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