Modest Expectations Hiru

“This is a serious horse, Mary Lou!”

These slightly reproachful words were uttered by a Spanish dressage instructor on a property west of Theodore in Queensland, where he was conducting a dressage training weekend. The owner had dared to turn away from watching him put her elegant black horse through its paces to chat to her friend. She should have been closely watching the intricacies of what the rider was doing, hence the sharpness of the tone. I was just an onlooker, but these words have entered my lexicon as words when you want to concentrate the mind.

I have followed Winx since her first win as a two year old in 2014. She has grown in stature since that time – a serious horse in every meaning of the word.

As she faces her last race, I note that the Liberal party are having difficulty pre-selecting candidates in some seats.

Just a silly thought to believe that you could put Winx on any of those ballot papers, now when politicians are so much on the nose. I would wager she would get more than just the “donkey” vote.

After all, the Emperor Caligula made his horse a consul. And they thought he was mad. However, I believe that horse won his election in a canter.

(Painting of Bowman and Winx by Garry Higgin)

The Protoplasm that is Politics

The Coalition Government in 1972 was a remarkable beast. It was caught up in Menzian aspic in a culture of internecine strife, which had been plated during the Holt days as Prime Minister. While John McEwen was around, this protoplasmic mess was controllable. However, he retired in 1971, and McMahon was let loose.

At the apogee of Australian civilisation as we knew it then was Prime Minister William McMahon, a prissy spiteful destabiliser, whose contest with the truth was in most cases found wanting. He had married late in life, and used his wife as a fashion plate accessory – remind one of someone? His government had difficulty in disentangling itself from the Vietnam War – and remember China was then indeed the Yellow Peril – a place for Australians to be quarantined against. Policy considerations were neglected by a Government exercised by whim and patronage spiced with payback.

Gough Whitlam by contrast provided an articulate alternative, offering Australia a new way. His election campaign was vigorous and enthusiastic. He had vanquished the Old Guard and promised so much – his clarion call being “It’s Time.”

Yet even with support of Rupert Murdoch, Whitlam ended up with a majority of only nine seats – and five of the ALP gains were in NSW.

Morrison – compared to McMahon? Time will tell. The Liberal party in 1972 had the DLP albatross, but now the continuing DLP cohort is embedded in the Falangist arm of the Liberal party. The Liberal party branches, once conceived to provide policy advice – “listening to the people mythology” – in reality are the vehicle for partisan pre-selection. It is thus unsurprising the so-called Liberal party has the crop of politicians it now has, seemingly out-of-step with the electorate.

That seemed so true in Victoria; but does it matter what candidates you have when one ignores the yearning for centrist politics where the art of negotiation is preferred to the strident megaphone?

In Victoria at last year’s State election, Daniel Andrews achieved an electoral landslide. In NSW Gladys Berejiklian has held the line for the Liberal party. Each has been pouring money into infrastructure, in a way that Whitlam promised to do in 1972 – into cities, regional centres, health and education. You can imagine Andrews and Berejiklian preferring the first way rather than yelling at one another, especially now they have both been re-elected for four years.

Morrison clings on, his hand on the megaphone. He should look at the 1972 and get some comfort, where in the end the overall swing was 2.5 per cent and even with McMahon, the Liberal Party still won four seats from the Labor party. At that time there were three Liberal and one National party premiers, including NSW, Victoria and Queensland. Today there are three Liberal party premiers in NSW, South Australia and Tasmania.

And Shorten is no Whitlam. He does not have the charisma. Unlike Whitlam, he has two strong lieutenants, Wong and Plibersek who, as the election nears, may become more prominent. However, with the media concentration on the two leaders, because the imagery of the prize fight is much more easy to convey in an election, emphasise the ‘may’. Therefore with all the talk about gender equality will these powerful women resonate – or be allowed to do so – in rural and regional Australia.

Even if the players are different, the scenario is reminiscent of 1972.

The long term lesson for what should follow as could have occurred from 1973 onwards? Defining and constructing the hard centre of politics, combatting this tiresome fearmongering, remembering what David Owen, the British politician, once said to me – never get caught in the soggy centre of politics. One might say that his is a re-interpretation of that familiar mantra – drain the swamp.

But that is only the start … hard… please define!

A few thoughts on the first salvos in health policy – Chris Brook comments

The budget and budget reply 2019 are now completed and no one could mistake that each was effectively a campaign launch for a Federal election – ending up as six weeks after the Budget.

