Thursday, 17 December 2020

Basic Motoring

Thinking about it, I begin to realise that I've spent a great deal of unnecessary dollars on motor vehicles.  

I've owned nearly thirty at last count. 

At the moment, I'm looking after two vehicles belonging to offspring, one because she's overseas, and the other because he cycles to work and doesn't need it, but won't sell it because he might be transferred to a situation where he does.

Because my garaging and custodianship includes, as a condition, the right to drive the cars, I had the choice of four cars to use in my recent excursion to Canberra and back.

Now the MX5 is fun to drive, and would possibly have been first choice, but it's appreciating in value, and I'm trying to keep its distance covered low. Besides, it is not all that enjoyable on a long run down a highway. It's an interesting car, built for interesting roads.

My bride uses our "new" car, a Kia Rondo, and whilst she doesn't mind driving the 323, is happier with the Kia. This left my son's Mazda 323 Protege as the weapon of choice for my Canberra excursion. My daughter's Toyota Echo, whilst a pleasant little car, was never a consideration.

It was a journey for research purposes at the AWM, and no other family members were all that interested, so I was travelling solo. The 323 has a number of features that made it a good choice for a solo journey. First up, it has three music sources - the original cassette player, an aftermarket 6 stacker CD player, and my iPhone connected through a bluetooth plug-in device. There was never going to be any shortage of mobile entertainment.

Aftermarket cruise

Navigation was taken care of using the iPhone, on a magnetic mount which meant it was hands free and legal. I have mastered the art of using the GPS app and the music player simultaneously. A recent IOS upgrade has made this simple.

This meant that all the features expected these days on a modern vehicle (GPS, bluetooth phone connection, and music player) were all available in this twenty year old car, for the price of a magnetic phone mount and a bluetooth connector. All worked a treat, with the possible exception of the GPS, which when connected to Google maps had a bad habit of setting me up for a beeline journey down some dodgy roads if I took it literally.

The Mazda performed beautifully. It delivered 7.3 Lit/100kms at a cruise of 110km on the Newell. The aftermarket cruise control was a boon.

The air conditioning in Mazdas is renowned for its efficiency, and with the combination of well shaped velour lined seats, and a steering column adjustable for rake and distance, ensured a very comfortable driving position. Cars of this vintage generally enjoy better vision, as the styling fashion which creates blind spots for rear vision hadn't arrived in 1999.

       Mountain straight, Mount Panorama

I got to drive it around the Mount Panorama circuit on the way home. At 60kph, that was an unexciting, but interesting experience.

These things are going for about $3500 used at the moment. If you can find a low kilometerage example (like my son's car), they're a bargain.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Truth and Reconciliation

During the long drive home from four days in Canberra, I've had time, gentle reader, to reflect. 

I found what I'd been looking for in the AWM research centre on the first day, so had time to spend visiting the Vietnam display, and the rest of the memorial. It is a sobering experience.

Chatting with one of the very helpful staff, a bloke about my vintage with some service up his sleeve, we agreed on many things, including the wasted sacrifice of so many young Australians in that bitter and most divisive conflict.

This got me thinking, on the two day drive, about that residual bitterness, and what can be done now, fifty years down the track, to heal it.

We can look at conflict, resolution, and truth and reconciliation, for a way forward. Along with reconciliation comes acknowledgement of the truth. There are a few undisputed truths about our commitment of troops to Vietnam in the mid sixties.

They include the following.

The rationale for enlarging the size of the Australian army at the time grew more from fear of nationalistic Indonesian expansionism than it did from the threat of Communism, expressed through the Domino theory. Once the Indonesian threat had evaporated it was a relatively straightforward step to transfer the perception of a threat from the north to the Indochinese theatre. Vietnam was the first and only conflict in our military history when Australians were conscripted to fight in peacetime on foreign soil in an undeclared war, and when there was no direct existential threat to the Australian mainland.

