Modest Expectations – For we who are about to gobble, at this point, we give thanks

Tomorrow all will be revealed – perhaps.

Whoever wins will be faced with having to govern, unlike what has happened over the past decade. This was the time of the lotus land; when the rich became richer and the dispossessed were harassed by false gods and more and more were caught in the culture of poverty.

I remember when Whitlam went to the electorate with a number of proposals among which was the proposal for satellite cities, and consequently increased housing. Albury-Wodonga remains as the partial legacy, but then the two cities were well established. Later I was on a government committee picking over the residual Albury-Wodonga policy which had severely changed from the original vision; looking back we got a pass mark, but it could have been better.

In Opposition, Whitlam developed a whole raft of policies between 1969 and 1972, the most successful long term being Medibank later Medicare. At the same time, the Federal Government was going through a series of debilitating internal power struggles. However, the heavy emphasis on social reform  by the Whitlam Government ran headlong into the 1973 oil crisis when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEAC) led by Saudi Arabia proclaimed an oil embargo. The embargo was targeted at nations that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. By the end of the embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen nearly 300 per cent, from US$3 per barrel to nearly $12 per barrel globally.

I well remember the big spending budget of 1973. It ignored the global situation, where there was a great deal of unrest in the Middle East with the Yom Kippur sorely testing Israel’s sovereignty. The Vietnam War was winding down, and its divisive impact on this country could not be underestimated. Here Whitlam read the mood to such an extent that the visit of the Coalition leader, Bill Snedden, to China in mid 1973 evoked no antipathy from his previously strongly anti-China Party.

Nevertheless, the response of Snedden to the Budget emphasised the inflationary effect of the Government’s ambitious social engineering.

Average earnings shot up 15.3 per cent, as the government backed big wage rises. Consumer prices rose 13.2 per cent, as global food shortages pushed up food prices. In October 1973, the OPEAC cartel doubled world oil prices. Inflation worldwide shot into double digits, and Australia slumped into recession together with the rest of the World.

Thus, I have a very acute sense of déjà vu with the post-election scenario with which the incoming government will be presented, given the confetti trail of electoral promises. The problem is that the two major parties seem to think that governing Australia is a late night poker game, with bids matched, bids being raised and a huge amount of bluffing, especially as most of the hands, if called out, would be found to be worthless.

From afar Trump has been a destructive force as he has fomented distrust – distrust in government and in a civilisation, the resultant of eons of interactions and at a cost of so many lives, so that in the end, people doubt their heritage in the face of false gods, which in the end prejudice our survival, not only as a nation but a viable world.

Putin has reminded us of how fragile the concept of globalisation is when you start a war in Europe, without giving any thought to how long it will last. He is one of the genre who believe in resolution by conflict – but you understand that if you lose, you lose big time. The problem of a huge loss, particularly of face, is that the word “resolution” gets dropped – and only the word “conflict” remains.

In the last week of a campaign in this country, all the Prime Minister can say is that he will change as the country, rather than emerging in the light, is trundling along in a handcart into the gloom.

Mate, there is a European war going on; Biden has a fragile grasp on a country which is in danger of imploding under the weight of the Trumpian mendacity and above all, climate change is the real challenge.

Instead of providing a strategy to work our way out of coal dependency, and the vice-like grip of the oil and gas producers, who pay very little if any tax, Australia needs to pursue a strategy to cope with increasing manifestations of climate change in floods and bushfires.

We have a hapless, self-pitying Prime Minister and a bodgie housing proposal, dumped on the electorate in the last week of the campaign. Otherwise, there is just divisive rhetoric penetrating further than the normal way that two major party democracies in the British tradition of dialectic operate.

No time during this electoral campaign has any politician in the Coalition or Labour Policy confronted the dilemma of a nationwide settlement policy to cope with the climate change. For example, the town of Gympie flooding three times in one year provides a clear example which Governments must confront, without giving mates inflated contracts without a tender process. All this rather than undertake a serious attempt in the face of climate change to flood and drought proof, fire proof and cyclone proof this country. This is an enormous yet essential task if we as Australians, as members of the human race, cling to survival.

Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef

But what do we see? A proliferation of sports stadia proposals. Queensland, with its unique Great Barrier Reef, is under environmental threat because of a combination of neglect, deliberate despoliation and avarice, yet the State wants to waste money on circuses. Why?  So that politicians can satiate their endless pool of low self-esteem with opening ceremonies and self-congratulatory pomp.

At least in 1972 Australia had a real choice.

A Patch of Persimmons

I once read that of all fruit, persimmons were the most consumed by humans. I read that the fruit was popular in Asia, and I remember having been to dinner at a friend’s place, and they produced persimmons for dessert. I got the impression that they were as unfamiliar with persimmons as I was, but were attracted by the shiny golden colour with the red blush, and my wife and I would be suitable guinea pigs.

Because of the tannin content, these persimmons were one of the astringent varieties, as I was to learn later. I described it at the time as my mouth being like Axminster carpet. As I alluded to that in my blog last week when discussing unlikely food consumption, how would I know what carpet tastes like. Then I remembered that as a child I was always falling over and copping a mouthful of carpet. Thus I would not be surprised if I do have multiple taste memories locked into my brain from falling on my face on so many carpets as an infant.

Since that astringent experience, I was at first wary before again eating persimmons. They were not common in Australian supermarkets, and before we ate one, we generally waited until it was soft, almost slush, and the skin disintegrating.

Last week, we were driving into the Northland town of Kerikeri, when we saw an orchard named Persimmon Patch. I had never been into a persimmon orchard, even though I had worked around the fruit growing areas of Victoria, where I would have expected to find them growing, if not in a dedicated orchard. I had once seen a persimmon tree growing in a suburban garden in Melbourne bearing fruit. Not much comparison.

Here in Kerikeri there was a small 1.5 hectare orchard of persimmon trees. Most of them had been picked, but there was still a number of trees within the Patch which had fruit. Persimmons tend to be expensive in Australia but here a bag of a dozen or so costs NZ$10. Most of the trees in this orchard are Fuyu, which are not astringent.

They were nevertheless very firm, and so we put them in a brown paper bag with a couple of bananas for a couple of days. They remained firm, but as we were told they were a bit like an apple to eat, we cut them open, and even though they were firm, they were ripe; they had what some may say “crunch”. As they ripen and soften, unlike apples, they do not go bad. The flesh just detaches from the skin, which then just falls away.

In this case, being so cheap we were able to eat them until we looked like a persimmon – well not with the green topknot.

Persimmons apparently are berries, which I find extraordinary perhaps as they look like any other fruit trees. It is a pity the fruit is not more widely available, but there is a downside in its cultivation. As one US authority has written: “Because of the trees’ genetic mobility, there has never been a complete taxonomic study of persimmons, and growers can’t be completely sure what varieties they have. To make matters worse, persimmons are notoriously fickle; about fifty percent of grafts fail, and healthy trees can die for no obvious reason a couple years into their growth.”

However, introduction to unfamiliar fruit can leave lasting memories.

I well remember in the 1960s being confronted by my first avocado, and they were as hard as rocks because nobody at the dinner party had ever eaten one. Everyone gave up trying to eat them they were so hard.

Similarly, later when middle eastern cooking entered the Australian cuisine, so did the pomegranate. The immediate question was what to do with one. One cannot just bite into a pomegranate and have a good sensation. One needs to cut them open and gouge the red pearly seeds out of the white fibrous pith. Once synonymous with a certain exclusiveness, pomegranate is scattered everywhere now in salads. Grenadine, the juice of the pomegranate, bobs up in cocktails, and provides a characteristic intense red – Tequila Sunrise is one such cocktail.

Years ago, I casually mentioned my interest in pomegranate growing when I was visiting a hospital in the Sunraysia District in North-western Victoria. The then Chair of the hospital board looked a little uneasy after I said that I was growing pomegranates. I wondered why. Pomegranates were literally a new fruit on the Block. It turned out that he was proposing to invest heavily in pomegranate growing; and my comments suggested that I might be a potential investor that he did not know about, and my hospital visit was just a cover.

I should have told him that I was talking about of a couple of trees in my garden at home in Sydney.

Old Men Get Lost

The following edited article from The Washington Post contains a warning, especially as the debate over abortion has been inflamed by the Alito draft decision that would effectively overturn Roe vs Wade. In the case of the candidate for the Warringah electorate, there is one Katherine Deves, whose definite views in relation to the gender alphabet have been equally divisive

She is an unattractive zealot. In themselves, the zealots are few, but bigotry and intolerance may only need shallow soil. Living in Sydney with (a)the rood-screen of a reactionary Roman Catholic Archbishop with his Pell association, (b) an Anglican diocese, the inheritor of the Marsden version of Protestantism, a cuckoo within Anglican nest and (c) a Hillsong-friendly Pentecostal Prime Minister as her mentor. All encapsulate the Australian version of Make America Great Again (MAGA), and like all weeds, poor soil is no bar to growth.

We can hope that this scenario does not become the norm here. The success or otherwise tomorrow, the rise of the independent women seeking a voice in government, will be a critical factor in stemming the nightmare of Trump primitivism, which masquerades as religion.

Use of outrage against outlier groups such the transgenders just to create a totally confected conflict is disquieting… but let me hand over to the Opinion Piece in The Washington Post:

People might be confused about how a Republican Party that once worried about government overreach now seeks to control medical care for transgender children and retaliate against a corporation for objecting to a bill targeting LGBTQ students. And why is it that the most ambitious Republicans are spending more time battling nonexistent critical race theory in schools than on health care or inflation?

To explain this, one must acknowledge that the GOP is not a political party anymore. It is a movement dedicated to imposing White Christian nationalism.

The media blandly describes the GOP’s obsessions as “culture wars,” but that suggests there is another side seeking to impose its views on others. In reality, only one side is repudiating pluralistic democracy — White, Christian and mainly rural Americans who are becoming a minority group and want to maintain their political power. 

The indignation of (MAGA) personalities when presented with the reality of systematic racism is telling and very much in line with White evangelical Christian views. As Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute who has written extensively on the evangelical movement, explained in an interview with Governing:

What we saw in the 20th century was that edifice of white supremacy that got built with the support of white Christian leaders and pastors and churches. Once it was built, the best way to protect it was to make it invisible, to create a kind of theology that was so inward focused that Christianity was only about personal piety. It was disconnected from social justice, politics, the world. It led white Christians to be fairly narcissistic and indifferent to injustice all around them. Martin Luther King Jr. had that line in Letter from Birmingham Jail where he’s in dismay not about racist Christians, but about so-called moderates in Birmingham, the “more cautious than courageous” white Christians who “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

Indeed, rarely has King’s admonition been more appropriate: “I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with’.”

Today, those who argue that America is a White, Christian nation simultaneously insist they are devoid of bigotry. The MAGA crowd is offended by any attempt to identify the ongoing reality of systemic racism (evident, for example, in the criminal justice system, maternal health care, housing discrimination and gerrymandering to reduce minority voting power). The notion that institutions they refuse to reform perpetuate racism is a sort of moral challenge to their claim to be “colorblind.” Perhaps it is simply self-interested blindness.

No one should be surprised that the “big lie” has become gospel in White evangelical churches. The New York Times reports: “In the 17 months since the presidential election, pastors at these churches have preached about fraudulent votes and vague claims of election meddling. … For these church leaders, Mr. Trump’s narrative of the 2020 election has become a prominent strain in an apocalyptic vision of the left running amok.”

If anti-critical-race-theory crusades are the response to racial empathy, then laws designed to make voting harder or to subvert elections are the answer to the GOP’s defeat in 2020, which the right still refuses to concede. The election has been transformed into a plot against right-wingers that must be rectified by further marginalizing those outside their movement.

Our political problems are significant, but they are minor compared with the moral confusion that is afflicting the millions of White Christian Americans who consider themselves victims. Left unaddressed, this will smother calls for empathy, tolerance and justice.

The Plough and Feather

I have always remembered when I had an exceptional fish, I have written about consuming barramundi directly caught in the Gut at Wyndham and eating them on a Good Friday when the temperature was over 40 degrees centigrade. Remembering such seafood encounters is just one of my idiosyncrasies.

I remember sitting at a table by the window in a hotel overlooking the Cambridge  Backs, having ordered a Dover sole and being presented with it, pan fried, filling the plate. Every time I came to England I would order Dover sole. Fresh sole is just not available here in Australia; yes I also like to eat its cousin, the flounder. A colleague would regularly go “floundering” in Port Phillip Bay and bring back some for dinner. Flounder is similar in appearance to sole, but Dover sole has a distinctive taste accentuated by its flamboyant presentation as I said smothering the plate with a few potatoes. However, what singled this particular sole encounter out and made it memorable was that Stephen Hawking was wheeled past along in the path outside during our meal. You may say a different form of singularity.

I have collected a whole memory of fish dinners.

The latest was in a nondescript white weatherboard building with a wrap-around veranda. It houses the Plough and Feather restaurant with both inside and outside an odd variety of chairs and tables giving it a slight eccentricity. But the outlook over the Kerikeri tidal basin was exceptional  on these sunny couple of days when there was no wind and the temperature hovered around the mid-20s centigrade.  Across the gravel and asphalt lay the oldest building in New Zealand, the Old Stone Store, part of the missionary legacy and built between 1832 and 1836. It was a real village idyll!

Old Stone Store

But it was the food that made my day. In particular, it was the Bluenose, also known as bluenose trevalla or cod, a steel-coloured reef fish with a blunt snout found only in the waters around New Zealand. It is described, when I later read about it, as “succulent”. I would agree; it was a great eating fish. I had never heard of it before I saw it on the menu.

It brought back memories of years ago when I was taken out for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Indian Ocean in Geraldton and being presented with bald chin groper, itself a local fish found in the sea around the Abrolhos on the menu. Again, I had never heard of bald chin groper.

We were later taken out for a weekend on the Abrolhos, a line of coral reefs about 60 kilometres off the Coral Coast, where privileged burghers of Geraldton may be seen at weekends. Then there was an abundance of seafood – crayfish every meal if you wanted it.

The similarity between the two sites, Kerikeri and Geraldton, was in the unexpected nature of the encounter with these pan fried fish and the magnificent taste of each coupled with the presentation of each on the plate. It is a strange characteristic with fish; they may be described as oily or not, they can be described by colour and texture – but when it comes to taste, it is fleeting – distinctive yet indescribable. Neither etched on your taste buds nor in your brain.

Blue nose

Let’s be honest. My fish stories are a shorthand way of conveying some the most pleasurable epicurean moments of my life. Please excuse this indulgence. I can assure you that there are more dots along the Jack Best Seafood Trail.

Mouse Whisper 

When does Turkey become Peru?

When you consider the bird to be Portuguese.

Modest Expectations – Indium

Before the age of blogs I used to listen to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America, in which he would take a current situation and tie it into past lessons learnt, and in such a way that each letter was a beautifully crafted piece of writing with a beginning and an ending – a complete expression of his view, with a moral woven into it. An Englishman, he had gone to America before War II and became a US citizen in 1941. He not only had this gift as a writer but also as a TV and documentary producer and presenter. His insight into the American way of life was his core expertise, and he wrote it. His voice, with its perfect diction and ghostly tone with a slight tremolo, was particularly engaging, because of his distillation of intimacy. He may have been broadcasting to the world, but as you listened you felt he was speaking directly to you.

Alistair Cooke

I would have liked his life as an intellectual commentator but writing a “Blog from America” for 58 years … I wonder. As for emulating his TV career – no.  I would have been hopeless. The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd makes me throw up, so phobic I am of the TV studio.

Forty years plus ago I went to the Kimberley and wrote several short stories centred on the places I visited. The story reprinted below entitled “The Island” recounted most closely my experience, while stretching reality into a yarn. It was the first time I felt the unspoken force of this country, without being privileged to have Aboriginal heritage. I have divided this story into several parts, and the first part introduces the Wandjina.

As background to the story, I searched throughout the various places I visited in the Kimberley looking for a bark Wandjina. Apart from a few images in books, I knew very little until I saw images of Wandjina on rock walls.

I managed to find one small bark Wandjina for sale in Kununurra, which I gave to my elder son. Since then, my wife and I have acquired several Wandjina painted by the Karedada sisters – Lily and Rosie (the Karedadas were the family with the responsibility at that time for painting Wandjina); a small bark painting by Waigan and one where the provenance was unknown as it was created in the mid-1960s when such bark representations of the Wandjina were new. Most of these bark images came from the Aboriginal people living at Kalumburu, a settlement on Mission Bay about 230 kilometres north of the Gibb River Road turnoff in Western Australia. Here the Spanish Benedictines had established a mission in the early part of the twentieth century. One of my teachers had said that during WWII, when he was in the Australian navy, he had been stranded there. The priests only spoke Spanish and he not; therefore, they communicated in Latin. No mention in any of his anecdotes of contact with the Indigenous people; such were the times.

Anyway, here is the first part of the story; the eyes are those of my hero, Bill:

In the Northwest of Western Australia in the winter of 1979, the sun starts to set before 5 o’clock. In fact, in that season, it sets at the same time every year. It’s a big country, Western Australia. Bigger than Texas. And the clocks are set to Perth time, even when one is far from the comfort of having a second martini and enjoying the broad sweep of the Swan River. The clocks of suburbia determine that the sun sets prematurely in the north country where the gulfs in the dreamtime were torn out of the coastline and waterfalls run horizontal.

Sixty kilometres up one of these gulfs lies the Port. The expanse of water it overlooks is called the Gut. It vaguely resembles a flaccid stomach.

In the pale purple twilight, the hills brood over this tiny town with its shacks distinct from the new fibro-cement houses on the other side of the hill.

Bill surveyed the car in the fast falling light. Parked on the rise outside the police compound, it had two flat tyres.

The lady from Avis had said that he could have the car if he could get to the Port and pick it up. It was the only hire car available. She said it would be very recognisable because it was iridescent purple — just a medium-sized sedan.

However, as he surveyed the car, he could see it had no protection — none of that ugly but highly effective steel tubing, the so-called roo bars, nor chicken wire to protect against stray rocks through the windscreen.

And there were the two flat tyres.

The Port began to twinkle with ship and house lights. The timber shop fronts threw pools of yellow light onto the street.

But back to Bill. The highly qualified Bill.

Bill, the centre of his own rather inconsiderable space, was a medical practitioner in his early thirties. His family was “old money”. He had mixed his profession with research. His days were spent closeted in a laboratory, occasionally venturing into the antiseptic stretch of the ward to teach a few students and to pronounce on the inmates’ futures, for a price. Bill had reached a steady kind of existence, punctuated by dinner parties, the game of squash, the odd casual affair, and cultivated displays of intellect at conferences, seminars and workshops.

Holidays were spent in expensive resorts. That is to say, generally. This year, Bill had decided to come north and have an adventure of sorts. Bill was accustomed to pre-booked travel, accommodation with deferential staff and a car readily available, with a driver if necessary.

When he had flown into the Town on the Dam, he expected the same, even though his arrangements had been made in a hurry. “No way!” she had said. Cars were at a premium. You can try other hire car outfits, but you’ll get the same answer. She had paused. There was one option. “The only car is up the Port, and if you can get up there, it’s yours.” She paused again and then went on. “It’s got two flat tyres you’ll have to get fixed.”

No wonder it was stuck there, he thought. Didn’t know whether he could do it — make the Port. But when he got back to the motel, he noticed a group preparing to leave. He recognised one as a prominent ear nose and throat specialist from Perth. The specialist was heading a team charged with doing good. He wondered where they were going. He asked. They were going to the Port. He was offered a lift, and straight away accepted.

These guys knew the north — they had spent the latter part of their professional lives coming back and forth at least twice a year to treat the local Aboriginal people and the whites alike. Ear infections were rife among the Aboriginal kids — needed grommets in many cases.

They were good blokes, with a sense of enjoyment of the Land. They had an easy familiarity with the sweeping majesty of the country, where the Cloud spirit was still in control and white people only visited. She had bestowed her grace on the black people, which reflected from the deep pools in their eyes. Look into their eyes and see the arcane. It was Aboriginal country. They walked free in the country without compass. They defined their ownership and boundaries. Bill listened to this explanation. Maybe it was a white man’s interpretation.

Bill had sat next to the specialist surgeon who was leading the team, and who had provided his view of what he called “the blackfella”. It was all so unfamiliar to Bill. He had hopped from town to town, seeing the sights, seeing the Aboriginal people roaming the streets, but he had no experience of communicating with them.

