Modest Expectations – Nancy Laurie

Above is a cross-section of a camphor laurel tree. The wood is considered to have an even texture but has moderate durability; the colour diversity is shown in the photo. It is used for furniture, especially veneer. Because of its grain and lightweight, it is used in decorative craft.

Yet the camphor laurel is classified as a noxious weed in NSW. Unfortunately, it was introduced in the 1820s, and was used as a shade tree in rural areas. The wood is popular for furniture because of its attractive grain and light weight. Camphor oil used to be produced commercially as a liniment for aches and pains, but its commercial production was banned after too many lethal ingestions.

Across the road from our home is a giant camphor laurel with its characteristic smell. We are constantly plucking the seedlings from the garden. It is an arboreal predator and if left unchecked, spreads across land where it was innocently planted as a wonderful shade tree, not as an arboreal predator.

This tree has been tolerated by our local Council, whereas the clumping bamboo, which was grown in the lane by the previous owners to protect the house from dust in the lane and the sound of traffic down this lane, which once served as a “rat-run”, was the subject some time ago of inspection and deemed as a noxious weed, although it is a clumping bamboo. Nothing happened. In fact, the Council policy, uncritical green, does nothing in the name of conservation. So, when the liquid amber (planted by previous owners) invaded the terracotta pipes, causing a blockage, we cleared the pipes, repaired the damage, and then cut down the tree which had become a hazard, and ground the stump into sawdust.

When trees grown by Councils are involved in damaging property, it seems to be their responsibility. However, there seem to be so many loopholes through which arrows of obfuscation can be fired on the crowd down below from the Council’s castle that we rate-paying peasants are easily confused by this flight of regulations raining down on us from these nouveaux feudal lords known as The Council.

Yet there was a recent report of a significant judgement against a local Council that planted a white cedar so close to the plaintiff’s home and caused such significant cracks in the brickwork, that the house had to be rebuilt.

One of my friends had a joust with a tree planted outside her house. Recently, she started having troubles with her plumbing. Blockages and flooding of her basement floor occurred. Eventually she employed a plumber with the skill to extract nature’s legacy. Shown here is the root extracted from the plumbing.

The only responsibility the Council seems to accept is that it planted the tree, but as for the vagaries of the tree with its extensive invasive properties, they just look the other way, although they have promised to cut down the tree. Obviously, Councils’ second line of defence is stonewalling to encourage the afflicted to use their own home insurance when the flight of regulations is repelled.

One of the problems is that a casualty in the urbanscape is the tree. If migrants come from countries, scarred by war or poverty, the tree is not a high priority. Couple it with the obsession to build the house over the whole land leaves almost no space for gardens. The developer, usually at the behest of the local Council, plants a desert ash or a similar tree on the nature strip. Left to the elements with nobody responsible for their maintenance, it is not surprising how many soon die or shrivel into a forlorn remnant.

The conventional garden with which I grew up, with avenues of trees in the suburbs, are disappearing. I was watched the TV program “Gardening Australia” on and off for years. European gardens are the featured topics, and the suburban gardens are steadily shrinking or going indoors, so the tree is less featured. Migrant gardens concentrate on food, and the trees grown are those which produce fruit.

We planted an olive tree on the verge outside our house some years ago after the nondescript previous tree had been knocked over by a car. The olive tree has yielded annual crops of up to 5kgs of olives. Passing school children have learnt the lessons of biting into a freshly harvested olive.

Passers by some years have swiped the crop before we could harvest it. That indicates our olives have “a market”. I have thought, what if the street were lined by olive trees with each household encouraged to look after them – the whole program being an initiative of the local council. Then the annual olive harvest street party would provide a useful product, while assisting the development of that elusive quality “community” – rather than the street trees being an object of resentment or neglect.


One of the laws of politics is never promote somebody more intelligent than you are; and moreover, having a more deft touch. Prime Minister Albanese is a case in point. The latest Budget which the Treasurer produced shows the empty cranium of Labor policy. Just because the leader of the Opposition has been described by a former West Australian Premier as a “dullard”, it does not excuse the Budget handed down last week.

Big deal – giving all Australians a small relief for their energy bills, when the government is piling high the subsidies for the fossil fuel industries, including the Gorgon carbon capture project, which does not work. Everybody, including the Gorgon owners, knows that – except apparently Albanese.

