is no political interference, and all politicians’ portfolios in pharmaceutical shares should be declared now.

My greatest fear is that we live in a land where politicians are corrupt and/or corruptible with a government prepared to turn a blind eye to such activities.

I do not want to be jabbed with an unproven vaccine because some inner suburban politician is trying to make a buck out of it.

I listen to the Chief Medical Officer, and he has been mostly right during this whole saga, but nobody is infallible. I prefer to wait, even though I am a very strong advocate of vaccination, BUT when the vaccine has been proven.

Yet at a community level it is time to trust each other and open the borders, after ensuring that all measures are uniform. After all, that was the original intent of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) when it was set up in 1936 to be inter alia a meeting of all the Chief Medical Officers to seek a uniform approach to public health matters.

Unfortunately, it took 15 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic to be established, just before the major poliomyelitis outbreak in Australia in 1937, which incidentally started in Tasmania.

The NH&MRC is another story…

Winter on the Isle of Wight

It is on a trip like this when we expected to circle the island comfortably in a day that you meet the unexpected.

Quarr Abbey

Quarr Abbey was the place to visit. Here is a community of Benedictine monks. As we approached down the drive, this large red brick building suddenly emerged from the fields. This abbey church is not quite what one would expect. It looks modern. As we entered, the monks were filing out from nones, a short set of psalms sung in the early afternoon. The Abbey was designed by one of the original monks, who came back to Benedictine lands and helped to build the new Abbey in 1907.  The genius is in the brick arches which encase the spectacular nave, where the eye is attracted beyond the altar to the yellow light which comes through the windows at the east end of the church, in the way the light suffuses the modern red brick construction into a glorious whole that glows, even in the wintry light.

The monks were selling their recordings of Gregorian chants.  They are an accomplished choral group. The monk who served me volunteered that his voice was among the choristers, but not in the front line. The CD we purchased had been recorded nearly 10 years before. The monk himself had just celebrated his jubilee of being in the order. When he had come as a novice 50 years before, there were more than 40 monks, but the numbers had now fallen to 25. The monks live a subsistence existence coupled with devotion and the monk who served us had lived most of his life in this cloistered rustic life – where a life of tranquillity had given him age without wrinkles.

As Osborne House was closed at that time of the year, we stayed in Yarmouth some distance away, at The George Hotel, overlooking the Solent at the mouth of the Yar estuary. The room was the prized number 19 with an expansive balcony overlooking the estuary.

The George Hotel has been described as a winter hotel. Oak stairs that slope, a plaque that said that Charles 1 had been there on one of his last nights of freedom. A breakfast room that looks over the sea where you partake of porridge, kippers and that centrepiece of British life, a pot of Earl Grey, his lordship perfectly buffered in two tea bags.

Winter means virtually no tourists.  We thus were able to move about and find that the next person was likely to be a Caulkhead, as the locals call themselves. When tourists arrive then the pace picks up and time to chat to find out why and how the island ticks diminishes. The ship’s chandler in Yarmouth – Harwoods – established in 1893 is a great place in which to ferret. We ended up with two models of working fishing boats, a couple of pennants and batteries. We resisted purchasing the brass clock and brass barometer, and one of the boats anyway turned out to be made in China. But who cares – the feeling of being in a seaside community, rather than being a working fishing village was strong.

Winter in the Isle of Wight exuded a different sense of identity and that makes it charming – even when you stand on a bluff overlooking the ocean and the wind goes through you like Masefield’s whetted knife. There is always an unencumbered view to compensate, a coastline that starts West at the Needles and then along the white cliffs overlooking a surly sea.

Not a winter of discontent.

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes you read something somewhere 

“I will do my best to keep this short. I was listening to Sirius ‘Sixties’ when they were giving requests if the song had a story. This girl called in saying she was scared one night at home during a storm while listening to the radio. She called up the radio station and the DJ answered and she told him her plight. He said he would play the longest song he had just to comfort her on the telephone. Well, it was this one. They talked every night for two weeks and then he said he had some bad news. He was being drafted into the Army. He was leaving in a week. They wrote to each other when he was in basic and then he was shipped out at once to Viet Nam. They still continued to write but the letters weren’t coming as often. He came back to the States but got offered another DJ job hundreds of miles away. They still wrote but the letters were dwindling and finally stopped. She never knew what happened to him. They never met. She told Sirius that day that she prayed he was listening to this story and he would remember her. She didn’t care if he was married or not, she just wanted to hear from him. The 60’s DJ at Sirius promised to give him her number if he called in. Don’t ever know what happened. So, she requested this song, hoping he was listening.”

The song, Macarthur Park.  I have not interfered with this stream of consciousness it as I would not have done to that song. It is too compelling even for a Mouse.

Macarthur Park, Los Angeles

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 – Melbourne

There is no doubt about NSW; by far and away, the most cases of coronavirus in Australia are there. Granted that it is the biggest state, but the cavalier way that public servants and at least one of the politicians have behaved has exacerbated the problem.

Gladys Berejiklian has one very great ability and that is to talk without saying “um” or “ah” without taking a breath.

It makes it is very difficult to interrupt her, and when anybody succeeds in breaking into the flow, her mouth becomes a tiny moue and her dark eyes those of the avenging disapproval. Such a countenance belies the actual situation that she is a weak leader. And now six months to sort out the Ruby Princess fiasco. Really?

Wait a minute, the Premier has adopted the Chant approach of “zig-zag”. She has asked Brett Walker SC to have a look at it as well – a “special commission of inquiry” in the same litany as “loved ones”.

What next – The Premier’s astrologer?

One despairs of any justice in NSW. This confusion gives a number of people time to muddy the waters, and already Ms Sherry seems to have slid away. Predictable! And the same cruise ships with different titles with all their verminous cabins will be back next year scratching the same political backs and contributing nothing to our economy except grief.

Premier, you are always using the words “Loved Ones”. Tell me how many of those with the sobriquet of your favourite words have died because of the Ruby Princess fiasco. No urgency to know, Premier, no need to know. Six months will do. Hiding behind a special commission? No, I am sure you are not, as you already have a good idea of what has flowed between Carnival representatives in Sydney and your Government.

Can somebody get Ms Sherry to front an interview with her sommelier boss? After all, she has a wonderful residence in Annandale as a backdrop.

The Ruby Princess fiasco testifies to a Premier who not only tried to deflect the behaviour of her Health Department but also failed to sack those responsible for its behaviour. After all, the fiasco has led to how many deaths? Instead the Premier has filibustered. Asked specifically whether she would apologise to those whose COVID-19 is due to the Ruby Princess, or to the families of those who have died, the Premier – in time-honoured fashion – just answered a different question. However, at least the media are finally onto it – they took their time.

Now the barbarians are at it again. They are those whose natural constituency is in the dystopian world of Trump. The irrepressible Chant is at it again inadvertently aiding the dystopians, as she advocates a “zig-zag” approach. Are you seriously advocating going off on a tangent and then backtracking, and then going off on another tangent and the backtracking to a different position? Zig-zagging, as I interpret it, is all about confusing everybody. Really, Dr Chant, do you really mean that?

However, the person to watch now is Mr Barilaro – you know, the man who wanted to close the ABC, the bushfire station so important for distributing information in his electorate – and then was overseas initially when the bushfires were ravaging his electorate. You remember the man?