Their driver was identified as a Ngarinyin man who knew the country. They called him Stanley. He was a broad chested man with an equally broad smile. He wanted to know whether Bill wanted to see some rock paintings on the way. The leading specialist thought it a good idea, that it would give Bill an experience — probably “teach you something.”

“Sure” said Bill.

The sun was pleasant. It was June. The company was convivial. Even when they stopped and walked, it was exhilarating. There had first been a track which could be negotiated for some way with the four-wheel drive, but in the end it was easier to walk through the deep sands of the dry creek beds. This was Stanley’s country. The guide shaded his eyes and indicated the rock face.

The brown cliffs where the paintings were, he’d explained as they’d walked, were thankfully not well known and the track, although not particularly difficult to walk, was sufficiently far from the main road to deter any casual defiler. There was always some idiot wanting to scratch his name on the wall — any wall. Weaving in among the woollybutt eucalypts, the track moved up and then downwards. As they walked, the day was imperceptibly vanishing. The shadows were lengthening as they picked their way along the rock face where the figures were displayed.

There were large fish — here a snake — there a hand, an impression in red ochre dust. Tasselled dancing figures. He was told they were called Bradshaw figures, and there were doubts about their authenticity. They were not Aboriginal figures, unlike the wandjina. He had never seen them before. The wandjina were cloud spirits — images with eyes and speckled brows. Their heads were surrounded by radiating lines, which completed an aura. This wandjina was a wellspring of sacred images for the Aboriginal people, unlike the Bradshaw figures.

Some of the paintings were high on the cliff walls; some under overhanging ledges. The gallery ran for hundreds of metres around the cliff until it reached the point where a waterfall flowed in the wet season. The artists had stopped here; the mural was complete. The rock pigeons, their fusty brown feathers giving a sense of an age past, were coming in to roost as the day began to wane.

“Better get going. Still got a way to go.”

The voice broke the stillness, as they had said little, as if in church. The others had seen it before; they had pointed out features in quiet, clipped tones. Bill had nodded and absorbed as much as he could. He wondered at how irrelevant had been his experience in Downtown Perth on a Sunday afternoon, sipping the art gallery ambience. He had really not particularly liked Aboriginal art — bark painting. There was not much of it that he could remember anyway.

But here, in a brief moment, he had got some sense of the art, some context for it — a fleeting insight only; not the meaning that Stanley possessed. (to be continued).

Door County

Door County is a spit of land separating Lake Michigan and Green Bay in northern Wisconsin. Green Bay, the city, lies at the gateway to the peninsula, and has been settled since the seventeenth century when it was a base for fur traders. It is now known for paper manufacture, of being the toilet paper capital of the world – and the home of the NFL Green Bay Packers, so called because a meat packing company gave them $500 for uniforms when they were founded.

Anyway, we bypassed the city of Green Bay, which gets its name from the periodic algae infestation of the Bay. Yet Door County, once you clear the environs of Green Bay, is one the memorable places we have visited.

Memory of that time was bought on this week by the news of a three generation Ukrainian heritage family that has been mass producing candles in the Ukrainian colours (sale proceeds going to the Ukrainian cause) which, unsurprisingly once this was published on national television, elicited a strong demand for the candles across America.

It was Halloween when we visited Door County; pumpkins were everywhere, and the normal crop of witches, faux cobwebs and skeletons and things that are supposed to go bump in the night was very much in evidence.

We stayed in the traditional white clapboard Ephraim Inn, overlooking Lake Michigan. When we went to dinner, we had an unexpected shock. I asked for the wine list and was informed that Ephraim was “dry”. If we wanted a drink with our meals we would have to go down the road to Fish Creek. Fortunately, Fish Creek was well served by restaurants and the Coho salmon fished from the Lake was so good it enticed us to order it two nights in a row.

Since our visit, I believe that Ephraim has lifted the 163 year old ban on alcohol sales which was imposed in 1853 within this Moravian community, where its church with its delicate steeple still stands on a green knoll overlooking Ephraim.

Honeycrisp apples

It was the end of the apple picking season, and there was an abundance of places from which to buy apples. The Gala apple was a familiar variety, but there were at least 20 other varieties and we chose the Honeycrisp, a hybrid noted for its juiciness and crunchiness. But there were many more completely unfamiliar to our Australian palate such as Ginger Gold and Courtland.

We drove the length of the peninsula through the small seaside towns, beside orchards, around windy cliff roads. To me, village America always has its gentle attraction – so different from the dusty flood plain called Australia. As for Door County, even though it seemed to be an endless excuse for Bing Crosby or Doris Day songs, we said we would be back, but we have said that about many places – plans that the Virus has impaired if not totally destroyed.

Anyway, we must get a candle making kit.

Need to Ramp Up

In The Monthly two months ago, Russell Marks wrote a very prescient article about South Australia opening its borders at the time the Omicron virus hit and now has followed the B.a.2 variant.

Simply stated, the Premier, Stephen Marshall, opened the SA borders prematurely – at a time when the Omicron variant first appeared on the scene. The SA Chief Health Officer hurriedly changed her mind when she saw the rapid increase in the number of cases, and recommended the borders be closed again. The Premier did not take her advice. He deferred to the select audience of the Rupert Murdoch and Peter Costello media and its impatience with public health measures.

It was the people of South Australia who could see what damage the Virus was wreaking. This was particularly reflected in the disruption to the health services, and the so-called ramping.  In other words, there was the number of ambulances lying idle unable to discharge the patient into the hospital’s emergency department.

I have reviewed extensively two major ambulance services in Australia and have a fair idea of the problems, which extend far wider than the problems that a pandemic introduces. The pandemic has only emphasised these problems.

Against that background of a State under public health stress, the Premier said that he would prefer funding a basketball stadium and a convention centre which only compounds the politico-pathological requirement to build monuments. Once it was hospitals and universities, now it is modern day colosseums where the pork barrel stops.

Despite the media in his favour, Marshall was soundly defeated; and yet elements of the media still say it doesn’t necessarily translate into a Federal electoral defeat for Morrison, despite him being invisible during the campaign. The sight of John Howard being rolled out in the last days showed how far the Liberals were tapping the bottom of desperation. One question – never to be answered – would a Morrison intervention counterpointed by Dutton and Frydenberg, a modern magi, have helped? The locals thought not, but presumably when they do turn up during the Federal election the public will be able to have a direct say in how much it likes the frankincense.

What will be more interesting is how the new Premier will approach the Virus.

I am confused by what the current approach to the Virus is. It seems that the Governments have given up – the public health response is exhausted. Who are the public health champions? The public health talking heads have subsided with the media’s apparent loss of interest. One of public health’s weaknesses is how ineffectual the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine has been and yet two decades ago it led the Australian campaign against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific until the French stopped their tests.

I would have thought that there would be a clear approach. On the one hand there are no restrictions, until a person gets the Virus and then you go into isolation until you test negative. Politicians are scared solid by lockdowns, and the core of preventative measures – social distancing, hand sanitiser and masks – are increasingly a matter of choice.

Vaccination has proved effective up to a point, but now there are no penalties for not being vaccinated, and the relentless anti-vaccination advocates leave a confused community. If this new variant is as contagious as measles, then without due precautions that will mean the whole community will contract it and for a substantial part of the community, the experience will not be a mild one.

The difference with measles is that once infected, once immunised, measles will not recur. No such guarantee exists for the Virus, even if the experts decide it is less virulent.

In public policy terms, I have been advocating dedicated quarantine centres. But once that line of defence is breached, then the next lines of defence are dedicated infectious diseases hospitals with an equally dedicated transport service for those who need hospitalisation. 

Hardly the Little Match Girl 

They buried Kimberley Kitching this week. A Senator from Victoria, she had been parachuted into the Senate under controversial circumstance in 2016 by Bill Shorten when he was ALP leader. She died prematurely at the age of 52, and from then, she became a cause célèbre – a woman harassed to death by unfeeling female colleagues.

As reported in some quarters, it was as though Senator Kitching was the “little match girl”, judging by the ferocious story being constructed around her demise.  She was married to Andrew Landeryou, once joint owner of a palatial home “Wardlow” in Parkville; friend of Chloe Shorten since school days and embroiled in the Health Services Union known for its shenanigans while she was general manager.

The Little Match Girl, Norman Rockwell

Unlike the “little match girl”, Kitching came from a privileged Brisbane private school background. Her father was a university professor, and she benefited from a time in France to becomes fluent in French. She seemed to be a very quick-witted woman. Nevertheless, like many ambitious people she carved out a career never far from controversy.

In 2000, she married Andrew Landeryou, a scion of the inner ALP circle which his dad inhabited. He too has had his moments, from the time of his presidency of the Melbourne University Student Union (formerly, in my time, the Student Representative Council), where he apparently tried to commercialise aspects of that student body. It is strange that when I was President of the same body there were moves, ultimately squashed, to have the Council purchase property at Venus Bay, then an undeveloped collection of sand dunes. I remember looking at it and saying thanks, but no thanks. SRCs were not structured to be land developers. In any event, in his case it did not end well for young Landeryou.

Later he popped up in 2005, with a venture financed by Solomon Lew in part – and when it failed he decamped to Costa Rica leaving Kimberley, portrayed as the victim wife trying to deal with the remains. The suggestion was that Kimberley had been deserted, but whether that was so, they had been swiftly re-united even though Landeryou was bankrupted.

From December 2012, Kitching was employed by the Health Services Union and she was never far away from the controversy which surrounded the criminal behaviour of the local secretary of the union, the recently convicted Kathy Jackson, and the other national officers of the Union, also convicted. Whatever her role was, she obviously was close to some sordid shenanigans and her name was mentioned often in despatches.

For instance, in 2016, the Senate voted 35-21 to note that she, although its newest member, was found to have provided untruthful evidence to the Fair Work Commission. The Greens joined the Coalition in backing the motion, which also received support from three One Nation senators and Victorian senator Derryn Hinch. Quite an introduction!

The conservative Tasmanian Senator Abetz noted in a media release at the time, The fact that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed Kitching so strongly in the face of findings against her from a body that Bill Shorten oversaw for two years, for conduct undertaken while he was the Minister responsible, that she was “untruthful and unreliable” in evidence speaks volumes about his personal and Labor’s standards for public office.”

Ironically, Kitching worked with him in the Senate to introduce a Magnitsky law that allows the government to seize assets from people who have abused human rights around the world.

This was no poor little waif as the media and a few of her mates are trying to portray now. She dined with persons who had clearly shown themselves to be enemies of the ALP, and thus one of the problems for a networker as aggressive as she apparently was, with all “the form” behind her, was whether she could be trusted.

To be able to do what Kitching, herself apparently conservative (in very much as I remember some of the Democratic Labor Party members were), was trying to do, is a particular art form, if one tries to balance on the barbed wire division of an adversarial political system.

Her colleagues who voted against the condemnation of her in 2016 were worried by her free-wheeling approach, whether right or wrong. She was not bullied; she was ostracised – however, the use of “bullying” is more emotive. Ostracism is a favourite ploy in politics.

She dies, and the conservative side of politics well known for their Salem approach to female opponents were on the job. The real target seems to be Penny Wong, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has been a courteous brick wall. She made one exasperated comment which has been turned into a causal relationship with Kitching’s death despite occurring three years ago and eliciting an apology from her.

Morrison wants to run an election based on sabotage and camouflage and if Senator Wong can be discredited so much the better, especially given her appearance and name – nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

I suppose last Sunday’s ABC Insiders Program took the proverbial cake. I generally accept bias as part of politics, but this… Australia may be going to Hell in a handcart, but there they were, all over the Kitching case – at least Samantha Maiden and Spears Interruptus were.

Greg Sheridan played the avuncular role, his views laced within his long time association with Santamaria and the National Civic Council – a fading reminder of the strife within the Labor party, particularly in Victoria, generated by Santamaria and certain elements around Archbishop Mannix so many moons ago, but still apparently latent.

Mark Kenny, knowing he was in a setup, just let it flow apart from a few comments drowned out by the Interruptus.  Australia is entering a time of a new form of Government – Murdocracy – a neologism to describe rule by the media.

Now, to the next phase – Albanese portrayed as the weak leader in the grip of three women – each of whom portrayed as having a doubtful allegiance to Australia. Yes, Murdocracy indeed.

As a postscript, I was interested in the association of sudden cardiac death and thyroid disease. Obviously I have had no access to Kitching’s clinical notes but it is worthy to note that in a 2016 cohort study in The Netherlands, an association was sought between thyroid disease and sudden cardiac death. This was an extensive population cohort and it was shown that raised levels of free thyroxine were associated with an increased incidence of sudden cardiac death, even when the patient was “apparently” euthyroid (in other words in the normal range).

It is well known that the thyroid hormone derived from the thyroid gland in the neck is a major component in the regulation of metabolism. For example, in thyrotoxicosis tachycardia is often present, as in hypothyroidism bradycardia is evident. However, The Netherlands’ paper could not establish any causal relationship for the phenomenon of sudden cardiac death, which incidentally also occurs in the autoimmune Hashimoto’s Disease. There was no mention of “bullying” or “ostracism” in this analysis

Mouse Whisper

In response to the article on banana boats last week our Swedish correspondent has informed us there is a job available in Stockholm for a banana ripener. The incumbent has recently retired after 33 years during which he has assisted the ripening of 55,000 bananas per year. Sounds a succulent job. I may apply. The Swedish text books with a tipple of Aquavit beckon.

Modest expectations – A Gas station in Rain Man

There is a small group of people trying to unravel the connection between the number and the title of each week’s Modest Expectations. Last week was almost impossible, as I strive not to repeat myself.  Some have been obvious which, for me, maintains the diversity, although the search for titles which do not repeat the same theme presents an ongoing challenge. For instance, there have been 266 Popes, but I have tapped this source only once.

The gas station

On several occasions, I have counted wrongly, which explains why I was not a good “numbers” man. I am pleased with this week’s puzzle. Not that it is very hard but demands a modicum of powers of observation.

Albored the Unready.   Part 111

People want a prime minister to just do their job.

That’s my commitment. To do that job properly. To each and every day do my best. And make sure we have a government that actually plans properly and looks after the interests of the Australian people. Anthony Albanese this week 

As I predicted, the Murdoch press has started the attempted demolition of Albanese. However, in a week in politics with the ineptness of the current Government firmly on show and growing, manifested in disastrous polling in NSW in four State by-elections, maybe it does not matter if there is a demonstrable unreadiness. Even so, I just hope Albanese does not try to play “Blue Moon” on a triangle.

Directing the dance floor

If Labor wins the forthcoming election, addressing the absence of a Commission to root out corruption at the Federal level – which seems as bad as the worst of any of the States at any time – will be a massive job for Albanese. The establishment of this Commission should already be in draft legislative form ready to be placed before Parliament immediately on a change of Government.

Unless it swiftly isolates the major players in the corruption, the Commission will be entangled in legal brambles and then eventually lost from sight as these “bramble bushes” cover it.

Openly responsible to the Parliament, the manner of selection of the Commission members must be an open process also.

The problem is that Albanese has grown up in a factional NSW environment where the hotel industry lobby in all its forms is a highly-protected species.  Therefore, Albanese, who is one of the longest serving members of the Commonwealth parliament, must reflect on his manner of conducting his business to maximise objectivity in government – a far from easy task.

In his progress towards a clean government, he should examine the amount of money consulting firms shovel into their pockets through “sweet deals” with government. I know exactly what goes on. Much of the work, which should be undertaken by bureaucrats with assigned responsibility and expertise, is done by recent MBAs full of theory but devoid of knowledge, which they then pick up at no cost to themselves as they flounder on in a consultancy, which does not need these “content free” consultants. “Reading my own watch” is the term used to describe this flagrant practice.

This is the great disaster of public administration and goes hand in hand with the corruption of parliament. I have been employed as consultant many times where the recommendations have had an impact; but in others where the recommendations have been ignored and ended as a “dust shelf file”.

Albanese needs a strong independent bureaucracy so that when the consultant firm Piranhas come calling, they have to earn the meat hanging from the bureaucratic fishing lines. The problem is that while the TV series “Yes Minister” was very funny, (Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have loved it), its long term effect has been to corrode the politicians’ trust in public administration as witnessed by the growth in ministerial staff and reliance on mates in the consulting firms, some of whom were colleagues before politics and before the politicians take their lucrative pensions and flee Parliament  to become outside “consigliere” – sorry “consultants”.

Big challenge to rein in this practice – and not one for the election trail.  However, it will be symptomatic of an inability to govern if Albanese fails to follow the Machiavellian dictum and does not tackle it hard and early.

Now for Part IV – if you are still awake. Climate Change and Albored under the Bed. 

Cisgender

I have observed the machinations about the Religious Discrimination Bill with an air of disbelief. I doubt whether I am the only one, given how many far more important challenges are facing Australia.

For most of my life I have watched as technical surgical skills have improved such that personal identification can be aided by physical operative change to the appropriate gender

I remember one of my medical tutors put us males in our place by saying that every human is destined to be female until a few vectors appear which direct embryonic to foetal to post-natal existence towards being male.

After all, there are a number of chromosome and sex hormone disorders, which are often rare or beyond the then scope of knowledge, and which may be reflected in extraordinary prowess, particularly of women in sporting competition.

Babe Didrickson

One of the most remarkable athletes of all time was the American, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson. She was able to beat top athletes, both male and female, at sports ranging from bowling to diving. She earned Olympic gold medals in the hurdles and javelin in the 1932 Olympic Games, all-American status in basketball, dozens of golf championships, and is on ESPN’s list of top ten North American athletes of the century.

She lived at a time when there was not the will or the science to determine whether she was a woman or had a chromosomal abnormality where she might look like woman but was in fact a male. She was not the only one to raise questions. There were two Olympic gold medal winning female sprinters in the 1930s who also looked masculine and one, Stella Walsh, an American who when shot dead many years later, was revealed by autopsy to indeed be male.

When the Russians came back on the Olympic Trail, they brought forth a number of oddities, even before the systematic doping with androgens began.

There have been “female” athletes discovered to have Kleinfelter’s syndrome. The first to be publicly accused was Ewa Klobukowska, a Polish sprinter who received a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Games. People with this syndrome have an extra “X” chromosome but have the “Y” chromosome as well – which defines them as male.

Thus, when a South African female athlete Caster Semanya looks a bit masculine and then is shown to have a hormonal abnormality, discrimination is attested loudly when she was either excluded from competition or forced to take androgen suppression. There was no suggestion of religious discrimination in any of the discussion here.

Yet here is a nationwide imbroglio which grew from Israel Folau’s intemperate behaviour, which became a kernel for every bigot in the community to swarm around his profile as an extraordinary sportsman, and then  try to parlay this prowess into some sort of seer of faith.

In my early blogs, I wrote about Israel Folau but I underestimated how his bigotry has gradually graduated to this religious discrimination bill, which a Pentecostal Prime Minister has tried to foist on a nation which, on matters religious, kept on the “cis” side of not mixing belief with the political wedge.

The problem with Morrison and his mates is that they have tried to impose their “transwedge” as it flew across the Alps of Intolerance.

It almost ended up a discriminatory Transgender Discrimination Bill, and fortunately there have been enough politicians prepared to scuttle this ridiculous pandering to fringe groups, with social hang ups on show amidst the happy clapping and forced jollity.

Hence, if people insist on a stigma of transgender on a number of seriously conflicted young people, then since I do not identify myself as one of these, I shall stigmatise myself thus – as cisgender. In the end, you must have a gender, whichever way you describe yourself. However, it is your own private decision not to be paraded in a travesty – called parliamentary debate.

Questions of toilet and bathing facilities are a matter of societal convention, not a matter for government legislation. When my university college became co-educational, the college’s change of facilities was hardly a major topic of conversation in the pubs of Carlton.

Given that “cis” is the antonym of “trans”, it took the serious students in this area until 1994 to coin the term. But there is more.

What about the Infrasexual?  This refers to someone “who is not parsex, meaning someone who is strictly dyadic and protosex. They are not intersex nor altersex.” Succinct, if nothing else.

What a dilemma. Do we ban the infrasexual but allow the altersexual?

Meanwhile the World in burning.

Wasabi

The wasabi that comes in tubes and packets and is familiar to many diners is actually a blend of wasabi and horseradish dyed green — or contains no wasabi at all. In Japan, chefs at higher-end sushi, soba or grilled beef restaurants grate fresh wasabi at the counter, so customers can experience the acute assault on their nostrils and the unique flavour that lingers for just a moment on the tongue.

