Monday, December 24

Another honour for Howard's 'history wars' victim

As my friends know, I've sometimes had to battle the urge to become a Howard hater – and never more so than when I remember his treatment of Dawn Casey (pictured).

So as John Howard heads for the golf course, surely now regretting the hubris which caused so much damage to the Liberal Party he professed to love, it's great to see one of the victims of his pogrom against political correctness go from strength to strength.

Dr Casey is to become the director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum from next March. For the past three years she has been the highly regarded chief executive of another top Australian museum, the West Australian Museum.

But most of us remember the way Howard and his hard-right mates ousted Dr Casey as director of Canberra's new National Museum of Australia because they decided her exhibit labels failed to reflect their "three cheers" view of our history and our society.

One hopes it was not also a factor that Dr Casey is Aboriginal.

A little potted history to refresh our memories. Dr Casey, already highly regarded for her achievements in public administration, oversaw the construction and opening of the NMA, winning further acclaim for meeting a tight budget and tight timetable for the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001.

Most of the museum's council members found no fault with her work. But one did – David Barnett, a hard right conservative known best for an admiring authorised biography of Howard.

He compiled a dossier of thousands of museum labels he found objectionable. But with the Centenary deadline looming, council chairman Tony Staley – himself a former minister in the Fraser government, and Liberal Party president from 1993 to 1999 – was reluctant to act.

Staley turned to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian most admired by conservatives, who suggested Monash University history professor Graeme Davison review Barnett's allegations. Davison examined them in detail, checked them against historical sources, and said Barnett's criticisms were ill-founded.

Conservatives often rabbit on about accepting the umpire's decision. Hah! When Dr Casey's original term at the NMA expired in 2002, the government renewed her contract for just one year instead of the three or five years one would expect.

The hard-right commentariat had been frothing at the mouth. Miranda Devine saw "sneering ridicule for white Australia". Tedious as ever, Piers Ackerman said the museum suffered from political correctness. Pru Goward, head of the Office for the Status of Women (and wife of David Barnett), said it trivialised the contribution of women.

Keith Windschuttle, the Quadrant contributor (and now, new Quadrant editor) who has been unable to discover any evidence of massacres of Aborigines (apart from Myall Creek, which is so well documented in sworn court evidence it is undeniable) took up the campaign against Dr Casey.

Inside, on the museum's council, Christopher Pearson, a former Howard speechwriter, seized the cudgels too.

The council decided on an external review. The responsible Howard minister, Rod Kemp, chose as chairman John Carroll, a conservative with connections to the right-wing propaganda organisation (a.k.a. "think tank"), the Institute of Public Affairs. Other members included Philip Jones, a senior curator at the South Australian Museum who had won the conservatives' approval during the Hindmarsh Island affair. Balancing them were Sydney businessman Richard Longes and palaeobiologist Patricia Vickers-Rich.

One might ask: Where was the historian?

But despite the appearance of a stacked inquiry, the committee, against all expectations, reported there was no problem with political or cultural bias at the NMA.

Accept the umpire's decision? Get real. When Dr Casey's one-year contract extension expired in 2003, the government showed her out the door.

At the Powerhouse, Dr Casey faces problems from the start – because of NSW Government funding cuts, she must cut staffing by up to 10 per cent.

However, it's unlikely she will push out anyone because they don't share her political views.

Thursday, December 13

Something to brighten your day

It's not about Christmas, but this is so delightful it may well lift you into a Christmassy mood. Just click this link and turn up the sound.

When it's finished playing, you may like to click the link on the top left of your screen to go to Care2, a cornucopia of treats for people who like things green. It claims eight million members.

[Thanks to Suzanne, who passed this on in an email to friends.]

Saturday, December 8

Labor supporters cheer Bronwyn's return

Why do so many people take an instant dislike to Bronwyn Bishop?
Answer: Because it saves time

Well, blow me down and lock up the kerosene. Bronwyn's back, and in a shadow portfolio concerning the welfare of generally older people, Veterans Affairs.

I'm pretty sure the quip above came from then-Senator Gareth Evans, although a web search gives a few other, and probably incorrect, attributions -- just one of those problems you face when you seek information on the internet.

As a bit of a leftie, I should be rejoicing. Now I know there's little chance the Coalition will regain government in three years, and unless he stuffs up big-time, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should last at least three terms while the Libs thrash about like a dying dinosaur in quicksand.

But as I've written to friends since Rudd's November 24 victory, I'm not rejoicing. Our system of parliamentary democracy requires a strong and credible Opposition. The Libs are going the wrong way.

This grumpy old fella probably won't be around to see it, but he can predict a time when Australian politics will be a tussle between the Labor Conservative Party (preferably without the compassion bypass one now needs to be a Lib) and the Greens on the progressive side.

Friday, December 7

Better education for Aboriginal kids

If you share the concern about the poor educational achievement of many Aboriginal children (featured in the following two blog posts), you will be interested in a speech by the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, calling for seven "platforms of development" to improve things.

Read it here, from this morning's Australian.

A closer look at our education report card

In our schools, Australia really is the land of the fair go. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds do reach higher educational standards than they would almost anywhere else in the world.

By world standards, Australia offers high quality education – and offers it more equitably than most other countries. But there are areas of concern, particularly with Aboriginal students' achievement and with remote schools.

I've followed up my previous blog post by going into the Australian Council for Educational Research website and downloading the executive summary of Australian results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exec summary itself is a 14-page PDF file, while the full Australian report runs to almost 10 megabytes of PDF.

As the previous blog post noted, Australia is still up there with the better performers, but has slipped on some key measures.

And to my mind, the exec summary doesn't provide enough information to answer some key policy questions that should concern all Australians and their politicians. Answers which may show us the way to regain the lost ground, and more.

The summary says questions guiding the development of PISA are:

  • How well are young adults prepared to meet the challenges of the future? What skills do they possess that will facilitate their capacity to adapt to rapid societal change?

  • Are some ways of organising schools and school learning more effective than others?

  • What influence does the quality of school resources have on student outcomes?

  • What educational structures and practices maximise the opportunities of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? How equitable is education provision for students from all backgrounds?

Under the heading, Policy Issues, and looking at the new focus on science education, the summary notes that "Australia is well placed to continue its tradition of producing high quality scientists".

It also notes that "Analysis of Australia´s performance in terms of equity and achievement places us in the category of above-average level of student performance and below-average impact of socioeconomic background in scientific literacy; in other words, high quality and high equity".

Literacy in reading also shows a narrowing of the gap between well-off and poorer students, but the report notes this may result from declining achievement in the higher levels rather than improvement at the bottom end.

The report does point to worrying areas, two of which are:

The achievement of Australia´s Indigenous students continues to be a concern. Average scores for Indigenous students place them on a par with students in a low-performing country such as Chile, and two and a half years behind the average for their non-Indigenous contemporaries. While some individual Indigenous students performed very well on the PISA assessment many more performed extremely poorly. There is no doubt that many Indigenous students will continue to need extra support.

The relatively poor performance of students attending schools in remote areas is also evident from these analyses, and requires attention. Students attending schools in remote areas were found to be achieving at a level about a year and a half lower than their counterparts in metropolitan schools in all of the assessment areas. It is recognised that schools in remote areas face problems such as attracting and retaining qualified teachers, maintaining services and providing resources, and in their capacity to send staff to participate in professional development.

Despite its aims, the PISA study may not settle debate on questions such as Australia's mix of public and private education, and the way it is to be funded. We have just removed a Prime Minister who was ideologically unable to collaborate with the Labor-governed states, and who also wanted to impose his mid-20th Century mindset on our school curriculums.

Can we achieve more in education (and in health, and everything else) with "wall-to-wall Labor governments"? Perhaps, but there'll always be tensions between Federal and state responsibilities and funding.

Are we focusing too much on vocational preparation, and not enough on developing our children so they can live better lives in in our rapidly changing world? The PISA report suggests we are achieving a good balance, but we shouldn't take it for granted.

Can we improve the professionalism, the status and the remuneration of teachers? Will some have to put extra effort into professional development to cope with our changing, digital world?

