Thursday, June 21

What! An old leftie like Grumpy agrees with Janet Albrechtsen?

Way back when Grumpy Old Journo began, I promised the blog would be unpredictable. But I'd wager no one thought they'd see me praise Janet Albrechtsen.

Your blogger is moderately to the left, and it's something like apostasy for a leftie to nod approval as he reads the hard-right columnist in The Australian.

Yesterday, waiting for lunch in the Cricketers Arms hotel in Newcastle, I came across her column attacking the High Court judges – excepting Michael Kirby, usually a target of the right wingers – for having ruled that a jury was wrong when it decided a restaurant review was not defamatory. And I did nod my agreement with Janet.

Here's part of what she said:

In 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald food critic Matthew Evans was unimpressed with Coco Roco, which billed itself as “Sydney’s most glamorous restaurant”. The limoncello oyster had flavours that “jangle like a car crash”. The carpaccio arrived with a “dreary roast almond paste”. And, Evans asked, what was the chef thinking by adding apricot halves to a sherry-scented white sauce adorning a prime rib steak?

Food critics can be a snippy lot. But that’s the gig. Anything less and they become spruikers for prime rib steak laced with sherry-scented sauce and apricot halves.

The restaurant owner sued for defamation under NSW’s 7A system where a jury decides whether something is defamatory. In a separate later hearing, a judge decides on whether defences are made out and on damages payable. The jury found Evans’s review did not defame the owner of Coco Roco. On appeal, the NSW Court of Appeal tossed the jury verdict in the bin, preferring its own view that the review was defamatory. Late last week, the High Court agreed.

Although Australia has a new set of uniform defamation laws, in some states and territories the jury will still determine what is defamatory. That is why the High Court case sends a chilling message.

Ms Albrechtsen is right. What's the point of a jury system when a bench of High Court judges – who, by their very occupation are somewhat remote from everyday community values – can so easily decide the jurors have reached a perverse decision.

And what happens next? As I understood the legal process in libel cases, the matter should now go back to a judge – who now must accept that the restaurant review carried defamatory imputations, but may still rule it to be protected by a defence of fair comment. Or has the High Court also ruled that the review was not fair comment?

Is it still open to that judge to rule that the review was not the cause of the restaurant's failure, and award only minuscule if any compensation?

People tend to turn away when journalists defend free speech. But think about it. Without protection from intimidating libel suits, who is going to give you an honest restaurant appraisal?

I had been going to comment on the Cricketers Arms, but I've thought better of it. The food was OK for a pub bistro.

Oh dear! As a card-carrying leftie, I'd better make up for my praise of Janet Albrechtsen. Let's go back to a column she wrote a couple of weeks ago.

It was a spirited defence of Kevin Rudd's missus, Therese Rein, and her achievement in building a multi-million dollar international business.

So far, Janet and I would agree on Ms Rein's right to business success, and that she should not have to give it up even if her husband became Prime Minister.

But then Ms Albrechtsen wrote:

Put another way, her business success was a ringing endorsement of the Coalition’s two-fold policy to let people negotiate their own terms of work and to get unions off their back. Here is a woman who ought to be the hero of working Australians.

What planet does Ms Albrechtsen inhabit? If you're a national newspaper columnist, or a highly skilled IT professional or the like, you sure can negotiate your own terms of work.

For most of the rest of her fellow Australians, it's Hobson's choice – take it or leave it.

Thursday, June 14

Exposed! How I ripped off Telstra

I should have kept my lips buttoned.

A nice young fellow rang me from a Telstra call centre and offered to check that I was getting the best deal. Why sure, go ahead. He came up with some plan with a label I can't remember (Telstra has so many!) and assured me I'd be better off. OK, go ahead, I said.

But a week or two later, Telstra writes to say I can't have that option and gives me a phone number to call to find out why not. I call, and actually get through to a real person.

She does some checking, and says it's not available to me because I already receive an age pensioner discount on my phone bill.

She sounds a nice person, so I refrain from abusing her for Telstra's wasting my time. Indeed, I assure her I'm happy with all other aspects of Telstra's service.