For hundreds of years, wasabi grew wild in mountains across Japan, blooming near forests and huddling alongside streams. About four centuries ago, growers in Shizuoka started to cultivate wasabi as a crop.

Wasabi plants sprout in spring water that flows down from the mountains, helping to foster gradations of pungency and hints of sweetness. The most well-known Shizuoka variety, called mazuma, tends to sell for 50 per cent more than wasabi from other parts of Japan.

Over time, local growers say, the spring water has deteriorated in quality, compromised by an abundance of cedar and cypress trees.

Recently, in a substantial article, the New York Times highlighted the parlous condition of the wasabi grower.

From childhood, I remember that horseradish was an accompaniment to the Sunday roast beef at my grandmother’s place, complete with roast vegetables and the obligatory Yorkshire pudding.

Now, as that wizard green fingered jardineira, Vicki Sheedy, says dismissively, horseradish is a weed. You have to grow it in a pot and not let it get control of the vegetable patch.

However wasabi, its Japanese cousin is, as Vicki says, very picky. One Tasmania grower put it this way: “Wasabi is like a 15-year-old. When conditions are perfect and everything is how they like it, they thrive, if something starts to go wrong though they will just sit there and sulk.”

In fact, commercial growing can ideally occur in Australia only in Tasmania, where there is plenty of water and the climate is temperate-on the cool side. The plant is harvested between one to two years. As Vicki further points out, this little plant is a cousin to horseradish and mustard, hence why its heat hits you in the nose rather than setting your mouth on fire like chillies do. It’s also known as Japanese horseradish and she has assured the conditions for its growth.

Currently Vicki’s plants are about 15 months old and she says that on a beautiful property overlooking the D’Entrecasteaux Channel in Southern Tasmania she will soon be able to harvest it. Already she has been using the stems and leaves, but they are much “tamer” in regard to heat compared to the root. At present she grows it in small quantities in a raised garden in the shade near the kitchen so she remembers to water it. Keeping a watchful eye on it, she knows the plant doesn’t like humidity, direct sun or in relation to water – the Goldilocks effect – not too much or too little.

With the production being increasingly compromised by the urban spread, the contamination of water and the decline of the cedar forest and its resultant shade, production in Japan is under stress as the NYT article says

The price of wasabi is rising.  It is not a quick return, but as they say, big things from kitchen door plots grow.

The heat is on, Vicki.

Iris Hoffman as she was then, remembers 

Janine Sargeant, guest facilitator

We are encouraging my mother to write down her memories of her youth, as she approaches her 96th birthday. She and Queen Elizabeth were born close together in that year – 1926.

Sixteen years old at the time, Iris Hoffman reminds the reader of a time when the Japanese were coming. It was 1942.

Tocumwal Airfield – previously known as “McIntyre Field” by the USAAF

The war was getting worse and town councils were ordered to send some employees to go to Tocumwal to help build an aerodrome there as American air troops needed it. Dad was sent! At home in Culcairn and other towns we were trying to get accustomed to being swooped over by American Kittyhawks. They would come in low and scare the hell out of us; they buzzed every town and homestead in the area we were told. At last the airfield was finished, Dad came home and resumed his job with the Culcairn council.

Then Dad decided to move to Gippsland. We would be primary producers on a dairy farm near Maffra with 80-90 cows to milk, twice a day. We did it. Our war effort. My eldest brother, Percy was already in the army, and the youngest, Trevor, was in the airforce, so there we were, Dad and my brother and sister, Keith and Lorna and myself, in the land army – and Mum at home to look after us all. 

“McIntyre Field” was established by the USAAF on the NSW/Victoria border, near the Newell Highway. It originally covered an area of about 25 miles square. Named after Captain Patrick W McIntyre who was killed in a crash of a US bomber on 5 June 1943, the field was home to 54 Liberators, 11 Vultee Vengeance, five Kittyhawks and an Airspeed Oxford. Four thousand five hundred RAAF men  and 400 WAAF  women were based at Tocumwal. It was also a storage and repair depot for aircraft including Boeing, Lancaster, Mosquito and Spitfire. After the RAAF left Tocumwal in 1960, over 700 aircraft were scrapped.

It should be recognised that having a German-sounding name when, in two World Wars, the enemy was Germany, had a negative effect in the community at large, spurred on by the jingoists.

The Lutheran diaspora had settled in the rural areas around Albury. These were people who fled Silesia, from the Prussian Calvinists who persecuted their Lutheran community. Many came to Australia and are concentrated in certain parts of Australia, including areas around Albury. The township of Holbrook, north of Albury, once was called Germantown. The name of the township was changed in that flurry of jingoism which accompanied Australian participation in both World Wars, but particularly in the early stages of the First World War.

In the 1840s my mother’s family came to Australia from Katowice, which is a major Polish town today but was then Prussia. They settled first in the Barossa Valley but with a shortage of land available there, they walked with their wagons, from South Australia to settle in southern NSW. My maternal mother was a Schröeter. My mother would have been a wonderful subject for “Who do you think you are?”

Now she still has a store of memories of being part of Australia, including beating Margaret Court once at tennis. No matter that Margaret Court was a teenage prodigy. But still, a win is a win.

But is A Win a Win?

The Russians are completely and utterly over the fence. There they are, continuing their gold medal dominance in sports cheating. The Washington Post teed off this week and below is part of that article from its ferocious correspondent, Barry Svrluga.

As of Monday afternoon here, the Russian Olympic Committee team had won 18 medals, the second-highest total behind Norway. But maybe there should be a new category for its medals? “Provisionally won?”, “Won … for now?” “Won, pending further info?”

Even in the exceedingly unlikely event that these Games aren’t tainted, it was impossible to watch Russian cross-country skier Sergey Ustiugov grab an Olympic flag as he skated the final meters of the men’s 4×10-kilometer relay on Sunday, winning by a huge margin, watch him celebrate with his teammates, without wondering, “Who’s finishing second — and how long before they’re awarded gold?”

That’s not damning of Ustiugov and his teammates specifically. It’s how the IOC and its cronies have forced us to think. When the iron was at its most scorching, the IOC failed to execute the kind of forceful ban that might have effected actual change in the Russian system. Instead, it demanded what amounts to a change of laundry for Russian athletes (their uniforms cannot bear their nation’s flag here) and swapped out the CD for their celebrations (no Russian national anthem, either). But the show goes on, so the mind wonders whether any of it is legitimate.

That has been true for more than a decade now, and the shame of all this is that when the flame is extinguished here Sunday night, the results from so many competitions still should be sketched lightly in pencil.

Athletes who depart China with suspicions about the fairness of their competitions can’t be offered much encouragement, either. American high jumper Eric Kynard, for instance, won silver at the London Olympics in 2012. He was 21 and beaten only by Russian Ivan Uhkov. CAS later determined that Uhkov and 11 other Russian track and field athletes had been doping. The IOC rejected Uhkov’s final appeal — in November 2021. By then, Kynard was 31. Maybe he stepped onto a chair in his backyard and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” to celebrate.

Spread the blame for such a mess around, but good luck sorting out precisely how to divvy it up. There’s so much inbreeding among governing bodies here that it’s difficult to differentiate one organization from the other. CAS claims on its website that it is “an institution independent of any sports organization.”

The President of its board is John Coates, an Australian lawyer who has been an IOC member for more than 20 years, a period of time in which he has been on the IOC’s executive board and served as a vice president. That’s independent? The World Anti-Doping Agency was founded by Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, a former Olympic swimmer who was first elected to the IOC in 1978. WADA’s 14-member executive committee includes four current IOC members.

How to tell any of them apart? As American skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender told my colleague Adam Kilgore last week, “How do we really know what’s going on behind the scenes?”

Uhlaender has the right to ask. In 2014, she finished fourth in her event, all of four-hundredths of a second behind Elena Nikitina of — you guessed it — Russia. When Russia’s Sochi scheme was exposed, Nikitina was among more than two dozen Russian athletes banned from the Olympics for life — and Uhlaender appeared to have her medal. On the eve of the 2018 PyeongChang Games, Nikitina was reinstated.

That there has been no significant punishment to the entire Russian delegation in the eight years since both boggles the mind and tugs at the heart.

Uhlaender is clear-eyed about it. “It’s not independent,” she said. “None of this is independent. It’s all run by the IOC. It’s really hard to have faith in a system that failed so hard in 2014.”

Particularly because it’s continuing to fail. According to long time Olympic historian Bill Mallon, the Russians have been stripped of 31 medals in the five Games dating from 2012. That doesn’t count winning Russian teams on which more than one athlete was disqualified, nor does it account for disqualified Russian athletes who didn’t medal. The evidence suggests there will be more here. This isn’t a witch hunt. The witch has been identified.

(Those who can be bothered can watch the 15 year Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva compete despite having been clearly doped, the court has ruled.)

Kamila Valieva

Whether it will eventually have consequences for Valieva is impossible to say. What’s certain: The women’s short program will be held Tuesday, and she will skate in it.

In explaining the reasons CAS will allow Valieva to compete here going forward, Matthieu Reeb, the panel’s director general, cited, among other things, “serious issues of untimely notification of the results” from a test that was reportedly taken on Christmas Day — but that wasn’t reported as positive until after Valieva had competed in the team event here.

Whose fault is that? Well, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency said in a statement: The reason for the delays in the analysis and reporting by the laboratory was another wave of covid-19.” [When in doubt, blame the pandemic.]

What a mess. It’s a mess that, at the moment, falls at the feet of a 15-year-old athlete who is demonstrably the best in the world at her craft. If there’s ever a medal ceremony in the women’s figure skating event, her presence on the podium will be questioned. That’s not her fault. It’s the IOC’s, for creating and sustaining a system in which every Russian medal must be met with suspicion — looking both back, now and into the future. 

Mouse Whisper

I could not have said it better, referring to a tweet on the Super Bowl result last Sunday:

Imagine if the Bengals didn’t accept the final score, stormed the field, sued the NFL, and protested the 2022 NFL season calling it fraudulent.

Bengals, Bengals, burning bright …

 

Modest Expectations – John F Kennedy

In this week of our National Day and following on my account of “give us our daily” Quinoa Day, I have taken this account from the Washington Post, which shows the dark shadows of the USA, which course across the Lone Star State. It is as though among the Ghost riders there is one; an unhappy emaciated soul called Mean Spirit. 

Texas’s Confederate Heroes Day is not some relic of the Civil War, or even Reconstruction. It came to life out of the backlash to Black Texas lawmakers daring to ask for a Black freedom fighter to be honoured by the state.

As recounted in a lengthy story in Texas Monthly, it all began in 1973, when eight Black representatives joined the Texas House, the highest number since Reconstruction.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

One of them, 34-year-old Senfronia Thompson, introduced a bill to urge the State to recognize the Jan. 15 birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an honorary holiday, but without the full bells and whistles of a taxpayer-funded day off for public employees. White Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, some claiming that Texas didn’t need any more state holidays and memorials, and that King wasn’t deserving of state holiday recognition because he wasn’t from Texas. 

But state of birth did not stop Texas legislators from shortly after passing a bill to memorialize Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee on Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19, under the name Confederate Heroes Day. It was absurd enough that the House responded to Black lawmakers with an utterly un-American celebration of Confederate traitors, enslavers, racists and, above all, literal losers. But neither Davis nor Lee was even Texan! 

A Touch of the Acerbic 

Guy Fawkes

It seems to be lodged in the tangle of the Serbian helix that vaccination is in some ways a plot and conspiracy. We have the aptly-named Senator Antic, whose lineage extends back from Adelaide to village life along the Sava, and he is one of the anti-vaxxer pests. At some stage, the Australian senate will have to be expunged of this gaggle of Trumpians. These are people who believe their shadows are an invention of the CIA, designed to track them. Paul Keating was very right when he described the Senate as unrepresentative swill. Only it is worse, it is now the Chamber of the Fawkesian Trolls.

Djokovic went with a degree of dignity, but then he had been afforded the full Federal Court at short notice on a weekend to adjudicate. Not that the cost of the whole circus would make much of a dent in his estimated USD220m fortune. He does not live in Belgrade, but in Monte Carlo, so that in line with devotion to Serbia, he is minimising the amount of his wealth that goes into the Serbian Treasury to be dispensed at the whim of the Serbian government. All a matter of perspective.

Djokovic has defaulted from a Grand Slam before. In the 2020 US Open, in one of his “hissy fits” he swatted a ball carelessly – it struck the throat of a lineswoman. She needed treatment; and Djokovic was shown the door. Under COVID rules there was no crowd to view this unfortunate incident; and as far as I am aware there were no extravagant comments by his parents.

Ageing Novak now is learning the meaning of the axiom – autonomy of action is inversely proportional to the controversy generated. President Macron has jumped on the anti-vaxxer bandwagon, and after stating he will “piss off” French anti-vaxxers, he has now included a provisional ban on tennis players who are unvaccinated saying they will be barred from the French Open and indeed any tournament in France. Given that he lives in a French enclave, a ban such as this will constrict any of Novak’s activity in competitions

He has wealth to back up his sense of entitlement. Yet, who knows. The storm clouds are gathering over Europe; and Serbia is considered to be closer to Russia than its Balkan neighbours, apart from Montenegro.

Nevertheless, there has always been some ambivalence in the relationship. One anecdote sticks in my mind. After Tito split with Stalin, Stalin sent a number of assassins to kill Tito, but they failed, and Tito wrote back to Stalin saying he would send one in retaliation so Stalin would not need to send another. The attempts on Tito’s life stopped. It may say something about the tenuous balance between bully and bluff.

Currently, Putin is playing war games over Ukraine; and one area where sanctions could be inflicted is in the world of tennis. After all, in last year’s Australian Open three of the eight quarter finalists were Russian.

Nothing happened over the annexation of Crimea and Trump, in his Presidency, showed himself to be in Putin’s pocket, damping down any US reaction to Russian machinations, whether on terra firma or in cyberspace.

But life may just be getting a little different.

Thus, big things start in seemingly minor Serbian disputes. Just remember that this may be the year tennis lost its political innocence.

Aboriginal Circumcision

In the Jewish and more recently Muslim communities there are organised ritual circumcisers. The difficulties which one Muslim community had with circumcision were highlighted in my last blog.

Once, in Australian society, and certainly in my generation, most boys were circumcised. As one of my contemporaries said to me, “I did hundreds of them during my time in obstetrics.” However, circumcision has fallen out of favour among the paediatricians as unnecessary and even classified as mutilation. In several States circumcision, unless for specific medical reasons, is banned in public hospitals.

Ritual circumcision has been part of the initiation rites of Aboriginal males in Northern Australia and extends among the Desert tribes. As the ritual is shrouded in secrecy, there is no evidence that there is a dedicated ritual circumciser. Nevertheless, the procedure must demand a degree of skill, whether using sharpened stone or razor. Among these Northern tribes, there are other concomitant procedures such as the scarification of the chest and knocking out one of the front teeth.

As Thomas Worsnop observed in his 1897 book, “The Aborigines of Australia” concerning Aboriginal youth initiation, “He has to undergo a terrible formulary of days, even weeks where he must bear with unwavering fortitude, together with the lesser pains of hunger and sleeplessness, intended as a test of his endurance and aptitude to receive the special secrets of the tribe prior to his endowment with the privileges of manhood and of its subsequent duties and responsibilities.”

While much of the initiation was done out of sight of whitefellas, there was obviously a significance in these rites which I wonder how they have been reconciled in a modern society. After all, we still see Aboriginal people, both male and female, of all ages, daubed with ochre engaging in what are stated as traditional ceremonies. Thus, where does the retention of tradition cope with practices which, in modern day, may be thought of as mutilation by a large section of the population.

Circumcision being adopted from elsewhere does not explain the use of subincision where the urethra is slit open. This seems to be unique to Australian aboriginals; but its level of use in initiation is unclear. Nevertheless, such an operation demands a level of skill to be successful.

There is a morbidity associated with the operation, but it is rarely reported. A friend described one situation where the initiate had a severe infection, and how my friend used a succession of salt baths to tackle the problem, in the absence of antibiotics. The youth’s penis healed, but the more one delves into the issue, the more questions are raised. What is the level of debate because inevitably, if it has not already happened, death following such a practice must occur and therefore a major question is whether the benefits outweigh the risks?

In any event, circumcision was not practised in southern Australia and was completely unknown among Tasmanian aborigines. Although the mantra is that the practice goes back thousands of years, it is not universally undertaken across Australia by the various tribes.

These portraits are the only known images of Aboriginal voyagers to Makassar.

From the 13th through the 17th century, it should be recognised that Sunni Islam was chiefly spread widely by Arab and Indian merchants through the East Indies. One theory is that Aboriginal circumcision is a relatively recent practice adopted around four hundred years ago from the Malays, who came to harvest trepang or sea cucumber, the trochus shell and wild nutmeg. It is one explanation but does not seem to be the only one as circumcision was undertaken far from any Malay influence in the central deserts.

For each of us there is often a fine line between beautification and mutilation. One instance for me of this line between enhancement (if not beautification) or not is the facial tattoo. I find it confronting. But then I do not like tattoos. It is also said that much of religious belief rests on confronting this dilemma. A strange triangle emerges, depending on the eyes of the beholder.

The question always must arise as to whether the family or tribal customs prevail; or when is tribal ritual rendered void by society as a whole. At least in relation to ritual circumcision, there is a case for rules even if it continues to be undertaken.

As I’ve alluded to previously, I remember being taken by a male elder to an Aboriginal quarry, where there were hundreds upon hundreds of sharpened stones lying around on the earth. There was a white woman with us. I turned to him and said: “This is men’s business,” He looked hard back at me and said, “I don’t care. Ever since the young men moved the corroboree stones to do burnouts then the link was broken.” He did not need to say more; yet the Aboriginal women elders in the community still did not know about the quarry – and he had let a white woman accompany us.

Albored the Unready – Part 2

The Biloela Four

I would bet that the first act Whitlam would have done if he came to power this year would be to restore the Sri Lankan family to Biloela. There is similar advocacy by Kristina Keneally, but she is not the leader. However, one question which haunts me is whether, in the compassion and sensitivity stakes, Albanese is any different from Morrison. Albanese is too much a party flack, as was Morrison – hardly lived a life outside the carapace of nastiness that factional politics provides. At the same time, Albanese could release the other asylum detainees from the other sites, including the Lygon Guantánamo. The paranoia generated by the transit of ISIS should have subsided.

Instead of spending money on their incarceration, the government could encourage these men to join the depleted Australian workforce. And if anybody bleats that this will be an invitation to the people smugglers, the obvious response would be to ask what the hell has the Australian government being doing over the past 30 years to counter them being around. Albanese could identify this as an example of a literally petrified government and indicate that he will free all the detainees on provisional visas and set work conditions for them. Get transitional arrangements right – and do it swiftly, not after the event as has been the modus operandi of the current Government.

Albanese is so predictable. He promises money for education. It is either hospitals or schools – with creative edges. Like all of these promises the problem is that it has all been heard before. Remember the Gillard Historic Education Agreement of 2008, with all its segments promising a new education horizon. That is the problem – promises of a renewal without any implementation plan are one of the major causes of this country’s policy inaction. The Government is already pointing out the deficiency of the previous policy, instead of emphasising the positive.

Shorten, when leader proposed perfectly reasonable modest adjustments to taxes, but had both an appalling policy salesman in Chris Bowen and was assailed on all sides by the right-wing media. The problem with Albanese is shown in the nostalgia of his own brief tenure as Federal transport minister. He in his own mind was successful.  The question is whether others agree with that summation

Again, he needs a carefully crafted transport policy directed towards immediate structural needs. There are many uncosted dreams floating about, especially involving train lines and super-fast rail, which are notorious for creating “South Sea bubbles” coupled with speculation in the land along any proposed routes.

Albanese’s attack should be concentrated is on the corrupt behaviour of government. The list of rorts has wide currency and each one deserves a clear indication of what Albanese proposes to do to repair the damage, even if it is only to give probity to governmental intentions.

Morrison has had the opportunity of sacking the worst of his ministerial clowns.  One of Morrison’s weaknesses has been to keep the underperforming rather than sack them. It has thus reinforced the incompetency of the Government, overridden by the fear that if he sacked anybody there would automatically be a “sack” faction built to dispose of him. But then Morrison should know; he has been sacked more often than most people.

This time for Albanese the task is obvious – a government which has been corrupt at so many levels; a prime minister who both verges on the pathological in his ability to conjure up his own reality and who has overseen a totally inept bureaucracy full of political dullards. Whether that analysis is true, it has enough truth to drive him to promise to set up an Anti-Corruption Commission, with wide sweeping powers, but from its inception there must be a promise to ensure that all its findings are made public.