In the background he is a cheerleader for re-opening the Rugby League, presumably because of its precarious financial position which, like the berthing of the Ruby Princess, the financial situation of a badly run organisation being more important than the health of the Australian population.

Perhaps it is a prelude to Barilaro bobbing up on another front. As he said in his maiden speech to the NSW Parliament:

The New South Wales ski fields have been forced by successive governments to compete with one hand tied behind their back. My vision is to make the New South Wales ski fields number one again, by removing barriers, aligning government policy and industry opportunity, creating a level playing field and engaging all stakeholders to develop a strategic plan to deliver a world-class alpine experience to rival the best ski resorts in the world. 

In our last blog but one it was pointed out that ski fields are a potent source of community spread of the virus.

As Mr Barilaro said in this same maiden speech, quoting Jack Lang:

Always back the horse called self-interest, it is the one that is trying.

You highlighted this quote, Mr Barilaro. It must have made an impression. 

Primrose Pell

From the 13th century onward, it’s easy to see how secretly gay men found in the church, and the church alone, a source of status and power. Marginalised outside, within they could become advisers to monarchs, forgive others’ sins, earn a stable living, enjoy huge privileges, and be treated instantly with respect. Everything was suppressed, no questions were asked in seminaries, and psychological counseling was absent (and even now is rare). Scarred, scared men became priests, and certain distinct patterns emerged.

This quote was written by Andrew Sullivan, an openly gay commentator a Roman Catholic and a follower of the great English conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. The full article appeared on 21 January 2019 under the title of the Gay Church in the New York magazine.

Is Cardinal Pell gay? What does it matter if he is? I have no problem with homosexuality that is not predatory. I had a fellow medical student, a good friend, who dropped out of medicine and was subsumed into anglo-catholicism, became an Anglican monk, and I heard that he died of AIDS some time ago.

I have written extensively about Alister Brass, who was an inspiration for me, and whom I miss greatly, even though he has been dead for 34 years. As a teenager I read Peter Wildeblood’s account of being criminally charged with homosexuality and then spending time in prison for what was ultimately bad law. I was appalled on reading his book Against the Law.

As a boy, I grew up when the “confirmed bachelor” culture was transitioning into open avowal of one’s sexual preference. To me it seemed an innocent pastime for blokes who preferred other blokes, whatever the euphemism.

I have always hated the word “closet”; it may just as well be applying to a confessional box or any dark and secretive environment where homosexual activity is possible. However, homosexuality should not be stigmatised. After all, Tasmania, the last state to do so, expunged it from the criminal code 20 years ago.

Celibacy once may have been a means of survival of the intellectual tradition, but now seems to be a honeypot for communal homosexuality. What is distressing is the level of denial and hypocrisy with which the Roman Catholic hierarchy surrounds this association.

Thus celibacy and homosexuality are uneasy companions, although at one end there is Saint Augustine who was openly gay, and at the other end St Thomas Aquinas to whom homosexuality was an abomination.

Now Australia has seen George Pell acquitted by the High Court for historic sexual offences. In the background, there is a heavily scrubbed report of the Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

So as not to misstep in the quagmire of the High Court, below is essentially a compilation of quotes, including from those advocating Pell be freed.

Now the High Court judges say that is not enough. Other witnesses who gave evidence that they thought the Cardinal would not have had the opportunity to commit the lewd acts ought to have been taken into account, even though they could not give a first hand or personal evidence of what happened to those boys on that day.

Bizarre. One witness swears on oath: this is what happened to me at this place on this day. Other witnesses say: I do not know what happened on that day but that is not what usually happens – and that creates a doubt and voids the conviction. Compounding improbabilities become “reasonable doubt”.

It was argued that because Pell’s assistant, Portelli, didn’t have a specific memory of standing on the stairs on the chosen dates of December 15th or 22nd, 1996, that his testimony about Pell’s practice of being out front could not be relied upon.

 Justice Patrick Keane replied: “I can say I shaved last Friday and I don’t have a recollection of it, not because it didn’t happen but because I shave on work days”.

His point? Do you have specific memories of things done out of routine?

No, we remember things out of the ordinary. Therefore it is unreasonable for Portelli to have a specific memory about two dates in 1996.

The judges also made the point that the accuser’s recollection of the sacristy wasn’t actually proof of the abuse, only proof that he had been there.

Let me tell a story – perhaps a parable. Let us say it was the early years of the last century. Let us say it was Lonsdale Street in Melbourne. In this parable, there was once a junior barrister who used to be shaved by a barber, as was the custom of the day prior to going work.

At the same time of the day early in the morning there was a judge, a man of distinction, who would come in to the same barber shop and be shaved also. The younger and older men would exchange pleasantries and talk about legal cases while they were shaved and perfumed. Most days, they would leave together and walk to Chambers. However, there were some days the judge would leave before the young barrister. One day, the young barrister, the judge having left earlier, decided to take a short cut up a quiet lane, and turning the corner, he perceived a familiar person – it was the judge, who seemed to be adjusting his trousers. In front of him against the wall was a young boy not more than 13 or 14 clutching a newly-minted shilling.

The young barrister uttered a cry, the man who was the judge turned, his expression one of power. What was the young barrister to do? After all, he and the judge regularly shaved together; how could he in retrospect possibly ever remember the day years on what had happened on that particular day – unless he had openly accused such a respected member of the community then; a man of power, a man who wore a wig, a man who could pronounce life or death on a personal career?

Perhaps, just like all your hypothetical speculation, Mr Justice Keane, there is always a confounding storyline – fable or parable – however you define it.

Especially in a real life situation getting away from our exchanges of parables, if it emerges that there was a history in a person’s background of systemic cover ups, the law is presented with a dilemma. Men of distinction do not lie under oath. Axiomatic?

Of course, that is only non-admissible speculation to the collective mind of the High Court, but still enough for a jury to convict in a Victorian court. However in the Court of Courts, there is this reasonable doubt, because no other has come forward to dispute the man of power’s testimony. The child is in essence disbelieved.

It will be interesting if Pell, despite all the travel restrictions, suddenly turns up in Rome on his way to a new closeted life in the denizens of the Vatican, away from a succession of the civil cases, which threaten to follow.

However, there was one touch I loved about wee Georgie Pell, the prisoners cheered in Barwon prison when they heard of his release. I remember that the prisoners cheered when Johnny Cash played for them in Folsom prison – but then Johnny Cash had a guitar.

I have one last quote from the porter in Macbeth as he opened the gates – this for the departing Pell, who has had a life of power so eloquently portrayed in the initial quote from Andrew Sullivan.

I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. 

Boris

He is the type of Pom who reminds me that England is a nice place to visit but not be infected by the culture – by a product of the Eton boot camp – that nurtures the professional buffoon with the razor sharp mind.

Maybe he has now learnt a lesson that will resonate in his future actions. The buffoon, who boasted he was shaking hands with all and sundry in a hospital, while COVID-19 lurked. Hopefully that buffoon will be replaced by a less arrogant and more compassionate person who does not run the country in the same slapdash manner as we have seen him washing his hands – otherwise, God help the United Kingdom.

There is nothing more humbling than looking into the eyes of the person who has saved you. I know from personal experience.

However, the community is sick of spin doctors who aid and abet the culture of lying; Johnson revealed how really sick he thought he was. It was far sicker than the public was led to believe. Those in charge determined that Boris should not die. The fact that he had two staff constantly caring for him showed how intensive his care was. Otherwise he would not have survived. There must have been fear that a secondary cytokine storm may have intervened and finished him off. It must have been close.

