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!