Saturday, April 16, 2011


Margaret Olley: Archibald winner 2011
Controversy invariably dogs Australia’s most celebrated art award – The Archibald Prize for portraiture – and fortunately for those of us who love a good artistic stoush, this year is no exception. As the hordes descend on the Art Gallery of New South Wales this weekend for the usually suffocating launch of the Archibald Exhibition, all eyes will be on the winner - Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley, the much-loved first lady and patron saint of Australian art. Is it fair dinkum, a genuine painting from real life, as the Archibald rules prescribe? Or is Quilty guilty of resorting to photographs in what’s supposed to be a purist expression of a painter’s talent? The critics are taking up their corners and the seconds are out of the ring.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s John McDonald was effusive about the picture, opining that it “ticked so many boxes the judges would have had difficulty explaining how they could ever have given the prize to anything else”. Quilty, he said, had “painted a truthful likeness without dwelling too painfully on signs of age”. Olley turns 88 in June. The Archibald win, McDonald wrote, had “confirmed Ben Quilty’s status as one of Australia’s most dynamic young artists”.

Christopher Allen
But in The Australian, Christopher Allen slammed the work as “ a very bad one on several scores”. First, he said, it was “grotesquely oversized”. “What reason can there be for painting the face of a tiny, elderly woman in this scale? Instead of intimacy and insight, we are faced with a massive surface that is at once emphatic and blank”, Allen wrote.

But what’s created a minor storm is Christopher Allen’s contention that the Quilty portrait “looks like the extravagantly camouflaged transcription of a photo”. “Quilty claims that he used etching and drawing, as well as photographs, in making this picture. I can believe this, because many painters can’t actually obtain a likeness from copying a photograph, or even get the shape of the face right”, Allen wrote.

Ben Quilty by Cherry Hood
This is a rapier not just directed at Quilty but at the heart of the Archibalds. Isn’t obtaining a likeness of the subject the whole point of portraiture? Why give the prize to an artist who can’t do so without photography? The withering glance of the Sydney glitterati will doubtless descend on Allen for the grenade he’s thrown, let alone for his own withering assessment of Ben Quilty’s talent as an artist. “Quilty has ability, but he should renounce gimmicks and the pull-apart pictures for which he is known and try painting instead”, Allen wrote. Ouch.

"Ray in Paris"
Grubsheet would relish being the meat in the sandwich between John McDonald and Christopher Allen at one of the fabled lunches regularly thrown by art dealer, Ray Hughes, an Archibald subject himself this year. We don’t know Allen but have had many alcohol-fuelled encounters with McDonald at the Hughes salon. He’s no wilting violet and his response to the criticism of Quilty is likely to be characteristically colourful and curt.

A clearly bristling Ben Quilty has come to his own defence by issuing a challenge "to give anyone a draw-off to show that I can draw". Quilty accepted that he'd used photographic references in executing the work. "Sure, I took photographs, but I made steel-plate etchings as well, and I did drawings. I used a lot of things", he told The Australian.

Incidentally, Grubsheet thought Lucy Culliton’s entry - Ray in Paris – was particularly good and perfectly captured our old mate’s legendary bonhomie, irascibility and eye for a good tie. No need for photographs here. Ray is Lucy’s dealer, patron and friend and the picture is from real life during a rambunctious European sojourn eighteen months ago.

Margaret Olley: Archibald winner 1948
Whatever the controversy about Ben Quilty's work, there's no denying the continuing star power of his subject, who's become the first person in the 90-year history of the Archibalds to be the subject of the winning entry twice. Margaret Olley was a comely 25 when she was painted by William Dobell for the competition in 1948. She tells the story that Dobell asked her to come to a party dressed as a duchess. This was no easy task in that era of post-war austerity so Olley cobbled together an extravagant dress made of pieces of parachute silk. The resulting image as become one of the icons of Australian art. And the lady herself has matured into not only one of our greatest painters herself but an extravagantly generous benefactor who's given away an estimated eight-million dollars. Bravo.

Graham Davis

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


It's inconceivable that in any other western democracy, a national leader would tolerate a cabinet minister behaving as a parallel figure on the world stage and actively undermining the whole edifice of government at home. Yet that's precisely what Australia's Julia Gillard is doing through her failure to crush the audacious come-back campaign being mounted by Kevin Rudd, the man she dislodged as prime minister in a palace coup last year.