Learn the lesson from the Banking Royal Commission. Changing the underlying attitudes if you are to enforce behavioural changes is an ongoing business, otherwise it will end up being more of the same, despite threadbare assurances to the contrary, as has happened.

As important as anything on day one is to have the appointment of the Head decided, so they can be appointed immediately on winning the election. There is a huge menu of malfeasance to be examined, but out of each example a policy adjustment will be needed.

The menu for the cases to be considered should be carefully ordered, so that if there are recommendations, they have a logic in dealing with them, to eliminate personal bias as far as possible. For instance, the car park boondoggle. The immediate task is to obtain a list and put all the construction on hold and pinpoint the trail of decision making.

Of greater concern is what has occurred with the $443m set aside for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. What have they done, given the reservations voiced by National Audit Office; and as another example of  the failure of the private-public model.

In all, the instances of corruption of the Morrison Government provide lush pastures, and inter alia for Albanese they provide the opportunity to raise the matter of tax in the most brutal fashion, namely amid the corruption there is the disparity in wealth across the country such as to beg tax reform. The problem is that the Labor Party is the face of the hotel industry, particularly beholden to it in NSW. This means gambling has to be protected, areas of wealth, where the major casualties are the traditional Labor constituency. So, this area is left to the Greens and the rising bunch of independents, who may well break through in this election as the most formidable influence to advocate reform. Not a good look for the freshly coiffed Albanese.

I have far more concern with the image of Albanese the person than a superficial makeover.

Unfortunately, I have viewed the parliamentary footage of his scowl when he urges Catherine King, the then Shadow Minister  to “smash her” when referring to the then Minister of Health, Sussan Ley. It is a most disturbing image of the Man who wants to be Prime Minister.

Morrison has cultivated the image of the family man who consults his wife, and treasures his children, Albanese is a divorced man with a tearaway son, Nathan. He was married to a fellow politician.

I am put in mind of the entrapment of Kevin Rudd by a Murdoch operative in a drunken 2003 visit to Scores, a strip club in New York. There will be a hunt on for a similar indiscretions by Albanese. In this case, contrast with Morrison’s wholesome domesticity is important to his political enemies

On the other hand, Andrew Probyn’s seemingly innocent question at the National Press Club of who Albanese really is, was irresistible to Albanese, who loves recounting his “log cabin” story. It had better be correct, because you can bet that the Morrison camp will be looking for any Albanese lie, however minor, to neutralise the Prime Minister’s pathology in this regard.

Will there be a Part 3? I wonder if there is much more to say. 

A different Fox in the Political Farmyard

Prince Rupert was seen reflectively choking over his breakfast of caprine sweetbreads and roasted cervine gall bladders when he read advice to the Democrats from the Lincoln Project – the group of disaffected former Republican insiders:

  1. Drive the damn bus, don’t lay down in front of it. Frame your opponent early, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

    Drivin’ the damn bus
  2. Don’t bring a policy pen to a knife fight. All of us – particularly my friends in the Democratic Party – need to stop thinking that the road to glory is paved with policy. We are in a culture war. You win culture wars on emotion and spectacle. 
  3. Never catch the grenade. The Republican playbook is to lob some crazy attack on the Dems and then just sit back, watch, and enjoy. The Dems catch a grenade like Critical Race Theory as if it’s a bouquet, bobble it around giving it weeks of play, until boom, it blows off another limb. 
  4. Have some damn fun and stop worrying about everything. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a poor gopher trying to undig its own hole, seeing one of my Democratic friends tiptoe around making a point without offending anyone. 
  5. Sell your wins, and back your own. Today too many Democrats mumble their wins, bury their heads, and hash each other mercilessly rather than fall in line as allies against the true threat. My Democratic friends need to shout their victories from the mountaintops, bite their tongues when they don’t agree, and start having a good time again.

Muscular politics? Certainly! An antidote to what David Owen once said to me, before the rise of Prince Rupert, about the soggy centre of the political spectrum.

If I sat down with Grace Tame

Grace, what were you thinking?

Grace Tame, you are a remarkable young lady in that you have weaponised the response to the hypocrisy of government in preaching sexual equality and yet doing nothing about it. The problem with activism and especially when you are disturbing the status quo of a society run by representatives of the comfortable privately schooled, middle class. While you were the hunter, then you had many followers. Some of those will be so fickle that they will desert when you are perceived as having lost “the authority of Diana.”

This Prime Minister inflicted on Australia, if nothing more, knows how public relations worked. So when you have disdain and you publicly show it, Morrison has been waiting with the wedged response. Gushing all over you when it is so easy for you to be portrayed as churlish by those critics who emerge from the shadows – and surprise, surprise, they ride out from the Murdoch Press.

By your understandable but unnecessary action, you may well have diminished your ongoing effect as being characterised as an ALP stooge every time you open your mouth. The criticism will come at different cadences. Slights are a favourite ploy of the Establishment – for instance your successor as Australian of the Year concurrently received an AO: you, Grace Tame, zilch.

Time to regroup Grace. I disagree with those who say you do not need advice. Everyone needs advice; it is part of being a member of a community. Whether you take it is your choice. Make sure of your friends, and how far they are prepared to follow you into the murkiness of sexual exploitation and degradation of woman. What you had before the Morrison wedge was a persona where the nasty political types could not touch you.

You are tough; if you mix it in politics, a touch of the paranoias does not go astray either. You are likely to be engulfed in the Alcott story, with him exacting from government promises to advance the disadvantaged – a very admirable objective with presumably him having a prominent role.

Grace, you need to put yourself into the brain of the enemy. You need a cohort of Australians to stand with you to develop a series of local sanctuaries for those who flee from abusive arrangements. But maybe you have other strategies to augment your devastating rhetoric. But you are now a different person from the one who met the Prime Minister on the eve of Australia Day.

Over 40 years ago, I was faced with the distribution of Federal money provided for a number of community projects. One was for a women’s refuge, and at that time the Victorian Department of Health was headed by a very conservative Roman Catholic bureaucrat, one of the many Roman Catholics who found employment in the lowly denizens of the public service in the thirties and forties, but moved upwards until they together occupied powerful positions in the bureaucracy.

If the Departmental Head had known about the project at the time, when being an assertive woman and moreover a feminist meant a difficult passage given the ultimate funding decision was made by a conservative male-dominated bureaucracy – us two, it may well have gone nowhere. The appearance of two short-haired women wearing leather jackets in our office. So what? They put their case; it was a no brainer. They got their money and we got it out before any in the hierarchy could object. I’m afraid that is my only credential in a field where there are other instances of which, in hindsight, I am not that proud.

In the intervening years much has changed. Therefore, Grace, it is essential you continue to succeed.

Mouse Whisper

When my field mice relatives amble around the Coonawarra vineyards, their paws get soiled by the terroir rouge; and in the Italian vineyards it’s terra rossa in which miei parenti topi leave their tracks.

But in the Valley of Paraibo between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where a substantial amount of the world’s coffee is grown, the soil is known as “terra roxa”. However, in Portuguese, the word for red is “velmelha.” “Roxa” translate as purple. Nobody worries; sounds right, even if the soil is not the colour of aubergine.

Coffee growing in terra roxa

 

Modest Expectation – Corinth & Carthage

We are introducing a new section of aphorisms called “what would Prince Rupert of the Strine have said?”

“Again, I admire Morrison because he has shown himself to be a man intent on currying flavours from the electorate – even if they seem to be a trifle pelagic judging by his stylish ‘barramundi and I’ tweet.”

Decamping

Well, we are taking our own advice. We are decamping to the West Coast of Tasmania in Mid-January until the end of February. It is time to get out of the Pirouette miasma and head for the temperate rain forest in which the town of Strahan, the largest fishing port on the West Coast, will be our base. We are among the privileged few who can flee the pandemic, and although we must travel by car to Melbourne to catch the ferry, we can do that while being in control of our social environment, at least on the basis we can assure our hygiene and maintain social distancing. I have had the three shots; but my wife must wait until probably February for her booster, but the eligibility times keep bouncing around.

Mask up for all your parties

Not that we live in a suburb where the COVID virus is raging; or being of the age when nightclubbing or pub parties will enhance our recreational COVID embrace.

A few years ago, I had a dose of influenza which nearly killed me, a year when I neglected to have an influenza shot. Remember those days when we were jammed on planes and one could hear the congested coughing in the row in front you. We lampooned the few Asians who wore masks in the street; and hand sanitiser was a hot towel in business class, and a mingy alcohol soaked so-called “towelette” in “cattle class”.

Now, two years on, the politicians have given up, except in Western Australia, although I don’t know whether McGowan has charted a course out of his isolation – but then, he doesn’t have to do so. A change in the Federal Government would give him more say. One obvious way out of this mess is selective segregation – banning crowds from those venues where the virus is most likely to appear; and developing a code of behaviour which acknowledges the sedition provisions of the Crimes Act.

The major reason for maintaining a strong public health response is that Australia has not controlled the virus; and though the new vaccines are adaptable, the current state of play is a booster shot at a time after the initial vaccination. This is currently available after the second inoculation at three or four months. There is evidence from Israel which suggests that the effect of the booster is more short term than expected and a fourth injection is being made available there to a limited cohort.

Having such a situation may be adaptable to the disciplined Israeli society, but not elsewhere where the level of coverage in some countries is still very low through choice, hesitancy or simply lack of vaccines. This situation is one where Australia needs to have a clear-eyed view, and perhaps once we get the Federal election out of the way, then a serious attempt to confront the Virus will occur.

Currently it’s a mess; especially with children’s vaccinations anticipated to have begun this week. I do not buy the Omicron variant being less lethal as an excuse to take our collective foot off the accelerator; there are ominous signs emanating from Brazil, where corona and influenza are conspiring together for a new round of buggery.

First, as I have written before, we need a policy on the unvaccinated; some of the anti-vaccination protests are clearly seditious, and therefore there is a need for a public discussion. Remarkably, after almost two years, a clear and understandable public health response is still not embedded in policy, nor is the action of protestors whose actions threaten the health of the public.  The powers are there in the Crimes Act, but this will be an election with the politicians spooked by this group of insane conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, while the community dislikes government-enforced lockdowns, voluntary quarantining is occurring, as instanced by our desire to escape to Tasmania, having effectively home-quarantined for most of the past five weeks in Sydney. The smaller crowds at the various festivities with which the community is infested at this time of the year also demonstrate that many people are voting with their feet and those feet are staying at home. The problem for this neoliberal collection of politicians where government responsibility is totally abrogated is that there is now total chaos.

Secondly, this Virus mutates and it seems that the Omicron version is less virulent but more transmissible than the Delta. It also seems to have an unacceptably high level of morbidity.  The lesson should still not be to reassure ourselves of the “good aspects”, but rather to develop a policy which accepts that while vaccination is in a state of flux, the Virus is liable to mutate; and who knows whether the next strain will be more deadly and kill all the children or the elderly in a day or so. Therefore, Australia needs an adaptive strategy, where “catch-up” – apparently the Federal Government’s preferred option – is not a viable option.

While we may have to live with the Virus, I prefer not to be enslaved. The problem with the politicians is they have no concept of living with the Virus, apart from getting it off the front page.

Leaving on Jet Airplane

From The Washington Post this week:

The decision by federal health officials to cut in half the number of days for people to quarantine if infected with covid-19 says less about our understanding of how the coronavirus spreads than the influence of airline lobbyists.

Air carriers clamoured for the changes as they cancelled thousands of flights over the holidays amid a staffing shortage caused by crews who needed to self-isolate for 10 days after testing positive. The guidance issued on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which suggests five days of quarantine instead of 10 — shows a new willingness to avert crippling disruptions across society during the busiest travel period in years.

Delta approaching New York

It’s all the more remarkable because airlines have for months successfully thwarted a push by public health experts to require passengers to show proof of vaccination when they fly. This is maybe the most important lever that President Biden could pull — and has so far refused to pull — that might increase the country’s vaccination rate so that hospitals won’t routinely be overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients.

The same authority that allows Biden to require passengers to wear masks on domestic flights, which he has extended to March 18 2022, also allows him to require vaccinations. He told ABC News last Wednesday that he has considered doing so but has been told by staff that it’s not necessary. “Even with omicron,” Biden said. “That’s the recommendation I got so far from the team.”

This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Public health experts inside and outside government have favoured requiring vaccinations to fly since the summer. In September, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said that a vaccine mandate for flying might be unnecessary because the administration’s mandates for employers to require vaccination would be a more effective way to achieve the same result. But that rule has been put on hold pending Supreme Court review.

Biden should stop pretending his resistance to a vax-to-fly rule is about public health — and not politics. The truth is that requiring vaccines to fly, even with a testing opt-out, would provoke a backlash. Those who are vaccinated would be only minimally inconvenienced, if at all. But there would be horror stories about sympathetic-seeming holdouts who couldn’t, for example, fly across the country to see their dying parent because they won’t get the jab. Fox News would have a field day.

And that is true even though only about 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. It’s understandable that airlines don’t want to get squeezed into the middle seat between the feds and unvaccinated customers, but the stakes are too high for the president to capitulate to CEOs.

Lest we forget: The 10 major passenger airlines have received $50 billion from federal government bailouts during the pandemic, including $13 billion in the stimulus package Biden himself signed in March.

The companies and their trade associations say checking vaccine cards would be onerous and logistically difficult and cause delays. But if small restaurants have figured out how to do it, big airlines — which already do so for international travellers — certainly can as well. TSA agents could glance at vaccine cards as they check IDs and boarding passes. Airports can set up stations right by security for unvaccinated passengers to get inoculated.

So much of life in Covid America turns on facts people don’t want to talk about. To wit: What the CDC’s new guidance doesn’t tell people who get infected is that they should take another coronavirus test after five days of isolation before returning to social settings. The unfortunate reason this wasn’t included is because there are not enough tests available. That is another consequence of the Biden administration’s tendency to hope for the best and plan for the best — rather than preparing for the foreseeable contingencies caused by the delta and omicron variants.

Biden sounded determined in his address to the nation last week to avoid using the word “mandate” as he discussed his efforts to increase vaccination. He prefers gentler words that have softer connotations, such as “requirements.” The other term Biden has stopped regularly using is “wartime footing,” which was a staple of his speeches early in the year.

It’s an unfortunate reflection of his desire to move on and not have his tenure defined by the pandemic. But the virus isn’t done with us.

An average of more than 1,400  Americans continue to die every day from Covid. Preventable as most of these deaths would have been with vaccines, as many Americans have died from covid during Biden’s presidency as Donald Trump’s.

That’s why we still need a wartime footing. And more vaccinations. And more tests. World War II took four years and required a draft to conscript enough troops to win. We’re two years into another global war. To prevail, we need to compel all Americans to join the war effort.

I have reproduced this article from The Washington Post which attests to the gutlessness that Biden showed three decades ago when he assisted the confirmation of the unspeakable Clarence Thomas, in the face of Anita Hall’s accusations of sexual predation. I had hoped that he would do better after a promising start, but he has unfortunately retreated to his default position.

It also suggests that it is not only the Republicans that bow to big business, and that is the concern I have with Anthony Albanese. Has he any anti-pandemic strategy where the options are laid out in order to to cover all contingencies, their likelihood and the resources needed to effect each option? Who is your Essington Lewis, Mr Albanese?

By the way, what a pathetic spectacle he cast in promoting a fast train from Sydney to Newcastle so as not to miss the night NRL game. Mate, we have a War on at present, and we ain’t winning – and you want a high speed night train for the football? Did you actually say: “You’ll be able to jump on the train at 6.30pm and be at Sydney Olympic Park for the start of the Knights game”?

Thus, if the Prime Minister is a Sharkie; does this proposal of yours make you a kNightie?

Brain Drain

Back in the mists of June 1998, Peter Doherty bemoaned the brain drain from Australia of “our best and brightest” researchers overseas. He instanced one Vladimir Brusic, who at the time was moving from Melbourne to Singapore. For almost a decade he had been senior programmer at WEHI. Brusic, a Serbian by birth, had been involved in the application of computer power to complex medical problems, the field of bioinformatics. His alleged genius was being able to distil huge amounts of data into a usable amount for laboratories, thus saving hours and hours of “tedious experiments”. Maybe. Anyway, that was the theory.

So, what did happen to Dr Brusic? Has he been lost to Australia?  In fact he has caromed around in the past 20 plus years and is currently the Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in Computer Science at the Ningbo campus of the University of Nottingham. The Ningbo campus is near Shanghai.

Dr Vladimir Brusic

After his stint in Singapore, which lasted seven years, he moved back to be Professor of Bioinformatics and Data Management at the University of Queensland. Then he was off again to the Dana-Farber Institute in Boston where he stayed for eight years as the Director of Informatics (concurrently also having a professorial post at Boston University) and then back to the Gold Coast Campus of Griffith University for three years, before taking up his Chinese appointment.

I am not sure what he has achieved by the peripatetic existence. It is one of the paradoxes of these gurus in information that when they communicate it is so arcane that only their own coterie know what they are really saying to one another.

I noted a paper he co-authored on vaccines, where he seemed to be concentrating on informing the world about the intricacies of the old vaccine technology. Only he can tell us in simple terms whether his work is adaptable to the new vaccines, or whether anybody is interested.

However, the point should be made, but not over generalised that 20 plus years ago, Doherty was regretful of his loss to Australia. Well, he did come back to Australia twice, confounding the Doherty forecast. And perhaps, it would be instructive to see his rating by students at Boston University, when you review this lamentation in 1998 and Australia’s deprivation with Dr Brusic being in Shanghai at an English University, which incidentally seems not to rank very highly, even in the Chinese rankings.

Liz, don’t worry, Nick Coatsworth, the Seer from Garran, says it will be all over this year

A year ago around Christmas, Liz Mover began to feel some hope. The ICU nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital had received her first dose of COVID vaccine. Soon, she thought, everyone will be vaccinated and this terrible pandemic will end.

Liz Mover, ICU nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital

But in the medical intensive care unit where Mover works treating the hospital’s sickest patients, 15 of the 18 beds were occupied last week by people critically ill with COVID. Almost all of them were unvaccinated.

As the pandemic stretches on and cases climb again, a depleted battalion of health care workers is battling yet another big surge of COVID. Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, hospitalisations have approached last winter’s levels. And for many health care workers on the front lines still fighting COVID, hope has evaporated.

The problem with people like Nick Coatsworth, even if you strip them from their political aspirations and, for me personally in relation to Coatsworth a sense of disappointment in his emergent arrogance, is that once you embark on an ideological pathway, there is no turning. Evidence is an inconvenience.

The experience of Ms Mover, the attending nurse in the Blake 7 Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), can be found in the midst of the tasks she has become accustomed to in her 15 years at Massachusetts General Hospital.

She highlights a problem that the Virus is presenting. It has not gone away, and while people like Coatsworth and the media editorialists cling to the notion that it will go away and anyway this Omicron variant is not that serious, the problem is that it is neither – it is not going away and for those who contract the disease it can be very serious.

The problem is that it is indeed serious since its very insidious nature is compromising the whole health system.

An airliner crashes and all are killed. A terrible tragedy, but not an ongoing health care problem as is a pandemic which kills everyone in short order.

But that does not often happen; even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing had a horrible aftermath for those who survived.

Then I well remember the AIDS epidemic, but the annual numbers never exceeded 2,500 and hospitalisation generally came in the form of end-of-life hospice care.

AIDS infection was described as a pandemic when it appeared in the 1980s (and curiously, again in the media at the end of 2020 when talking about its 40th anniversary). However, despite all the horrendous warnings as epitomised by the “Grim Reaper” advertisement, it has been very selective.

Influenza has been the disease where the parallels between the current pandemic and that the post-war WWI so-called Spanish flu are mostly made. The difference is that now the health system has developed technology in the health care system where there are high expectations, and where the politicians take for granted the high level of skill and care – but the coping is not endless and it has its limits. Irrespective of who you are, you must have a break – the cute use of “furlough” has become the signature.

In conventional war, if you were in the front line, the expectation of the politicians was that a large number would be permanently furloughed – that is, killed. Nevertheless, there was recognition that survivors needed to be given a break from the frontline, especially if you were inconveniently wounded. Even so, there were inevitable long term mental health problems among these survivors.

Thus, Liz Mover’s experience should merit a response because this pandemic, like those of influenza, will have a long tail. After all, while the pandemic of 1918 has been well aired, there were three influenza pandemics in the twentieth century – adding 1957 and 1968. I spent time in the infectious diseases hospital with the 1957 variant in my last year at school. Not pleasant.

