Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Time Travel

Williamtown Airport - Pic courtesy News Ltd.

Visiting Newcastle, gentle reader, is always for me a special kind of time travel.
I’m here catching up with an old rifle section mate who is in care whilst the specialists are trying to manage his myeloma.
It’s most likely a consequence of exposure to dioxin all those years ago. It’s bitter to see him in pain, but at the same time good to catch up with two other ex Nashos who travelled up from Sydney. It had some of the flavour of a mini section reunion. We spent about a year together in 1969/70, comprising six months training in Holsworthy, through Canungra and Shoalwater, and then the voyage to Vung Tau on the Sydney.
Three of us did rookies at Singleton, the other at Kapooka.
In Vietnam, we were together in 5 platoon until July, when we went our separate ways.
Every point along the way has its memories of another time.
The airport at Williamtown, now the home of F-35s, is where I disembarked from a TAA Vickers Viscount on my way to Singleton from Brisbane a Nasho. It was my first flight in any kind of aircraft.
Back then, there were Dassault Mirages roaring about the Williamtown RAAF base, which shares the airport.
Last time I drove down to Newcastle, I stopped off at the Infantry museum at Singleton. Strangely, perhaps, that didn’t trigger as many memories, although if you're into military history, it's worth a visit.
The units based there now have privatised security, and the hi-vis vest clothed staff on the gate weren’t impressed by an old geyser seeking a nostalgic wander around.
I don’t remember any ex-diggers rocking up making strange requests on the few occasions when I did guard duty back in the day, but from memory, admission had more to do with the state of the guard commander’s liver or whether or not there were any attractive young women in the party, rather than health and safety protocols.
Newcastle is an industrial centre, but much of the area around the harbour has been gentrified. It reminded me of Teneriffe in Brisbane.
It still has the laid back atmosphere I remember from the seventies. This is perhaps the most obvious aspect of the time travel experience. Even driving there is much as it was back then, with precious little impatience and a tolerance for slightly lost geriatric visitors in hire cars.
It probably just as well the local drivers are tolerant. The traffic engineering is woeful, although obviously roundabouts are seen to be the solution to every traffic flow problem.

Friday, 15 February 2019

The Times They Are A Changin

The lines from the title of this post, gentle reader, obviously come from the Bob Dylan song.

I can remember hearing it for the first time just before I turned 17, when I had saved up money earned from picking tobacco at Beerwah, and had bought a record player. That was 1964.

The song was on Dylan's album of the same name which had just been released in the US.. I was into Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary at the time, but Dylan's anthem was the one that really grabbed my attention.

Peter, Paul and Mary were a bit vanilla.

The civil rights movement was in full swing in the US, and I remember being outraged at the TV images of protesters being cudgelled in Alabama after they reacted violently to bombings of the homes of civil rights leaders by members of the Alabama police force..

I remember the song coming over the car radio on a trip from Landsborough to Caloundra (where we had a seaside home at the time) and that my parents weren't too keen on the line "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command".

I was the eldest of five back then, and was probably giving bad example.

Something like the same sense of outrage is developing now, although it has a very different face. In the US it is led now not by street protestors, but by elected representatives, most of them young and female, and many from minority groups.

To a lesser extent, the same phenomenon is marching through our parliament, as demonstrated by the increasing number of women sitting as independents in the H of R after resigning from the Coalition, or being elected on the senate cross benches.

The videos embedded above (courtesy of C-SPAN) feature Ilhan Omar (a newly-elected Democrat congresswoman) and Elliott Abrams (Trump's special envoy to Venezuela) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

They're riveting viewing, and encapsulates the force of this new movement, which reminds me so strongly of the youth movement of the sixties. Back then, before the internet, what was happening in the US happened here after a small lag of time. These days, the web has removed that time lag.

I doubt very much that anything will be the same again.

Bring it on.....

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Two Reports

Pic courtesy ABC
You may recall, gentle reader, the release, back in February 2011 in the USA, of the  Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.

On this side of the Pacific, on February 1st this year, the report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services was released.