The disaster for Albanese was his choice of a West Australian to be Minister for Resources. She represents the inheritors of a once mendicant State, now with overflowing coffers, despite most of its resources being shipped overseas, from which Australia gets a pittance. West Australia with its budgetary surplus is hardly mendicant, but it still wants more.

Added to this, Australia is now using taxation revenue to give the fossil fuel industry literally a free handpass, providing it de facto  $566.1m courtesy of Geoscience Australia activity; “to map Australia’s endowments of critical minerals and national groundwater systems”, for which industry does not have to pay a cent. The industry pays nothing for having access to what I would have thought should remain a resource to be bought under licence. I would have thought there should be also security concerns. I cannot understand why, given the paranoia keeping secret every piece of Government trivia, especially if it is hiding corruption.

At this point it is noted that the Woodside boss is an American, a hired gun who has roamed the world as an Exxon paladin. No allegiance to Australia but to American Mammon.

Contrast this highly qualified carpetbagger who runs Woodside to another chief executive, for whom Australia was all important, where his work in building BHP underpinned Australian prosperity – Essington Lewis.

He assisted in the establishment of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and many munitions facilities meaning Australia was better prepared for industrialisation when the war started in 1939. During World War II, he was the Director-General of the Department of Munitions under John Curtin (incidentally elected from West Australia).

Different times. Different Prime Minister.

Today, the Labor Government flounders around in the wreck of neoliberalism, where philanthropy is bribery, the strings attached in a tight coil so that, to borrow a phrase, it becomes a “road to serfdom.”

Fortunes have been amassed, where cabals have substituted for the theoretical free markets, corrupted by political influence, as public servants, parliamentarians, lobbyists and consultancy firms feed from a golden trough labelled Taxation Revenue.

What has Woodside contributed to Australian prosperity?

Richard Goyder, one of the lesser druids of neoliberalism says it all in his latest Woodside Chairman’s annual report:

“… delivering strong operational and financial performance, laying the foundations for future growth, while continuing to return value to shareholders – speaks to the quality of our company’s current leadership and strategy.”

Shareholders, not Australia, note. His speech, a paean to neoliberalism. Globalisation means that capitalism is unbothered by national borders, but in reality the world economies are retreating into protectionism, in the face of this failure of globalisation.

Quantum computer

How the Government is handling the quantum computing handout is not a particularly good look, but it is a relic of providing without due diligence. One may ask where is the business plan? PsiQuantum is a quantum computing start-up that this month received one billion dollars from the Australian government in the Budget forward estimates.

By contrast, the British government, has granted PsiQuantum £9 million ($17.1 million) to assist the company set up an already functioning R&D facility at the Daresbury Laboratory (home to the Accelerator Science and Technology Centre [ASTeC] and the Cockcroft Institute), and it’s not the only company to have been given a grant. The British are wondering what is going on here in Australia – and they are not the only ones. Only another day in the mates’ quagmire government.

By the way, the Chinese and Americans are well ahead, while Australia awaits the facility to be built in Brisbane so Australia can stride to the front of the field rather it being the Big Squander.

The Labor Party is retreating towards protectionism, while Australia is drowning in mateship where corruption is ever present. There are many examples of “mates in cahoots with corruption”. The word is “rort”, an Australian slang derived from “rorty”, English Cockney rhyming slang. Yet there seems to be undue reluctance to pursue the players in each of the myriad examples of rorting scattered around the various parliaments. Bad look!

Watch for the advance of the “coloured parties” at the next Federal election. The lustre of the Aston electoral win has well and truly been lost. An obsession with retaining West Australian seats, while neglecting Victoria and NSW, is not very smart politics. 


The political implications of the new Great Stink are about to become even more significant, however, because the finances of Britain’s privatised water industry, which has taken on debts of more than £60bn since it was privatised in 1989, are if anything more putrid than the rivers it pollutes. The largest of Britain’s water companies (the same company that is spilling sewage into Colwell Brook) is Thames Water, which supplies water and sewage services to 16 million people. It may be about to collapse.