At the very least, government should continue to stress improved hygiene both in relation to: (a) the personal – hand washing and mask wearing; and (b) the social – maintaining appropriate distance and, if the Government does not ban them, avoiding locations where the Virus is liable to lurk in numbers. We all have personal space which should be respected – I hate mine being invaded at the best of times. The community should respect this – even when traditions require one to slobber over one another whether male or female; or embrace one another just because our cave dweller ancestors did so.

Come to think of it. Have you seen the Prime Minister or the Pirouette visit a hospital recently? The problem is that to enhance the photo-opportunity of showing Morrison on the front line (with Pirouette a fuzzy background image), the security detail must make way for him, as occurred at the scene of the Devonport tragedy. The security detail may have to clear the staff away as he searches for a patient’s hand to clasp. Prime Minister, it may be a photo-opportunity of your love and compassion, but you need not bring your wife and leave a bunch of flowers at the entrance of the hospital ICU unit.

Backroads

I went to Boulia a number of times 20 years ago when I was spending a considerable amount of time working at Mount Isa. Putting Boulia into context, it is about three hundred kilometres south of Mount Isa. This is virtually the same distance as Mildura to Broken Hill. There is one intermediate settlement at Dajarra where there is also a hospital. Today, I understand the road has been paved between Mount Isa and Birdsville, but in my days in this Channel country it was not.

My memory of this time was jogged by the Boulia Shire sign, which appears in the opening credits of the ABC’s Backroads program. Not that I watch this very popular program much. I, like the ABC presenters, have visited many of the places they have gone to see, and they have their own perspective.

Bit too much giggling for me. I also grew up with the radio serial “Blue Hills”, the unending bush saga which sustained a huge audience among country people when it ran for nearly 6,000 episodes.

The formula of an unpretentious conservative country serial that both mirrored and confirmed people’s prejudices and, with a dollop of smugness, lasted not unsurprisingly for a long time.

As a microcosm of this smugness on a local level, Backroads goes a long way as the child of “Blue Hills”, never challenging, but in general reinforcing the stereotypes. The only difference in Backroads is there is mostly an Aboriginal segment, a situation very much downplayed in the long running serial.  I remember when miscegenation was dealt with in a number of “Blue Hills” episodes, and everybody in the serial was relieved to know that there would be no “throwback” in the child to be born.

But setting my basic distaste for Backroads aside (although there are a few good episodes since I have started watching it to see how it corresponds with my own bush experience of the place) this is my memory of Boulia.

This is a tribute to the late Jude Sticher.

When we met her, she was in charge of the health services in this tiny settlement on the Diamantina Developmental Road.  Because here we were in the Channel Country. She and her husband, Peter, came to Boulia on the last day of October 1995.

Boulia has a mixed Aboriginal and whitefella population.  Staying at the pub and mixing with the locals, we were confronted with one of the biggest steaks you can ever eat,

But then Boulia had space.  The streets were wide enough to turn a camel train around, and one of Boulia’s main attractions is the camel races in July.

Then there are Min Min lights, which allegedly appear as oval lights in the bush. Driving along the roads, they apparently dance along the horizon. Nothing like unexplained lights in the sky to bring out the juices.

Jude Sticher was a very matter of fact real person. She was a light in that community. She had trained at St Vincent’s Hospital Lismore, in northern NSW and did the triple certificate – general, midwifery, child health. Then she undertook some nursing, married Peter, had a daughter and bought a caravan park in Sarina, south of Mackay. They still had property at Sarina, and so they continued to connect with the sea, but they did not feel displaced; at least, not when I met them.

Reflecting on her being in Boulia, Jude said she nearly tossed it in during the first three months. The cultural and professional isolation had to be overcome. She persisted. There is a term “Boulia blow-throughs”. In three years, she ticked off two police officers, three school principals – and, as an afterthought, four electricians.

Her husband Peter had been a police officer in the police rescue and a Senior Constable for 15 years. In Boulia he was the ambulance driver and the “security detail” when Jude had to go on a night call. There had been a plane in the backyard, for when they went south. In the garage had been the fire engine, the motorbike (recently sold) and the four-wheel drive ambulance. The outback toy shop!

The hospital was very basic, but it served as both hospital and a clinic. One of the reasons that Jude stayed was because the community had learnt not to give her “a hard time”. This community came to know her tolerance levels.

Out of hours demands from those who had simply drunk too much were discouraged, and her “security detail” could be of assistance in reinforcing any definition of unacceptable behaviour from potential patients.

There was good cooperation with Jude’s counterparts at Dajarra, enabling people to have time off; this link was essential for stopping burn-out. There was less contact with the nurse down the road at Bedourie, as there were different employers and there appeared to be less stability in the staff. Bedourie was part of the Frontier Services, John Flynn’s original outfit, but still then with centres inter alia at Bedourie and Birdsville.

Jude was able to deal with emergencies and had the skills to stabilise patients; no different from those of any primary care practitioner working in a town. The RFDS service was there for advice and for evacuating those that needed it. It had worked over a period. Jude was the nurse practitioner with a spouse who has adapted.

Donohue’s Emporium 1920

That time has passed; if the Backroads visited Boulia, would Jude Sticher receive a mention? Or the Donohue’s emporium, which had opened in Boulia in 1920, but shut down there some years later.  I had bought a checked purple shirt there. That shirt lasted longer than the Boulia store.

One of my fondest memories was some years after I first went to Boulia, when one of my closest friends and his wife “rocked up” to the clinic. Jude Sticher answered their knock in the door, looking quizzical and asked what they wanted. My friends then mentioned my name, and Jude’s attitude relaxed. “Come on in. Any friend of Jack Best is a friend of ours”, she said.

I have not been back to Boulia for years, but now that the road is paved the whole way to Birdsville I may well do so. One of the positives about the Queensland Government is that they maintain their developmental roads in Western Queensland.  From Birdsville the road veers east to Beetoota and Windorah.  If you want to venture over the border into South Australia, their desert tracks are a bit of challenge.

Corroboree tree

I hope that the corroboree tree, the last known of the Pitta Pitta people, still exists behind the health centre. As for lasting memorabilia, I do have one of their conical head dresses of woven grass around which are wrapped coils of human hair and topped with emu feathers; the men used to wear them in their ceremonies. Boulia was an important place for such gatherings; for me it still remains an important nidus along the travelled bush roads of my Country.

And I hope they still remember Jude Sticher in Boulia.

Mouse Whisper

Sometime a twitter is so opaque for a simple mouse. Who, for Heaven’s sake, was this twitterata talking about? It led to an exchange.

Very happy our current POTUS didn’t party with Epstein and Maxwell, didn’t fly in Epstein’s plane, didn’t go to Epstein’s Island, didn’t have Maxwell at his daughter’s wedding, and didn’t appoint scumbag US attorney, who gave Epstein a sweetheart deal, to his damn Cabinet.

Hey, who was the Cabinet Member?

Name of Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

Who was this POTUS? I’ll give you a clue. In 2002 in the New York magazine article this future POTUS was quoted as saying that Epstein “was a ‘terrific guy’ who enjoyed women ‘on the younger side’.”

Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

 

Modest Expectations – Gross

All vaccines approved in the United States and European Union still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal. But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world.

The other shots — including those from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and vaccines manufactured in China and Russia — do little to nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, early research shows. And because most countries have built their inoculation programs around these vaccines, the gap could have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic.

A global surge of infections in a world where billions of people remain unvaccinated not only threatens the health of vulnerable individuals but also increases the opportunity for the emergence of yet more variants. The disparity in the ability of countries to weather the pandemic will almost certainly deepen. And the news about limited vaccine efficacy against Omicron infection could depress demand for vaccination throughout the developing world, where many people are already hesitant or preoccupied with other health problems. 

Most evidence so far is based on laboratory experiments, which do not capture the full range of the body’s immune response, and not from tracking the effect on real-world populations. The results are striking, however.

The Pfizer and Moderna shots use the new mRNA technology, which has consistently offered the best protection against infection with every variant. All the other vaccines are based on older methods of triggering an immune response.

The Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac — which make up almost half of all shots delivered globally —  offer almost zero protection from Omicron infection (as shown by Hong Kong results. China seems to be responding but with the normal response that the Chinese can do no wrong – as of Dec. 10, 120 million people in China have had a third vaccine dose, far short of the 1.16 billion who have had two, according to State media.)

The great majority of people in China have received these shots, which are also widely used in low-and middle-income countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

A preliminary effectiveness study in Britain found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine showed no ability to stop Omicron infection six months after vaccination. Ninety per cent of vaccinated people in India received this shot, under the brand name Covishield; it has also been widely used across much of sub-Saharan Africa, where Covax, the global Covid vaccine program, has distributed 67 million doses of it to 44 countries.

Researchers predict that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which is also being used in Africa and Latin America, will show similarly dismal rates of protection against Omicron.

Demand for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been surging in Africa, because its single-shot delivery regimen makes it easy to deliver in low-resource settings. But it too has shown a negligible ability to block Omicron infection

This excerpt from the New York Times this week says it all – at least for me. I have become sick and tired of politicians with little scientific knowledge and without any understanding of science – let alone public health – pontificating, when they are way out of their depth. The default position for ignorance is “personal responsibility”.

In other words, stay strong, stand up, shut your eyes tight and the good fairy will wash all the nasty virus way. Here is where our Opus Dei indoctrinated at last comes together into a rapturous relationship with a Pentecostal creationist. As a result, the mob is permitted to rule – that ragtag group of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and downright seditionists.

The problem is the definition of “personal responsibility” – the mob does not shriek “personal responsibility” but rather “freedom” as their catchcry.

The NYT article is clear. Without the booster, AZ vaccine is useless in the face of omicron – the Moderna booster seems to be stronger than Pfizer. However, the difference between the efficacy of the various mRNA vaccines is somewhat academic against this rise of a new variant, as it does sounding time to ditch the old technology upon which AZ and the other vaccines are based.

The problem is that there should be any argument about when to give the booster, when one realises that perhaps six million plus of those vaccinated in Australia have had the AZ vaccine. If omicron is spreading as rapidly as has been foreshadowed overseas, then Australia is facing the same situation as it did when the vaccination rates were low or non-existent. It is estimated that about seven per cent of the population have had a booster; might I include Morrison?

It is useless to point at any one piece of data and claim that Australia is not vulnerable, especially when the governments are doing everything wrong in stopping the spread. Remember when the volume of testing was used as the talisman of success; now the same statistic is being demonised. Have any of the politicians thought, from their privileged position riding in a government car at our expense, how buggered the health workforce is, with an even more contagious invasion of the Virus?

The root problem of Australia’s plight is that a basically unintelligent Prime Minister, who is hooked on the media release, in effect shirked his quarantine responsibility from the onset, and allowed each State to set their own rules. Morrison’s instincts are to wedge, divide and in this case he has been very successful. It was only the efforts of some of the public health doctors that have kept Australia from succumbing to a Boris-blathering shamble.

No mandates, Prime Minister. Well let us extend your now more confident stance – for instance, no need to wear seat belts, no need to have any rules in relation to car maintenance, no traffic lights, no pedestrian crossings, no speed limits, no need to bother about which side of the road you drive on, no limits on alcohol consumption while driving. They are just matters for personal responsibility!

As the you say, Prime Minister, it is a matter of personal responsibility. No mandates – let’s roll back the years of public health skills and experience. Why not in road safety as well – and, for that matter, in child entertainment facilities?

His recent comparison of the pandemic with sunburn is risible. For one thing sunburn, when I last read about it, is not infectious. If you burn yourself in the sun, it is one’s responsibility – alone.

As you say, “brothers and sisters do whatever you like – but do it responsibly – like my mate Boris!”

But you will excuse me if I repeat what Leo Amery said, pointing at Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons: “In the name of God, go”. It was 7th May 1940. The evacuation from Dunkirk was less than three weeks later. By that time there was a new Prime Minister.

The Narcissist in the Pork Barrel with a mark of the Ear

Jair Bolsonaro

I have wondered what life would be like living under Jair Bolsonaro, one of the most active facilitators of COVID-19 spread, indicative of deeply narcissistic personality coupled with a profound suspicion of anyone more intelligent than himself. From afar it looked like a nightmare, where the leader of the nation was so convinced of his own thinking that it excluded any contrary view. Translated is that the “Bolsonaros” do not come to terms with loss of power and will do anything to maintain that power.

On the other hand, the conventional political wisdom is consistent with Mayhew’s analysis: both constituents and members of US Congress excoriate earmarks (a.k.a. Pork Barrel) as pork only when they are in someone else’s district.  If that is true, anti-pork campaigns might result in a variation on Richard Fenno’s familiar paradox: we hate Congress for being so wasteful but love our own representatives for meeting our district’s needs so effectively.  If that is the case, then the politicians receive electoral benefits from the earmarks, a.k.a. pork barrel, for which they claim public credit.

Mayhew and Levinger argued that the size of individuals’ networks affects the amount of time individuals interact with each member of their network, because humans have limited time and resources. Individuals in larger networks, such as urban centres, are in contact with more individuals than individuals in smaller networks. Consequently, they may devote less time to each interaction or forgo interactions that are less important. The pork barrel process acts as a lubricant for such constituents.

Yet Andrew Leigh, an Australian politician, the ALP member for Fenner in Melbourne, has studied the effect of pork barrelling on electorate behaviour. He found that the sporting rorts affair did not materially affect voting behaviour.

However, in reconciling the American sociologists with Leigh, I wonder whether he has looked at the recent allocation of Federal government funding to the outer Sydney electorate of Lindsay, centred on Penrith. What is clear is that while there are some large grants, there are many small grants there, each attracting an inner glow in a small cohort of people until the number of grants accumulates a degree of rosiness abut the government handing out freely the money of us “mug taxpayers” as its largesse.

When does the grant have to be small enough to just constitute a bribe, because that is what most of these grants are? Obviously small grants have a multiplier effect far in excess of large grants given to big companies. The large grants to “the big end of town” are often reflective of the same level of corruption, these grants often resulting in grateful kickbacks to the particular political party to sustain electoral viability.

Thus, it is a different order of magnitude and, may I suggest, serves the same  purpose as the local PNG politician shelling out ten kina notes. Where is the difference between the politicians in Papua New Guinea and those in Australia? After all, the PNG politician could easily write a brief justification for “the horticultural developmental project to grow betel nut … or whatever”. But they don’t bother – just hand out cash in exchange for your vote. No humbug there. Bribery is bribery.

But then I don’t think of Melanesians as narcissists.

Out of Africa

Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

Christmas comes in various places. For a number of years, Christmas for us was always a different place in the world. Once we were in Taiohae in the Marquesas, where Christmas dinner was a pig cooked in an umu, Christmas in London in a suite at the Savoy, gazing down the twinkling Thames; yet another in Santa Fe with the farolitos and luminaria guiding us through snow-strewn streets, with a temperature well below zero, to attend a Navaho Mass.

Most of them are associated with an anecdote, but the strangest Christmas morning occurred in Kenya. As part of a search for Africa, we first went to Africa in the late 80s. It was a time when South Africa was still out of bounds and Australian flights terminated in Harare. Then we travelled round East Africa with our last port of call which I mentioned in a recent blog being the Seychelles, before a flight to Singapore; thence back to Australia.

Little did we know that this was to herald many trips to the African continent over the next three decades. However, at that Christmas we had gone to stay at Little Governors camp in the Masai Mara, a national park about 2,000 metres above sea level. We were there at a time of the “short rains” in December, and it was very wet underfoot. The streams filled with hippopotami were overflowing, and in the camp it was hard to keep dry. Even when they are characterised as “short”, they are significant downpours, and one such was on Christmas morning. We soon found after all the exchanges of Seasons’ Greetings that we had been invited to visit a Masai village that morning.

During our stay, the local Masai guarded our camp, tall silent men with spears, ostensibly there to protect visitors when the elephants walk through the camp, really to stop idiot visitors wandering out into the path of the elephants – you don’t stop elephants. As we found out on a later African visit, when we were awakened by our tent being vigorously shaken by a young bull elephant wanting to tuck into the leaves on the tree which served as a strut for our tent. No Masai warriors there.

The Masai are very tall and have a spiritual belief about ownership of cattle being a responsibility which has been given to them, although I was never clear how far that mandate extends. Their villages consist of a cluster of circular huts with a shallow thatched roof. The walls are mudbrick, discoloured a brown from cow dung in the mud. Cow dung seems to constitute an unescapable factor of Masai life, as we got out of the vehicle into a slurry of dung, which threatened to engulf our boots. This was not high heel country where you could be a dashing figure in safari suit with cravat and bush hat. I mention that because the regal Masai away from the reality of existence has, in the pages of a Vogue spread, become the model of the noble savage.

In this case we, the visitors, were treated with dancing; the men with the two-dimensional jumping up and down brandishing spears; the women dancing to accentuate the beadwork which festooned their throats and wrists in the main. Some singing, although I cannot remember whether the women actually ululated that morning. Anyway, we were not burdened by holly and ivy encrusted carols.

The shuka is the caftan-like robe the Masai all wear. It is essentially a rough cotton. In fact, as one source puts it, the word “traditional” must be taken with a grain of salt. Before the colonisation of Africa, the Masai wore leather garments. They only began to replace calf hides and sheep skin with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.

Maasi warriors

But how and why they chose shuka cloth is still unclear today. There are a few schools of thought. One of them is traced back through centuries — fabrics were used as a means of payment during the slave trade and landed in East Africa, while black, blue, and red natural dyes were obtained from Madagascar. There are records of red-and-blue checked “guinea cloth” becoming very popular in West Africa during the 18th century. Some of the cloth resembles tartan, and the incursion of Scottish missionaries into the Masai lands is said to be the culprit.

Whatever the source, it was all very colourful; and the Masai are not shy in coming forward flogging their beads inter alia. Thus, we come back with an assortment of beaded geegaws; and I wondered why we hadn’t bought any axes and mirrors.

Did not see this visit reported in the Australian Media

Indonesia is our closest Asian neighbour. It is a cultural rendang – so many ingredients, yet the Australian perspective is of Bali as an offshore resort where Australians just carry on their lifestyle – but more clearly. The Australian personality easily accommodates the beachcomber, surfer or not. I have a son who, in his younger years, would go surfing around Indonesia, mostly off Sumatra.

Yet Indonesia the country may as well be in a different galaxy, so little the normal Australian knows about it. For some reason the rapidly irrelevant Great Britain gets extensive media coverage, yet Indonesia, only when there is a disaster. It may be attributed to the fact that we neither share common language, culture nor, as is increasingly important, common sporting activities. Indonesians see us as an educational destination, but otherwise as reported, the average Indonesian shows little interest in Australia (except when rent-a-crowd is assembled outside the Australian Embassy when we are perceived to have insulted somebody or something sacred).

Yet looking at the content of the recent Blinken visit, I would have thought it would have aroused interest in Australia, especially since our government has been a strident supporter of the USA. His visit to Indonesia came days after that of a senior diplomat from Russia. Yet the Blinken visit is designed to begin winning back American support which lay fallow under Trump, while the Chinese pressed ahead. One chink in the aid program from China has been the use of the relatively ineffective Chinese vaccines, where the availability of a booster will be all important for those already vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.

At least when the Blinken entourage inevitably became infected with COVID and aborted its visit, the West Australian reported it.  Will that be the harbinger of things to come – half-built relationship eroded by the virus of libertarian hogwash and conspiracy theory?

Unless a significant cohort of Indonesians or, more importantly their children, are welcomed to Australia to embed the culture and the ability to communicate effectively, with correspondents who have their roots in Australia, then Indonesia will still continue to be Bali – offset by the burning threat of terrorism.

But Indonesia and, for that matter, the other Malay countries are so much more.

As I write, my eyes are fixed on the lively presenters on ABC breakfast television, Fauziah Ibrahim and Iskander Razak, obviously of Malay heritage with the name suggesting a Muslim upbringing. Yet where do they come from?  Singapore, probably the country closest to a European way of doing things.

Food fad

I wonder whether they are conversant with the Malay language, including Bahasa. I still remember baik baik saja from a tentative period when learning Bahasa and eating nasi goreng was quite a fad. Then the ABC actually ran programs teaching the language; not having it sequestered in SBS where the aim is a self-conscious “multi-culturalism”, not necessarily enhancing multi-cultural communication.

But as reported…

Downplaying direct confrontation between the United States and China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pledged to strengthen relations with Indo-Pacific nations through billions of dollars in US investment and aid and, in doing so, counter Beijing’s regional pull.

