Saturday, April 16, 2011

No 21. THE OLLEY AND THE ARCHIES


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

No 20. A NATION HOSTAGE TO ONE MAN'S EGO

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?
"Loathed"

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

No 19. SAVING THE MANGY FLYING KANGAROO

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

No 18. CHAIRMAN FRANK'S PACIFIC COUP

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

No 17. THE LIGHT ON THE HILL EXTINGUISHED

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

No 16. SUPPING WITH THE DEVIL

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

Saturday, March 19, 2011

No 15. POSTCARD THEODORE: SURVIVING DISASTER

With so much loss of life from recent natural catastrophes in Japan and New Zealand, the floods and cyclone that swept north-eastern Australia at the start of the year have largely become yesterday's news for all but those directly affected. Yet up and down the Queensland coast and hinterland, there are inspiring stories of resilience and the human capacity to endure as individual communities band together to rebuild. Prince William - destined one day to be King of Australia if the country remains a monarchy - has been warmly received during a visit to some of the worst affected areas. For our part, Grubsheet has also had the opportunity to meet flood-affected residents of the only town in Australia to have ever been completely evacuated by air - the small community of Theodore, some 500 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.

Theodore has a population of only 450 or so. But in the story of its people are some important lessons on how to survive disaster that will resonant in Christchurch and northern Honshu, all of them centred on individuals being able to rely on others. The themes are universal but it's what Australians like to call mateship.

The Dawson: A river bites back
Theodore is at the fork of two waterways - the Dawson River and Castle Creek - whose swollen banks were breached at the end of December by a flood peak that reached a record 14.7 metres. As a sea of murky water and sludge enveloped residential areas, sometimes to roof height, a fleet of helicopters plucked Theodore's citizens to safety in driving rain and deposited them at the adjacent mining town of Moura, 50 kilometres away. There, the Anglo-American mining company housed and fed them for three weeks before the floodwaters receded and they were allowed back to survey the damage.

The experience was traumatic for the whole community and only now are many people being hit by an acute sense of despondency, as the extent of their loss sinks in. Tears are not far from the surface and each cloud cover and rain drop brings a renewed sense of dread. "I just can't sleep if I hear rain on the roof", one resident tells us. "I have terrible nightmares of the water raging around me again and being covered in mud", says another. In some cases, the pain is exacerbated by disputes with insurance companies over the extent of flood coverage. "I'm developing a real hatred for my own insurer", says Liz, the owner of the local bus company. "I faithfully handed over my premiums for years expecting them to come to my aid in a crisis. Now we're at war".

But the story of Theodore is also one of survival and inspiration and especially the capacity for ordinary people to provide extraordinary service to their fellow citizens. Theodore takes it name from a former Queensland Premier,"Red Ted" Theodore, and is one of the few small towns in Australia to have been designed by the great Canadian architect Walter Burley Griffin, who designed Canberra, the national capital. "Theodorians" - as the local people call themselves - are immensely proud of their home  and the sense of community it inspires. They continually refer to the "spirit of Theodore", as if the place itself is imbued with the optimism and pioneering "can do" attitude of its residents. That spirit is embodied in the local doctor, Associate Professor Bruce Chater ( yes, who says rural Queensland doesn't get top medical attention?)  who's been a Theodore resident for 30 years.

Duty of Care: Associate Professor Bruce Chater
In many ways, Bruce is the glue that holds this community together, though he insists himself that it's the community spirit of Theodore that really binds this small population into such a potent, united front. All that spirit needed to be mustered against the elements just after Christmas, when torrential rain produced flash floods that bore down on the town from the two waterways that surround it. As the floodwaters rose, Bruce took to the streets on his jet ski to do his rounds. And as the crisis worsened, he was part of the small team of prominent residents who marshalled the population into action. Cut off on all sides by flooded roads, the very survival of the people of Theodore was at stake as the town itself slowly drowned. An urgent air lift was the only option and so began a remarkable episode in the long history of disaster relief in Australia.