Wednesday, December 5

Our report card: 'Has done better'

Australian students are beginning to fall behind the standard of overseas students in reading and mathematical skills – that's the finding of an OECD study released overnight. We're still ahead of most of the world, but we're slipping.

I picked up the story first from a brief report on Sky News Online early today, which also said:

It has been reported that the results were dragged down by poor performances by indigenous students and those from a low socio-economic background.

That set off two lines of thought. First, Sky needs a good old-fashioned sub-editor, who'd rewrite that passive voice into active, and who'd see the need for attribution. But old-style subs are an endangered species as more media companies see them as merely process workers shovelling “content” in between the ads.

Second, are inequities in our education systems worsening? The picture seems unclear. Further reading suggests we may be letting down our brightest students – and also that we're not achieving much-needed improvement in the educational development of many Aboriginal children, as well as others from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

A little more browsing on the web brought up this report by The Australian's education writer, Justine Ferrari, headed: “Brightest students falling behind world”.

Results from the latest Program for International Student Assessment, released yesterday by the OECD group of 30 developed nations, show that while Australian students still perform in the top 10 of the world in reading, maths and science and well above the OECD average, their ranking dropped.

The PISA test of 15-year-olds shows the reading scores of Australian students fell about 15 points over the past six years, with the decline caused by a fall among the highest-performing students.

"It is noteworthy that, among the countries with above-average performance levels, only Australia has seen a statistically significant decline in their students' reading performance," the report says.

In maths, Australia's mean score remained about the same, but this was due to an improvement among the weakest students that counteracted the fall in performance among top students.

The Australian Council for Educational Research conducts the PISA test on behalf of the OECD.

ACER chief executive Geoff Masters said fewer students were demonstrating skills at the highest levels, which involved sophisticated reading and understanding the nuance of language.
Students had to read complex and unfamiliar texts and find information that was not obvious.

Later, on ABC radio, he said a possible reason for the decline was that students today read fewer books and long texts.

Justine Ferrari also reported:

Researchers in gifted and talented education argue that Australian schools need to better provide for the academically gifted, in the same way that elite sports people are fostered, and encourage bright students to forge ahead at their own pace rather than tie them to the class rate.

The Sydney Morning Herald's education writer, Anna Patty, also covered the issue well, focusing on the slipping ability of our brightest 15-year-olds, and also noting a downturn in girls' maths skills. She also wrote:

. . . almost a quarter of the poorest students, 40 per cent of Aboriginal students and 27 per cent of those in remote schools performed below the OECD baseline at which students are considered to be at risk of serious disadvantage.

Your Grumpy Old Blogger thought this would be a quick and easy post. It's not. So I'm taking a break to think it over after reading the report and some summaries which can be downloaded from ACER's website.

Whatever, surely this rich nation should strive to deliver the best education and the best opportunities in life for every one of its children, whether bright or struggling, rich or poor, from the city or the bush.

Our report card now says: "Has done better – must try harder." And we really must. We owe it to our kids and our grandkids and our nation's future.

Tuesday, December 4

Pretty ornament, useless misinformation

It's no good whinging if you don't do something about it. After posting the previous item about the inaccuracy of iGoogle's weather forecasts, I went into the iGoogle site and found a lively debate among others leaving comments. I added mine:

The pictographs and forecasts are wildly inaccurate in Australia, too. For today, the government Bureau of Meteorology's latest, 45-minutes-old forecast for Sydney shows a maximum 27deg (like most of the modern world, Australia converted years ago to Celsius, aka Centigrade, temps) while iGoogle is showing a max/min range of 24/20deg.

This sort of wild error is common. iGoogle should find a gadget provider who reformats BoM forecasts, not wild guesses. Australia has a number of companies which repackage BoM info for graphical reproduction in newspapers and the internet. Tell your gadget provider to find out how they do it, and follow suit. Check for yourself, hit and compare with iGoogle's forecast for Sydney.

I love the iGoogle screen stuffed full of gadgets, but this needs fixing.

If my complaint – and those of many others posting to comments – leads to an improvement in iGoogle forecasts, I'll let readers know.

Meanwhile, I've been seduced by other information panels (iGoogle calls them gadgets) and I've added to my home screen:
  • Word of the Day
  • WordWebOnline dictionary/thesaurus
  • Spellcheck, which incorporates a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia
  • Joke of the day (the nicer ones will be great fillers in a newsletter I produce)
  • This Day in History (at present, it's the Bhopal poison gas disaster of 1984)
  • Australian Stock Exchange – constantly updated All Ords and prices for the individual stocks in our pitifully small portfolio

A busy home page, and generally quite useful, but a great time-waster if you've work to do.

Sunday, December 2

Whether you can trust the weather . . .

Sunday. A lovely sunny day ahead of a forecast week of rain, humidity and possible thunderstorms. A good day to head north for lunch with some of the family at the Motor Yacht Club at Toronto.

But what to wear? What's the weather likely to be? That should be easy – I've set up an iGoogle home page which displays all sorts of information including weather forecasts.

I'm a news junkie, so it displays headlines from the ABC, other Aussie sources, BBC World Service, New Scientist, and a few others. Then there's the calendar, the clock and date display, world clocks, a currency converter, and a search box which takes you straight into Wikipedia. Even a memo pad where you can list your jobs, right in front of your eyes where it keeps nagging at you.

Really useful, and easy to set up, tailored to your individual interests. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Not so sure about the weather forecasts, however. I've set it up for Sydney, Newcastle and Perth, with current conditions as well as forecasts for today, tomorrow and the next day, each with a little pictograph and what I expect is a forecast temperature range.

For today in Newcastle, at 7.44am the iGoogle forecast showed a current 19°, already above the forecast 18°/15° range. The Bureau of Meteorology at 5.15am had issued a forecast of a 24° max.

For tomorrow, Monday, iGoogle shows a 21°/18° forecast for Newcastle, while the BoM predicts a 30° max.

From time to time, I've compared BoM and iGoogle forecasts, and this sort of discrepancy is not unusual. Perhaps it would be better to add , plus the bureau's relevant regional page, to the Favorites list in your internet browser.

Even the news headlines seem well behind – since 4am, at least, the ABC radio news has led on an al-Qaeda attack on an Iraq village which left 14 dead. But the only place it's to be found in the headlines on my home page is the BBC.

Perhaps that's not Google's fault. Perhaps the news organisations which provide headline feeds to iGoogle need to lift their game.

Sunday, November 25

Amid the rejoicing, a note of caution

In all of last night's rejoicing, few took a look at the Senate voting. The count so far indicates Labor may run into trouble getting its legislation through the Federal Parliament.

This morning the ABC website is showing these results for the Senate. Adding those senators who did not have to face the electors this time around to the likely result for the half who did, we may end up with these Senate totals:

Liberal/National Coalition 37
Australian Labor Party 32
The Greens 5
Family First 1
Other 1

[The ABC warns that these figures are a guide. The final result may depend on "below the line" voting in individual states.]

Will the Greens always support Labor legislation? Will they demand too high a price, asking Rudd to welsh on election promises like approval for the Gunns pulp mill? Will Labor meet the Greens' expectations on climate change?

All parties face a high-stakes gamble, possibly within a few months, as they ponder whether to force a double-dissolution by having the Senate reject Labor's bills. Would electors rise in anger against the Coalition for its failure to accept their will so clearly expressed in the Reps elections. Or would the Opposition Leader, whoever may win the post, have persuaded electors that they'd made a mistake with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd?

Congrats to Antony Green and Kerry O'Brien, but the ABC did have some glitches

The ABC's election analyst Antony Green and its 7.30 Report presenter Kerry O'Brien did a first-class job from the tally room, along with Labor's Julia Gillard and the Libs' Nick Minchin.

Flicking around the channels, I was also impressed by the Nine Network's coverage.

The ABC did have some problems, with graphics refusing to come up as planned.

And someone stuffed up with the program guides. Days ago, ABC Television's promos said last night's news would be advanced to 5.30pm to allow its broadcast to cross to the tally room at 6pm. Newspaper program guides yesterday still showed bowls at 5pm and tally room at six – no mention of news. I checked the ABC program guide on its website just before 5pm yesterday, and it was showing the same erroneous information as the newspapers.