A person with inside knowledge of Thames Water, who asked not to be identified, told me about the wide spread frustration within the company at failing equipment and a lack of money to fix problems that have been growing for years. They also said there is a sense among those working for Thames Water today that they are paying the price for the past, specifically the years 2006 to 2017, when the firm was owned by the Australian investment manager Macquarie. It loaded Thames Water with billions in debt while paying very large dividends. In that time, debt rose from £3.4bn to £10.8bn. New Statesman

Sydney Water is a statutory state-owned corporation. It is 100% owned by the people of New South Wales. Two shareholding ministers fully own the shares in Sydney Water, on behalf of the people of NSW. The shareholding ministers of Sydney Water are the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance.

The factual statement about our water supply here in Sydney is reassuring. Bloody Hell, what if I would have some hedge fund located in New York owning it; and that applies equally to our home-grown equivalents.

OUR water

The privatisation of water, one of our last major resources in government hands, so fundamental to our continent, so prone to drought, should not ever be even a footnote, even of the most corrupted politicians. Given the experience of selling the electrical infrastructure and toll road gouging, one could imagine the price of water during drought. The last sentence from New Statesman’s excerpt of the English experience says it all.

Currently we Australians are the shareholders in our water resources rather than gougers, for instance, in Cayman Islands!

The Last Kampong

In the 2021 December issue of The Economist there is a very perspicacious article about the last kampong (Malay village) in Singapore, owned by a Ms Sng, which is the Kampong Lorong Buangkok. When the article was written she was living there with 25 tenant-households that pay a small rent. It frequently floods and is earmarked for future development projects, because there is very little land left in this Island-State, which was once just a series of kampongs before it became a Chinese commercial republic.

I remember a vain search of the kampongs during a visit to Singapore in 1974, because I was told that I could find Kitchen Ming ware there, and at a good price. I was sold “a pup”, no Kitchen Ming anywhere. As a parenthetic comment, thirteen years later, I received Kitchen Ming as a present for my birthday. That was my kampong adventure, and it is a distant memory, now stimulated by reading the Last Kampong.

Singapore was a colonial outpost thought by the British to be perfectly fortified, with all the heavy artillery aimed out to sea, whereas the Japanese came in the back entrance invading down the Malay peninsula in 1942 and overwhelming the inadequate Allied forces stationed there.

Singapore then was a mosaic of kampongs dotted with the elements of British rule such as Raffles Hotel, symbols of a time when the red colour of Albion dominated the Globe. Raffles survives. I’ve stayed there where the signature Singapore sling can still be quaffed and having Tiffin – north Indian snacks directly from the maharajah table combined with elements   of the English breakfast.

But while I have experienced staying at this once jewel colonial hotel in Asia, in 1971 we stayed in a much lesser hostelry, The Goodwood Park Hotel. It was only ten years earlier that 70 per cent of Singaporeans lived in kampongs. By 1990, 87 per cent lived in government housing. The transition had taken 20 years, and showed what a central government can deliver with a strong leader, Lee Kuan Yew who, from the outset of his government in 1965, had a clear vision of the place of the new Republic of Singapore in Asia.

This housing change was achieved by a combination of factors with a workforce which would be impossible in Australia, where the ideals of a Federated Country have been reduced to endless bickering and point scoring.

While the Last Kampong has had chunks of its land removed, it still remains as a viable if shrinking reminder of Singapore’s heritage. One should be reminded that the Government has recently sacrificed the local racing industry to residential development. The economics of the racing industry were less important than housing; a logical lesson which Australian would find impossible to entertain. Think back to the NSW Government’s cowardice in its failed attempt to close down greyhound racing, one of the most distasteful manifestations of Australian culture, consuming as it does valuable real estate. Then contrast this with the Singaporean priorities.

Why does the Last Kampong survive? It does have its political defenders, not senior people in government, but sufficient to argue the case to preserve a time when it was the way of life. By doing so, it invites the young to enjoy a sliver of Singapore’s past. Maybe that is too romantic construction.

The Singapore Government has responded at times by saying it would not seize the village for several decades, whatever the reasons.

Lee Kuan Yew was a leader, with vision for his electorate. He was authoritarian and turned Singapore into a one-party state. He was not flawless, but he encouraged his people to accept his vision rather than repressing and plundering the State.

He had the touch, which few of our political leaders have ever had, but he lived in a country of 727 sq kms, but with a population which grew three-fold and a mean income from Sg$2,000 to Sg$ 70,000 today. Easier to control than Australia goes without saying.

