Modest Expectations – Archie MacLaren

There never was a cricketer with more than the grandeur of A. C. MacLaren. When I think of his play now, years after it all happened, the emotions that stir in me afresh, and all my impressions of it, are mingled with emotions and impressions I have had from other and greater arts than bat and ball. 

Thus spake Neville Cardus, once the doyen of cricketing savants. But what is the relevance to this Christmas blog about an English captain who never won a series against Australia. I shall leave it as a challenge to those who can be bothered, like my teenage grandson Luka who is already a cricketing tragic with better-than-average all-rounder credentials.

One of the more recent cricketing traditions around Christmas has been the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, but in 1951, the third test in Adelaide finished on Christmas Day, with only the second defeat of the Australian cricket team since the end of World War 2. The West Indian cricketers broke into a spontaneous calypso. At that time, their major West Indian strike bowlers were:

(a) Sonny Ramadhin, of Indian descent from Trinidad, who bowled both right hand leg and off break without a discernible change in his action. His off break was not the conventional “googly”. He bowled with cap on head and his sleeves done up. It is not recorded whether he ever wore an overcoat while bowling during a damp English tour. However, at 91 he is still alive. A quirky fact about Ramadhin was that he was not given a Christian name at birth, acquired Sonny later on to disguise this fact and moreover was given fictitious initials “KT” presumably for further respectability.

(b) Alf Valentine, a Jamaican who bowled left-arm off-spinners with a vicious tweak. While Sonny was tiny, Alf was tall. Alf, who was a year younger than his “spin twin”, died in 2004.

Together, they destroyed Australia that day, and everybody was able to indulge themselves in a Christmas dinner as the Test conveniently finished before four in the afternoon. Given the Australian view at that time about doing anything on Sundays and religious holidays, I have no memory of any controversy about cricket being played on a Holy Day.

Memories of Christmas

When I was small, Christmas, even at the height of wartime, was magical because there was always a large Christmas tree and it was always decorated with the mostly homemade decorations that my mother made, scrounged and generally tried to drown the tree in cheerful decoration. Whence I was a small boy I loved the intense green colour of the pine tree. In the second week of January in the hot summer sun, it was sad to see the pine tree lying, browning, discarded on the nature strip when two weeks before its brilliant green frame seemed to touch the ceiling with the star on the top. Mother was religious; father was not. I felt that the Christmas tree bound our small family together.

I learnt early to read “not to be opened until December 25”; but everybody excused Little Johnny when his sneak preview damaged the signage too much to be repaired. Poor little Johnny can’t read – you can’t expect him to know. Oh yeah!

Notwithstanding, my father seemed to be a ghostly presence in my early years during the War when he was bouncing back from naval duty and then disappearing again up North. He came back to graduate as a doctor in early 1946. When I think about it, he seemed to buy my Christmas presents with an eye to himself. I remember the Hornby replica of the Flying Scotsman train; then there was a Meccano Set, much more complicated than my competence or interest. From a child anyway I was never much interested in building things or gadgets. My father on the other hand loved gadgets; and he liked collecting them and books.

I always liked the stocking because of the mysterious bulges which turned out to be mostly edible. However, the wonderment remained until I found out that Santa Claus did not exist. Not that we ever put out a glass of milk or a biscuit or whatever. Still, it was a shock I do remember, and after that Christmas never had the same edge of belief and wonderment.

I had never thought about the underlying deceit and lies from that first encounter at Christmas. At the same time we were all solemnly told not to lie as children, and I more or less obeyed. In our society, however truthfulness is not universally rewarded while untruthfulness is not punished. Truth is slippery, and our perception of it nudges our belief system. In the case of Santa Claus, it is rationalised by adults as a good spirit, but to a small child, such abstract thought is years away.

While deception is part of life and is the basic tool of the magician, lying deliberately can become pathological, and when occurring in a person of influence such as Trump it can be destructive. His apparent success has encouraged other politicians, especially those who have had a career of essentially talking in tongues, distorting perceptions, to abandon, ignore or be extremely inventive around telling the truth.

I wonder if the underlying cause is the harsh parent syndrome, where no matter what explanation, you are going to receive a severe dose of corporal punishment. “It was not me,” Donald screamed, “It was my bruvver.”

But then Trump’s father’s second name was “Christ”. 

Ruminations prompted by St Lucia’s day

In 1700, Sweden, which included Finland at the time, planned to convert from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. 

Therefore 1700, which should have been a leap year in the Julian calendar, was not a leap year in Sweden. However, 1704 and 1708 became leap years by error. This left Sweden out of synchronization with both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, so the country reverted back to the Julian calendar.

February 30, 1712, came into existence in Sweden when the Julian calendar was restored and two leap days were added that year. Sweden’s final conversion to the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1753, when an 11-day correction was applied so that February 17 was succeeded by March 1 that year. Not everyone was pleased with the calendar reform. Some people believed it stole 11 days of their lives.

This exercise in calendrical calisthenics was also applied in terms of St Lucia’s Day which falls on December 13, which under the old Julian calendar was the winter solstice, but the tradition has persisted despite the Gregorian calendar.

St Lucia lived in Sicily in the fourth century C.E. and was an early martyr to male jealousy. She had a suitor who would not accept her giving her life to God. He and his pagan mates tried to burn her and when that did not work, they stabbed her in the throat. She has become the patron saint of virginity, kindness and the blind.  She was also supposed to have taken food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, wearing a headdress of candles to light the way so she could have her hands free to carry the provisions. Allegedly some monks brought her story to Scandinavia and everybody was so entranced that she has her own day in the Swedish calendar.

She even has her own signature buns (lussekatter)– dotted with raisins and a touch of saffron for taste, to be eaten for breakfast.

Lucia, the bearer of light

My Swedish friend sent me a link to wonderful choral performance, to celebrate the day. It was presumably at dusk on this shortest of days. A recent quote sums to beautifully provide another insight relevant to the celebration. The most important thing is to hold that tiny spark of life, if it is in a bud, in a seed, that is our work, to hold on to life, so when spring comes back, there can be growth. 

The choir is essentially composed of young people in white robes with a red ribbon tied around the waist. Red is the liturgical colour for saints. In this video they were all young women. The lead singer of the choir had a garland on her head, with nine candles. She represents Lucia, the bearer of light. In the background are a number of young male choristers who, as distinct from those in white are well rugged up in identical clothes and a scarf twisted over to cover their necks. The viewers know the depth of the cold by the condensation in the air as they sing; no indoor auditorium for these young people.

There is a section of young children singing in a snug festive room as they make Christmas decorations, there is a music section with an alto saxophonist and double bass; in one section the singer, who is accompanied by a piano accordion, is in traditional Sámi dress in front of a lavvu with reindeer roaming in the backgound. I presumed, by the presence of Swedish subtitles, that the singing in this segment was in Sámi. The concert was an hour long, and the link: https://www.svtplay.se/video/29267198/luciamorgon-fran-jukkasjarvi

Watching and listening to this concert made me think of the paradox of Christmas. Christmas has become just that – a celebration in the snow. All the trappings, all the sentimentality is linked to images of Northern Europe or those areas of North America where the pine trees are the backdrop and the images are of clear starry cold nights with reindeer, sleigh rides, snowmen (never snow women – or have I missed something?).

But when the Nativity was wowing them in Bethlehem, there was not a reindeer or sleigh in sight.

Yet in Jordan we travelled down from the freezing mountains, where shepherds watched their flocks by night, and the skies were clear. We encountered, in this country where Christ may have walked, both frankincense and myrrh for sale. These, together with gold, the wise men may have bought on the way. Sitting in the adobe shop, I could have imagined that this could have been the case, and then the three wise men deciding whether the baby needed swaddling clothes as well.

Petra – The Treasury

Travelling through Jordan, there is the reminder of not only Christianity but of other religions, their faith and their architecture. The most stunning is the rock city of Petra built by the Nabateans, Arabs of whom there is sketchy knowledge, but they were polytheistic and important in managing the regional trade routes. Petra is just the most breathtaking manifestation of the way the peoples who populated modern day Jordan approached their beliefs. Standing on the top of Mount Nebo, one of the most sacred sites for both Christians and Jews, we gazed out over the landscape where many of the settlements have Biblical reference, among these Bethlehem lying 50 kilometres away to the west.

One of the common threads in religious belief is the celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas is no different. However, in Jordan there is a degree of authenticity, where snow may be on the peaks, in winter while at sea level the pasture remains green and fertile along the Sea of Galilee. By authenticity, it should be recognised that the Nativity was a time when Arabs and Jews merged into a common heritage as they gathered around the newly-born Infant.

However, to have a Christmas tradition re-cast in the starkness of the Middle East, where Peace on Earth is a rare commodity.  The nativity is not just a play for infants performing before treacly parents. The Swedes showed in their celebration of St Lucia’s day that children are only one part. The problem with so many of the Christmas carols is that they refer to the Northern European latter-day traditions rather than to the Land in which Christ was born. I portrayed this conundrum in a short story I once wrote; and there are only a few that tie the birth of Christ to where it occurred in their Christmas observance. The processional “Once in Royal David’s City” is one such hymn.

Let us have a Palestinian Christmas – just once. When I went to Bethlehem, there were a substantial number of Christian Arabs. That was 25 years ago when I took a ten-minute taxi drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. How times have changed. Still, in Australia we can have Christmas in the desert. It would be more authentic, but it is the longest day here. After that, it is all downhill to winter.

Still, as I write I see the decorated fir tree in the window of our house. We are prisoners of tradition, no matter how this observance contrasts with what I have written. Would I substitute a coolabah tree or native cypress covered in Antipodean detritus? I think I would, and who needs candles when we have so much daylight and the Southern Cross?

 My first Christmas December 25, 1939

Winston Churchill’s message on that day:

There is a certain similarity between the position now and at the end of 1914. The transition from peace to war has been accomplished. The outer seas, for the moment at any rate, are clear from enemy surface craft. The lines in France are static. But in addition on the sea we have repelled the U-boat attack … and we can see our way through the magnetic mine novelty. Moreover, in France the frontier is maintained instead of six or seven of the French provinces and Belgium being in the enemy’s hands. Thus I feel we may compare the position now very favourably with that of 1914. And also I have the feeling (which may be corrected at any moment) that the Kaiser’s Germany was a much tougher than Nazi Germany.

I shut my eyes. It is as though Boris Johnson is talking. Churchill was lucky; over to you, Bojo. Got a rabbit foot handy?

Mouse Whisper

I understand that this was not a boy called Christopher questioning.

Apparently, this little child asked his father “where does poo come from Daddy?”

His father explained it to him and a look of horror came over the child’s cherubic face, “And Piglet?”

Happy Christmas to all and May your Yuletide never go out.
Don’t forget putting Mirth into the Myrrh, Sense into Frank and Gold into AUz.

Modest Expectations – Powder River

Ukhaa Khudag mine, one of at least 15 coal mines in Mongolia

Friedland chairs Toronto stock exchange-listed miner Ivanhoe Mines which owns 79% of South Gobi Energy Resources which currently achieves the most export sales out of the Mongolian coal producers.

The tax on mining profits in Mongolia was 25% compared to Australia’s proposed 30% mining tax, Friedland said.

Mongolia had a clear advantage in that it neighboured (sic) its Chinese customers. 

“They’re closer to China than your lucky island.” Friedland told the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum last week.