The current Gillard-Rudd impasse is an abject lesson for politicians everywhere on the absolute necessity of not just marginalising their predecessors when they take office but of driving a stake through their hearts. Gillard was warned that having knifed Rudd for the Labor Party leadership last June, it simply wasn't in his nature to meekly accept his fate and that she would need to watch her back. Barely scraping over the line at the subsequent election in August, Gillard gave Rudd the job of foreign minister. She had no choice. Her government is on a knife edge in the current parliament and one vote is all that separates her from electoral oblivion. Rudd made it clear that it was either the foreign gig or he would leave politics and precipitate a bye-election in his Queensland seat that Labor would surely lose. Thus it is that Australia's relations with the rest of the world are in the hands of a man also holding a gun to his leader's head.

Anyone else might be content to strut the international stage as Rudd does, posing as one of the big players and studiously trying to paper over Australia's status as a middle ranking power at best. Only someone with a world class ego would claim credit - as Rudd does - for being a prime instigator of the no-fly zone over Libya. That's right. Not Barak Obama, not Nicolas Sarkozy but Kevin - the Tintin lookalike Wonder Boy from Down Under.

Role reversal: Now Kevin is eyeing Julia's back
This pompous self-aggrandisement might be excusable at a time when the opinion polls show that most Australians can't help liking a foreign minister who's too big for his boots. The problem is that like Dracula, the part of Kevin Rudd that wants to run the whole shebang refuses to die. He's actively positioning himself for another tilt at the leadership and in doing so, is slowly leeching the life out of the Gillard government with a display of disunity that - if it continues - spells certain death at the next election. As Gillard herself staggers under the weight of a host of issues such as the carbon tax and border protection - each of which could bring her down - she's got the added burden of the grinning Queensland monkey on her back.

Kevin Rudd has taken to making unscheduled visits to shopping centres outside his home state, where he's mobbed by old ladies and other people with nothing better to do than pat him on the back and encourage him to move against his increasingly unpopular leader. Last week, he uttered a loaded "we'll see" when one of these mall creepers suggested that he make a comeback. He told journalists later that he was merely "being polite" in not throttling the suggestion at birth.  Hello? Who does this guy think he's fooling?

The fact is that Rudd only seems to be popular with people who don't know him. A Queensland QC who does know him recently reminded Grubsheet that Rudd  "inspired loathing" when he was cabinet secretary in the state government headed by Wayne Goss in the early 1990s. When he went to Canberra, Rudd's narcissism and sense of entitlement is said to have grown in direct proportion to his political advancement. As prime minister, flight attendants were reduced to tears if they brought him the wrong meal. And his fellow MPs soon discovered that for Kevin, loyalty is a one way street. It explains the almost total absence of conscience - let alone grief - when Labor decided it could stomach his hubris no longer and threw its weight behind Julia Gillard. The only tears shed were Rudd's at a farewell news conference that was cringe-making at the time and will seem positively astonishing through the prism of history.

With public sentiment now turning against Gillard, Kevin Rudd clings to the fantasy that he can ride the opinion polls to a second coming. Yet his chances of regaining the leadership are zero given the hatred for him in his own ranks. Labor is a tribe with a fierce sense of collectivism. Rudd is a loner and friendless, apart for a gaggle of desperate MPs in marginal seats who think they might be able to stave off impending defeat by enticing him to their own shopping centres and trying to bathe in the same limelight. Good luck. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, this gentleman's not for sharing. No one seems to be asking the obvious question. What on earth is the foreign minister of Australia doing pumping the flesh at a retail complex in western Sydney? Aren't there grand affairs of state that require his attention?

Downer: "Our standing and leverage" is being damaged
The worst aspect of all of this is the damage being done to the national interest because of one man's fantasy of seizing back the limelight. Every minute that Rudd spends thinking about skewering Gillard is another minute wasted in advancing Australia's cause. The former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has outlined Labor's underlying problem in a thoughtful essay for the Sidney Myer Asia Centre's Asialink:

"Part of the narrative of the Australian political Left is that, in government, the Labor Party always shows more enthusiasm for Asia than the Liberals. Events of the past three years suggest otherwise. There has been almost no new initiative in Asia from the Australian government in four years, yet Australia has been aggressively vocal on issues of marginal importance to our country, like Libya. This has been a barren period for Australia in Asia and that, in turn, affects our standing and our leverage in Europe and America."