The Last Kampong provided me with the impossibility of the current Australian housing policy. It has no link to anything but reduced migration at a time when there are an estimated 11m dwellings for 26m people of which 1m were unoccupied at the time of the last Census, and more intimately 13m empty bedrooms.  The relevance has been contested for many reasons, all of which are speculative, but on average the 2021 Census reported about 7 to 8 per cent empty houses were in the capital cities. That is not very much different from the Singapore figure.

But Singapore does not have the genius of Peter Dutton to also make sure the guns are still aimed out to sea.

I await the Last Victorian Lace.

Forbes Advocate

I have just taken out a Forbes Advocate subscription to see how the Forbes community are reacting to providing the protection the mayor announced after the murder of Molly Ticehurst for women in the community from future violence.

A walk in the park is hardly a permanent solution.

I’ll monitor the Forbes Advocate for the next month.

Inter alia, I note in the current issue reports of the arraignment of a 63 year old man living in Forbes for 71 historical sexual assault charges between the 1974 and 2023 regarding four then underage girls.

In a community traumatised by Molly Ticehurst’s death, what did the magistrate do? Bail as reported was refused, even though he was being treated for leukaemia and had been awarded Forbes’ Citizen of the Year in 2022.

Phyllis Miller OAM, Mayor of Forbes

The Mayoral response  to protect her community seems to have an effect perhaps. More direct action by the community to be shown?

So here goes, seeing what the community does over the next month.

Mouse Whisper

Last week, I was watching ABCR – ABC Rodent, when the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, was delivering his Budget Speech, setting out the financial prospects for the oncoming year in Australia.

On the companion channel, ABCR22 was sensitively screening the BBC program “Would I Lie to You?” This program is hosted by Rob Bryden, who has a surprising resemblance to Jim Chalmers.

“Would I lie to You?” was a bit more entertaining and not one use of the word “responsible”.

Jim Brydon
Rob Chalmers

Modest Expectations – Stereo on the Mountain

I have written this story before, but the proposal to increase the travel allowances of patients living in country areas of NSW reminds me of a story which appeared in my 1988 book “Portraits in Australian Health” released in the Bicentenary year, to my knowledge the only book which the Federal Department of Community Services and Health sponsored to honour this occasion.

It related to a long time general practitioner in a northern country town in NSW who, among his diverse interests and skills, was an expert in diseases of the eyes. On one occasion, one of his patients came to see him for advice. Apparently, the advice did not suit this person, and so he sought a second opinion. This meant travelling to Sydney by train, which took about eight hours, in order to consult the eye specialist.  This meant no mean effort.

Days later, he arrives at the specialist’s rooms in Macquarie Street only to find, as he entered the consulting room, there was his own country doctor who, at the time, was undertaking a locum for the specialist.

This is highly unlikely to happen today, but emphasised that just because one may prefer to practise medicine in a rural setting it is in any way different from practising in the city, apart from the technology. It just means getting the skill sets and the incentives right. But I admit that technology has in some areas supplanted a need for the same level of clinical skills, but that generality hides a much deeper discussion on its truth.

The doctor in the anecdote never lost his links with the city. When a doctor practises in a country town, he or she does so as an everyday member of the community and as the repository of the knowledge of the community’s health status, each person by person.  In attracting a doctor to country practice, the community must realise that the doctor must have his or her own space, his or her own privacy – the interaction between the doctor and community, which I once termed “tolerance” – a recognition of the importance of both sides of this interaction played out beyond the doctor’s rooms.

In so doing, another element of potential dysfunction is broached – that of professional isolation. Post graduate education is offered but availability is not the same as uptake. What worried me when I served as Director of Clinical Training was to get the professionals to interact with one another, even within the one practice. I have found collegiality helps in diminishing isolation, because sometimes I think many of my colleagues would prefer a sub-specialty of one.

Over years working in rural areas, it is tragic that I have seen the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. The classic conundrum is that of the doctor who complains about his workload, but when offered another doctor, recoils because of an unsubstantiated threat to income and as a threat to the power structure these long term doctors have created in their town. As a result there is a dearth of succession planning.