The military deployment was successfully pursued as a political strategy first by Menzies, and subsequently by successive Coalition Prime Ministers from Holt to McMahon. Gorton's heart was never in it, perhaps as a consequence of his own wartime experience, and he was the leader who announced the beginning of our withdrawal. By the time McMahon was on the scene, the Australian people were well and truly divided. Support for our commitment was lukewarm, and opposition, as expressed most clearly by the Moratorium marches, was strengthening.

The withdrawal began, after Gorton's announcement, on same the day (22nd April 1970) when my sub-unit had its most noteworthy contact with a bunker system, resulting in one KIA and two WIA. One soldier had already died from heat exhaustion one day prior to this incident.

Thus began the process, first of selling this withdrawal as a noble strategy to the Australian electorate, and then ignoring the whole Vietnam episode as unfortunate history after the election of the Labor government in 1972, and the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The casualties of this whitewashing of history, in which both sides of politics were complicit, were those who had served, some willingly, and some otherwise, during the period of the Australian commitment. Vietnam veterans were relegated to the back pages of history as political collateral. This relegation has  for years, been the source of bitterness, and will remain so, without meaningful intervention, until the last of these veterans are gone.

This is despite the Welcome Home march in 1987, and the acceptance by the broader ex-service community of Vietnam veterans as worthy of the ANZAC legend. It is worth remembering that the Welcome Home march was an outcome of a determination of the veterans themselves to be acknowledged, and not an initiative that came from our political leadership.

There remains a need for our political leaders who made the decision to involve us in that conflict and its sad aftermath to reconcile with the diminishing cohort of veterans of that conflict.

Two sources of bitterness remain. The first relates to those who believed, at the time, in the cause, and were abused when they returned. The second group constitutes men, mostly conscripts, who went along with call up, as that was the law of the land at the time, but were also abused on RTA by those who opposed the war.

The New Zealanders, as they often do, have offered us a precedent. Their Crown apology was offered in May 2008, and it is worth remembering that all Kiwis who served in Vietnam were volunteers. John Howard offered a form of apology in 2006, but it scarcely raised a ripple in national media, and was restricted to concerns about treatment of veterans after the war. The opposition at the time had a letter from Graham Edwards read into Hansard, which was a fitting gesture, but neither side of politics has ever issued a full blown and unequivocal apology.

Such an apology needs to have two strands to meaningfully address two grievances. 

The first refers to the treatment of returning soldiers by those who opposed the commitment, and should be made by the leader of the Labor party, whether in opposition or government, as Labor's opposition to deployment was misinterpreted by many of its supporters as rejection of the soldiers involved, irrespective of whether they were volunteers or conscripts.

The second apology should be made by the leader of the Coalition parties responsible for the decision to deploy, and should be directed towards all veterans, whether volunteers or conscripts, as both suffered the consequences, and continue to do so.

For these and their families, it is not too late.

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Saturday, 28 November 2020

A Ghost in the Machine (II)


My MX5 is making a new noise.

That is not as worrying as when the smoke comes out, but it is not a good thing. (Cars run on smoke - that's why when it escapes you're usually in trouble).

Anyhow, no smoke has yet appeared, but the noise is a worry.

It seems to emanate from the water pump housing, isn't obvious on idle or when the motor is cold, but appears with a vengeance on the overrun when it's warmed up. 

My fellow members in the local MX5 owners' club have provided a range of suggestions from a sick alternator to a problem with the timing chain tensioner.

I know nuffink.

That is why I took it to my local mechanic who had just replaced a water pump on my son's Mazda 323. Interestingly, it has covered a similar distance (about 120000 kms). Maybe there's something about Mazda BP-ZE engines and water pumps at 120000 kms. Or perhaps there is some kind of perfidious virus. They shared a garage for a time. There was no social distancing.

MLM* (whom I trust) had a listen and reckoned it was nothing to worry about. When I asked him if it would be OK to drive to Canberra (which had been my plan) he said "sure".

I trust him, but not that far. I have changed my plans.

Yesterday I took a deep breath and drove it the 146 kms to Automotive Plus (free plug) whose boss mechanic, after complaining that the motor was hot (it was - after driving from Toowoomba), declared that it was most likely a water pump bearing.

It got me home, and the noise is no worse. 