Therefore, can we but cast this spinning vermin out from the Temple No 10? Almost Johnsonian?

And for God’s sake Johnson, grow up. There are many unseeing eyes watching you. 

The World that Boris Missed

A lot of radio stations in Europe will collaborate this Friday (March 20th 2020) at GMT 07:45 to sound the track of Gerry & The Pacemakers – You’ll never walk alone. Please join this collaboration to show gratitude to the people that are doing their best to help us survive this pandemic. And to have our thoughts by the people who lost their loved one.

When I first saw this announcement, it triggered a number of conflicting memories. The song originally came from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “Carousal”, which in turn had been adapted from a French story about a fairground rouseabout who had difficulty declaring his love for his girlfriend; nevertheless she gets pregnant; he is killed in an accident before his child is born; but is permitted to return to earth for a day to see the child.

“You’ll never walk alone” is a highly sentimental song, which nevertheless moves me. It is just one of a number of good songs in this musical. However, the musical’s recognition was dwarfed at its release by some of Roger and Hammerstein’s other musicals: “Oklahoma”, “South Pacific”, the “King and I”. I saw the film as a teenager.

Some years on I was persuaded to go to hear a group of Liverpudlian bands that were touring Australia in the 60s in the wake of the Beatles phenomenon. One was Gerry and the Pacemakers. Gerry Marsden, the lead singer, was one of those Tommy Steele lookalikes – all teeth and quiff.

I went because a friend had free tickets and while I remembered “Ferry cross the Mersey”, the West Melbourne Stadium was not the best place for romantic ballads. My memory of it faded from view, until the late Paul Lyneham, the ABC personality with that somewhat crooked personality, revived memories with a band he called sardonically “Pacemaker and the Gerries”, which as it turned out in a macabre way foreshadowed his death.

Another fragment many years on – I was in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the night Liverpool played there in 2013. It was one of the last nights, before I was stricken with my illness – a night I remember clearly walking to the ground and then dodging the traffic to catch a tram back to the apartment – almost my last night of freedom.

In any event, the fans as one had erupted into their Liverpool Football club anthem “I’ll never walk alone.” In the bellowing it loses the romantic lilt of Hammerstein’s words and the melody itself is drowned. However, the intensity remains.

All the pieces have come together with that simple announcement above and the accompanying video of ordinary people singing or miming or whatever – there is something about British working class optimism that makes up for all the Boris buffoonery. 

Opening Australia Too Soon

We now appreciate the Tasmanian Premier closing his borders so none of his Tasmanians can cross to the mainland. However, his action in quarantining the Mainland from the outbreak in Tasmania shows great foresight. We always thought it was the reverse. What cunning!

The “Burnie Incident” is unsurprising, given the demonstrated level of incompetence in the health service, proof of what happens when all the rules that the Commonwealth government put in place are ignored or flouted. Strange things happen when discipline is lax – generally such laxity teams up with incompetence.

One of the problems with many, but by no means all, small hospitals is that administrative capacity of the hospitals is deficient. In particular medical administration is often problematical as incompetents are shuffled between these health services, often with glowing references. This a general comment and not one specifically assigned to either the Burnie or Mersey hospitals, which have a conjoint administration.

Tasmania is lucky it has so many hospital beds. Some years ago, the question was always raised as to why the Mersey Hospital needed to be built, but then there must have been a seer in their midst who saw virus in the mist.

In Burnie, the virus has been let out of the bottle – infection control has been such that COVID-19 has been let loose in the community. One of the Ruby Princess passengers has been blamed for being the first case in the North-West. However ascribing actual blame is for others.

What is important now is that there is a real life situation to follow the out-of-control virus, not some abstract model. Australia can now witness from its falling rate overall what happens in a region where it is easily out of control and to see if the Australian remedy can be reinstated and indeed works.

Burnie in its population makeup is not unlike a western Sydney suburb. There are a string of small towns along the coast from Wynyard, abutting Burnie to Devonport like an attentuated suburban Melbourne and Sydney. I mention Wynyard and Devonport specifically because they are the two travel hubs for north-western Tasmania. Rex flies to Wynyard and Qantas though Qantaslink to Devonport. Devonport is where the Spirit of Tasmania berths, and given the current history of boats and the virus, there is a certain vulnerability I would have thought.

With such restrictions the north-west provides an opportunity to see how quickly the virus can spread and how quickly this underprepared community reacts. If the virus escapes the enforced isolation of the 5,000, then every community in this part of Tasmania is at risk. Possibly viral spread could engulf Tasmania.

Wynyard

The next two weeks will tell all, but it is to be hoped that the introduction of the Army, AusMat, and emergency supplies of equipment and trained staff will halt the spread. There is the complication of the FIFO miners, who are flying in through Devonport but are moved immediately to the mines down the West Coast and thus avoid Burnie. Further, there is always the follow up question of how many miners come from Burnie or other north-west coastal towns?

Hopefully, the police will continue to conduct comprehensive surveillance not only along the coast but also the three main ways south. The first is across Cradle Mountain (from the guys who went from the topiary town of Railton to Strahan – they must have got a shock to be apprehended). The second is the main route down the Murchison Highway, although there is a possible diversion through Hellyer Gorge. Finally, for those who really want to take the COVID-19 virus on a scenic trip South, there is a third route along the Road to Nowhere down through the Tarkine and across the Pieman River at Corinna; hopefully the ferry is still running.

I only mention these routes as apparently there has been an allegation of a COVID-19 carrier, known to have infected a number of health workers, who has vanished from the north-west. Cannot be found. But then there a myriad of unmade roads and forest tracks impossible to police.

It is the problem of Tasmania. One of the most beautiful places on the planet, yet its inhabitants demand much while disregarding their responsibility to conserve and preserve; they could give back more. In this case together with the rest of Australia they may watch how this snafu is corrected.

Mouse Whisper

Hairdressers and barbers take a bow. Excoriated because you were allowed to remain open while others were not, you have plied your trade without being a school for scandalous conduct.

But like all mice I fear a Trim.

Trim

Modest expectations – The Invincibles

Ah, the delightful Matthew James Canavan saying that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull should come to Collinsville and face the people there, with or without a caravan. It is one of those “what are you?” moments that are part of the Australian psyche when you know you have the mob behind you, especially if the mob is composed of guys you would expect to be unionists with eureka flags on their working clothes.

What a statement. I may as well respond and issue a similar invitation, “Mr Canavan, please come to the electorate of Kooyong, where I have a property and talk to my fellow constituents about the need for more coal-fired power stations. I am sure Minister Frydenberg would be overjoyed to see you and then direct you to the electorate of Higgins and then perhaps on to Chisholm and Goldstein. Don’t forget to bring a lump of coal to remind us what it looks like.”

Ever been to Victoria, Mr Canavan – you know Northern and Eastern Victoria to shore up the seats of Mallee, Nicholls and Gippsland. I am sure your fellow Nationals there would be anxious to pass around your lump of coal with the media in attendance, and your Queensland persona rampant?

Lozzo di Cadore

Now, Mr Canavan, I note your ancestors come from a place called Lozzo di Cadore – a beautiful area in the Italian Alps near to the Austrian border. Ever been asked to be on the show who do you think you are?” But perhaps you already know that Lozzo di Cadore translates as the Stench of Cadore. There are 28 commune, as you probably know, in the province of Belluno, and for whatever reason your ancestors came from that one named Lozzo di Cadore. Perhaps a coal-fired power station there would enhance its meaning.