The other cultural problem, for which doctors are not to blame, is that the closer one town is to another the greater the rivalry and animosity, often demonstrated in the regional sporting rivalries

Awareness of the dysfunctions of rural life is papered over by the vision of an Acadian life, but despite the attempts at regionalisation, it is always the major regional city which collects the spoils and the rest of the region is left to its own devices. There are success stories; but always it seems there is a time when former patterns of dysfunctional behaviour re-emerge.

Having the will of successive generations of administration to maintain an open co-operative system requires the steely resolve of people like the Mayo Brothers, and how they achieved their success should be studied in every institution where health administration is taught.

“Tasting the winds, that are footless,
Waist-deep in history.”

I love trees as obviously does Sylvia Plath from this above quote.

One of my most enjoyable times was driving between Bourke and Goodooga in Northern NSW with Stuart Gordon and Nick Mersiades. Stuart Gordon then was moving from growing cotton into the community services sector. He asked whether he could cadge a lift to Brewarrina, as Nick and I were going onto Goodooga to stay the night before proceeding to Hebel just over the NSW border in Queensland the next day.

Brigalow trees

What was unforgettable about this drive was the level of knowledge of the countryside those two blokes had. The bush was varied. At one point we would be driving through predominantly brigalow scrub but at other times gidgee scrub.

Gidgee trees are stockier than brigalow and have dark trunks, which, when they are cut, yield a yellow sapwood corona surrounding an umber core. Brigalow trees are taller. In the dry area, the green brigalow foliage becomes increasingly silvery, and in a breeze I thought it to be almost feathery like giant dowager boas.

Gidgee trees
Leopard gum

Interspersed among these stands of acacia were mallee eucalypts, and the incredibly beautiful leopard and salmon gum trees. The trunks of the latter were smooth salmon in colour and the leopard gum mimicked the spotted hide of the eponymous carnivore.

To me, crushing a gum leaf and smelling the eucalyptus oil is the most tangible reminder of who I am. Although I have been eligible for both British and Irish citizenship, however tempted, I can only be loyal to one country – Australia. Sometimes over the past decade it has been very difficult to assert such loyalty, but the sun always rises.

Some years ago, Thomas Pakenham, who is incidentally the 8th Earl of Longford, a disestablished Irish peerage, authored a number of books, among them extravagant pictorials highlighting the trees of greatest significance to the author. In the first of these, “Remarkable Trees” was an impressive arboreal array, including the oldest tree in the world, a bristlecone pine about 4,600 years old growing at an altitude of 3,000 metres in the White Mountains in California among other aged trunks in the aptly named Methuselah Grove.

Apparently there was an even older tree in which an enthusiastic geography student inserted and then broke a tree corer in trying to ascertain the age of a similar tree. The corer was valuable enough for the tree to be cut down to rescue the corer. The tree turned out to be 4,900 years old at the time of its axing.  It could be said that these trees have been dying for two thousand years, but none had been beheaded in search of an instrument. Two thousand dollars for the oldest tree – a question of priorities.

Yet there were Australian trees among his remarkable trees. One was the famous prison baobab near Derby in the Kimberley.  Another was the bunya pine next to a grand castle in Northern Portugal.  The height of this pine is comparable to the castle’s campanile tower. In our garden here in Sydney we have had a number of bunya pines which we once bought in the Bunya Mountains south-west of the Queensland town of Kingaroy.

Fortunately the remaining one still grows in a pot, saving us from worrying about a putative 45 metre tree overshadowing the whole of our front garden. Australia is thought of as being gum and wattle trees, but Australia is also home to many of the Araucaria relatives of the bunya pine, the most recent member of this genus being the Wollemi pine, named for the wilderness area in the Blue Mountains where it was first discovered.

This book was followed by “Australia’s Remarkable Trees” – another impressive pictorial. I once wrote to its authors Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker, pointing out that there was this remarkable tree at the corner of Punt Road and Alexandra Avenue in Melbourne. It is a huge golden elm at the intersection of these two very busy roads on the banks of the Yarra River.

The amazing element which I found as I entered the dense canopy, seeking an unmarked specimen of leaf, at a time when I was collecting the various glabrous leaves of these trees, was that when you were under the canopy your vision was only of the foliage. The outside world was blotted out. Branches nearly touch the ground, and others are propped up. Here, there was a tranquillity, and even though close by, the traffic noise was muted, although the smell of the dusty, dirty city does penetrate through the foliage.

