Tuesday, May 29

With his back to the wall, our Prime Minister discovers fairness!

In Parliament last night (May 28), Prime Minister Howard goes on the attack against Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd (inset). At the same time, the latest Newspoll showed Rudd gaining ground. Daily Telegraph images

A longish post this time. Industrial relations. It's the issue that won't go away, and perhaps even more than climate change or the abandonment of an Australian citizen in a US hellhole, it's one which is likely to topple the Howard government.

Not that I'd write Prime Minister John Howard off. There's still the chance another Tampa will sail over the horizon, or Pauline Hanson's laughable new party may just take off and deliver votes to Howard again. Or, on the other side, some wild union claims may derail Kevin Rudd's economic cred.

But in Laurie Oakes words, concluding his column in the current Bulletin (dated May 29, the last day it's on sale), “Faith in Howard's ability to perform yet another Houdini act is starting to wane.”

Here's what Oakes said on WorkChoices:

“Howard claims it was never the government's intention that penalty rates and overtime should be traded off without adequate compensation. But if that is the case, why was a safety net not included in the original legislation?

“There were, after all, plenty of warnings about what would happen. Howard ignored them, and the government is paying the political price for his stubbornness.”

Oakes also warns Howard about attacking the Labor Party's opposition to Australian Workplace Agreements in an attempt to undermine Rudd's economic credibility.

“Every time Howard or Costello deploys that argument, it draws more attention to industrial relations changes that were introduced with no electoral mandate and which, according to every opinion poll, are overwhelmingly on the nose.

“The story might be different if Howard and Co. had put forward a seriously argued economic case in support of WorkChoices when the changes were first proposed. But – arrogant at suddenly
finding themselves with a Senate majority they had not expected – they did not bother to prepare the ground properly.”

Blame it on the union:

Perhaps Joann and Don Doolan should complain to their union. The owners of the Lilac City Motor Inn in the NSW regional city of Goulburn have been to hell and back since Labor's deputy leader Julia Gillard waved around in parliament a copy of the AWA they'd required their 15 staff to sign.

As Ms Gillard said, the AWA allowed the Doolans [whom she did not name] to pay the minimum wage of $13.47 an hour with no penalty rates, no overtime, no leave loading – none of the allowances which traditionally formed part of the pay of workers in the industry.

The Doolans received hate emails from as far away as Norway.

Yet it turns out the Doolans are good employers, paying staff above the $13.47 an hour in the AWAs they required employees to sign.

Where they went wrong is they took the advice of their union – the Hotels, Motels and Accommodation Association – which drew up the AWA and rushed it in before Howard's “fairness test” came into effect on May 7.

Okay, so the HMAA is an employers association. But is there an essential difference between a bosses' union and an employees' union, apart from their being on opposite sides of the fence?

Well, there is one difference – John Howard is dedicated to the destruction of one type while encouraging the other to make employers more powerful, and even paying some of them to help implement WorkChoices.

Closer to home:

A member of my family thought he was negotiating on good terms with his employer, a decent fellow who treated his staff well. But when the employer presented the agreement to him, it contained a provision that for every day that wet weather stopped work on contract sites, a day could be deducted from his annual leave.

This employee has a family. Annual leave means something to him. The result – the family member approached another employer, and after a fright when he learned of a no-poaching agreement (is that legal, Mr Howard?), managed to move across to a more challenging and better-paid position.

A few years ago, I'd vetted an individual contract offered by the first employer – back before John Howard shafted the “no disadvantage” test – and noted a line at the bottom that copyright in the form was held by the industry employers association.

The bosses' union, in other words, had drawn up the contract and sent it out to all its members to be imposed on their employees without individual negotiation.

As with the Doolans, a decent employer – who normally found work around the yard for his employees on wet days – was persuaded by his union to offer an AWA which allowed him to screw his workers. Yet it's likely he had no intention of doing so.

Once I was naive:

Years ago, Richard Court, then Liberal premier of Western Australia, required all state public servants to sign individual contracts. At the time, my brother was head of a major department and had the job of carrying out the instruction.

Truly naive, I remarked to him that I would appreciate the opportunity to negotiate individually with my employer.

My brother set me right. There were no individual negotiations. Staff came in one by one and were presented with the contract they were required to sign.

The Court experience was a foretaste of what was to come under Howard. With the ability to screw down the cleaners who wielded the mops, some WA cleaning contractors began to undercut the quotes of those employers who treated their staff fairly. The decent contractors had no choice but to follow.