The only remaining dry land in town was a strip of roadway between the community-owned pub (pictured) and the Returned Services League clubhouse opposite. With the residents now crammed into the RSL after abandoning their flooded homes, a fleet of helicopters - private as well as military Blackhawks - began ferrying them to high ground in the adjacent mining town of Moura. The home video pictures of this evacuation on December 28th are startling, huddled groups sprinting towards the choppers in driving rain and four craft at a time gingerly taking off from an ever dwindling island in the middle of town. 351 people were moved in this way without incident in a matters of hours, a commendable feat under any circumstances but especially in such atrocious conditions. As one resident puts it - "God was smiling on Theodore that day. It was a bloody miracle".

Warm welcome on dry land: The Moura mine
At the other end of the journey, the residents found a welcome that reduced many to tears of relief and gratitude. The timing of the disaster was fortunate in one sense in that the Anglo-American mine at Moura was in Christmas shutdown and the staff quarters were largely vacant. Without hesitation, the mine management agreed to a request from Bruce Chater and the other community leaders to help house the evacuees. They also organised such necessities as items of clothing that the residents of Theodore had been obliged to leave behind. For three weeks, the mine housed and fed the evacuees before the floodwaters subsided and they were able to return to their homes. Even now, some Theodore residents break down when they recount the many kindnesses extended to them during their stay in Moura, a town with an equally fierce sense of community and a history of acute rivalry with Theodore, especially on the rugby field. "When we needed them, they were there for us", says Vaughn Becker, a local Banana Shire councillor, the tears welling in his eyes. "It was the epitome of the Aussie spirit of mateship and we'll never forget it".

The random acts of kindness continued when Theodore residents returned home to begin the heartbreaking task of assessing their losses and rebuilding. Sharyn, who owns the local bakery and cafe, tells a typical story. " I was just standing in the shop overwhelmed by everything, the mud, the water, everything. Suddenly a complete stranger appeared at the door and said 'I think you need some help' and immediately set to work removing the debris and cleaning up. This bloke stayed for three days. I only ever knew him as Barry the boilermaker from Biloela (a nearby town). But bless him. I'll never forget what he did for me".

It's this spirit that continues to be celebrated in Theodore as the town slowly recovers. It can't be prescribed, legislated for or enforced. It comes from the heart of people of goodwill. It is the essence of human kindness. And we can only hope that the same spirit prevails in the areas of devastation in northern Japan that fill our screens now, far from Theodore and the equally unforgiving Australian bush.

Graham Davis

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No 14. A QUESTION OF RESPECT

Australians are renowned for their disrespect for authority. Usually this is cast as a healthy disrespect, as if the very notion of authority sits uncomfortably on the broad shoulders of your average laconic Aussie. We seem to regard ourselves as perfectly entitled to tell anyone in authority to "get stuffed", especially if that person is an effwit and violates our inviolable code of a "fair go". Anywhere else in the world, national leaders can expect deference but not here. We voted the bastards in and we can vote them out. And they'll bloody well put up with whatever we dish out to them.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's latest appearance on ABC Television's Q and A program is conclusive proof that this disrespect has gone too far. A few years back, eyebrows were raised when television host Ray Martin took it upon himself to address then Prime Minister Paul Keating as Paul and later, John Howard as John. Martin, at least, was "Mr Australia" at the time, the darling of the blue rinse set and ubiquitous on our screens as the host of choice for everything from election debates to Carols By Candlelight. Now, ordinary members of a studio audience think nothing of addressing the PM as Julia, as if addressing an equal when she's nothing of the sort. We clearly weren't alone in our discomfort with this overfamiliarity. One viewer wondered by Tweet if it was because she was a woman that the PM got to be addressed by her first name. But did anyone - even the cheekiest Aussie - dare to call Mrs Thatcher Margaret?

As it happens, Grubsheet can't abide Julia Gillard and cringed every time she began answering a curly question with a schoolgirl giggle. With her government unravelling, every question nowadays is a curly one, be it her relationship with her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, the leak from her office that Rudd is "out of control" or the ultimate in creepy-cringe, her lachrymose speech last week to the US Congress. Gillard and her advisors seem to think a strangled, faux cackle is the best way to defuse an incoming Exocet from the studio audience. Yet this is just another insult to our collective intelligence, modest as that might be. On this performance, The Prime Minister will be cackling all the way out the front gate of The Lodge.