But she did agree to pass on my comments: (1) That Telstra should train its call centre salespeople so they don't sell a plan to someone ineligible to receive it, and (2) That if their letter itself had explained why I was ineligible, it would have saved me the time and trouble of phoning them.

The consternation my comments must have caused! John Rolland, executive director, customer sales and service, sends me a stiffly formal letter. “We are reviewing our records and they indicate that you currently receive the benefit of both the Telstra Pensioner Discount and Telstra Rewards Packages,” which is a big no-no.

I wonder if my complaint triggered the review. It seems many pensioners have received similar letters, causing a fair bit of anger.

That night I dream of the vicious post I'm going to put on this blog. I dream the headline, “Telstra Pensioner Discount . . . concession or con?”

In the morning, I've cooled down. I check last month's home and mobile phone bill. As a pensioner, I'd received $11.41 discount off services and line rental. The Rewards Package had delivered me a discount of 78 cents.

OK, you've got me. I promise to stop cheating the system. Take back the Rewards Package.

Tuesday, June 12

Memories haunt the Forgotten Valley

The other day, a woman rang ABC local radio 702 in Sydney and said she lived in the Forgotten Valley. The announcer had never heard of it. The Macdonald Valley, she explained. But no, she didn't know how it got the name.

Pic shows cover of book, The Forgotten ValleyPerhaps I can help. For years I've had this book, a history of the Macdonald Valley, and I believe the book's title may have been the first usage of the term Forgotten Valley – an apt title for the remote valley winding up into rugged sandstone gorges north of Wisemans Ferry, just a few hours from the heart of Sydney.

It was forgotten not only because of its remoteness, but also because the settlers who first moved away from the Hawkesbury River's flood-prone banks and up the Macdonald and the adjacent Webb's Creek were emancipists – convicts who'd received a conditional or full pardon – and it's probable they preferred to be forgotten.

Their world was that described in Kate Grenville's prize-winning The Secret River, a fiction novel loosely based on the life of Solomon Wiseman.

Many of them wanted no further contact with the administrators and soldiers and churchmen who enforced the penal system, and the fertile flats of the Lower Branch – or the First Branch, the commonly used early names for the Macdonald – gave them that refuge.

As the generations went by, the early settler families lived out their lives with minimal contact with the outside world.

I discovered the valley almost 40 years ago, when I'd moved to the Central Coast and began exploring the hinterland. In those days, in the township of St Albans, the Settlers Arms hotel, built in 1848, was closed, a store on the other side of the bridge sold grog and other necessities, medical needs were met by a bush nurse, and most of the small churches were derelict or little used.

Only a few miles to the east, one could walk or drive along the colony's greatest engineering work of the earlier 19th century – the Great North Road, built to the Hunter lands by chained gangs of convicts, but much of it seldom used because of the barren and isolated mountain ridges it traversed.

Travellers preferred the valley route through St Albans and Mogo Creek before rejoining the Great North Road near Mt Simpson for the final stages to Wollombi and beyond.

Map of Macdonald Valley, north of Wisemans FerryThe Settlers Arms thrived until the opening of the Pacific Highway to Newcastle in the 1930s diverted most traffic, and the valley went back to sleep. In 1939 the Settlers Arms's licence was transferred to the Aerodrome hotel at Clarendon near Richmond.

Well before I wandered into the valley, a New Zealand-born Sydney journalist and local history enthusiast, Marjorie Hutton Neve, had spent years researching the Macdonald and its people. The result, The Forgotten Valley, is an impressive local history.

First published by the Library of Australian History in 1978 in a limited edition of 1000 copies, the book won acclaim for its understanding of seldom-researched areas of Australian social and settler history. A revised edition followed in 1982, and a soft cover reprint in 1987 (which is the book I have).
The reprint was dedicated to the memory of Mrs Hutton Neve, who died on 24 November 1987, aged 82.

Chapter One, headed “Inns and Graves and Ghosts”, begins:

Within three hours' motoring of Sydney is a wild and lovely valley of forgotten history, where pioneer settlers sleep in forlornly neglected small cemeteries, or whose headstones mark their resting places on the original land grants.

The Macdonald River meanders shallowly through farmlands and past a few scattered cottages; above tower the enclosing mountains bushclad and rock-strewn; over all there seems to emanate a strangely disturbing restlessness, as if the disembodied spirits of the first pioneers still exert an unseen influence in the once life-pulsating Valley.