Both have committed to expansion of funding for MRI and imaging more generally, (well done whoever lobbied this through both parties because there has been longstanding underinvestment in this technology). However, the ALP proposes to invest in greatly reducing out of pocket costs for cancer care, most of which is non-inpatient.

It seems ironic that the ALP is prepared to pay to repair a problem that is partly due to withdrawal by States of public oncology clinics. Thus, patients cannot access free care. The end result of the ALP’s plan hopefully will restore free care in public hospitals. It will be interesting to see if the Commonwealth chooses to claw back funding from the States for this, in effect exacting a punishment.

The Coalition has committed $450 million on chronic disease payments, especially for diabetes. Missing so far is the detail of what is new funding as opposed to just altering MBS descriptors.

The literature suggests such programs improve patient perception of care, which is a positive, but neither reduce cost nor hospitalisation rates.

Mental health funding is boosted in the Budget, though spending more on Headspace where its evaluation has given at best tepid endorsement. Nevertheless, any money directed to early psychosis is welcome.

Both sides promote their resumption of indexation for GP attendances, and not before time. It was always a cruel means to cut outlays.

The Coalition commitment to fund new drugs is welcome, though I note that the cost of the PBS is rapidly becoming the major cost driver in health , approaching $14 billion per annum. However, since “Big Pharma” makes a number of concessions and discounts from the list price, the real cost is closer to $9bn.

The rest is snippets and bits although the absolutely uninspired changes to Aged Care and Disability will have a strong indirect impact. If patients cannot access care, the putative expansion of care lends an air of unreality. By default the aged and infirm are forced to attend local general practitioner clinics or hospital emergency departments.

From my objective standpoint, the ALP wins this round, but it is early days in the campaign, so keep alert for further comment.

Mouse Whisper

Heard in the back of the Melbourne Club Caboose: “These three blokes born in December were given a portrait of Winx, each with Hugh Bowman atop. Why? Because a Sagittarius is half horse, half bowman.”

Modest Expectations Too

Ron Lord

Ron Lord died at the weekend. Ron was a journalist who grew up in the days of “concrete-foot-in-the door journalism”. This was the accepted muscular journalism of the Norton and Packer era in the late 50s. I met Ron when he was the resident journalist at the Australian Medical Association. He was never the high flyer that some of his fellow journalists who moved in the upper echelons of political influence were, but he was one of the first to recognise that there was a niche in health journalism beyond the learned medical journals.

He may not have been the first but publishing and editing Healthcover, a journal devoted to health policy in the 1990s was a bellwether for journalists who have trod the same pathway since. Ron was an edgy character, loyal to his employers but with a honed critical faculty, a person who knew his limits. He had a rare shorthand ability to rival that of a Hansard reporter, which enabled him to accurately and precisely record what people said rather than just printing the media handouts. Thus his was a refreshing approach to which I was privileged to assist.

His passing is a time for appreciating Ron’s contribution to health journalism and then moving on.

Can I jump puddles alone?

I wrote this first when I was severely disabled with pain, stiffness and weakness – the result of a presumed autoimmune disease. Mr McGuire’s recent ill chosen words reminded me that some able-bodied, articulate people can demonstrate insensitivity and in turn need to be reminded – although he seems to be awash with contrition.

Four years after first writing this reflection, although my health is much better, I am still dependent but with flashes of independence and thus hope.

When you go from independence to dependence in a relatively short period, it is bad enough.

But consider the case of this man, when the change was instantaneous – the result of trauma on a rugby field – and persistent. My condition pales by comparison

This young man was determined to walk at his graduation ceremony. His was a high profile accident and the media were there in spades.

The background to the television news report was that the young man had been severely disabled – the word paraplegic was not mentioned – only his determination to walk to receive his degree and, almost incidentally mentioned in the report, he had a wife. When the picture came on the screen he rose out of his wheelchair and with his wife supporting him as though he were a statue, he tottered a few steps across the stage. No, he had not walked – his carer had borne his weight and even though she was half his size, held onto him while he made the small distance across the stage. Then the news item was over – no attention to the wife’s efforts – no watching him struggle back to the wheelchair or more probably the wheelchair moved into position to avoid the need. He had said he would walk to receive his graduation certificate. It was the gritty devotion of his wife – his carer – that enabled him to do so. Good luck – his family could only wish that he would improve; but what struck me was the essential importance of the carer and how little reference was made to her in the news item.

Likewise, had it not been for me having my wife and others to care for me I would not have been able to continue to work at that stage and full time.