Some deluded viewers seemed - by their mindless Tweets - to believe that this was a triumphant outing for the PM.  One sympathetic commentator - Fairfax Media's Phillip Coorey - argued that while she hadn't won any votes, she hadn't lost any either. Yet to us, the faces of the studio audience said it all. When she appeared on Q and A before the election, the audience cutaways ranged from avuncular to the kind of beatific adoration normally reserved by parents for junior's first school play. At best, this time the faces were quizzical, doubtful or disengaged. At worse, they were cynical, even hostile. On the countenance meter, Gillard is gone.

That said, she is still Australia's national leader, the person guiding us through the suddenly more perilous shoals we find ourselves in. I was going to say "the person we elected" to guide us but that isn't strictly true. Yet even if she governs by default  - propped up only by the Greens and independents - she's still "the chosen one", wearing the mantle - however unsteadily - of Barton, Curtin, Chifley, Menzies and all the others who came before her. The office itself warrants respect and Gillard deserves to be addressed as Prime Minister, not Julia, just as Obama is Mr President and not Barack.

But in its disrespect, perhaps the audience is only taking its cue from the ABC, which sunk to new lows last night by ambushing the PM with a gratuitous video question from the computer hacker and fugitive from Swedish justice, Julian Assange. It's one thing for the public broadcaster to so spectacularly fail in its charter obligation to inform - as it did with the miserable performance of News 24 at the weekend - but quite another to actively participate in the crudest of political stunts. Enabling Julian Assange to accuse the Prime Minister of treason in a pre-recorded segment paid for by the Australian taxpayer isn't just the height of disrespect. It's an outrage.

Graham Davis

Monday, March 14, 2011

No 13. WHEN THE NEWS ITSELF IS A DISASTER

The global ABC "how to do it" guide to round-the-clock news coverage has it that when a big story breaks on multiple fronts like the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, you stick with it come what may. You drop everything and devote all your resources to covering what you can. You should also provide regular updates and recaps for those just tuning in. After all, that's what a 24-hour exclusive news channel is meant to be, a place to get the very latest on demand.So what happened at ABC News 24, the dedicated news channel Australians pay to provide such a service? It's a question being asked across the Australian media after a woeful performance by our national broadcaster that goes to the heart of its integrity and credibility.

ABC News 24 started out on Friday evening, like everyone else, carrying live vision from the Japanese public broadcaster, NHK. These were extraordinary pictures from the air showing the tsunami swamping coastal areas, burning refineries and general devastation. In a Tweet, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has said the ABC couldn't show more because it didn't have streaming rights to the NHK feed. It was evidently obliged to source material from elsewhere and turned to the BBC, which was mounting its own live coverage, freely available to its global audience on the Net. Then for some reason, the ABC had the idea that they could better manage things themselves. And so began one of the most miserable viewing experiences in living memory.

This consisted of a succession of youthful, inexperienced presenters bumbling through as best they could, parroting the same script lines again and again. Yes, we'd already known for hours that "Japan has been hit by the biggest earthquake in many years that triggered a deadly tsunami". OK, tell us more. What we needed was more detail and background. What we got instead was the same headline ad infinitum from anchors so green around the gills that they were swamped by the scale of the story. The producers tried to improve things by wheeling in some local academic opinion. But these people knew as much as the rest of us, which watching News 24 wasn't much. So the sum total of knowledge they brought to the proceedings was perilously close to zero.

Green gilled presenters: where are the new Kerry O'Briens?
When it dawned on the aforementioned producers that in news terms, they were on as shaky ground as the story, they again crossed to the BBC. There, the coverage was comprehensive, informative and authoritative, everything the ABC wasn't. Yet just as the audience finally got the nourishment they were craving, the plug was pulled again. Cue yet another frightened rabbit in the headlights of the ABC studio. It was woeful but that was just Friday night. The weekend coverage was a national disgrace.

Now, as broadcast journalists ourselves, Grubsheet appreciates the challenges and pitfalls of live television. But for a 24 hour news channel to stick with normal programming on a story this big beggars belief. All weekend, an audience crying out for more information on the Japanese catastrophe - including Australian families frantic about their missing loved ones - was aghast to find a range of programs on ABC News 24 that were so totally off the wall as to resemble a Pythonesque "not the news" spoof.