So now, I have to decide whether to get the job done locally, or at the specialist's setup in Brisbane. The latter will require two days. You can't expect people to work on a hot motor after a 146 km highway run.

I'll keep you posted.

Hence the II.

*My Local Mechanic.

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Friday, 20 November 2020



Pic courtesy The Conversation

The media, in Australia and worldwide, is salivating over the release of the redacted Brereton Report.

Even if only some of the allegations are proven, the whole episode is deeply shocking, shameful and sad.

Shocking, because Australians have always held their military in high esteem, and these revelations come as a shock, even if we've been drip-fed rumours for years now. Shameful, because they reflect on everybody who has served or is still serving. Sad, because of the destruction of the lives of the Afghani victims and their families, and the effect they have had, and will continue to have, on the soldiers who were involved.

I can't begin to imagine the suffering being experienced by those incriminated, either directly, indirectly by association, and the fallout that is eating its way up through the chain of command. It seems inconceivable that commanders had no inkling that this behaviour was happening. It seems to have continued across a number of deployments and a number of units.

The reportage has often been over the top and sensationalist, but this is our media in 2020, and sensational reporting sells. The ABC deserves kudos in doggedly pursuing the story, and having the courage to see it through. Two ABC reporters risked everything.

The publicity has reminded me of occasional episodes when we took prisoners. One incident (covered in the chapter entitled TAOR in my memoir) involved my patrol encountering a party of about twenty civilians, woodcutters, whom we encountered in a no go zone north of the task force base.  

We stopped and searched them, and had to hold them all day until the local Vietnamese authorities came to collect them. We treated them well, gave them food and water, and provided shade. The whole episode was actually enjoyable for me, as there were half a dozen kids in the group, and I reverted to teacher mode, finding out that these children were quite advanced in their understanding of long division. It's amazing what can be accomplished with a stick writing on the ground, even when there is no common language.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this whole sorry episode (apart from the deaths of the Afghans) will be the burden these diggers carry for the rest of their lives. The suicide rates are already over the top for this generation of returned soldiers.

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Sunday, 15 November 2020

Monday, 9 November 2020

US Presidential Election - The Washup

I've deliberately avoided commenting on the outcome until today because I was (naively perhaps) waiting for Trump to concede, something that every other previous defeated candidate has done once the results are clear.

Biden's electoral college votes are in, and they put him convincingly in front, at a level slightly higher than Trump's figures in 2016. He has been congratulated by leaders worldwide and all the media, even his megaphone (Fox) have called the vote for Biden.

The counter narrative (allegations of fraud) are characteristic of how he has always operated, and unsurprising. They are irrelevant, and will fade away as they are unsupported by evidence. His reaction, however, deepens the already broad chasm confronting the USA.

The figures are interesting. Biden has received more votes than any previous candidate in history, and his popular vote exceeds Trump's by around five million.

Trump's vote is also an improvement on his 2016 performance, and the turnout is the highest since 1900. It still doesn't match what routinely happens in Australia (72% USA Vs 91% Australia). Compulsory voting improves turnout of course, and enhances participation, one of the cornerstones of democracy. Lincoln did not refer to "some" of the people at Gettysburg

and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The decentralised electoral system in the USA doesn't help, and is largely responsible for the ongoing chaos following this poll. Each state organises it's electoral college districts, and creates the rules applying to mail-in votes, counting arrangements and supervision. The problem with this arrangement is that whichever party controls the state administration also controls the electoral arrangements. Each party does its best to set up boundaries and arrangements that improve its chances. Hence the routine tolerated Gerrymandering. 

The fact that the poll is always held on the first Tuesday in November doesn't help. So many of the conventions that continue to apply to the US process were set up over two hundred years ago. The Tuesday after the first Monday in November was chosen because the harvest would have just finished, and Sunday was for church. This left Monday to hitch up the dray and use the day for travel to the voting booth. These days, people who are on low incomes are often unable to get to vote because they can't afford to take time off work. The fact that in many parts of the USA, they have to queue for hours doesn't help. Contrast that with the ten minute pause (on Saturday) to lodge a vote in this country.