Undermining Australia: Frank Bainimarama
On Australia's relations in its immediate backyard, Downer is equally damning - backing his Liberal successor, Julie Bishop, in busting wide open the hitherto uncompromising bipartisan stance on Frank Bainimarama's regime in Fiji.

"As for Fiji, the Australian government has abandoned any real attempt to restore democracy there. We are in the worst possible position. We look weak because we can’t do anything. In the meantime, Fiji is working diligently and effectively to undermine Australia in the Pacific and beyond. Fiji is working day and night in New York trying to sabotage our Security Council campaign. Rumour has it they are having some success."

However much Labor may be inclined to use the Mandy Rice-Davies line, "well he would say that, wouldn't he?", Downer is making a telling point. Kevin Rudd is not doing the job he should for Australia. Worse, he's embarked on a personal crusade that can only destabilise an already shaky government. How can that be in anyone's interest but his own and that of Labor's enemies? In a memorable encounter Grubsheet once had with Jimmy Breslin - the celebrated New York columnist - Breslin spoke of the curse to humanity of "half people with full blown egos". It's a phrase that might have been coined for Kevin Rudd.

Graham Davis

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Grubsheet boards a Qantas flight to Perth this weekend with the same trepidation that now routinely accompanies our every trip on the iconic national carrier. For once, our client is paying for us to fly in the "pointy end" but we still share some of the burdens of those less fortunate souls in "cattle class" - the same fetid air and disconcerting sense of being crammed into a aluminium tube, defying the rules of gravity at 35-thousand feet. Nowadays, there's an extra element of stress from a gnawing feeling - doubtless widely shared - that flying Qantas isn't as safe as it once was. Last November, it very nearly became the first airline in the world to lose the biggest airliner in the world. And few weeks pass without yet another report of engine failure, smoke in the cockpit or some other "incident" that raises a collective question mark over Qantas's legendary safety record.

Ageing but are they still safe?
Today - as the nice lady on the PA system tells us - "we're flying on a Boeing 767. Every aircraft is different, blah, blah, blah". We know. Airfleets.Net tells us there are twenty-six 767s in the Qantas fleet with an average age of 17.7 years, older than the average age of its venerable global workhorse - the 747 - at 16.2 years. Of the 107 airlines worldwide which operate this aircraft, Qantas ranks 67th in fleet age, or close to the bottom third. Hmm. How old is this one, we wonder? The decor is decidedly 1980s, with a mottled slate grey bulkhead and overhead lockers fraying at the seams. Oh, it probably doesn't matter if they look after the mechanics properly. The problem is that Qantas's own maintenance staff are at war with the airline, using the media as a battlefield. They've made the startling claim that safety standards are being compromised by the company's policy of shifting maintenance offshore. The Qantas management denies this emphatically. But who is the travelling public to believe?

When Irish eyes are downcast:  CEO Alan Joyce
Now - as if the scrap with the engineers isn't bad enough - the (mainly) blokes flying the planes are also at war with the airline over terms and conditions and also raising safety as an issue. Is this just the crimson hyperbole of your routine industrial relations stoush or a genuine harbinger of impending catastrophe? How on earth does the travelling public decide who is right? Is it Alan Joyce, the Qantas CEO, and his bean counters and spinmeisters, or the blokes in the peaked caps up front and the overalls on the ground with our lives in their hands? Such thoughts are apt to consume us as we peer out the cabin window at the clouds below, reflecting on a lifetime of Qantas travel and - we can't help it - the appalling fragility of our own existence in the supposedly safe hands of the Flying Kangaroo.
Qantas "Connie": plagued by engine woes

Grubsheet's first Qantas flight was on a piston-engined Lockheed Constellation from Nadi to Sydney more than 50-years ago and we've travelled on every aircraft type since. Back then, the pilots would rev the Wright radial engines for what seemed an eternity to young eyes before the plane lumbered down the runway and climbed tentatively into the air for the seven-hour flight to Mascot. The Wright engines were notoriously complex and notoriously unreliable, so much so that Qantas would keep spare engines at various ports throughout the world. The jet age brought engines that, by contrast, were relatively simple and reliable. But with vivid memories of the constant "Connie" engine breakdowns and even fires of the 1950s ("Mummy, why has that propellor stopped?"), Grubsheet isn't automatically fazed when it reads a media report of a modern aircraft diverting because of engine trouble. The problem is the frequency and severity of the long list of recent Qantas in-flight dramas, including the near loss over Indonesia last November of an Airbus A380 carrying 433 passengers like us.