In fact, there are a few of us who are thinking of targeting some of these Victorian seats with an anti-coal message and you wouldn’t mind us using pictures of you and Mr Joyce – you know big overpowering photos of you beside a cart load of coal personally handled by you or Mr Joyce – alongside the photo of the local member. We shall make sure your photos will show you both grinning just to show the sunny if somewhat smoky side of your nature. After all, it would give full meaning to the term “Coalition”.

Tom Reeve

Collinsville is in the Bowen Basin. Even though I have been to many coal mining towns in Outback Queensland, I don’t remember ever going to Collinsville. But the name has stuck in my memory. Why? Because one of Australia’s greatest thyroid and parathyroid surgeons, Tom Reeve, did a stint at Collinsville 18 months after graduation. It would have been around 1949. After that he moved to surgery and never looked back, as they say in the classics.

However, his reminiscence of his stint on Collinsville below in an article he wrote in 2004 for the Medical Journal of Australia showed the value of career development in rural Australia. Tom was a University of Sydney graduate and I remember him saying to me that it was somewhat of an experience getting off the train in Collinsville unknown to the locals and yet knowing you were there for at least a year. In fact, he stayed for 18 months. I have always used his experience to illustrate that time as a rural doctor can lead anywhere.

As the only doctor in town, I enjoyed 18 months of rich clinical experience. Post-term obstetric deliveries, head injuries, critically ill children, motor vehicle accidents and accidents involving horses all hastened my clinical maturity. I remember a young jackeroo with a perinephric abscess after a nasty horse-related accident. As we were stranded by floods at the time, a surgeon in Mackay took me through the operative steps by phone. All ended well.

The community was full of reliable, loyal Aussies with enormous hearts. They were openly friendly and had a great bank of skills, and gave their local doctor the comfort often absent today.

An outbreak of croup in some young children was the most formidable of my experiences. They desperately needed steam inhalation, but I was a little nonplussed as to how to supply it. One father spoke with his boss at the mine workshop, who rapidly produced a large galvanised watering can with four arms, each capped with a watering-can rose. Placed on a primus stove, this device effectively dispensed steam to four mosquito-netted cots simultaneously. Problem solved!

Tom Reeve AC CBE became a giant in surgery. I once asked him to review surgery at Broken Hill Hospital when the late Ross Webster, himself the Foundation Professor of Community Medicine at the University of Melbourne, was Medical Superintendent of the Hospital. There are days indelibly remembered, and one of these days was when we three lunched at the old Menindee hotel, south of Broken Hill. This was the actual building that Burke and Wills stayed in on their way North. The hotel has since burnt down, but the one unusual and unexpected thing I remember was the solitary red hibiscus flowering in the corner of courtyard.

 

No symbolism – just a dash of colour on a courtyard to be remembered.

Parasite is not only a Korean film

Should the people working in a minister’s office hidden from public scrutiny given their integral public purpose? Public records note the cost and number of ministerial office staff, but the government guidelines don’t require publication of appointments, as has to occur with the public service. With the Prime Minister’s 58 staff averaging $233,000 in 2017 and the Opposition Leader’s 39 staff averaging $193,000, is there a need for more scrutiny?

Silly question. When I was Principal Private Secretary to the Leader of Opposition, his advisers numbered six. Add three assistant secretaries, who could write shorthand at 120 words a minute and type at least 80 word perfect a minute and put up with us males; and that was the office, plus of course the electorate secretary. Ten all up.

We worked very hard, but then it was by choice. The long hours and the need to become an essential part of the policy process rather than just political games were complemented by the fact we all lived cheek by jowl.

Why has the Leader of the Opposition’s office grown to 39? In the old Parliament House there would not have been enough room for that many in the cramped quarters. I have always thought the new Parliament House was an example of Mussolini brutalism. Compared to old Parliament House, there is so much space. Whereas in the old Parliament House, King’s Hall was accessible to the public and politicians and the people mixed together. However, with this mania for security and the extravagant amount of space so that you could run a Formula one around the corridors means that the public gets excluded from consideration except at election time; and the party branch structure for politicians is a “tiresome” token of connectivity with the electorate.

Added to this is the claque of advisers without any experience except in the brutality of factional politics and a taste for authority – if not authoritarianism. Some advisers are very good, and there was no doubt that Arthur Sinodinos as adviser to Howard was one who was essential dampening down the negative side of the Prime Minister’s personality.

However, having had to deal with advisers and having seen how others deal with them, the environment which they inhabit gives them a sense that in the name of their boss they can imitate the same bad behavior – the obscenities, the verbal assaults, documents thrown, the demeaning treatment of experienced experts, the endless bad temper, the sexual harassment, the cynical misuse of entitlements, all in various degrees of toxicity depending on the office. Worst of all is the time waiting, because there is a cohort of politicians who are perennially late. This is a topic for a separate blog.

The extent as with the number of advisers has grown – let us not say “exponentially” because though I may hypothesise that the contents of the Trough are increasing in this manner, there needs to be someone to present the evidence. In all, Parliaments are rubbish cultures, not the least because they are divorced from the world in which their electors live.

Parliamentary Courtiers

The problem is when there is an explosion of entitlements, then Opposition is nowhere in the Parliament – nobody is going to blow the whistle and not take the money. All the politicians on this issue are on the one side of the House.

The problem of course is that the amount and nature of expenses come out, and then there may be an outcry if someone has been too greedy, but the lid snaps shut on the Trough. Feeding time is over, and we mug punters do not have any further knowledge – it is asymmetric information par excellence further obscured by the piety of politicians invoking confidentiality measures and security reasons not to be frank with the people who elected them.

The current unfolding behaviour of some elements of the National Party and the Prime Minister’s office in relation to the grants may have vented some aroma from a hole in the Trough, but the government has Gaetjens and Associates, expert Lid Repairers by Appointment on the job, brought in to seal the leak.

In the past I have identified the three elements of this political toxicity, but no-one takes any notice because it is inconvenient: sleep deprivation, isolation and boredom. However, it is probably time to revise what I wrote an age ago from personal observation.

Boredom is still an important factor. Let me quote from a definition of the Mafia consigliere – 95 per cent hanging out and five per cent ultimate brutality.

Here in Parliamentary Australia the brutality may be just factional brutality – consigliere credentials honed sharp by the advisers from their student politics days. Never had a real job, just hanging around the particular Party of their persuasion slicing their way to the top.

Boredom? I always remember the implication at the heart of beauty was evil. Baudelaire may have said something like that because he was a master at pitting unlikely scenarios together: “As a small child, I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.”

Hence, although Parliament House may give the impression of a hive of activity, at the heart of this inactivity is boredom – doing the same thing over and over again, leaking, evening up all scores and new ones also, pettiness cloaked as activity.

As I asked rhetorically earlier: why does the leader of the Opposition need 39 advisers. Perhaps someone could volunteer to tell us publicly what they all do. How do they evade boredom for instance?

The problem is when courtier expansion has no brake, and when each incumbent has his or her own idiosyncrasy translated as a need for a new specific post such that when the incumbent changes the post is not necessarily abolished. Why? There is nobody to ask what that position was doing there in the first place.

It is the same with any dynastic institution – it’s called tradition. Not that it is all expansion. For instance, until the coronation of Queen Victoria at each Coronation there was apparently a Royal Gruel carrier, presumably because one of her predecessors became peckish during the ceremony and needed a bowl of porridge.