The bottom line, of course, is the gap between the popular vote and the electoral college. Australians find it hard to accept that a candidate who receives fewer votes than his or her rival is not the winner. This processes effectively disenfranchises millions, and to a degree, is responsible for a great deal of the divisions in US society. It infers that the votes of these people really don't count. The same process happens in Australia, but nowhere near to the same extent, and we have a mechanism (state and federal Electoral Commissions) that make a fair job, over time, of addressing it. 

The Electoral College system was a compromise cobbled up over a period of months by delegates frustrated by a lack of progress at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Given that 40% of the population of the Southern states were slaves, and the owners were reluctant to give them full franchise, they settled on this inelegant compromise which has, like the date of the poll, held ever since. The whole compromise thing fell in a heap in 1861, but that's another story.

So the USA is (excuse the pun) a slave to its history. The resulting chaos will continue, as it is almost impossible, given the divisions that exist, to reform out-of-date institutions and constitutional amendments. 

The second amendment is probably the most stark example.

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Monday, 2 November 2020

Dirty Tricks - The Outcome

Pic courtesy ABC

This post is a follow up to my last one (Dirty Tricks - 24th October 2020) .

Now that the state election is done and dusted, it's a good time to reflect on Palmer's activity, and the result.

His intention was apparently to ensure that Labor wasn't returned to government. To put it mildly, that has backfired spectacularly.

He spent, according to reports, $83 million dollars in his efforts to smear Labor. His message was clear and simple, and entirely negative. Often, negative advertising is quite effective, especially when this much cash is thrown at it. In this case, it seems to have been completely useless.

Full page advertisements in all the syndicated local papers up and down the coast, blanket Youtube ads featuring his wife, and unsolicited SMS messages were thrown at everybody with abandon.

In my case, I contacted Mineralogy, the source of the messages, according to the accompanying blurb, and requested that my phone number be removed from the UAP's database, to no avail.

The person who answered the phone promised apologetically to meet my request, but the messages kept coming.

This arrogance is probably a large part of the reason his campaign fell flat. Queensland voters aren't stupid. Most people object to their personal information being used without consent, and this probably got many people offside.

The Youtube ads featuring his wife were also probably counter productive. In my case, looking at her face as she read the cue board in wooden fashion, the only emotion elicited was sympathy. Apparently, the voters of Currumbin (where she was a candidate) had much the same reaction.

Palmer is the closest thing in this country corresponding to the US PAC phenomenon , and it's gratifying to see that Queenslanders, at least, aren't impressed.

Clive has learned (the hard way) that in this country, at least, democracy can't be bought and sold.

The media, especially the syndacted local papers have gleefully pocketed the $83 million. It might keep them afloat for a while longer.

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Saturday, 24 October 2020

Dirty Tricks

 This missive was dropped into our letterbox the other day.

It is over the signatures of George Christensen (Federal LNP Member for Dawson) and Craig Kelly (Federal Liberal Member for Hughes). This is passing strange, given that I am a constituent in the Federal electorate of Groom.

What is stranger is that this is an open letter addressed to a Queensland state public servant, a couple of weeks before a state election.

Under the Westminster system, federal members (especially those from interstate) have no business writing to state public servants. If either Kelly or Christensen were senators for Queensland, there may have been some justification for the letter, but the process is actually a reversal of Westminster protocols, in that public servants are expected to advise politicians, rather than the other way around.

But it gets stranger. I emailed both Christensen and Kelly. The latter replied to my email (Christensen was prepared only to acknowledge it) and Kelly claimed to have no knowledge of the letter, despite that it was over his signature.

The staffer in Christensen's office in Mackay said much the same thing when I phoned to ask why there was no acknowledgement to my email. She claimed to have reported it to the electoral commission.

This begs a couple of questions. The first is the origin of the letter. It did not stem from the office of either of the signatories, so has to be a forgery. Where did it come from, and who disseminated it? It was a glossy pamphlet, offset printed, and had the Commonwealth coat of arms on both sides. Getting it circulated (setup and distribution) would not have been cheap.

As election material produced in a lead-up to a poll, it did not carry the required political party authorisation, which is a breach of the act.