Ah, the way we were - spacious and unharried
However much that might have been the fault of the engine-maker, Rolls Royce, the chronicle of other "incidents" suggests that something is clearly wrong at Qantas. But what?  Are these random and even routine occurrences that may never have come to light without disgruntled staff and a hungry media to lap up their every grievance? Or does our national airline have a systemic problem with safety that makes it only a matter of time before it loses its first peace-time passenger in 90 years and makes a liar of Dustin Hoffman's idiot-savant in Rain Man? Yes, "Qantas never crashes" but it almost did. And what's it doing to fix things? Questions, questions, questions - all the time eroding the confidence of the travelling public. The airline has the mother of all battles ahead of it, not just in a PR sense - it seems - but to ensure its very survival.
Arab competition

The decision by Moody's to downgrade Qantas this week points to an airline gasping for revenue, not so much on its domestic routes where profits are evidently healthy but on its famed global network, where it's struggling against the competition. It slashed services this week but some analysts are now privately canvassing the possibility of the once unthinkable - that the Flying Kangaroo is eventually slaughtered on the altar of shrinking yields and tighter margins. Qantas is so much a part of the Australian psyche that the whole nation would be traumatised even it survived by merging into a non-Australian global super brand. The loss of the Qantas name is unthinkable. Yet the days of Australians choosing to fly Qantas as a patriotic duty are long gone and the airline carries a hefty share of the blame. Treat us like cattle and we'll behave like cattle, stampeding in the direction of those Asian and Gulf State carriers who treat us better on the ground and in the air.

Our trip to Perth is a snapshot of the problem. We arrive at Sydney Airport to find that Qantas has practically replaced humans with computers altogether. We have to master a touchpad to check in and only a pre-issued electronic tag on our bag ensures a smooth transition to the baggage handlers. God knows how the elderly and computer illiterate manage. The struggle to get through security without having a nervous breakdown clearly isn't Qantas's fault. But it does have control over what happens for the rest of the journey and, sad to say, we don't like it one bit.
Not his finest role. What's John Travolta doing on Qantas?

Grubsheet can cope with our national airline being run by an Irishman in Alan Joyce whose brogue  is sometimes impenetrable. There's an amusing story doing the rounds about the look on his executive team's faces when Joyce talked about "buying a third Fokker". But hey, it's a global business and the odd "o" coming out sounding like a "u" isn't an issue when you set out to recruit the best.  What we really object to is being welcomed aboard our national airline - "the Spirit of Australia" - by an American dressed as a Qantas pilot when he's not. John Travolta seems nice enough and isn't a bad actor. But we simply don't comprehend why the fact that he flies an old Qantas Boeing 707 for a hobby qualifies him to be the public face of the airline on the pop down screens before every flight. Where's the real-life pilot hero, Captain Richard De Crespigny, who saved a planeload of people last year? Wouldn't he be a more reassuring figure? We're grumpy already.

Our seats today match the age of the aircraft so we're spared the new Marc Newson versions whose trays descend from the seat in front and collide with our ample girth. They're clearly designed for lithe designers rather than real people. But perhaps that's how you end up with too much of celebrity chef Neil Perry's in-flight food. Who says Qantas passengers believe in the adage of less is more? Neil Perry, of course. So we're subjected to a meal designed more for a rabbit than a real man. Hours later, we're still trying to extract the bits of rocket from our teeth. We expected claustrophobia and the grating, sing-song inanity of peroxide blond cabin staff making their inflight announcements. But for God's sake, can someone please bring us some real tucker and a stiff drink? Hooray. The drink part of the plea is met with a Bloody Mary that is truly first class, concocted by a woman of a certain age who clearly knows about such things. A brief moment of joy on a generally bleak horizon.
Bleak horizon and intimations of mortality