Australia-listed Hunnu Coal is busy advancing several promising Mongolian thermal and coking coal projects with minimal start-up costs.

Wood can see some shocks ahead for Australia’s leading export industry.

“I think Australia is going to find it hard to compete with coal 600 kilometres from Beijing with labour at tenth of the price. Mongolia has a highly supportive government and has abolished the stupid taxes Australia is now contemplating. Australia has got some problems.” 

He noted some other advantages of mining coal in Mongolia. “Australian mines are getting deeper and older. The easy, cheaper coal is gone. These deposits in Mongolia are open cut from surface – they haven’t even been developed yet, the best years are still coming.”

The Mongolian government is working hard to expand the coal industry and announced major railway investment plans last month.

Wood said one of the plans was a link from the giant Tavan Tolgoi coking coal field in the South Gobi province, where Hunnu Coal has projects, all the way up to northern Mongolia where it can link up to Russia’s Tran Siberian railway line. 

From there, the coal is railed out for export through Vladivostok port on the east coast of Russia. 

“That’s a very short boat ride to Korea and Japan,” Wood said.

He said the Koreans, Japanese and Russians were keen to invest in Mongolian rail.

Wood said the Japanese and Koreans were extremely keen to get access to Mongolian coal “so it’s not just about China; Mongolian coal will be seaborne and that is a real threat to Australia.” 

“That’s why Friedland is saying these things. 

“These things aren’t going to happen next month, they are not going to happen next year but people are making investment decisions in Queensland based upon five to ten years.

“In five to ten years they will be competing against Mongolian coal well and truly.” 

In the light of the recent announcements about Mongolia supplying coal to China, perhaps it would be useful to refresh the Australian Government’s recall of this article that appeared in Mining of 9 August 2010 when the coking and thermal coal deposits were being opened up in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

While there is Australian investment in mining in that country, this assessment was given by the Canadian/American billionaire, Robert Friedland. He had then invested heavily in Mongolian coal, as now he is investing in gold and nickel in Australia. His parents were Holocaust survivors and Friedland from a young man has moved with shakers. For instance, as a student he managed an apple orchard in Oregon, where Steve Jobs, a friend would come to work at weekends – that “small enterprise’s” name came from that Jobs’ experience. Friedland himself is undoubtedly smart and well-connected.

Matthew Wood is Australian and was trained as a geologist with qualifications in mineral economics. At the time of this 2010 article he owned Hunnu Coal, but sold it two years later to Hong Kong interests. He has kept up his mining interests in Mongolia so much so that he was recently awarded the Order of the Polar Star, the highest award which the Mongolian government gives to non-Mongolians.

Hey, Prime Minister, when you held up that lump of coal in Parliament, were you sure it was Australian?

Peterborough, Coorey and the Goyder Line

Phillip Coorey has a very spare entry about his early life in his published biography. However, on radio recently he revealed that he was bought up in Peterborough in South Australia. He rattled off a few not very convincing reminiscences to the effect that, as a lad, he may have been committed to a life on the header there.

What he did mention was Goyder’s Line. Surprisingly, the radio interviewer seemed not to have heard of Goyder’s Line. This is a line drawn across a map of South Australia by George Goyder, the then state surveyor, who meticulously drew this imaginary line from just north of Ceduna to just north of Pinnaroo on the border with Victoria in the early 1860s.

Above the line, the land was unsuitable for long term cropping; below the line it was suitable for cropping. His findings were greeted with the normal sceptical response, even when recognition of the line was drafted into legislation. A few good rainfall years turned scepticism into scorn and the Act was soon repealed. Then the normal series of drought years followed, validating Goyder’s observations, and the Act reinstated.

If you drive north of Goyder’s line, there are the results of the scorn on view, ruined sandstone houses of those who knew better.  The land along the Flinders Range is littered with evidence of how correct Goyder was.

Ruins of a farmhouse, near the Flinders Ranges

An interesting observation when driving south is that fords across the many water courses are replaced by bridges, starting just north of Goyder’s Line; a significant reminder of the more reliable rainfall south of the Goyder?

Peterborough almost straddles the line – so cropping occurs for now. In any event Peterborough has another claim to fame besides Mr Coorey. It is where there is one of the two horse abattoirs in Australia. A horse abattoir differs from a knackery in that it produces horse meat suitable for export, mostly to Europe.

Goyder’s Line is the drought line. No other State has such a meticulously worked out differentiation of this arid land into its cropping and grazing potential.

As was reported:  “George got on his horse and rode 3200 km east to west across the colony. Finally, in 1865, Goyder submitted his report and map to the state government.

Goyder used old rainfall guides and changes in vegetation to produce his report. He noted that mallee scrub, which needs a higher rainfall, dominated in the south while saltbush which can exist on far less moisture was the main vegetation in the north. With his report showing that north of the line was drier and the south wetter, he discouraged farmers from planting crops north of his line, as he considered this land only suitable for grazing.”

Goyder’s Line thus remains. Thirty kilometres north of Peterborough is a ghost town called Dawson. It was set up in defiance of Goyder’s finding. It remains as a testimony to those who gambled their livelihood against the empirical evidence; and lost.

Peterborough survives as an outwardly prosperous town for now, but there is the ever-present threat of a shift of Goyder’s Line away from Peterborough because of climatic change.

Irrigation has enabled the Riverland to prosper above Goyder’s Line; and technology has been used to crop above Goyder’s Line, but it remains as a concrete reminder of scientific integrity.

Australia has produced an array of substantial scientists, whose renown does not rely on being puffed up by that bane of civilisation – the public relations spinning arachnoids. Goyder was one such scientist.

The night I danced with Nikki Savva

1970s Darwin

It was a time before Cyclone Tracey, and the Travelodge was the most prominent feature of Darwin. We were there campaigning for the LCP in the Northern Territory election, which resulted in the LCP winning 17 out of the 19 seats. The remaining two went to independents; Labor’s strategy left them with no seats. How much our visit to Darwin influenced the result is not clear. After all, there were no Aboriginal candidates in any of the electorates. All the candidates were Territorians, aka “whitefellas”.

In this bubble at the Travelodge that evening, there was much jollification, and I remember at one stage dancing with a young reporter from The Australian, Nikki Savva. It is a funny thing that memory of this brief encounter has stuck in my mind when other memories of that night have dissolved.

Eventually, I drifted off to my room staggering along with my colleague. He had the room opposite. It was a different image when I awoke next morning.  The door of the room opposite was wide open. The room was empty. The room was now a wreck – it looked as it had been trashed, but when I walked across the corridor, I smelt the aftermath of a fire. The walls were covered with soot – there had been some water damage.

Blearily I went back to my room. It never occurred to me until later that I had not been evacuated. I had slept through the ruckus and nobody had thought to wake me. Such considerations came later when I learnt that my colleague had lit his mattress and was found in a smoke-filled bathroom, completely disorientated. His rescuer was a journalist travelling with the team. The fire brigade had been called, but I slept on. This was not the last time I slept though an awkward situation, nor that I escaped being burnt to death. Sometimes as the memory grew distant, in one of my rational moments, I believe that there is a force which determined that my time was not up – not then.

What was so different from today? There was no report in the media, although everyone knew but nobody talked about it – nobody wrote it.

I never knew who paid for the damage. It did not come across my desk.

Somehow I doubt whether that would be allowed to go unnoticed today.

However, so much has changed, but old habits die hard for me not acknowledging by name those who were in that burning room that night.

But I do remember Nikki Savva – a brief encounter and I doubt whether we have ever spoken since, such were our different career pathways. However, I enjoy her insights – and sometimes I agree with her, for what it is worth.

The charred Letter

In a slightly different mode, after the 1974 election I went to Snedden and said that the Liberal Party should have a Tasmanian strategy, since all the five House of Representatives seats were held by Labor, but were very winnable given that the number of electors is relatively small and local issues dominate. Labor was vulnerable if Whitlam’s lack of empathy for Tasmania could be countered. In fact, Lance Barnard being Whitlam’s deputy and a Tasmanian gave a certain sheen to Whitlam in the eyes of Tasmanians.

When Barnard retired from the seat of Bass not long after Fraser replaced Snedden, little or no credence was given to Snedden’s campaign to highlight that being distinct from the Whitlam haughtiness, Snedden cared for Tasmanian problems. There was even a shadow ministerial portfolio which Snedden gave to Bob Ellicott. It was pure populist politics.

As history showed, a retired army officer called Kevin Newman, well connected by marrying into a northern Tasmanian establishment family, won in a landslide. Many of the sage journalists identified it as a turning point in the eventual electoral demolition of Whitlam.

That is the background to this response the office received after letters seeking their priorities were sent to each of the Councils in Tasmania, which in those days numbered 79. This meant that some of the municipalities were formed when the populations of some was far greater than now.

Ruins of hotel, Linda Valley, Gormanston

I was reminded of one response when driving through Gormanston on the shoulder between Mount Lyell and Mount Owen before the Murchison highway plunges down to Queenstown. Where once copper miners lived near the mine the municipality no longer exists. Now almost a ghost town, but back in 1974, it was a separate municipality. Many replies to the letters were received, but about six months after, a reply was received from the Warden of Gormanston apologising for the lateness, but the Council offices had been burnt down. The letter was written on decent note paper, but it confirmed the Warden’s excuse. The edges of the letter were severely charred.

Snow Gums

Some years ago, we were driving around Tierra del Fuego and on a bare hill there were these blanched fallen tree trunks, resembling the bones of long lost creatures. When I asked about them, my guide said that there had been a great fire about 50 years before, and in the harsh conditions of the island, trees had never grown back.

Snow gums after bushfire

I remember a few years after a bushfire at Falls Creek in the Victorian Alps, had destroyed a great number of snow gums. They were whitened reminders among a blackened landscape slowly recovering. However, snow gums take 50 years to grow again, and before the fire there had been a huge stand of these beautiful trees. Now there are bleached reminders of nature’s revenge.

Near Mt Arrowsmith on the Tasmanian West Coast snow gums abound. They have one of most beautiful trunks of any of the eucalypts, along with leopard gums and salmon gums, not to mention the ghost gums of Central Australia. The trunks have dove grey and fawn markings against an essentially creamy white trunk. Bark is added decoration, lightly suspended from some the trunks, for snow gums are the contortionists of the eucalypt world, tossing themselves into bizarre shapes, but always maintaining their delicate beauty.

The road near Mount Arrowsmith is where the Murchison Highway is liable to be closed by snowfalls in winter, and it is here that a bushfire has left its signature. The bush has been reduced to a picket of black sticks where the only regeneration is blackberry bushes and bracken. It showed how long it had been since we had travelled the road from Hobart. Normally, we come down to the West Coast from Devonport – at least before COVID-19 closed off Tasmania. It showed how long it had been since we had driven from the south, because Hobart is further away than the northern Tasmanian cities.

I always believed that the West Coast of Tasmania was immune from bushfires because of its high rainfall, but in January 2016 there were multiple storms without much rain, but with a large number of lightning strikes which resulted in the West Coast burning in patches. Most the fires were concentrated in the northwest corner, but 1.2 per cent of the wilderness area was burnt. My belief that rainforest and moss lands would contain such a fire was disabused by the findings of an Inquiry. When the weather was dry, and today as I write this the temperature is 32oC in Strahan, then “all bets are off”. The West Coast of Tasmania will burn.