There is one very wealthy and fairly large Queensland businessman prone to disruptive stunts. Perhaps I am cynical, but I can see his grubby hands all over this one. The content is classic snake-oil material, typical of this individual who is reported to have bought large quantities of the chemical referred to in the letter, only to find that no doctors anywhere in the country will use it.

Remember how he was going to build a Titanic replica, and how that sunk without trace?  

Update -

By the way, if you're in Queensland, and tired of getting unsolicited SMS messages from Mineralogy about the state election, here's a remedy - email and request that they remove your personal details from their database. Send a copy to (Queensland Electoral Commission). 

Alternatively, you can phone 08 9324 2227 (Mineralogy Perth - the only number that is answered) and make the same request.

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Saturday, 17 October 2020



It's a while since I've posted a book review, gentle reader, so I'll make amends with this one.

The author, Bob Woodward, has impeccable credentials as an investigative journalist. Along with Carl Bernstein, he produced extensive and forensic reporting on the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

He has also written 19 books on US politics, most of them best sellers.

He is a navy veteran, and a Yale graduate and his writing style is direct. His style reminds me of the work of a good police roundsman - no nonsense and sparse. 

Because of his celebrity status, Trump was happy to give him unfettered access and he has used it to good effect.

Woodward's narrative recounts some gobsmacking behaviour, not only on the part of Trump, but also on those working for him. He cites examples of senior officials hiding memos by removing them from Trump's desk. They were doing this, because they believed he had absolutely no idea of the consequences of policy decisions made on the basis of many of his decisions, which seemed to be driven by whims or obsessions. His termination of the Korea Free Trade Agreement was a case in point.

Trump was determined to abolish it and a memo was drawn up to that effect. The paperwork was hidden, until he could be persuaded to modify, rather than terminate it. In this case the strategy worked. (Trump had roundly condemned the agreement prior to election).

Trump's senior officials were also bewildered with the freedom he gave his family in terms of access and decision-making in the White House. Woodward recounts Trump's daughter Ivanka's indignation at being told she was "just a staffer" by Steve Bannon, who at the time was Trump's Senior Counselor.

Bannon had a strong agenda of his own, and Woodward claims he used Trump to advance it. This seems to have been borne out subsequently by Bannon's fall from grace, and most recently his indictment on charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering in connection to the We Build the Wall campaign.

Trump has bulldozed through a bewildering array of advisors and political appointees.  The turnover rate is unprecedented. The more notable include National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price. Their tenures have been brief and chaotic. By May this year, there have been 415 White House staffers dismissed or resigned.

Woodward puts this down to Trump being unprepared to continue to employ anyone who disagrees with him. He paints a picture of senior military men, such as James Mattis and H R McMaster being unwilling to kowtow, and leaving the administration as a result.

Perhaps the most telling reflection on Trump's style is this quote -

Real power is - I don't want to use the word - fear. (Trump 31st March 2016)

I'd recommend it.

(Fear, Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 2018).

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Sunday, 11 October 2020

A Father's Letter

7RAR - loading up for Operation Finschaffen

Today I publish a letter read out in Federal Parliament on June 11th 1970 by Norm Foster, member for Sturt, as part of a grievance debate. He wrote to John Gorton, Prime Minister at the time.

The letter was written by Stan Larsson, whose son had been killed in a mine incident in Vietnam on 6th June 1970. He was a member of 7 RAR, my unit in Vietnam. Stan had written to Andrew Peacock, the Minister for the Army, prior to 7 RAR's embarkation, in an attempt to have his son posted to a non-operational unit as he had poor eyesight, requiring him to wear very thick glasses. 

Although records of the incident show it wasn't Stan Jnr who actually triggered the mine, like the other three soldiers involved (two who were killed, and one seriously wounded) he didn't see it. There had been heavy rain the night before the incident, and the humidity was very high. In those conditions, it was almost impossible to prevent glasses from misting up.

Thirty years ago you and I were engaged actively in a conflict on an issue that was beyond doubt. We fought for freedom from individual oppression and tyranny, and I was proud to be an Australian.