I hate being in a wheelchair. Not that I am in a wheelchair that much, but when I have to move more than 100 metres it becomes very difficult without one. What is wrong with the wheelchair? Nothing. I have been surprised by the comfort the modern wheelchair affords.

However, you become a different human being in a wheelchair. Until you make it clear that being in a wheelchair does not mean that your IQ is automatically halved, you tend to be ignored or treated as a child. I remember sitting in a wheelchair and being confronted by a small boy in a stroller. We were at a similar eye level and he with the ingenuousness of a child stared at me. To which I responded “ Son, see what awaits you.” His parents laughed but I wondered whether they continue to deny the five year old the use of his legs.

The other is that you exist in a forest of legs belonging to the able-bodied. You become acutely aware of that facility to walk, which you considered as an automatic right of homo sapiens. It is compelling to watch the easy facility of movement that you have lost. It brings home the sheer complexity of the evolutionary trail watching the striding young man or woman clasping the iPhone to the ear. There is plenty of time to observe when you are waiting in a wheelchair.

This waiting time is emphasised if you happen to be one of those people who has been both impatient and fidgety. In a wheelchair, impatience is not a wise strategy. Gesturing irritably – especially with a walking stick – is counterproductive!

Likewise, you cannot act on impulse – jump up and do something. Getting to your feet is a considered exercise. In other words, it is the carers who count in such an environment. Their understanding of the level of background support required is crucial.

This was brought home to me when I decided to walk along the Seattle waterfront from the ferry terminal to my hotel. At the time the Seattle waterfront was undergoing massive reconstruction and therefore hailing a cab was difficult and I misjudged both the distance and my capacity. “The little boy” had decided to get out of his stroller. For about 50 metres with two sticks it was bearable. However, as I moved forward the uneven asphalt became jolting potholes; walking down improvised inclines, minor to the able-bodied, become challenging ski runs. I struggled, and my carer kept watch for an hour, hovering and supporting, without saying how stupid I was. This was my “puddle” moment.

The occasional person, invariably a young woman, stopped to ask whether I needed help. For an hour I moved along, away from the dusty, sulphurous fumes and clanging steel of the waterfront, onto quiet civilised pavement. The hotel was in sight, and as you do when you walk with sticks, your eyes are mostly directed towards the terrain. What made this segment better was the line of copper beeches, which I could count as I passed each one. I remember when I ran those inaptly named “fun runs” and I was getting tired, it was the next telegraph pole in the street or on the highway, which was the marker of achievement.

My carer who had been ever present suddenly asked whether she could go and get the wheelchair from the hotel since the footpath was paved and the hotel was not more than two hundred metres away. She had picked the right moment. I agreed and she disappeared as I slogged on with the vain hope that I would get there before she could bring back the wheelchair. The definition of bliss is being propelled in a wheelchair up and through the hotel foyer to the bar for a cold ale.

Caring, as I have found out, and the interaction with the person in care is something you see, but unless you are in the situation, you will never feel the importance of that interaction.

However, caring is not the exclusive preserve of some professional group or a financial benefit enshrouded in impenetrable regulation. It is a basic tenet of our society.

It is up to those disabled but articulate, to continually advocate for a better deal, not only for the disabled, but also for the carers. Neither the carer nor the person being cared for live in parallel. However, the challenge remains of how best to translate that interaction between those who have the interpersonal skills intuitively and those who need to learn the skills to improve the interaction. The internet seems to be full of exhortation as to what is best for the disabled, but there does not seem to be much room for interactive comment.

Yet 272,000 carers are under 25 years. I have grandson who was then 14 and who, without prompting, brought me a chair when I needed to sit down. He knew without any words being exchanged what was wanted, because he was paying attention to his environment rather than a piece of technology.

As against this was a young girl of similar age, head down, concentrating on her texting who pushed past me into the lift. Suddenly there was a scream of anguish as the door closed on her inattentive self. It was fortunate that it was not a railway crossing – or a puddle, which turned into a fathom-deep pond.

The allusion in the title is to the Australian author, Alan Marshall, a useful text for us all. He did learn to negotiate that fathomless puddle. Has government with this recent budget done the same thing?

Mouse Whisper

Heard in the Louis Vuitton emporium in Tibooburra: What is better, a retail politician or a wholesale disaster?

Modest Expectations

I have always liked writing. I was encouraged to write by Alister Brass. He was very much my mentor.  He died of AIDs in 1986. He was a great guy. I have kept writing. He had taught me a lot about myself, and how someone who was a little older than myself could have lived a fuller life than mine.  I miss him every day.