Would the Doolans have found themselves in the same position, trying to compete with other motels which cut their tariffs after slashing their workers' pay and conditions in accord with the AWAs devised by the motel owners' union?

I've said before that good employers don't need AWAs, and bad employers don't deserve them. You may now see what I meant.

What is fairness?

So John Howard sees the need to legislate for fairness in employment contracts, where once he did not. It would be nice to believe he experienced a road-to-Damascus conversion.

It would be nice to believe in fairies, too.

Newspoll this morning (May 29) shows a further lift for Rudd. The electorate has come to see Howard as mean, tricky and arrogant. Has anything changed with his backflip on fairness? Yeah, facing electoral annihilation – his word – our Prime Minister is less arrogant. Still mean and tricky? The public seem to have made up their minds.

And we're still waiting to see just what fairness is, although we learned last night the Federal government would allocate almost 600 bureaucrats and a $370 million budget to check all AWAs for whatever it is to be.

It seems the fairness test will exempt employers experiencing financial difficulty. Perhaps most staff would support a good boss in such a position, as well as try to save their jobs. But if so, it's essential our insolvency laws are changed to give wages, leave and superannuation benefits owed to staff absolute priority over all other creditors if the employer goes under.

Fairness should also extend to rostering. Lower paid employees often depend on second jobs to achieve a decent living standard, and they need predictable rosters to manage them.

And what about Therese Rein?

So far, most of the politicians have been walking on eggshells with the issue of the multi-million dollar employment business built up independently by Kevin Rudd's wife, Therese Rein. Most people, even Howard's supporters, would admire her achievement and approve of Rudd's support for her as an independent businesswoman.

She should not have to sell her Australian operations to allow Rudd to seek the prime ministership. Although the practical difficulties of not doing so are formidable (the Australian government is overwhelmingly her major client), we should work on ways Therese Rein or anyone else in her position could continue their independent careers.

Rudd went pretty close to the wind when he referred to middle-aged men whose wives were appendages, and his insistence that he was not referring to John and Janette seemed unconvincing. Recall that John Howard has said publicly he doesn't have a partner, he has a wife, as discussed in a post further down in this blog (to read it, go to bottom of this page and click the Older Posts link, then scroll down).

One of Howard's junior ministers seemed to boast that his wife had given up a professional career so he could advance his political career.

But when it turned out all of Rein's employees are on individual contracts, it was too hard to resist and Howard took the risk and went on the attack last night.

However, it seems Rein's employees are on individual common-law contracts, not AWAs. And Labor policy, at least as offered to the mining industry, seems willing to accept common-law contracts to achieve more flexible workplace practices. It's the mining companies which claim common-law contracts are too cumbersome. Rein appears to prove them wrong.

Of course, AWAs with a fairness test for employees earning less than $75,000 base wages – which would cover 90 per cent of Australian workers – may prove superior to common-law contracts. Without the fairness test they were cruelly weighted against lower paid employees.

Tuesday, May 22

When a mother abandons her baby, does a question mark matter?

How could a mother abandon her newborn baby, on Mothers Day, on the steps of the Dandenong public hospital​? Note the question mark – it's one strand in the web of thoughts which follow.

Those thoughts include the responsibility and ethics of journalists – and those who consume their work – as well as people's attitudes to a mother who may be depressed or greatly distressed, and for whatever reason, gave up her child. Yes, and the thoughts even run to the desirability of punctuation in headlines.

The saga of baby Catherine, as hospital staff named her, was a good story, but probably would have run its course in a few days before most of the public became bored and moved on to something new.

However, Sydney Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy has an unerring feel for headlines which hit with emotional force. On Tuesday a week ago, above a picture of the little foundling, he splashed this heading across the front page:


Note the absence of question or explanation mark. Daily Telegraph style is to avoid question marks in headings – Telegraph headings should be assertive, not ask questions. And exclamation marks were done to death in the old Daily Mirror.

But that lack of punctuation may account for differing responses to the headline. Prime Minister John Howard saw it as a reasonable question. Editor Penberthy says the same. The day after it ran the headline, the Telegraph reported the controversy.

Columnist Miranda Devine also saw it as a query. Indeed, she went further and supplied the question mark which wasn't there.

In her column (read through to the second item) in the Sydney Sun-Herald a few days ago, within quotation marks, she said the heading which attracted “pious criticism” was “How could she?”

I have other issues with Ms Devine's comments, and will return later.

But I'm sure former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett saw an exclamation mark – something which would emphasise (in some people's minds) the enormity of a mother's crime against nature – when he read the heading and launched a furious attack, calling for Penberthy to be sacked.

