Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Back to Mass


The parish diversity flag.

Today marked our return to weekly mass for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. We could have resumed attendance a little earlier, but my bride’s compromised immune system, as a consequence of her cancer treatment delayed things somewhat.

It was a very different experience. No longer are parishioners sitting in rows. Each person’s chair is positioned in a pre-determined location, a metre and a half separated from his/her fellow parishioner.

You have to provide sign on details on arrival, and are issued a basic ID card. There is no longer a procession of readers and celebrant at the beginning of mass, and the sign of peace is now gestural rather than physical.

Today’s gospel was relevant to the times. Matthew’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard was used by our priest as a metaphor for Jobkeeper. If you don’t get the connection, read the gospel.

I hadn’t realised how much this weekly observance has become part of our lives until it was inaccessible for a few months. The last time I had gone for months without mass was in Vietnam. That was over half a century ago.

Whilst I’m blogging about the church, it’s timely to link to the bishops’ letter about the upcoming state election.

The Bishops’ statement highlights a number of key issues that Catholics may wish to consider as they prepare to participate in the State Election.

These include:

  • combatting homelessness
  • support for survivors of child sexual abuse
  • dignity of employment, a just living wage and combating poverty
  • healthcare, especially in regional and remote areas
  • funding for Catholic schooling
  • Closing the Gap between Indigenous Queenslanders and the rest of the population
  • euthanasia, assisted suicide and the need for increased access to palliative care
  • providing for sustainable, quality aged care services which provide older people and their families with choice and control
  • an increase in the incidence of mental health issues, especially amongst young people
  • support for women and families, including the great challenge many women face when confronted an unexpected or difficult pregnancy
  • responses to rising levels of family and domestic violence
  • the need for a ‘new universal solidarity’ to combat climate change.
The eighth point on the statement, referencing quality aged care services, has been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic.

Friday, 11 September 2020

First World Problems


                                                                          Pic courtesy Buzzfeed

It's been fascinating to read some of the *Glibertarian nonsense being currently floated in the media about our government's response to the virus.

First up, we have the meme that this virus is a risk only to old people and those with existing co-morbidities. The proponents of this notion conveniently forget that a very large slice of the population meet both these descriptions, including the 5% accepted as having life altering disabilities. Is this group (and the over 65s who constitute 15% of our population) disposable? Clinton talked about the “deplorables”. Now as far as the Glibertarians are concerned, we have the “dispensables”.

Another emerging meme is that only the private sector is affected.

The fact is, everyone has been affected. It’s just the Glibertarians who moan about it. They are completely unable to consider anyone’s interests except their own. No wonder they applauded Thatcher when she denied the existence of society.

Spare a thought for staff in special schools who work daily in close proximity to children with severe impairments who have no concept of “social distancing” – the same children with co-morbidities for whom infection could mean death.

Spare a thought for aged care workers, many casuals, who have no option but to work for meagre wages across a number of different locations. This situation, which has been brought about by the privatisation of the industry forcing corners to be cut in terms of staff training, wages and qualifications, is largely responsible for the proportionally large number of deaths in what used to be called “Nursing homes”.

There is a bitter irony in that nomenclature, given that there are very few registered nurses working in these institutions. The value of the lives of our seniors, who have contributed throughout their lifetimes has been happily sacrificed on the altar of investment return in the aged care sector.

One whinge that I find more than preposterous is that everyone has now been reduced to a relatively primitive standard of living.

Poor petals. As far as I know, they have beds to sleep in, and they don’t get wet when it rains. I’m afraid I can’t get too sympathetic when I remember government dictat forcing me to live in the scrub for months on end in Vietnam, eating out of tins, and bathing, if I was lucky, once in a nine week operation. Those "privileges" were available to a select few, when the vast majority of young Australians were living comfortable lives back home. Apparently we were all in it together back then as well.

We hear that well-paying jobs are disappearing.

That’s nothing new. Well-paying jobs have been disappearing for a very long time, and it has nothing to do with the pandemic. The gig economy and an increasingly casualised workforce was trending long before Covid 19. The usual suspects (those with the money and power) will come out of it better off in the end, if the GFC is anything to go by.

There are bitter complaints that social lives are being disrupted. I'm sure they are, but I'm afraid I can't feel too sympathetic. The social lives thousands of conscripts was fairly successfully destroyed back in 1965 - 1972. For about 200 of them, actual life was destroyed, and for thousands of others, was never the same again as a consequence of both physical and moral injury. At least this time, there is a real threat.

Back then, the threat was manufactured to keep a time-expired coalition in power.

Some are complaining that the lockdowns will result in a loss of a year of their lives.