We've reached the admittedly superficial conclusion that Qantas is an airline where style has triumphed over substance, where the tastes and values of its uber-trendy designers and famously gay cabin crew are more important than those of the ordinary Australians it's supposed to serve. "I've been to cities all over the world" (and never endured such unsatisfying mush and unadulterated tosh. Pass the sick bag, indeed). So long as that patent loss of direction is confined to the cabin, maybe people less cantankerous than us can live with it. But what's truly alarming is that the obvious organisational dysfunction of the company is intruding into an area that's sacrosanct and non-negotiable to all Australians and has been for 90 years - to have the safest airline in the world. The internal warfare at Qantas has to end or the Flying Kangaroo is the most endangered species in aviation.

Graham Davis

Monday, March 28, 2011


Australia's impotence in influencing events in its own backyard is being demonstrated in dramatic fashion this week as the Fijian dictator, Frank Bainimarama, fulfils his long-held ambition to assume the chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. All of the other Melanesian leaders - from Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu plus the Kanak FLNKS from New Caledonia - are joining Bainimarama for the MSG summit in Suva on Thursday. It's also being attended by official representatives from Indonesia, East Timor and -strangely - the European Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which has no Pacific interest whatsoever in the normal course of events but is also about to deliver its own slap in the face to Australia. But more on that later.

The humiliation for Australia and New Zealand comes with the authority Bainimarama will now wield as the leader of a virile regional grouping - backed, incidentally, by the Chinese - that's increasingly regarded as more important than the long-established Pacific Islands Forum, which links the MSG members with Australia, NZ  and the smaller island states. Australia and NZ managed to get Fiji suspended from the Forum two years ago because of Bainimarama's 2006 coup. But now, the regional "bad guy" gets to be the top guy in the MSG, strutting around as chair of an alternative grouping that's certainly much more representative of the Pacific's biggest players and biggest populations - the nearly seven million people in PNG and 850-thousand in Fiji.

When Fiji was suspended from the Forum in 2009, Bainimarama mocked the then Forum chair who made the announcement - Toke Talagi, the prime minister of Niue - as a stooge of the Aussies and Kiwis. Whatever the truth, Talagi represented a population of just 14-hundred or barely three fully-laden jumbo jets. And those other Pacific leaders who support Australia and NZ's hardline position on Fiji - notably Samoa's Tuilaepa Malielegaoi - are also the Pacific's small guys, however impressive their individual physiques may be.

High stakes loser: Edward Natapei
Last year. Australia managed to derail Bainimarama's first attempt to lead the MSG by persuading the then chair, Vanuatu's former prime minister Edward Natapei, to cancel the Suva summit, where he was scheduled to hand over the leadership to the Fijian leader. Natapei pulled the thatched mat from under Bainimarama's feet with a Friday news release that didn't reach Suva until the Monday morning of the week the summit was to take place. Bainimarama cast this as an unforgivable stab in the back from a trusted fellow Melanesian. But he succeeded in turning humiliation into triumph by recasting the MSG summit as an "Engaging with Fiji" summit and attracting every Melanesian leader other than Natapei, most importantly the veteran founding father of Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare. The Fijian leader was thus able to claim that Australia and NZ had "egg on their faces". It was no exaggeration.

Since then, Bainimarama has managed to use Fiji's diplomatic influence and his keen sense of Melanesian politics to first marginalise Natapei and then rely on the Vanuatu leader's chief political opponent, Sato Kilman, to destroy him. Much of Kilman's campaign against Natapei was based on casting him as a man in the thrall of the Aussies and Kiwis who was prepared to betray a Melanesian brother in exchange for more than 60-million dollars in Australian aid. Whether or not the charge was justified, Melanesian "big man" politics is notoriously unforgiving. Natapei has since been consigned to the electoral dustbin and Kilman thereby removed the one remaining impediment to Frank Bainimarama assuming the leadership of the MSG. Australia and New Zealand - the region's big boys - lost both the battle and the war.