That soft-power pitch was delivered at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, the country’s capital, and continued with a series of agreements on maritime cooperation and education and Peace Corps exchanges. The university was also the site of a speech nearly 60 years ago by Robert F. Kennedy, who spoke then of open relations among states, so long as one did not threaten the rights of others.

Secretary of State, Antony Blinken

Blinken called it remarkable that the broader goal had changed so little for a region that now accounts for 60 percent of the global economy and is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The Indo-Pacific covers countries primarily in the Indian Ocean region, including India, Australia, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“We all have a stake in ensuring that the world’s most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all,” he said. “This is good for people across the region, and it’s good for Americans, because history shows that when this vast region is free and open, America is more secure and more prosperous.”

But China, the regional heavyweight, overshadows US trade in nearly every country in the Indo-Pacific. In Southeast Asia alone, two-way trade with China reached $685 billion in 2020, more than double that of the region’s trade with the United States.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is aimed at building infrastructure like ports, railway lines, and roads around the world, has continued to make inroads in Southeast Asia even during the pandemic. This month, Laos completed its first high-speed railway, a $6 billion project backed by China. A few weeks before that, Vietnam opened its first metro line in Hanoi, also thanks to China. And in Indonesia, China has spent billions of dollars to build high-speed rail lines, power plants, dams, and highways.

“The Achilles’ heel of US policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the US in trade and infrastructure investment,” said Jonathan Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden has avoided directly pressuring other nations to choose between partnering with either the United States or China on a host of issues. Still, Stromseth said, parallel efforts by China and the United States to outdo each other risks “that a bipolar divide is hardening for the long term, with potentially serious consequences for regional stability and development.”

China has stepped up its military operations in the Indo-Pacific, with warplanes flying over parts of Taiwan and staking claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea. These actions, among others, have put the Pentagon on alert.

Blinken said bluntly, “We don’t want conflict in the Indo-Pacific.” Yet he also described “much concern” in the region over Beijing’s actions, which he said has distorted open markets with state-subsidized products, limited trade by its adversaries and engaged in illegal fishing.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change,” Blinken said. “We do too.”

Blinken’s main message was that the United States is a better bet as a partner than China.

He said the United States had donated 300 million coronavirus vaccines — one-third of its worldwide contribution — to the Indo-Pacific and would continue to invest billions of dollars in its public health systems.

The vaccines, which Blinken said were given “with no strings attached,” may prove to be the United States’ main leverage in Southeast Asia, as hundreds of millions of doses sent by Chinese companies have been found to be largely ineffective against the delta variant.

On climate, Blinken noted a $500 million commitment to help finance a solar manufacturing facility in India as among efforts to help the region stave off environmental crises without disrupting economies. He pledged to pursue agreements to bolster data privacy and secure technology used in economic transactions, “because if we don’t shape them, others will.”

And he said the Biden administration would work to ease snarls in the global goods supply chain in a region that buys nearly one-third of all US exports.

Across Southeast Asia, private investments by the United States amounted to $328.5 billion in 2020, outpacing China.

“The region has told us loud and clear that it wants us to do more,” Blinken said. “We’ll meet that call.”

Blinken’s visit to Indonesia, the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was viewed as overdue: Neither Vice President Kamala Harris nor Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stopped here in recent travels to the region. In a fresh reminder of the nation’s strategic value, Blinken arrived only a few hours after Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council; their planes were parked next to each other at Jakarta’s airport.

Blinken’s speech was well received by some within Indonesia. Tom Lembong, who was Indonesia’s trade minister from 2015 to 2016, said it “hit the bull’s-eye on what policy makers across ASEAN want, which is concrete and practical solutions, and less of the soaring rhetoric that has dominated American official engagement with Southeast Asia over the last two decades.”

“I would argue that at this time, the Biden administration is succeeding in Southeast Asia — they’re regaining lost ground and making up for lost time,” Lembong said in an e-mail.

Many countries in Southeast Asia remain wary of being drawn into a Cold-War standoff between the United States and China. In November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore indicated that he was uncomfortable with Biden’s calls to persuade leaders from democracies to present a more unified front against China.

“We all want to work together with the US,” Lee said in a November interview with Bloomberg News. But, he added, “I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.”

The region is split between countries that are friendlier with China, like Cambodia and Laos, and others that are more hard-line, such as Vietnam. In previous years, the bloc of Southeast Asian states has been torn about how to address the dispute in the South China Sea, with some nations not wanting to offend Beijing.

“The sin of China is undermining and breaking up ASEAN,” said Kasit Piromya, who was Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. “China has the money, they are rich and have their projects and initiatives. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be their doormat. I think we are terrified of China, but this is not based on reality.

Finally, from us all here with Blinken, Wynken and Nod, Selamat Hari Natal.”

Mouse Whisper

A sidelight of “Holiday Inn”, the 1942 version of a White Christmas. For snow, it used chrysotile asbestos. As Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas”, the asbestos was falling all around … “like the one I used to know.”

Modest Expectations – California Chrome

The Federal election must be held by May. The Opposition parties should emphasise the need for a national anti-corruption commission, and it has a whole repast of corrupt actions to remind the electorate of what the Morrison Government has been doing. It seems a no-brainer.

Ideally money allocated, and therefore for every grant, should be able to provide evidence how closely “expected” matched “actual” outcome. There are a few outstanding rorters, but there is no need to use such a pejorative term; just detail what Morrison’s government has done in simple terms to tell the story to the electorate – of shameless conduct by this gaggle of mostly unattractive men.

In 1966, the Holt Government achieved a huge electoral win. Seats that had never been held by the Liberal Party fell to them and the most notorious of the elected was a 22-year old travel officer named Andrew Jones. He was a complete idiot and a harbinger of some of the current young members (and would-be members) of the Government. Yet, through his brashness, he actually touched on the truth of the matter, however clumsily. He made the fatal mistake of saying that half the members of Parliament were drunk at any one time and was made to apologise to the Parliament as a whole. His language of the religious jingoistic zealot then would be at peace with some of Morrison’s tribe, if not completely reflecting the happy clapper routine.

His arrival and demise reflected a time when Australia was convulsed by the Vietnam War and selective conscription. The streets were alive with protests and, when coupled with anti-South African sentiment over apartheid, one may have thought the people were consigning the conservative government – which Federally had been in power since 1949 – to electoral defeat.

I can remember watching the election results with a mate called John Douglas and, as the electoral landslide eventuated during the night, we got progressively drunk. As young doctors, we were witnessing electoral carnage. Nevertheless this was an election buoyed by protest from those who ultimately lost.

My mind turns to the current collection of protestors who are a grab-bag of the authoritarian dispossessed. My thesis is that in a democracy this type of perceived extremist behaviour makes the bulk of the population uneasy. When the Prime Minister seems to be lukewarm in his condemnation, then the uneasiness may well be translated into electoral defeat.

In countries where the implementation of democracy is fragile and electoral defeat imminent, the government often just simply cancels the election, or puts if off while it destroys the opposition in the manner that this band of extremist would like to occur. The most apposite example was Nazi Germany in recent times, but it is a frequent playbook throughout the World, used on every Continent – even in Australia when Queensland was ruled by Bjelke-Petersen.

The criminality of him and his cronies was revealed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and yet there were people in his Government who were considered clean. His successor Mike Ahern certainly was, but corruption is never far away in Queensland.

In Australia and particularly in the above-mentioned State there would be a great number of the politicians who would not be concerned if the inconvenience of democracy was brushed aside.  There is always the “unexpected expected” intervention, the obvious one being takeover by the armed forces, which has never occurred in Australia. Notwithstanding, in the thirties with Jack Lang in full flight, it was a close thing. Monash himself was an important figure in preventing such military intervention. However, the threat is always there; unexpected in the timing; expected in its ultimate execution.

The fate of this government is tied to whether most of the population wants people pushing makeshift gallows through the street, when we Australians as a nation have long since abandoned capital punishment. I think threatening to lynch the Premier of Victoria is a criminal offence, and yet there are those on the conservative side of politics who either sit on their hands or condone it.

The world has just survived the most egregious assault in democracy by the action of Trump in his illegitimate claim to have won the 2020 US election. People point to the fact that he garnered 70 million votes. He still lost. The fate of democracy hangs on its survival in America. Churchill’s greatest contribution to democracy was to show that it still worked in Europe; his landslide defeat in 1945 at the polls and his acceptance that, at his finest hour, the people voted “Out”. Two finest hours!

America, despite its impressive beginnings, has always had those who defile democracy, but probably not with the force that Trump exerted in his bid to destroy American democracy. I doubt where Trump would win if he stood again. Nevertheless, after his January 6 antics, he has galvanised his “lumpenproletariat” where, to my way of thinking, his toxic effect is overwhelming.

I wished that my generation had asked their parents which side they would have fought for in the Spanish Civil War – the Roman Catholic Church on one side with The Nazis and the Italian fascists; on the other side the Russians, communists and anarchists – and sandwiched in between, those who wanted Spain to shed its royal family and just become a democracy. The question is simple. I still wonder what my father and mother would have said. But I never asked them; perhaps they would been on the fence, perhaps not.

For me, born in the year Franco was triumphant, Homage to Catalonia has been one of the books which has coloured my political views. Now I read a lesser book, called Guernica, which centres around that cold-blooded massacre. Picasso’s representation of Guernica, which I first saw in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, just demonstrates how little we have travelled, to combat those would extinguish any shred of democracy.

In the end that is the reason that Morrison should be removed – and take the “Duttonbird” with him.

Abiden with the cardinal cuckoos

Marjorie Taylor Greene is unvaccinated, Lindsay Graham doesn’t think kids are entitled to a Kindergarten education, and America’s schools are being indoctrinated by the scary and totally real forces of critical race theory.

So that is one shade of America. Most people here would not know of these Republican cardinal red cuckoos.

I was very critical of Biden, sniping at him for more than a year in the run up to his election. My major beef was about his role in disgracefully discrediting Anita Hall which enabled one the worst Supreme Court judges in my lifetime, Clarence Thomas, to be confirmed. It is a stain that cannot be erased, but the people who remember the stain are fewer and fewer; and remembrance of this will be brushed away.

Biden has achieved a tipping point, and the problem is a substantial minority of Americans are blindly resisting. In his opposition a number of rich men, who have to make a decision – either resist change and the country goes down the Trump toilet. The others may go with the flow.

First Biden turned off the Afghanistan tap for the arms industry. He did it rapidly in accord with the Machiavellian dictum which says that if it is potentially painful and hence unpopular, act decisively and quickly – an acute transitory pain is far better than having a chronic pain over months or years to achieve the same outcome, even if the chronic pain become so dull one can forget the underlying cause of the pain which festers away.

The interstate highway system and all the accompanying infrastructure was the legacy of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower improved the road system as an adjunct to American defence. Johnson followed with his Great Society measures. Even then Johnson and then all his successors’ expenditure on infrastructure has been subordinated to expenditure on armaments for little if any results apart from disfigured and disabled countries and generations of chronic disfigured and disabled men and women who served in these conflicts.

The Americans and their Allies were cannon fodder in the destruction of so many countries in search of some mindless goal – or in the case of Iraq, loot in the form of black gold.  Useless conflict fomented by a coterie of self-pitying, inhumane and in the long term unsuccessful Americans, their role model being that distinguished conniving ghastly warmonger, Henry Kissinger. He is the person who once said – the illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a bit longer.

In other words, infrastructural regeneration has been subordinated to visions of Imperial America.

Biden has seemingly learnt from these foibles and may now be doing what he or his predecessors should have done years ago. Few people get the number of chances he has had. The most engaging quality he has displayed is a steely resolve to get on with his agenda, and not disappear down a trail of rhetorical flourish as Obama did when faced with a similar challenge.

We’ll watch with interest this infrastructure program which has the ability to reinvigorate America and drive out the dark side of Mr Hayek as interpreted particularly by Donald Trump.

The Louisville Slugger

Frankfort is one of the lesser-known places to visit in Kentucky. It is where the capital is, a straightlaced township of tidy wide streets surrounding the traditional wedding cake Capitol with a white cupola on top.

We drive around the quiet streets, because it’s a Saturday afternoon on the road to Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky which sprawls across the Ohio River into Indiana. We had friends living there at the time. Sally was working at Churchill Downs where, on the composite sand, fibre and rubber racetrack once a year the hooves of the best three year old thoroughbreds imprint themselves for one and a quarter miles in a bid to win the Kentucky Derby.

We were not there during the May bedlam which surrounds the Derby. We just had a quiet look around the course and then toured into the countryside – blue grass covered lush gently undulating studs. Kentucky is the “Blue Grass State. “Blue grass music” is a staple diet, but there is always the sentimentality of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”.  The blue grass is so green it almost has a blue tinge; it may look good in a Kentucky meadow but it is shallow rooted and thus does not survive heat well.

Blue grass music is linked to Kentucky as it emerged from the Appalachian people. Hillbillies they are called and live in this range of mountains, which carves its way through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The alternate tinkling and then frenzy of the banjo, the fiddle, the bass and the guitar are nevertheless a long way from Louisville.

Sluggers

Louisville gave its name to the Louisville Lip – Muhammed Ali, but also to the Louisville Slugger. We were not given an effigy of yon fighter, but we were given two miniature Louisville Sluggers – the time-honoured baseball bat made from ash.

Nevertheless, the most memorable highlight for the ubriaco was being introduced to Maker’s Mark. It was well before it became a favourite brand of bourbon whiskey here in Australia, and my friends used to buy it, not by the bottle but by the jug, and were very liberal in the hospitality. Bourbon whiskey is only made in Kentucky, and Jack Daniels, for instance, calls itself sour mash because it is made in Tennessee.

We all went to the Makers Mark distillery in Loreto, about an hour’s drive from Louisville. Bourbon is corn derived I was so impressed that I decided to buy a bottle before we crossed the State line but learnt another fact about the bourbon and mint julep state. Some of the counties are dry, and I would have to try and buy a bottle in a dry county. So, empty-handed, I learnt another lesson in the tragedy of life as I left the shop. Never judge a Bourbon by its county.

Pre-COVID-19 Estonia – a Flag of Blue, Black and White

Korstnapühkija

We arrived by ferry from Helsinki and booked into the Savoy Hotel. Yesterday the hotel was the centre of attention when the Baltic “sweepdom” had gathered in front of the Hotel.  Apparently, the happy stout little chimney sweep statue out the front of the hotel draws the Estonian chimney sweeps annually to rub his buttons and nose. These have been so polished they stand out on this metal statue.

This Savoy Hotel is a Tallinn landmark and classifies itself as “boutique” but to the naked eye it looks more “Le Magasin” to me. It is that large.

Today although it is June, in Tallinn as in the rest of Estonia the weather is very cold. The wind chill factor has driven the temperature close to freezing. Despite this we make a short walk up the city hill. There are many streets leading from the square where our hotel is located. They are all quaint and bitterly cold. The cross streets give a terrace effect and the market stalls on the flat terrace provide only limited shelter against the cold. We soon abandon this foray.

Initially I had suggested that my companion find the oldest pharmacy in Europe a little further up the hill. I had been there some years before and for somebody interested in the evolution of therapeutic drugs, it was worth seeing. My vague gestures and the wind whipping at the map, so it is hard to hold flat let alone read, makes her abandon the search after 20 fruitless minutes. I have been frozen sitting on the granite wall. It is not really a voyage of discovery. We retreated to the warmth of the hotel bar.

The food has become more varied from the pig and potato fare that I remembered my last time in Estonia. This has been replaced by the dainty MEKK –Moodne Eesti Köögikunst cuisine at the Savoy. The salad is all miniature leaves interspersed with edible flowers – chew on a violet or viola or pansy – but the seafood, whether it be pike or perch or herring or salmon or other packed into a terrine, is very palatable and there is copious rye bread.

In the bar to drink she has a brandy and dry and I have a martini – vodka rather than gin. After all we are in Estonia. The Savoy bar is very long and we are perched on the end where the faux-granite resembles the prow of a boat. We settle in to wait the cold snap out. It does not improve, and the flowers in their boxes outside shiver.

The next day the weather does improve marginally – the sunlight struggling to prove that June has arrived.  We pay a visit to Saint Nicholas Church Museum.  Tallinn was carpet bombed by the Russians in May 1944, and the church – a beautiful reminder of mediaeval Hanseatic wealth – was destroyed in that raid. It has taken 30 years for it to be rebuilt into a semblance of its former self.

A tourist site can be so crowded that it becomes a forest of people concealing what you want to see – and I hate being moved on. It is understandable. You can’t stand in front a piece of art the whole day, pondering if it is limiting the number of people passing through, who may want to ape your stance. The other problem of course is that, as with airports, art galleries are long distance events, especially if the exhibits overwhelm that ability for the mind to process and after a time the mind gives up and they end up in a blur.

Now in this museum, the cabinet high altar which was constructed in the fifteenth century is a splendid masterpiece by Herman Rode.  It opens up to display the panels of brightly painted figures. He was a painter of that distinctive late mediaeval representation of the human form. The background depicts his native Lubeck in Northern Germany. The altar is a complexity as it opens in two stages; the first the painted narrative, the second a wooden hagiography where multiple wooden figures peer expressionless from their cell. One of the figures, St Barbara, the patron saint of the dying, is depicted holding what appears to be the mediaeval equivalent of an intercontinental missile. It is actually a tower, but it has an uncanny resemblance to a missile. As well as the patron saint of the dying, she is also coincidentally the patron saint of explosive manufacturers. True!

Herman Rode was a contemporary with Bernt Notke, the painter whose version of the Danse Macabre hangs in a dark alcove of this museum.  The photographs of this painting are always taken in a blaze of arc lights. In the natural gloom we need to be close to the canvas in order to identify the conga line of people and skeletons, with the skeleton wearing a turban up front playing what may have been a torupill – the Estonian bagpipe. It is confronting, because of the representation of the pope, the emperor, the fashion plate lady, the merchant prince all connected via grimacing skeletons and in between there is the cardinal in his wide brimmed scarlet hat, depicted as if he had been interrupted on his way to lunch. The painting fragment ends with a capering skeleton. Bit spooky, she said and in the shadows of the building the tableau seems to invite us to join the conga line. We escape through a narrow corridor lined with mops, buckets and bottles of cleaners through an open doorway, that is conveniently close to the exit.  All the massive doors of the museum are firmly locked.  Ours is the unconventional exit.

Out into the sunlight and gradually the weather has improved so that next day we are able to have lunch out in the open at the Olde Hansa restaurant. The waitresses are all attired in Brueghelesque brown working clothes – brown belted dresses and white or coloured linen bonnets. Sitting on the solid wooden benches one associates with wenches as we chew on the dried elk, I had flashbacks of the country’s Hanseatic past.

Like the Welsh, the Estonians are great singers, and they have a penchant for folk dances. Brooms are used as props, which may be hardly “PC”, but there is a simple refreshing optimism among the Estonians which you cannot help embracing. In our own country we tend to avoid these faux-mediaeval places, which dot the landscape as a means of indulging in nostalgia for a mythical past. In Tallinn Old Town the indulgence seems to be less fanciful – just a glance back to the past, if a more congenial one.

Saatse Boot

Estonia lives with Russia in an uneasy relationship. It is rare for this country ever to be functional as an independent State, and yet in the East there is an Estonian gravel road between two villages which crosses the border into a Russian territory protrusion called the Saatse Boot. This anomaly survives the separation of Estonia from Russia in 1991, and while theoretically this sliver of land should have been handed over in 2005, nothing has happened despite the agreement to do so being signed years ago.

Thankfully we could enter Latvia without having to go through Russia. There was a diversion to the seaside town of Parnu for lunch at MUM, a restaurant where she had duck and I had the Estonian version of schnitzel. Baltic Sea beaches are impressive. The beach at Parnu is no exception. It is long, pristine yet this day absolutely frigid, few people were wandering along it because early June was not yet summer. It was still “icumin-in”.

The Economist Produces an A-Serbic Volley Below

For more than 15 years, the “big three” of men’s tennis—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—have had a stranglehold of the game. They have won 60 of the past 73 grand-slams, the sport’s most important tournaments, winning 20 each. All three have enjoyed periods as the undisputed champion. But in recent years, as injuries and age have ravaged Messrs Nadal and Federer, Mr Djokovic has surged ahead. In 2021, he was imperious, winning the first three grand-slams and securing the year-end number one ranking for a record seventh time. But while other elite players must find the dominance of the big three daunting, recent results offer them hope.