The Australian's Caroline Overington highlighted one of the miserable low points -  a debate on the national identity of Belgians and whether the Dutch language is superior to Flemish. Columnist Tim Blair over at the Daily Telegraph wondered why enraged ABC journalists didn't storm News 24 and seize control of the station. What? And spoil their weekend?

If history is any guide, the ABC is certain to cry conspiracy about Overington and Blair. Well, they're from News Limited aren't they? They're doing Rupert Murdoch's bidding on behalf of our competitor, Sky News. It won't work this time, fellas ( oh and Kate Torney, head of ABC News). Too many people were watching.

When News 24 was launched, Mark Scott made a virtue of the fact that the ABC was providing such an ambitious undertaking without any increase in public funding. The national broadcaster's bean counters squirrelled a bit from here, a bit from there and ABC news staff were required to do more for less. Bad mistake. Cut corners in news and ABC News 24 is what you get - a clutch of ingenues and pimply wannabes rather than seasoned veterans oozing natural credibility and commanding audience respect.

Scott and his lieutenants sorely need to re-learn the virtue of that old adage "less is more". Fewer hours of bland news programming and more resources devoted to ground-breaking journalism. That's the role of a public broadcaster in the digital age, not to ape its slicker competitors and wind up looking like a monkey itself.

Graham Davis

No 12. SOMETHING ABOUT YVES

The delicate, bespectacled visage of Yves Saint Laurent is one of the most memorable and celebrated images in the world of fashion. The Algerian-born French designer was a tortured genius, his creative life punctuated by periods of intense depression and substance abuse. But at its core was an enduring relationship with Pierre Berger, his one-time lover and business manager, who made YSL arguably the richest and most influential of the French fashion houses.

That relationship is the subject of a standout documentary at this year's Sydney French Film Festival - L'Amour Fou (Crazy Love) - by director Pierre Thoretton. It's not only a visual feast of fashion, art and some of the world's most beautiful people but a superbly crafted insight into a complex man and his complex relationships.

Piet Mondrian dress
The documentary opens with Yves Saint Laurent's poignant resignation news conference in 2002, Christian Dior's protege announcing that he's turning his back on almost half a century in the fashion world because he feels that he's lost his mojo. As the film unfolds, we gradually discover why through the anecdotes of Berger and some of YSL's closest confidantes, including two now faded beauties who were once his muses.  Loulou De La Falaise is the daughter of a French Marquis and Anglo-Irish fashion model who was constantly at Yves's side during his cocaine-addled forays into the night at Regine's and Studio 54. It shows. Similarly with Betty Catroux, the half Brazilian daughter of an American diplomat, whose anecdotes about her own partying with YSL emanate exclusively from behind a pair of large sunglasses (designer, bien sur).

But it's from Pierre Berger that we gain the greatest insight into YSL's character, the angels that fuelled his dazzling creativity, the demons that made him a virtual recluse towards the end of his life. The two met in 1958 and became inseparable, aside from a brief period when YSL's substance abuse got the better of him. Berger was the hard-nosed businessman who built the empire and allowed Yves to give full rein to his extraordinary creativity. All of those creations are on display in the film, the 1965 Piet Mondrian Dress, the 1967 Le Smoking Tuxedo jacket, plus all those ethnically-inspired collections worn by ethnic models - a YSL first - that brought cat-walk audiences to their feet in raptures for more than 40 years.

Le Smoking hot
Yves was more than just the fragile King of Haute Couture. He was the first designer to see the potential of the mass market in ready-to-wear and his pret-a-porter collections eventually produced more revenue than his headline fantaisies. Their vast wealth enabled Yves and Pierre to accumulate grand houses in Paris, Normandy and Morocco and an astonishing array of "stuff", including works by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian. Pierre Berger's decision to sell off the collection after YSL's death in 2008 forms the structural centrepiece of the film, the sumptuous interiors of the couple's homes lovingly documented before the removalists do their work and the whole lot goes under the hammer at Christies. On the first day of the auction, just one work -a Matisse - sold for a record 32-million Euros. Not your average garage sale, that's for sure.