Even members of Australia's foreign affairs establishment now concede that on top of his 2006 coup, Frank Bainimarama has successfully scored another coup in securing the MSG chair. Jenny Hayward-Jones is a former Canberra diplomat who's director of arguably the region's most influential and certainly best funded think tank - the Myer Foundation Melanesian Program at the Lowy Institute. Once in the front line of the cheer squad urging Australia and NZ to apply the strictest sanctions against Bainimarama, Hayward-Jones appears to have had a dramatic change of heart. Describing the Fijian dictator's victory in securing the MSG leadership as "a real coup", she's now urging an urgent re-evaluation of Australian and NZ policy towards Fiji.

Missing link: Where's Fiji? "Rudd blocked"
Hayward-Jones has been especially critical of Australian foreign minister and deposed prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who she says is "courting new friends in North Africa" with his campaign for a no-fly zone over Libya while presiding over "an erosion of Australian influence" in the Pacific. Canberra, she says, has "failed to notice that China's influence is increasing across the Pacific", becoming the second largest trading partner in the region after Australia, and that "Australia has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to continue the dominance that it once enjoyed in the region". Of course, many others - including this Fiji-born correspondent - have been saying the same thing for some time. The difference is that Hayward-Jones is a Canberra "beltway insider", and is doubtless speaking for a lot more than just the Lowy Institute in raising her concerns about Kevin Rudd's priorities.  Official Australian attitudes on how to deal with the Fijian dictator are now split between the hardliners and those like Hayward-Jones who argue the policy isn't working when Bainimarama winds up heading the MSG and is, in fact, counterproductive in driving him into the arms of the Chinese.

Beijing isn't just getting a significant strategic and economic foothold in Fiji with the deterioration of Bainimarama's relationship with Canberra and Wellington. The Chinese are also cultivating the MSG to the extent of funding its secretariat in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila. Hayward-Jones is right. These developments present a clear and present danger to Australia's interests in the region. It certainly seems an extraordinary paradox that while some of its strategic defence planners are urging Australia to arm itself with US nuclear submarines to counter a perceived Chinese threat, Canberra should be so cavalier about its relationship with a budding Chinese satellite like Fiji.

But is there any sign of policy change? Evidently not, judging by the recent comments of Kevin Rudd. During a visit to Wellington at the weekend, the Australian foreign minister was clearly irritated when a TVNZ interlocutor asked him if it was time for both countries to revise their attitude towards Fiji. Rudd refused to answer the question directly, saying there was often a tendency to focus on what Australian and New Zealand diplomacy should be doing rather than putting the onus on the Bainimarama regime. It was the Fijian leader, he said, who had to change and the trans-Tasman partners would continue to be vigorous in calling for democracy and "were not in the business of legitimising" what had been "a very ugly military coup". So what Canberra insiders have long termed the "Rudd block" in achieving any change in current policy towards Fiji continues, whatever the strategic pitfalls.

New ties: Peter Thomson and UN Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon
For his part, Frank Bainimarama simply doesn't care. The triple Australian-Fiji-NZ citizen he hired as his UN representative, Peter Thomson, has forged a new network of international relationships for Fiji outside the Anzac orbit, including membership of the Non Aligned Movement. This goes a long way to explaining Indonesia's presence as an observer at this week's MSG summit, however much it offends Bainimarama's Melanesian brothers in the Free Papua Movement. And Thomson has also been a prime influence behind the formation of a formal independent Pacific voting bloc at the UN, which goes a long way to explaining the otherwise inexplicable presence of Luxembourg at the MSG summit.

This tiny European state of just over half a million people has the kind of big aspirations that Frank Bainimarama finds irresistible, way beyond its membership of the European Union, where it could clearly be a crucial ally for Fiji. Like Australia, Luxembourg wants a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. And how do you get that? Well, you go lobbying to the four corners of the earth. So while Kevin Rudd traverses the length and breadth of Africa trying to secure Australia's seat, a group of suave Europeans from a place famous mostly for being a refuge for funny money have appeared in the South Seas to roger the Aussies in their own backyard. You can bet they'll be downing lots of kava and slow-cooked pork on a nod and a wink from the beaming dictator that Fiji's precious vote will be theirs. It's a funny old world - and Frank Bainimarama is getting the last laugh.