Forget the post-mortem, let's look to the future

I'd feel sorry for John Howard, except it's a word he understands only when it's applied to trivial issues. And in the past, Howard has had no compunction about trying to destroy the careers of people his conservative mates targeted for "political correctness".

And it's ironical that he suffered this humiliating defeat because he treated another of his assurances as a non-core promise.

You will recall that he often said he'd stay for as long as his party wanted him – surely an implied promise that he'd go when it didn't. But when, at the time of APEC, 70 per cent of his ministers said he should go, he went home to Janette, took her advice, and stayed.

That said, few could deny some respect and even admiration for Howard's determined fight against the odds.

But look to the future. I expect the Libs to spend two terms in Opposition before they will have rebuilt the party to give Rudd a run for his money in six years' time. Peter Costello today withdrew to pursue a career outside politics – probably a wise move. The electorate had already rejected him on a joint prime ministerial ticket, and his failure to challenge for the leadership earlier suggests he hasn't the ticker or the party support to lead the way back to government.

The times will suit Malcolm Turnbull, and it's great news for the Libs that he held his seat of Wentworth. Of the present mob, he's the only senior Lib who can take the party into the 21st century and possible re-election.

The one big problem he may face is that his foes will trawl back through all his deals and advisory roles in his years as a high-achieving merchant banker, seeking examples of his playing too aggressively or even bending the rules. Indeed, they're already doing it, to judge by the comments turning up on some of the online reports of his throwing his hat in the ring for the leadership.

Friday, November 23

Politics, a better Australia, and the pleasure of motor cycle riding

It seemed like a good idea at the time. To the friend who criticises me for anti-Liberal Party bias, I sent this email well over a week ago.

I may try one heavier piece before the election on Saturday week. Not so much party-political, but a list of what I'd like to see to make a better Australia. For me, I guess that would lead to a Labor vote, but perhaps you'd read the same list and say, yeah, that's what you'll get if you return the Coalition. It would still be somewhat biased, I suppose, but perhaps without the negativity you've seen in the past.

But what an extraordinarily difficult task it's proved to be. It's easy when you stick to labels like mateship – which Prime Minister John Howard once tried to have inserted into a preamble to the Australian Constitution – and fairness, which Howard, quite sincerely, has sometimes called a fundamental Australian value.

But what happens when you try to extend the ideal of tolerance and fairness to a celebration of the diverse foundations of Australian society?

What do you say of someone who attacks “political correctness” by sacking or publicly humiliating people with whom he disagrees? (I have in mind Dawn Casey from the National Museum and Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty after he agreed that Australia's joining the Iraq war had made us more of a target for terrorism – but I could draw up a much longer list.)

How do you explain that some of the basic tenets of liberal thought are hard to find in the people and policies of the Liberal Party?

Classic writer's block. Awake about two, ideas fermenting but not formulating, check a few references from books beside the bed, make cups of tea, switch on computer, make more cups of tea, words still won't come.

If I get this wrong, perhaps I'll risk losing a friend. Just as important – perhaps even more important – I may risk something I rather pretentiously call intellectual or moral integrity. I don't want to be called a Howard-hater. I don't want to be defined by what I hate.

I want my friends and family to know me for positive values, and if I criticise the Howard Government, it's for its failure to carry forward those values, and I want my criticism to be fair, balanced and based on evidence.

On the road, the view is so much clearer (once you get round the lorries)

Finally, Merry is fed up. Fed up with my pacing through the house, sick of my opening and shutting the fridge door. She orders me to get on that motor cycle and don't come back till I settle down.

Up the F3, turn for Freemans Waterholes, Kurri Kurri and Maitland. Not a good choice – from before Freemans almost to Dungog, there are long delays at one section of roadworks after another, and processions of speeding trucks, semis or with dog trailers, carrying stone from the huge quarry at Martins Creek, then racing back for the next load.

When you're riding at five to ten kays over the limit anyway, there's something frightening about being tailgated by a Mack or Kenworth which wasn't even in your mirrors a few hundred metres back.

Almost as frightening is sipping a long black under the verandah of the Country Cafe in Paterson as the huge trucks come barrelling around the right-angled Post Office corner, so close you feel their slipstream.

On to Dungog. The roads are opening out, the country looks green. Dungog, as always, is an attractive town. At last I'm feeling on top of the world.

A beer and a hamburger in the Bank Hotel while I read the papers, and I feel able to return to the real world. Or is this closer to the real world, people moving around a pretty town set down in a scenic countryside, while politics and big-city society are artificial constructs which torment the human soul?

I'm still pondering this as I ride back through Clarencetown and Seaham, pausing for coffees at the Maccas McCafes at Raymond Terrace and the twin servos on the F3. In my mind, I begin to debate another issue of global importance: Who let Americans believe they know how to make coffee, and that it's OK to serve it in waxed cardboard cups?

Back at my keyboard, I still can't get the ideas together and put them into words. And now there is only one more sleep till we vote. What I think doesn't really matter – my few readers are unlikely to change their votes – but perhaps there are times when one should stand up and be counted.

I could list achievements of which John Howard can be proud – the GST, gun control, taking over water management of the Murray-Darling Basin, his closer relationships with Asian leaders (which seemed to defy his earlier rhetoric), and the fact that he and his tyro Treasurer managed to continue the economic boom for which the Paul Keating reforms had set the foundations.

I'm genuine. These are areas in which Howard's actions have given us a better Australia.

Or should I focus on his shortcomings. Do I need to list them? How long do you want this blog post to be?

Perhaps one should look beyond Saturday. If Kevin Rudd romps in with an overwhelming majority – as most disinterested (not uninterested!) commentators predict – will he run a good government which helps create a better Australia?

Many things make me hopeful. First, his standing up to the old Labor system which sees so many party hacks elevated to state and federal ministries as the result of factional wheeling and dealing. In the past, Labor leaders had the right to allot portfolios, but could not choose which people were to be ministers. Rudd should also have the right to choose the pool from which he will allot the portfolios.He can choose his Cabinet purely on merit.

Second, the hope that Rudd has the integrity to try to keep his promises, not sort them into core and non-core. That he will use his first term to review the aims and the strategies needed to carry this nation forward, and that after three years we will have the confidence to to re-elect him with a more progressive agenda.

Third, that he will wind back the politicisation of the Public Service, where incoming ministers push aside well-performing professional public servants to install political bedfellows as department heads (Labor's not blame-free – John Della Bosca did it in NSW when he became Education Minister).

And all those other hopes – that he will resume Paul Keating's economic and industrial relations reforms to allow further adaptation to the global economy, while still winding back the nastier provisions of AWAs, that he will reverse the trend to take welfare from the needy and hand it to the middle classes, that he will restore the role of secular public education, that he will continue to improve the superannuation system, and that he will maintain the American alliance without becoming a lickspittle to the neo-cons.

Turnbull facing Rudd – the nation will benefit

For the Liberals, I do hope they lose office. I hope the vote will show the party it has followed a leader who took too many wrong turns and betrayed our trust too often.

But I hope the loss is not so devastating it throws the party into turmoil, allowing hard-right extremists to take control. The Liberal Party's future lies in moderate and progressive policies and leadership.

Our parliamentary democracy requires a strong Opposition.

For that reason, I hope Malcolm Turnbull survives what looks like a close fight in the eastern Sydney electorate of Wentworth. In Opposition, the Liberal Party rump will not be bound by Howard's anointment of Peter Costello as his successor.

Turnbull could restore liberal values to the Liberal Party and pave the way for a return to the Government benches in as little as six years.

He has a brilliant mind, demonstrated in law, merchant banking and journalism. Before his political career took over, he espoused many progressive causes – republic, Australian flag, reconciliation, climate change. He could steal back the middle ground if Rudd disappoints.

Such a scenario – initially, Rudd as Prime Minister and Turnbull as Opposition Leader competing for the hearts and minds of moderate Australians – must give this nation a brighter future.

There. I think I've managed to wind up on a positive note. [Any readers disappointed at the lack of a full-on Howard-hating rant may get their fix here.]

Thursday, November 15

I'm chuffed at this rating

cash advance

One of the skills of a journalist should be clear, strong writing, and this rating delights me. It suggests I use language appropriate to the matters I like to discuss. Any simpler, like "primary school", and this blog couldn't get its ideas across. Any higher, like "university", and you could suggest I'm trying to show off.