Kennett is chairman of the anti-depression organisation BeyondBlue.

I believe he had an earlier run-in with Penberthy over the editor's headline, Brogden's Sordid Past – withdrawn after one edition, when it led the former NSW Opposition Leader to attempt suicide (the headline may be seen in a post further down this blogsite.

As I've noted elsewhere, I remain a member of the journalists' union, and accept its code of ethics – but I'm still unable to define the ethical issues about the coverage.

Newspapers published the baby's photo, and the appeal for the mother to come forward, with court permission and at the request of Victoria's Department of Human Services.

I do not know whether a newspaper like The Daily Telegraph should display compassion, but it's not to be found in its headline, and I think the paper is the poorer for its absence.

As for understanding, I feel the Telegraph and Ms Devine failed. She says the mother has made her decision, and asks how the authorities could employ “such heavy-handed tactics to bully the mother into doing what she went to great lengths to avoid?”

She concludes: “She loved it [it ??? Surely the correct pronoun is her?] enough to want to give it a better life than she felt she could provide. No mother could love her baby more.”

Perhaps Ms Devine should visit BeyondBlue's excellent website where she could learn that 14 per cent of mothers have suffered post-natal depression. Or is Catherine's mother going through some crisis which could be resolved with treatment, counselling and understanding?

She should also consider that if the mother does come forward – and manages to avoid the hyenas from 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, et al – and is steadfast in giving up her baby, she will serve her child best by signing adoption papers. That would allow Catherine to begin right away on bonding with her new family instead of spending three to 12 months with temporary foster parents.

In last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, a feature summed up many of the issues. It quoted social historian Shurlee Swain, who teaches at the Australian Catholic University, saying that in the 19th and early 20th centuries child abandonment and murder were “exceedingly common”.

Of last week's reporting, Swain said it was a page right out the 19th century, in that it suggested something “unnatural” about the mother.

And for a 19th century view, may I direct you to a piece by bush poet Barcroft Boake. By today's standards it's full of mawkish sentimentality, but even a Quadrant editorial board member might be tempted to reach for the tissues. And for more about Boake.

Thursday, May 17

Really? Is this a photograph our media wouldn't want you to see?

It's a good photo because of the story it tells. The caption reads:

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Gebhardt, of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group at Balad, Iraq, cradles a young girl as they both sleep in the hospital.

The girl's entire family was executed by insurgents; the killers shot her in the head as well.

The girl received treatment at the US military hospital in Balad, but cries and moans often.

According to nurses at the facility, Gebhardt is the only one who can calm down the girl, so he has spent the last several nights holding her while they both sleep in a chair.

The photo and caption are now being passed around the internet – often with comments that say you'd never see the Australian press run something like it.

Indeed, it came to me from a friend who criticises newspapers trenchantly (she never reads them, by the way) and I think she looks forward to the day the internet kills off print altogether.

I think it's her comment on top: “Why doesn't the media print pictures like this one?” Somewhere along the line someone else has written: “Why isn't this all over the news? If he had done something wrong, it surely would be!”

Everybody loves to pin a conspiracy rap on the media.It's almost a national sport.

But do you really believe that Australia's daily newspapers – most of which are owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, a strong supporter of George W. Bush on Iraq – would suppress a pic like this for ideological reasons? Get real!

I have some difficulty in commenting further. Like most people flinging conspiracy theories around the internet, the people who post this material don't see any need to provide documentation.

It's a newspaper clipping, obviously, but what newspaper?

The credit line for the pic is: “Photo courtesy David W. Gilmore Jr./ U.S. Air Force.

I'm only guessing, but the wording of the credit line, the rather amateurish headline and the caption suggest to me the clipping has come from a US military or air force newspaper, possibly produced in Iraq for US forces posted there. Nothing wrong with that.

But we don't know whether that pic, or any like it, were offered to Australian newspapers. In any case, a responsible picture editor in Australia would want to know more of the picture's provenance before publishing it.

Could it have come from a propaganda unit? (Such things do exist, you know.)

Monday, May 7

Sorry to let you down, but I was having too much fun on the old Yamaha

Sorry folks. I feel I've let you down. I'd set off with notebooks and reference material stuffed into the Gearsack, vowing to bring back yarns about Kylie Tennant's wartime years at Laurieton and about John Oxley's expedition down the wild ranges to Port Macquarie and then down the coast to white settlement.

On top of that, I was going to check out two very different but rewarding motorcycle museums, and look in to see how Timbertown is faring these days.