This article by Graham Davis has subsequently appeared in The Australian, the Fiji Sun and news websites throughout the Asia Pacific.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Triumphant Liberal hero Barry O'Farrell
The Australian Labor Party's worst election result in New South Wales in more than a century can't simply be written off as an enraged electorate taking its revenge on a corrupt and incompetent government. It's also the writing on the wall for federal Labor as its traditional support base of aspirational blue and white collar workers and pinot-swilling social progressives abandons it to find political solace elsewhere. Some on the left are going to the Greens but the great majority are turning right, straight into the arms of the Liberals and Nationals.

Labor always feared decimation in New South Wales after a wave of ministerial scandals and gross mismanagement of the state's shrinking resources. Yet the scale of the defeat is even worse than anticipated, with the Liberals astonished by the extent of their gains - a primary vote double that of Labor. In seat after seat, the Coalition didn't need to go to preferences to win while in seat after seat, Green candidates outpolled Labor in the primary vote. This is the nightmare paradigm Labor now faces across the board.

Even the ALP's staunchest supporters wonder if this spells the end of the party as a mainstream political force. It's not just the loss of a slew of once solidly Labor seats. It's the fact that Australia's most populous state, and by extension much of the country as a whole, has turned its back on Brand Labor, repelled that the idealism of Chifley's "light on the hill" has been snuffed out by political thuggery and back-room factionalism. There was a gadarene rush towards the brand of reassuring, competent conservatism embodied by Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell ( pictured). With an unprecedented 17 per cent swing, the Coalition is set to win about 70 lower house seats, Labor 20 and independents the remaining three

Ducktail defeat: Labor's Kristina Keneally
Labor apparatchiks delude themselves into thinking that voter intentions in state and federal elections are resolutely separate. Yet as she watched the results come in, Prime Minister Julia Gillard would have been sick to the stomach as the full extent of the disaster unfolded.  It was outlined succinctly by her left faction colleague, NSW MP Luke Foley, whose role as truth teller on the ABC's election coverage was truly heroic. "Labor has lost its heartland" - he solemnly declared - as once rock-solid seats like Parramatta, Smithfield and Campbelltown fell like dominos and proud working class bastions around the industrial nerve centres of Newcastle and Wollongong drowned in a sea of conservative blue. "All we have left are a few sticks of furniture, Foley said. Oh, and a likely new opposition leader in John Robertson who epitomises the Tammany Hall culture that's steadily destroying the party from within. Don't take our word for it. It was ALP hero Paul Keating who famously said that the day Robertson becomes leader is the day Labor is finished. That prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

In this election, the New South Wales electorate hasn't so much decided to flirt with the right or even clutch it in temporary embrace. The extent of the swing - especially in Labor's (former) heartland -looks more like a declaration to move in. Lock, stock and O'Farrell. Once derided by Labor as "Fatty O'Barrel" before he slimmed down and turned seducer, BOF is safe for at least two elections and maybe more. So does anyone seriously think what happened this weekend has no ramifications in the federal sphere? Was that a pig that just passed overhead?

Yes, New South Wales voters want O'Farrell to do a Mussolini and make the trains run on time. But ominously for Gillard, they also seem to have accepted Bazza's plea to turn the NSW poll into a plebiscite on the federal government's carbon tax. How else to explain the huge swing to the Liberals in the former Labor industrial strongholds of the Hunter and Illawara, where a carbon tax would really bite? Voters are worried about cost of living pressures and especially electricity prices. And there's plenty of evidence that they simply don't buy the notion of Australians taxing carbon emissions if the Americans, the Chinese and others won't do the same.
Labor's Luke Foley (right) tells it like it is

It's a fair bet that this is why the Greens didn't do as well as expected in this election. The Greens assault on deputy premier Carmel Tebbutt in Marrickville was a total fizzer, with a loopy candidate who's been trying to get the local council to declare war on Israel. And it remains to be seen, as postal votes are counted, if they can unseat education minister Verity Firth in Balmain with a candidate who used to peddle Horny Goat Weed for a living. Are Australian voters finally waking up to the fact that far from being cuddly advocates for mother earth, the Greens are dangerous zealots who pose a direct threat to their living standards? It sure seems that way.