Berger reveals that the sale - the proceeds of which have gone to AIDS research - wouldn't have been possible were Yves still alive. He was simply too attached to his possessions and couldn't have lived without them. So by film's end, L'Amour Fou is also a modern-day parable on a couple of age-old themes; that "money and possessions don't buy happiness" and "you can't take it with you". There's something about Yves in all of us.

Graham Davis

Saturday, March 12, 2011

No.11 SHOCK WAVES FROM THE APOCALYPSE

At 800 kilometers an hour - as fast as a commercial jetliner - the giant tsunami triggered by the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan rolls across the Pacific towards the far reaches of South America, prompting mass evacuations and mass consternation, if not panic. The land masses and tiny atolls in its path can only brace for the worst and hope for the best, grateful for the huge investment made in tsunami warning systems after previous disasters.

The American-operated Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii has a network of wave height monitoring gauges at key points across the world's biggest ocean. As preliminary results come in, the variations are dramatic, lower readings in some of the more vulnerable places, much higher ones in others, like the 2.2 metre ( 6.6 feet) surge recorded in Crescent City, California, the scene of a previous tsunami tragedy. As with everything else in this crisis, nature's display of wrath and unpredictability is awesome.

Tsunami surge: islet off Lautoka, Fiji
Grubsheet has a particular interest in our old hometown, Honolulu, where the latest surge was .71 metres (2.3 feet), enough to swamp the beach at Waikiki (in our picture) and spill over the sea wall but stopping short of the hotel belt that constitutes one of the most valuable stretches of real estate in the world. Throughout the night, Oahu's piercing tsunami warning sirens sounded at hourly intervals while residents headed for evacuation centres or higher ground. In another of our old hometowns - Lautoka, Fiji - the PTWC gauge registered a surge of .33 metres (1.1 feet), not enough for a formal warning. So much of the region has been spared even a fraction of the appalling fate of the residents in the immediate path of the tsunamis in northern Japan. Unfortunately, any sense of relief will be short-lived as the flow-on effects from this disaster swamp the region and, indeed, the world.

Japan's economic domination of the Asia Pacific region may have been on the wane in recent years with a domestic slow-down and the rise of China and South Korea. But the body blow to Japanese infrastructure and confidence from this disaster will trigger a second economic tsunami throughout the region with just as much unpredictability as the physical one. Global markets fell as the extent of the disaster unfolded, traders - like everyone else - transfixed by the apocalyptic scenes on live television of whole towns swept away, burning oil refineries and a panic-stricken Japanese populace. It used to be said that when America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. The Japanese contagion in our own region will be severe.

Vulnerable: Paradise until The Big One
Confidence will also be shaken by the dire prediction that this wasn't the "big one" seismologists have long expected in Japan. Well, if this wasn't the "big one", what other horror awaits?  We'd all been shaken by the disaster in Christchurch but the Japanese quake was a staggering 8000 times stronger. The notion of what might happen if the "big one" were to hit further south, around Tokyo, is too horrific to contemplate.  What's causing the "Pacific Ring of Fire " to erupt so violently? What else is in store? It's the stuff of nightmares.

News of evacuations around one of the Japanese nuclear power stations after its cooling system failed can only add to the doomsday gloom. What happens below ground has, of course, nothing to do with global warming. But it has huge potential to throttle wider adoption of the one viable technology the world has right now to generate power without the carbon emissions being blamed for that warming in many quarters. If nuclear power isn't safe not because of technology but "terra infirma", then the case for adopting it is naturally weaker. It'll be a sobering irony for everyone if the place where the nuclear weapon was first used becomes the burial ground for nuclear power.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No 10. WHEN WOMEN'S BUSINESS ISN'T GOOD BUSINESS

The distaff side of the human family gets to take a collective bow across the world today for International Women's Day. Commemorative stamps are being issued and portentous speeches made about the great strides forward women have made and how much further they need to go to achieve genuine equality. At the end of it all, most women across the globe will do what they've always done - make dinner, tend to the children, endure the mindless mutterings of their menfolk and collapse into bed to recoup enough energy to do it all again tomorrow.