A short while ago,  I was informed that my son was killed in action in Vietnam.
In Vietnam there emerged a terrible armed struggle between the peoples of one race - father against son, brother against brother, each fighting desperately for principles I no longer understand, but it was a family struggle, which in the final event will only be resolved between the people of Vietnam.

Yet, into this conflict, Mr Prime Minister, powerful neighbours intruded, and so you committed Australia. You felt that by armed force, your ideals might be thrust upon these people. Through your intrusion, you and your colleagues introduced into Australia, the very principles against which I was prepared, with others, to die if necessary.

This is your Australia, Mr Prime Minister, and I no longer have pride in being an Australia.

Into the conflagration that is Vietnam, you sent my son, a man whom you knew without his glasses, could not see a hand held four feet away , or a car at 30 feet, and whom you told could see reasonably well with glasses. You advised him to keep them clean, yet in the torrid humidity of Vietnam, you could not tell him how. 

He went, Mr Prime Minister, because you told him it was right and honourable.

Was it, Mr Prime Minister? Why? For Whom? A thousand questions flood my mind. 

How do I answer his young widow, or my children? Did he die to further the political ambition of yourself or your colleagues? Or was it to ingratiate yourself upon the leaders of the most powerful, yet most hated and feared nation in the world today? Do I answer them that it is the cowardice of men too proud to admit to a horrible tragic error? Wherein lies the truth, Mr Prime Minister, and how long must this carnage of Australian manhood continue? How many more must die under the conditions you have chosen to impose. What is the truth? Why? For what? In the depthless horror of sorrow and grief I turn to my friends and ask, but none can tell me, none can answer, so I must turn to you.
Perhaps if in the interests of human justice, and of truth, the news media and journals of our day can find the courage to publish my letter to you, I may find truth, or perhaps, Mr Prime Minister, time may show that my son did not die in vain.

Stan Larsson

Shortly after this letter was read on the floor of parliament, and reported by the media, all soldiers with glasses in front line service were removed to rear echelon postings. One of them was Keith Connell from my rifle section, who was posted to 1 ALSG at Vung Tau as a clerk. 

Keith died last year, in August, from multiple myeloma, a well-know outcome of Dioxin exposure. Agent Orange was used heavily around ALSG to remove vegetation from the perimeter of the airstrip. 

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Friday, 25 September 2020

A Tale of Two Crises

Pic courtesy Wikipedia

It's happened again.

It's fascinating to examine the origins of these crises, and to look at what governments have done to ameliorate the consequences. Doing so reveals a great deal about our political culture, and the undercurrents lurking beneath the rhetoric rationalising financial management of the issues.

In 2008, the crisis was man-made. In 2020, it's about biology. Back in 2008, the crisis was a consequence of lame and inconsequential regulation of the US money market. The contagion spread offshore, and economies went into free fall all over the globe. Australia was no exception, and the Labor government went fast and hard into stimulatory activity, which was effective in that there was no recession.

The stimulatory measures, especially the BER initiative, had other benefits. these included the construction of thousands of physically accessible additions to school buildings which transformed the school experience of many students with disabilities. For these children living in remote locations serviced with old fashioned inaccessible school buildings, attending school meant moving to a larger centre where purpose built units with wheelchair access were available. The frequent consequence of this was the splitting of families. Usually with the mother moved with the child, and dad stayed with his work and life in the remote community.

The accessible additions which had to meet contemporary access standards, meant the child could go to the local school, and families were reunited.

This initiative, and others, was roundly condemned by the Coalition opposition led by Tony Abbott, as a waste of money, and he was fond of calling it a "debt and deficit disaster".

Move forward twelve years, and a Coalition government is pouring billions into stimulatory measures, making the Rudd/Swan initiatives look like chicken feed.

Suddenly, borrowing and spending is kosher. Whatever happened to the debt and deficit disaster? It seems to have fallen down some kind of memory rabbit hole.

Abbott has fled to the UK without saying a word.

I'm searching for a word to describe this behaviour. "Hypocrisy" springs to mind...

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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.

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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. 

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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 where 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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Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...