It's the writing style you'll see in a newspaper which respects its readers' intelligence.

But I don't always get it right. After the previous post, a friend asked me to explain "exponential". And I'd been rather pleased at coming up with the phrase, "exponential explosion of emails".

Looking at that phrase again, I winced. If it's not tautology, it's damn close to it.

Tuesday, November 13

Kindness of a stranger and the voice of God

In the manner of these yarns passed around the world in an exponential explosion of emails, this has no provenance, no way to identify its author. Yet it seems authentic, and in the words of the friend who passed it on, it should bring a tear to the eye.

This is one of the kindest things I've ever experienced. I have no way to know who sent it, but there is a kind soul working in the dead letter office of the US postal service.

Our 14-year-old dog, Abbey, died last month. The day after she died, my four-year-old daughter Meredith was crying, and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her.

I told her that I thought we could . . . so she dictated these words:

Dear God,
Will you please take care of my dog?
She died yesterday and is with you in heaven.
I miss her very much.
I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick.
I hope you will play with her.
She likes to play with balls and to swim.
I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her.
Love, Meredith.

We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. A few days later, she asked if God had received the letter yet. I told her that I thought He had.

Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, "To Meredith" in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, "When a Pet Dies." Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:

Dear Meredith,

Abbey arrived safely in heaven.
Having the picture was a big help. I recognised Abbey right away.
Abbey isn't sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don't need our bodies in heaven, I don't have any pockets to keep your picture in, so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by.
Thank you for the beautiful letter and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day and remember that I love you very much.
By the way, I am wherever there is love.

Love, God.

Photo shows child embracing dog

Friday, November 9

Me and my prostate: An executive summary

Sometimes you can get too close to a topic. And that's what happened in my earlier post, the one which follows this.

I've been tossing around since the early hours wondering what to do about it. Surely it's too long? Does it say far more about my prostate than you really want to know? Is it boring?

And worse, does it fail to drive home arguments I believe to be important?

Yes, yes, yes and yes! Then, about 4am, the answer came to me. What I need is an executive summary.

So here's a first from Grumpy Old Journo. An executive summary:

  • Professor Simon Chapman, and many other researchers, believe prostate cancer screening isn't worthwhile.
  • The initial screening is unreliable. If abnormalities are found, the patient must have a biopsy to confirm diagnosis, and the biopsy procedure itself carries risks.
  • Even if a man has prostate cancer, he's probably going to die of something else first. Many men have prostate cancer when they die, but they've never had symptoms and it's not what killed them.
  • Treatment may end the patient's sex life and leave him wearing incontinence pads. Even if it does extend his life – and that's uncertain – his quality of life may be diminished.
  • However, screening may become valuable if better screening tests can be developed.

    Against that, I'd like to put a counter-argument based on my experience and my reading:

    • Despite their shortcomings, screening tests can indicate prostate cancer.
    • Follow-up biopsies do carry risks of infection and some pain, but they are valuable, not only in confirming a cancer diagnosis, but in calculating the aggressiveness of the cancer – is it likely to spread into lymph nodes and pelvic bones?
    • With this information, a guy (and his wife) can make sensible decisions about treatment options, including the option of no treatment. All specialists will explain the pros and cons
      of treatment they suggest and will offer booklets which set out that advice.
    • Professor Chapman's findings are based on statistical analysis of thousands of men. With sound evidence, good advice and sensible decisions, a guy could beat the odds.
    • Screening is the first step on the path which may lead you to a better outcome.
    Jesus wasn't talking about the prostate health of his listeners, of course, but you might find his words of value when you think about screening:

      "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" [John 8:32]

      I've got the following links at the end of the next post, but to save your time, here they are again: Professor Chapman's article in the Sydney Morning Herald, and a long, detailed Wikipedia entry.

      Tuesday, November 6

      To screen or not to screen – a question for the mature male

      Newspaper clipping shows Sydney Morning Herald article by Professor Simon Chapman headed, Prostate screening not worth it

      Gee! Me against the Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney. This should be a one-sided debate.

      But here goes. If you've dipped into this blogsite over the past year or so, you'll know I'm passionate in urging mature men to ask their doctor for a prostate cancer check. And although I've read Professor Chapman's article in Monday's Sydney Morning Herald – and was already familiar with the arguments he has put – I will not change my advocacy.

      The reason is simple. Early detection of prostate cancer, before any symptoms became apparent, may have saved my life. At the very least, it saved me from having to make decisions about more risky treatment of an aggressive cancer after it had spread further.

      I hope you'll bear with me. I'm trying to explain that screening is worthwhile for most mature men, provided the guy (and his wife and friends) understand its limitations.

      All treatment options – including non-treatment, ranging from "watchful waiting" to "no point worrying about it at your age" – have risks and shortcomings. What's the right treatment for one guy might be ill-advised for the next.

      As I've previously recorded, my wife Merry persuaded me to ask my GP for a prostate check (I've read that 80 per cent of men who do ask are yielding to their wives' nagging).

      The GP ordered a blood test for PSA – prostate-specific antigen – which came back a bit high. A digital rectal examination did not reveal any abnormalities, but then, not all prostate cancer can be detected with a probing finger.

      So first the doctor treated me with antibiotics. Perhaps I had a simple infection, or perhaps non-cancerous benign prostatic hyperplasia.

      The PSA continued to rise, so it was off to see a specialist urologist. After more examination, he performed a biopsy.

      The results came back – no cancer had been detected. Merry and I enjoyed a good bottle of wine that night.

      But follow-up tests showed an alarming leap in my PSA reading, and the urologist recommended another biopsy. If I remember right (I was zonked out with valium at the time), he told me he had taken 18 tissue samples, and the pathologist detected cancerous cells in just one.

      However, the pathologist gave the cancer a Gleason score of seven. Gleason scores rank the cancer's aggressiveness from a relatively benign two to an alarming ten, and seven is at the aggressive end.

      There is another vital score called staging – usually T1 through to T4, based on how far the cancer has spread. For me, there wasn't enough information to rank my cancer on what basically is a description.

      The urologist referred me to a radiation oncologist, who felt the cancer had already spread into my pelvic lymph nodes. (I know a little about lymph nodes because a surgeon had to remove those under my left arm after melanoma spread its cells – but that was more than 30 years ago.)

      After ultrasound and other imaging confirmed his opinion, we agreed radiation treatment would be appropriate. First, however, the radiation oncologist put me on a course of Androcur to stop my body's production of testosterone.

      The aim was to starve and shrink the cancer to make it a better target for radiation. But the drug achieved a much better result. PSA tests, imaging and digital examination all indicated the cancer had disappeared or was now insignificant.

      It may come back, of course, either as a new cancer or as a flare-up of a few cells which linger. Time will tell, but for now, and until I'm too old for it to matter, I'm happy to accept "watchful waiting" as my treatment option.

      The experience of just one guy – me – doesn't have much statistical significance when ranged against studies by medical and academic experts published in peer-reviewed journals. But it still matters to me, and I think it will help me make some worthwhile points.

      First, on screening itself: Understand what it can do, and what it can't. Initial screening may give false assurance that the guy does not have prostate cancer. But a good doctor today will use both PSA blood tests and a finger examination, although each technique is imperfect, and perhaps the doctor will also monitor changes over time.

      If those techniques lead to concern that cancer may be present in the prostate, it's time to see the urologist. Again, your family doctor – assuming you have one, and don't attend a medical centre where you're just a name on a computer – will be invaluable, suggesting specialists who are not only well regarded for their expertise, but who are also able to explain the diagnosis and treatment options to patients and wives who may be shocked and uncomprehending.

      Only one diagnostic tool can reliably confirm prostate cancer and measure its aggressiveness – a biopsy.

      But even a biopsy is not risk-free. Apart from the possibility of a false negative result such as I received, it also carries a risk of infection. To collect the tissue samples, a fine, hollow needle has to go through the rectum and into the prostate itself. The urologist will have prescribed strong antibiotics to suppress infection, and something like valium to calm the patient, but things can go wrong.

      After all this, however, you should know whether your prostate has cancer, how aggressive it is, and perhaps whether it's metastasising, scattering malignant cells to grow in your lymph nodes or in adjacent bones.