In the case of Nashos, it was two years. That was for the unlucky 12% who had their birthdates drawn. Everybody else continued pretty much as normal.  

Then there are the complaints that the politicians don't know what they're doing, even though they are listening to medical advice, in this country at least.

The government of the time that committed us to Vietnam certainly didn't know what it was doing, in a strategic sense, even if their decisions were politically expedient at the time. History has well and truly confirmed that. Back then their ignorance was killing young people. In this crisis, lives are being saved because governments are listening to people who know what they’re talking about. That wasn’t the case in the sixties when it came to defence strategy.

Back then, a false sense of crisis was created. It was all about the bogey of Communism based on the discredited Domino theory. Remember how that worked out? At that time the disruption was caused to about 12% of the male population of 20 year olds. This time it’s everybody. Surely that’s progress.

There are complaints that the media is feeding the sense of crisis. During the war in Vietnam, the media nightly exposed the reality, which led eventually to a withdrawal. It came too late for 57000 Americans, 500 Australians, and millions of Vietnamese. People who distrust the mainstream media are those who can’t abide the reporting of the reality when it interferes with their lives.

Perhaps when this crisis is over, we may emerge with a more compassionate polity as a consequence of lessons learned. Somehow, with the benefit of observing local politics for 50 plus years, I doubt it. 

Our system has an unstoppable tendency to revert to type by preserving the power imbalances which underpin our uniquely Australian form of crony capitalism.

*Glib Libertarians

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Friday, 4 September 2020

Risk and Reward

                                                  Pic courtesy The Atlantic

The media is having a field day with its coverage of the pandemic.

Nothing sells newspapers or encourages clicks so much as fear, especially when the threat is invisible, unpredictable and ubiquitous.

Initially, in this country at least, the reporting and debate was generally apolitical. That has begun to change, and we have fallen in line with our neighbours across the Pacific who saw it from the get-go as both a threat and political opportunity.

Reference the Chinese character for "crisis"(危机).

More recently, the arguments have drilled down to balancing the damage done by the shutdowns against the risk to life by lifting them. This is somewhat of a false dichotomy, however, as there is often a difference between regulation and behaviour.

Breakouts in New South Wales (the Ruby Princess) and Victoria (the quarantine failure) have made that abundantly clear.

If indeed, there is a real connection between economic performance and the level of regulation attempting to control the spread, it should be detectable in the statistics. 

For the purposes of this exercise, I'll compare pandemic deaths per million with economic performance in the following countries - Japan, Germany, UK, Canada, France, Italy and the USA.

The sources (Worldometer and BBC) are generally respected, and their statistics are based on IMF data.

I'll compare the death rate with the unemployment rate. The hypothesis is that the higher the death rate, the lower the rate of unemployment, assuming that fewer controls implies less economic damage.

Japan: Death rate = 10 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 2.4% to 3%.

Germany: Death rate = 112 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 3.2% to 3.9%

United Kingdom: Death rate = 611 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 3.8% to 4.8%

Canada: Death rate = 242 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 5.7% to 7.5%

France: Death rate = 470 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 8.5% to 10.4%

Italy: Death rate = 587 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 10% to 12.7%

USA: Death rate = 576 per million. Unemployment rate = Rose from 3.7% to 10.4%.

The largest rise in unemployment in the listed countries was in the USA (6.7%) comparing with Italy (2.7%) and Canada (1.8%). The highest death rate was the UK (611/mill), followed by Italy (587/mill) and the USA (576/mill).

Tracking these figures does not seem to provide any correlation between death rate and unemployment. In fact, the reverse could be seen to apply, given countries such as Japan and Germany combine lower death rates with lower increases in unemployment.

One country that has made a virtue out of avoiding lockdowns is Sweden. Examining the economic outcome of that strategy, however, does not seem to bear out the hypothesis above. 

The Swedish unemployment rate of 9% remains the highest of all the Nordic countries, up from 7.1% in March, although it is not yet officially in recession. Its death rate is high at 577 per million.

The Swedish economy has performed better than other European economies, but remains close to average for the Nordics. It is reasonable to conclude that there are so many other factors involved in any country (state of the health system, geography, demography) that a simple cause/effect relationship simple cannot be determined.

Some facts are indisputable. The USA has suffered the highest worldwide total death rate (running at 1000 + daily) as this is written, and Australia, despite recent deaths in Victoria, one of the lowest at a total of 678.

Is it worth taking the risk to open up? Nothing statistically available right now offers a guide.

Most countries are adopting a cautious approach. The fact is, we won't know the full story for years. 

 Comments closed.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Loose Ends

Pic courtesy ABC

Back in 1982, our first child, a girl, was stillborn.