It is a wake-up call, especially as trading off an irreplaceable flora against a lean-to shed built by someone secretly growing marijuana and which can – and probably will – be easily rebuilt seems to be a no brainer.  Those entrusted with fire control need to make decisions based on the greater good – saving endangered irreplaceable flora makes a lot more sense than sacrificing it to save a couple of sheds.

Here in the south-west of Tasmania preservation of the environment is paramount. The human population is small, but if the wilderness was destroyed in a bushfire, it does not have the ability to regenerate quickly – if at all. The indigenous pines grow slowly – that is why when you look at a fully grown Huon Pine, or King Billy Pine you are looking back at a thousand years; some romantics say that the forests are little changed from when dinosaurs walked.

Gorse invades the West Coast of Tasmania

There are different priorities, because it is not only lightning strikes and man-made hazard reduction that can destroy the irreplaceable but also the disgraceful lack of attention that the Tasmanian government pays to the invasion of blackberry, bracken and particularly gorse, all together already creating a monument to West Coast neglect. A northern hemisphere native, gorse is a noxious weed here and a major fire hazard.

Look at the scene in the South-West four years after the fire. Just forgotten. It could be the harbinger of things to come.

Reflections on Matthias

Matthias Cormann is on the road again, metaphorically speaking. One of the pursuits which engages those trivia-centred people is to name five famous Belgians; and then for the master class five famous Walloons and five famous Flems. Matthias is neither of these. He was born of working class parents in the sliver of the country bordering Germany, which is naturally German speaking. Here the border has moved between the two countries depending on the political situation. He lived very close to the German border and his obvious affinity for Germany rather than the country of his birth is shown by his middle order award in 2018 from the German government for advancement of relations between Australia and Germany.

Cormann studied law and learnt Flemish at the first and French at the second university. He then went on an exchange Erasmus scholarship to Norwich, in the course of which he learnt English – all before he was 24 years of age. All that is on public record, together with his pursuit of a young woman to Perth.

Rejected, he went back to Belgium, but the second coming was very soon after. It seems an impetuous action, but then he was only 25. His quick eye obviously saw better opportunities in Western Australia rather than the country of his birth. Whether, as a member of small minority in a country riven by tribal strife where, in the job market, these tribal allegiances are translated into patronage, from which he was excluded, one can only speculate. However, if he is a serious contender for the OECD job, you can be assured there will be a rake going through the reasons for his flight from Belgium.

His adeptness at negotiating the political shoals in Australian politics were probably helped by a deferential mien which, as he rose up through the ranks, was retained as a courteous demeanour of appearing to listen. Perhaps having a very good grasp of where he was going and where he resides on the ladder of political influence was equally important.

He has no ideology; and that helps when some of your colleagues show moronic shrillness. However, his accent has been a useful weapon, when in others it could have been scorned. The accent is like a blade of steel – it gives him authority, even when he has blathered on and on, not answering questions as is his irritating wont.

Now he is trying his array of tricks on the world stage. Whether he survives the first cull is problematical given the Prime Ministerial aroma on this stage. Being a political chimney sweep covered in coal dust is not the image for selection for the OECD position. If Cormann presents a green visage to the members of the OECD, he needs to measure that against his welcome back into Australia, where his backers essentially have been the mining business community. Even a modern-day Metternich has limits to dissemblage.

However, what he may be angling for is the Australian ambassadorship to the OECD. The current incumbent could easily be recalled and there would be Matthias, like Banquo’s ghost, to haunt the new boss of the OECD – and incidentally polish his credentials on the world stage. Just a possibility. 

Mouse Whisper

Kristi Noem sounds like the name of a Christmas elf or a doughnut; but she is in fact the Governor of South Dakota.

She was recently in Casa Blanca, where she was surprised by her bruised hero, Heel Spur. She did not have time to express her adoration before he looked at her contemptously and turning to the pianist snarled: “You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it, Uncle Sam!”

Uncle Sam commenced playing, wistfully singing “You must dismember this…”

Tears formed in her eyes, “Oh, Heel, you know we’ll always have Pierre.”

Pierre, capital of South Dakota

 

Modest expectations – Beach

The search for truth and justice is sometimes long, arduous and costly. Politicians and journalists speaking and writing in good faith to further that search deserve our thanks, not our condemnation. 

The last Cabinet meeting in the old Cabinet Room 1988

One of the reasons Hawke was a successful Prime Minister was he set a high bar of intelligence for those who aspired to serve in his Cabinet. Hawke had an uncanny appreciation of the Australian profile but made sure that his level of intelligence was not on public display to the Australian community. The results were there was to project the Australian larrikin, and except in those crucial years when he was Prime Minister, he laid off the grog. He was reputed to be a good chair of meetings, which is often the case with intelligent people because they never let the meeting get away from them. They are confident in their own ability to elicit the best from their Cabinet. It is not as though they are in the majority the whole time, but they are able reconcile dissenting views.

I hardly knew Hawke, but I knew a number of his Ministers, and it was that time when my cohort – people in their late thirties through to mid-fifties were running the country. His achievements have been lasting – Medicare, national superannuation, floating the dollar and addressing tariff walls, and industrial peace – being obvious. He shared the success of his government around and was, for the most part, not seen climbing over Ministers to claim success nor resiling from failure. There is always a dark side to most people. Hawke was no paragon of virtue, but he was a substantial person.

However, it is an axiom in the race to the bottom that no national leaders ever let anybody more intelligent than themselves into their Cabinet. It has never been truer than today when you cast your eye over the current Australian leadership.

Smart people fail, pulled down by people less mentally equipped than themselves. The “Tall Poppy syndrome” is not an Australian trait by accident. The lesson of Malcolm Turnbull who, like Hawke, was a very intelligent “blow-in”, is a case in point. However, Turnbull was never comfortable about mixing in the front bar. In a trip to rural Queensland, the boys in the bar christened him the “tent peg” – Akubra hat on his scone and the body a tailored peg of new clobber – shirt and moleskins – not a speck of dust to be seen – unless it was the dust of his Commonwealth car or the plane moving away.

I remember another very smart NSW lawyer in the Turnbull mould, Ted St John. He didn’t last long, but he did make the point that if Australia didn’t pay politicians enough, then the standards would fall. He unfortunately was so wrong.

Election to Parliament is now equivalent of saying “Open Sesame” for the Mediocrity. The essential element of the new order is to be able to suck, while strategically learning to place the foot in the face of the competitor. Hardly an edifying exercise, but one about which the community I suspect has not wanted to know.

The parliamentary salary is incidental when compared to the accompanying perks and post-parliamentary life. So being a member of parliament is a desired objective, given the curricula vitae of most brings little worthwhile experience but plenty of ambition and a loose grasp on morality in all its forms.  Our politics are directed inwards, but I have written extensively about political dysfunctionality.

Incidentally the quote at the start of this piece comes from the eulogy on the death of Ted St John given by Michael Kirby in 1994. It says most of what I have taken a longer space to write.

Sinophobia or an Amplified Dislike?

The Virus has pushed much of the politics to deal with the financial downside, with the tension between those who wanted to prioritise health against those with the Trump agenda of prioritising business. As America is finding out, a pandemic saps the strength of the nation.

At the same time, a China increasingly immune from the pandemic has turned its attention to Australia. It seems as though that in concentrating on Australia, they are invoking the traditional “lingchi” method – death by a thousand cuts – cutting off the pectorals then the arms while the victim is still alive – and ending with decapitation.

The aggressive Morrison believes that playing to the “high vis” front bar, aping Trump, in some way neutralises the Chinese cold fury. Other countries “will hold Morrison’s coat” and salve his wounds every time his Chinese adversary knocks him down, whispering in his ear “just another round. You have softened him up, champ.” In other words, if Australia wants to lead direct confrontation, it takes the pressure off others.

The problem is that China holds most of the cards. There is an essential need for iron ore while Brazil remains a “basket case”; so we hold one card for now. However, they will continue to squeeze us on our exports which can be sourced elsewhere. The Chinese picked out barley exports as an early target. From sources years ago, I was told the best barley comes from the Yorke peninsula. This is in the electorate of Grey, which has shown substantial volatility in past elections. Whether the Chinese would drill down to an assessment of the impact of a boycott or imposition of outrageous tariffs on electorate voting patterns in Australia; it is a possibility.

If the Chinese are meddling in our electoral process, either directly or indirectly, it is noteworthy that Morrison does seem to have pushed forward the member of Chisholm, Gladys Liu, given her links to China. However, she may be paddling very hard, but beneath the surface.

In any event, the Chinese approach is calculated, although leaving coal-laden ships off the coast may be a mixed blessing by shrivelling our reliance on coal exports. This is one positive consequence. As it is with the timber ban – nothing like rendering native forests into wood chip. So a ban may improve our forest management and not leave the detritus of the chain saw as a tinder box for future bushfires.

Kingston SE’s Big Lobster

However, the consequences of rock lobster and wine targeting, as such action targets particular electorates in my thesis of the Chinese taking a very specific approach to lingchi dismemberment. As a consequence, rock lobsters are suddenly more readily available and at a cheaper price for the Australian consumer. Robe is one area where there are lobsters – the nearby town of Kingston SE has The Big Lobster. The response is not to send the boats out and when they do bring in a catch now, it may go into a sea tank on shore. When we purchased ours at Robe, only three had been cooked and we bought the one-and-a half kilo lobster. In addition to availability, the price was reasonable, thanks Xi-Ping, you bloody beauty.  Nevertheless, I am not quite sure about the value of that card.

Wine is more complicated but if the influential want to continue buying our wine – it may come up with a Tonga label and be imported as such. After all, 30 per cent of the Tongan economy is already Chinese.

But the newly-designed “lingchi” will continue, especially if we allow ourselves to be tied to the Chinese post, to be continually sliced.

The next anti-Australian strategy is to troll people who have not been inured to it. The Chinese have a store of grievances. After all, Australians have been beastly to the Chinese since goldfield days where they were forced to land at Robe to avoid the punitive poll tax the colony of Victoria imposed on them.  Tens of thousands of Chinese from all walks of life, searching for the “New Mountain of Gold” under a pall of discrimination, trudged from the port of Robe in South Australia across Victoria to the diggings. I am sure the Chinese government has a reservoir of troll scrolls to annoy and stimulate the Jones Boyo commentators inciting them to fall into the trap and inflame the situation into their own megaphonic integral loop of affront.

The Asian student has been a vital contributor to the education economy. The lure of the Australian universities was strong when their prestige was such that the Asian elite used to send their children to be educated here. Remember when the Australian upper class sent their children to be educated in the Old Country. Australia had a similar snob cachet. Now, not so much. Quality of education evens out; and as with everything, education improves locally as the middle class grows as it has done in China.

Australia is not a maritime nation, despite having one of the longest coastlines.  Rather it is a recreational yachting nation with a xenophobic concern for border scrutiny. Sometimes an early closure of our borders is justified, as with the Virus.  On the other hand border closures, if indiscriminate, lead to an inwardly concentrated nation with just too much a sense of hedonism.

So how are we dealing with the fact that the wedge of ocean south of us is our backyard? Is there any discussion about the future of Macquarie Island at a time when the world is warming? It may be inhospitable now, but in the future, who knows – except its sovereignty is clear.

On the other hand, the future of Antarctica is murky. All the optimism embodied in the 1957 Treaty is rapidly fading. China already has three bases in an area of the Antarctica claimed by Australia, where our nation has been a shrunken violet but has laid claim to 40 per cent of the land mass. It is hard to defend such a claim when our inattention to its strategic value seems to lead to much talk, and little action.