I always wonder where Murdoch fits in all this. Alister’s father, Douglas, was one of Murdoch’s first editors. I think he had a big effect on Murdoch, in the days when his world may have been that of the idealist.

However, I worry about all this technology that has sprung up in an unregulated space and where the forces of good and evil are constantly doing battle. Can I for whom my first written words required an inkwell; and when even the biro did not exist, adapt.

I find myself living in a world in a space which is getting smaller because the demands for instant anything have become the norm – money and fame are generally high on the instant agenda. Words are airbrushed away.

So why bother to write? Because I want to, and I have little time left. So here goes.

A singular New Zealander

One of the growing problems with my generation who grew up in a world where men were conditioned to take the lead is that some of us never adapted. After all, when I first went to dancing classes, men went forward in the dance and women went backwards. My mother stayed at home; it was the expectation that women would be in a helpless situation where we men were expected to open the door, let women go first; we made sure we walked on the gutter side of the footpath. It was called chivalry. Thus we grew up in a world where women were considered to be inferior (they were paid less and still are). If the parents had money, the girls went to finishing school; if not, they were selected for lower paid jobs, which were considered “suitable”.

Since then I have lived through a period of progressive gender assertiveness, but I wonder whether anything much has changed over my lifetime in the relationships between the sexes. For instance we may have the first Anglican woman bishop, but the Vatican looks to be much the same, old passive aggressive men in fancy dress and curious red hats.

However there is always a tipping point. Perhaps that tipping point is Jacinda Ardern.  When I read her CV, all my prejudices are invoked – lapsed Mormon, professional student politician – yet when she spoke and when she moved around after the Canterbury massacre – her very presence evoked in me a sensation that I have not had since I was a young man – the same as I had about John Kennedy.

Not that I was an early convert to Kennedy; I think I much preferred Hubert Humphrey, a remnant from the New Deal days but with a passion for social action.

However, Kennedy was a reformer. He grew on a young man’s consciousness. He made mistakes but while he lived, he served to remind us that there was a better world and he was there to inspire us to take responsibility for our actions and to say it as it should be. In those days communication was grainy black and white and the sound tended to blur the voice, but the intent was there. He made life all seem worthwhile – somebody, however distant, to try to emulate. I cried when I heard that Saturday morning in November 1963 that he had been assassinated.

And what happened next? Kids a bit younger than me died in a pointless war, which succeeded in dividing the world in which I grew up and left me confused in a way I was not when Kennedy was alive. I think others have labelled it “political entropy” and one wades on through this disorder for a long time.

Over this period, politicians have lost the confidence of the public. Camelot never existed, and the raft of exposés have portrayed Kennedy as less than the Camelot myth.  But the important point is missed – in those years from his inauguration in 1961 to his death in 1963 – to me and many others he could be summed up in one word – a paragon.

Now I am an old man, and seeing this woman, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, she is the first politician since Kennedy to cause me to believe, perhaps that to me she an exemplar against the fear and loathing that has characterised so much of what passes for political debate. I, like many, am just frustrated by the low level of debate. There is no longer any consideration in this Me All The Time rent-seeking political crop for policy discussion.

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.

Just as I learnt from Alister, watching him succumbing to AIDS; now at a distance and not knowing the woman I think I have now adapted. Taken a long time, I must say.

However, Prime Minister if I have the privilege of ever meeting you, please do not hug me. I am not a hugger.

“True” is the not only word that starts with “Tru”

President Harry Truman wrote to his wife from New York on 14 June 1946:

Went to Hard Rock Club party at the Statler last night and had a good time. Lost twenty-six dollars, a quarter at a time, between 9:00 P.M. and midnight, but enjoyed the evening.

The President loved playing poker. I have been to his “Little White House” at Key West and seen the innocuous worktable flipped over to become a green baize card table.  Thus, I recognised that “good time” meant such a poker game. The Hard Rock Club were associates who had campaigned and accompanied him to the Potsdam conference.

Meanwhile, over in the Jamaica Hospital in Queen’s County, for Mary and Fred a child was born – for them a son was given. And he would be called Donald who, as he found later “the government is indeed upon his shoulders” and he of course would totally agree with the prophet’s summation that he be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

But some would dispute “of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end and from his throne and over his kingdom establishing righteousness from that time on forever”. But then one would not expect Isaiah to get everything right.

However, there are interesting parallels in the presidential careers of Truman and Trump.

Truman scarcely rated a mention when he became Vice-President and seems to have been selected as an afterthought by Roosevelt for the 1944 election. Trump was dismissed as a New York businessman with a checkered past when his candidacy was mooted.