We (my bride and I), dealt with the grief much in the same way as the two thousand plus parents who share the experience annually in Australia.

Most people aren't sure how to approach those who are grieving the loss of a child in this way, so many simply avoid discussing the experience, even if they feel deeply for the parents. Although we had lots of support from family and friends, this was true for us.

We named her, held a funeral service, and the baby was buried in Townsville were we lived at the time. 

We got on with our lives, had four healthy children, and moved away from the north. In the intervening thirty eight years, the fact that the grave was unmarked became one of those things that we really had to remedy.

The child remained vivid and real in our memories, but there was nothing physical to mark her existence.

We decided to set this right, and I have just today returned from a 2600 km round trip, organising a simple headstone, and commissioning a monumental mason to make it. The biggest problem turned out to be finding the grave in a vast cemetery.

With the help of the very efficient staff in the cemetery and their excellent records, and a groundsman who knew the site like the back of his hand, after an hour of searching, I found it. The rest was easy. It was interesting to discover that monumental masonry is a separate and distinct trade.

So after nearly forty years, the job has been commissioned. What I wasn't expecting was to arrive at the cemetery to see a notice board revealing that a boy with a disability who was one of the original students in my school had been buried there the day before. I remembered his mother, who was P & C president back then.

Our baby died because she was born with a congenital abnormality which caused a fatal aneurysm during birth. I often wonder whether my exposure to dioxin in Vietnam was a factor. Quite a few of the children with congenital disabilities at my school at the time were fathered by Vietnam veterans.

Townsville was, and remains, a garrison town.

This is one of life's loose ends that has now been tied.

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Friday, 21 August 2020


                                                    Pic courtesy Queensland Museum. 

Taipans (Oxyuranus scutellatus) had a fearsome reputation when I was growing up in North Queensland.

I had a close encounter with one on our school's pineapple project garden when I about eight. I was weeding pineapple plants with a hoe, and blundered across a large and healthy specimen curled up against the row.

I'm not sure who got the biggest fright, the taipan or me, but it uncurled itself in a flash and began to chase me along the row. They move very quickly.

I threw the hoe at it which distracted it somewhat, and took giant steps, not looking back until the pineapple patch was more than 100 metres behind. I reckon I was hovering most of the way.

The snake had disappeared by the time my father, responding to my pale face and eyes like saucers, turned up with his dilapidated shotgun.

The only time we ever saw the shotgun was when snakes were about, but there are still holes in the roof of the school toilet where dad dispatched a snake with it in the 50s. I know this because I went back to the school years ago, and found them - the holes, not the snakes.

This was sugar cane country, and there were snakes of all kinds in the area.

We used to get regular visits from a snake expert called Ram Chandra, an Indian chap who made a reasonable living out of touring schools with boxes of snakes and giving informative talks about reptiles. He was one of a group of pioneers who helped develop an antivenene.

Years later, when I was teaching kids with disabilities in Townsville, we were taking a group of these children on a bush walk in coastal scrub not far from the CBD. One of the boys, a lad with Down Syndrome kept lagging behind, and I had, on a few occasions, to leave the main group and check to see if he was OK.

Towards the end of the hike, when everyone was getting a bit tired, he was behind again, so I called his name. His response as I heard it, was "Taipan, taipan!".

I ran back at about the same pace I had used when chased by a taipan as a kid, frantically trying to recall the first aid techniques for managing snakebite that I'd learnt to keep my St John's certificate current.

When I reached him, he was sitting on the track, looking a bit flustered, but showing no symptoms of snakebite.

It turned out that what he was actually saying was "Tight pants", not 'taipan".

The pants were what was slowing him down.

In hindsight, it's funny, but at the time I was far from amused...

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Friday, 14 August 2020


Aerial view (Must have been taken in the dry).

It’s not often that you get the opportunity to revisit the past in a significant way. I’m probably fortunate in that I’ll have that opportunity in a few weeks when I return to Townsville after an absence of nearly thirty years. I worked as a principal in special schools in Queensland for eighteen years, but my first appointment in that role was to a new special school called the Mundingburra South Special School, to be opened at the beginning of the 1981 school year and located in a building in Burt Street Mundingburra.


At that time, there were actually four special schools in Townsville. They were Aitkenvale Special School, Cootharinga Special School, the Endeavour Special School in North Ward, and Townsville West Special School in Wilson Street. The first and last of these were state special schools, originally called “opportunity” schools. Cootharinga and Endeavour Special Schools were both originally training centres set up by private charitable organisations called the Queensland Sub-normal Children’s’ Association and the North Queensland Crippled Children’s’ Society respectively. At the time of their creation, these schools catered for children with severe and multiple impairments considered ineligible for enrolment in state special schools.