I once floated the idea that there should be cohort of ministerial advisers who would go out and live with the community and learn what were the pressing problems on the job. I had learnt from experience that living close to a problem helped to solve that problem. For instance when we wanted child care for our infant children we started a co-operative (still running today) where the parents ran the show employing the staff and making sure it was properly resourced. Problem alleviated. I came to being a ministerial adviser with a large amount of outside work experience.

Put another way, how many of the Ministerial Advisers were seen helping out during the bushfires in the early part of the year – on deck or there in the aftermath? It would have been useful for an adviser to suggest to their boss, the Prime Minister to take hampers of “loaves and fishes” to Cobargo, for instance. I heard though that they were allegedly too busy undermining the Premier of NSW, while the State burned. Sorry, that does not count. 

The Patron Saint of Blackbirds

I always remember the headmaster announcing to the school that several lads in dark blue suits had been seen trashing a theatrette in the city.

Now Melbourne Grammar School boys in those days wore blue suits, but there was also another school, where the students also wore dark suits. The words “St Kevin’s” rippled through the audience. The headmaster droned on telling us that he told the owners of the theatrette and perhaps the police that it could not possibly be Melbourne Grammar School boys. They always wore their caps. Such was our headmaster’s presence that they went away and did not bother us again.

The point of the story was that essential identifying component of our uniform was the school cap, which we kept on everywhere we went in public. OK, pull the other leg, but that was uttered as school dogma in those halycon days.

At the time, St Kevin’s was firmly ensconced on the second rung of Melbourne private schools, but because it existed in the nether end of Toorak, we Grammar boys used to run into them from time to time emerging from their Gardiner Creek base.

Private schools in my time reflected the sectarian divide of Melbourne, and Roman Catholic schools in heart of Protestant Melbourne breached this divide. Thus running into them did not mean co-habitation, especially because of their status we never played sport against them. However, how unfair it may have been, St Kevin’s already had a stigma as so tellingly portrayed on Monday night.

What I noted in the Four Corners program was the almost subliminal reference to Scotch College and Xavier College, two of original Melbourne private schools, which are still single sex. Each of these schools has had its problems, but not to the same extent as St Kevin’s. Hmmm?

Thus, if the Victorian premier is ordering the review of one, why stop there with St Kevin’s and not have a review of all these supposed premier schools. It would be interesting to see how the culture compares between the single-sex and co-educational schools.

As is becoming clear, it is not a question of boy versus girl and the interaction between the two, which was how the debate was set in my years of school for co-education denial. The debate is now about whether single sex schools act as a magnet for paedophiles.

There was a degree of prescience in the chant we Melburnians had to endure when I was at school: “if you can’t get a girl, get a Grammar boy”. That is Melbourne Grammar – I’d hate to implicate Geelong Grammar as a butt for such mockery.

Mouse whisper

My mausmeister told me of a couple of his supposed bon mots. He said them first in an interview he did when he had his brief period of Warhol glow.

One he said was that once 50 years ago what was accepted as God’s will is now described as medical negligence.

The second: when two or more doctors are gathered together you have a new medical specialty.

Damien Hirst’s M. Mouse

Modest Expectations – Adelaide

I used to listen to his Letters from America – clever oral essays – the British gentleman reflecting on the mores of the day from his study in America. The author was Alistair Cooke, a remarkable figure in his adopted country, who wrote his observations in his weekly epistle until just before his death in 2004.

He had been in America since the early 1930s as a correspondent, but at the heart he was a film critic, and moreover mixing with the “stars”. One of the films he wrote about accepted the doomsday hypothesis of the last survivors of planetary nuclear war. The film was Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach” adapted from an eponymous novel by a British expatriate who went under the non-de-plume, Neville Shute.

Melbourne was the chosen site for the film, and I remember being in the school quadrangle when Gregory Peck turned up with his son, presumably to enrol in the school while he made the film. I was struck by how much presence Gregory Peck had, without creating any fuss – just dad taking his son to school which, in 1958 was somewhat unusual, but I suppose my dad took me to school on my first day. In fact on reflection he did, found me being bullied by a future archdeacon and had me learn to box as a consequence.

Ava Gardner’s comment on Melbourne was cutting – she thought it a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world. After all, Melbourne pubs closed at six o’clock begetting the six o’clock swill where large glasses called “pots” were lined up to be consumed in the half-hour of grace before the doors were locked. Restaurants were sparse, and any place where you could drink required that alcohol to be bought in a brown paper bag and taken off the table if not drunk by nine o’clock. Men drank beer; women were segregated in the hotel lounge and God, it was not done to have a woman in the front bar. Women of refinement drank sherry; and Scotch whisky was the drink of the “top end of town”. Then, wine was consumed by the bohemian fringe of this apocalyptic maledom, as Ava Gardner viewed it.

In his review of the film, published in the Guardian 17 December 1959, about which Cooke is positive – “a story…as clean and unsentimental as a skull.” However, on the imagery reflecting on the future, Cooke is pessimistic. He quotes the collective wisdom of three think tanks to write:

They agree in approximate terms that nuclear war in the next decade is more likely than not. They warn us that the military decline of the United States in the short span of fifteen years has left it open to a devastating attack; that the disarmament at the United Nations and Geneva may blind the United States to the possibility that the Soviet union with a clear superiority in the arms’ race will use it to blackmail or attack its major opponent without warning. 

Neville Shute, the author, subscribed to the mutual annihilation theory rather than the above, (which seemed in accord with that of Cooke) since it mirrored the mindset of the late 1950s and 60s before the Vietnam War monopolised the headlines.

However, when Khrushchev engineered the Cuban missile crisis and failed, that was it – one episode of blackmail and the Russians withdrew to its reality. Competition with the United States in hindsight was illusory once the Americans got serious. However, it was not until Reagan called the Russians’ bluff and thus three decades later the Russian empire was in ruin.

Now we have Putin, the arch illusionist, at it again. Russia has divested itself of land, but they have been mindful that maintaining a number of satraps is important. Garrisoning countries is a costly exercise for a country with a GDP not much bigger than Australia’s. This time he wields his power by bullying his neighbours, which provides occupational therapy for his armed forces whether they be in the Ukraine or the Caucasus. Up to this time he has not manufactured a reason to march across Lithuania so that that exclave of Kaliningrad can be re-united with Mother Russia; but if he thought he could get away with it, who knows.

However, this illusion of the powerful strutting дуче also depends on his manipulation of Trump. Maybe I am only dazzled by the illusion of an image of a marionette with golden hair, on a wire, being paraded before a worldwide audience.

However, Prince Andrew was not the only person to be seen in the company of Mr Epstein – a figure who, in death, increasingly resembles The Tar Baby.

I wonder what Mr Cooke would have thought of this scenario which, in another context from the film “On the Beach”, could end up in mutual annihilation.

Another Alister – Another Time

There was another Alister, whom I admired greatly. His name was Alister Brass. “Alister” has a protean number of ways of being spelled.

Alister was the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia for a period in the mid 1980s – not only a doctor, a journalist, a war correspondent, but also a man of great innovation and integrity. He was lost prematurely to AIDS.

He did not have to adorn his ego with citations and references to his own achievements. He did not have the basic insecurity that often accompanies this display, and not to put a fine point on it, he viewed being editor as a full-time occupation, not a part-time bauble.