In September Daniil Medvedev won his first major tournament by beating Mr Djokovic in the final of the US Open, denying the Serb a historic “calendar grand-slam” (winning all four slams in a year). Then on November 20th Alexander Zverev beat Mr Djokovic in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals, the prestigious season-ending finale (and went on to defeat Mr Medvedev in the final one day later). Are these victories a harbinger of better times for them and others on the tour?

According to Elo, system which rates players by their performance and the quality of opponents they face, Mr Djokovic’s rating at the end of 2021 was 2,178 points, his lowest in a decade and just 19 points higher than the second-ranked Mr Medvedev. Last year the gap between the pair was 128 points.

These three players have been so dominant but now, with injuries and age, Federer and Nadal are close to retirement, and no longer in the elite. However, one never knows on the clay surface of Raymond Garros with Nadal.

The problem is Djokovic and his infuriatingly ambivalent view on COVID-19 vaccination. I have no knowledge of whether he has ever been inoculated, (there was a suggestion that he caught the disease whilst in Serbia at a tournament he organised) given that in parts of Eastern Europe, many of the diseases which mass vaccination programs have almost wiped out in Western society, persist. For instance, has Djokovic had a rabies shot – an exotic disease to us but not in Eastern Europe?

However, this background is superfluous because his truculence fuels the anti-vaxxers, and while he may be one of the biggest drawcards because of the number of tournaments he has won rather than his social graces, then the money people behind world tennis are liable to genuflect. However, as he slips in his rankings this current pandering in the name of box office receipts will fade. He probably is an over-rated commodity anyway.

I would hope that the short-term gain in World-Tennis being infected by the “brat-pack” with the McEnroe and Connors of the world has been abandoned.  Djokovic is more than a brat, because the others did not potentially challenge the health status of our Nation.

Mouse Whisper

Laconic me this week. Just one question.

If output is directly related to input, does that mean that income is directly related to outcome?

Modest Expectations – Ib puas peb caug yim

The most mispronounced word in the English language – geneAlogy. No, no, no, not geneology.

Greek γενεᾱλογία to Latin geneālogia to Old French genealogie to eventual English geneAlogy. Just repeating what I have read from a reliable geneAlogical etymological source.

The Land of the Hmong

When I was what in those days was the American acronym BMC, in the audience which often clustered around was a cheerful young Asian guy, who introduced himself as Mechai. Thus was my introduction to Mechai Viravaidya. Little did I know that he would parlay his name into fame through a nationwide contraceptive program with his name “Mechai” becoming the Thai word for “condom”.

Mechai, with a Mechai T-shirt

I never knew Mechai very well, although he was at the University of Melbourne and a resident of Trinity College. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School, as were a number of the Thai upper class and were laughingly known as the “Thai mafia”. In any event, he was younger than I, did commerce, and although our paths had crossed having mutual acquaintances, there was a particular time later when we were involved in developing a project which unfortunately never eventuated.

Working with him did give me some insight into how this remarkable man worked. I remember from the time undertaking political science where mention was made of how integrated and influential the Thai bureaucracy was with the royal family. I never completely worked out Mechai’s connection to the family, apart from the fact that his wife was on the staff of the late King Bhumibol. I feared any further prying would have crossed the etiquette line, but I was told he was close to the dowager queen, who died during one of my visits. The Thais are very cognisant of protocol and correctness. The link is only important in emphasising how connected royalty is to privilege.

Mechai parlayed this privilege in establishing a public health revolution to slow population growth in Thailand through contraception; his innovation was to link condoms to cabbages because it had been determined that the vegetable sellers would provide the most efficient means of distributing the free condoms, particularly in those rural areas of the country where there were no doctors.

Enough has been written about Mechai and how his contribution has been well recognised throughout the world. I fortunately have stayed in his apartment above his signature restaurant in Bangkok – Cabbages & Condoms. At one stage when my career had converged around public health and quality assurance in health care, it was proposed that a conference for each would be held in Thailand.

At that stage, the contraception program was reaching its maturity, and Mechai was looking around for a new challenge. At the time we renewed the contact, he was thinking about involving himself in a national AIDS program, a severe public health problem at that time in Thailand. An international conference focussing on the two intertwined issues of quality and public health improvement seemed a good option and, as part of finding a venue outside the capital, we went up to Chiang Rai, a city in the North of Thailand.

Mechai had an interest in what was essentially a hill settlement, where international schools had been or were proposed to be established. The Dowager Queen had been very interested, and from what Mechai said at that time, he was very interested in the Timbertop arrangement which Geelong Grammar School had established.  It could be said that a period at school in the Victorian mountains was a means of toughening the inherent noblesse oblige in its pupils. At that time in the mid-90s, I believe that there may been some interest in Geelong Grammar School being involved in a Thai extension of the concept.

What struck me was the variety of people living in Chiang Rai, and each of these hill tribes, as they were called generically to me, was identified by their clothing. Like so many whistle-stop tours, impressions are left, which fade with time. I cannot remember whether we ate any distinctively cooked “hill” food, except for some recollection of purple rice.

Hmong traditional textiles

I acquired some Hmong textiles, which are my reminder of that visit. The Hmong, originally from southern China, had spread through the Indochinese countries, and in the wake of the Vietnam war where many of them assisted the American forces, they had become a race of refugees. Sounds familiar for minorities who attempt to better their lot with the invader. Indeed, the Hmong community in America, especially in California and Minnesota, is big enough to be noticed, whereas in Australia it is barely 1,500.

In the end, the conference was held elsewhere; a consultancy with Dr Don Grimes, which was to have been carried out alongside such a conference, fizzled out with a change of Government.

Nevertheless, I have one memorable moment which I shall always remember. We travelled as far as the ferry would take us up the Chao Phraya River from the Oriental Hotel. We noted, not far from the wharf where we disembarked, a formidable structure which turned out to be the Bang Kwang Central Prison – the so-called Bangkok Hilton. We decided to have lunch near there in a café overlooking the river, but the menu was in Thai. So we looked over the shoulder of the next couple, pointed at what they were eating. A magic gustatory experience. It was fish, but the underlying whirlwind emanating from the food was garlic and chilli. That is an everlasting image of Thailand – an exotic location where your mouth is set on fire with a Scoville reading off the scale.

It was, in the end, a pity about the proposed venture with Mechai which came to nothing. But as they say, you win some – as Mechai had done before in spades with his contraception campaign and other public health ventures – and, in lower case, in whispered tones, you lose some.

The Virginian

Now that the dust has settled in Virginia, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the lessons we are taking from the McAuliffe loss and our roadmap moving forward.

In short, it exposed a major weakness in the Democratic establishment’s strategy – a weakness we at the Lincoln Project will be able to help solve.

Youngkin and family

What the establishment failed to do – and what time and time again has come back and bitten them – was define their opponent early. For months, Democrats let Glenn Youngkin skate by in his fleece vest and by the time everyone woke up and hit alarm bells, it was too late. Meanwhile, Republicans threw the kitchen sink at Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats and it worked.

There is a reason we tried to do everything we could to paint him as Glenn Trumpkin. There were hundreds of thousands of anti-Trump voters that needed to hear that message. Ultimately, we were swimming against the tide too late – and swimming alone.

Yes, there were other issues at stake in Virginia. Yes, the historical momentum was against Democrats from the beginning. If you look at exit polls (and take them with a grain of salt) Biden’s approval rating in a State he won by 10 was tanking. Education was the issue the most voters said mattered to them when making up their minds.

But how did we get that far – that Democrats were losing white women, suburban voters, and people caring about education? They got dragged into a battlefield the Republicans defined, which meant they had an uphill fight from the beginning.

Our opponents are more sophisticated and more well-funded than Democrats realize. Democrats can’t just turn on the small dollar money cannon and hope it helps them make up ground. They must get more proactive because the other side already is.

What we are up against is a well-coordinated message machine with built in channels to spread their disinformation and propaganda. If you turned on a TV or went online in Virginia anytime after Labor Day it was all education, education, education. Critical Race Theory freakouts. Virginia’s school board dramas made national news. Even the non-propaganda media fell into this trap. And it was all done by the Fox News-centred right-wing message machine, for which Democrats currently have no answer.

What they did was define a single issue to allow voters to look under the umbrella. Then they used the voters who came in to develop sophisticated models that they then used to target well beyond their usual base. See, most campaigns stay in their lane and talk to their people with the same tested taglines and codified language that have worked for years. They know that investing in ads to persuade people to switch sides in this polarized environment is akin to setting money on fire.  Remember, they’re not most people. This risk they took – hanging the campaign on an ambiguous non-issue that would go on to be developed in the imaginations of voters – and reaching out well beyond their base, and even running suppression campaigns against the Democratic base – that’s how you play hardball. And that’s how you win. 

What does this mean for us moving forward?

We know that our strategy works and that there is a lane that only we occupy. Until Democrats are willing to take the gloves off and define their opponents with a coordinated message that voters actually remember, we’re going to have to do it.

Because someone has to. It is why right now we are actively working against Abbott (Texas) and DeSantis (Florida) and will be launching similar campaigns to make sure the authoritarians can’t just put their sheep’s clothing on again and blend in with the pack. Voters will believe it if we are not careful.

The Lincoln Project is a group of former Republicans with a particular obsession about Trump. The Trumpians are continually running smear campaigns against the major Lincolnians. If you have a cohort of journalists working for the media who need an exclusive story, especially when it is spiced up, then they are readily available recipients.  Reasoned beliefs are incidental and superfluous, unless they can be translated into money. Thus the media are composed of ideologues, many with a tincture of the authoritarian fascist; the plain concrete-foot-in-the -door mercenaries and a sprinkle of those who are genuinely interested in policy matters, increasingly confined in the far off galaxy of Blogs.

Would-be mercenaries should remember that from the time of the Thirty Years’ War the Elector of Hesse, archetype of the mercenary industry, made large amounts of money from hiring out his subjects as infantry for the highest bidder, clothing them in a form of sackcloth to save money – the material now known as hessian. For the successful mercenary, the payment was potage and loot. The Elector also, unlike the modern media moguls, had no problem with retrenchment.

Having said that, losing the Virginia governorship when the party of the President has just assumed office has occurred on eight consecutive occasions. The doomsayers were harking back to 2009, the year that Obama assumed the Presidency, to highlight that loss in Virginia. Yet those same people failed to say that the Democrats also lost the governorship of New Jersey in 2009, which has not happened on this occasion, even though the winning margin was only about one percentage point.

The fallout seems to have galvanised the Democratic-controlled Congress to break their internal impasse and pass legislation designed to establish Biden’s version of the New Deal. The Republican knee jerk is to dart from policies which are based on a mixture of passive aggression and threatened violence to actively cower and starve the electorate of government support.

Yet both in the Senate and now the House, sufficient Republicans have had the gumption to vote in favour and thus enable passage of the Infrastructure Bill.  Thus, what was significant in the end in the House last Friday wasn’t the progressive Democrats but the 13 Republican key votes. The final vote count was 228 to 206, meaning if no Republicans had voted for the bill, it wouldn’t have passed.

Sistine Chapel

There are some Republicans who still believe in bipartisan behaviour. If you stop countries being democratically governable, then you revert to a feudalism where the Bezos, the Branson and the Zuckerberg can indulge in the modern day equivalent of rape and pillage of the environment. Maybe starving the peasants was a necessary prerequisite in the private underwriting of the cost of the Sistine Chapel, but not the passage of much-needed infrastructure measures. In this modern world it is the proportionate intervention of government into infrastructure renewal to enable the Sistine Chapel metaphor not to collapse.

As the Washington Post has concluded, the “Biden failure” narrative now appears alarmist and indeed downright wrong. Yet such conclusions are often premature, as the above analysis seems to suggest.

Hence, I suspect the importance of the continuing pressure from the Lincoln Project and its allies in blunting any return of Trump.  But as my Italian friend would say, chissá.

The Search for the Tassili Frescoes

Tassili fresco

I have recently been reading this book describing an expedition funded by French sources in 1956. Its leader, Henri Lhote, wrote the book – the title of this blog – of this arduous exploration of the Central Saharan plateau of Tassili-n-Ajjer. The expedition was in search of the frescoes, predominantly painted in that fragment of time from prehistoric to well into the period where the tribes of the Sahara co-existed alongside the Egyptian pharaohs. In fact some of the frescoes have images of Pharaonic boats and female figures that look decidedly Egyptian.

The wall paintings are reminiscent of the cave art discovered in Europe, and of the same period. I suppose that my interest was kindled by that extraordinary elegy on the Neanderthals titled “Kindred”.

These paintings are extensive, and the French expedition spent months mapping and tracing the rock art onto paper. The way these frescoes had been created was to minimise the damage from the elements, especially as the Sahara, in the era when these frescoes were painted, was lush and verdant. The varied wildlife depicted in the frescoes co-existed with the people there, the forerunners of the Tuareg, who now are the only residents left in this desert with its waterholes and some of the oldest trees in the world – the Sahara cypress. The wood is so hard that the prehistoric inhabitants did not have the tools to cut them down – the technology to completely deforest was not available to our prehistoric ancestors.

Tassili fresco

What caught my attention was the period when much of the wall art was of cattle – the so-called Bovidian period. Let me quote Henri Lhote explaining his interpretation of the desiccation of the Sahara:

Herdsman have ever been the great destroyers of vegetation and if we admit (as the evidence of the Tassili paintings suggests) that thousands of oxen wandered about in the Sahara for thousands of years, we may well assume their destructive action to have been so great that it contributed largely to the desiccation of the whole region. It would, of course, be absurd to regard cattle as solely responsible, climatic changes being the prime cause, but they played no small part.”

When I read this, I thought of the Joycean solution of reducing methane levels and hence improving the climate change agenda by shooting all the cattle. It was a little drastic, but these days there are no cattle roaming the Central Sahara, a few goats maybe – but not cattle. Yet cattle live on in these magnificent frescoes.

The discussion about reducing methane levels is about reducing the emissions of methane, predominantly from cattle. Methane is one of the main culprits and animal emissions are in the range of five per cent of all emissions. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide – the consequence of cattle herding provides an interesting parallel between civilisations thousands of years apart. The Sahara then was the harbinger of what is happening now across Africa in terms of desertification; but more in its pernicious effect on the climate.

Toss another beetroot on the barbie …

Maybe, as a tribute to a Joycean Cenacolo, when our descendants – if any – are shuffling through the remains of our civilisation they will stumble upon the outcome of the Joycean fiat – images of mammoth Australian barbecues, Southern State cook-outs. Argentinian parilladas, Brazilian churrascos, South African braai.  Frescoes of coal or methane fired braziers on walls, and now food which could be cooked under the rays of the sun. But who came to eat?

Methane, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is released from a number of sources and its capture presents a particular problem because here one cannot point at coal as the major reason. In the agricultural sector there is research activity in Australia, less extreme than the Joycean solution directed towards methane reduction – and for that matter other pollutant gases inter alia hydrogen sulphide and the nitrogen gaseous by-products.

Here there is experimentation in mixing the grasses, so the roots of this “feedlot” are diverse in their length, and hence their ability to retain carbon.  There is literature about composting waste by minimising the amount of bacterial and fungal anaerobic activity, but like carbon capture, who of us can generalise the ultimate worldwide solution from a few pilot programs of variable effectiveness? I have disregarded the Joycean solution on the rounds that his aim is always faulty and the National Party would never be vegans.

A neo-Bovidian age beckons, I’m afraid.

Two Smiths

We live on a busy inner Sydney street, which is poorly cambered. The local Council also believes in the authenticity of potholes to preserve the roads in the pre-WWI condition when there also was a coal mine just behind our house, about a hundred years ago.

If you drive along our street at night, the front gate is clearly visible directly in the headlights. You will drive straight through the wall unless you turn as the street turns sharply right up the hill, or else career at the last moment along the wall of the house down the lane.

Only on one occasion over 30 years of living in such a potential target has a car come through the wall. The wall is over two metres high and brick. Thus, when the car came through the wall, it made a terrible mess, including the car.

The car managed to reverse and left a Volkswagen badge as a signature. The police were informed, but it was the mother with her son in tow who turned up several days later to apologise and offer to pay. No charges were laid. We all moved on in true Morrison tradition. The replaced wall is better; there is a tree in front of the wall now, and there is a front garden behind the wall, as well as a buffer of illegally parked vehicles often lining the kerb.

I was reminded of this when the politician Smith ploughed into a fence in Hawthorn at a corner of a street with which I am very familiar.

The remnants

On this occasion Entitlement Smith not only took out a wall, but also another car, but not the house wall fortunately, which separated his car from striking a child asleep in the room behind this second wall. An imperilled child.  A man with a bucolic face and dead eyes staggers away into the arms of a breathalyser and strikes the jackpot. I have a problem with dead eyes because they often provide an accurate window into the person’s soul or lack of same.

Across the continent, a child is found. Cleo Smith had been missing for 18 days. Alive, and able to answer: “My name is Cleo” – in a very firm four-year old voice.

As with most people when I heard that Cleo had been found, I had this overwhelming sense of relief and elation. For the parents the nightmare was over. For the child, I hoped that the nightmare had not been embedded into her psyche by the random counsellors and psychologists who feel obliged to make public commentary on how such a child should feel in these circumstances. So many children go missing, and a tragic number of these either are never found or are found dead. It is a terrible denominator.

In this case, the child had been the subject of a wide-ranging search; and the desperation was showing in the news that the police force was delving into every rubbish bin they could find. The two media reports seemed so disconnected, because there was no hint of her whereabouts.

Then in the night police were shown breaking down the door of a house in the Aboriginal section of Carnarvon. I have been to Carnarvon a few times.

It is unique in being a substantial settlement in the desert on the sea, and where the Gascoyne River runs underground. Carnarvon has a major indigenous population. With its banana plantations, it has a degree of colour; and to me it is not a bad town.

After my initial reaction, when images emerged in the media, I wondered at how well cared for she looked. Then it came out that she had been found alone playing with toys, and later it was revealed that in this house there was a room stuffed with dolls.

The alleged perpetrator was an Aboriginal man found some distance away. Since that time little about the man has emerged, but from that which has emerged he seems to be a sad lonely person. No, that is no excuse for “child-stealing”. However, the case seemed strange enough for the police to use this wording as the most appropriate course of action.

But then there was an underlying problem, with a one million dollar reward on offer. The pictures of the search were beginning to fade as the media became bored, and the reward was meant to be a stimulus.

Then the discovery, and all changed.  The spectacle became one of everybody claiming credit with even the WA Premier flying to Carnarvon for a photo-opportunity with stuffed toy props.

From being a wonderful tableau, it degenerated into a public relations exercise even to the extent of this man, shackled and in bare feet, being escorted to a plane by four riot police officers, to be placed in maximum security. Presumably to protect from those who allegedly bashed him in custody.

Yes, I’m a long way away, but a child has been returned to her parents, and the spotlights should be turned off. Enough is enough.

What if there had been the spectacle of a barefooted dishevelled Mr Entitlement Smith being marched off to a maximum security prison, bail refused? We can only speculate on how his colleagues would have reacted if the car had gone through the child’s bedroom wall, with him revving his car in a drunken state trying to reverse out of his mess into another mess without ever knowing the difference – without ever knowing there was a child in the room.

In the case of Cleo Smith, I hope the three parents are not subject to the normal reaction from the media trying to spin the story out into a “60 second special” – “by getting the story behind the story” as the lugubrious voiceover will say, or some such.

The pet jaguar

I also hope when all the vengeance and anger die down, Mr Kelly is cut the same sort of slack which has been afforded the current member for Kew, who is still loose in the community, even without a pet Jaguar.

Mouse Whisper

On looking into Niki Savva’s brain – as trephined by Golden Beauty called Orietta. I was attracted by her question and answer session; a common method we use in our Cheddar press when we interview a celebrity like Michael to get the latest on his relationship with Mistress Min.

But when journalists start interviewing other journalists you know the end of the world is nigh –a comment from a SMH sauce that spoke to me only on the condition of “an old enemy”.

Watch out for the barrelling pork!

Modest Expectation – Hiroshi Mikitani

I was sitting at the table writing. It was about midnight. No, the candle was not guttering in the fireplace, nor were the shadows sending their long indigo fingers across the room towards me.