      All that's worth knowing, because it helps you make sensible decisions about what to do next.

      Indeed, it's vital to know about the full range of treatments you may be offered. How effective they may be, how significant are the risks, or even whether it would be better to have no treatment at all.

      Close to the prostate are nerves which control erection, bladder and anal functions, and radiation or surgical treatment may damage them. Some treatments make such damage probable, not just possible.

      Let's say you're about 60, healthy and active and enjoying good sex, and your prostate cancer is relatively low on the Gleason scale. Almost certainly, your wisest move is to do nothing, but let your doctors check from time to time – "watchful waiting".

      On the other hand, let's say you're over 80 and on to your second pacemaker. Treatment for prostate cancer probably won't prolong your life – you'll die first of something else – but it's likely to diminish the quality of your remaining years. Screening? Why bother?

      But between those extremes, what about guys like me? Late 60s, aggressive cancer already metastasising. I'm in reasonable health, and that cancer threatened to shorten my life and perhaps end it with pain. I'm satisfied screening and then treatment was my best option.

      However, Professor Chapman's views have strong support. Here's how Wikipedia reports on the issue (there's a link at the end of this post):

      Screening for prostate cancer is controversial because it is not clear if the benefits of screening outweigh the risks of follow-up diagnostic tests and cancer treatments.

      Prostate cancer is a slow-growing cancer, very common among older men. In fact, most prostate cancers never grow to the point where they cause symptoms, and most men with prostate cancer die of other causes before prostate cancer has an impact on their lives.

      The PSA screening test may detect these small cancers that would never become life threatening. Doing the PSA test in these men may lead to over-diagnosis, including additional testing and treatment. Follow-up tests, such as prostate biopsy, may cause pain, bleeding and infection.

      Prostate cancer treatments may cause urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

      Therefore, it is essential that the risks and benefits of diagnostic procedures and treatment be carefully considered before PSA screening.

      And let's note the final words of Professor Chapman's article:

      What is urgently needed is a diagnostic test that will accurately predict those prostate cancers which will turn nasty. The tests we have now have poor reliability in that regard. Research funding into the development of such tests is vitally important.

      Forgive me for talking so much about my prostate. I know this post is long, and that I have a tendency to preach. But despite the flaws in prostate cancer diagnosis, I still believe screening is valuable for detecting cases such as mine. To get the full benefit, however, a guy needs to understand much more about the diagnostic tools and also the pros and cons of treatment options.

      The Wikipedia entry quoted above offers an excellent explanation of prostate cancer and the issues of diagnosis and treatment. And you can read Professor Chapman's article here.

      Monday, October 29

      Luscious mulberries sweetened by nostalgia

      Twenty – or was it thirty? – years ago we had to grub out a mulberry tree that threatened to cave in the side of the sleepout. It was the best-fruiting mulberry we'd seen, so we cut off a branch the size of a fencepost and stuck it into our chook run, behind the shed and just inside our fence.

      That's the tree you see above, sprawling across our shed door on one side and over the neighbour's backyard on the other, and almost out to the roadway on our back street.

      And every year, it still carries a big crop of fruit. Every year, dozens of people pull up, some popping the berries into their mouth and some filling basins to make pies and jam. Some kids still keep silkworms and gather the leaves.

      When I go out to chat with the people and reassure them I'm delighted to see the fruit being put to good use, I often hear: "This takes me back to my childhood – we had a big mulberry like this in the backyard".

      It's a great scene, but I'm saddened to know most of this tree will soon go the way of the quarter-acre suburban block. I'll try to keep a hacked-back remnant, but perhaps it won't be there at all next year.

      I've almost finished building a boat, and whole branches must come down so I can get the craft out of the shed.

      A developer has bought the cottage next door, and when the market picks up he will build a couple of big townhouses and no-one will want a mulberry tree hanging over the fence, with birds dropping purple stains across the washing. Even that jacaranda you see in the background, just coming into flower, is likely to go.

      Still, that's progress. Isn't it?

      Journalists' ethics? Just worry about the proprietors!

      Most old journalists know these few lines:

      You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
      Thank God, the British journalist.
      But seeing what the man will do unbribed
      There’s no occasion to.

      Rather whimsically, perhaps, I've been wondering how it would scan if we substituted "Australian newspaper proprietor" and found another word for "unbribed".

      I'd better not go down that track. But you might be interested to know journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald are outraged by their newspaper's lucrative deal with Singapore Airlines to wrap a paid advertising supplement, carefully disguised as editorial news reporting about the A380 Airbus's arrival in Sydney, around their newspaper last Friday.

      Check out the story by Margaret Simons on

      Monday, October 22

      Listening to politicians for 90 minutes is a bit numbing, but someone has to do it . . .

      Kevin Rudd clearly won last night's debate with Prime Minister John Howard. Does it matter?

      For Rudd, certainly. A flat performance, or an unwise answer, would have left the Labor Opposition Leader on the back foot right up to the November 24 election.

      On Channel Nine – which broadcast the debate with a "worm", defying the PM ("I will decide the manner in which we debate") – a panel of uncommitted voters gave the nod to Rudd at 65 per cent, with only 29 per cent giving it to Howard.

      The journalists who put questions to the two leaders also awarded the debate to Rudd, even the moderator, David Speers of Sky News, although he did so with a smaller margin.

      And as the ninety-minute debate neared an end, Rudd's body language changed. He knew he'd won. At the same time, Howard's body language suggested he knew he'd been bested.

      However, we should remind ourselves that three years ago Mark Latham won a similar debate with Howard, but by the time the election came around Howard had destroyed him (or did Latham destroy himself?).

      And let's lay off the "old and tired" description of Howard. After all, your Grumpy Old Journo is almost the same age as the PM. And he would run out of puff trying to keep up with Howard's morning power-walk.

      I'm still trying to be fair, and to overcome what may be bias, but to me it seems that Howard's problem in such a debate is his stubbornness. Liberal Party people admire that as a commendable determination, but I see an intellectual rigidity, if intellectual is the right word.

      That leaves him unable to think fast on his feet, to keep up with the cut and thrust of a debate which departs from the script or the answers he has rehearsed.

      In addition – and this is not a comment critical of Howard – he is handicapped by poor hearing. His rigid and somewhat awkward stance does not necessarily indicate that he has been caught off balance by the argument. Sometimes he may be straining to hear.

      Howard also stumbled on industrial relations. He was well rehearsed with assurances that the Coalition, if re-elected, would make no further changes. The IR laws were now just about right.

      But, strangely, he appeared unprepared when the questioner followed up: Why should we believe you? After all, you're the one who who kept your industrial relations plans secret until after the election which gave you control of the Senate.

      And Howard must have been relieved he was not grilled about his backflip after his shock discovery that WorkChoices was unfair, leading him to reintroduce the no-disadvantage test he had been so determined to discard.

      Although both sides argued economic credentials, the debate was unconvincing. At the political level, economic debate has long corrupted into sloganeering, and last night was no different.

      On economic reform, Howard stuck to his previous main claim for credit – he had always supported the reforms brought about by Hawke and Keating – and he was unable to put his hand up for much else.

      Rudd got off lightly, with little interrogation about his "me-tooism" as he tried to make himself a smaller target for the Liberal Party. Would he reveal more progressive policies if he made it over the line?

      For those rusted on to the Liberal Party, Rudd's arguments last night would have lacked substance. Although Rudd spoke with assurance and vigour, he probably made Howard supporters see him as a snake oil salesman.

      Now, how many weeks until November 24?

      Thursday, October 18

      Olive Riley celebrates 108th birthday

      Delightful images on the TV news last night (Wednesday) of the party celebrating Olive Riley's 108th birthday, held where she lives just up the road from my place on the NSW Central Coast.

      I had planned to offer links to the party photos and videos, so we could all join the celebrations.

      No need. Documentary filmmaker Mike Rubbo, who chats to Olive regularly and posts her words to Olive's blog (making her Australia's, and perhaps the world's, oldest blogger) has done all the work for me.

      Just go to Olive's blog, and it's all there, including links to YouTube video.