One of China’s three icebreakers

China has the three latest icebreakers.  Australia has one. But never fear. Australia has ordered six submarines to be ready by 2050 to satisfy the current electoral imperatives of the South Australian Liberal Party and to help Christopher Pyne in his retirement. How they will defend our Southern bailiwick is not clear – if, by 2050, there is a bailiwick.

Thus, there have been many words which reveal a depressing situation. At least it seems that New Zealand is patrolling the Southern Ocean. It is difficult to find out what Australia is doing, but some of the illegal fishing boats have suspiciously Chinese names under flags of convenience. Most of Australia’s maritime resources are concentrated in the north to repel the asylum seekers. I am not sure what we gain by patrolling the Red sea, but it is probably important to America.

Our policy reminds me of the British who, in Singapore, faced their guns toward the sea, because the British thought that the threat came from the sea. Pity the Japanese thought otherwise.

Australia has a great deal to lose if it loses its passage to Antarctica, given the large amount of territorial water shared with New Zealand. And I have not addressed the impact of Heard Island. Every rock is important as the people of Tristan da Cunha, a South Atlantic British protectorate which has set up a fishing war zone around the territory three times the size of Great Britain, has recognised. It would be better if we joined the UK in keeping out the “Chinese pirate navy”, as it is called by the islanders – more use than playing war games in the Northern Pacific.

And if you wonder about relevance, just look at where your rock lobster has been sourced while we have been sending all of ours to China – Tristan da Cunha.

Fisheries rate lowly in policy at a national level – an Assistant Minister who reports to the Minister of Agriculture, Littleproud, who comes from Central Queensland.  At least the Assistant Minister comes from Tasmania, and Macquarie Island falls within Tasmanian jurisdiction and the Antarctic Division is located in Hobart. However, Minister, that is not what I am writing about.

A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to the Bathroom

Anonymouse – regular correspondent

The zig zag lines …

It comes on so infrequently. But when it comes, it always comes in the same way. The first indication is the loss of vision laterally – always in the left eye. Then this loss – called a scotoma – spreads across the whole left visual field as it is taken over by a downwards arc of small shimmering white triangles, called a fortification spectrum because its pattern resembles the walls of a medieval fort, with zigzag lines on the leading edge.

Sometimes a dull pain commences in my right fronto-temporal region.

As my attacks are so infrequent I don’t have any anti-migraine drugs, but I do always have aspirin on hand; taking one gram of aspirin solves the visual problem almost immediately. The headache persists as it sometimes does, but I am wearing dark classes.  I am away from the computer and this description is being transcribed as I work through the murk of this attack.

I did not know what I was doing or what was happening when I experienced my first attack. It was so sudden and the immediate reaction was that something catastrophic was going on with my eyes. Wise counsel provided a simple solution – it was a pre-migraine aura and aspirin in a large dose and avoiding light was the answer (add to that – avoiding computer screens).

This latest attack has come only days after I had visited the optometrist and received a clean bill of health, at least to the limits of his expertise.

This might be of interest to others who have experienced something similar – or need some reassurance.

Black Friday

Loss of Life and Property Exceeds 1851 Destruction

“18 people perished in Victoria to-day. The death toll has now reached 20 since the fires commenced. At least 10 others are missing. To-day was the blackest day in the tragic history of Victorian bushfire terrors, eclipsing the terrible “Black Thursday” of 1851, and the disastrous fires of 1926, 1928 and 1932. 

Damage almost beyond assessment has been done. Thousands of square miles of valuable timber country have been burnt out. Farm lands have been ravaged and dozens of homes destroyed. A large section of the State is now a blackened ruin and smoke from the advancing flames shrouds the entire State. 

Seven people met terrible deaths when two cars in which they were making a dash for safety through the blazing bush at Narbethong were overwhelmed by flames. Eleven men perished in a holocaust in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria.

The Narbethong tragedy was discovered by firefighters who were searching the ruined area for people who had been reported missing. They found the burnt out cars close together on a track leading from the Buxton-Maryville road to Peiglan’s mill. Nearby were five bodies, those of three men, a woman and a child in the ruined cars were the charred bodies of two more men. All the victims had been terribly burned and the heat had been so terrific that some of the metal of the cars, and the glass windscreens and windows, had been melted.

Two families were making a dash to Narbethong. On the way they picked up three Greek workers, who had been sheltering in a river. Not long afterwards, a wall of flame met the two cars as the fire, which had raced through the Acheron district with incredible speed, overtook them. Five of the victims, including the child, made a run for it, but dropped in their tracks as the scorching blast struck them. A similar fate overtook the two men who had remained in the cars. It was an irony of fate that, had the Greeks remained in the river, they would still be alive, for seven other men, employees of the same mill, were found safe after the fire had passed.

Eleven men lost their lives in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria. The men apparently lost their lives after an ineffectual effort to save the Rubicon and Pearce mills from destruction. As the fire advanced, they were obliged to run for their lives. Five of them died on the track through the forest. Their bodies burnt almost beyond recognition, were found this morning. The other bodies were found not far from the mills. Two bodies were huddled in a small clearing. Smouldering coats covered their faces, but the heat had killed them.

In another part of this area 25 timber workers saved their lives by standing in a dam for many hours, dipping their heads beneath the surface periodically to save their faces from the heat. The fire which claimed the lives of the Narbethong victims almost accounted for two other men from Feiglan’s mill who, shockingly burned about the lower parts of their bodies, reached Buxton to-day after a nightmare journey through the fire-swept forest. Covered with sawdust, they stated that, after trying without success to save the mills, they ran to the only cleared patch, the cricket pitch, where they lay down and covered themselves with sawdust from the mills. Scorched, and suffering agony to the limit of endurance, they remained there until the fire had passed.

The sawdust had been charred. and their bodies from their feet to their waists were badly burned. The destruction of telegraph lines has made a careful check-up of the missing people impossible at present and it is possible that some of those, whose whereabouts are unknown are safe.

The Powelltown valley was a sea of flame and hundreds of acres of valuable timber country have been destroyed. Anxiety expressed yesterday about the safety of men, women and children at the Ada River mill was allayed to-day when they were brought safely to the township. Noojee, the scene of the disastrous fires in 1926, is again menaced. The flames are creeping slowly towards the town through the heavily timbered country. Huge trees in the Loch valley have crashed to the ground and there appears to be no hope of combating the flames at this juncture.

One party of men who had been making a road to Rubicon power station ran down the track, but five men waited while one of them went to the rescue of his dog. These men were not seen again. The others reached a clearing which they had prepared earlier in case of an emergency. Rubicon residents succeeded in getting through to Alexandra, although, for many miles, they had to drive through terrible fires.  

This report has been retrieved from Trove. It is often disconnected but it reflects the horror and fear that the correspondent was feeling.

Pointedly it was further reported that the then Prime Minister Lyons was fighting fires in Tasmania where he had his home. Joe Lyons himself even at that time had health problems. Three months later he was dead of a heart attack. No Hawaii holiday for him.

I was born in Victoria. Then we grew up with the memory of Black Friday. Our parents and grandparents had suffered that day.

I thus object to the term “Black Friday” being used as an adaptation of an American marketing ploy to start the annual fleecing of the population in the lead up to what were once   religious festivals.

Even more distasteful is that the “black” signifies turning the ledger entries from red to black, in other words for the marketeers “black” is synonymous with profit – hence the name “Black Friday”.

We, as Australians have come through yet another horrendous bushfire season in 2019, where every day of the week could have been labelled “black” – and here the term has been used in a trivial manner spitting in the face of those who have tried to tame nature. To end the week of the “Black Friday sales”, there were the images of politicians lachrymose over the memorial of two firefighters who perished in the bushfires earlier this year.

These men were members of the Buxton fire brigade in NSW. The Buxton in Victoria was in the midst of the Black Sunday fire in 1939. A tragic association – it should be noted that the 1939 news account used the word “holocaust” before it was given that wider connotation.

Nevertheless, the use of the word was that of a correspondent trying to find a way to express the horror of that day.

Black Friday is 13 January in the Australian lexicon. Those of you who try to trivialise and violate the meaning of Black Friday will probably be greeted with a shrug of the collective Australian shoulders signifying how far the decline in public morality has fallen.

Mine is a different ledger from that of the on-line retailers. Fire is red; it turns the country black as the aftermath. However, if that is how the country wishes to debase “Black Friday” on the Amazon Altar, so be it.

Mouse Whisper

Once upon a time, there was a gracious lady. She loved the elms in her city as much as she loved the gum trees of her rural childhood.  The city sheriff wanted to cut the elms down and replace them with desert ash.  Elms were not tidy; they shed their leaves and the leaves needed to be cleaned up on the roads. Tidiness was the word; as the sheriff turned to ash.

She protested loudly. She wrote; she marched; she created a controversy. Eventually she defeated the sheriff, and the elms still grow and flourish.

Unlike the World at large.

Her elms remain as major survivors of the Dutch Elm Disease which killed elms all over the world, but not here.

The elms are now a valuable asset. The city is famous for them. The world comes to see these elms.

The lady lies at rest; her resting place covered with rosemary. On her rough granite gravestone is inscribed a drawing of the elm leaf – and an inscription to she who loved the elm and the eucalypt.

There are now perhaps 70,000 elms in Australia, most of which are in Victoria.

One of Victoria’s many avenues of elms

Modest Expectations – Earthquake in Hunter Street

I arrived at the Melbourne apartment having come down from Sydney on Wednesday 25th November. The desk calendar said May. I had not been here since then?

The Virus has wreaked havoc and it is time to reflect given that I have been writing my blog continuously during this time. Hence, once written, always there.

There have been two major disasters – one was the Ruby Princess. Some say the targets to whom I assigned blame were wrong. There is always the fall guy, and people have told me who it is.

Given the Premier seems to be wrestling with disclosing her misdemeanours, she is trying to deflect an increasing number of embarrassing disclosures by filibustering. The “poor little me” melodrama is becoming increasingly tiresome, but people should listen to her fellow Armenian, Mr Aznavourian sing “She”:

She may be the face I can’t forget

A trace of pleasure or regret

May be my Treasurer

The price I have to pay.

Increasingly her NSW constituents may begin to agree with her fellow Armenian’s summation. Obviously, the Queensland Premier may agree as she has used poor Gladys as a punching bag; the State of Origin biff has extended to the two government leaders.

Anyway, the Queensland Premier has her own idiosyncrasies, apart from Jeanette Young, including her insistence on being called “Palashay” and not the original Ukrainian “Palastchuk”. Perhaps it was this Slavonic heritage that loved the sound of Dr Young’s continual “nyet”. Who would know?

Border closures were initially effective as was confining people’s movements, but after a while it became a symbol of secession – even puerile schoolyard spats. It should be noted that if Andrews had not given it credibility by supporting Morrison’s “National Cabinet”, it would have floundered. In any event Morrison has shown little trustworthiness.

Lockdown had a novelty value as Insiders showed with their amusing washing troubadours way back in March and Daniel Emmet continued the fun with his banishment of the Virus to the sound of “Nessun Dorma”.

However, it progressed from a romp when Peter Dutton came back from the USA with the Virus and it was reported that his senior colleagues immediately panicked until they were quietened down by Dr Paul Kelly. However, the lavage jolliness had given away to a sense of vulnerability, albeit fear.