And then there was this almighty crash against the window. Looking around the cause was not immediately obvious; however, there she was, crouched on the top of the bars on the window outside just below the curved head jamb – this tiny ringtail possum. She was peering in. This jill has been a frequent nocturnal visitor and generally likes to perch on the balcony rail, but tonight she had been attracted by the light. There are no food scraps left out nor is there a grease trap. However, there is large clump of bamboo below the balcony, and thus there must be a feast of insects in the bamboo, including cockroaches. Cockroaches infest the suburb where we live, and if this adopted Jill as she is called, can contain them, well Jill you can crash into the window any time, as long as you don’t bring a Passel, and break the pane.

Anyway, we now know when she arrives…

Just like John Elliot 

The late John Elliot and I were contemporaries at the University of Melbourne, but he did commerce and played billiards; I did medicine and played politics. I can’t remember him; he was younger than I was.

Our paths crossed in the seventies; sometimes amicably; sometimes less so as he went on his merry way building his Empire and meddling in politics.

One encounter sticks in my mind. It was about 1980, and he had been a guest speaker at an Australian Institute of Political Science Summer School.

We happened to be walking back from one of the sessions, or maybe after his speech.

He turned to me suddenly and said, “You know, Jack, the difference between you and me? I’m a success and you’re not. “

What could I say? At that point of time, these two specks trudging through the Universe, he was probably right then. Not sure that was necessarily so later, until he butted his last fag, and trudged further on from me up to that Jam Factory in the sky.

It’s a funny thing. He was lucky not to be gaoled. Yet, I really didn’t mind Elliot. A friend of mine thought of him as charismatic despite his fondness for ordering culo di maiale with his Fosters. Increasingly transmogrified into a latter-day Mr Punch, he was a creature of our time, not of this time.

Known for Potatoes and not Necessarily those in the Ground

Idaho is one of many states where GOP lawmakers have responded to early-pandemic restrictions with moves to limit public health powers, arguing that the measures paved the way for alarming incursions on people’s rights. A state law passed this March gave county leaders veto power over some orders from health boards — like the mask mandate that drew fury and demonstrations in Ada County last year. 

Former Ada County commissioner Diana Lachiondo (D) said she was used to “working quietly in the background” as a member of the region’s Central District Health Board. They monitored West Nile virus and made sure toxic algae blooms didn’t grow in lakes. Then, she said, the pandemic made public health explosively political.

Opponents of mask mandates showed up outside her home with air horns and audio clips from the movie “Scarface,” in which actor Al Pacino famously says, “say hello to my little friend”, as he uses a grenade launcher and fires a barrage from an assault rifle. At least one person was armed – from The Washington Post. 

In explanation, Ada County is located in the southwestern part of the U.S. state of Idaho. As of the 2010 United States Census, the county had a population of 392,365,  making it the state’s most populous county, with 23.3% of the state’s 2010 population. In this county, its seat and largest city is Boise, which is also the State capital. -Wikipedia

When I was undertaking the Rural Stocktake for the Commonwealth Department of Health, I visited WWAMI which were medical schools, organised under the rubric of “rural”. The University of Washington, including the main medical school, is highly rated. To get that statement into some perspective, the University of Washington is ranked 16th in the world and third among U.S. public universities according to 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities.

At that time this University ran the Medical School for Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, in addition to Washington, hence the acronym. Given these states have sparse populations there was an avowed intention for them to concentrate on rural health. The problem, as I found out later, is that educating well-trained doctors in rural areas just makes them attractive to city hospitals looking to recruit skilled young health professionals. This hardly solves the dearth of these professionals in rural areas.

Sandpoint, Idaho

However during my visit, which started out in the very urban coastal Seattle, I ended up seeing some parts of Idaho. It is a state which gets very little attention unless one skis or enjoys the “amenities-rich” areas of the northern part of Idaho extending up to the Canadian border. The town I visited, which exhibited this “amenities rich” profile, was Sandpoint.

The doctors here were well served by students from the University whom they taught. It was a great environment for those wanting a conventional conservative community framed by ski slopes and mountain trails. Nevertheless, it was prosperous and undeniably rural with a population of just under 9,000 and intensely conservative.

There is a division between the northern part where the picturesque forested area is; what one expects of the Pacific North-West.  The southern portion, essentially altiplano and much drier, is where the capital Boise is located. The transition from north to south seemed to be Coeur d’Alene, a large undistinguished town, where I visited an Indian community medical service. I use an ordinary general practice as a yardstick for effectiveness. I grew up in an era of busy general practices and even though I never practised as a general practitioner, I did many locums, including for my father. Later I was associated with many rural general practices in establishing rural intern training. There were very few indigenous medical services which measured up to that yardstick, and a casual view of that one at Coeur d’Alene then would have needed a longer visit, given I visited when there seemed not to be many patients.

The amount of money allocated between Washington and Idaho was starkly demonstrated when I visited the two WWAMI campuses. It was clear that Washington State puts far more resources into education than does Idaho. Buildings, staff, programs – adjoining but so different.  They are in Pullman in Washington and Moscow in Idaho- only the border separates these two campuses.

Boise at that time was a small city, like so many of the state capitals. Unlike Sandpoint, which is at a forested 639m, Boise is on the altiplano at 832 m. So different in rainfall. At that time over 20 years ago, the guys I had lunch with were already talking about Boise becoming the new Silicon Valley; but it took almost the intervening time till now for the concept to stir into reality.  Nevertheless, from a business point of view, Idaho is on the move. On the basis of cumulative GDP and domestic migration plus non-farm employment growth, Idaho ranks 8th in the nation, and yet it lags badly in social expenditure, including that spent on public health.

This has been brought into relief by the COVID-19 crisis. Here is a State still rooted emotionally in a conservative agricultural and mining past of rugged individualism, yet paradoxically dependent on neighbouring Washington State to soak up those that it cannot treat because of the lack of health facilities.

I visited Spokane from where a member of the WWAMI faculty, who accompanied me around Idaho, was based. Spokane is a city of 230,000 in Eastern Washington, only 29 km from the Idaho border and 55 kms from Coeur d’Alene.

Spokane county itself is 53 per cent fully vaccinated (overall 63% Washington State) and across the border the corresponding Idaho county is 39 per cent fully vaccinated (overall 45% Idaho).

The current death rate from COVID-19 in Spokane County is far higher than anywhere else in Washington, being 5 a day based on a 7-day average. Spokane is bearing much of the Idaho caseload. In other words, Washington, where outdoor masking is mandatory, is having to treat the consequences of a State that discourages vaccination, masking, social distancing.  The problem is the area incorporating both States is uniform geographically and unsurprisingly attracted the same people with whom each hence shares much of the cultural heritage and attitudes. The only difference is how each State is coping with the Virus.

The Palouse

Individualism and pig-headedness are cut from the same cloth. As we drove back from Boise, we crossed the fertile Palouse, wheatlands where the differentiation between the two States was lost. I always thought that education with dispersal of the health knowledge capital into such areas would produce a more rational view of health. Yet Idaho still ranks 37th and Washington 14th in public health measures; but does that apply where the WWAMI campuses intersect at Pullman and Moscow?

In terms of its economic development Idaho is said to be a progressive state. But COVID-19 has questioned its worth, given the macabre report that so great have been the Idaho COVID-19 related deaths lately that the funeral homes are running out of space, being forced to hire mobile morgue facilities and admitting that cremations are running two weeks behind schedule. As the deaths are among the unvaccinated, someone opined darkly that no further government action in this State – where the Lieutenant Governor, Janice K. McGeachin wants to ban mask wearing – may be needed.

Yes, reinforcing the report at the head of this piece, Idaho is the State where some joker threatened to kill the doctor if he did not treat his father with ivermectin for his COVID-19. Is it really the Gem State?

And by the way, it does say something about border closures.

Plat de jour – Tehan-boned stake

While France’s military is dwarfed by that of the United States or China, it remains one of the world’s strongest and is backed by a world-class domestic military industry.

With 5,000-7,000 soldiers in the Pacific region, 20-40 military aircraft, and seven naval ships, France is the only European nation with genuine military strength in the region. The French air force has also carried out exercises deploying Rafale fighters from France, halfway across the world, to the Pacific as a show of strength.

France also has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, giving it a measure of hard power around the world. But for the great power that France once was, it is sometimes just not enough.

“The decline of France is a theme that emerges often, especially during electoral periods, and is popular among the right and far right. It’s the idea that France used to be extremely powerful and influential, and that the France of today is insignificant and contemptible. It’s obviously a narrative that can be questioned for a number of reasons.”

This is a very sober analysis. Having been against the intrusion by the French into the South Pacific with their nuclear testing program in the 1990’s, I worked to try and improve the co-operation throughout the South Pacific between the public health services. This cooperation was also forthcoming in relation to the nuclear testing.

Understandably, at that time there was complete silence shown by the Francophone area. Nevertheless, the problem went away, with the French buckling and ceasing nuclear testing. Language differences remain one of the difficulties, but even at that time the South Pacific Commission, as it was then called, was based in New Caledonia and the recently-appointed Director General at that time was an Australian. This situation is currently ironically the same, with another Australian now heading up the now South Pacific Community – another time of crisis.

When I headed the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Physicians (AFPHM) as President for three years, I made a point of visiting New Zealand at least twice a year, and with the assistance of the then Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs from 1993 to 1996 was developing a strategy for public health in the South Pacific. My last act, despite my prominent anti-nuclear testing stance, was a meeting in New Caledonia of the then Commission. It was supposed to herald further co-operation.

Unfortunately, two things changed, the Labor Party was voted out. Bilney lost his seat – and the interest from the incoming Government was zilch -and it was also near the end of my fixed term in office. My successor showed no interest in pursuing the matter. He had achieved his standing by being an expert on the anatomy of the rat brain – says it all really.

French nuclear testing, Bikini Atoll

The French could have been interested and it is important if you want to meaningly communicate with the French to speak the language and know more about them, apart from their cuisine. In the original makeup of the South Pacific Commission, both Great Britain and the Netherlands were members, but they relinquished their seats with the loss of colonies (the Brits did a “Melba” but that was short-lived). However, the French have held onto New Caledonia, the Wallis & Futuna Islands and French Polynesia, and maintained a strong presence. They reluctantly agreed to the creation of Vanuatu in 1980 out of that strange condominium arrangement with Great Britain then called New Hebrides.

There are 26 members of the community incorporating Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. So, although its title is “South Pacific Community,” the Micronesian nation members are in the Northern Pacific.

And when Pitcairn Island is incorporated, then the members are guardians over great amounts of the Pacific Ocean.

Thus, the recent clumsiness of Australia has yet to be worked through. I wonder if Morrison even knows we have Our Man in Noumea. Yet I’m sure Morrison would be having regular conversations with His Man in the OECD. At least Corman speaks French fluently – I do not know about the new Australian Ambassador to the OECD, Brendan Pearson, or whether he speaks fluent French.

Morrison has managed to tie himself up in a number of showboats, because of his desire to hold a megaphone. One of the latest, the QUAD– where the quid pro quad is not immediately evident – hope it won’t end up in a Quad wrangle. Now, it’s AUKUS (if you introduced Canada, it would be CAUKUS and Russia, it would RAUKUS). I also thought Mirage was only a fighter airplane; not a nuclear submarine fleet.

Now the South Pacific Community is one of the only landlines with a French connection left to Morrison. Here there is a common interest, protection of the Pacific Ocean in all aspects for all the nations within the South Pacific Community. Who knows how valuable they will be in the future?

Before WW11 the Japanese had sampans all over the South Pacific, doing a bit of pillaging, fishing and gathering intelligence. The Chinese now have what are euphemistically called “fishing boats” roaming all over the Pacific, doing much the same but in a more sophisticated way. As with Afghanistan and Iraq, we are being dragged away from our base. It is not the South China Sea where our interests lie. There is great deal of ocean for the Community to patrol, let alone the waters of China. At least the French have naval bases in New Caledonia and Tahiti if justification for their interest in the Pacific was needed.

Then, with all this breathless collection of acronyms that Morrison has brought back in his Gladstone bag, why snub New Zealand? After all, New Zealand more than Australia shares a heritage with Polynesia and the South Pacific. Wait a minute, there is another alliance where New Zealand does have a monocle in common with us – Five Eyes. Is that a true sharing arrangement?

Five Eyes

But then the cold sixth eye – that of Dawn comes. Australia wakes in a sea of acronyms triumphant, but for what purpose?

At dawn, China remains our major export market (42%) followed by Japan (13%) then the South Koreans (7%), USA (5.5%) and UK and Singapore (4% each) India and New Zealand (3% each). France ranks 22nd; not Asterix but not that much, predominantly coal.

Now didn’t Paul Keating question the Australian policy of cutting off our noses…

So which of our alliances incorporates China? Or do we have a Backdoor Alliance somewhere, maybe CAOZ?

I would get confused if I did not know Morrison was a marketing man, and the author of “Where the Bloody Hell are You?” Perhaps you can answer that, Prime Minister. You know you never ask a question without knowing the answer.

The Fragrance of France

I still cannot let go of our crass behaviour in regard to French sensitivity, even though I personally am very ambivalent about the French. That ambivalence is encased in some of my poetry, but I do love my memories.

Vanilla flower

Coming out of that reverie, I have to say I have journeyed across French Polynesia, as well as visiting, with a dose of malaria, one of the French Indian Ocean Département, Réunion, where grows much of the vanilla, ylang-ylang and vetiver, and also has produced a French Prime Minister, Raymond Barre. There is a French naval base there and last year France and India held sea exercises around the Mascarene Islands.

Turning to the South Pacific Ocean, before Bali became the Australian tourist destination de choix, New Caledonia and Tahiti were popular with Australians. This was not because of a love of the Melanesian and Polynesian populations necessarily, but it was a taste of French life in the South Pacific. The lure of Club Med was everywhere. That is the problem. The island population are the backdrop, only incorporated as far as women in shimmying in grass skirts and smiling faces proffering coconut or some other tropical delicacy, or booze.

The myth of the South Pacific was embodied in a popular musical “South Pacific”, based on the American, JM Mitchener’s novel, Bali Ha’i. The French colonies escaped the barbarity of the War in the South Pacific, it was nevertheless very important to the Americans. Australia was in French Polynesia in the espionage business there when there had been a battle for control between Vichy and Gaullist forces and particularly before the Americans arrived in 1942 and took over control.

During WWII, the American presence in the French Pacific was significant. Noumea was the main US base with 22,000 troops, but it had air bases at Efate and Espiritu Santo in the then New Hebrides where there were 4,300 stationed.  There were 2,600 on Wallis Island, and 4,000 at a refuelling base at Bora Bora and the Raiatea meteorological station in French Polynesia. An uninhabited French possession, Clipperton, served as a meteorological and radio base.

It has been said that the American interlude enhanced the way the French handled these areas post-war as distinct from Vietnam or North Africa. The French were poor colonists in terms of their treatment of the indigenous people, and if one discounts Corsica, the only other remaining overseas territories are in the Caribbean and, uneasily, French Guiana. The French hate giving up their overseas possessions as witnessed by the difficulty in the achievement of Vanuatu’s independence, which only occurred because of the unique condominium relationship with Great Britain; this is worthy of a standalone blog.

When I first visited New Caledonia and sought to buy an artefact which typified the culture, the shopkeeper laughed and said the genuine old stuff had all been taken by the Americans during the War – and then in Noumea, the indigenous people were backdrops to colonial French life.

Fortunately, I have been acquainted, through the diaries of a young man who worked on the island of Eromanga in the 30s, of the New Hebrides, then  jointly administered by the French and British. His diaries provided a tantalising insight.

In Vanuatu where I stayed with my friend on his island off Efate in the lagoon, there was more contact with the local indigenous people.

While staying there, we did fly to Tanna. Standing on the edge of an active volcano Yasur on that island was one of those experiences that is hard to forget – no railings, just the hot lava spurting out and upwards  – the trade winds blowing the sulphurous smoke away.

Yet the Americans left a quasi-spiritual legacy in the John Frum movement, but this nation in all its diversity exemplifies the challenge the whole of Melanesia presents, whether being colonised by France, Great Britain and in the past Germany and The Netherlands – and not forgetting now Indonesia.

French Polynesia is where I did have direct contact with the local people when in the Marquesas far out on the edge of French Polynesia. Perhaps of all the places I have ever visited in the South Pacific, this is where I became more immersed and able to observe the interaction between the French colonists and the Islanders. It is said that the Marquesans are the closest to the New Zealand Maoris in both their customs and language.

At the time we visited, very little English was spoken, but we got by. However, French Polynesia is spread over a large area of the Pacific Ocean, and therefore strategically it remans important; but even more so now at a time where there are social disturbances whether due to climate change or from disease. Even given French aloofness, it is important not to gratuitously insult the French.

So where does that leave us in relation to the South Pacific Community. Great Britain left in 2004, and the direct American interest is through American Samoa (if one discounts the nations north of the Equator). Apart from the all-pervasive influence of USA, what is the relevance of the albatross called AUKUS?  Especially as I repeat the following from one of my blogs written in May last year by a person far smarter than most, certainly Morrison, i.e. if manned submarines are really needed, Australia should buy nuclear, reducing the number to six and buy them completely constructed and fitted out in France.

I was not aware of any major investment by India in the South Pacific, and Japan certainly was a pest before WWII especially with continuing harassment over the Australian mandate over New Guinea. More recently, trade between Japan and the South Pacific nations is uneven. The largest exporter to Japan from the region is Papua New Guinea, mainly liquefied natural gas (LNG) while other countries export a variety of primary products. More than 95% of exports to Japan from these countries are based largely on mining and fishing-based products. Not particularly useful in terms of either COVID-19 or climate change.

As for India, it has a great facility for getting involved in all sorts of relationships and talking a great deal; but as far as can be discerned, its contribution to the South Pacific in tangible terms has been minimal, and only the ethnicity of Fiji provides any Indian footprint. So much for the QUAD being relevant.

China is a different matter. I could not say this better. While China is by no means the dominant donor in the Pacific, the way in which it delivers its aid — large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans — makes these projects stand out. Chinese lending has also been used as a vehicle to get Chinese state-owned enterprises into the region. These companies are now competing in commercial activity across the board. According to China’s own investment statistics, Chinese construction activity in the region was $958 million as of 2017, almost six times greater than its foreign aid activities.

For instance, China owns Tonga (unless it can reschedule the debt) and it is only recently that Samoa has ditched the proposal for China to build a port. Vanuatu continues to flirt with the Dragon.

But the Chinese own neither French Melanesia nor Polynesia. Not yet anyway; and Australia with its heightened sense of Sinophobia snubs the French. Incroyable!

Willow is not Necessarily Shallow

This push for ridding the language of gender differentiation has reached another closing of the fork, in this case that of between batsman and batswoman. The resultant of closing this fork is “batter”.

“Batter” is a word of violence. “The batter battered the bowling.” or

“Bumper battered, the batter succumbed.”

“Batter” is also that mixture of flour and liquid. There are three types – “drop batter” as in he was “the first drop batter”; “pour batter’ obvious but get your spelling right, and “coated batter” which you find on a village pitch in Yorkshire on a mid-summer day.

There you go, for the sake of gender anonymity, “Going out to open the innings is a violent mixture of flour and water.”

My solution is to call them Willow.  The bats are willow. Calling the bat handlers “willow” is environmentally conscious. Notwithstanding “Out for a duck, the weeping willow trudged back to the pavilion”, the name is more euphonious, and instead of “bumpers”, we could have “wind in the willows.”

However, as you go out to the crease, would you prefer to be called, “the batter coming to the wicked” or “these willow have the wood on these bowlers”.

Some blogs ago, I also questioned…

Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest health care provider, said Tuesday that it will not administer Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug to patients, dealing another setback to the Cambridge company and its expensive treatment.

The network, which includes the flagships Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is the latest major US health care system to opt against offering monthly infusions of the drug, called Aduhelm, over concerns about its safety and effectiveness. – from The Boston Globe

Mouse whisper

The matter has been raised by the cartoonists already. However, my New Zealand friend Kioreann has a taken this idea for protestors to a far more serious level. The police should be armed with specially designed dart rifles where they fire syringes full of vaccine into each of the protesters. These rifles would fire very penetrative darts since the hides of these protesters are particularly thick.

As compensation, these protesters will be able to collect their “Freedom from COVID-19” certificates as they are driven away in those comfortable vans and the protest date when they will receive their second dart.

Modest Expectations – Dominican Republic

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

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

The great AUK – now extinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, will this whole extravaganza ever occur?

To boost or not to boost 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweden Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To me it seems that Australia 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demonstrators on the steps of the Shrine, Melbourne

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

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

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

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

John Shelby Spong

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

Bishop John Spong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not say Amen. Others may.

There’s a Tree in the House

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

Trees, in the house …

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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