Grubsheet has had mixed fortunes when it comes to women but today is a day to wish even the more troublesome among them sincere felicitations. That said (yes, we know you could feel the "but" coming on), there's something deeply irritating about some of the nonsense being peddled by one or two prominent Australian women about what advances still need to be made. By far the worst of these is the notion that governments need to legislate to force corporations to appoint more women to their boards.

This ludicrous assault on the much more important principle of appointment by merit doesn't emanate from the usual gaggle of whining harridans who invariably elbow themselves into the front line of the wimmin's movement. No, this has come from a woman who ought to know better, the Governor-General and local representative of Our Sovereign Lady Elizabeth, Quentin Bryce.  Now Ms Bryce is in every other way an estimable figure, though Grubsheet sometimes wonders whether that pencil-thin figure is an appropriate role model given the eating disorders that plague the nation's daughters. She also seems to have an unhealthy appetite for flower arrangement, having spent more than $100-thousand of public money at the florists last year. But these are trifles, of course, no negation of the fact that this former Queensland lawyer is a splendid example to all Australian young women that nothing now stands in the way of them holding the highest offices in the land.

The GG by Barbara Tyson: Pencil-thin reasoning
The Governor General is appointed, not elected, to represent all Australians irrespective of racial origin, political persuasion and, yes, gender. Like the Queen, Ms Bryce is a figurehead and ought to, by long-standing convention, keep her personal opinions to herself. So why she thinks she has a mandate to venture any opinion on how the nation's boardrooms should be run is frankly astonishing and way out of line. When that opinion is so plainly silly, then the offence is compounded.

Women have got where they have in all facets of life through their own efforts and on their own merits. Yes, governments have helped along the way with equal opportunity legislation. That is as it should be. Discrimination needed to be outlawed and a level gender playing field created for women to have any chance of equality. In the advanced industrialised countries like Australia that has been done. Of course, more needs to be done to improve the lot of women in the developing world, where some - like the woman in our main photo - are subjected to crushing repression  But having levelled the playing field ourselves, shouldn't we now leave women to get on with it?

The idea that governments would pass laws to force women onto the boards of the nation's companies is absurd and a sign of a nanny state run riot. Women are getting onto boards now on their own merits. Yes, the numbers are still relatively modest. The Australian newspaper reports that women make up about 25 per cent of board appointments in Australia but occupy just 11 per cent of boardroom seats in the top 200 ASX- listed companies. But there are a myriad of reasons for this that have nothing to do with equal opportunity.

Even the Governor General acknowledges that "women can now have it all but not all at the same time". Why? Because they're still the sole bearers of children and form the majority of carers of children. If they want to eschew this and join the corporate scramble, there's no legal impediment to this and a host of laws to help them on their way. There's also scant evidence that when they get to the top of the corporate tree, men prevent them from sitting on company boards. Indeed many companies go out of their way to appoint female board members for the simple fact that their expertise is valued and is good for business.

Perhaps the Governor General's desire for even more legislation reflects her background as a lawyer. But this is further proof that when it comes to the nation's leadership, no-one can legislate for common sense. It's also yet another sign that when a prominent woman says something silly, there's nothing like the collective rolling of the eyes that accompanies silly statements from a prominent male. When Ms Bryce made her comments to Radio National Breakfast's Fran Kelly, they went uncontested, just as the ABC didn't contest the "Minister for All Things Women", Kate Ellis, when she was silly enough to back the Governor General's idea.
Joe Hockey: Royally idiotic

Believe it or not, there's also a bloke who's silly enough to back the idea, none other than that grinning Liberal wannabe-something-more and especially all things to all women, Joe Hockey. We didn't see it but on the ABC's Q and A, Jolly Joe evidently ventured the opinion that 30 per cent of the nation's boardroom seats be reserved for women by law. Hockey found himself in a party all of his own when the drinks in the ABC's Green Room wore off. His Liberal colleagues abandoned him and poured scorn on the notion, convinced as never before that Joe is an ass.