What has happened is that the State governments took the matter very seriously and closed the borders. It is a difficult area to manage because not opening borders can lead to two outcomes, as has been shown over the succeeding months. The first is that despite the Commonwealth having the quarantine power it was virtually ignored by the State Governments – except in one area – the actual meaning of “pandemic”.

However, in one way, the Commonwealth listened to the health experts, and those like Brendan Murphy, who was appointed Head of the Federal Health Department, listened to the health experts in his own team – Paul Kelly and Nick Coatsworth. There were myriad others with varying levels of health expertise, but apart from a number of superficial missteps, Murphy listened to the right voices and the distilled Health advice prevailed over Murdoch and his fellow Ignorants, most of whom could understood the share market but not much else.

In the end, apart from the tourist industry and interference with social communication, the real effect of border closure was magnified by the closure of the NSW / Victorian border. One of the worst happenings is to continually go into lockdowns, then open the borders, then go into lock down again – on and on heightening confusion. I am not a fan of hotels being used as quarantine facilities because in the end all are porous. This is the nature of the beast, especially when you impose imprisonment without accompanying health expertise, and then find out you did not have the expertise anyway. This occurred in Victoria and Daniel Andrews assumed control, locked the State down, imported the contact tracing expertise from NSW, where it had saved the Armenian bacon, and while all about were behaving badly Andrews gradually, over 112 days, bullied Victoria into compliance. It was a terrible time for those in the State but demonstration of the discipline needed to eliminate the virus that is raging everywhere else in the world, apart from selected areas in the South Pacific.

In the end, the strategy had its effect. It suppressed the Virus, and in the case of Victoria probably eliminated it. As a result, woe betide any tennis player who comes to Australia with a cavalier attitude. He or she will be faced with a battle-hardened population who are not going to allow a set of “celebrities” to import the Virus. The message is plain.  Get it into your heads, nobody is going to breach security again and bring in your own tidal wave of infection.

What Andrews showed was courage under fire from the Murdoch media and an Opposition who, if their actions were seditious rather than serious criticism, should be facing charges. He showed that once a lockdown is imposed, and his State embarked on a recovery plan, he had to get it right and not backtrack. That drifting in the political breezes is happening all over the world, in and out of lockdown with political rather than the resolute application of health priorities being uppermost . Under the recklessness of the Mad Trump or the hubris of the Swede Tegnall, people die, people clog up the health system and, as with any arterial blockage, the end result is death to the blocked area.  Andrews showed the way by eliminating the blockage and should be overwhelmingly elected Australian of the Year.

South Australia has since had a similar outbreak in hotel quarantine, and the lockdown was far shorter and the epidemiological weapons used had been improved across Australia since March. As this blog goes to posting, NSW has just had a breach in hotel quarantine.

Underlying all the political action is that there will be a viable vaccine available soon. There seem to be plans upon plans for distribution of an untested product.

There are two questions that seem to be consumed by the cacophony of the public relations spin. What are the side effects and can I die from the cure? How long does the immunity last? You see, I grew up in a world where we had injections before we went overseas, and they did not grant life-long immunity. You had to get injected for cholera and typhoid each time you went overseas – and the latter gave me a nasty local reaction. I’d been through it at that time, bearing my vaccination card, when overseas travel was a far smaller sector than in the modern world.

This whole area is complicated by the Head of Qantas saying that you would not be able to board an aircraft unvaccinated. Forced to take an unproven vaccine? Where is the duty of care? The world of business is treading a perilous pathway.

Finally, one thing I would say is that the media is braying about how well our political leaders have stood up in the recent polls. Did the polls award Morrison the Lodge in 2019?  Did the polls accurately reflect the votes in the recent US elections. Let’s face it. Polls stink.

Ah yes, but this is the poll I like. It says I am popular. The politician preens. It says that people think of me as a perfumed gardenia. Beware, gardenias die very quickly and leave a stench not a perfume. But then I am given another gardenia, and it’s alright, isn’t it?

Why not a Summit at ShaTin?

The Chinese are insulting us. The Prime Minister armed with his Pentecostal shield fights back. The Chinese are trying to strangle our industries. The Chinese have taken over Hong Kong completely. Dissidents are being locked up.

Sha Tin race course

But it is not all bad. There is still horse racing in Hong Kong – whether at Happy Valley on the Island or Sha Tin in the New Territories with Australian-bred horses, Australian-bred trainers, Australian-bred jockeys and even Australian-bred stewards. All their antics are broadcast by Channel 7 in the interests of Sino-Australian recognition of our long association with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Chair of the Club is Phillip Chen Nan-Tok. He seems to be well connected, having been a senior executive of the Swire Group and of various property developments in Hong Kong and on the Mainland.

It is all unreal. Munchkin-like barrier attendants. The race commentary and in between race commentary is all very English, although the race-caller is obviously Antipodean; he does not have the languid style of the British race-caller or the unintelligible brogue of an Irish counterpart. There he is describing Australian horses galloping around these racetracks with not a whiff of tear gas or the young rioting against Mainland repression.

The betting brings Hong Kong plenty of money – and not an Australian boycott in sight. I wonder therefore if the Chinese will be at the Australian horse sales in the New Year.

Bliss

My son gave me “Abraham Lincoln” – which coincidentally was reprinted in 1939, the year of my birth. This book was written by William Thayer, an American educator, who was born during the American Civil War.

Lincoln

The book details a mob response to the death of President Lincoln in very graphic terms:

“In some localities the grief expressed itself in the form of vengeance. It assumed that form early on Saturday morning in the city of New York. Armed men gathered in the streets threatening speedy death to disloyal citizens. Their numbers rapidly increased, until fifty thousand assembled in Wall Street Exchange, bearing aloft a portable gallows, and swearing summary vengeance upon the first rebel sympathizer who dared to speak. One thoughtless fellow remarked that ‘Lincoln ought to have been shot long ago’; and he was struck dead instantly. The grieved and vengeful crowd seethed towards the office of the World, a disloyal paper, with mutterings of violence on their lips. It seemed scarcely possible to prevent violent demonstration. A bloody scene appeared to be imminent. At that critical moment a portly man, of commanding physique and voice, appeared upon the balcony of the City Hall, from which telegrams were read to the people, and raising his right hand to invoke silence, he exclaimed, in clear and sonorous tones:-

‘Fellow-citizens, – Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies! Justice and judgement are the habitation of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow-citizens! God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives!’

The effect of this serious address was magical. The raging populace subsided into repose. A hushed silence pervaded the vast assembly, when the voice of the speaker ceased, as if they had listened to a messenger from the skies. The change was marvellous. The speaker was General James A. Garfield, who became President sixteen years afterwards, and was shot by an assassin four months later! How strange that the inhabitants of that metropolis, who listened to the gifted statesman so gladly, April 14th, 1865, should be shocked by the news of his assassination on July 2nd, 1881!”

There are two stories in this excerpt from the book. The one directly showing that in times of crisis America always seems to unearth a saviour. Garfield’s ability to quell the mob reaction restored a degree of order into what was one of the most provocative acts imaginable to incite mob revenge – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

James Garfield had been a major-general in the Union forces while still in his 30s and had seen action in some of the major American Civil War battles such as Shiloh while still a young man. He may have been described as portly in the above excerpt, but he was only 34, and “portly” is not a word I would normally associate with a person of that age.

Garfield

Moreover, as with Lincoln, Garfield was born in a log cabin – Lincoln in Kentucky, Garfield in Ohio – both Republicans, both with progressive social agendas.

When Garfield was shot, he had a doctor called “Doctor Willard Bliss” foisted on him. Doctor was actually his first name and in most of the description of this man, he is known as “D W Bliss”. Bliss was a rogue, in that he ran away under fire at the Battle of Bull Run, and then claimed that he participated in a great victory. He faced prison for stealing Army equipment but was helped to evade conviction by his political contacts.  He took the opportunity of an association with Lincoln’s son to spruik a false cancer cure.

Notwithstanding that, he bobbed up as Garfield’s personal physician again on Lincoln’s son’s recommendation. He was completely disdainful of Listerian concepts in mitigating infection. It is not reported whether he ever uttered something like “fake news” or “hoax’. However, it was his complete repudiation of infection control including shoving unsterilised instruments into the President’s body in a vain attempt to find the bullet that accelerated the President’s ultimate demise.

Despite a welter of optimistic reports on the progress of the President’s condition, completely fake, Garfield died on September 16 – two months after the assassination attempt. A long pus-laden sinus was found in the President’s body at post-mortem – the track outlined where Bliss’s probe had gone.

At trial, Charles Guiteau, the would-be assassin,  said in his defence that he did not kill the President, Bliss did. Nevertheless, it was Guiteau who was convicted and hanged in January 1882.

In fact, Bliss billed the US Government for an outrageous sum for services rendered, but in the end received nothing.

Real gallows humour, because with Bliss, quackery and fake news clashed with scientific evidence. Scientific evidence and the life of a President were the victim of the Bliss cocktail.

Ambulant recognition

Simple things are often lost in the grand sweep of the disabled. One of the problems with being disabled is the lack of uniformity of public toilets, those in restaurants and also those within service stations which are the most easily accessible, unless the service station has a sign which says “Express”, which stands for “no toilets”.

The problem:

There are four essentials.

  • The toilet seat must be about 50 cm from the floor.
  • There should be a rail to hold on to when standing up.
  • There should be a handle on the inside of the door; just try getting the door open if you have only a small bolt handle and you are too weak to use it.
  • There is a need to have an ambulant toilet, the use of which should be enforced with appropriate signage in each of the male and female toilets, so the first stall can double as the ambulant toilet with appropriate adjustment in size.

I am going to name one toilet. The one at the Pheasant’s Nest Service Station which is one of last on the Hume Highway before Sydney, and therefore has a strategic importance if you do not want to be caught short on the freeway, caught in an unexpected gridlock.

The disabled toilet has been converted into a shower for interstate truck drivers and was locked. You can hold all the Royal Commissions in the World, but the recommendations often float away.

It would be very useful if there was an enforceable guide for toilets – then there may be an attempt to get uniformity, to conform to the standards, which are clearly set out if one can be bothered to read them.

In Namibia, I once flew for more than three hours in a light aircraft with a bottle for use in the emergency. The flight was from Windhoek to the Hartmann Valley in the north-west of the country, close to the Angolan border. There, alongside the airstrip in magnificent solitude, was one the cleanest flush toilets I have ever used.  That was a very good definition of “relief”. I called the toilet – Mafeking.

Hartmann Valley

Dial M for Misnomer

I had one of those “Four Weddings and a Funeral” moments recently. You know when:

Charles:  How do you do, my name is Charles.

Old man: Don’t be ridiculous, Charles died 20 years ago!

Charles: Must be a different Charles, I think.

Old man: Are you telling me I don’t know my own brother?

This day, I was in a hurry and I thought I had transcribed the phone number correctly.

I rang. A familiar voice, as I thought, answered.

“Marcus, this is father.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. My father died 40 years ago,” followed by a piece of unnecessary invective.

The receiver was slammed down.

I checked the phone number. It was that of one of my cousins who was born grumpy. His name started with “Michael” but although I see him infrequently, I know he is deaf. I could not be bothered ringing him back.