Even today, when the long-reopened Settlers Arms buzzes with Sunday trade, where expansive homes on hobby farms dominate the landscape, where drifts of sand obliterate the once fertile flats and the river is so silted one could not paddle a canoe within kilometres of the Bullock Wharf at St Albans, it is still possible to pause and feel the ghosts of history.

A recent search of ABE books turned up two Sydney dealers with first
edition copies of Forgotten Valley, priced at $41.40 and $45 plus postage.
Presumably cheaper copies of the revised edition turn up from time to time.

A tectonic shudder as crusty conservatives shift to the middle ground

Did you feel the earth move, a slight tectonic shudder in the crust of conservative opinion? You weren't imagining it.

A significant editorial in The Weekend Australian on Saturday was unstinting in its praise of the economic reforms of former Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Even more remarkable, the latest Quadrant concedes we're right to worry about global warming, and agrees that governments should be doing something about it.

In its editorial – subtitled, “Kevin Rudd must strive to reclaim Labor's reform legacy” – the Weekend Oz also said it believed the Howard government had dropped the ball on micro-economic reform, and the government's lack of vision had crimped the ability of the nation to capitalise fully on the boom fuelled by the rise of China.

The newspaper acknowledged that some saw it as a captive to conservative opinion, but said it had for many years lavished praise on the reform legacy of the Hawke and Keating years.

The period from 1983 to 1996 transformed the way Australia does business. While not always responsible for devising the policy prescriptions, Hawke and Keating were brave enough to seize the reform initiatives identified but not implemented by their conservative predecessor. This included the floating of the Australian dollar and deregulating the banking sector.

Keating can also claim credit for winding back import tariffs, opening the Australian economy to global competition, driving a wave of competition at a state level, introducing enterprise bargaining to boost productivity growth and introducing compulsory superannuation.

In Mr Keating's view, these reforms underpin Australia's contemporary prosperity and he can't understand why Labor does not want to claim the fruits as their own. We, too, have long believed that Labor has made a mistake in distancing itself from the Hawke and Keating reform legacy.

“Their conservative predecessor” is, of course, John Howard, who served as Treasurer in the Fraser government.

Howard has long been sensitive about accusations that he failed to implement reforms when he was Fraser's Treasurer. It was 2004, I believe, when he told The Australian's editor at large, Paul Kelly, he had at least appointed the Campbell inquiry into the economy. He claimed credit for something else, too, but I can't remember what it was.

Today, on economic reform, Howard can boast of little more than that he didn't oppose the Keating reforms.

Unless, of course, you agree with his attempt to destroy the right of workers to bargain collectively, returning industrial relations to the 19th century.

Quadrant's revised view of climate change, expressed in its editorial for June issue, is all the more remarkable. For years Quadrant has been our most vociferous mocker of those who believe man's activities are warming our planet.

Any scientist able to argue against climate change theory seemed sure of a run in Quadrant, guaranteeing their view would be disseminated by hard-right newspaper columnists across the land (at least until Rupert Murdoch recently acknowledged climate change, and committed News Corp to a softer environmental footprint).

Quadrant's hard line provided support to John Howard in the decade when he stubbornly denied global warming.

Quadrant editor Paddy McGuinness doesn't say anything so crass as “We wuz wrong”, of course.

And he continues to say the climate change deniers should always be valued, as they play an indispensable role. Here's the core of his wordy and heavily qualified editorial:

There are many scientists of the highest professional standing, with great intellectual achievements to their names, who are convinced of the reality of the problem of global warming and the dangers it represents to the future of the world.

While the knowledgeable and well-qualified sceptics of the phenomenon should always be valued, since they are playing an indispensable role in questioning and refining the conclusions of other experts, there is by now sufficient reason for non-experts (the vast majority) to accept that there is something to worry about, and for governments to seriously examine what if anything can be done about global warming, and how urgent this is. This is simply a matter of risk analysis, as well as cost/benefit analysis.

You can read the Quadrant editorial here.

And here's The Weekend Australian's editorial. Also in that issue, a feature article, “Top Marks for Peter and Paul”.