On that note, a pointer to International Men's Day, which will be celebrated in a clutch of countries, including Australia, on November 19th. Yes, we wonder why it's necessary too. But the organisers say Father's Day is exclusively for fathers and something special was needed for gay men, teenagers and other singles so that they don't feel left out. Right. Not just a level playing field but a crowded playing field. Men's Day started among the steel bands in Barbados twelve years ago. How appropriate for banging on about something so totally inane.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

No 9. UNHOLY MATRIMONY. IT'S NOT ON, DUCKS

The most celebrated date on Australia's gay and lesbian calendar, The Sydney Mardi Gras, has brought the usual collection of colourful characters onto the streets for what's increasingly become a mainstream event. Time was when the New South Wales police behaved with outright hostility towards public expressions of gay pride. Now they have their own float in the procession and the ranks of guys and gals in blue get as big a cheer as the Dykes on Bikes, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or any of those other quaintly amusing subcultures that make up one of the most vigorous gay communities in the world.

The big change in the past decade or so is that straight suburban teenagers no longer go to Mardi Gras to jeer or gawk but to join the party. It's perhaps the ultimate sign that the gay community has succeeded not only in breaking down barriers of prejudice but being accepted as part of the mainstream in Australian life, as ubiquitous as Rotary or the Country Women's Association. Some gays we know are less than enthused that their lifestyles are now seen to be no more louche than an afternoon of tea and scones but that's another story.

All this aside, it would be wrong to read too much into the wider community's collective high five to gay people for the vast strides they've made in recent years. The theme of this year's Mardi Gras was the campaign for same sex marriage, something quite different, we suspect, from the almost universally accepted notion now that gay people should have equal rights in every other facet of secular life. Many watching this year's procession will have shared our discomfort about the notion of gays wanting to intrude on the one remaining bastion of exclusivity for the heterosexual majority. As it happens. some of our gay friends and acquaintances feel the same.

Now, let's make it clear that this is not a religious argument. Grubsheet has no truck with clergy - Christian, Muslim or anything else - interfering in the lives of individuals beyond providing spiritual guidance. Indeed, we view with total distaste, bans on the ordination of women and other such nonsense justified by biblical texts that predate even the central Christian message of Jesus Christ having come to rewrite the previous script. We can also contemplate the notion of gay priests on the basis that if God's love is for all, then it's axiomatic that the message and sacraments can be spread by all. What makes heterosexual clergy any more worthy than gay clergy? What makes them more capable of ministering to others in a spiritual or social sense?

Where we part company with the central premise of those arguing for same sex marriage is that same sex partners clearly don't have the same physical and social function as partners of the opposite sex. And that is the central human act of procreation. That's right, those two forgotten people in any heterosexual relationship who make babies, nurse them through the torments of childhood and adolescence and prepare them for their roles as taxpayers to fund everything from gay neighbourhood centres to warships.  Marriage is for them, we think, not for same sex couples who want dazzling white weddings and formal expressions of total commitment before the state but don't see it as their role to perpetuate the species for the obvious reason that they can't. At least not in the conventional sense that doesn't involve surrogacy, intrusive medical intervention or the use of implements originally conceived for use in the kitchen.

The two frocks wedding brigade just don't seem to get it. Yes, they can go down the turkey baster path. Yes, they can adopt kids just like anyone else. But the formal act of state marriage ought to be for straight people, the ultimate act of differentiation if you like. Anything else is equal rights without responsibility. And that is the responsibility - overwhelmingly the burden of heterosexuals - to populate the planet or perish.  This has nothing to do with religion or politics but a deeply held conviction in much of the community that same sex marriage is simply not on, a bridge too far, a line not to be crossed.

Governments ignore this sentiment at their peril, as Julia Gillard knows, even as elements in her party try to force her into accepting a position that anyone with a calibrated political weather vane knows is unacceptable to middle Australia. Yes, the Greens leader, Bob Brown, lives in a loving homosexual union and good luck to him. We've been to their home and they're a lovely couple. Yes, a good proportion of the wider community supports his view and that of his party that the time for same sex marriage has come. But a majority of Australians? Nuh. Believe otherwise and you'll be blown out of the  election funnel quicker than a carbon emission burst.