      That reminds me. I must return Mike's book, The Myth of the Great Depression by David Potts, and ask him whether my book, Kylie Tennant's autobiography The Missing Heir, helped him understand why popular perceptions of the Great Depression of the 1930s often differ from the differ from the historical record. (I posted on this general topic back on July 17.)

      Since we lent the books to one another, I've read Susan Mitchell's biography, Margaret Whitlam, and I was struck by the way the Depression did not touch the lives of her top barrister father and his family, lunching weekly at Romano's, not too far from the humpies which housed the unemployed at La Perouse.

      Wednesday, October 17

      Oh dear, I've uttered a swear word at a Greens Party meeting

      A bit over a week ago, I found myself at a Greens Party meeting. And I uttered an obscene word: Realpolitik.

      Despite his leftish views, this blogger doesn't usually attend Greens meetings, any more than he joins mobs marching down streets chanting “Waddawe want?” Nice people, and history will show many of their environmental and social justice concerns to have been well founded, but their absolute, unquestioning faith in their credo can be unsettling.

      As is their general impotence at advancing their policies in the mainstream of Australian politics.

      The invitation had come via our reconciliation group, and it seemed to be for a community meeting to discuss Kevin Andrews's slashing of Australia's intake of Sudanese refugees.

      The Immigration Minister's decision disturbed me, especially after he made it clear he had no more than anecdotal evidence about the refugees' propensity to crime and failure to assimilate.

      Hullo, I thought, John Howard's playing the xenophobia card but he's getting Andrews to do the deed. Now I think it was all Andrews's work – he's that type of guy.

      Anyhow, I'm at what proved to be a Greens meeting and I'm hearing some pretty heavy criticism of Kevin Rudd. It's understandable. The Opposition Leader has repudiated – or failed to endorse – nearly everything dear to the Greens' hearts.

      The room is full of good vibes. These few decent, caring people are doing their bit for a better Australia. But there's also a feeling that some would now find it impossible to give Rudd their vote.

      Then I pipe up, and utter what, to Greens at least, must be an obscene word. Realpolitik (look it up here, if you wish, or at more length in Wikipedia). I point out that Rudd is tip-toeing through minefields set by one of the most astute and ruthless politicians in our history.

      If he speaks out against the way Howard and Mal Brough are going about their “national emergency” intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Howard and Brough (and Costello and Abbott and Hockey, and all the rest of them) will howl: “See, he doen't care about the sexual abuse of children.”

      If he speaks out against the Gunns mill, he risks a repeat of that astonishing scene three years ago when members of Australia's most bloody-minded union packed a Launceston hall and cheered Howard.

      I also point out to all these nice people that if the coming election returns the Howard government, the Prime Minister will take it as an endorsement of all his policies – including the slashing of our intake of African immigration. And the only way to stop that is to elect a Rudd Labor government.

      Don't believe the polls, I say. This election is going to be much closer than you think. Rudd will have a hard task winning the necessary 16 extra seats.

      The Greens' best chance of more political influence is to increase representation in the Senate, where Labor, even if wins in the House of Representatives and forms government, is unlikely to obtain a clear majority. Labor then will have to woo minority parties like the Greens more assiduously than ever.

      But whatever you do, give your preferences to Labor.

      Well, I've said it. But I think some of these people have cooled towards me. I've marked myself as an outsider, perhaps even a Labor Party plant, although one pleasant young woman chats with me as I walk back to my motor cycle and pull on my jacket.

      A day or two later, I feel vindicated when I see the response to Rob McClelland's statement that a Labor government would campaign globally against the death penalty, even for the Bali bombers. Howard and Costello went on the attack immediately.

      They say you need a touch of the mongrel to succeed in Australian politics. Rudd has it in spades. He slammed down his shadow foreign minister, even though McClelland only stated Labor policy, and also blamed the unnamed staffers who had cleared the speech. Now that's realpolitik.

      The issue of the death penalty troubles me. My opposition is akin to religious belief, but I can't explain why. I even acknowledge that if you offered suicide pills to prisoners in Asian jails – and even to those in the Goulburn Supermax – more than a few would take them.

      I had assumed that most Australians shared my belief. But at a meeting of a retired professional and business men's club the other day, the speaker (a retired detective inspector) said he supported the death penalty, and a murmur of approval went around the room.

      Of course, one could say: "Only for the most serious crimes." It's hard to argue on behalf of mass murderers, especially when they're Asian Muslim jihadists and you're talking to Australians.

      But to me, this is an issue on which you can't be half-pregnant. Let's be blunt about it. Howard and Costello support the death penalty. And now Rudd too?


      Note added 18 October: Yesterday at the National Press Club in Canberra, Greens Leader Bob Brown urged voters to vote first for Greens, but to make their preference votes count. Later, on the ABC's 7.30 Report, he answered questions from Kerry O'Brien.

      He said a vote for the Greens offered double value – "you send a message to the next government that you prefer the Greens' strong social and environmental policies, and if the Greens is not elected, then that vote goes over as a whole vote to the next party of your choice. It's double value voting."

      Kerry had to drag it out of him, but he managed to get Senator Brown to say:

      It's time for Australia to have fresh blood, to have new ideas, to come into the 21st century. John Howard can't do that.

      Let's hope Kevin Rudd, who says he's a conservative and therefore will need the Greens in there to make his policies on a whole range of social and environmental issues more progressive [there's something missing from that sentence, but that's the online transcript].

      Let's hope, though, we do get a change of Government. That's what democracy's about and it will be good for this country.

      Don't shout it from the rooftops – but I might just do as Brown suggests. Vote Greens (1) and then give my prefs to Labor. Try to get Rudd in as PM, with a message that many Australians want a more progressive agenda than he has enunciated, and hope to give the Greens (or the Democrats, God bless 'em) a little more clout in the Senate.

      And a second note added on 18 October: You may enjoy Emma Tom's The Wry Side column in this morning's Australian. She makes the same points about capital punishment – including the half-pregnant line – as I have, but she's much more fun to read. [My BigPond connection is creaking along so slowly, I can't get up a web address to give you a link.]

      Monday, October 15

      Safe on the internet . . . it's a matter of trust and openness

      I wander in, as one does from time to time when the grandchildren are browsing the internet. This one looks up, a charming horse-mad 11-year-old. I peek over her shoulder and note she's happily playing games on a site specifically designed for horse-mad children:

      Down the page, I see a big, garish button: “Do not enter unless you are 18.” We exchange a conspiratorial glance, and I press it. Up comes a Love Compatibility Calculator. You're asked to type in your name and also the name of your current crush, then hit Continue.

      I go to do that, but the grandchild pipes up: “It asks you for your mobile number.” Ooops! We exchange another conspiratorial look, and that's the end of it.

      Two thoughts: First, any child who obeyed an instruction not to enter because she had to be 18 would be just too goody two shoes to carry my DNA. Second, I'm pleased she knew it would be unwise to pass on her mobile phone number.

      The protection of children from net nasties is back in focus following the Federal Government's national distribution of a booklet of advice for parents, and probably is a good idea for parents – and grandparents – but nothing beats an open and trusting relationship between children and their elders.

      If you're worried about net nasties and looking for ways to protect your children, Telstra's BigPond offers good advice.

      If you're curious about the term goody two shoes, try this.

      And what did the Compatibility Calculator lead to? An offer to send a horoscope bi-weekly at a periodic charge of $6. Presumably over-18s would have credit cards. Otherwise they'd have to pester Daddy.

      Sunday, October 14

      Blatant bias or reasoned assessment . . . why do I oppose John Howard?

      Way back when I first put up some posts as Grumpy Old Journo, I tried to define some directions the blog would take. Right at the top of the list, I acknowledged that I would have to defend myself against accusations of bias, using these words:

      Sooner or later, I'll have to put up or shut up in my irreverent slagging of John Howard. Some time, I'll offer my assessment of where the Prime Minister falls short if he does indeed try to govern for all Australians. I hope I won't be branded a Howard-hater.

      Today, after a period of self-doubt and procrastination, I 've sat at the keyboard trying to fulfil that promise. It's pretty well a coincidence that it's also the day the Prime Minister went to ask the Governor-General to dissolve the present Parliament and call the Federal election on November 24.