These reports were separated in time by eight years, and set in very different locations, both in terms of purpose and intent, but there are some striking consistencies in their conclusions.

Comparisons are intriguing.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report (I'll call it the FCIR) has a summary of conclusions dealing with the causes of the GFC. I'll use the headings for this summary including the prose from the report to keep it simple.

They include the finding that the financial crisis was avoidable, that it was the product of widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision, and that there were dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions..

It also found that a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis.

It concluded that there was a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics and that collapsing mortgage-lending standards and the mortgage securitization pipeline lit and spread the flame of contagion and crisis.

The final conclusions were that over-the-counter derivatives contributed significantly to the crisis and that the failures of credit rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.

In the case of the Australian Banking Royal Commission (henceforth called the  RCBSFS), Commissioner Hayne lists Four Observations.

Paraphrasing, they are the connection between conduct and reward; the asymmetry of power and information between financial services entities and their customers; the effect of conflicts between duty and interest; and holding entities to account.

Comparing the conclusions of these inquiries is fascinating.

Working from the Australian commission, we can neatly group the findings of the FCIR under Hayne's Four Observations.

Under the connection between conduct and reward, we can group a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics and collapsing mortgage-lending standards.

Grouped with the asymmetry of power and information between financial services entities and their customers we find a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency.

Under Haynes' holding entities to account. we can align widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision, and dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management.

The RCBSFS observation of the effect of conflicts between duty and interest cannot be characterised quite so neatly. It actually conflates references to failure of corporate governance, and accountability and ethics.

There is one very clear thread that runs through the findings of both reports. The yielding of financial institutions to unbridled greed without any concern for the consequences to the consumers of the industry (or more correctly - the service) is stark and clear. 

In the case of the GFC, these consequences went well beyond the local scene, of course. The term "collateral damage" comes to mind. Depending on how the politics pans out, collateral damage could occur in terms of the brokerage industry in this country, 

The cliché holds. When Wall St sneezed, the rest of the world caught cold.

What bothers me about the financial services industry, both here and in the USA, is that those responsible for the damage seem quarantined from penalty. 

We know what effect the GFC had on Australian workers. It's been studied. The effect on American and British workers, especially the middle class was comparatively worse.

And the effect on the Masters of the Universe, the traders and financiers responsible for the whole GFC catastrophe? Not much.

I won't be holding my breath to see any local penalties from the RCBSFS. That's not how the finance industry rolls..

Monday, 28 January 2019

Australia Day

This is my flag.

The fuss about Australia Day continues.

I doubt that many of the drunken bogans who use the day to beclown themselves by doing weird things with the flag understand that the date marks the opening of a jail, and is not connected in any way with the actual foundation of our nation on January 1st 1901. 

This article by Dr Mark Copland was posted in our local rag (The Daily Chronicle). It is probably the most level-headed piece I've read on the subject -

The reasons that Toowoomba City Council fully endorsed a move to change the date of Australia Day away from January 26 in 2001 have not changed.

I suspect we would be living in a completely different universe should the current Toowoomba Regional Council back such a move in 2019, but this does not change the motives or reality that brought about such a move as we started the 21st century.

The founder of Toowoomba's Australia Day committee, the late Bill O'Brien called for a change from January 26 for two reasons. 

These involved accuracy and respect. In terms of accuracy Mr O'Brien highlighted the fact that Australia did not become a nation on January 26, 1788.

It was instead, January 1, 1901, the date of Federation.

The second point which the Toowoomba City Council of the day agreed with was that the day held little joy for the descendants of our First Peoples. He was quoted in this paper on January 25, 2003 with words that I feel bear repeating.

"We are celebrating a date that is offensive to the Aborigines and will continue to be that, which we fully understand. To change the date is not simply a nice thought; it is an essential action in the interest of truth, fairness and goodwill.

"This young nation has undertaken wonderful deeds in the interest of peace and goodwill in other lands. We have an essential demand on us to be dedicated to national harmony in our own land.

"Each step we take, each decision we make must be directed to achieving a just and healthy national community."

The culture warriors of the right have beautifully constructed a straw man debate on January 26.