Most of the foliage bore the scars of insects – it was mid-summer and cool under the foliage. Close up the imperfections in the leaves were very evident. But that is life. The tree appears in the book, and the authors suggest the best time to view the tree is in spring when the foliage is unmarked, a lighter shade of green than its companion elms. Given in Europe that the English elm has been almost wiped out by Dutch elm disease, Melbourne and also other places like Ballarat are major remaining strongholds on Earth of this remarkable tree.

All such books as I describe are based on informed subjectivity. However there is one thing binding all these trees and that is of a deep appreciation, if not awe, of the permanent diverse planet upon which we move about. Thus, when one hears of destruction, it is often a time when I mourn for this lost heritage, as if one has lost a member of the family.

Fire is an ever-present risk to our forests. For some slow growing trees like snow gums it is a ghastly fate, but for others such as banksia it is important for the generation of new stock. The greater danger is overlogging, which has dogged Australia throughout our history. It seems that if you are born Tasmanian, you are born an instinctive forester. A forester is OK; but an indiscriminate logger is a vandal. The stories abound of such destruction in Tasmania, which continually change the undoubted resilience of trees such as the trio of its indigenous pines – the Huon, king billy and celery.

Trees deserve our attention. They are part of us. The introduction of the deciduous exotica, which provide Australia with all the autumnal colour, is probably one of the positive contributions from the colonial Heritage.

Thus, many of us take trees for granted, and when we talk about trees, the appreciation of diversity is unfortunately limited to whether the tree is obstructing my view or not.

 A Virus in the Sand

At a time when the rise in the number of cases of Covid in Australia has been dramatic, the following article from the NYR shows a thoughtful perspective as it describes what the new medical graduate must expect. Much of the clinical experience of all these young health professional graduates would have been in a period when the COVID-19 pandemic dominated health care and the resultant priorities arising. I have read these thoughts, and the stark manner in which ICU practice has been affected in modern medical practice with the advent of a contagious disease dominating the acute patient load.

At the same time, there are the challenges presented by its persistence as the chronic disease in all its manifestations; such as the phenomena of active long COVID or dormant COVID reappearing decades later.

This is a virus which is both deadly and seemingly innocuous, depending on the particular individual response. Whether it creates a deep ravine in medical practice, between infectious and non-infectious disease will ultimately depend on how the organisation of the health care system changes both now and after the pandemic has waned– the resurrection of infectious disease hospitals for instance.

An illustration of the growth in COVID cases

Paradoxically, Australia has spent a considerable amount of money on health institutions, often driven by clever marketing of sub-specialities, with an advocacy group of those affected by the particular condition and their relatives, especially if the affected person has a strong public profile.

The level of sub-specialisation and the disproportionate incentives for this to occur only serves to magnify the cost of health care. Children are an irresistible magnet for funding; and beware any attempt to interfere. Try a review of funding for childhood cancer – impossible to review objectively as to cost effectiveness because of the emotional halo.

A subspecialty exists because, through skill or advocacy, it has carved itself away from a perceived drudgery of general practice. This view has been increasingly encouraged by the various deans of health sciences in universities, where excellence is determined by the amount of research funding and by the number of citations, notoriously subject to gaming.

This obsession with rankings based on the alleged quality of research has been increasingly dissociated from the prime reason for universities to exist – and that is to teach each generation of students in the best available environment. Plus, may I add, not to have half the Faculty away on overseas conferences, on sabbaticals and/or time spent in private practice and outside consultancy work. This state of affairs is hardly conducive to healthy pedagogy.

The doctors who are finishing residency now have completed most of their training in a world without robust family presence. They learned to become doctors to patients who are intubated and under deep sedation, behind closed doors, in a world of masks and alongside the fear that if they are not careful, their patients could make them sick.

Back in my own training, we used deep sedation and paralysing medications infrequently, as we knew that these decisions came with a cost: delirium, long-term brain dysfunction, profound weakness. But today’s doctors in training have learned on Covid patients. When we were uncertain what to do, particularly early on, we reflexively jumped to deep sedation as the answer for them. These are patterns that are hard to unlearn.

And beneath it all is the continued spectre of the virus. Though I did not have a single patient with Covid-19 during my recent weeks in the unit, from time to time, we would receive a message alerting us that one of our patients had a Covid exposure from a staff member who had tested positive and would have to be on precautions as a result. Patients and families were once terrified by this news, but now they are largely used to it and seem reassured that the staff are masked and so any meaningful exposure is unlikely. This is another aspect of our new reality.