      It's time to put up or shut up. Especially after a friend emailed after my last set of posts:

      Even though I think you give the Liberal party a hard time and find the blog all over the place, I do like your style. You are a good journalist. Biased but a really good writer.

      Oh dear! And I thought I had moderated my comments. Somehow, I don't think the following will win over my friend.

      So you want more evidence?

      Two major announcements by John Howard in the past week help explain my assessment of the Prime Minister. First, his attempt to convince us he has changed his mind on Aboriginal reconciliation, and second, his trashing of consensus recommendations from people who know Australian history and how it's best taught to high school students.

      First, a close reading – going past the headlines and the TV grabs – of his speech to Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute last Thursday suggests his views are little changed. He does not resile from his view that “a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward”.

      Nor does he acknowledge the stolen generation.

      Earlier in the speech he said: “This new reconciliation I'm talking about starts from the premise that individual rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights.”

      Howard did anticipate our doubts:

      Some will say: Surely we've been here before. What's different now? Good question.

      I'm convinced we are dealing with a new alignment of ideas and individuals, a coming together of forces I have not witnessed in 32 years of public life . . .

      At its core is the need for Aboriginal Australia to join the mainstream economy as the foundation of economic and social progress.

      Howard also makes clear his belief that the old reconciliation agenda proposed “symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery.”

      One could accept Howard's belief that symbolic gestures don't amount to much, although that could leave one puzzled about his dogged fight to retain a foreign flag in the top corner of our Australian flag.

      And, to my mind, his proposal for a new preamble to the Constitution is not complemented by other practical changes – it doesn't go much further than symbolism. Last time he strove to get mateship into the preamble, this time it's acknowledging Aborigines' special – though not separate – place within a reconciled, indivisible nation.

      For the record, I'm a member of the Central Coast Reconciliation Group – although I'm still capable of the odd heresy.

      I totally support an apology as a major step forward, but I'm not convinced about a treaty because it would acknowedge a separate Aboriginal nation – an artificial concept which probably came from Kevin Gilbert in Because a White Man'll Never Do It (Angus & Robertson). Gilbert wrote:

      The Aboriginal nation, as a nation of the spirit, a nation without a flag [In fact, Aborigines had adopted Harold Thomas's powerful design as their flag when Gilbert's book was published in 1973 – it had flown over the tent embassy the year before], a nation without land or hope, a nation of underprivilege, has existed, probably, from about a generation after Captain Cook landed.

      Reading Howard's speech, one can accept the sincerity and decency of his views – that Aborigines must share fully in the bounty and the life of this great nation.

      But he's misguided. His is a new paternalism, not a new reconciliation.

      He's also left it a bit late. However, if he's re-elected and he wants to leave a legacy of a reconciled nation, he must shed his paternalism and join in a dialogue with the broader Aboriginal community – not just a few leaders selected by him to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people.

      Howard conceded some would portray his remarks as a Damascus-road conversion. In reality, he said, they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn liberal conservative ideas.

      In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher agreed it was not a Damascus-road conversion – he said it was a deathbed conversion. The Herald ran Hartcher's comment under the heading, “Last-minute change of heart in the face of annihilation.”

      Howard's media staff hadn't posted the speech to his website when I looked late today (Sunday), so I've relied on the edited version published in Friday's SMH.

      Press reports have also picked up on Howard's comments as suggesting he'd been blinkered by his suburban, middle-class background. They included:

      I'm the first to admit that this whole area is one I have struggled with during the entire time that I have been Prime Minister.

      I acknowledge that my own journey in arriving at this point has not been without sidetracks and dry gullies.

      There have been low points when dialogue between me as Prime Minister and many indigenous leaders dwindled almost to the point of non-existence. I fully accept my share of the blame for that.

      Yet this is no mea culpa. At no point does Howard repudiate his old ideas about practical reconciliation.

      Howard will decide what's in our history curriculum and the circumstances in which it is taught

      There's something about history. It's so dear to the hearts of Great Leaders, they refuse to delegate it to historians or educators who might not tell it the way the GL wants.

      So it is with John Howard. He's back at it, refusing to accept the guidelines prepared by a working party set up to implement the ideas coming out of last year's history summit.

      The leading historian Stuart Macintyre, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (October 13-14), wrote that the guidelines were sensible and practical, based on consultations with teachers, curriculum officers and historians, and Education Minister Julie Bishop was happy with them.

      John Howard wasn't. He took the guidelines out of Ms Bishop's hands and appointed an “external reference group” – historians he felt were more likely to reflect his views, such as Geoffrey Blainey and Gerard Henderson. They delivered what the PM wanted, and now Howard has turned to the states and threatened to cut school funding if they don't teach the subject his way.

      Macintyre makes some strong criticisms of the revised curriculum guidelines, and frankly, I'd back his expertise against Howard's. But once again, the PM knows best and that's what your children and grandchildren will be forced to study – if Howard wins on November 24.

      I think conservatives still distrust Macintyre, despite his now being a professor of history at Melbourne University – the uni which fired up the study of Australian history under Professor Max Crawford. He's moved well away from his early well-to-the-left position, but he's probably still too moderate for GL's who admire Keith Windschuttle and Hal Colebatch.

      And a fascinating point from Macintyre's opinion piece. As visiting professor of Australian studies, he reminded his Harvard students of Oscar Wilde's remark that Britain and America were two different countries divided by a common language. Oscar who?

      It's interesting to see such cultural illiteracy in the next generation of America's business and political leaders. The spirit of George Dubya Bush is in safe hands!

      Wednesday, September 12

      Pioneering conservationist Vincent Serventy passes on

      One of Australia's foremost conservations, Vincent Serventy, has died following a severe stroke. He was 91 when he passed away on Saturday, September 8. A memorial service will be held on September 23, in the hall at Pearl Beach, on the Central Coast. Here's his obituary in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Below is the item I posted on July 24.

      I've just confirmed that Vincent Serventy has been admitted to the Woy Woy Nursing Home after a bad stroke. He is 91.

      He had lived for years in the leafy enclave of Pearl Beach, which is almost surrounded by sea and national park, a wonderful haven for a man who gave a lifetime's service to the causes of natural science and conservation.

      It probably is no exaggeration to say Dr Serventy once had the sort of recognition we now give to Tim Flannery. But when I chatted to him last year at the big annual Pearl Beach book sale, he lamented that no-one would publish his letters any more.

      The other day in the bowling club, swapping information with another member, I found we'd both attended Perth Boys High School in the early 1950s. My new friend remembered Vincent Serventy as a science teacher at the high school, while I remembered his enthusiasm as he explained natural science at the old WA Museum across the road.

      My bowling club friend came back with news that Dr Serventy had just gone into the nursing home, and I've confirmed it with his wife Carol. She does not believe he should have visitors at present.

      The most recent of Dr Serventy's many publications is his memoir, An Australian Life (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999). At present, ABE shows secondhand booksellers offering it from $13.60 upwards, plus postage.

      Saturday, September 1

      What's the real agenda in 'national emergency' land rights reform?

      Back on July 1, I posted an opinion that one could praise the urgent intervention of Prime Minister John Howard and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough to prevent child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, although I believed they also saw it as a way to score off Labor.

      Now, despite my efforts to be fair and balanced, I cannot see what the five-year expropriation of Aboriginal land, the abolition of permits to enter that land, the closing of the Community Development Employment Program and the seizure of control of Aboriginal businesses and assets – all major parts of the Federal Government's intervention – have to do with preventing sexual abuse of children.

      Two months after the Federal Government charged into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to halt sexual abuse of children, Prime Minister John Howard has spelled out his aims for indigenous people.

      Essentially, it's assimilation. But if you believe the PM, it's not the old “breed-them-out” proposal we used to hear 50 or more years ago. Instead, his plan would respect indigenous culture.

      Here are his words this week when he visited the Ntaria community, at the old Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg. They make it clear the Federal Government has aims which go well beyond protection of children:

      Whilst respecting the special place of indigenous people in the history and life of this country, their future can only be as part of the mainstream of the Australian community. Unless they can get a share of the bounty of this great and prosperous country, their future will be bleak.

      At a community lunch beside Hermannsburg's Lutheran church, he said:

      We come here in goodwill. I want to assure you that we haven't come here to take anybody's land or to push anybody around.