Instead, I spent the three days punting the beast – actually, it's a 1978 Yamaha XS1100 – around some of the best motorcycle roads in New South Wales, and a couple of evenings drinking rather more beer than I should. The perfect short break.

The plan was to hare up the Pacific Highway past Taree to Moorland (blink and you'll miss it), then turn right and out over the dirt road across the national park to Diamond Head, and take another look at the hut an eccentric old farmer built for Tennant as a writing retreat.

Instead, by Bulahdelah the old beast and I were bored with the upgraded Pacific Highway, so we headed out over the twisties on the Lakes Way and through Forster and Tuncurry, where we didn't stop – just riding through all those villas and apartments was depressing enough.

When we got back to the Pacific Highway, we'd overshot Nabiac, home to one of the nation's most interesting motorcycle museums. If you've ever shared your life with a motorcycle, you'll probably find its sister among the 500 models on display. Time was short, and we pushed north.

We also changed our minds about turning off at Moorland. Those dirt roads across to Diamond Head might be hard going, and we didn't want to be caught out there at night in country which still reminds us it once was mined for rutile.

A pity, though. Kylie's hut is a tangible sign of a happy time in the prolific author's life. While husband Roddy – a man subject to depression – enjoyed being the schoolteacher in what then was a picturesque village, she wrote two of her better works, the novel Lost Haven, and The Man on the Headland, an affectionate account of the eccentric Ernie Metcalfe, who built the hut.

Next time perhaps . . . Kylie's writing hut
(I took this photo a few years ago)

We press on past Kew and the pub on the crossroads. There's another excellent, but regrettably short, motorcycle road I enjoy. Halfway to the Oxley Highway interchange, we turn left on to the Bago road, which takes us through about 15km of sweeping curves before we emerge in the heart of Wauchope – right at the Hastings Hotel, when I get a bed for $30.

Next morning, think of checking out Timbertown, a recreation of a sawmilling town of a century ago, but the Oxley Highway – the sine qua non, the essential purpose, of our journey – beckons, and we cannot resist.

It's 176km from Wauchope to Walcha, and for about half that distance it winds in one tight curve after another as it climbs up and around Mt Seaview. It's the sort of road motorcyclists dream about.

But I also take time to think of John Oxley and his party, struggling down these ranges in 1818. They had gone down the Macquarie River from Bathurst to the Marshes, backtracked a bit, then struck out east for the coast, passing through the location of present-day Tamworth.

One marvels at Oxley's journey through these rugged ranges covered in high timber. Even when his party reached the site of present-day Port Macquarie, they faced an arduous journey down the coast to Port Stephens.

About halfway between Wauchope and Walcha, Gingers Creek comes up, a cafe on a small farm in a clearing in the timber. It's a good place to spend an hour or so on a sunny deck reading the morning papers and ordering more coffee.

About 20km before Walcha are the Apsley Falls, named by Oxley, where the river drops into a spectacular gorge.

Walcha is a little depressing. Probably the drought has hit the town with pastoralists cutting their spending, although the country nearby is now looking good.

Big decision – should we turn south on to Thunderbolt's Way to Gloucester. That means more than 100km of boring road across the plains, before the wonderful scenery of the Manning valley.

Instead, stay with the Oxley Highway, and pull in at Walcha Road. Tradesmen are rebuilding the old pub after a fire, and the bar operates in an old railway carriage. Out of sight up the hill is a restored, classic railway station.

A nervous time as I get to Bendemeer and find nowhere to buy petrol, but the bike coasts down the long, steep Moonbi hills and into a service station.

It's getting late, so I pass the Tamworth motorcycle museum and ride straight through Tamworth – it's that sort of place – and south over the Liverpool Ranges. From then on it should be straightforward, but Murrurundi is booked out for the King of the Ranges riding events, while the next town is almost the same with the Scone Horse Festival.

Bikers don't need luxury rooms, but I need a bed and take one of the last motel rooms for $75. Next time I'll check NSW Tourism's events calendar to avoid clashing with festivals or shows.

Next day, the bike eats up the kays to get me home with all the cobwebs blown away. It's a great feeling, and I won't leave it as long next time.

Meanwhile, I'll get back to some research and bring you articles about Kylie Tennant and John Oxley. Promise.

The Tamworth and the Nabiac motorcycle museums have interesting websites. On the trip I took Kylie Tennant's autobiography, The Missing Heir, and her The Man on the Headland. On Oxley, I took Richard Johnson's excellent biography, The Search for the Inland Sea.