To think that a possible Covid exposure would not cause panic is itself a sign of great progress. But at the same time, we are so far from where we thought we might be by now. When I walked through the halls of the Covid intensive care unit back in the spring of 2020, I told myself, as did so many of us in health care, that we would improve care for those who were disproportionately impacted by this virus. The systems to which we had become accustomed would be dismantled, and we would find ourselves somewhere better.

But those sorts of promises are naïve and empty without a plan for how to make and sustain real change to protect the vulnerable among us. So here I am, back in the unit, caring for a patient with severe cerebral palsy, who had aspirated his own secretions and developed a life-threatening pneumonia. His aging parents had done the best they could despite limited resources, making sure to turn their adult son on his side multiple times a day to help him cough, but his muscles were too weak. And now he would require a tracheotomy tube for the rest of his life. I know, talking to his parents, that it is possible that their adult son will not go home, that they will not be able to afford the kinds of services he needs. When and if another virus comes, the son they cared for at home for three decades might be living in precisely the kind of nursing facility that will be decimated by it. It’s easy to feel that the tragedy only repeats.

But then again, in just a few weeks, a group of newly minted doctors begin their internships. Medicine is strange like that, a new generation every three years, and with it a chance for reinvention. They will find themselves in a hospital in transition, in a country that has suffered more than a million deaths. We will teach them about all of it, about how to manage sepsis and heart failure and trauma, about the pandemic and how it was before. And for a moment, maybe, we can step back and see it all through their eyes — the nervousness and the excitement and, more than anything, the hope for what is to come.

Oolong or Earl Grey?

In a previous blog, I worried about the many deficiencies in our approach to the other nations of the South Pacific.

The Chinese might have the money, but Australia has the advantage of Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, who has turned disdain to genuine respect for our South Pacific community. This has been coupled with a change in the Government’s attitude to climate change, to make it easier for the Australian government to adopt a primus inter pares role in the South Pacific area.

Every nation in the South Pacific has been victim of colonisation. China in its entry into the South Pacific is just another coloniser, although the gunboat may be muted, the offered funding comes clutched in a mailed fist.

Therefore, the European countries have been a major factor in the sometimes idiotic distribution of their colonies. Does it make sense that the Western part of New Guinea has been hived off into Indonesia just because it was once the furthest outpost of Dutch colonisation.

One remnant of Portugal’s worldwide speckled colonisation is the Republic of Timor-Leste, whose isolation in a region of muted hostility makes it not unexpectedly seek a powerful ally, such as China. Previously East Timor, as it was before Independence, has always presented an anomaly. Whitlam was worried that East Timor, if it received such independence, would present a risk of an Arafura Cuba.

However any hidden intervention then has been well and truly trumped by the disgraceful behaviour of the Australian Government, as described in the Crikey newsletter namely the bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet, the motives of the Howard government in its tactics towards the fledgling state, the subsequent decisions of the then foreign minister and then DFAT secretary to take jobs with the biggest beneficiary, the abuse of intelligence agencies for corporate espionage, the attempts to cover up the truth of the bugging and the vexatious attempts to punish those who exposed that truth, amount to the greatest scandal of recent decades.

Cristo Rei, Dili, Timor-Leste

Successive Australian governments have concealed such chicanery that will make any long term relationship between the Republic and ourselves very shaky. Australia has a substantial Timorese population in Darwin, and having been there just before the pandemic, it was to me clear how much the Chinese were investing in the Timor-Leste infrastructure. While the Republic shares the island with Indonesia, it is also a short boat ride from Dili across to the Indonesian island of Alor, part of the extended archipelago of the Southern Sunda islands, one of which Bali is 1,600 kilometres to the west of Alor.

Setting Timor-Leste aside for a moment is not to ignore its importance in a cohesive Australian South Pacific strategy lacking up to now.

Apart from a perception of the Chinese being a new colonial power, one of the points of differentiation is for Australian government ministers to cease to act as colonial masters. The Chinese have difficulty in hiding their sense of superiority, which grates, and in the end makes their presence in the South Pacific unpalatable. Nevertheless, mate, money takes away any distaste.