During, and immediately after the Whitlam era, comprehensive human rights legislation was introduced federally which began to markedly improve the lives of people with disabilities. By the 1980s, this legislation was beginning to take effect and the states had begun the process of developing their structures to provide educational access for all. The previous training centres were becoming the responsibility of the relevant state authorities. By 1981, the two Townsville centres previously run by the charitable foundations had been staffed by teachers paid by Education Queensland, although the buildings they occupied remained the property of the foundations.


In the case of Cootharinga, the school had grown over the years to the point where its original buildings at North Ward were inadequate, and an interim decision had been made for the school to be relocated into the administrative centre on the same property, which was a two-story building with a lift. Whilst this worked reasonably well, the lift was an issue, as it could not be used during a fire, and timely evacuation of the wheelchair-bound classes on the upper floor was problematical. A decision was made, that subject to funding, a new purpose-built school would be developed off the North Ward site on state land in Thompson Street Mundingburra.


In the meantime, and whilst project planning was underway for this new school, overcrowding problems at Cootharinga would be partially alleviated by the commissioning of a new small school in Burt Street Mundingburra. This was the school which I opened in January 1981 as Mundingburra South Special School as teaching principal. The building is now the site of the Mundingburra South Preschool. During 1982, in my second year as principal of the “overflow” school, Alwyn Thomas, (principal of Cootharinga Special School at the time), and I were seconded to produce a design brief for the buildings for the proposed new school, which now accommodates the Townsville Community Learning Centre.


This detailed brief was expected to outline the physical and curriculum needs of the students, and to explain the required built environment in terms that Treasury officials and architects would understand. It was a considerable and comprehensive task, and the deadline for completion was semester two 1982. I was replaced in my school to allow time to complete the task, but Alwyn wasn’t, as he did not have a teaching load. We completed the task by the deadline, and it was sent off to the Director of Public Works (now called Q Build) to be costed.  We were disappointed to be told at the end of 1982 that there were insufficient funds to build the school, and both Alwyn and I were appointed to special schools in Redlands and Petrie respectively in 1983, and we left Townsville.


I was excited to be told at the end of 1985 that I was to be sent north again to close Cootharinga Special School, and to open the replacement school in Thompson Street Mundingburra, to be called Mundingburra Special School, for the 1987 school year. The required $2.8 million to fund the project had obviously been found. In 1986, the board of the Cootharinga Society was not as enthusiastic about the relocation as was Education Queensland. There was a body of opinion that the new school would be a white elephant. Some on the board believed that it would be impossible to send sixty plus children daily offsite to a school remote from their residential institution. In a conversation at the time, one of the more senior board members of the Society insisted that the bulk of the children at Cootharinga were “unreceptive to education”.


A great deal of liaison was necessary with the matron and care staff at the residential to solve the problems presented by the demands of the relocation. We used the 1986 school year to work on these issues one by one. Teachers came to work early and went into the residential with our physiotherapist and occupational therapist to train the nursing and care staff in techniques which made the care tasks less demanding. In addition, the limited independence skills many of the children possessed were developed as much as possible. Care staff came into the school to observe and assist in physical care activities. A spinoff was the improvement in relationships between care and teaching staff. We also encouraged visits of residential staff to the construction site during the latter half of 1986 as the buildings took shape. The aerial shot above shows the complex now. It must have been taken in the dry.


By the end of 1986, the Cootharinga Society officially supported the development of the new school, and all the children, with the exception of a handful of students with life threatening conditions were slated to attend in 1987. The staff appointed to the new school at the beginning of 1987 were, with one exception, in their first or second year of teaching. The energy and enthusiasm of this group of young teachers was an enormous advantage in setting up and operationalising programmes in the new school. The official opening took place in term 3 1987. The Minister for Education at the time (Hon. Lin Powell) described the opening as a great event for the Townsville community.


I was very fortunate to enjoy six years as principal at Mundingburra Special School and remain in touch with the enthusiastic cohort of teachers who established the school during the first few years of its life. A number of them went on to pursue distinguished careers in special education and academia. They were an amazing bunch, and it was an honour to have led them in this exciting enterprise. It was rewarding to for me to learn in 1997 when I was in a regional management position in another region, that one of the foundation students (who was one of the group of children considered too delicate to move to the new school and had been given six months to live in 1986), was graduating. She had attended Mundingburra from 1987 on and was moving into a semi-independent living situation.


The original school will always have a special place in my heart.

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Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Why is Jesus White?

This video from the archives might be worth revisiting given what has been is happening in the USA since May 25th.

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