The Nobel laureate, Dr Barry Marshall wrote a telling piece about how Alister Brass helped him, reporting on self-administration of Helicobacter pylori to himself as part of fulfilling Koch’s postulates to prove that the bacillus caused peptic ulcer. Alister Brass had seen the original paper that Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had published in 1984 in The Lancet. Brass had encouraged Marshall to write an article for the MJA, which was duly submitted to “scrupulous referees” (Marshall’s words), who demanded a re-write and the final published article in 1985 became very influential in the recognition of Marshall and Warren’s work by a sceptical worldwide audience.

Marshall could not have been more clear about the value of Alister Brass’ role, as all great editors have, in ensuring the work, which eventually brought Marshall and Warren the Nobel Prize, was scrupulously refereed and then published. As Marshall himself concluded years later Re-reading that paper every few years, I am impressed by how far the MJA Editor was ‘sticking his neck out’ in allowing me to publish a hypothesis as to the cause of peptic ulcer. It was a further 5 years before journals allowed the word ‘cure’ to appear in articles about duodenal ulcer, and almost a decade before mainstream United States journals could accept it as proven.

Be that as it may, the point should be clearly made that two people who were outside the conventional medical establishment at that time (they were in Perth during the period of the research), Marshall and Warren, were nowhere near the major beneficiaries of medical research funding – Victoria or NSW.

The rush to citations as a sign of pumping out research papers has recently been criticised by the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. He mentions the “salami-slicing techniques” whereby, why have one paper when you could have three out of one piece of research? Then there is the multiple authorship where those who seem to be at the top-end of frequent flyer points appear on an article to which their input is negligible. I believe the citations record tallies over 5,000 authors. The emergence of a plethora of non peer-reviewed journals offering to publish articles in return for money, has just added to the proposition that “citations” are being discredited as a valid measurement of scientific worth.

Marshall and Warren were a temporary antidote to the accusation that so much of this form of research is trivial. The question remains: should the community reward funding submissions that emphasise process (of which parading a wealth of citations is one criterion and that insidious “proven track record” is another) rather than an outcome bestowing a tangible benefit on the community?

It is a pity that Alister Brass’s life was cut short, because we would not have to be reminded of the Journal’s worth by some obscure measurement. It would have been self-evident. He would clearly have made the above question irrelevant through the way he extracted the very best from authors and researchers in the same way Ingelfinger and Relman as Editors defined The New England Journal of Medicine.

A load of old cobblers

I sit and cobble at slippers and shoon, From the rise of sun to the set of moon; Cobble and cobble as best I may, Cobble all night and cobble all day.

In 1982 I invited David Owen, then at the height of his political powers, to give the address at the 50th anniversary of the Australian Institute of Political Science*.  Named in his honour, Sir Norman Cowper attended this inaugural Oration. Sir Norman had been among the founders of the Institute, although that is another story.  Dr Owen charged the Institute nothing. I was able to wrangle a first-class airfare London to Sydney return out of Qantas (in the days before business class and Irish parsimony).

These days politicians, after their retirements, have a habit of charging large amounts of money to perform while they garner a luscious pension for which we all pay. The current Treasurer, Minister Frydenberg, now aged 48, will in all probability be no exception. No need to retrain good ol’ Josh after the age of 60, except to identify the location of the amenities cabinet in whichever ambassadorship he has been awarded and later on retrained on how he stores his cash when there will be no banks left we can trust.

Politicians advocating this course for the elderly should not do so unless they are also serious about being role models, insisting on retiring on modest pensions and seeking retraining. Otherwise they could be subject to ridicule with a restive population calling for the re-introduction of the pillory.

Perhaps Abbot could resume his religious calling and be retrained as a Pentecostal minister; my favourite rent-seeker, Christopher Pyne because of his fixer obsession being retrained on reaching 60 as a paper hanger. However I jest – but if you think about it further, why not? Also, perhaps the word for this breed is “train” rather than “retrain”.

At my 70th birthday I was chirpy enough for people to exclaim that 70 was the new 50. It is seductive to believe that aphorism. However, when Frydenberg exhorts the elderly to retrain the answer is for what – and what time will be required for this mythical retraining and then, assuming anyone, anywhere would consider hiring this retrained person, one may only be able literally to work for a few years. Even though the average living age may have crept up to over 80, this increase in quantity cannot be necessarily equated to quality and ergo capacity to work.

Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner from 2011-2016, used to bemoan the fact that there was age discrimination in Australia. Well, thank you for borrowing my pocket watch and telling me what I already know – if you’re over 40 and wanting a job, good luck. What did she do in her five years there? But then she was followed by another “retrained politician”, Dr Kay Paterson – and there is silence broken only by the chirping of crickets when the question is asked, what have you actually done to solve the problem of age discrimination for older Australians looking for work?

So what is the Frydenburg retraining all about? I worked until I was 75 years, and the only retraining I needed was to cope with my disease over my last 15 months, when I was deprived of independent living. However, with a carer for whom no government assistance was sought, I was enabled to ease into retirement. I had a few part-time “hangovers” from my previous jobs, which provided employment for another 18 months. Thus I was well into my 77th year when I finally finished.

Therefore it may be more about convincing employers of the worth of retaining the employees on, say, a contract for three to five years. On the other hand, I do not believe that the economy should be burdened with unproductive ageing staff. I can say that because – in the terms of the Italian calibration of age – I am about to pass from vecchio to anziano. 

Jokes aside, “working” and “ageing” provide a complex situation. I have had to deal with people who should have long since retired, and increasingly they had presented a hazard. It becomes a very difficult situation especially if they have accolades from their careers, which suddenly become more important to them when their livelihood and relevance are threatened.

I have one advantage. I have my marbles and I can look back over the past 20 years during which Treasury has put out a number of papers on this matter of ageing and the workforce – for what effect?

Just giving more benefits for a relatively small but vocal segment of the ageing population without the bother of setting up retraining scenarios, with only a marginal chance of success.

The “Golden Age” index is touted as a benchmark, but the index age range is 55-64. Fifty-five is a ludicrous age to retire, but was the basis of many public service plans with penalties imposed for working beyond that age. As a result, there has been the growth of so-called consultant work – doing what you were doing before, but at a higher rate of remuneration to top up that indexed pension, and stimulating the rise of the rent-seeker class.

Minister Frydenberg, can I hand you the last?

The Victorian TAFE sector says it takes a year to train to become a cobbler aka shoemaker. Another way of being the life and sole of the party when and if you get to 70!

*Now the Australian Institute of Policy and Science

Jesus the Leader

Now a rather sad case of a man when a post-graduate student who, when he was a student at the US Army War College, wrote a dissertation on Jesus Christ the Leader.

He described the Jesus model of leadership as love. His first criterion was that leaders traditionally sat at the top of the pile and issued orders, while Jesus “inverted the pyramid” and “he got down in the trenches and served the troops”. The rest of the “Jesus the Leader” dissertation proceeded from this statement.

Fast-forward 15 years and now Major General Gregg Martin faces his Jesus moment when as,

“The president of the National Defense University stepped down from his post last week following reports of an ongoing investigation into a poor command climate at the Defense Department-operated institution.

Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin officially relinquished the job last Monday…the move was approved by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey… Gen. Martin said he believed this was the right time for a new leader to guide the institution as NDU continued to prepare leaders for the challenges facing the U.S. Military.  