As I wrote about Andrew Peacock’s actions when he inherited the Ministry of External Territories, he immediately treated the New Guineans as equals, so evident in his relationship with Michael Somare. His predecessor was an old school Country Party politician, who viewed coloured people as inferior. After all, we’ve lived through a long term White Australia policy, and it is testimony to countervailing factors which have assured our role among out neighbours – not the least of which was our generation in speaking out against such a policy.

One of these factors binding us together undoubtedly is rugby; and with that New Zealand and its indigenous Maori population provide a vital bridge to Polynesia. This the Chinese do not have,

Our mutual Anglo-Celtic background provides a deceptive similarity of Australia with New Zealand. Yet it is in part mirage. As one who has headed a hybrid Australian and New Zealand organisation, I found the countries to be very different; the two nations respond differently to external stimuli. As with all neighbours, there is an accumulation of negative factors, which will intrude into all the positive aspects, unless we both recognise and deal with the differences immediately. Recently in her new role, Penny Wong has ably demonstrated with her embrace of the NZ Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, with her facial moko, her ability to confront the cultural differences. Whatever may be unstated, facial tattoos are confrontational for a country not steeped in Polynesian culture as New Zealand is.

Melanesia, as shown by the Solomon Islands treaty with China, exhibits our vulnerability; this is intertwined in our relationship with Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is a nation borne out of strong colonial links with Australia, both direct with Papua and by the acquisition of a mandate of the German colony of New Guinea after WW1.

Our indigenous Aboriginal people are represented in some of the Southern Sunda islands but more as an anthropological curiosity than as any cohesive force.

There are the Torres Strait People and here the Australian border with PNG provides a problematic divide. Then there is the collection of South Seas islanders – the descendants from the nineteenth century kanaka trade. Predominantly men from Vanuatu, they were press-ganged to work the cane fields of Northern Queensland, and Mackay is where many of the descendants remain. They have their identity, their flag but are not recognised in the same way Torres Strait Islanders are recognised. Only a small fraction of white Australia has ever met a Torres Strait islander. Yet some of the greatest rugby league players have come from both Torres Strait and South Seas Islanders.

On the other hand, the Solomon Islands were always a British colony before independence in 1978; and the Republic of Vanuatu was born from the New Hebrides condominium arrangement between Britain and France in 1980.

France remains the only European power left in the South Pacific and there is no indication that it will leave soon. One of the lessons was our ability to mobilise against the common enemy – this was the French when they were conducting nuclear testing in the South Pacific. We ran a meticulous campaign against the French and, given its modest funding, was very successful if judged by its impact among some of the South Pacific nations, remembering I was fronting an Australian and New Zealand organisation.

One area of which both our nations are guilty is still the magnetism  of Great Britain, even though despite some Whitehall protestations, Britain has long since vacated the South Pacific. The AUKUS arrangement  is redolent of a backward looking, nostalgic stream of thought.

Hopefully  as an early priority Wong will not rush over to the “old Country” to tug the forelock or have tea at Windsor. Fortunately, she seems to have left that to the emissary of the old huntin’ and shootin’ brigade, garbed as an Edwardian remnant of Albion humankind, a man whose name conveniently rhymes with dandy. Leave the UK to these people and let’s get on with dealing with the actual challenges of our region.

We marshalled the forces against one form of climate change 25 years ago. The challenge presented by climate change is far more serious and instead of AUKUS, how about a South Pacific alliance against the great polluter, China. Unfair characterisation? Fairness is not a major constituent in Chinese foreign policy. I am sure that matter is foremost in the Penny Wong mind.

Some are advocating Australia enact a form of the Monroe Doctrine. Next blog I shall discuss this proposal, given it seems to have some currency.

Mouse Whisper

Have you noted those advertisements, where the dentist has his back to the viewer, brandishing what is ostensibly a tooth brush. If you look in the mirror, there is no reflection of the dentist.

Now what a subtle advertisement. Toothbrushes and garlic toothpaste?

As some other rodent has said: “Real vampires do exist – they are life sucking people that are narcissistic, greedy, selfish and vain. They take from you as much as they can. They “seem” to be friends and offer you pleasure and beauty but they take your life. They cannot see their reflections because they portray someone other than their true self.”

In the end, as they say, this is no reflection on anybody.