There was also a stampede away from most of the independents, and especially in two state seats - Port Macquarie and Tamworth - whose independent federal members prop up the Gillard Government. The Nationals won both seats, something that would have sent shivers up the spines of Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. It's the writing on the wall for both of them that neither will survive the next federal election. Their conservative constituents are just waiting to whack them for giving Australia Julia Gillard. All of which means they can choose to bring her down now and perhaps be forgiven or continue to prop her up and face certain political death. No wonder Tony Abbott's grin at the Liberal victory party was as wide as Barry O'Farrell's. May you live in interesting times, goes the old Confucian proverb. Too right.

Graham Davis

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Tony Abbott is playing with electoral fire with his latest foray outside the doors of the parliament to join what the organisers described as a grassroots protest against the Government's carbon tax but seemed more like a gathering of the looniest of Australia's looney right. The opposition leader seems to have no compunction whatsoever to be seen publicly with the likes of the flame-haired whiner, Pauline Hanson, the deeply unattractive fusiliers of the Shooter's Party and the shrill storm troopers of the Australian League of Rights, so far off the dial in their insistence on a white Australia that they can be more than fairly described as local neo-Nazis.

What on earth possessed the federal opposition leader to bed down with this rag tag of extremists, however much he opposes the imposition of a carbon tax without a fresh mandate from the electorate? This guy is giving small "c" conservatives like Grubsheet a bad name.

With friends like these: Pauline Hanson
It's inevitable - one supposes - that a so-called popular protest against an unpopular government would be hijacked by the fringe-dwelling opportunists of Australian politics. Time was when they used to be on the far left. But now it's the extreme right that gathers under the kind of tattered anti-establishment umbrella held up by the likes of 2GB radio shock jock Chris Smith, one of the prime organisers of the Canberra protest.

By way of background, Smith is an old and friendly acquaintance from our mutual days in television at the celebrated "evil empire" of Kerry Packer's Channel Nine. Believe it or not, his media career has been even more colourful than ours. He was suspended from Nine for forging the signature of the network's corporate lawyer, suspended from 2GB after an "incident" involving a woman at the staff Christmas Party two years ago and at the centre of a recent furore when he organised a radio quiz around the unspeakably sad drownings of asylum seekers off Christmas Island in December. No-one doubts Smith's sincerity but let's face it. The guy is even madder than we are, a self confessed alcoholic and bipolar sufferer with an uncanny ability to weather the wildest of corporate HR storms and survive. You can't help like the guy but really.

Smith openly boasted on his program of organising the fleet of buses that brought the protestors to Canberra for the carbon protest. He cast it as part of Tony Abbott's "People's Revolt" against Julia Gillard's backflip on her pre-election promise that no carbon tax would be part of any government she led. At face value, this appears to be a worthy crusade against the most heinous cynicism on the part of the prime minister. But only while it isn't hijacked by the looney right and its fellow travellers, who have the unique ability to box the famous pugilist, Tony Abbott, into the far right corner with one of their celebrated right hooks. And so it transpired in Canberra today.

"Mad Monk" tonsure view at looney fest
Middle Australia was tonight presented with the unedifying spectacle of Abbott on the evening news against a backdrop of placards emblazoned with such gems as "Juliar - Bob Browns Bitch (sic) " and "Ditch the Witch", with the prime minister pictured astride a broom. What did they think? Well, not much -we'd wager -if even conservative sympathisers like Grubsheet are appalled. We expected to see the leering visages of Barnaby Joyce, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella on such a stage but Tony Abbott? In adoring attendance weren't just the kind of people who give right wing politics a bad name but some characters bordering on the certifiable. The Government rightly made mincemeat of the opposition leader in the House of Representatives afterwards. You could see the glee in their eyes. If the "Mad Monk" goes on likes this, you beauty! Maybe the next election isn't lost after all.

The most telling part of the day's miserable proceedings was that Tony Abbott's principal rivals in the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, were nowhere to be seen. They were far too smart to be caught up in a stunt by the looney right that Abbott was stupid enough to be suckered into, lock, stock and barrel. No, Turnbull and Hockey were back in their parliamentary offices sharpening their figurative knives, doubtless watching the proceedings on the lawns outside with the same glee as their Labor opponents. If he goes on this way for too much longer, Abbott will be toast. Choosing to mix with gun freaks and neo-Nazis? Maybe he's the Mad Monk after all.

Graham Davis