Mouse Whisper

At last, the Trapdoor has been removed and I have been able to visit Melbourne and all my mouse mates who went to Murine Grammar School. I was with a wise friend, Melchior who travels every year here with his two friends, Balthazar and Caspar. Melchior in not Australian but apparently COVID-19 immune.  As we ran along a Melbourne street, we saw this newspaper poster on the newsstand:

SMITH

BLASTS

TON

Melchior was at once fascinated since Melchior is familiar with gold. So he pondered; “Goldsmith?”

“Blasts?” explosives –

“Ton” – unusual for a goldsmith to mine his own gold?

Melchior said such was the rarity no wonder it had made news.

“Good try but not quite right, Melchior!” was all I whispered.

Modest Expectations – Arthur Phillip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Perkins

Charlie Perkins

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

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

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

Hermannsberg Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aboriginal tent embassy

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

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

However, he was also fighting renal failure.

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

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

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

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

John Kitzhaber Concludes – A New Model for the Nation

Dr John Kitzhaber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 and the Urgency of Now  

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

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

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

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

The Role of Unions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Begin Now!

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

She’s from Minnesota!

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

Modest Expectations – Derby Day in Walla Walla

State Capital West Virginia

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

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

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

The Greenbrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one local Mount Isa correspondent has written:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balmain coal miners

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

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

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

While America looks away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kitzhaber continues his analysis of the US health system…

Dr John Kitzhaber

Public Resources

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

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

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

The National Debt

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

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

Income Inequality

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

Health versus Health Care

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

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

Confronting the Total Cost of Care

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

and

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

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

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

How the Debate Is Framed

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

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

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

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

Cost-Shifting Strategies

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

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

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

To be concluded

Mouse Whisper

Out of an abundance of caution

ex abundanti cautela

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Windy Bears

Blinman is the highest settlement in South Australia at 610metres. It has a pub and one of the distinguishing features of this area is that it sells locally-made ice cream – well, not actually made in the Flinders Ranges but in a little town in this mid north area of the State – in Laura.

The Flinders Ranges were named after Matthew Flinders who, together with his cat Trim, were the first Europeans to see the Range when he anchored his boat in Spencer Gulf near present day Port Augusta, and his name was given to the Range by Governor Gawler in 1839.

Wilpena Pound is an ancient caldera in the Southern part of the Flinders Ranges. It is one of the few places which was still on my bucket list of places I hadn’t been in this vast country. The name had stuck in my mind since I read that the famous New Zealand soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa had performed here in an open-air concert – with the all kit and caboodle of an accompanying symphony orchestra.

Within the National Park now owned by the local indigenous people, the resort is surrounded by hills and the bush crowds in upon you. Ring throated green parrots are cavorting on the terrace as I am setting down my thoughts.

Six weeks earlier the area had been flooded and there is still evidence of water damaged roads. Most of the bush that had been washed along with the floodwaters had been cleared away, but the road signs still warned of flood damage and the unmade roads into the interior of the range had yet to be graded. There are plenty of hikes, which I could have done in the past, but there is still much to see.

 

The Flinders Ranges themselves are not that high, but they have a certain majesty. There is the huge Arkaroola Rock; there are the hills which are swirls of pink accentuated in the afternoon sun. A hill pokes out from the pink diorama as though it is a sand dune not rock. There is the Great Wall of China atop, in American usage, a butte. Nature had constructed what appears to be a dry-stone wall, which meanders up and across these flat-topped hills. Other peaks are jagged, saw toothed. This has been a playground for Mother Nature to experiment in form and texture. After all, to the local Aboriginal people this is the land of the Rainbow Serpent.

Throughout the ranges on the road north to Blinman, the dominant tree is the native cypress and, because of the recent rain, they are growing amid a greenery which has coalesced with the salt bush. There is also the mauve of Paterson’s Curse, which has been let loose by the rain and, as I have written before, it can look beautiful. However, as Baudelaire once wrote, at the heart of great beauty resides evil. I always think of those words when I see this imported weed coating the landscape.

Tiny Blinman has a general store, which was closed, but fortunately the pub offered the ice cream. There was once copper mining here, and the woman at the door informs us that the tour of the mine is full. She gives me some tiny pieces of malachite as compensation. I tell her my great-grandfather, when he first came to Australia, took his family south of the Flinders Range to Kapunda, where the first commercial mine in Australia had been opened in 1842. This mine also yielded copper but has long been closed. I had been there many years ago and already gathered pieces of souvenir ore from the mine tailings.

The view from Stoke’s Hill Lookout is of a red ochre expanse dotted with salt bush. Here the greenery has not penetrated and my whole vision was one that Fred Williams may have seen and painted. After all, the Flinders Ranges was inspiration for Hans Heysen also. He painted many a vibrant gum tree landscape. Although the native cypress are dominant, there are stands of several major eucalypts throughout the Ranges. There is the Southern Flinders Mallee, which grow on the rocky slopes, but along the river-beds are the imposing river red gums beloved of Heysen.

The Big Tree, Orrooroo

The largest of these eucalypts is celebrated in the small settlement of Orroroo, south of the Flinders Ranges, where the eponymously named tree is said to be over 500 years old. It has a trunk circumference of 10 metres and no fork in the trunk until six metres up.  It is a very healthy tree, but it is by no means the only tree of similar size and in the forecourt of our accommodation, there is a tree that is not much smaller. In the reception is a huge red gum counter made from a tree that had fallen over. Part of the massive trunk had been salvaged but the rest, despite protests, was cut up into firewood, the desecration often perpetuated by government-paid foresters.

Hawker is at the southern apex of the Flinders Range, a small settlement but with an enormous tyre service. This is an ominous warning of travel on the unmade roads that penetrate the Range. While we refuelled there, we were surrounded by an exhaust of leather clad motorcycle riders, most of whom were old enough to be directly inspired by Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper in Easy Rider. This is “easy riding” in the Outback, even though the sense of hair flowing the wind is now “kerbed” by a helmet.

The road to the west of the range proceeds north to Parachilna, with a pub and an official population of three. The pub is managed by a young couple who have fled there to escape the Virus, and here gained employment. This Prairie Hotel is a well-known watering spot to where once a railway ran, but no more.

The hotel is deceptive. From the outside it is a normal pub with the corrugated iron roof slung over the walls to provide protection from the sun. However, it is different from the normal desert hostelry in not being a reservoir for stubbie holders, fridge magnets, car stickers, and sexist T-shirts in a dungeon-like public bar. Inside it is tastefully decorated, light and airy.  There is a wide array of quality, mostly Aboriginal, art on display for sale. It is also the general store, sells other Aboriginal-designed artefacts, has good accommodation, the place for a good feed at breakfast and dinner; and being a pub, a wide range of grog. A bottle of my favourite Hendricks gin peeps out of a well-stocked spirits selection. Over the road from the hotel there is the budget accommodation in the form of dongas, ship containers with a portal of entry. Without air conditioning in the middle of summer, they would be like being in a microwave.

The paved road now goes a long way north and last year was extended to Marree (once the cattle railhead) to try and help those “grey nomads” dragging their caravans. Thus, Parachilna is now not a terminus but a welcome stop on the way north into the desert. For us, given how late in the day it is, this was our turning point from where we drove back, bathed in the late afternoon sun.

Adam Goodes mob – The Adnyamathanha

Terence and Josephine Coulthard, in the words of the front cover, compiled a Culture and Language Book on the Adnyamathanha people. These are local Indigenous Guardians of the Flinders Range – the long title means Rock (Adnya) People (Mathanha). The book runs to 450 pages and serves as a dictionary – the written form of the oral language – painstakingly described.

Adnyamathanha flag

These people have a flag (pictured) which combines the blue diagonal canton as representing sky and the Blue Rock people. The brown represents the land and the Red Rock people. The saucepan star formation is the men’s story line; the seven sisters the women’s story line. The circle with the radiating white lines is Ikara (Wilpena Pound) and the symbol for the whole Adnyamathanha community. Thinking about the complexity in the cultural attachments to the land we now recognise as Australia, such a flag should be looked at in a national context. It is a proud flag; this is not the flag of the downtrodden.

This strength was exemplified by us being invited to come to the launch of the book under the river red gums, where Terence sang and played the guitar, where the mob had come  and now sat under the trees and the children ran free the aboriginal kids weren’t running around, they sat with their parents. There was a lot of talk, everybody seemed to have a word to say, including the local member for Stuart with a long Dutch name.

We purchased both the book and the flag.

John Kitzhaber – His Thoughts

Below is a the first of a multipart series by Dr John Kitzhaber, former Democratic Governor of Oregon and the author of the Oregon Health Plan. I have known Dr Kitzhaber for a long time and he has agreed to his essay being reprinted in my blog. It provides an insight into the thinking of someone whom President-elect Biden may tap for ideas. Over to Governor Kitzhaber…

Dr John Kitzhaber

“I started practicing emergency medicine when I was 27 years old, and I still remember the vulnerability of the people who came to see me. They were sick or injured, frightened, and asking for help. They didn’t know me, and yet they put their trust in me. I did everything in my power to help them and yet, even then, I sometimes failed.

As an emergency doctor, being unable to save a life was devastating. The walk across the hall to the small room where family and friends waited always felt like a long hopeless journey. Yet while this poignant intersection of compassion and mortality is difficult, it is that very compassion, and the humility and caring involved, that drew many of us into healthcare in the first place.

Today, much of that compassion is being stripped away. Early in my career, in the 1970s, we had time to build the kind of personal relationships with our patients that often contributed as much to their health and well-being as the medical treatments we prescribed. Sadly, the space in which to cultivate these deeper relationships seems to be slipping away—lost to an electronic medical record that is as much about billing as about caring, and to an impersonal corporate structure that prioritizes revenue generation over a deeper understanding of the social and economic circumstances that contribute to illness.

I became a doctor to improve people’s health and well-being, not just to treat their medical conditions. I soon realized, however, that in many cases I was treating the medical complications of social problems. I was trained to treat the medical conditions, which I did to the best of my ability; but afterwards, my patients returned to the same social conditions that had brought them into the hospital in the first place. I eventually realized that our healthcare system is designed not to support wellness but rather to profit from illness. While most healthcare providers certainly don’t approach caring for people that way, the underlying business model does.

Serving in public office while still practicing medicine gave me another insight: the realization that the more money we spend on healthcare, the less is available for housing, nutrition, education, or other things that are critical to health and well-being. Since first running for the Oregon legislature in 1978, I have spent 26 years as a representative, as a senator, and as governor trying to develop a new model—one built on the recognition that health is the product of many factors, only one of which is medical care.

In 2012, in the depths of the Great Recession, Oregon established such a model: coordinated care organizations (CCOs) for our Medicaid recipients. The CCOs don’t just treat illness; they cultivate health by addressing not only physical, mental, and dental care but also related needs such as safe housing, transportation, and fresh, affordable food. CCOs have also demonstrated that it is possible to expand coverage and reduce the rate of medical inflation while improving quality and health outcomes. Now, with the deep recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, it is time to scale this kind of model up for the whole nation. My primary aim with this article is to offer one way in which we might achieve that goal.

From Cost and Coverage to Value and Health

For decades, the healthcare debate throughout the United States has focused almost entirely on coverage—on how to pay for access to the current system—rather than on health. What is missing is a consideration of value, which in this context means that the purpose of the system is not simply to finance and deliver medical care but rather to improve and maintain health. Indeed, the things that have the greatest impact on health across the lifespan are healthy pregnancies, decent housing, good nutrition, stable families, education, steady jobs with adequate wages, safe communities, and other “social determinants of health”; in contrast, the healthcare system itself plays a relatively minor part.