Yet each man won elections against “establishment” candidates. None of the pundits gave Truman a hope in 1948; nor did they give Trump any hope in 2016.  Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, had been as successful a person in public life as Hilary Clinton, both with New York affiliations. They projected a starchy appeal to the people.

Both Truman and Trump have been accused of making impetuous decisions. One instance involved Percy Spender, the Australian ambassador to the United States. He chanced upon Harry Truman in a foul mood. Truman’s daughter was an aspiring singer whom the press loved to lampoon. He had been enraged by one of these reports when Spender turned up. Sensing an opportunity, since Truman was in one of those moods, Spender got him to agree to the substance of the ANZUS pact. At the time the State Department had been strongly opposed to this. Truman was obviously in a volcanic mood. Criticism of his daughter amounted to “fake news”, and the presence of another “outsider” requesting something which had been blocked by the establishment – “well, give ‘em hell” (meaning the State Department).

Both men inherited the aftermath of a world at war. However, Truman, despite being myopic, saw active duty as an artillery officer in World War One. In contrast, Trump avoided military service.

The war experience left a deep impression on Truman.  He was the only United States President to authorise the use of the atomic bomb. It was a calculated assessment about a nation unable to recognize that “it was all over” – and it took two bombs. Hiroshima was not enough; Nagasaki brought realisation, at least to the Emperor, that Tokyo might be next.

The nuclear option has been regularly canvassed by Trump as a piece of braggadocio, because the North Koreans continue to taunt him, even though resolution of the Korean Peninisula standoff would be his Ultimate Deal.

Truman went through a very tough period after the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950. This coincided with the rise of the fervent anti-communist Senator McCarthy, whose fear-mongering activities played out in the interrogation of people who had become the “foe” – a secret Communist fifth column determined to undermine the American Way – conspiracy theory run amok. He was abetted by Roy Cohn, then a young New York lawyer. Cohn survived the eventual downfall of McCarthy, went back to the law and in 1986 was disbarred as a lawyer for “unethical,” “unprofessional” and, in one case, “particularly reprehensible” conduct. He by that time had become a mentor for a young Donald Trump.

Truman, the populist, tried to restore order to a chaotic world – he knew the importance of wise counsel, sensible advice and being able to listen. Truman was self-centred; most politicians are. It comes with the territory. But his response to chaos was to agree to the Marshall plan, indispensible in the resurrection of Europe. Yet just as he could go against advice as he did with the ANZUS pact; he could take blame. His decision to fire Macarthur at the height of the Korean War was very unpopular, although later he was supported unanimously by a bipartisan Senate Committee in the decision.

Trump, the populist, has initiated chaos, although his apologists would say that he has shaken the system up and it was about time that somebody did that. The world remains at war, just as it did with Truman. The ultimate North Korean aim of reunification of the Korean peninsula remains as true today as it was then.

The Middle East still suffers from the disastrous drawing of borders by the so-called Great Powers after World War One. Truman against the opposition of his foreign affair advisers ensured that his was the first country to recognise the creation of Israel. Unlike the decision involving Spender, this was a very considered decision, which fractured many relationships in government.

Nevertheless, Truman became so unpopular that he did not bother standing again in 1952, and after an abortive try by Macarthur for Republican Party candidate, another general, Dwight Eisenhower was selected – outwardly a much calmer person than Truman.

Both were leaders; they consulted and they made decisions based on facts as they knew it. They did not confabulate, nor go out of their way to encourage the meaningless or antagonise capriciously. Leadership requires a sense of humour to counteract the destructive triad in politicians, which I have previously written about: insomnia, isolation and boredom. A sense of humour is one of the less explored areas in its contribution to good leadership.

Truman had a sense of leadership. In time his legacy has been recognised so that he is now considered one of the great US Presidents. Unfortunately, Trump seems not to provide the same level of mature leadership.  “Tweeting” threats and insults that may play to a selected audience is no substitute.

Truman was a constructive populist; Trump’s basic instinct seems to be to destroy, with no other aim than to bully others.  It is best remembered that those that you have created have the power to pull you down. Truman never built such a group, but Trump has such a group, which he has to continually oil lest it dry out and crack.

For me, for many years I have had a replica in my study of the sign that Truman had on his desk; it reads: “The Buck Stops Here”.  Trump, as far as I know, does not have this sign, but he may as well have. However, it would have a different meaning than it did for Truman.

MOUSE WHISPER:  Heard in the Versace corner shop in Dirranbandi: “Of course the Liberal Party is a broad church, it is full of knaves.”