Last Thursday's Zanetti cartoon did it so well.

It is these fringe dwelling hippies with weird hairdos, nose rings and nothing better to do with their lives who are pushing for the change of date.

It is inner city Melbourne, Byron Bay, and Fremantle pushing their "politically correct on steroids arguments".

On the conservative side the Institute of Public Affairs recently released a study showing that 70 per cent of Australians agreed or strongly agreed that the day should remain January 26.

The Advance Australia organisation has grabbed hold of former Labor Leader Mark Latham's, "Save Australia Day" campaign and run with it.

On the progressive side of things the Australia Institute released a survey last Thursday showing that 56 per cent of Australians don't mind which date Australia Day is held.

But wrong question to wrong group of people. I would confidently assert that if a survey were to be conducted, a vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this country would favour a date other than January 26 to celebrate as a national community.

And please don't trot out the line that this is symbolism and will not change the life situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.

Of course it won't. This day is all about symbolism.

Nobody does symbolism like Aussies. The current federal government has allocated $48.7 million over four years to remember the 250th anniversary of James Cook's voyage to this continent.

It is estimated that we will spend $1.1 billion on war memorials between 2014 and 2028.

Let's at least be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that even though we know that January 26 causes pain for a significant proportion of the descendants of the first Australians we will not let go.

Even though the tradition of mourning and protesting the day goes back to 1938 and the day itself has only been gazetted as a public holiday since 1994, we refuse to budge.

I'm not waiting for a change of date when it comes to finally including our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sisters and brothers; I'm waiting for a change of heart.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Corporate Surveillance

Copyright Getty Images
I noticed something a mite uncanny the other day.

Every three weeks I drive my bride to a hospital on the other side of town for breast cancer treatment. This routine will continue for six months. We both enter the appointment time into our smartphones, and the first time we drove there, I used Google maps to identify the best route.

When I connected the phone to the car’s Bluetooth the other day on our way to the hospital, a message popped up on the screen, correctly predicting our destination, and arrival time. This means, I assume, that some corporation (obviously Google) knows our habits and remembers them.

“Not an issue”, I hear you say. Well, perhaps not, but I don’t remember giving permission in my Google setup for this to happen. I no doubt did give such permission, but It’s honoured in the breach, not the observance.

Corporate surveillance is alive and well, and if we own and use a smartphone, we are stalked routinely. Using the word “stalked” may be over the top, but I challenge you, gentle reader, to come up with a better description of the reality.

What should change?

Perhaps there should be an on-screen dialogue describing (briefly, and in words of one syllable) how the corporation in question uses what it knows about you to sell you products and services. This could pop up each time you log into the platform. It would be a little annoying, but hey, no more annoying that dialogue popping up uninvited as I described above.

The issue has already resulted in Google being breached in the EU.

On January 21, 2019, French data regulator CNIL imposed a record €50 million fine on Google for breaching the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The judgment claimed Google had failed to sufficiently inform users of its methods for collecting data to personalize advertising. Google issued a statement saying it was “deeply committed” to transparency and was “studying the decision” before determining its response.

Frankly, I reckon their commitment to transparency is about as deep as the puddle in my driveway after a summer storm.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Hastings’ Vietnam

I haven’t covered a book review for some time, gentle reader, so will fix that right now.

The book is Max Hasting’s masterful Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy, 1945 – 1975, a hefty read at 680 pages, but it took me about a week to complete. It is riveting.

It was a Christmas gift from one of my sons, who knows I’ve read just about everything published on the conflict, but successfully found something I hadn’t.

Most works on the war in Vietnam can be classified into one of three groupings – dry military histories, exploitative narratives, or political tomes. This book is none of these. It resembles a journey through events, incidents and personalities, and engages the reader through its use of vivid detail, unique perspective, and thoroughly researched context.

Hastings is aided by the fact that he is about the same age as I am, which means he lived through the events. I think this helps, as they were indeed exceptional times.

The author (an Englishman), has worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, and editor of the Evening Standard. He is also the author of numerous other works, chiefly on defence matters, which have won several major awards. He was knighted in 2002.