Ironically, since the cost of medical care consumes 18 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), our current healthcare system actually undermines our ability to invest in children, families, housing, economic opportunity, and the many other key social factors important to health and well-being. This is a primary reason why the United States does not compare favourably in terms of health statistics with nations that choose to spend far more on the social determinants and far less on the healthcare system.

If we could reduce our healthcare spending from 18 to 12 percent of GDP (which is the average spent by most other industrialized nations), we would free up over one trillion dollars a year to invest in the things that contribute more to health. Such a reduction in spending might seem impossible, but successful examples of how to bring down the total cost of care do exist, including Oregon’s CCOs. Under these care models, providers receive a global budget to provide quality care with good outcomes for a defined population; if the global budget is exceeded in any given year, the providers are at financial risk for the difference. These care models change the system’s incentives from rewarding sickness to rewarding wellness—and they work. Because they focus on improving health, they prevent illnesses and thereby reduce costs without sacrificing quality.

Effectively addressing the access, value, and cost issues in our healthcare system is one of the most important domestic challenges we face as a nation. Doing so, however, requires both a clear-eyed assessment of what this system has become and the courage to challenge that system. The global pandemic, with its profound economic and social consequences, has brought into clear focus the urgent need for a new model more aligned with caring, compassion, and the goal of improving the health of our nation. And no one is more qualified to lead that effort than the people who have dedicated their lives to the healthcare profession.

COVID-19 and Our Legacy of Inequity

In 1882, the newly formed Populist Party wrote in its platform, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.” Now, over 125 years later, these words aptly describe our current social and economic conditions and how little progress we have made in terms of social justice and equal opportunity. The novel coronavirus has exposed anew the inequities and the linked class and race divisions within our society, problems that have been with us since before our nation’s founding, almost always churning just below the surface, visible only indirectly when we examine disparities like disproportionately lagging health and education outcomes for chronically under-resourced— often racially or ethnically segregated—communities. Especially in the past few decades, these inequities have been masked by debt-financed economic growth that has prevented us from mustering the political will and societal solidarity necessary to address them.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the depth of these disparities, or the extent to which social justice has been eroded, than the US healthcare system. It is a massive corporate enterprise that now consumes nearly one-fifth of our GDP, a huge employer that is increasingly dependent on public debt for its financial stability, and a major driver of income inequality. The pandemic has cast these inequities and contradictions into stark relief.

We see the difficulty nonmedical essential workers have had in obtaining adequate health protections, often resulting in significantly higher rates of infection. These are people in low-wage positions—often with minimal or no sick leave or insurance—working in grocery stores, warehouses, factories, and food and agricultural production sites. We also see that Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 in dramatically disproportionate numbers—deaths attributable to the structural inequities in our society that make Black people and other people of colour more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, and to live near major sources of health-endangering pollutants and far from health facilities and grocery stores. These are issues we urgently need to address.

At the same time, the pandemic has for the first time brought the economic interests of those who pay for, consume, and provide healthcare into clear alignment. This gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the current system by demanding value as well as universal coverage and by constraining the total cost of care.”

To be continued next week.

 What a Village

After such an above sober analysis…

The votes for the US President have been counted and, as predicted, Trump is behaving as he always has, and in so doing disgracing all American democratic traditions.

Joe Biden has won. I have not thought much of him, but now that he is on the brink of Presidency, he needs his critics – of which I am not even a speck in importance of one of these – to give him a chance.

Trump is exhibiting the sure signs of dementia. People are now openly saying he is lying and the media is by and large turning him off. The pathetic lies are obvious, but is he confabulating? There are these long blanks in his mental processes which he fills with babble. This is associated with early dementia. Therefore, with his face the colour of a tomato, which even make up cannot hide suggests a visit to an independent medical panel would be wise.

Nancy Pelosi is 80; Joe Biden is on the cusp of 78; Mitch McConnell is 78 and unquestionably the most unhealthy seems to be Donald Trump, who is only is 74. He has had a dose of the Virus and refused to heed its danger.  Instead of convalescence he embarked on a frantic schedule in which he encouraged his adoring crowd to gather into a feed lot for the Virus. He demonstrated how the President’s power must be reviewed, as the Senate has done in the past, to clip presidential authority. Trump has shown how susceptible a nation can be to bullying, even when this is limited to four years.

There is an increasing adage that 70 years is the new 50, but believe me, 80 is the new 80. Something happens between 70 and 80 in many people, and that is why it is hard to detect how well they would handle the “next four years”. Retention of physical and mental health in individuals begins to become more of a lottery. Therefore, both Pelosi and McConnell should be watched for any slippage, but in politics that is an inconvenient comment.

I do not fear of being called ageist, because I am in the same age group. Biden still shows he can jog to the President-elect’s podium, but he called upon Obama to assist in maintaining a sense of mental resilience. I had made the comment earlier that Biden would give away to an Obama restoration. I made the comment that this may be stopped in its tracks by Michelle Obama. Obama’s oratory over the last few weeks helped solidify African-American voting intentions in these closing weeks.

Kamala Harris is 56 years old and Mike Pence is 61. Whether having endured years of Trump, Pence might retire in Indiana to try and cure the PTSD engendered by four years at “Don’s Party”, with any thoughts of a future Presidency probably snuffed out. However, the future of Kamala Harris will determine whether that divide in America painted red will ever accept under any circumstances a woman, especially if Biden should die or be incapacitated over the next four years.

In short, there is much that could be added without rehashing that which has already been said. What in the end were the most significant conclusions for me?

  • America elected a woman Vice-President.
  • Trump scored 72 million votes.
  • COVID-19 has affected three per cent of the population and O.8 per cent of the population have died up to this point. Does anybody out of that 72 million in the imitation of a self-obsessed narcissistic ex-President really care about such a small group of “losers”? Is America that callous?

Mouse Whisper

Not Anywhere

            Not Delaware

                          But Somewhere

                                     Wilmington South Australia

The Worshipful Company of South Australian Field Mouse Grain Handlers have asked me to invite you Sir to open the Wilmington Night Rodeo on January 23 next. I understand to perform this important role you will have re-schedule a minor ceremony in Washington to be with us. However how could you afford to miss having the finest tucker at Rusti Kate’s Feed Lot after a trip through the Puppet Museum, which I understand as a fine array of your predecessor’s marionettes.

Respectfully

Wilmington, South Australia

Modest Expectations – Nisi

Today was Melbourne Cup day. You know, the sporting event that stops a nation. Except we have just driven 800 kilometres from   Dubbo to Broken Hill. It is not the first time we have driven between the two cities, but it served as a reminder that going on a long journey with yourselves through the Outback of Australia is a reminder of our diversity. Australia prides itself on its multicultural diversity, but even to my urban eye, Australia also has great climatic diversity.

In the brochures which highlight this diversity there are always pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rain forests and beaches, Uluru and red deserts, and the Sydney Opera House. However, along a road on a hot day, diversity springs out at you if you care to look.  The subtle changes in the landscape are there. The problem of being the driver is that one drives essentially with a strip of bitumen in front of you. Traffic is increasingly sparse the further you penetrate into the country.

The thin strip of bitumen

Whenever I go on one of these trips, I say to myself that I must learn more about eucalypts. There have been multiple experts who can tell a gum tree variety just by running their eyes up and down the structure. The fragrance of Australia is breaking apart a newly picked gum leaf and smelling it. Describe the smell and you describe Australia as it has been for thousands of years.

Between Dubbo and Nyngan, there are a number of small towns. This is wheat country interspersed with natural habitat.

There is a white blanket along the sides of the road. They are tiny white everlastings that nature has gathered into posy-like clumps and then strewn through the bush.

As the soil becomes drier, everlastings give way to small clumps of salt bush dotting the landscape and foreshadowing that there is saltbush country beyond the horizon.

The scrub varies from open woodland to areas of brigalow, with the grey feathery foliage atop a black trunk, the mallees – greenery close to the ground, then clumps of native cypress, some gidgee trees. These are interspersed with the gum trees I wished I could identify.

I well remember driving from Bourke to Goodooga in the north of NSW and my companions identifying the trees as they would their relatives. The most striking of all of them was the leopard gum. Each of these trees and others reflect microclimates in each of these areas being distinct, which in turn makes the whole landscape such a diverse experience.

On our trail today, animal life is scarce – one emu, no kangaroos, a number of feral goats, no cattle and a small flock of sheep in saltbush as we neared Broken Hill.

After Nyngan it is 130 kilometres to Cobar. At Nyngan, in a unprepossessing iron shed which houses the toilets, we find that rarest of commodity, soap – and something in my wide usage of such facilities I have never seen before – paper towels, all maintained by the volunteer group that run the adjacent wool shearing shed display.

Contrast this with the stop at the MacCulloch Range wayside rest area which boasts a children’s playground, a barbecue and a long-drop toilet without toilet paper – and where the birds are conditioned to congregate around the toilet when occupied, because the outside wash basin discharges its waste water directly on the ground for the birds to drink. Here there are several plaques identifying NSW Ministers who have made the journey to unveil them – one in recognition of the completion of sealing of the road between Nyngan and the South Australian border in 1972 and the other for the creation of the children’s playground and the other facilities there! Talk about turning up for the opening of an envelope – but then the latter was Carl Scully.

However, that stopover is closer to Wilcannia than Cobar, which owes its existence to its copper mines. Then it is 260 kilometres to Wilcannia from Cobar, with no settlements in between.

Wilcannia stone

Wilcannia was once a thriving river port where boats were loaded with the wool clip and sent down the Darling River. The magnificent buildings made from the distinctive Wilcannia stone attest to a past colonial magnificence. I was once shown the quarry from which the Wilcannia stone was extracted. It was disused although stone remained under a cover of bush. The stone makes beautiful cream coloured buildings, so much in synchrony with the intense clear sunlight. Perhaps the quarry has been worked out – but the stone would still attract use for building if that is not the case.

Wilcannia is now an Aboriginal town as it has been all the 30 years since I first stayed and worked there. Here was where I learnt so much about the Barkinji people. Today in 40 degrees heat, parked in a nearly deserted main street, we watched the Melbourne Cup on a laptop.

This year travelling the route was somewhat unusual in that rain had come and turned much of the country green.  The salt bush seemed to coalesce with this greenery. The red earth still broke through, and in particular there were some areas which had not received much rain.

The last kilometres through to Broken Hill pass through a plain almost devoid of trees. While there was a rim of hills in the distance, this land was flat and green – it seemed to be a continuation of the Hay Plains to the South, which are so treeless they give an illusion of a flat earth. It is said these plains are the area which most effectively demonstrate this illusion.

At last Broken Hill nears, we turn our watches back half an hour to South Australian time. Now on all sides we see what many people describe as the engine which made Australia – the huge silver-lead-zinc deposits – after the gold rush petered out. There is no way Broken Hill can be described in one paragraph.  I’ll reserve that for another time since this one day in the Outback stands alone – yet another tincture to colour the wonderful commodity – experience.

Old Broken Hill

The Three Horsemen of Politics 

“To spend a third of life in unproductive idleness seems a dreadful waste to some people, and now and then they decide to shun the slothful practice evermore.  No one has yet succeeded. After a couple of sleepless nights they are as sleepy as anyone else, eventually become incoherent and irrational and seek the season of all natures.”

                  The last six words are stated by Lady MacBeth.