Martin was reported as having unilaterally ordered a series of sweeping structural changes at NDU without consulting its tenured faculty and other academic leaders, and that he threatened to fire anyone who challenged his plans. Martin responded that he was indeed seeking “transformational” change within the university, but that his comments were misinterpreted.”

Hardly a sign of mutual affection, but as Martin had written in his dissertation, “Jesus religiously took time away by himself, plug into his eternal power source – God’s Word – and recharge his battery. When things get extremely hectic, it may be time to consider taking an afternoon to play golf.”

Jesus thanks you for that advice. Some people may define the golf links as a wilderness but I think,

General, you are advising the wrong chap.

Jesus is the Palestinian chap on the right hand side.

In turn, Martin has languished in his own Pentagon wilderness for the past five years.

Mouse Whisper

Chevron ran an advertisement bemoaning the fact the United States reserves of natural gas were small compared to Russia, Iran and Qatar. In fact the United States and Turkmenistan vie for fourth place. This ranking has not interfered with the fact that the United States is the largest producer of natural gas ahead of Russia.

On contemplating this Chevron advertisement where ostensibly the message is that the USA has a smaller supply of one commodity than “shock horror” Russia and Iran, it struck my murine mind that how it was playing upon the fragile ego of the American people. Trump has also exploited the same fragility in his “Make America Great” mantra. Augmenting it with red dew drops of “Russia with Love” has led Trump supporters to wear T-shirts which say “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat”. You mean better be Stalin than Roosevelt?   I am really now mus confusus. People so insecure in themselves that they would compromise their country’s security. Maybe they should have a portrait of Benedict Arnold on their T-shirt as well.

Benedict Arnold

 

 

 

 

 

What Trump supporters are wearing this Fall.

Modest Expectations Skat

“The problem with the drought is that it is predominantly affecting National Party electorates and as the Prime Minister charges round these electorates all he succeeds in doing is emphasising the impotency of government, while making the National Party look like drongos. Then enter off right, the Belgian fixative who does a deal with Hansen who knows when to throw a tantrum. Obviously her colleague in Tasmania has viewed this Flemish reflex, which has been adapted from Pavlov’s observation on canine behaviour. Frankly, I am sick of Keating’s unrepresentative swill being given a disproportionate voice while I struggle to pay my mortgage and make ends meet, all because of the manipulation by a Flem.”

Unfair; of course. But that is one example of how Australia is perceived as being governed. Maximising the influence of a few to the detriment of the majority. Just the frustration of being a young urban graduate, and collectively primed to burst forth, when the articulate leader of reform – perhaps a numerate “Whitlam” would help – emerges in the next three years, a person who puts the interests of the country first. Or do we reach a Chilean tipping point where the rules become radically different.

Some weeks ago, I recounted briefly that I had just come back from Chile where I made a point of visiting the Museum of Memories and Human Rights. At the time I said that the museum was “the brainchild of President Michelle Bachelet, to ensure that one memory sticks in the mind of the Chilean people. On a wall on the first floor are myriad photographs of Chileans murdered by the Pinochet regime – 130,000, probably more.”

Recently, she has visited Australia in her role as the UN Commissioner on Human Rights to deliver the Whitlam Lecture, which was booked out by the time I got round to it. But from snippets, I got the gist.

I had also seen an enticing advertisement for a house nestled in a valley between Santiago and Valparaiso – separate terraced complex houses a sauna, Jacuzzi and hot tub, and two bathrooms. The property also includes a one-bedroom guesthouse, a covered parking area for four cars and organic orchards with 750 avocado trees and other fruit trees with “income-producing potential”; on 17 acres handy to both Santiago and Valparaiso. The price? About AUD2m. All this under the headline: “Following a tax hike and a steep drop in sales, prices are rebounding thanks to a stable economy and new infrastructure projects.”

Yes, when we had been in Santiago in late August, it had seemed very quiet; well run city, taxi driver even praised the cops as the only honest police force in South America. However, that contrasted with a comment in The Economist about the current President, Sebastián Piñera, which concerned the social conflicts with students that had bedevilled his first term. In order to reinforce the point, The Economist alleged police had tried to cover up their murder of a member of the Mapuche, an indigenous people.

The Economist added, “That followed a string of scandals – ranging from planting evidence to corruption – in the Carabineros, the once-revered police force. The army is no better. Some officers have been found to have stolen public money; others have sold arms to drug-traffickers.

Somewhat different perspective from that of our driver as we drove through quiet suburban streets to the Museum …

Sure, when we later went on the road to Valparaiso, the slums stretched along it for miles inducing a feeling of unease.

On the way, stopping for a wine tasting in the Casablanca Valley, it was just what you would expect from a wine tasting vineyard in Australia – impeccable surroundings both inside and out, a fire to warm this predominantly young stylish crowd from the winter cold. I was reassured there that Chile was an exemplar of middle class respectability.

Then off to Valparaiso, where the poor in barrios cling onto the sides of the steep hills, yet all with a stunning view of the ocean. Here the streets plunge down these steep slopes – a variation on the big dipper. Barrios did not exude stark poverty but the people in the doorways or struggling up the streets with their provisions did not look happy.

It’s not that long since Valparaiso was almost destroyed in a massive earthquake, and the city has a shabbiness that belies the fact that it is a tourist centre and the politicians meet here in the National Congress building. The city had a sullen feeling, despite it being one of those places where there is so much intrinsic beauty, at least to my eye, despite its vulnerability to earthquakes.

Now two months on, the cities are aflame, the streets are crowded with a rioting populace, the army has been called out. The 130,000 dead on Bachelet’s Memorial wall have had a few added.

The cause? A seemingly minor increase in subway fares has proved the tipping point. The people have had enough. The country’s prosperity revealed has been heavily weighted to a small fraction of the community who can afford to buy the property described earlier.

The currency is devaluing, the inequity in everything from wages to health care lies revealed. The hatred of politicians has boiled over; despite conciliatory gestures. People lie in the streets, dead or injured. Tear gas lingers; property estimated to be worth $2 billion Australian dollars has been destroyed in the rioting, and the number arrested harks back to Pinochet’s times. The military are on the streets, their punitive powers on show. Piñera has cancelled two international conferences presumably not to show the World his intention to return to a military dictatorship.

After all, he has an approval rating of 14 per cent, presumably by all those hiding within gated communities. Piñera is reputed to be the wealthiest man in Chile, having introduced credit cards into that country and, as a badge of his mercantilist mind, he has manipulated stock such that he faced court more than once. He is the sort of person, who fits in with the definition of “politician”. He is a man well versed in fraud who has tried to shuffle his Ministers, but the protests have increased. Shuffling or sleight of hand generally also means taking money from someone else’s pocket.

Those in the streets are not fooled. They can see what awaits them on the horizon. All they have to do is go in the Museum and see the filmed images the morning Chilean democracy last died on 11 September 1973.

Bubble Australia

The Congress in Valparaiso has been invaded, and while the major excuse given for the increasing development of Parliament House into an impregnable Bubble Australia, thought must have been given to a popular invasion to construct it in such a manner. Presumably Bubble Australia has food and cocktails in store to last for six months in the event of a siege.

When people hate politicians enough, the tipping point will be reached. We are not immune from a Chilean-like situation – the only difference is that Australia has yet to have experienced a Pinochet. Yet we have a number of very good would-be impersonators.