His approach is to present a series of narratives centred around specific episodes or incidents, starting with the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1952 and ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. His attention to detail is spectacular, and the contextualisation it provides brings the work to life. He has obviously researched the topic comprehensively, but the wonderful detail never slows the impact of the narrative.

If there is an underlying theme to this tragedy (and his summary of the title is apt) it is the contrast between the consistent cynicism of the great powers (the USA, the Soviets and the Chinese) and the consistent faith of the North Vietnamese Communists. The great powers never gave up using Vietnam as a plaything; the North Vietnamese never gave up seeking to unify the country under Communism. 

In the end, faith trumped cynicism - but at a terrible cost.

 The Americans saw the conduct of the war (once they had blundered into it) only in the setting of domestic politics, specifically the way in which it would affect Presidential elections. The Soviets and Chinese saw it as an opportunity to influence and manipulate the outcome of the cold war.
Neither the Americans nor the Communist bloc seemed to have any care or understanding of those directly involved – the combatants and the Vietnamese people. They were always collateral.

Hastings seems to divide the Vietnamese into two groups – those who supported the NVA, and those who simply wanted peace and survival. There was never, according to Hastings, a sufficient critical mass of Vietnamese in the south with anti-Communist sentiment strong enough to persevere. There were a few, but often they were sidelined by the Americans, a notable example being Ngo Din Diem, assassinated in 1963 with CIA approval partly because they were worried that he was showing signs of being beyond their control. The South Vietnamese had a dog in the fight, but the Americans wanted to keep it on the leash.  
The NVA, inspired initially by Ho Chi Minh, and after his death by Vo Nguyen Giap, probably one of the twentieth century’s greatest military strategists, never gave up. When asked how long the North was prepared to fight, Giap is quoted as saying -  ''Another twenty years, even a hundred years, as long as it takes to win, regardless of cost." He meant it.

This war was a war of images. You will recall the images of the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm strike, the footage of a Viet Cong being shot by a South Vietnamese commander during Tet in Saigon, and many images of the siege of Hue. In my experience, the best metaphor contained in an image is presented below, a Zippo lighter that could be bought for a few greenbacks at roadside stalls all over Phuoc when I was there in 1970.

These things sold well because the inscription tells a symbolic truth as experienced by the GIs and the diggers, and on another level by the Vietnamese people, except that the references to the “unnecessary” and the “ungrateful” have a deeper meaning. The great powers obviously believed that the conflict was necessary. The political leaders were certainly ungrateful in terms of their attitude to their returning soldiers.

The other little piece of symbolism refers to the Zippo lighter itself. Here was a saleable object that provided street vendors with an income. Many pragmatic Southerners used any opportunity to make a living from the war. First they had to survive; then they had to make a living.

The book has a great collection of images, and one illustrated above resonates with me. The shot is in the AWM collection, and depicts an incident involving my rifle section in March 1970. The digger being carried to a dustoff clearing is Gil Green, who had collapsed and become very ill after he reacted badly to camouflage cream we used. Strangely, the shortest man in the section (Bernie Cox - left) is paired with the tallest (Russ Hollings - right) at the front of the litter. I remember the desperation and confusion, and this physical mismatch depicts it clearly - a great shot. I think the bush hat to the left of Bernie Cox is mine, by the way, but the rest of me is hidden by Bernie's pack - probably a good thing. 

This juxtaposition of the suffering and privations of those directly involved in the conflict, and the cynicism of those directing it, is clear in Hasting's book. The same juxtaposition is a feature of Spielberg's The Post. The movie begins with footage of a VC ambush, and then switches immediately to Robert McNamara being interviewed after he had been briefed by a victim of the ambush. The reality of the war on the ground was well understood by McNamara, but he was unprepared to admit it. His eye was on the next presidential poll. Given the poetic licence used in the movie (it was actually the New York Times which first exposed the Watergate scandal), the point is valid.