When I listened to the tirade from Minister Frydenberg demonstrating his basic ignorance of what Daniel Andrews had done, I could not believe it – coming from the mouth of someone who in all public demeanour before has shown control albeit behind a quizzical expression.

So what did this outburst signify?  Many applauded him for it. I did not. I thought the content wild and illogical. I have watched politicians over the course of 50 years. Published many years ago in the print media, but seemingly forgotten, I have been jogged to repeat what I said then.

There were three challenges for politicians that I identified.

  • Sleeplessness
  • Isolation
  • Boredom

As I wrote about sleeplessness, it seems to be a badge of honour of some politicians not to sleep. I remember that Margaret Thatcher boasted about how little sleep she needed. She ended up with dementia. When I first wrote about the deleterious effects of lack of sleep, there was not the evidence there is today about its link with Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia.

I have always likened sleeping as the time you put out the cerebral garbage.  This image seems to have been validated by scientific evidence. When one does not sleep, then the garbage in the form of amyloid or other toxins is left to accumulate in the brain.

I well remember the experiment of “the tipping cat”. Here the cat would just be allowed to fall asleep and then immediately be tipped up. This was repeated time and again, eventually turning the cat into feline paranoia.

The image of Frydenberg scribbling away and then launching into the tirade made me wonder about how much “good sleep” he is getting. From a forensic point of view it would be interesting to know what he actually scribbled, and the psi impact on the paper hopefully not reflected in the way Trump violates paper with his black signature.

So that is the first question I would ask of Frydenberg. What about your sleep?

Turning to isolation; the figure brooding, looking out the window – the Person Alone – is supposed to indicate strength and a thoughtfulness, the ability to sustain 40 days and nights in the wilderness. However, the reality is that most politicians hate isolation. My thought is that when they all moved to that new Mussolini era-architecturally inspired mausoleum called New Parliament House, to offset the innate isolation of the long corridors and the vast atria with offices designed for excessive space with the consequence of distancing themselves from us plebs, the politicians employed more and more staff. In the Old Parliament House, people lived close to one another, which in itself reduced isolation – apart from which, the place was so small no one could fit a large number of staff.

However, now politicians have to work in a building which structurally promotes isolation enhanced by the ever-increasing levels of security; then, when a pandemic appears, the frailty of those isolated is shown. When isolation is a negotiable commodity, then it can be brushed aside – but when isolation comes with compulsion to save the health of a nation, then it becomes very challenging because it is real, physically.

Because in a pandemic that’s exactly what they should happen -one isolates oneself.

Another problem with isolation is that it breeds ignorance and, when combined with sleeplessness, an inability to adapt. One of the ways to combat this is to listen, not as a public relations exercise, nor one looking for an anecdote to bolster your belief system, but as a genuine effort to discover alternative views. I always remembered the politician who said he went to meetings outside his comfort cocoon, because there was often times one comment or an idea would jolt him from his “cocoon of isolation” and make him think further. Isolation thus has a mental component.

The final component which has grown over the years to feed isolation has been this obsession with security. The activities in the Middle East have fuelled this, together with the increasingly inflammatory comments from politicians revelling in the inferno of populism. When I first entered the political scene, security was not the industry it is today. Even when there was the attempt to assassinate Arthur Caldwell, then the Leader of the Opposition, in 1966 there was no knee jerk response. Security has now become an industry – a commodity – to be traded- and alongside its growth are the vested interests. It is no doubt a contributor to isolation, but how much? One can only say that if one believes it is important to combat “the politician as an isolate” it needs to be factored into any considerations.

Then there is boredom. People believe that hustle and bustle is activity. This boredom was exemplified by the criticism of Mr Albanese’s office. It sounds like a playground with or without a sandpit. The problem is that there is not enough real work for these characters to do. They then just play endless games of “gotcha” in between their sycophantic acknowledgement of their various politician employers.  As I once wrote: “Boredom and its consequences have the effect of pushing away some people who could have been important contributors. It would disastrous if, at the centre of the political world, are solely those who delight in the entrails of boredom, and who actually revel in gossip, ritual and games.”

In the intervening period I have witnessed how true most of this is. There is no reason to believe that Frydenberg ever gets bored, but it is reason for him and others in high places to be aware that boredom breeds mischief – bouncing between venial and venal. Staff members need useful work to do and if that doesn’t exist, you don’t need them.

Therefore, if a government does not have an optimistic agenda demanding substantial policy discussion, hope is rationed and eventually boredom thrives from a lack of hope, because there is nothing to do but obfuscate, let forth tirades and generally be unpleasant. Because there is that ghost of the Cheshire cat and all it conceals, to goad. Then add sleeplessness and isolation and it becomes a toxic mixture!

Paul Collier – Lest we forget

I don’t know whether his name has been mentioned in the Disability Royal Commission. I very clearly remember meeting his mother though.

At the time I was on quixotic mission handing out voting cards at the Woodcroft booth in the seat of Mawson. Dr David Senior, a rural general practitioner friend of mine, was standing on a single issue of saving the Royal Adelaide Hospital, a perfectly good building on North Terrace, rather than have it replaced with an extravaganza further up the road. The new hospital has since been built; it has had huge commissioning problems but is a legacy to that man of impeccable judgement, Mike Rann, then Premier. This judgement was attested to by his chummy relationship with Lance Armstrong.

Then, as now, Mawson has an ALP member. The electorate is a predominantly outer suburban electorate, but also includes a significant slice of the state’s wine industry and now extends to include Kangaroo Island. Woodcroft, where I was handing out cards, was very suburban – wide streets, not many trees, the signature brick veneer homes but not McMansions.

This is where I met Paul Collier’s mother. Collier was a quadriplegic, highly qualified who, at the age of 21 had the accident which rendered him with this severe disability. This had not stopped his advocacy for the disabled and he had formed the Dignity Party. He was on top of the Party ticket for a place in the Upper House, but 11 days prior to the election, he died from a cerebral haemorrhage. His name had remained at the top of the ballot. His votes were passed on to the second person on the ticket, Kelly Vincent, a young woman with cerebral palsy, who was duly elected and served one term, and tellingly was not re-elected in 2018.  The conventional stated reason for this was the change to optional proportional voting. If so, this is an indictment of how the community viewed her candidature, not important enough to either vote for or preference her, disability and all.

But then in March 2010, I shall never forget that extraordinary woman, having just farewelled her son two days before, handing out how-to-vote cards for her dead son’s Party. I did not discuss her motives with her; she was still wrestling with the grief.  She had told me enough.

When I wrote this to Mike Steketee, a journalist I knew well then, I myself was not disabled, as I am now. Once I found out the complexity of being looked after, as I have, I recognise how difficult it all is. Frankly, I don’t know why you need a Disability Royal Commission over four years. What will it tell me in its recommendations about what should be done that I do not already know.

The labour intensity of keeping people alive is huge and thankless; one problem of medical science – from the marginally viable 22-23 weeks pre-term to the centenarian with dementia – is intent on keeping them alive at all cost.  An increasingly number of people recognise, as they do elsewhere, prolongation of life of an obsolete product is about cutting losses – but tell that to the religiously superstitious! It was reported this week that almost 50 per cent of those who have died in aged care in Australia from COVID-19 had dementia.

Society is conditioned to mourn the dead, often a self-conscious piety when it just boils down to how, in personal terms, the dead are just names. We fumble in how we express ourselves when we feel nothing. Going to funerals as a matter of form is not grief. Grief is a solitary situation, and when you lose your mother as a boy, it lives with you for the rest of your life.

Disability has been raked over. Let’s assume the cost is considerable; the modelling light on “how much” flashes “a lot”.  In these times with a government in deficit, if you want to care properly – you need a tax.

Confront the country with the figure for care for a moderately disabled person if treated individually at home or in an institution; then ask each taxpayer individually would they be prepared to pay that tax, given that around every health problem is a shell of fakery and profiteering associated with the privatisation of aged care. The Disability Royal Commission should be able to answer some of the questions underlying the statement in this paragraph.  If they have, then why the need for extension?

Apart from the here and now I faced the dilemma of how to confront disability almost 50 years ago when I was a young doctor responsible for an adult rehabilitation ward. One day in 1971 a 12-year old boy was admitted, paralysed down one side, a spontaneous event without apparent cause.

He was a bright boy and I had immediate empathy with him. I saw him every day. He came from the country, but nobody came to see him. His parents seemingly had disappeared at the onset of his medical condition when the boy was transferred to the city. It is very difficult to be child in a rehabilitation ward where most were elderly. For some reason, it was difficult to discharge him, because facilities for a child soon to become an adolescent with all that meant were poorly differentiated. Adolescent medical care as a specialty was in its early stages.

Thus, for respite on a couple of weekends with the agreement of the hospital, I took him home so he could experience family life.  Our sons were seven and five at the time.

We lived very close to the hospital. My then wife and I contemplated whether we could go further and seek to take over his future care and education. We consulted a range of heath professionals, before initiating anything. We never mentioned it to anyone – we were not adopting “a pet” to be discussed over morning coffee. The question was whether we could give him a better life, not him to be regarded as a trophy.

We both agreed the question was whether we could be both appropriate “foster parents” or “adopted parents”. In the end we were dissuaded; we had to cast off any incipient emotional ties. However, for a period we wondered whether we had done the wrong thing. As it turned out, we probably did the right thing – but how would you know as we did not maintain contact. We did ensure that he would be cared for in the short term and not be forgotten. No Royal Commission could have helped us then or, I suspect, now.

In hindsight, given where we both are now, it was obviously right, but then nobody will ever know what would have happened if he had become part of the family. Dwelling on such matters at an individual level gets one nowhere, except to think that Ron Sackville must have wisdom which the rest of us do not. 

Mouse Whisper

As someone who remembers the toll of the 1980s, this piece from the New York Review of Books is sobering, so much so that if a mouse could shout from the rafters and not squeak, I would say loudly:

There is a terrible fear that the toll on health care workers from COVID will have been in vain if Trump’s failure to effectively tackle the pandemic continues, if testing is not ramped up to levels that allow for identification of carriers and contact tracing, if distribution of protective equipment is not done rationally but rather through nepotism and profiteering, if experts are removed from important positions after questioning incompetent political leadership, and if reopening the economy is done haphazardly to fulfill talking points on cable TV in hopes of gaining re-election. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from the AIDS epidemic is one that came after the movie star Rock Hudson died, effectively removing the blinders that President Reagan was wearing. Reagan, a friend of Hudson, at last ceded authority to scientists like Fauci, who knew how to speak to the public about illness and create a sense of common cause, and to mobilise both the public and private sectors to triumph over a virus that had never been seen before and many believed could not be effectively combated.  AIDS arrived as a murderer; now it can be shackled. We are nowhere near that point with COVID-19.

Modest Expectations – Orwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucknow

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

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

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

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

An American Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return to the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One businessman at the same forum said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABCQ – Morris of Muttaburra

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

Muttaburrasaurus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper 

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

George Orwell – Road to Wigan Pier 1937.

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

The Road to Wigan Pier

Modest Expectations – The Hawke has Landed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Could be a Lot of Rot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tastes change.

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

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

Almond Trees

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

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

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

Over to you guys.

մոգ pronounced mog

Armenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chloroquine studies are alive and well in Parkville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Professor Hilton,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My kind regards

Jack Best

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

Watch this space.

Mouse Whisper

Hickory Dickory Dock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Bill Sasse