I think Chile needs you back, Michelle. As for Australia, the space is unfilled – as yet. But then one of the characteristics of these new movements, apart from their youth is the difficulty in finding the leader to be carted off to gaol, effectively decapitating the rebellion. The Extinction crowd is on the streets, but they do not have the same mentality as the police force in its armour plate; and one has to hope wearily not to have a rerun of Queensland brutality à la Springbok tour or ageing commentators of both genders mimicking Askin’s admonition to drive over curly-headed young Sri Lankans – metaphorically of course.

However, if a society is unequal in its rewards system, and in their Morrisonian Bubble the beneficiaries try to insulate themselves, eventually someone will prick the Bubble or let the air be exhausted from the Bubble. It may take time, but there will come a time if there is no remedial action, we could end up like Chile or, for that matter, Hong Kong or Beirut.

Another Play with Words

Guest Blogger – Chris Brook*

The NSW government has announced that it is moving away from activity based funding in health care, to an outcomes-based funding approach. More recently the Australian Treasurer has declared that he wants Australia to do likewise to a quality care approach and eliminate low value and unnecessary care.

Both reflect the adoption of a new approach to measurement of value.

This announcement presages the latest fashion in health care economics and organisational design in the United States, which is value-based health care.

It is growing into a huge industry reaping enormous fees for consultants. As with any scheme, it gains keen audiences for its promoters because of its purported benefits and simplicity.

Basically the theory is simple – along the lines of:

(a) value, never quite defined but clearly related to outcomes and

(b) value, again never quite defined but including elimination of low value or unnecessary care resulting in:

  • integrated care
  • improved efficiency at all levels
  • team based care
  • patient-focussed care
  • higher quality care
  • better outcomes
  • improved prevention of ill heath and
  • lower cost

How could anyone object to such a set of targets?

And this all happens, apparently, through tweaking of economic signals along with better IT, better data capture and use, incentives for provider re-organisation and a value focus by patients. No wonder funders love the idea, or at least the components they choose to understand. However, like all things that sound too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

Some of the issues emerging are:

  • it is a North American solution to a North American problem
  • it assumes complete market flexibility, both patient and provider
  • it does not define outcome (clinical, functional, meeting expectations – actual against expected) and
  • it does not define value (whose or which value particularly)

Nonetheless some very interesting tools are being developed, such as much better prediction software which may dramatically alter future risk rating down as far as the individual level (with all the accompanying risks that entails).

To give the topic due attention needs at least a podcast discussion, with more than one opinion to assess.

This is but a teaser – an opening shot.

It does remind me that the world thought it had the solution to health care back in the 1930s, with the establishment of health maintenance organisations with uncannily similar promises – and promise!

As a very smart man once said to me looking into the mirror: “Chris, health maintenance organisations are a great idea and always will be.”

*Chris Brook PSM FRACP is a medical practitioner with 30 years senior management experience in the Australian health system

Tiempo, damas y cabelleros por favor

I came across the 29 May 2009 issue of Time which listed the 100 most influential people in the World. These lists are just one form of vanity press, a filler where high profile people are paid to write about other perceived high profile people who, unlike the writers, have attained the “magic” hundred.

The first one listed was Teddy Kennedy, who promptly died before the end of the year – and his legacy was his work in advocating for still unfinished health care reform. The second one listed was Gordon Brown, his paean written sympathetically by J.K. Rowling. He is long gone from the influential hundred; although he is probably behind the scenes within the Scottish resistance to Brexit.

However, in the 100 influential figures listed, both Boris Johnson and Elizabeth Warren get prominent space. A young Boris Johnson with boyish face and laughing eyes is eulogised by Conrad Black. One might say that it takes one to know one, but Black, ten years on pardoned by Trump for his malfeasance, was right in saying that Boris was a man to watch.

For her part, Elizabeth Warren is there for her expert knowledge of bankruptcy through all its shades, and her take on the financial services industry; she is “characteristically unfazed by the criticism.”

Surprisingly Putin and unsurprisingly Trump are not listed, and Xi Jinping is reduced to a narrow column on page 28. After being described in his role then as the Chinese vice-premier as “best known to many Chinese for his singing wife”, the writer goes on to pen that Xi lost his patience at a meeting in Mexico. He is quoted as saying, “Some foreigners can’t seem to mind their own business and sit around complaining about China.” But as the writer went on “He carefully flavoured the complaint as a joke, which took some of the pressure out. The politician’s instinct, it seems, is always at the ready.”

And as the writer said earlier in his piece: “the running joke in Beijing is that anytime there is a potentially nasty task, Xi gets it.”

First, Xi may joke, but he is no joke, and secondly I am not sure how he would describe Trump, but he obviously has a great deal of experience in such matters.

As for the rest, well there are those in elected office, those blazing a trail as “influential” and in the end there is mostly a Warholian outcome – maybe a tick over 15 minutes.

All shook up …

Guest Blogger:  Janine Sargeant*

Hard to believe, but there apparently are “Elvis Loathers” – designated by areas of calm cobalt blue on a demographic map of the USA. The “Elvis Lovers” are bright red and shake up much of the eastern half of the US.

Like him or loathe him, Elvis is everywhere

This map appeared in the August 1993 issue of American Demographics. Prepared by a Texas market research firm, using demographic data and addresses of members of Elvis fan clubs, it purports to show the depth and breadth of Elvis fandom. The most “Elvis-friendly” places apparently are small towns dominated by mills, farms and main street retailers, but also the newer blue-collar baby boomer suburbs on the edges of cities like Atlanta, Miami, Austin, Kansas City and San Diego.

Bob Lunn, then president of Direct Image Concepts Inc., said he launched the Elvis survey for a client wanting to sell Elvis memorabilia. While the client went bankrupt, Lunn’s company enjoyed plenty of publicity by making the survey available to the media. The 7,000 responses to his questionnaires came from Elvis fan club members. He used the responses to develop a composite of the then typical Elvis fan: a conservative, blue-collar, white woman in her 40s or 50s who votes Republican, has a high school education or less, is married with children, watches sitcoms and the Home Shopping Network and reads Bride’s Magazine and the National Enquirer. The typical fan also drives American sedans or pickup trucks, swims in above-ground pools, smokes menthol cigarettes, drinks malt liquor, and eats white bread, canned meats and Velveeta – all of which probably had a place on Elvis’s pantry shelves.

The Elvis map showed the clear divides that commonly exist in the US between east and west and north and south, although in this instance the north eastern states (with the exception of New York and Boston) certainly carried the flag for Elvis.

However, the map demonstrates how data can mislead. Based on Lunn’s methodology Alaska, with the exception of Anchorage, apparently is full of Elvis Loathers. Problem is, not much population in Alaska to move that state into the red zone (or perhaps it is just that the moose prefered Little Richard). Look more closely at the blue zones (except perhaps Blue Hawaii) and to a large degree the problem is a lack of individuals to sign up with an Elvis fan club.

What would the map show if it were redone now? Probably a lot more of “Elvis Who?” in beige, although it would likely now be called “Elvis? Meh.”

Exercises like these are an amusing diversion, but perhaps not to be relied on, as Lunn’s client discovered.

Janine Sargeant runs a medical association in the not-for-profit sector.

Mouse Whisper

Funny coincidence but my mouse trainer’s thirty-second wedding anniversary has fallen in the week of the thirty-second Modest Expectation blog. A coincidence, but in the world of gifts even for such an anniversary, ebony is the go.

Ebony mouse whispering