Soldiers and civilians are collateral when politics is involved. Let's face it, the same applied in this country. Menzies commitment of Australian troops in Vietnam was political pragmatism. He needed to keep the DLP on side, to ensure their preferences. Fighting in a war against Communists, even if it was in peacetime on foreign soil, kept them on the leash.

It took until 1972 and cost 520 Australian casualties (200 of them conscripts) before it was over. Forty Vietnamese died for every American, and 4500 for every Australian. That is the real tragedy.

I can thoroughly recommend it, even if you're not, like me, a history tragic.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

For Christmas

Pic courtesy Type-Writer.org

This was in our parish newsletter, gentle reader.
It's posted because of its message about not kowtowing to fear.
Happy Christmas!

'Be not afraid.' Richard Leonard on the greeting we all need to hear this Christmas
(published in The Tablet on 12 December 2018)
At the risk of wrecking your Christmas, we have to clear up a few things. I know all our carols and cards say that Jesus was born in December; in a snow-covered stable; was wrapped in swaddling clothes; lay in the manger with the animals around him; that a star stood vigil; and was later visited by three Kings whose names were Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior.
But the Gospels don't say any of this. It could have snowed on the first Christmas, but the Scriptures don't say that it did. No animals are mentioned. The star in the North did not stand still in the night sky because stars just don't behave like that. And Jesus probably wasn't even born in December. Pope Julius I declared that Christmas was to be celebrated on 25 December in 350 AD, after the Christians had given the pagan Roman calendar the thorough make-over it richly deserved. Rather neatly, the pagan feast of the "birthday of the unconquered Sun" became the "birthday of the allconquering Son" — the birthday of Jesus our Lord.
The worst Christmas I ever celebrated was in Manger Square in Bethlehem. By the time I had finally negotiated the traffic jams, the security checks, and the guards on patrol and joined the thousands who had been packed into the church, the adventure had lost some of its appeal.
In all the accounts of Christmas we have in the New Testament we hear the angel begin her announcement of Jesus' birth with the words: "Be not afraid." Given the world events over recent months, this greeting is just what we need to hear this Christmas: Be not afraid.
Fear cripples us into passivity. It ruins our memories of past or present events and undermines dignified, trusting and respectful relationships. There is an important difference between being vigilant and being frightened, but since the 9/11 terrorist attacks this difference has become blurred. We have seen people become anxious, change their lifestyle and travel plans and worry for their future and for that of their children. But we don't need to look to international terror to explain the nature of our fear. Broadly speaking, we fear four things: God, nature, other people, or something in ourselves. It is usually a combination of these things; for some of us, tragically, it is all of them. But to whatever degree fear has come to rule our lives, we need to hear again God's greeting at Christmas: "Be not afraid."
St Paul tells us that love drives out all fear. That's what — and who — we celebrate at Christmas: perfect love took human form in Jesus Christ the Lord. Throughout this joyful season we celebrate the one whose life, death and resurrection showed us the way out of our fears; revealed the truth that sets us free; and gave us the life that we can live to the full in this world, and the next.
Christmas is the feast day when God calls us to be as active as we can in bringing Christ's Kingdom to bear in our world. Christmas is the time when our memories are joined to God's, who has remembered us in our fear. Christmas is the season when all Christian relationships are defined by the dignity, trust and respect they bestow on us and on those we relate to.
As a result of the Babe of Bethlehem, God has shown us that fear is not our calling and that the saving love of Jesus impels us to take risks in how we live out our faith, hope and love. On any day, then, in the coming year, when we face down our fears and live our Christian life to the full we will discover that Christmas is a moveable feast.
My favourite Advent poem is from John Bell, of the Iona Community in Scotland:
Light looked down and saw the darkness.
"l will go there," said light.
Peace looked down and saw war. "I will go there," said peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred. "l will go there," said love.
So he, the Lord of Light, the Prince of Peace, the King of Love, came down and crept in beside us.
No fanfare. No palace. No earthly prince. Christmas celebrates that God crept in beside us. And as a result there is no part of our lives he will not enter with mercy and love. So this Christmas let's invite in again the Lord of Light, the Prince of Peace, the King of Love and live as boldly as we can.

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