      If you take the PM at his word, the aim, that Aboriginal people should share in the bounty of this prosperous nation, is commendable. We only need to discuss the best way to achieve this aim. But should we accept the PM's implied assurance that his is not a Mixmaster-style assimilation?

      Should we be reassured by the PM's claim that his government won't push anybody around?

      Surely that's what happened when the Federal Government sent in the troops after almost no consultation with communities. When it rammed the enabling legislation through parliament without giving anyone time to study or debate it. And when it announced compulsory physical examination of children for indications of sexual abuse, before doctors baulked and said it would be illegal and unethical in the way originally proposed.

      Not take anybody's land? Technically, perhaps not, but taking control of it for five years, setting rigid rules on how it is to be used – without consultation with the Aboriginal owners – and perhaps charging Aboriginal individuals or communities to rent it back? Doesn't that seem very, very close to taking their land?

      The Australian Constitution gives the Commonwealth Parliament (effectively, the Federal Government of the day) power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth, and to acquire property “on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws”.

      One could argue the Federal Government's five-year takeover of control of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory is expropriation – in moral, if not legal terms – but no doubt the government's lawyers have advised that the five-year takeover is not acquiring the land and thus will not trigger the constitutional requirement that it can happen only on “just terms”.

      Imagine the compensation bill if the High Court disagrees with the Federal Government!

      It is difficult to see how some of the Federal Government's measures – such as abolishing the permit system for entry to Aboriginal land, or abolishing the Community Development Employment Program – help prevent child sexual abuse.

      It does seem reasonable to argue that the Prime Minister has a wider agenda. He's never concealed his dislike for the concept of Aboriginal land ownership, and like most right-wing conservatives he believes the High Court got it wrong on native title. You will recall that in 1997 he launched a 10-point plan to wind back the Wik decision – a plan which promised, in the words of Tim Fischer, "buckets of extinguishment".

      His actions come as Australia's well-funded right-wing propaganda organisations (they'd rather be called “think tanks”) step up their criticism of Aboriginal land title.

      So yes, it's reasonable to suggest the PM did see the need to act urgently to halt an unacceptable and undeniable abuse of children as also presenting an opportunity to destroy the essence of land rights in a way which does not trigger the Constitution's requirement for just compensation.

      In fairness, we should not deny Howard's abhorrence of the abuse of children, but we can also note that the authors of the Children Are Sacred report – which triggered the urgent response – reject Howard's measures and say none of their recommendations has been acted on.

      And it's not unreasonable to suggest that Howard is desperately looking for ways to wedge Labor – to force its factions to split, or for Kevin Rudd to adopt a principled position which would make him a target for the Coalition spin doctors (“See, he doesn't care about child abuse”). By supporting the enabling legislation, Rudd dodged that trap.

      Still, that didn't prevent this remarkable statement by Howard at Hermannsburg, a statement so illogical it may say more about the PM's desperation than it does about Rudd:

      I think it's fair to say that if Labor had been in power, they would never have intervened. The only reason they have gone along with this intervention is that they have made the judgment that it is something that's needed and has support in the community.

      Howard's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, describing the progress of his "reforms", did not miss the opportunity to attack Labor when he said (as reported in the Weekend Australian of September 1):

      There are some very serious questions here on behalf of the Labor party as to where they really stand. I am absolutely positive that the tough decisions we've taken, that are going to take a lot of
      continued courage and effort to see through, will be undermined, watered down and will become a failure if Rudd gets into government.

      Your blogger is aware of some readers' criticism that he's a Howard hater. What can I say? If you break the wording down to "against Howard", based on my disagreement with some of his policies and a distrust of many of his words, I'll cop the charge.

      Admitting that, I accept a responsibility to back up my views by referring more fully to the evidence on which they are based.

      Here's The Australian's report on Howard's statements at Hermannsburg. this week ran another disturbing report from "Darwin insider Henri Ivrey", in which he wrote:

      In moves seemingly impossible to reconcile with the protection of Aboriginal children on remote towns and communities in the Northern Territory, a document has come into the hands of Crikey that presages a federal government takeover of millions of dollars worth of assets owned by Aboriginal organisations.

      Organisational assets above the value of $400,000 are to be compulsorily acquired by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and transferred to a new entity, the Indigenous Economic Development Trust (IEDT), and then rented back at commercial rates to the same organisations from which the asset has been taken.

      In some cases this will make those organisations commercially unviable, leading to financial collapse and loss of Aboriginal jobs. Every reason for Aboriginal organisations for acquiring property as part of engaging with capitalism has been thrown out in favour of a centrally controlled government bureaucracy.

      This is not about Aboriginal land in places like Arnhem Land: assets will be compulsorily stripped from Aboriginal organisations owning land and property up and down the Stuart Highway — Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs — no matter how well run, no matter what the level of services provided, no matter what those assets are being used for.

      The early targets appear to be urban-based Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP).

      The same Crikey report relates this to Howard's words at Hermannsburg, and says:

      One can only assume the "special place of Indigenous people in the history and the life of this country" is something to do with continuously re-enacting those bits where land and property are stolen from them. Hard to work out where the "share of the bounty" comes in.

      You may be interested in other material posted on Crikey, this and this, which lead one to question the aims of the "national emergency" response. I've kept an eye on Crikey, but have seen no attempt to deny the reports.

      You may also like to read a briefing paper prepared for Oxfam Australia by Professor Jon Altman, of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, in which he says there's compellling evidence that the Federal government's changes to land rights have no connection with the incidence of child sexual abuse.

      If you'd like to read what the Federal government says, you may download a set of "fact sheets" .

      As I type these words (early, September 1), I hear an ABC report that Howard plans to expand the intervention over time.

      I too believe Aboriginal people must share in the prosperity of this nation, and I am dismayed when I see images of squalid conditions in dysfunctional communities. I despair when I think of what the future holds for their young people. But before we whitefellas send in the troops, or expropriate the remainder of Aboriginal land, let's remind ourselves that there are many successful Aboriginal people and communities able to show us the way forward. Let's sit down and talk to them.

      And a footnote: You'll find a fascinating account of Hermannsburg's mission days in Barry Hill's outstanding book Broken Song (Random House, 2002). It's the story of T.G.H. Strehlow, son of Pastor Carl Strehlow, the missionary who at one time was reprimanded by his Lutheran paymasters in Europe as he developed a sympathy with Aboriginal culture and spirituality.

      Monday, August 20

      A great night out with Col Allan – what a pity Kevin can't remember much

      Somebody should have warned Kevin Rudd about Col Allan.

      Col, the boy from Dubbo who became editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch's Sydney Daily Telegraph and then went on to edit Rupert's New York Post, is both a hard-living and a brilliant journalist in a tradition which still lingers in the Sydney newspaper world.

      So Kevin Rudd went to dinner with Col and ended up in a New York strip bar, too legless to remember anything later. Yeah, someone should have warned him.

      As journalist Phillip Coorey recalled in The Sydney Morning Herald this morning, a night out with Col Allan always involved drinking your own body weight in alcohol.

      Coorey also described Col as generous, going out of his way to show the younger journalist around the “upper and sometimes strange echelons of the city which were usually off-limits to those of us on the lower rungs”.

      I also remember Col's generosity. He gave me a softer landing than I deserved when I stuffed up, failing to spot an error when I recast a wire story about News Corporation and credited Rupert with one more son than he actually had. I had some excuse, but I won't bore you with that.

      Next day, there's an envelope on my desk – and in it, a fierce, blistering, uncompromising missive from Col, demanding a written explanation, immediately.

      I was in trouble. Would I be fed to the ladies in Human Remains for their morning snack? Or, if the Murdochs felt merciful, spend the rest of my career sub-editing weather reports?

      Instead of a written report – what could I say, really? – I walked into Col's office, sat in a chair and spread my arms. I'm in despair and I'll cop whatever you decide.

      Col began reading a stern reprimand, but as he went on his tone softened and the warning became more like friendly advice. I guess he was able to report to Lachlan – if, indeed, one of Rupert's sons was taking an interest – that he'd handled the matter with severity.

      Thanks Col. You may be a larrikin, but you're a gentleman larrikin.